Posted on

Deep down.

deep diving
Underwater Cave Diving by Viktor Lyagushkin


Today I was observed for the last 40 minutes of my last class of the day on the first day back from winter break, and that was perfectly fine. I trust my evaluator completely and know that the feedback I receive will be informed and valuable. In our time -constrained worlds, though, I am not sure I’ll have the opportunity to tell her all the things leading up to the moment where she came in.

So here is where I get to reflect–this space is a good thinking space.

Today I began a unit I created from scratch. I use the steel-cased, reinforced, V-8 engine with multiple air bags of UBD, or Understanding By Design. It’s adaptive, flexible, and meaty. For my vegan friends: packed with protein.

Since I’m Humanities this year, and love cross-content, real-world connections, this past summer, before news of Zika broke out, I thought I would do a yellow fever unit, and how diseases impact history. My Enduing Understanding is: “Disease shapes the course of history, and often societies’ responses to health/disease are culturally based.” One of the essential questions is: How did our new nation handle health/disease?

And I’m using a classroom set, with an in-class reading of Yellow Fever: 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. I could only get my hands on 30 copies, so I told the students a few things:

1. We only have 30 copies; I can’t get more (a book angel gave me her 12 books from her classroom library, so now I have a few extras: bless you, book angel!)

2. We will work on stamina: stamina is the ability to focus on text during a time. The reason we work on stamina is mental training, just like we’re training for a sport. It’s endurance. It’s getting in the zone and not wanting to stop reading.

3. I told them my insights about students who say “I HATE READING.”

*They hate reading because they kept reading logs

*They hate reading because they don’t have choice

*They hate reading because someone shamed them when it was difficult

*They may struggle and not know why

But this is what got them: I told them no baby is born hating to read. Every baby loves to communicate, to look at their parents’ faces, to babble and blurb, and every baby loves stories. 

They became believers. But they also don’t know how much I have to fight this current trend of just reading passages. Robert Zaretsky, who teaches at the University of Houston, wrote this article, “Taught to pass tests, they don’t know how to read books” concerning how college students are ill prepared to read and discuss novels. 

Today, we are reaping the results of this strategy. Among its many catastrophic consequences has been its impact on student literacy. Like a koan riddle, we might soon be asking if a textbook war can take place if no one knows how to read. The decline of reading among American youth is reflected by a growing raft of books with titles like “Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It,” “Why Kids Can’t Read” and “I Read It, But I Don’t Get It.” These books, written by teachers, confirm what my conversations with my brother-in-law, a bright and dedicated Houston-based high school English teacher, long ago revealed: Forced to teach to the test, he can no longer encourage students to reach for the texts as sources of wisdom and wonder.


I am trying not to let that happen on my watch.

Close reading has an important place in instruction, there is no doubt, because…it’s not new. It’s as old as stories themselves. So I created a quote log that serves a few purposes: it provides 3 lenses to consider:

1. The author puts a quote at the beginning of every chapter: why? How is it significant to the chapter once read?

2. Talk about character/plot events: how are the characters responding to the events?

3. Look through the medical/health lens; was there anything in this chapter that related to health?

They will not be doing this alone. We will read independently, and burst forth with conversation. We will learn everything we can about the medical practices of the time, and how science and superstition can devastate or be our savior.

And they will read the entire book.

A few kids are hooked after the first chapter: who can’t relate to a pouty teenage girl who’s annoyed her nagging mother is waking her up to do chores? This response is universal.

One thing Zaretsky may want to try is what I did– remind his college students they love stories. And if he wants them to read stories worth telling, which he does, they will.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on

She’s a witch!

You know those Facebook click-bait headlines that describe a phenomenon that happened 10, 15, or more years ago? They make even a 19-old-year feel nostalgic for when they were in high school, or even nostalgic for last week. I am always heartened by Monty Pythons references–those were my ‘memes’ back in 1978–I recognized fellow nerds by our signal of knowing movie lines from Monty Python movies, specifically Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is a scene where the villagers collect a witch, and proceed to adjudicate her fate, based on the logic if both a duck and wood float, and if she weighs less than a duck, ergo ipso facto she’s a witch!

(Hold that thought.)

Today I started a unit on the Salem Witch Trials, but not satisfied with merely doing a ‘word-search-coloring-book’ unit, I complete a full scholarly search, watch videos, remember my high school reading of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, etc. I want my students to have a rich and savory understanding of all things 1600s – from what was happening in Europe (what did they take with them) to the New World (what did they leave behind?). The framing of the unit is from the standpoint of the roles of women and children in the 17th century, and who has power, and who does not, and how does the term ‘witch hunt’ still haunt us today, and how is it embedded in our culture?

As the concepts and questions are being introduced, and we discussed an article they were assigned to read and annotate (as much as they could) The Witches of Salem based on a book by Stacy Schiff, many of my students did, and some didn’t, get through it. What surprised me was who did manage to read this lengthy article–one girl completely surprised and amazed me, and added annotations all over Cotton Mather’s face! (Another testament to choice, metacognition, and process!)

In 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. The sorcery materialized in January. The first hanging took place in June, the last in September; a stark, stunned silence followed. Although we will never know the exact number of those formally charged with having “wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously” engaged in sorcery, somewhere between a hundred and forty-four and a hundred and eighty-five witches and wizards were named in twenty-five villages and towns. The youngest was five; the eldest nearly eighty. Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; daughters their mothers; siblings each other. One minister discovered that he was related to no fewer than twenty witches.

In that paragraph, what did most students say surprised them? The dogs, of course. How could you convince a dog of witchcraft?! No one seemed too concerned with the five year old.

The other things they noticed or questions they raised were mostly about why didn’t the women simply do some magic and get out of this predicament?

Ah, those teachable moments.


Most witches are not the Hollywood/fairy tale sort, mostly benign, and kids: magic isn’t real. (You just ruined my childhood, Mrs. Love!)

I'll ruin your little dog's childhood too, my pretty!
I’ll ruin your little dog’s childhood too, my pretty!

When I explain that to the Puritans, who carried over very real beliefs of devils and sinners, and manifestations around every corner of evil, and came from the legions of those executed in Europe from the 1300s to their present times of the 1600s, the witchcraft scourge was still very much in their waking conscious.

The other questions we asked included just how does one determine if a person is practicing witchcraft? And one student, so sweetly, shared about how you can weigh a duck versus a suspected witch, and that’s how you tell. 

famous historian

And that, dear readers, is how history works.


Postscript: I gently corrected her and said that was from a comedy movie, and it was just in fun. She seemed somewhat disappointed. And you know what? I am now, too.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on

Media Festival: Go West, Teacher! (Part 2)

Is that 19th Century Texting?!
Is that 19th Century Texting?!

This is a follow-up to Part 1 of “Go West, Teacher!” One of my burning questions is a ‘Now and Then’ sort of game — what do we do now, and what did folks do back then to (fill in the blank)? Many of these will be treated in a constructivist model, with the questions posed as writing about what students’ experiences are now, and then constructing and inquiring about the past. Any suggestions for constructing meaning and thinking are welcome. 

How did the Europeans construct their ‘new world?’ What ideals should they have left behind, and what values and technologies help them survive? (What IF they had left some of their values behind and embraced the indigenous cultures’ values instead–how might our country be different?)

1692 Salem Witch Trials

‘The Crucible” by Arthur Miller

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

How did people find someone to date?

When Flirtation Cards Were All The Rage

Handkerchief Flirting

What did people read for fun?

Washington Irving

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820)

The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne – maybe just close reading excerpts, and let them have all the fun in high school?

Edgar Allan Poe (b. 1809)

The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes –though published in 1906, it harkens back to earlier times.

The Emergence of Popular Culture in Colonial America

American Folklore


American Fairy Tales by L. Frank Baum

Her Stories: African Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales –Virginia Hamilton

…and I basically bought out the collection of Laurie Halse Anderson.

Who wrote, and why? How were items published? How was freedom of speech manifested and protected then?

*Note to self: research into literary period timelines

*Note to self: re-read Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates

How are the Amendments interpreted now?

Bill of Rights

What were forms of entertainment? 

How were gender roles defined, and why?

1747 John Greenwood (Amerian colonial era artist, 1727-1792) The Greenwood-Lee Family MFA (2)
The Greenwood-Lee Family

By the time of the Revolution, historian Jane Carson writes, second to their dolls, the “favorite toy of little girls” was the tea set, sold in Williamsburg shops. This toy offered the colonial girl an opportunity to play at the enormously popular adult pastime, the tea ceremony, which had captivated Americans from the wealthiest to the lower classes. So popular had tea services and daily rituals surrounding the consumption of the beverage become that a survey of estate inventories in New York from 1742 through 1768 shows that wealthy and lowly estates in cities as well as in rural areas included the essentials: teapots, cups, saucers, and teaspoons. The boycott of tea called in response to the Townshend Act of 1767 did not alter the behavior of many colonials, and even those who gave up tea continued their tea ceremonies by substituting chocolate or coffee.

Who contributed to the dialogue?

African-American Women Writers of the 19th Century

African-American Writers/Thinkers of the 19th Century

Women Writing in 19th Century America

Female Writers 19th Century

A Time-Line of Native American Culture

More questions…

How did teenage girls become women? –look across all cultures – more research

How did teenage boys become men?–look across all cultures–more research

Dare I venture back to my fifth grade experience? Johnny Tremain by Esther Hoskins Forbes

What was school like? Who received an education, and how?

'11 Ways School Was Different in the 1800s'
’11 Ways School Was Different in the 1800s’

How did they punish criminals? What were considered crimes compared to now?

And of course, the most important question: how do I keep future generations from believing “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is fact?

vampire hunter

I appreciate your indulgence in these ‘curation posts’.


Just as a placeholder, here are the texts used for 7th grade (Washington State) in the past:

novel sets

A unit on Japanese Interment camps would be excellent. No to “Jackie’s Wild” and “Walk Across the Sea”…hard to teach texts that are not engaging personally.

Chock full of unity-goodness, just needs updating and refinement.

 These texts must be reviewed through the text complexity lens, and many other filters, too.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email