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Saving Summer: More Good Things

Literary Analysis, Themes, and Essay Writing, Oh my!!

How did I not know about this? (probably because of PG-13 language: I’ll get permission slips, promise!)

ThugNotes is narrated by Sparky Sweets, Ph.D., and yes there is some language, but the plot summaries and analysis are epic. For a secondary audience, this modern version of CliffsNotes is helpful and entertaining. Since I’m teaching a unit on Lord of the Flies next year I am thankful for his analysis and insight.

Next: thinking about essays and writing structures differently:

An Essay Primer for Adults: Six Essay Types You Should Know by Lorraine Berry

An Essay Primer for Adults: 6 Essay Types You Should Know

Here they are to preserve and keep:

The linear narrative essay: This essay structure is self-explanatory. The story is told in a straightforward narrative, and is usually told in chronological order. Sometimes, there are flashbacks contained in the essay, but that doesn’t disrupt the forward motion of the narrative. One essay that may be of interest in the coming weeks as we approach the August 21 “Great American Eclipse” is Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” which is published in her collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk.

The triptych essay: Just as a triptych painting features three panels, so too does a triptych essay feature three separate sections that are not continuous with each other, but that may shed light on the other two parts. See “Triptych” by Samina Najmi, which was published in World Literature Today.

The collage essay: This type of essay features bits and pieces – vignettes – of prose that are collected together to form an essay. They often resemble poetry as the writing for a collage essay tends to be lyrical. One of my favorite collage essays is Sherman Alexie’s “Captivity,” which appeared in First Indian on the Moon.

The experimental essay: These essays seem to buck all known structures. One of the most unusual of these essays is “The Body” by Jenny Boully. The pages of the essay are blank – except for the footnotes, which are extensive. It turns out that the footnotes are the entire essay. “The Body” is characterized as a lyrical essay

The last two forms of essay that I wish to discuss are the “hermit crab” essay and the “braided” essay, and here I’d like to offer more exploration of two particular essays that are examples of them.

The hermit crab essay: In 1972, John McPhee wrote “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” and it was published in the New Yorker. He used the original game of “Monopoly” – the original American version that was based on the streets of Atlantic City, New Jersey – and he uses going around the board as the frame for the essay, making this a perfect example of a “hermit crab” essay.

In the essay, McPhee is playing a game of Monopoly but he is also recounting walking the streets of Atlantic City. The game is taking place at an international singles championship of Monopoly play, where it is possible for two skilled players to play an entire game in fewer than fifteen minutes.

McPhee intersperses the history of America in the details, but also how Atlantic City was the planned “invention” as a railroad terminus that would be a “bathing village.” In preliminary sketches, the village was labeled as an “Atlantic city,” and the name stuck. In the early 1930s, Charles B. Darrow took those early sketches of the city and based a game board on it.

So, as McPhee lands on each property or group of properties, he tells the story of each part of town. When McPhee’s piece lands him in jail, he uses it as an opportunity to visit the city jail, which in 1972 seemed to be chock-full of drug offenders. He also documents the “facade” aspect shared by resort towns. Once you travel off the beach-side main drag, you are in “the bulk of the city, and it looks like Metz in 1919, Cologne in 1944. Nothing has actually exploded. It is not bomb damage. It is deep and complex decay. Roofs are off. Bricks are scattered in the street.”

He walks these streets and sees long lines of people standing in line at the unemployment office. Newspapers in 2017 tell us that we have an “opioid crisis,” but a multiplicity of signs urging addicts to get help are present in Atlantic City in 1973 (perhaps another reminder that something doesn’t become a crisis until middle class white kids in the suburbs are dying).

McPhee walks through these neighborhoods looking for the one Monopoly property he can’t find: Marvin Gardens. No one with whom he speaks, those living in their bombed-out neighborhoods, has heard of it. It turns out that Marvin Gardens, “the ultimate out wash of Monopoly, is a citadel and sanctuary of the middle class.” It is a suburb within a suburb, what we might now refer to as a “gated community,” separated from the rest of Atlantic City and patrolled with a heavy police presence to keep the rest of the city out.

If you’ve been paying attention while reading, you realize that McPhee has used his hermit crab essay to write a critique of capitalism.

The braided essay: “The Fourth State of Matter,” by Jo Ann Beard is, I must confess, my favorite essay. It, too, was originally published in the New Yorker in 1996. Beard offers a braided essay – in which she is telling a number of stories that are all related to the time she spent on the editorial staff of a physics journal at the University of Iowa. Over the course of the essay, which begins with Beard’s poignant description of the daily routine she experiences as she cares for her aged, incontinent dog, the reader is braced in anticipation that the dog will die.


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Saving Summer: Googling.

Recently a post on social media got to me to thinking: (well, overthinking? *shrug*)

After a thread and reflection, I am trying to answer some questions:

  1. Does context play a role in teaching (anymore)?
  2. Just about “everything” can be “Googled” – how do we navigate and help students find the correct information?
  3. What is the nature of teaching with abundant access to information and misinformation?

A post from the New York Times, “In an Era of Fake News, Teaching Students to Parse Fact from Fiction” discusses the challenges of teaching context.

One can, indeed, Google context about a topic. How deep down the rabbit hole should we go?

I get the statement: it’s intended to be for Depth of Knowledge Level One Yes/No kinds of questions, Costas’ level one knowledge, bottom rung of Bloom’s. However — these days the strata of misinformation abounds, and even yes/no questions can result in horrific results. And these days, it is life and death.

I needed my help from my friend Sharon to help ME get some context for this post, and she came to the rescue:

I tried a little experiment, suggested by my husband. I Googled “What are vaccines?”  and “Are vaccines good for you?” both level one questions that should result in facts or a yes/no.

Here is what I got with this first search statement:

(Note: most results are sound.)


Here is with search terms my husband tried:

This is when we start going to CrazyTown.

Questions, even with yes or no answers, can be inherently biased. People seek the answers their cognitive dissonance and biases want. “Google” Benghazi, Alex Jones, Pizzagate, etc. Heck, look up “president handshakes.” No, never mind. Don’t.

Google does its best to filter and promote factual information with its complicated algorithms and data. But Fake News is a violent, dangerous issue. I wish we could go back a decade at least when we could, with reasonable critical thinking skills, discern fact from opinion/fiction.

Here is something Sharon and I can fix, so look for a Part II. In the meantime

  1. Use DOK questions first to create an understanding and close reading of Google results. That way, when students are told to “Google it,” they must come away with a minimum of three credible sources.
    • Close Reading:
      1. Look at top searches
      2. Look at the date published
      3. Look at the publisher and media format: is it a credible news source? Blog? Credible Youtube channel or ‘just some dude?’
      4. Look at links and pingbacks
    • Know how search engines work
  2. Tap into the best Social Studies teachers you know — make sure any lesson on search engines include conversations about primary, secondary, and tertiary documentation and artifacts.
  3. Call upon the best ELA teachers you know to discuss point of view, perspective, fact, opinion, and truth
  4. Call upon the best Science teachers you know to help promote scientific research and how bias creeps in.
  5. Call upon your best Math teachers to discuss proving factual knowledge and a variety of algorithmic paths.
  6. Oh, and never forget Electives, PE & Health to talk about false and factual information that spreads on the internet. The arts and the curated effect of beautiful and lasting resources on the Internet for one and all.

So yes, don’t spend a lot of time teaching if it can be Googled. But teaching how Google works is teaching time well spent.

Oh, and I found this, and of course, can find its origins:

But don’t stop the nerd love:

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Spun out.


Water bottle flipping.



Candy wrappers.

Sunflower seeds.

Little pencils.

No pencil.

No paper.

Uncharged laptop.

No charger.

Lost charger.

Little skateboards.

Little paper footballs.


My list is incomplete. There is a legion of ways kids use other objects to distract or fidget with. And no wonder. Quite frankly, a day in the life of a 6-period middle school kid and teacher is physically demanding. Imagine running for a flight eight times a day: in the morning, between every class, 30 minutes for lunch, at the end of the day, trying to take care of biological needs and process learning. It’s go-go-go all day. I completely understand why the average student senses they “need” this, how those spinners seem to help with attention, but from my anecdotal observations, they hurt more than help, if only because they distract us, the teacher, from being effective.

If you want someone to “blame” for the spinners, it’s this man, Scott McCoskery. He had very good reason to create a spinner.  From an interview on NPR:

SCOTT MCCOSKERY: I had a long career in the IT world.

MALONE: This is Scott McCoskery, and as an IT guy in Seattle, he says he spent a lot of time on conference calls and in board meetings that he didn’t really need to attend.

MCCOSKERY: During those times, I often found myself clicking a pen, opening and closing a knife or…

MALONE: A knife in a board meeting, Scott?

MCCOSKERY: A small pocket knife. It was nothing too threatening.

MALONE: All right, all right.

Well, I guess we should be glad kids don’t flick switchblades in class.

One of my favorite education bloggers, Larry Ferlazzo comes out on the side of the spinners, telling teachers to ‘chill out.’ He also confesses to only seeing two out of his 130 high school students. Let that sink in. Two. One-hundred thirty. High. School. Not twenty to thirty a day out of 130 MIDDLE SCHOOL kids. All day, every day, most teachers in my building watch students who click on games sooner than the actual assignment. Kids who reach for a spinner versus a pen or pencil. I agree, we teachers do need to choose our battles. I know kids aren’t getting enough fresh air, time to eat, time to talk and play, and often I feel more like a jailer than an educator. And the inmates will do anything to keep from going insane, and I don’t blame them.

Health Buzz: Do Fidget Spinners Help With ADHD? This article has a balanced approach to them. Just, you know, in case you want to read a balanced approach versus my diatribe.

But I’m not battling spinners only: the onslaught of cell phone use, and if it’s not that, it’s talking. And then I’m told I need to have them engage in ‘accountable talk.’ What if you were told that in chunks of 55 minutes you had to only have ‘accountable’ conversations? I can only imagine how awful book club would be if we couldn’t chat, catch up, talk about kids, food, work, and then spend some time talking about the current book. The thing is–truly–students rebel all the time against this daily structure. If they didn’t they would go nuts. They don’t want extrinsic token-economy fluff, they want time. 

As I plan out the next few weeks, I’m going to build that time in. And parents–if you’re reading this — consider instead of a spinner a little sketchbook or some books they can use when testing is over, or they have some time:

How to Be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith

The Total Brain Workout by Marcel Danesi

Here’s your earworm du jour. You’re welcome.


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Lessons of Azeroth

But back to Jandy Nelson who started off her address by explaining “this belief I have that English teachers are our contemporary shamans: the wakers of sleeping souls, the planters of dreams in heads, the imparters of some of life’s most valuable gifts: compassion, empathy, humanity, ambiguity, wonder, joy.” She went on to describe a few of her own deep learning experiences with English teachers.

Why is all the mana gone?

The year, around May 2010 or so, I finished my first round of National Boards, I promised my younger son I would start playing World of Warcraft. My husband worked for a previous incarnation, Sierra Games, and his brother, my brother-in-law, works for Blizzard (on the Diablo series), so the truth is it ran in the family. My older son plays, too, but at a much more competitive and competent level than I ever will. And though I’ve held the Minecraft Club/Anime Club for years, I don’t play Minecraft, but certainly, see its value.

Over the years, I can’t help but draw parallels between this MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game, ya noob), education, and being a teacher. My main character for years was a shaman: she carried two big axes or maces with her, and with the help of her trusty spirit wolves slew giants, monsters, naga, and all manner of evildoers and bad dudes. I’ve switched to a druid, all sparkly and full of moonbeams and sun fire. Playing wasn’t always relaxing for me: there were times when it became too serious, took up too much of my head space, and the joy was gone. Yup, kind of like teaching.

Quest Lines: think about quest lines like a curriculum map that you don’t participate in, create, help forge, etc. It’s given to you as your sacred duty to save someone, something, and at the end, you get a boon, be it experience or gold. Sometimes you get gear, but the gear is always third-rate. Anytime you can participate in a quest line that needs 3-5 other players consider that your PLC time, created in the moment to conquer a bigger monster. It goes faster when you work together, and tackle those big monsters en masse.

Leveling Up: School and its trajectories are one big leveling up. As a teacher, if I don’t think I am growing, or a situation is adding toxicity to the support of students and staff, it’s like poison from a plague machine from the Forsaken. (

Area of Effect: AOE, or area of effect, is the spell power to either heal or do damage, (or both if your character is heavy into the crit thing). My mage blasts fire or ice. My druid sends waves of green healing or rains starfire from the skies. The shaman wakes the earth and the priest pulls dark shadows from the air.

In a classroom, the students sitting further in the back do not receive the full effect of teaching as much as those in the front. My way around this is to do as much walking around, and joining small groups as possible. The old “proximity” rule is valuable, but it’s not enough. If you’re casting out healing or crit powers, make sure it doesn’t overheal or crit, wasting precious mana and casting time.

Mana: Red is for health, and blue is for mana. Mana is life goo. Mana from heaven, supernatural aid, aiding in casting spells and healing. Different classes of characters need different attributes –paladins need stamina, spellcasters need intelligence; hunters and shamans need agility. These characteristics work to create a well-tuned character, making them powerful and competent.

Guilds, cliques, and NPCs (non-player characters: I’ve been in my share of dysfunctional guilds. I’ve jokingly referred to guilds as my bridge club: it’s been one of my social outlets for some time, and a fun, light hobby. There have been times it’s been a serious hobby for me, and I’ve made many life-long friends all around the world that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Guilds can be comprised of thousands of people, or like my little guild, two to three. If a guild is a raiding guild, there are different levels of those, as well. I’ve been in raiding guilds and casual guilds, and have experienced a few personalities of guild leaders.

Cliques are a natural result of alliances that form when large groups work together and can be beneficial in achieving small sets of goals. However, recognizing when cliquish behavior becomes an obstacle to the global goals is important, because undermining larger efforts may result.

NPCs are critical for success; think of the custodians, secretaries, nurses, counselors, etc. all who make such a huge difference in the lives of students and staff. Click on that NPC if they have a talk bubble: you will find out amazing information.

What do the good guild leaders do? The make sure everyone knows their role and how to work together best. They see areas of growth, and never publically criticize a team member. They don’t allow for gossip or hearsay. And they don’t play favorites. Now, if they have to sit someone out because they aren’t geared up yet, etc. they work with the teammate to assist in questing, raiding, etc. to bolster, but that commitment works both ways. The player needs to step up, too, and do what it takes to make the team. Good leaders’ tones are professional and warm. They are solution-focused and want to keep their guilds together. It takes too much time and energy to have turnover on a raid team. And they keep their senses of humor. It is just a game, after all. 

Alliance versus Horde: forever and ever, Amen. In Azeroth, the Alliance and the Horde battle over, well, everything, until of course the demons from the Legion show up and ruin it all. This is why we can’t have nice things, you know. Call this identity politics — associating oneself with one side versus the other is a shortcut for understanding, or pop-psychological understanding, of someone’s preferences and personality. Don’t be fooled. Just because someone enjoys pretending to be a green Orc versus a wistful Night Elf doesn’t say too much, trust me on this. There are two sides, and both have their own narrative, allegiances, leaders of all stripes, and factions. Tribalism serves the tribe, but not the village: the more integrated and cross-content conversations happen the better we serve our students. Or destroy the Legion. Whichever comes first.

PVP: Akin to Alliance versus Horde, Player versus Player is another competitive sport that one needs to knowingly engage in, and have a clear understanding of the outcome. I have no interest in playing on a PVP server: nothing like a Forsaken rogue stabbing me in the back when I’m looking for an NPC to turn in a quest. Those graveyard-to-corpse runs are a timesink.

Dungeons and Raids: Sign up. Pick a role. Do your job. Play fair. Communicate. Don’t troll. Rinse. Repeat.

Nothing like the pop-up of a big achievement banner after a long grind.

Grinding: So much in Azeroth is called “grinding” — doing the same repetitive tasks in order to gain status, reputation, or a boon. These grinding quests are the seemingly infinite gateways to “the good stuff.” It’s helpful for me to remind myself that the occasional grind of teaching does get our students to that good stuff; accomplishments and banners of awesome. 

The Final Boss: in every dungeon, raid, or world quest there is a final boss. This character has been wreaking havoc for some time, destroying lives and having many vows of vengeance thrown in his or her name. (But it’s usually a “he.”) This is the moment you’ve worked toward, you’ve prepared and planned. You will have to work very closely with your teammates in order to bring down this boss: he has a bag of tricks (aka mechanics) and phases, and sometimes just when you think you’ve got him beat, the last healer steps in fire and he enrages and the whole team wipes. But: you pick yourself up, plan your cooldown spells a little tighter, pay gold for repairs, drink your potions, get your food buff, and start again.

Sounds a lot like spring break.

If you ever venture into Azeroth, remember to keep your bags free of gray items, save all the Dwarf books, and take a pet with you. And when you venture back to your classrooms, remember you are powerful: you have magic and joy no one else does. Be strong out there, for there are monsters.


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The first rule of write club…


Must give credit to John Spencer once again for this idea. He tweeted:


Now the thought of Chuck Palahniuk writing the back story for a cartoon intrigues me, and I began to think of multiple mash-ups of writers and stories. This morning I envisioned a complete Nathanial Hawthorne Scarlet Letter version of Rugrats, whereas every time Angelica attempts to bully the babies she must wear her insignia “A” embroidered on her chest, serving multiple purposes. The adults are the villagers, of course, standing firm in judgment. Well, it played out better before I had coffee. Now I’m not so sure.

But what about Stephen King and a treatment of Roadrunner? I think Kurt Vonnegut could do justice to Bugs Bunny. Or as John quoted, ‘create sad backstories to all the Animaniacs.’ Brilliant. This, of course, is the essence of fan fiction, with a hefty side of writer’s craft, style, and voice for good measure.


Allow me to meander a bit:

Ayn Rand takes over an episode of Invader Zim.

Neil Gaiman rewrites a ‘Hey, Arnold’ episode.

J.K. Rowling takes on Powerpuff Girls.

G.R.R. Martin rewrites Dexter’s Laboratory.

Dr. Seuss: Ren and Stimpy, of course.

Suzanne Collins and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.

Okay, I could go on all day. I am seeing a really fun lesson idea here: D&D dice with each number associated with an author and then a second roll for the cartoon episode. 

What other ideas come to mind?



Now–parents–think for a second. When I was growing up Bugs Bunny and his ilk alluded to operas, literature, film, etc. I know there are ‘jokes for grownups’ in current children’s media, today, too, but I am a bit out of touch with the ten and under crowd these days. My sons are 18 and 21, and they share gritty, funny binge-worthy media. We are long past the Rugrats days. If you’re a parent of kids under 10-11 and let them watch tv, what do they watch?



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