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Saving Summer: Rethinking Themes, Essays, and Media

I’m about to do a dangerous thing: post a document long before it’s “ready.” It is not even close, and I think–that’s where it should be. A finished document would mean there is no room for growth or adaptation; it’s a sketch. Flipping my thinking around about the silo type of units, students would be better served if we took a gravitational, or centrifugal force idea. While we’re spinning, we stay connected and use metacognition to be cognizant of what draws us in. Choices are key, here, with a map for guidance. In essence, every UBD and essential questions demand a variety of genres and modes of texts. We think about big issues in a kaleidoscope way, not linear. I started thinking about units I’ve created in the past, and some of the theme topics, and came up with this document:

Ethical ELA is a huge influencer, and sites such as

Nothing should be off limits: essays, short stories, podcasts, films, novels, poetry, letters, texts, tweets, news, classics and modern re-tellings, pop culture, graphic novels, series: sources for texts and media are bordering on the infinite. If you can write it or read it, it belongs.

Oh, and for the curated list, a wonderful collection of essays that may come in handy:

10 personal essays that will teach you how to write

What big questions are ones you come back to again and again in your teaching? No matter how many times I watch Descendants, I see something new.

Descendants from Goro Fujita on Vimeo.


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Stitching themes.

vintage sewing victorian

As a follow-up to “How To Teach A Novel,a treatise on theme. I contend that all the close reading strategies in the world only serve to engage us in the bigger conversation, the “grand conversation’ as my master’s mentor instructed us. (I thank you every day, Dr. Schulhauser.) 

One word: Patterns.

Patterns in terms of speech, actions, reactions, resolution and take-aways. What does the writer believe, what is she questioning, and what is she exploring? Did she take us with her, or leave us confused and behind? 

Theme is, as most language arts concepts, deceptively simple to define, and yet a chasm-size leap of thinking. Like novel teaching, it is process, not a prescription. But there are a few steps to help students over the rickety bridge of thematic analysis.

Yesterday I tried the old stand-by of having them think about their favorite singers/performers. They were instructed to NOT say the names out loud, because I didn’t want to get into a Nicky Minaj/Drake/Bieber war. (Haven’t heard of the great Swift war? Hundreds left homeless, and memes abounded.) I then asked, individually, to name, and then analyze how type of songs they sang. They were very excited to share their ideas, and didn’t get into musical taste battles (too much). We talked about how we choose music to listen to depending on our moods, and we know who will help us with that mood. And yes, they all talked about how Taylor Swift writes a lot of break-up songs.

This access of thinking, breaking it down, helps build their internal trust, of trusting their instincts, and then thinking further to take risks. In other words, it’s one thing to build up all the preparation with close reading, etc. but quite another to have them take a leap of faith over that bridge.

The bridge looks a lot like:

rickety bridge

I want students to feel:

golden gate

A fabulous special education teacher, brand new, young, but an old soul, showed this old dog a new trick:

(seed idea/topic) CAN _____________.

 Think about the beauty of that simplicity:

Racism CAN create monsters out of honorable men.

Misunderstandings CAN create a lifetime of hurt.

Love CAN create wholeness out of destruction.

This clear path to discussing theme may help those lightbulb moments for a few students still struggling to walk across the bridge…and that’s a key component…let them walk across, don’t carry.

Here are some resources about theme:

From Helping Writers Become Authors: I want to tweak this a bit for students.
From Helping Writers Become Authors: I want to tweak this a bit for students.

11 Tips for Teaching About Themes

Teaching Themes: Reading Worksheets

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Myth-of-the-Month Club: Janus

Janus My fellow bloggers out there in the technosphere have taken up the challenge to write a post-a-day on their blogs for the month of January. (“I can do that!” Mrs. L thought to herself.) So what if there’s laundry to do, meals to prepare, and holiday decorations to take down? I can do this! Or can I?

And like any good resolution, which is also part of the “resolve” word family (resolution, resolve, resolute) I am going to give it my best.

But I needed a theme. I love themes. Those are the universal truths and connections among all cultures, societies, time, and beliefs that allow us not to float away, untethered, distracted, or isolated.

Don-da-da-da! (That’s supposed to be trumpets blaring):  The theme for January is the “Myth of the Month Club.” Each day I will feature a myth, legend, folktale, deity (remember? polytheism? deity? gods…goddesses…demi-gods, etc.? Come on…you remember, right?) And what better or more appropriate way to start off January with that two-faced deity himself, doesn’t know if he’s coming or going, looking back to look forward, JANUS!

Roman god of doorways, gates, and transitions, who faced forwards and backwards. The name January comes from the name of Janus. Janus statues show twin faces. –


Two-faced rock.
Two-faced rock.

Janus imitates its two-faced Greek god namesake by catching light on two sides.

The brighter side of Janus is lit by the sun while light reflected off Saturn dimly illuminates the rest of the moon and reveals the non-spherical shape of this small satellite.

This image has been scaled to twice its original size. This view looks toward the leading hemisphere of the Janus (179 kilometers, or 111 miles across). North on Janus is up and rotated 22 degrees to the left.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Feb. 12, 2009. The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1 million kilometers (621,000 miles) from Janus and at a Sun-Janus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 112 degrees. Image scale is 6 kilometers (4 miles) per pixel.

Janus is one of Saturn’s (the planet) satellites (moons).  Remember, Saturn is, in mythology, the old man who grunts and grumbles at Baby New Year. It is no accident that French astronomer Audouin Dollfus who discovered this tiny, two-faced moon in 1966 named it Janus.  Janus and Saturn are connected to the same myth: that time turns, we look to our past, and to our futures, all at the same time, in the present moment.

Here is another thought about Saturn:

Vouet completed the piece “Father Time Overcome by Hope, Love, and Beauty” (1627).: 

Old Man Time

(I’m not sure if time can be overcome by love, beauty, and hope. That’s what is advertised to us. If we buy wrinkle cream, we HOPE that we will still have BEAUTY and we can keep LOVE.)

In any case, Happy New Year. Like Janus, I think it’s important to honor the past, learn from mistakes, and appreciate the experiences we’ve gained, while simultaneously looking forward to the future.