“I need SPACE.”

There comes a time in any healthy relationship where space needs to be granted for people to thrive as individuals, not just as part of a unit. The same is true for classrooms. Teachers and students alike need an environment with breathing room so there’s space to grow and deal with the complex mental tasks of our daily work.

As all English teachers know, literature similarly plays out this real life tenet: WHERE we are contributes to WHO we are. For this reason, over the years, I have become more and more passionate about making sure my classroom is a supportive environment students can thrive in as leaders. A few ideas on how to make the most of your space are below. Hope they are inspiring. 🙂


–       My essential question of the year is posted [somewhat] ornately on the wall to help serve as a reminder of the thread that connects each unit: CHANGE.Image

–       Students share their creative expressions on the “things that make us smile wall.” I set up three magnet strips against an area of the wall about 2 feet long and 2 feet high to aid the easy put up/take down feature to this area. Most often students post little quotes or poems they come up with, doodles, and pictures of celebrities. This year, though, some original thinker went ahead and taped a lemon head to the wall. Amazing.


  • ‘TACTILE AND TANGIBLE’ ideas. The world has texture, the classroom should be full of it too:

–       If you can paint your room, don’t hesitate! Last year I painted one accent wall and this year was lucky enough to have a talented coworker do a flower painting. I wanted my classroom to feel like a tree house and to get the job done, Materials For The Arts was a great source for grass and plants. School Specialty on amazon.com was my source for backing paper choices like weathered wood.ImageImage

  • It may be “NEGATIVE SPACE” but it’s a POSITIVE quality:                                                                                                                                                                     So those walls that talk… yeah they are important. But, it shouldn’t be as if they don’t shut up. I’ve learned this the hard way because I near constantly fight the urge to put all of my students’ work up on the walls, or print and share all the funny signs I see on the Internet. This past spring though, a student walked into my room and said “Wow. It feels different in here. I can think better now that the projects came off the wall.” It was then I started to take that priority of “white space” or “negative space” more seriously. In a world where more and more kids have issues with focus and attention, the environment we create in our classrooms can’t be a distraction. This extends into other aspects of teaching space as well, like activities where students need to sort ideas or opinions on chart paper. I’ve started to always leave a blank page for the tangents, or the “not immediately sort-able” stuff student minds might go to. This gives them the space to take some risks and unhinge where their mind is taking them, not censor something that may very well be the kernel idea for some great writing. Image

Since setting is just as important in literature for its role in the development of conflict and characterization, here are a few recommendations for books that kill it in a classroom dialogue on the concept:

*Mystic River by Dennis Lehane (crime bosses allowing drugs to be sold in nearby towns but not their own, anger issues from being raised in poverty, and forests full of secrets and bodies resembling the muddy areas of the protagonists’ minds).

*Tracks by Louise Erdrich (the setting as a villain; Native American tribes betrayed by the very land in North Dakota they are fighting for and pray to… The opening line: “We started dying before the snow and like the snow we continued to fall,” !!! Breathtakingly written).

*Beast by Walter Dean Myers (setting code switching occurs in this book with a protagonist floating between two worlds: a Connecticut prep school and Harlem).



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Behind The Beautiful Forevers


Education most certainly can be a ticket out of poverty. Unfortunately, with severe budget cuts going into effect this past Friday, my students were just given new obstacles to their dreams that an education alone can’t conquer. Similarly, the sequester going into effect Friday brought me a life shift since as a friend recently put it, “In this economy a baby can easily bankrupt you.” And, that feels disconcertingly out of one’s control these days.

Perhaps these financial considerations led me subconsciously to pick up Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo earlier this week. It’s a piece of narrative non-fiction aimed at answering questions around poverty and class systems in Annawadi, India. Although Boo stated in an interview that she wanted to avoid the cliche sentimentality that normally comes with poverty writing, she doesn’t quite accomplish that. I’m not sure it’s possible to ever extricate the poignant snapshots that arise once you put poverty on the page. The people living in it automatically become characters, even if they are real, and they will make hearts bleed for all their hopeful suffering.

What’s more interesting about this work is Boo’s depiction of a small town subsisting on an idea: that India’s growing economy will trickle down opportunities to the lowest class. For a few, this diet of hope and labor proves successful but not for long since suppressed rage haunts Annawadi’s inhabitants.

This is not an uplifting book.

It’s a brutally honest one about government corruption and how being part of that corruption is the ticket out of poverty people buy, not education or any of the other ideals we’d like humanity to rest on. This book helps bring to the focus that there is no data to support the idea that hope leads us to survive. Victor Frankl and C.S. Lewis may have touted it as truth but as much as I enjoy their writing, their evidence is anecdotal at its best. Too often we hear one story of hope and point to it as a beacon of clarity (I’m looking at you, Oprah), when thousands behind that light remain unknown and don’t survive despite having held just as strongly to their hope. Boo’s book forces us to realize what Alexander Pushkin has long since known about humanity: the things dearest to us are our illusions, not the baser truths. When it comes to addressing poverty, it behooves us to consider shirking this instinct when we talk about community development. Reading Behind The Beautiful Forevers is one way for policy makers and globally minded citizens to take that step.

For Classroom Use:

Current shifts in ELA curriculum right now are in favor of implementing larger doses of non-fiction in the classroom, and BTBF is a perfect choice. It lends itself to lessons on craft (how does word choice about the poor impact public perception, and therefore policy?), theme, the machinations of the global economy, current policies of the Obama administration on eradicating poverty, the way the poor are discussed in either a sensationalized or sentimental way and why other portrayals seem to evade writers, and comparisons/ contrasts can most certainly be made to happenings in Detroit.


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Giving Thanks For Fiction…. and for students who give thanks for fiction.

In a post-Sandy NYC, Thanksgiving was given richer meaning as residents were humbly reminded of feeling fortunate for things that can sometimes miss our radar:  like the beauty of a strong community, as well as our ability to carry on when we keep laughter by our side.  Like others, I ruminated on these things. I was also, however, given a wonderful reminder from a student of my gratitude for reading and teaching.

The student emailed me the day after I had a discussion with colleagues regarding DOE decisions related to the common core. The crux of it was that common core standards have led schools to create more structure on how to prove students are reading texts with increasing complexity. That structure is largely being designed by lexile levels. This is absolutely a great idea as I use lexile levels to inform my book recommendations to students. But, also as a result of this faith in lexile levels, decisions were recently being made in some schools about the grade levels for classic texts. Of Mice and Men and Flowers For Algernon, most notably, were being designated as middle school texts based on lexile level alone, and not theme. The books in some high schools were to be boxed and banned. To Kill A Mockingbird may potentially only be taught to ninth graders. I could easily discuss the scientific and moral reasons I don’t support this rigidity in curriculum design (A junior level law class should absolutely include a reading of TKAM! Students do not cognitively develop along a straight and narrow path! Without enough life experience certain themes can fall flat!). However, instead I’d like to share the email from my former student who I taught when she was in the ninth grade. It’s realness in the face of these decisions reminded me of Henry David Thoreau’s words: “Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.” Thanks Joan for reminding me of how teaching and fiction gives us that piece of the rainbow.


Hi Ms. S,
This is random but I have just finished reading Perks of being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and the part about Bill reminded me of English teachers like you! From reading the book I realized, the very few effective teachers in general don’t touch the lives of students as much as the literature teachers do. So thank you for being one of them. And also the book reminded me a bit of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, the one I read in your class. The significance is so evident and the story itself tug quite a few heart strings.  If you haven’t read the book, you should go find out what I mean! I recommend it 😀
Early Happy Holidays!

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Manning Up

I recently went to the Tribeca Youth Screening to see Byron Hurt’s: HIP-HOP: BEYOND BEATS AND RHYMES.

It was great to see the thought provoking film and be part of the discussion afterwards about how hip hop and more broadly, hip hop culture, can evolve. One of the film’s central points is much like Ben Haggerty (stage name: Macklemore) says in a subversive hip hop song championing gay marriage: “We’ve become so numb to what we’re sayin.” I couldn’t agree more.

For highschool English/film/advisory classes, the film is an excellent way to think about the role hip hop plays in:

  • Defining “manhood.” And through that lens then…women’s expectations of men.
  • How hip hop creates cultural norms like the dismissive treatment of women, and how women allow this to happen. The film posits that many women are willfully ignorant about hip hop normalizing women as silent and bought objects of lust. (“Tip drill” comes to mind)

The film is now six years old and it feels historical to see Macklemore push at the boundaries Hurt explored in his film. Like other artists who have also strayed from typical hip hop themes (gang violence, sexual objectification of women, etc), Macklemore delves into complex class issues. However, unlike some popular hip hop artists,  he doesn’t reinforce shallow understandings and stereotypes of addiction, gay lifestyle, or women. He digs deep using earnest and reflective language.

Coming back to the film, I jotted down quotes from it that sparked lesson ideas. I think the movie and Macklemore’s music deserve analysis in our classrooms, and can be paired with any text that grapples with ‘American’ identity (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, De La Pena’s We Were Here, Anzaldua’s Borderlands, to name a few). Hopefully the quotes below inspire you, as much as they did me!! Notable quotes:

-Manhood is all about conquering and that kind of definition of manhood ultimately conquers YOU

– The image of women in hiphop is not all that different from 19th century slavery….woman as an owned/bought object

– [African- American male hip hop listeners] have a glorified sense of [their] own victimization…don’t see misogyny as an urgent issue…. see police violence and incarceration as more important.

-BET is the cancer of black manhood

– Men are afraid to show their frailty and hip hop is a way for men to show their assertiveness.

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Offensive Narrators- (much like offensive people, have to be handled carefully)

I’ve had more than my share of awkward moments during a class read aloud where I’m put in the position of saying, with the conviction of the character: the “n” word, sexual references (“old black ram tupping the white ewe”), disgust at a woman crying, or shallow insults about a girl’s appearance. It’s slightly comical since my students know that language is so far removed from the way I think or speak. When the awkward laugh subsides though, out pours some typical rage toward the offending character and, with guidance, a rewarding revelation in our discussion. Yet, if the offending character happens to be the narrator it can be trickier handling it with reluctant readers because if pushed too far by the narrator, they will not see past their personal disgust into what the author is exploring about human behavior. They will just put down the book and settle on a one dimensional analysis rather than unpacking the circumstances and layers to the offending behavior.

As I begin to read The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson to prep for my new middle school position (gasp! no more high school curriculum!), I’m reminded of the educator’s role in guiding students to seek those layers. The narrator of Gilly is a young and ignorant racist, but offensive to the point that I have found myself at times putting the book down angrily. I can’t help but wonder: if my students do the same, how do I help them pick it back up and grapple with what the author is exploring?

This is not altogether a new task. While teaching the higher grades, books like Heart of Darkness and Fences raised similar challenges. My typical approach is to pull in texts or videos that illuminate the setting and allow students to reflect on societal issues surrounding the character. Quick example- educating students on the Horatio Alger myth is helpful in its connections to Fences’ exploration of the American dream. At first glance, it’s a seemingly innocent and comforting idea to think that America still provides the rags to riches stories that popular rappers have promulgated to today’s youth. (And certainly, rappers are not alone in carrying on the mirage of a meritocracy. Even Mitt Romney would have us believe that with his same discipline and financial secrets we can all have a wealthy secure life.) Yet, those who have examined the trade structures and social advantages built into the American landscape, know that this is a myth that has been part of the web we’ve teased at, pulling apart in order to understand the impact of racism and the ways it’s buried in our national subconscious. The tragic pain the Horatio Alger myth creates for the working class and its link to racism is reflected in Fences through Troy’s inability to trust white men. The complexity of his distrust gives rise to debate about the motives for his behavior. For instance, did he ruin his son’s dreams because he distrusted the white man’s promises to his son, or was he afraid of being overshadowed by his son’s ability and used racism as an excuse to kill Cory’s dream? Troy, as a racist and sexist character, inspires a lot of hate in the classroom. Female students, in particular, are quite vocal about their lack of sympathy for him. But, by examining non-fiction texts related to the 1950’s and the Horatio Alger myth, students can come to a greater understanding of the constraints Troy fought and sympathize with his inner demons.

This is far too complex for middle school. The texts that have served me well in the past, and the ideas I’ve guided them to discuss in the past are not appropriate for a 6th grade level. So I’m brainstorming on a smaller scale about inferiority complexes- like the one Gilly has. I’m thinking of a strategy similar to a ‘wallpapering the room’ exercise that I’ve seen in a few professional developments:

-Group desks in clusters of five, if you don’t have table seating. At each table (or cluster of desks) place a piece of chart paper with a picture that documents a racist action or moment in history, and allow students in groups to write reactions to the pictures. After they have sufficient time to write a comment at their table, they must circulate to other tables creating a comment to now either the photo OR to another student’s comment. I suggest initials being put at the bottom of a comment. Students rarely know full names so anonymity remains, but this also allows you to handle any behavioral issues in comments without having to make accusations.

-After students complete the rounds to each picture, they can circulate one more time to see the complete webs that were created, then sit in their original group to process it all together as a class in group discussion. I find that many questions will arise out of activities like these and would anticipate making time to answer any questions they have (and if needed have a student on hand to google on a laptop anything I’m not able to answer right away). The culminating point? Well, I will make sure to choose photographs that bear the mark of oppression and inferiority that comes with racist actions, and summarize the activity by asking them to write as a group answers to the following questions: how does Gilly feel inferior herself as a foster child? How might that connect to her racist attitude?

– This could be perhaps extended as an understanding of bullying in general. So much to be learned as I take on the younger grades. 🙂

If you have other ideas to share- please do! I found this great lesson for middle schoolers on stereotypes too through some googling: stereotypes.

Happy summer teachers!!


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Fences by August Wilson::: Exploring Boundaries Project

Perhaps you can recall a moment where  it is as if you got to peek behind the curtain at what really goes on backstage for your parents. You got to see them when they are not acting as “father” or “mother.”  Maybe a face softens in front of a grandparent and you see a daughter or son, or a college buddy comes to visit telling a story you never expected your parent to be a part of, or someone gets hurt and their panic shocks you into the knowledge that they don’t have all the answers either. Suspended in these moments are boundaries that create roles like ‘parent’ and ‘child.’

At times these boundaries are crucial to respect in order for parents to retain an appropriate authority. Yet, exploring them is equally important for children to complete the maturation process and become adults in their own right. August Wilson’s Fences examines this concept, with a critical eye on the joy and suffering that can result when one pushes the limits their parents created. In the case of Fences’ Cory Maxson, when he peered behind the curtain at his father he found something far more unsettling than a son or college buddy. He found a drunk and depressed man whose false image as heroic baseball player was precisely the boundary the son had to confront in order to achieve a life outside his father’s shadow. (If you haven’t read this play, please do! It’s incredibly funny and moving.)

To explore boundaries and symbolism in Fences a lesson I’ve done is: #11 fence symbol. Through this lesson I aim to teach students to carefully:

1) Examine how the dialogue conveys the meaning of the symbol

2) Analyze how the symbol reflects each character’s boundaries

3) Explore the connections between these boundaries to the development of conflict.

The assessment of these concepts comes from the Fences poster the students create. During the share out, students will have a chance to notice how all these characters have such various differences in their fences (aka boundaries) and yet were living together, giving rise to the play’s major conflicts.

For further discussion and application of these ideas to students’ lives, teachers can have students consider the following question:

> What role does technology play in the creation or destruction of our boundaries? For instance, we hide in our phones and ipods in order to get out of conversations. This can build more boundaries while conversely some boundaries have been torn down by technology- like how we are expected to always be available by our employers since we have email on most phones now.

Examples of student work from this Fences project are below:

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History Repeating

The image and feared damage of the big bad teacher has grown in political speeches and editorials to mythic proportions. In the hands of those who seek to sharpen their pitchforks to catch this enemy, teacher reform has lost sight of what belongs at its heart: collaboration and support. Unfortunately, history has shown us time and again that when it comes to complex social issues, the public will accept one-dimensional scapegoats crafted from ignorance and fear. One of the most ignorant ideas of late (albeit putting aside Michele Bachmann’s characterizing of the homosexual lifestyle as enslavement) is that it is the teacher’s fault our schools are failing and to fix this we must decisively ax close to half the city’s teachers.1

This trend toward blaming the teacher isn’t new, it’s just strangely gaining credibility when powerful evidence to the contrary has been surfacing. Prolific amounts of research have recently been printed countering these claims. Articles like “Military Children Stay a Step Ahead of Public School Students” 2 and “The Teacher Quality Conundrum”3 prove that the correct approach to fixing the issue is not to ax tons of teachers because:

  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] did a study that shows national improvement in 4th grade math scores, but stagnant scores in reading. As the author of the article states: “If teachers are so vitally important, why have fourth-grade math scores dramatically improved, but reading scores have flatlined, given that — at least at the elementary level — the same teachers are responsible for each?”
  • The NAEP also revealed that, “military bases have outperformed public schools on both reading and math tests.” This is attributed largely to the lack of teaching to tests and micromanagement of teachers. However, I would contend it is also due to a more structured and disciplined home environment that military personnel provide for their children.

Yet, the train against teachers gains in speed lately. The state has spent money unveiling new teacher evaluating systems that have incensed enough administrators and teachers that over 500 principals have signed a protest against them.4 Formulas for grading schools continue to be used that punish ones who show improvement. These formulas also clearly state that a school’s grade will improve if they beat out other schools in the community on state testing. This kind of malignant interpretation of ‘competition’ in the education field is prohibiting our ability to make genuine gains that serve the public’s children. For example, during recent conferences, teachers and administrators who have found methods that work to reduce the achievement gap refuse to share. While other schools, quite frankly, appear to be gaming the system since schools who take in more self contained ISS[instructional support students/special ed] students struggle to compete on state tests, and a recent data meeting proved that charter schools and private schools have not taken in the same number of these students as public schools have. This diminishes the collaborative spirit that should be in education. Political officials have wasted time and resources creating formulas to seek out a treacherous villain that doesn’t exist. Yes, bad teachers exist. But, do bad teachers who are in the minority of a school’s staff wreak havoc so pervasively on a whole country? No. AND, it can be argued that some of these teachers are bad because they are rendered so by a government that takes funds away from schools that struggle. How is it that America spends more on prisons than it does on schools?5 And, when teachers can’t engage students with updated media because there is none available, we blame the teacher!

As not just a teacher, but as an American citizen, I strongly believe that the government should create a tax incentive for low-income families who have students on track to graduate in four years. This is a reform that would work from the ground up because students in my classroom are part of a culture where pride is gained in gang involvement not in going to a more prestigious school (just today I counseled a student about how he can avoid the gang he recently left when he walks home, and discussed comebacks with another student for when his peers tear him down for showing up for tutoring). Genuine reform requires culture change and it is possible when support and collaboration WITH teachers, not against them, remain in the formula. The idea of this enemy of the ineffective teacher is more damaging than an ineffective teacher is in the classroom. It has created more chaos in the system than genuine progress.

For my fellow teachers reading this, the ones who understand so well how these issues remain in dire need of addressing in order to truly salvage our education system- please also remember that as teachers who have to wake up everyday to serve our communities with purpose and personality: it’s vital to keep a sense of humor intact and remember to weather the illogical storms that undermine the degrees we’ve obtained. As Troy Maxson from Fences always says: “You gotta take the crookeds with the straights” and perhaps do so with a laugh because politicians, and some administrators through them, are working in circles, and we need to shake our heads and remember their folly is all just : 

Keep calm, teach on.


1- “Bloomberg Would Only Fire Half the City’s Teachers Hypothetically”

2- “Military Children Stay a Step Ahead of Public School Students”

3-  “The Teacher Quality Conundrum”

4- “More Principals Join Teacher Evaluation Protest”

5-  “U.S. Must Spend More On Education, Less On Prisons”

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