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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


By Karla Olson


"Work hard.  Take responsibility.  Accept the occasional failures, as we all make, and keep going.  Life's bigger than just you.  Think big.  Work together as a community."


Ah, yes, one can hear it now; it's the first day of school across classrooms the world over, and teachers are handing out syllabi, instructing students about cutting off the fringes, and giving the new year pep talk with those words.  Catch the smell of chicken patties drifting from the lunchroom?  See the row of brand-new white board markers across the ledge?


But wait!  Here's a twist: this time it's not just Mr. Johnson (wearing the same first-day tie he's worn since 1983) talking, nor is it the school principal welcoming the students back in the gym assembly.  It's the President of the United States, a world leader, indoctrinating millions of American children with Socialist ideas.

Well, according to some, that is.


Others state that it's a welcome and wholly appropriate task for a nation's leader.  Still others, more to the middle, have a problem with possible lesson plans and use of the speech more than the speech itself.  Others are simply mystified at all the hullabaloo, while there are those, too, who simply add last week's consternation in the United States over President Obama's National Address to America's Schoolchildren to the column of what sadly has become politics-as-usual.


Who's right, or (to be more precise) who's correct?  Well, to decide that, one would have to sort through the 24-hour news cycle rhetoric, weigh all sides, put words in context, assign motives and back that up with data, and make assertions.  Sounds an awful lot like good education, especially for an Advanced Placement Language & Composition or other rhetoric course!


That's exactly what I plan to do later on this year, after we've had time to settle in and learn a bit about constructing Toulmin arguments and recognizing logical fallacies.  There will be a wealth of public statements -- from elected officials to pundits to neighbors-from which to construct great lessons.  From all perspectives. Students will have to get to a truth for themselves after doing the work of analysis, after struggling with the many issues (parents' rights, school disruption, civic responsibility, setting precedent, honoring a leader...).  Students will have to discuss, try beliefs, and synthesize information.


All of the things that educators would agree make for good learning, good citizens (in the best Dewey sense), and good classrooms.


The hasty comments and at times horrifically biased opinions (from more than one side) that have been reported over the last week here in the States prove, as nothing else can, that we need such analytical study in our schoolrooms.  In an age where we have instant-everything (not that I'm knocking it all, mind you, as a microwave oven may be one of my favorite inventions ever), and modern communication methods will transmit our gut-level reactions around the globe more quickly than we even realize -- without an "unsend" feature -- it's even more important that in our classrooms we take the time to think through hype and sound-byte headlines.

We need to bring back the power to mull.


In our high school classrooms, students need to realize the difference between healthy, lively debate and an episode of Jerry Springer.  We need our kids to understand that disagreement is inevitable; more, it's how the process is supposed to work. While entertaining the other side's arguments can be uncomfortable, at times -- we all have our hot-button issues -- it's absolutely required that we look at the matter from many sight lines in the room. It's the only way to make progress and solve problems, and there are methods available to us to use in sifting through rhetorical postures.


And we need to model the very concepts that thousands of teachers, and President Obama, highlighted on the first days of school.  We need to work hard.  Take responsibility.  Accept the occasional failures, as we all make, and keep going.  Understand that life's bigger than just us.  Think big. And to work together as a community.



Karla Olson is entering her eighth year teaching junior high and high school English at Minneota Public School, a small, rural K-12 school on the Minnesota Prairie, U.S.  Karla is teaching AP® Language & Composition for the fourth year, and she also enjoys Mock Trial, politics, technology, and theatre.




®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

Post Test Syndrome

Posted by jesse.tangen Mar 24, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


After months of literary analysis, finally we are liberated from close reading!  And yet, without the pressure of a three-hour exam about literature in English over the last five hundred years, suddenly I am wondering: what now?


So I let my students choose from the following options:


Stage a full-length play

My students love to read plays. So why not put one on? Depending on your class' skill level, you could even invite an audience toward the end of your school year. The former AP® English teacher at my school put on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. For a larger class, I would divide the students into smaller groups. One of my classes chose this option, so I suggested they perform Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.


Create a ten-minute play festival

Light, fun, and easy, the ten-minute play festival requires only a brief introduction to the genre—sometimes referred to as flash drama—before students can work on their own to create their own scenes. Class time can be spent improvising, rehearsing, learning acting techniques, and theater games. This is a nice, easy way to end the year.


Publish a class anthology

Because of Web sites like Issuu, creating a quality digital publication for free is surprisingly easy. Since the AP® course hardly allows any time for creative writing, I've found that some students are relieved to be able to practice the techniques we've been discussing. Creating a class anthology is a great way to explore themes discussed throughout the course. Class time can be spent drafting, editing, and designing the book to be.


Study an author

Although I planned to have students complete author studies earlier in the year, we simply didn't have the time. Many now want to explore their favorite authors in greater depth, so they'll be spending much of the remaining class time putting together a presentation that involves reading other works by the author, and in some cases reading parts of the author's biography. For example, students surely read The Catcher in the Rye at some point in their high school career; why not use this as an opportunity to read some of Salinger’s other stories, and peruse the recently released biography? At the moment, I'm planning an event at the end of the year when students can share their presentations with one another. Given the forty-plus students, timing the entire thing will be a challenge.


Although teaching at the college level can for some be more intellectually rewarding, I sometimes feel limited by the AP® guidelines. So now is a great time to remember that literature is fun—because it is limitless.


®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

Online Tools

Posted by jodi.rice Mar 24, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


I didn’t plan this post, but it fits nicely into my “tech in the classroom” series, so here goes: some fun online tools that you can easily use to jazz up your lessons, class activities, and assignments. Many of these tools are free and largely Web-based.


Annotate Web sites by highlighting and posting sticky-notes individually or in groups/classes with Diigo. Similarly, mark up other types of electronic documents (PDFs, Word documents, images, etc.) with Crocodoc or A.nnotate.
• Vary a process-analysis essay assignment by showing students videos from Animated Explanations or Common Craft and then asking them to create their own, starting with a script and storyboard created with a graphic organizer (see next item). Then post them for private viewing at Screencast.
• Move beyond PowerPoint with Prezi to create interesting interactive presentations and graphic organizers. Creately is another, more traditional graphic organizer.
Transform text into visual poetry using a word-cloud generator like Wordle or TagCrowd. Have students select colors and fonts to suit the imagery of the text.
Create a customized search engine for your class, limited to pages you have selected, with Google’s Custom Search Engine.
Use (and in some cases contribute to) creative and interesting online dictionary and vocabulary sites such as Wordia, IdiomDictionary, Etymonline, and Flocabulary. Help English-language learners and other students properly pronounce new words with the audio recordings attached to each entry at Merriam-Webster’s site.


A few more fun tidbits will be included in my next “tech in the classroom” post, which will focus on adapting to the increasing presence of mobile phones in schools.


Posted by mary-grace.gannon Mar 24, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


Who can resist having a conversation with students about Baz Luhrmann's 3-D spectacle served up this week for our viewing pleasure? Everyone in our field seems to have strong feelings, and perhaps some sinking fears, surrounding this event.


Some 300 juniors and 14 teachers from our school will be walking across town on Thursday to take over our local movie theater and have our moment with Luhrmann's Gatsby on the big screen. We'll be reading the various reviews of the movie this week, and I'm thinking it's a wonderful way to enjoy using some hard-won rhetorical skills to talk about how Luhrmann has interpreted this revered novel. Few get out of high school without reading this novel. It is one of the relatively few required texts that continues to span the generations. This new film offers an opportunity to rethink the text, its intentions, and how we use this staple in our curriculum.


Sources you might use:


"Shimmying Off the Literary Mantle: The Great Gatsby, Interpreted by Baz Luhrmann" – A.O. Scott, The New York Times (May 10, 2013)


"All That Jazz" – David Denby, The New Yorker (May 13, 2013)


“The Great Gatsby: Try Again, Old Sport” – Richard Brody, The New Yorker Blog (May 10, 2013)


The Great Gatsby: Baz Lurhmann’s 3D Update is an Exuberant Mess” – Peter Suderman, (May 10, 2013)


"Why I Despise The Great Gatsby" – Kathryn Shulz, New York Magazine (May 6, 2013)


"Baz Luhrmann says The Great Gatsby is a Love Story. Is He Right?" – Tom Shone, Guardian (May 9, 2013)


The Great Gatsby: A Glitzy Spectacular that Misses the Point” – Hermione Hoby, The Telegraph (May 11, 2013)


“Why I Sort of Liked The Great Gatsby – David Edelstein, New York Magazine (May 13, 2013)


“A Grating Great Gatsby – Christopher Orr, The Atlantic (May 10, 2013)


“Perhaps Baz Luhrmann Should Have Just Made a Musical Great Gatsby After All” – Bruce Handy, Vanity Fair (May 10, 2013)


“The Colbert Book Club on The Great Gatsby” – The Colbert Report, various video clips, May 2013


“A Darker, More Ruthless Gatsby” – Alexandra Alter, The Wall Street Journal (April 19, 2013)


“The Grating ‘Gatsby’” – Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (May 9, 2013)


The Real Great Gatsby – Barbara Chai, The Wall Street Journal (May 6, 2013)


“The F. Scott Fitzgerald Songbook” – Will Friedwald, The Wall Street Journal (May 8, 2013)


“The Road to West Egg” – Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair (May 2000)


Possible activities might include:

  • a classroom debate either on the novel as required reading or the movie adaptation and its faithfulness to the text, citing from these articles to support a position
  • a classroom conversation or paper on the novel’s validity as required reading in the American Lit curriculum
  • a classroom conversation or paper on theme as presented in the text version vs. theme as presented in the movie version

Huck Finn

Posted by mary-grace.gannon Mar 24, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


In this, the year of Mark Twain, a century after he died and the year that his autobiography is finally going to be published, I can’t help but wax poetic on the man and his place in American letters, and put in my two cents on his presence in the high school curriculum. I often hear fellow English teachers lament the teaching of Twain in general, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in particular; with enduring controversies about the book’s attitudes toward race, it’s easy to understand why.


Some typical comments: “I hated that book in high school myself.” “I can’t get past when those two guys come in—and neither can the kids.” “I dread teaching Huck Finn.” I faced my own concerns when I first dealt with the book as teacher. Sure, Twain can be hard to sell. And I didn’t “get” Huckleberry Finn when I read it in high school either. Why? And why should we insist that our students read it?

One reason we should still read Twain’s novel is because the many controversies surrounding it provide a helpful perspective on our collective history. I’ve found that approaching the book by presenting the controversies to students makes it much more accessible to them. Giving them permission to criticize a novel they’re assigned to read, a novel that was banned from many schools and libraries, suddenly makes the task of reading it much more palatable.


Though I can’t can save Twain from his own weaknesses in the novel’s structure (weaknesses that, if acknowledged, can help to explain our collective teacher-student reaction to the novel as a whole), there is something about Huck himself that redeems the entire experience every time students meet him.


Looking at Huck through the lens of Socratic irony helps to place the book more clearly into the time period in which it was written; at the same time this approach helps us to “hear” Huck, as well as distinguish Huck the narrator from Twain the author.


This year I’m trying something new. I assigned Uncle Tom’s Cabin for summer reading, so when we begin to read Huck Finn, my students will have a reference point to fully grasp Jane Smiley’s position in her piece, “Say It Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Twain’s ‘Masterpiece.’” Now they will have a little more background when their American History teacher talks about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influence in the years before the Civil War. It’s been my thought that if students read both of these novels and looked at their publishing histories, they will have a more insightful understanding of racial issues in America as well. Seeing what became of Uncle Tom in the years following the Civil War is a critical piece of our racial history, too.


In AP® Language class, Huck Finn is perfect for a researched position paper on one of the controversial aspects of the book. Luckily I’m permitted to have students purchase their own books in my school, so I’ve been using the Bedford edition, which includes highly readable critical articles on race, the ending of the novel, and gender. Twain has managed to endure in our curriculum for many reasons, not least of which is that he’s worth arguing about. Is Huck Finn truly an antislavery novel? If it was intended to be, did Twain succeed?

Here are some Web links that can enhance your Huck Finn experience this year:


  • Twain and Stowe Houses, Hartford, CT: If you’re within reach of Hartford, Twain and Stowe lived across the street from one another. If not, you can visit the sites online.
  • New York: The Morgan Library and the New York Public Library are running a joint exhibit, “A Skeptic’s Progress.”
  • Newsweek: Read “Our Mysterious Stranger” and the accompanying excerpt from the soon-to-be-released autobiography.
  • Time magazine: View the photo gallery of Mark Twain.



[Photo: MARK TWAIN -- A Long Lost Photo? Creative Commons licensed.]


®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

Presidential Speech Notes

Posted by jodi.rice Mar 24, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.



Since his election campaign, informal photos of the President "at work" have been posted to a Flickr account.


Your students might be interested to see this image of his handwritten edits to a speech.

Yes, even the President annotates speeches!