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Making Valentine's Day Meaningful for Secondary ELA

How do you make Valentine’s Day meaningful in the secondary English Language Arts classroom? Secondary students don’t usually celebrate with parties or cards, but teachers can still make it a fun day by using texts with themes about love. This also ensures that students will continue to learn important content. I have my favorite texts to read, but recently I asked other English teachers and bloggers to share their favorite poems, stories, and nonfiction texts for the holiday, too. 

Whether you have a romantic, cynical, or practical view of love, you'll find something to match your interests with their wonderful recommendations:

The Chaser by John CollierThis is a perfect short story to teach around Valentine's Day. The story follows a young man named Alan who is desperate to make a woman named Diana fall in love with him. So desperate, in fact, that he is willing to use a love potion! Students always eat the story up, but what I love most about it is that it requires students to use inferential thinking to fully understand the plot. I also follow up with a fun post-reading activity called “Abby and Andrew’s Advice Column” where students give Alan romantic advice from a male and female perspective.
-Bonnie from Presto Plans

After I stood in Neruda’s home and looked out over the South Pacific as he did to write, I saw why students catch his passion for poetry, life and love. For Valentine’s Day, they listen to favorite verses that earned Neruda’s 1971 Nobel Prize. They enjoy Valentine’s Day through Neruda’s eyes in: 1). poetry published for a class collection. 2). lyrics composed from multiple intelligence strengths, and 3). interactive tasks completed from Neruda’s viewpoint. Lessons include assessment criteria, two-footed questions to tap into Valentine themes, and activities to engage students’ unique interests - more in a spirit of Valentine’s playful celebration of verse than a fear of poetic forms that hold some writers back. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Nothing is more appealing to many high school teens than 
illicit love. No doubt, children and their parents have disagreed about boyfriends and girlfriends since the time of the Ancient Greeks. This conflict has been the theme for innumerable texts, from classic Shakespeare plays, to young adult fiction, to an article in The New York Times. In this lesson, students read an excerpt of the play and connect their reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to an article, “Modern Love- Breaking our Parents’ Rules for Love,” about a real-world couple facing disapproval from their parents. The article makes relevant connections, and the lesson culminates in a writing activity selected from a menu of writing options.
By Kim from OCBeachTeacher

Annabel Lee by Edgar Alan Poe
In Middle School, students are fascinated by Poe as an eerie, dark and mysterious author. So imagine their shock when they realize the same author could write a poem like "Annabel Lee"! I bring this poem out during Valentine "season" because I enjoy their opinions on "true love" and whether the narrator genuinely has this love or if he just thinks he does. 
To accomplish this we study the poem as a bell-ringer activity where we focus on specific stanzas over the course of a few weeks. While we naturally study tone, reading skills like main idea, author's purpose, and inference, how to interpret the messages, and even some conventions, the best part is the discussion of open-ended questions like:

· Can envy destroy true love?
· What is true love?
· Can you love someone too much?

In many students' lives, relationships seem to be gone in a flash so watching students formulate their own definitions of true love based on thoughtful discussion is the cherry on top.

Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid's Metamorphoses
"Pyramus and Thisbe" is the ultimate story of forbidden love. My students enjoy this one because they usually haven't heard of it. Plus, it's short, has an exciting twist, and is laden with rebellion and desire. I enjoy incorporating this poem in mythology units (it's a perfect example of how myths explain the origin of something), during a study of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night's Dream (they always think it's scandalous that Shakespeare most likely stole his plot from Ovid), within poetry units (it contains student-friendly verse that doesn't intimidate students or bore them) and around Valentine's Day! We focus on interpreting symbolism, analyzing theme, and making connections to other movies and stories.
By Melissa from The Reading and Writing Haven

While love poems are great, sometimes students—and their
teachers—can use a break from the emphasis of romance that comes with Valentine’s Day. Reading The New York Times article about the entirely-unromantic St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, perpetuated by the infamous Chicago gangster, Al Capone, is a good way to still include a timely holiday-related activity and also practice reading informational text. The text is long—about 2,000 words—so reading questions can help guide students in their task. Finish off with critical thinking questions and class discussion about the legacy of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and of Capone!
By Ms. Dickson from High School English on a Shoestring Budget

This Year's Valentine by Philip Appleman
In 2003 as American forces prepared to invade Iraq, poets began a resistance movement using poetry as their weapon. The Poets Against The War website was inundated with

contributions from around the world, and before long, 13,000 poems filled its pages. Philip Appleman and his poem "This Year's Valentine" supported not only the resistance movement but also neatly fit a major theme of the month of the buildup: Valentine’s Day. This poem, despite its alarming content, is a joy to teach since students find the description and stark contrasts surprising and refreshing, and, as one of my teen students put it, “Not that typical overly mushy love stuff that makes me want to gag.” Additionally, the poem allows you to show students that creative voices have the capability to produce unity among those who support a common cause and that those combined voices can, perhaps, effect change.
By Maryann from Secondary Strategies

Why Domestic Violence Victims Don't Leave
TedTalk by Leslie Morgan Steiner
In high school, our students can get obsessed with love, relationships, and dangerously close to defining their self-worth by the person they're dating. Leslie Morgan-Steiner's TedTalk "Why Domestic Violence Victims Don't Leave" is a chilling and powerful video to share with students. I've used it in my after school Women's Leadership Academy for open

discussion. It's also a great video to stimulate research into other social justice issues and writing. It was shocking to hear students discuss the ways in which they've witnessed this at home or in relationships - so be sure to give your social workers a heads up and proceed with caution. This Valentine's Day, take this opportunity to shed some light on the dangers in the dating world and empower your students to get out of bad situations and make smart choices!

Not sure if one of the ideas from above will work in your classroom?  Then you may also want to check out some of these other love-themed texts: 

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18
Love Song For Lucinda by Langston Hughes
The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst
Edmund Spenser's Sonnet XXX

What texts would you add to the lists above?  Please share in the comments!

Honor Multiple Intelligences with Book Projects

How do you assess the reading of novels in your classrooms? I try to vary my assessment throughout the semester and use reading logs, literature circle activities, whole-class discussion, tests, and book projects. Although I have a love-hate relationship with book projects (they can be annoying to grade and may tempt students to plagiarize), I think that they empower learners by encouraging them to use their multiple intelligences, which may not often be valued in school.

Here are strategies that help make book projects more enjoyable and effective:

Give students choices.

For my most recent project, to individualize instruction, my students had the following choices:
  • Create a “comic book” chapter for your novel with frames that have illustrations, color, captions, and text. 
  • Here's an example of a student's alternate ending
  • Write a two – three page new ending for your novel. It may be an ending that you would have preferred or one that just changes the outcome in a plausible way.
  •  Make an audio book for at least one chapter in your novel. Read each character’s lines with expression and differentiate voices of characters and the narrator.
  • A literary feast for John Grisham's Bleachers.
  • Enjoy a “literary feast”! Create a written menu with choices symbolizing literature elements (character, setting, plot, conflict, and/or theme) from your novel. Choose and prepare one of the foods to share with the class.

Diorama for The Book Thief
  • Build a three-dimensional construction. Create a book cube, cereal box, or diorama which illustrates your book’s major literary elements.
    Diorama for The Lovely Bones
  • Create a 5-10 slide Power Point presentation, Prezi, or other multimedia presentations that analyzes the author’s style of your book.
  •  Produce a digital book talk, a video with a book trailer (like a movie trailer) to share with the class. I borrowed this idea from this web site.
  • Design a “message in a bottle”: Use a plastic bottle and decorate it with a title, the author, cover image, and other symbols related to the book. Then write a letter to a future reader enticing them to read and giving a review of the novel. This idea came from someone in my #2ndaryela group.

Reduce grading-time with oral presentations.

I can assess my students’ learning while I listen and watch my students give their presentations (and they get practice with oral communication skills). I use a rubric that I can easily mark. You can get a copy of it from my Google Drive here. This year, I made the rubric two-sided and asked students to rate their expected performance before presenting. They gave me their self-evaluation at the beginning of their presentations. This required students to look closely at the grading criteria and gave me insight for my evaluation.

Help prepare them for the projects.

I give students 3 - 4 weeks to read the books and inform students that they will be receiving a project assignment. Near the end of their reading, I assign the project and require students to complete a planning sheet. This is a short assignment in which students respond to questions about their project selection, materials needed, and time management. They also include brief notes on basic literary elements with several text examples. When I read their responses, I can provide feedback before they work on the project, and it helps prevent them from procrastinating.

Sometimes, we watch videotaped presentations from former students. The students discuss the performances, evaluating eye contact, voice, and body language. Recently, we watched my very first students who were in 6th and 7th grades. My juniors were impressed at the skills these former students display (and noted how old I am ;) 

Require students to listen to their classmates.

Give students a “Book Talk Record” where they list the titles and authors of their classmates’ books and rate whether these books sound interesting for future reading. My students keep the book talk records as a tool for the next time they need to choose a book. 

Create a book project exhibition.

I display the best projects on top of my classroom cabinets. It’s an easy and piques my students’ interest in the books. Over the years, I’ve acquired quite a few!

I’m always looking for new ideas for my book projects. Do you have project ideas to share? Please comment below.


Since I teach American Literature, every day in my classroom provides instruction for the founding ideals of our country and reflects the fact that we have not always lived up to those principles. United States history teaches us that the desire for American rights is also the desire for human rights and has been an on-going journey for many people in our country.

Seminal United States documents and other classic texts communicate essential American themes, and a presidential inauguration makes teaching about equality, freedom, and diversity especially relevant.

With this in mind, I’m offering some ideas for making this instruction engaging for secondary students (make sure to get the FREE rhetorical analysis graphic organizer below).

1. Start with music. Music reveals a lot about what is going on in the country at a particular time and also about the sentiments of the people. Song lyrics are much like poetry, so as students listen to and read lyrics, they can highlight words and lines that exemplify attitudes about America.
I use classic American songs from different genres and time periods and have often used the following: 

Star Spangled
Banner by Francis Scott Key, Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, This Land is Your Land Woody Guthrie, The Times They Are a Changin’ by Bob Dylan, Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen, Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue by Toby Keith, and American Idiot by Green Day. You can find additional songs at this link.
After practicing with these songs in class, I ask students to bring their own song selections, which demonstrate themes about America. Frequently, I incorporate this lesson with others lessons for poetry and art as an introductory unit to American Literature.

2. Connect current issues to literature. American literature is rife with stories and texts about the struggle for equality. One of my favorite lessons uses an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom with an article and video of Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Malala Yousafzai. My students always admire her bravery and are amazed that she is a teen like them. We watch her addressing the United Nations in 2013.  Then through analysis of Douglass’s and Yousafzai’s messages, students note the connection between education, equality, and freedom.

3. Use powerful speeches. Teach rhetorical literacy and let students learn history through the words of important American leaders. One of my favorites is Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”. She uses biblical allusions and rhetorical appeals such as ethos, logos, and pathos to fight for women’s rights. Here’s a three-minute video performance  of the speech by Kerry Washington.
Students have designed memorials to honor the first responders and innocent victims of 9/11.
Another significant speech is Abraham Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address."  It provides an excellent example of parallelism, and I use it to inspire students to write their own speeches. After reading Lincoln’s message to honor the soldiers who fought in The Battle of Gettysburg, I encourage students to honor veterans and other heroes by designing their own memorials and dedication speeches.
One former student designed her memorial and wrote her speech to honor Trayvon Martin.
This year I've added Lyndon B. Johnson's Speech to Congress on the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  To help students gain a stronger understanding of the argument in the speech, I created this free rhetorical analysis graphic organizer to accompany our reading of it.  American Rhetoric.com is a website with many more resources for significant speeches.

Do you have more ideas for teaching the founding ideals of our democracy?  How have you collaborated with other content area teachers to infuse these principles into your instruction?  Please share in the comments.

Thanks to ELA Buffet and Desktop Learning Adventures, you can get more amazing freebies and ideas below!

A Thank You Letter to Parents

Dear Parents,

This week I returned from winter break to my job teaching high school students. The ten-day vacation was needed- I was tired and out of patience before we left for the holiday. Upon our return, we had six hours of standardized testing, so I knew it would be a challenging week.

But I really enjoyed my week back because of you, parents, and your children. I’ve been teaching adolescents for 19 years and they can be difficult at times; however, this week reminded me that many of them are kind, responsible, and hard-working. It was a wonderful start to the new year, and I want to share my appreciation.

So thank you for…
1. Valuing education. No doubt, you expect your children to try their best and earn good grades. You likely read to them when they were younger and may have volunteered in a classroom. You’ve discussed college and encouraged your children to seek post-secondary education when they finish high school. As their teacher, I know this because these students come to school with a desire to learn and work diligently, even on really long and boring assessments.

2. Teaching respect. Although I may get an eye roll on occasion (they are teenagers after all), I know your children won’t swear at me, harass me, or threaten me. They do not challenge every direction I give. Furthermore, they respect their classmates, and don’t bully their peers. You’ve modeled respect for authority and clearly set these expectations at home.

3. Allowing failure (and the consequences that may accompany it). No one is perfect, and you realize that your child may make mistakes. He or she may not study for a test, or may procrastinate, or may skip class one day. These behaviors may result in failing grades or disciplinary action.

It’s normal for teenagers to test adults, to see what they can get away, and to bend the rules. But they also have to learn that there are consequences for their choices. Fortunately, this often helps them from making the same mistakes in the future.

4. Setting boundaries. Of course, you love your children, but you realize that you are not your child’s friend. Your social life is separate from your teens lives. In fact, you may set a curfew and probably have rules about the use of technology in your house. Maybe your children aren’t allowed to use their cell phones during dinner, and you surely expect them to finish their homework before playing more video games.

5. Expecting responsibility. Your children have chores, clean their rooms, and may help care for younger siblings. At an appropriate age, they will likely have part-time jobs. You may even require them to save money to help pay for their cars or college. This teaches them a good work ethic and discipline. They realize that they will need to earn success and they’ll likely have a better appreciation for money.

I wish I could say that every parent teaches the importance of these ideas at home, but regrettably, I can’t. But for the many parents that do make their homes a training ground for school and for work, thank you again. And some day in the future, I expect that your children (and my students) will thank you for helping them become healthy, productive, and compassionate adults.

Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird

Recently a neighboring school system placed a ban on two books: To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It made local and national news, and I was hardly surprised (fortunately the books have been reinstated). In fact, I had just finished a unit in which my students read To Kill a Mockingbird. I taught with the knowledge that it is one of the most challenged books in America and I shared this information with my students from the start of the unit.

Coincidentally, before we even started our reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, I assigned my students reading from an article about a college professor who had written a censored version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Many students were surprised that anyone would challenge a book, but when they read the article they had a better understanding of the controversial language.  We discussed why the professor, Alan Gribben, wrote the new version and I asked my students for their opinions of his updated novel. After our discussion, they shared their ideas for how to handle the reading of the racial slurs in To Kill a Mockingbird in our class. First they partnered with classmates, and then we tackled the issue in whole-class discussion where we made a decision not to read the words aloud so that we wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

I try to ensure sensitivity when we read the novel. Over the years, a couple of students have shared compelling sentiments with me. One African American boy said he didn’t like the book because even though Atticus bravely defended Tom Robinson, ultimately Robinson died. His honesty made me realize that even though I think the novel teaches valuable lessons, my minority students may find the novel disheartening and difficult to read.

With that in mind, I have a few tips for making the teaching of the novel more successful:
1. Teach it in high school even though the Lexile score of 790 puts it in a reading comprehension range for sixth grade (it’s often taught in grades 6 - 8). In the Common Core State Standards Appendix B, the book is listed as an exemplar text for grades 9 - 10. It requires a maturity that most middle school students do not have. In addition to the controversial language, the book includes an accusation of rape and several violent scenes.

2. Respect students. If possible, let them choose the reading in a class vote. Give them two - three book choices and provide short summaries of each selected book. Choice creates more buy-in and if an individual student still does not want to read it, give him or her another suitable option. Additionally, be available to talk to students who may feel upset during their reading or when tense discussions arise.

Prepare students for the reading. Use anticipation activities to introduce some of the sensitive issues. Depending on my students’ needs, I vary activities, including an anticipation guide, a close-reading activity, or this digital book talk. 

Teach some of the history from the time period or coordinate instruction with a social studies teacher. Students can research topics including the Jim Crow South, the Emmett Till Trial, the Scottsboro Boys trial, Plessey vs Ferguson, the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the Woman’s Suffragist movement and the history of capital punishment in the United States. There are innumerable topics and you can find more  ideas here.

5. Make sure that students understand the novel. Provide time for close reading of selected excerpts. For instance, I have lessons which focus on chapter 15 (when the mob comes to the jail for Tom Robinson) and for the chapters with the trial. This year I had students act as members of the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial. They noted important testimony and evidence as they determined whether Robinson should be acquitted or convicted.

6. Finish the unit with meaningful activities. This year I borrowed a journal idea from B'sBookLove and MudandInkTeaching. My students wrote “goodbye letters” to the novel. In these letters, many articulated the life lessons they had learned from their reading.
I also make the end of the unit fun by hosting a tea party In this lesson, students write character analysis essays and participate in a drama activity. With the help of costumes and props, they “become” their characters and engage in role-play, joining the rest of their classmates who are also citizens of Maycomb.

At the party, the students interview one another and use their reading of the novel to infer one another’s characters.  Finally, after everyone’s character has been “discovered,” the students enjoy drinking tea and eating baked goods such as muffins and scones.

Even though it has challenges, I enjoy teaching the book and think it is meaningful for students. I know many others teach it, too, and may have had rewarding and/or difficult experiences with it.Do you have great lessons for making it a wonderful teaching experience?  Please share below.
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