A Classroom with a View

Reflections on Teaching High School English


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Transmedia Storytelling in the Classroom: What Is It?? (Part 1/3)

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Image source: transmedia-storytelling-berlin.de

The day has FINALLY come — the day that I can share my love of transmedia storytelling with the world of education! This post kicks off a three-part series on transmedia storytelling in the English classroom — we’ll tackle what transmedia is, how to use it in the classroom, and some examples of the best of the best transmedia stories currently out there.

First off, let’s address the crazy vocabulary word in the room: what the heck is transmedia storytelling?? Well, transmedia is an actively emerging (mostly) digital genre, so let’s try to cobble together a definition that makes sense.

  • Pemberley Digital, a major transmedia player and arguably founder of the genre, proposes that transmedia “tell[s] an enriched and immersive story that transcends across multiple formats,” like “Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, LOOKBOOK…”
  • Dr. Pamela Rutledge explains the concept in greater detail: “Transmedia storytelling uses multiple media platforms tell a narrative across time. Each media piece—whether it’s a comic, novels, video games, mobile apps, or a film—functions as a standalone story experience—complete and satisfying. Like a giant puzzle, each piece also contributes to a larger narrative. The process is cumulative and each piece adds richness and detail to the story world, such as character backstories and secondary plotlines… Transmedia storytelling is fully participatory.”
  • And finally, Dr. Elaine Raybourn, in her TEDx Talk, refers to transmedia as “our next generation learning ecosystems.”
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Image source: alfabetovisual.com

Basically, transmedia storytelling is an online experience that narrates a story using multiple digital platforms, especially YouTube, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Many transmedia stories that have come out in the past few years have been adaptations of classic works of literature, reimagined in a modern age and retold using digital technology.* Generally the central character(s) rely on vlogs, or video blogs, to move the narrative along, but characters in-world can also have fully fleshed-out dialogues on other social media platforms like Twitter.

Transmedia takes place in real time — the story unfolds over the course of weeks or even years, and the series itself may be segmented into seasons.

Audience engagement is central to the transmedia experience — vlogs are typically posted once or twice a week, with subscribers eagerly awaiting the next update and commenting voraciously with each other, the series’ characters, and the showrunners in between. Often transmedia stories are funded via crowdsourcing, relying on a passionate audience to defray production costs.

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An engaged transmedia audience. Image source: provideocoalition.com

Now that we share a baseline understanding of what transmedia storytelling is, next we’ll consider some possible applications of it in the high school English classroom, of which I believe there are many. Join me next time for Part 2!

*One notable exception to the rule of adaptation is KalamaTea’s webseries All’s Fair Play, inspired by Shakespearean drama but not a direct interpretation of any one play.

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Giving Feedback on Student Writing

Since I’m currently buried under a pile of student papers (true story), I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about what makes for effective teacher feedback on student writing. This is something I thought a lot about a few weeks ago as I graded my first set of essays. The below list of suggestions has been cobbled together from my own preferences, the

responding to student writers

Buy this book. No, really. You won’t regret it.

insights of my colleagues at NHS, and the fantastic book Responding to Student Writers (2012) by Nancy Sommers, a slim volume chock full of useful ideas.

When possible, write students letters. I know, I know. After just one set of essays, this is already feeling like an impossible dream to me. But I feel that students put a lot of time and energy into their compositions, and they deserve the same from us in response. I always loved when my teachers wrote me letters or notes in response to my writing — it felt so intimate. I’ve kept some of those notes to this day.

Read the entire paper before commenting. This one’s tough, too. It’s very tempting to mark a paper up as you read, but if you do, you run the risk of providing stream-of-consciousness commentary. You may ask for one thing that a student provides later in the paper, for example. This is not only a waste of your time, it’s not terribly helpful for students, either. It’s better to read a composition in its entirety and be able to respond to it more comprehensively.

Don’t use red pen. It sounds crazy, but it’s true: red pen is deeply associated with error correction in students’ minds. If you want to show your students you’re not just correcting their mistakes but rather, responding to their ideas, use something else to annotate, like a

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One of my letters to a student on a recent paper that I wrote in pencil. I pointed out both her individual strengths and what she can improve upon next time.

green pen. On my most recent set of papers, I intentionally used a pencil.

Avoid shorthand that may be mysterious to students. As English teachers, we take for granted certain proofreading symbols, like the ones here. As you provide feedback, it’s important to assess whether those symbols will actually mean anything to your students or whether they’ll be incomprehensible hieroglyphics. Or if you must use them for the sake

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Hieroglyphics to students?

of convenience, be sure to review them with students in advance.

Read an entire class’s papers before giving any grades. This was a gem suggested to me by one of my colleagues in the History department at NHS. Reading all papers across a class before writing up feedback (and especially before grading) can give you a better sense of where your students collectively need to improve.

Be timely in turning work around. Again. I. Know. At this moment I need to be practicing what I preach. But I think that feedback provided too long after the original submission loses some of its impact. If it’s very long after the original submission, students may have a hard time remembering what they wrote and why they wrote it! My current goal for essays and other longer compositions is to turn them around in 1-2 weeks.

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A sample from our class-wide overview of strengths and areas for improvement on a recent paper. I make sure to pull in example work of students who do particular things well to serve as a model.

Review with students overall strengths and areas for improvement. Another gem, this time courtesy of my cooperating teacher Wendy Crofts. I noticed that after each piece of writing students turn in, she compiles a list of strengths and areas for improvement across all sections of the class to share with students. This strategy offers her an efficient way to provide targeted feedback that a majority of students need to hear without writing it 60 times on 60 different papers.

Provide an opportunity for students to revise. I’m a firm believer in writing as a process and process pedagogy (the topic of another blog post in the near future). If, after receiving an initial round of feedback, students want to revise for a better grade, I think that’s wonderful. After all, that’s what we in academia and in the working world do all the time when pursuing publication: revise and resubmit.

How do you handle the process of providing feedback on student writing?


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Teaching Active & Passive Voice Using ZOMBIES!

doodle_102915.pngThe other day in one of my sophomore classes, during a conversation about why writers need editors, one of my students brought up that editors can help identify sentences that are in the passive voice. Not everyone else in class knew what that meant, though. I took a few minutes to briefly explain active versus passive voice and how often, inserting the phrase “by zombies” can help you identify passive voice.

None of them were familiar with this trick, and in favor of moving into our writer’s workshop, I didn’t pursue it for too long. But in reflecting on it after the lesson, I think I’ll take their curiosity on this point as an opportunity to include a grammar mini-lesson in our next class, expanding on the “by zombies” test for passive voice.

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Image source: Grammarly

In case you’ve never heard of this trick either, it was created a few years ago by Rebecca Johnson, a professor at USMC, who realized that this was a quick and fun way to get her students to recognize the passive voice when they saw it. For example:

  • On Christmas Eve, Santa brings children presents [by zombies]. Adding “by zombies” doesn’t work here, so it signals us to recognize the pattern of subject –> verb/action –> direct object, which = active voice.
  • On Christmas Eve, the children are brought presents [by zombies]. Adding “by zombies” DOES work here, signalling us to recognize the pattern of object –> verb/action –> subject (which is absent or implied in this case), which = passive voice.

This trick won’t work 100% of the time — for example, don’t get it mixed up with an adverbial prepositional phrase — but more often than not, it will be a reliable guide!

With that in mind, here are a few elements of the grammar mini-lesson I plan to share with my sophomores later this week:

  • I’ll likely print them copies of Kimberly Joki’s Grammarly article, which explains the distinction between the two voices pretty cogently.
  • I may also show them this short little PowToon animated video that demonstrates how to flip a sentence back and forth between active and passive voice.
  • I plan to have them work in groups to complete this active/passive voice handout using the “by zombies” test.
  • And finally, I created a Kahoot quiz, which my kids always LOVE, to reinforce the point one more time and get them engaged individually. Feel free to use it in your own classes if you find it helpful.

Enjoy — and when it comes to distinguishing between the active and passive voice, just remind your students to use their braaaaaaaains!


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Making Shakespeare Fun & Accessible

I’m at the beginning stages of planning a unit for my sophomores on Macbeth. I’ve done some theoretical lesson planning with Shakespearean texts — check out a couple sample lessons on Romeo and Juliet on my professional website here — but this will be my first opportunity to actually read Shakespeare with my students. As part of the planning process, I’ve been reviewing some of my favorite resources for making Shakespeare fun and accessible. I thought I’d share them with you!

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    Image source: Amazon.com

    Choose your own Shakespeare adventure. Full disclosure, I haven’t had the opportunity to read these yet. But I feel SO sure that I’ll love them that I’m adding them to my favorite resources list in advance! Ryan North has concocted what look to be two highly original versions of Shakespearean dramas, To Be or Not to Be:  A Chooseable-Path Adventure (2013) and Romeo and/or Juliet: A Chooseable-Path Adventure, due out this June and available for preorder on Amazon. Both books allow readers to read as one of several playable characters, such as, in Romeo and/or Juliet, Romeo, Juliet, or the Nurse, and each reading results in one of many, many possible story paths. In Romeo and/or Juliet, readers can explore narrative possibilities like: “What if Romeo never met Juliet? What if Juliet got really buff instead of moping around the castle all day? What if they teamed up to take over Verona with robot suits?” (Amazon). I love that these books emphasize the sense of play inherent to a play. What could be more engaging?!

  2. Shakespeare Insult Kit. This is a fun online resource I stumbled upon awhile back. It assembles the components of all of Shakespeare’s insults — adjectives, nouns — and organizes them into three columns. Choose one insult component from each column to build a full Shakespearean insult. I imagine this might be a particularly fun and apt activity when teaching something like Romeo and Juliet with its feuding Montagues and Capulets. So go check it out, thou mewling, onion-eyed baggage!

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    On the shelf at Barnes and Noble. I just narrowly avoided buying the whole set.

  3.  Shakespeare in emojis. Another new discovery (that I purchased from Barnes and Noble without intending to…). I’ve already planned a lesson that asks students to adapt parts of Romeo and Juliet into emojis as a tool for reading comprehension. But with the OMG Shakespeare series, authors Courtney Carbone and Brett Wright have already done the emoji adaptation for us. So far Random House has come out with YOLO Juliet (2015), srsly Hamlet (2015), A Midsummer Night #nofilter (2016), and the one I picked up for my unit, Macbeth #killingit (2016), with, I can only imagine, a few more on the way. I can see how Macbeth #killingit and the other OMG Shakespeare books could be used in a few ways in the classroom — for example, to supplement the full text version of Macbeth as a more accessible companion text, and/or to serve as a model for students as they adapt scenes from the text into their own emoji translations.

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    Excerpt from Act 1, Scenes 5-7 from Macbeth #killingit

  4. No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels. Speaking of companion texts, the No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novel versions of MacbethRomeo and Julietand Hamlet are possibly some of the best ones out there. They render the full text of each play in fully-illustrated graphic novel form, so it looks and reads like a comic book — for students, a more familiar and less intimidating genre. In pairing the original text with visuals, the No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels make Shakespeare’s works more accessible and comprehensible to ELLs, visual learners, or really just about anyone. And combining various versions of the same text, such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Carbone’s Macbeth #killingit, No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels: Macbeth, and a film version like Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), would make for a really interesting discussion about textual adaptation and interpretation (Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks ELA.RL.7.9-12).

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    An excerpt from Act 1, Scene 6 from No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels: Macbeth. What a great contrast with the same part of the text from Macbeth #killingit.

  5. single ladies pop sonnetPop Sonnets. And finally, an online resource not geared toward Shakespeare’s dramas (although it could certainly apply to an analysis of the sonnet in R&J), but toward his poetry. Pop Sonnets is a Tumblr devoted to transforming famous pop songs, like Adele’s “Hello” or Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” into sonnet form. A new sonnet is posted on Tumblr weekly, or for those who like paper, a hardback collection of 100 sonnets is now available, too. Hard to say which one’s my favorite since they’re all amazing, but I am fond of their version of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” I could see this coming into play in the classroom during an introduction to the sonnet form; pop sonnets might serve as a model for a writing assignment in which students are asked to write their own sonnets.

    What are your go-to teaching resources for making Shakespeare fun and accessible for your students?


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Being an Ally

Recently I experienced my first professional development day. I’ve been led to believe that PD’s can be pretty hit or miss… usually more miss. Luckily, we had a fabulous and important training from Missy and Nic at the Masschusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Safe Schools Program. The Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students “provides training, technical assistance, and professional development to school administrators and staff on topics related to gender identity, sexual orientation, and school climate” (DESE).

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The adorable and handy Genderbread Person introduced to us by Missy and Nic. Image source: itspronouncedmetrosexual.com

They talked with us for a full two hours about what it means to create a safe, welcoming school environment for LGBTQ students. We discussed topics like gender identity, sexual orientation, and biological sex at birth, and the differences among the three. But before speaking with us, Missy and Nic had previously spoken with some of the student leaders of the LGBTQ population at the school about who among the faculty and administration they felt to be allies and why.

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Image source: cafepress.com

So what does it mean to be an ally? Well, according to our student leaders, it means first and foremost being willing to speak up about being an ally. Students most trusted faculty whom they felt respected them, had their backs, and talked openly about issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. In some ways, being an ally means naming yourself as an ally, so students know they can come to you when they need to.

LGBTQ students also consider teachers allies when they inquire about and do their best to abide by students’ chosen pronouns and/or names. It’s a small linguistic adjustment, to refer to someone by their chosen pronouns, but Nic spoke passionately about how much it means to him when people make the effort, and how hurtful it can be when they get it wrong, even inadvertently.

And finally, Missy and Nic touched on how important it is to not violate a student’s privacy, whether in speaking to another faculty member, another student, or that student’s parents or guardians. As teachers, we should always assume that what we discuss with an LGBTQ student is confidential (barring any other concerns for health or safety) and not share it with others without that student’s consent.

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Image source: Human Rights Campaign

Our conversation was rich, deep, and covered a lot more ground than that. But even these three points will significantly impact my teaching. I want to name myself, now and in the future, as an ally to my LGBTQ students. I’ll discuss issues that matter to queer teens in my classroom — literature lends itself particularly well to those conversations. I’ll also post a safe zone sticker, like the one pictured here from HRC, somewhere visible in my classroom. (They do matter; our students could name every faculty member that had one posted.) When I meet students for the first time — say, at the beginning of the school year — I’ll make sure to invite each one to share, if they’re comfortable, their chosen pronouns and names. And if, as I hope, my queer students will trust me enough to share with me, I’ll honor their trust by keeping what’s said between us private.

Because I’m an ally.

P.S. The MA DESE website has a thorough listing of resources on this subject for teachers, as does the website of Jeff Perrotti, who created the Safe Schools MA program.

UPDATE [2/21/16]: My friend and colleague Anne Mooney has posted her own marvelous discussion of how and why to introduce preferred pronouns and the grammatical acceptability of the singular “they” based on this same PD. Check it out over at Habits of ELA.


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On the Importance of Reading Aloud to Teens

The class is almost entirely silent and utterly rapt. Some students make sustained, unbroken eye contact with the teacher. Others take notes in writing or images. Others still put their heads on their desks and close their eyes to better listen and visualize.

nightWhat am I doing at the front of this room full of sophomores to have captured their attention so thoroughly? Simple: I’m reading aloud to them, out of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night.

I’ve recently started my student teaching at Newburyport High School, under the guidance of master teacher Wendy Crofts. One of Wendy’s practices that has particularly struck me over our first few weeks of working together, and one that I’ve adopted as I begin to take over her classes, is that of reading aloud.

Maybe it sounds like a cop out, a way to avoid designing and implementing a “real” lesson. But over the past few weeks I’ve witnessed firsthand the many powerful advantages of reading aloud to high schoolers:

  • Increase student engagement. Wow. It’s hard to express how much my students enjoy being read to. And I can relate — as a teen, I would beg my parents to read out loud to me. At one point during my reading of Night, I suggested we stop shortly before the end of a chapter to switch gears. My students’ response? “PLEASE can we finish?” This type of deep, personal engagement with a text — among a community of readers — is immeasurably valuable in ensuring that students have positive experiences with reading in high school.
  • Model close reading practices. This is another major benefit of this teaching strategy. Reading to my students gives me the opportunity to think aloud with them, pausing to comment on content, point out important textual features, ask questions of the text, from comprehension to higher order, and suggest annotations. Close reading is such an important skill to the discipline of ELA, but students, particularly underclassmen, won’t become natural or proficient at it without being instructed in it first.
  • Model pronunciation of vocabulary. Research by Margarita Calderón has shown that students need to be exposed to new vocabulary at least seven times before they can truly be said to have mastery over that word’s meaning. Correct oral usage and aural comprehension are major parts of that seven step process. My students, for example, have struggled with the pronunciation of key Night vocabulary like “Auschwitz.” Hearing these words read aloud multiple times reinforces students’ understanding of them through repetition.
  • 8435321969_c1eea0631a_oModel reading fluency. Popcorn reading, while often thought to increase reading fluency through practice, can have an adverse effect on fluency by increasing student anxiety. On the other hand, when I read aloud to my students, I am able to intentionally model fluent reading, making sure to speak slowly and clearly, pausing at or emphasizing certain moments as indicated by the text. Students are exposed to fluent reading in a manner that is, for them, completely low stakes, increasing their comprehension and engagement.
  • Differentiate for diverse learners. Some students may need to hear a text out loud in order to more fully comprehend it — for example, ELLs whose aural comprehension is better than their reading comprehension, students with processing difficulties, students with dyslexia, and students who are aural learners. Reading out loud is just one more way of differentiating instruction to reach every kind of learner.
  • Make complex, grade level texts more accessible. On a related note, the Common Core State Standards call for students to read complex, grade level texts. But some of these texts may be out of reach for students who are not reading at grade level; when I read challenging disciplinary texts, like Night, aloud to my students, I help to bring those texts within their grasp.

This, by the way, is by no means an exhaustive list of the benefits of reading out loud to teens. Do you or would you read aloud to your students?


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What’s in a name? A lot.

So here’s my brand new baby blog, making its way into the world for the first time, as I more fully enter into the world of teaching for the first time.

The title of this blog was of course inspired by E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room with a View. This title therefore holds several valences of meaning for me, and will, I hope, for you, as well.

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My well-loved copy of E.M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View (1908)

On a personal level, A Room with a View was one of the texts that most ignited my love of literature and literary analysis. Taught to me by a beloved AP literature teacher, Forster’s novel follows a young girl, Lucy Honeychurch, as she travels to Italy, grows up, and falls in love. As a teenager, this book moved me like no other, and I was so grateful to my teacher for having introduced me to it.

In a sense, “A Classroom with a View” represents my own feeling of growing up and falling in love, in this case with teaching English. For the past three years, I’ve been pursuing my Master’s degrees in English and Teaching, but this semester — for the first time — I’m finally teaching in the high school English classroom, reading, discussing, and writing about texts that may change my students just as A Room with a View changed me.

In another sense, the title of this blog signals my desire to facilitate a classroom environment that is honest and open — with a “view” to the outside world. It is only in achieving her room with a view, both literally and figuratively, that Lucy is able to become the passionate, independent person she was always meant to be. I hope that by opening up my classroom to the view of others, I, too, will become a better teacher for it.

Finally, during the course of the novel, Lucy discovers a paper with only an “enormous” question mark written on it, and it disturbs her without her understanding why: “‘What does it mean?’ she thought” (12). Lucy’s initial discomfort with the mysterious question mark symbolizes her reluctance, in that moment, to seriously consider her own complacency and stagnation. In my own classroom with a view, I hope to prompt my students to undergo the same process of self-discovery as Lucy, as they encounter important texts that will perhaps shake them and their previously-held understandings, beliefs, and values.

Thank you for peering in on my classroom. I hope you enjoy the view.