Monday, December 14, 2015

Serial 2 DUSTWUN lesson plans are now available!

Thanks to the help of my talented wife Melissa, the lesson plans for the first episode of Serial (Season 2) are now available.

The unit contains 42 pages that include 6 exercises, a quiz, printable worksheets, vocabulary words, and engaging prompts. Best of all, there are lots of timestamps so you can keep track of key scenes, vocabulary words, naughty words (there are two little ones), and the general form of Sarah Koenig's storytelling.

Feel free to send me reactions, comments, or ideas for improvement. Otherwise, enjoy!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Serial (Season 2) Lesson Plans

Yes, I was up early this morning and I've already heard the first episode of Serial (Season 2) twice.

Yes, it's great -- it's hard to remember exactly how excited I was about the first episode of the first season, but right now I feel like I like this season more.

And yes, there will be lesson plans published, and hopefully soon. The vocab lessons are prepared, the quick-write prompts are ready, and there are plans for exercises on connotation and narrative form. I'll announce as soon as they're ready!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Will Jones and his Poetic Retirement Tour

When it comes to poetry readings, I firmly believe that 95% of the common ones just bore the entire audience, while the other 5% completely engage everyone's complete attention. I will always remember how Maya Angelou completely owned an entire gymnasium for an entire hour before everyone just sort of floated out into the parking lot. At Cal Poly, everyone hung on every word of Sekou the Misfit; and in Boulder, everyone in the super-cool, totally apathetic coffee shop would suddenly stop talking and stop drinking whatever they were drinking when Glenn Hergenhahn took the stage.

Last week, Will Jones had one of those unforgettable performances. He packed the the room at the Palm Street Theater, and had everyone laughing, and feeling, and sharing in the communal experience of life. The audience's appreciation of his words was evident—like the cases I mentioned above, I don't think a single person missed a single word.

Will was a role model of mine when he was a principal at SLO High (where I taught English). Now, he's a role model in retirement. It seems every week, he's climbing a large mountain or publishing an article. This poetry reading was a perfect example, one where he explicitly announced: "This is how you do retirement!" He had all the bravado and personal excitement of somebody running down their bucket list, but he balanced it with a humorous humility, exemplified when he proudly announced that we could buy a signed copy of his book, and then immediately admitted with a big smile, "I have no idea who I think I am."

The poetry itself was a great lesson on how to look at, appreciate, and reflect on life.
The poetry reading was a great lesson on how to actually live life.

More of this, everybody. More of this.

P.S. Will wrote on his Facebook page, "True Stories from My Past Volume 2, is now available online at Go to and enter the title or the ISBN, 9781495146138, to order a copy. I will mail it to you personally."

And there's also a great YouTube video of one of his poems at

Creating our own "Serial" podcast of "The Crucible"

A few months ago, I published some very thorough lesson plans for using the Serial podcast in the high school classroom, and in the final unit, I suggested helping students create their own podcast. It's project-based, it's fun, it's using technology, and it's a great summative assignment. Then KQED's Mind/Shift did a feature on our class that included our plans to re-tell the story of The Crucible in a short podcast.

So teachers have been emailing me and asking: How did it go?

The short answer: It went great. The kids were engaged, they were driven by an authentic goal, they had fun, they were creative, and they were collaborative. On my end, it worked as a excellent summative assessment—it was very clear which students understood the finer points of The Crucible and the structure of Serial, and which ones did didn't have the same handle.

The longer answer: It took much longer than I thought it would. I should definitely know better, but I somehow thought that we could analyze Serial's structure, read The Crucible, and then just ask them to put the two together. In reality, they needed a lot of scaffolding, and many groups needed my guidance at every step. As it is, we're still not done. Even the sample I'm going to include on this post is unfinished—they want to add music and sound effects, and they'd like to re-record their voices.

As briefly as I can, I'll take you through the steps, and I won't be shy about telling you where things got difficult. And, of course, you can do this with any text, not just The Crucible.

Step 1: Analyze the form and structure of the pilot episode of Serial. This is one of the fundamental lessons in my published unit, and it breaks down all the elements of classic story-telling (the hook, the introduction, characterization, plot, etc.), and it asks students to study how much time is dedicated to each element, what order they're in, the tone of each segment, and so on. They write this down on a giant timeline in their journals. This takes at least an hour to actually physically write (the episode is almost an hour by itself), and many of the students needed help identifying the various elements. It certainly helped to do it in groups, but even then, they needed my help.

Step 2: Read The Crucible (or any text). For example, I've heard a couple teachers mention Hamlet. In any case, with their recent analysis in mind, the students are primed to explicitly note the story elements in whatever text they're reading, and should map out a similar timeline. Several good class discussions came from comparing and contrasting the form and structure of the two stories. Also, we were surprised and delighted by the some similarities in the stories themselves (they both have mysteries, liars, betrayals, court scenes, and even forbidden dancing in the opening scenes).

Step 3: Consider how to tell one story in the form of the other. Along with some direct instruction and advice, I also showed them SNL's very funny re-telling of "Kris Kringle" in the form of Serial. I honestly thought that would be enough, and maybe for some classes, it would be. But my class (11th grade English) needed a little more scaffolding.

Step 4: Guided comparisons. While they sketched out the different parts of their podcast, I gave them a handout to use for reference and assessment. (Ultimately, this is how I graded their project.) The actual handout is much longer than this (3 pages) and looks a lot better, but this is the basic gist:

Comparing Stories

For each aspect of the story, briefly summarize how Sarah accomplished that part, how your group accomplished that part, and how the two versions compare (Are they similar or radically different? Is one better than the other for a particular reason?).

Short (10-second) hook. 
Serial’s version:
Your group’s version:
How they compare:

Longer hook.
Serial’s version:
Your group’s version:
How they compare:

Introduction of narrator.
Serial’s version:
Your group’s version:
How they compare:

Observations about a psychological or deeper truth.
Serial’s version:
Your group’s version:
How they compare:

Description of the crime and the victim.
Serial’s version:
Your group’s version:
How they compare:

Step 5: Determination of group roles. This might happen before Step 4, but in any case, each group (usually no more than four students) had to decide how they're dividing their labor. They should explicitly write this down for your assessment purposes and also to hold them responsible for their individual expectations. Some groups divided the writing into segments, while others had a "reading expert" and a "creative writing expert" and so on.

Step 6: Write the draft. This is what took far longer than I expected. The more people in the group, the longer it takes. There were some two-student groups that finished this in an hour, but the bigger groups took twice as long. There are just lots of brainstorming, discussions, arguments, and compromises (which are all great things, but time-consuming). Emphasize that these podcasts shouldn't be any longer than 5-6 minutes.

Step 7: Do a "live reading" for the class. Again, I did not do enough scaffolding here. If your class is like mine, you'll have to explicitly tell them to prepare a script for each team member (rather than pass around a single script). They should also practice at least once or twice before stuttering through their script in front of the class in a monotone voice. You should also warn them that you might cut them off at the 5-minute mark (some of them will be long and tedious, and you want to keep some enthusiasm and interest with the rest of the class.)

Step 8: Groups get feedback. This can come from you and/or the other classmates. My former AP classes were very generous with their friendly, constructive feedback; my "college prep" kids are a little more shy.

Step 9: Create final draft, based on feedback and reconsiderations.

Step 10: Record the podcast using Audacity. They just did this in another classroom (our digital photography class), and technically speaking, this should only take 10 minutes. In reality, I sent one "pioneer group" first (their sample is included below), and it took a lot longer than that. First, they all shared a microphone and didn't like the sound. They decided to re-do it the next class using four different computers with four different microphones, but the teacher re-directed them to the Mac in a smaller, secluded room, which seemed to work fine. But they still don't love their voices, their pauses between lines was intentional but ultimately bad for the listening experience, and they still need to include music and sounds. But now it's Spring Break, so we'll have to wait another week or two.

Bonus Step 11: Publishing the podcast. Ha! I thought this would be easy. I am very much a pioneer of my own little world, and you can sometimes choose a different adjective than "skeptical." I thought I could just copy and paste the mp3 to Blogger. Instead, I lost about two hours Googling ways to insert code and so on. Reading this blog may have saved you two hours! As you can see below, I went with Soundcloud, which I found very user-friendly. Sign up for an account, upload your mp3, and then google "embedding soundcloud blogger" (or wherever). I'm very bad at this kind of stuff, and I found it pretty easy. (I think.) (You can hear the podcast below, right?)

Let's give it a shot: Remember this is unfinished! (We're on Spring Break.)

And please share yours! (Somehow.) (Send me a link or something.)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"The Checklist": My standards-based grading experiment

Last semester, I experimented with standards-based grading (the form of which is illustrated by "The Checklist" below), and a "pedagogy of belonging" in which students work together to earn a class-wide final grade (called "Plan A"). The two experiments weren't mutually exclusive—in fact, they complement each other very well—but for this post, I'm just focusing on just the standards-based aspect of the class.

Each student was given "The Checklist," which is all twenty anchor standards in reading and writing. I re-wrote them in a language that I think they can understand, and I scaffolded them in the hopes that every student can at least master the first level, and the best students can engage at the highest level. For example, for Reading Standard 1 (seen below), every student should be able to "show comprehension" of some sort of text, even if it's at the first-grade level. Only the best students are really good at understanding what the author is not saying. 

They demonstrate mastery of these standards in their journals, and then write the page number on their checklist. It's more of an index in a way, and maybe I should call it that. In any case, there are three levels of mastery for the students—instead of descriptors like "proficient," I chose "I wrote it" (which means they wrote notes about it, but can't really talk about it fluently, "I got this" (they are fluent in this skill), and "I can teach this" (they could teach this skill to a friend or a younger student). So if they show comprehension (use their own words) of a text and they can fluently explain the nature of their reading comprehension, then they would write the page number of their journal entry where they demonstrate this comprehension. 

For final grading purposes, I asked each student to show more than three examples for a certain number of the sub-standards (about a third of them each semester would probably suffice) and at least one example for another third. In one semester, about a third of the sub-standards might be blank since we can't get to them all.

The students were confused at first, but they soon (some sooner than others) came to an understanding and appreciation of what I was asking/allowing them to do. They were given a very good explanation of my (the state's) expectations for them, and also felt a freedom in how they would demonstrate their skills. On most days, they would have a choice of assignments that I designed, and also the freedom to invent their own projects. If they were feeling creative on one day, they could write a standards-based story; if they were feeling introspective, the could read critically and quietly. 

I'll discuss the advantages and outcomes in a subsequent post. For now, I'll just show the first two examples on "The Checklist" and present the statistical feedback from the students themselves from the end of the semester.

The Checklist
Controlling and improving my level of communication.

Reading Standard 1: Read what text says explicitly; cite evidence; draw conclusions

I can...
I wrote it.
“I got this.”
I can teach this.
1. Show comprehension (paraphrase or summary) of what the text is actually saying.
1, 3, 5, 8
6, 13, 18,
18, 24
2. Point at (and cite) direct evidence (quotes) that leads to explicit meaning.
2, 4, 9
3, 10, 19
3. Infer conclusions based on what’s above.
2, 4, 10
10, 11, 19
4. Show where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Reading Standard 2: Determine central theme(s); analyze their development.  Summarize key supporting ideas and details.

I can...
I wrote it.
"I got this."
I can teach this.
1. Say what a theme is.

2. Identify a theme in a text.

3. Show the development of a theme throughout a text, and including how it is shaped and refined by specific details.

4. Determine two or more themes in a single text and analyze how they interact and build on each other.

Did the checklist help you learn about the objectives of an English class? ("1" being no, and "5" being yes)


Would you like to use "The Checklist system" next semester?


How much would you prefer "The Checklist" or a more traditional grading system of tests, quizzes, and so on? (A "1" is the checklist and "10" being more traditional grading) 


If we did a better job assessing your work and offering feedback, how would you feel?

It would ruin "The Checklist" for me, and I wouldn't want to do it anymore.3423%
I actually really like some feedback on my work.10471%

How much do you like your work being graded? ("1" being hate it, and "10" being love it)


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

If kids don't want to be adults, it's particularly true with poor students

Yesterday I wrote a piece for about the idea that many kids may not appreciate "college-and-career readiness" programs since they don't really want to join the adult world. It's a long article, but in a nutshell: high school kids have a pretty good life, they see relatively uncool adults suffer through an inferior lifestyle, and therefore many kids aren't in any hurry to join that imminent working life.

One might think that it may be different for a poor and/or struggling student since a) their lives are not as pampered, and b) they probably want a job so they can stop being so poor.

But after the article was already published, I remembered an enlightening conversation with an administrator who was designing an outreach program for Spanish-speaking families. He told me that some of the EL students already know what job they're going to have to do once they graduate (or drop out) from high school—it's often a mindless occupation within their family's business. Consequently, these students are very conscious that these high school years are the best years of their life, and are therefore very difficult to motivate and/or discipline. He wasn't talking about (and I'm not writing about) all EL students or exclusively EL students. It's any poor or struggling student, or really any adolescent who knows a mindless job has already been arranged by his family.

I find this both paradoxical (since these kids are the type that "college-and-career readiness" programs are designed for), but also totally understandable. I don't, however, know exactly what to do about it. To read more about the bafflement, you'll have to read the whole article.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Serial Lesson Plans are Posted! (All done!)

After at least 200 hours of work, the entirety of the Serial Podcast lesson plans are finished and published! All told, there are over 250 pages of lessons, CCSS standards addressed, vocabulary lists, printable worksheets, and lots and lots of time stamps (so you know where to find what you're looking for in the podcast).

Unit 1 (10 lessons on the first episode) is available here.

Unit 2 (Episodes 2-4) is available here.

Unit 3 (Episodes 5-7) is available here,

Unit 4 (Episodes 8-10) is available here.

And Unit 5 is available here!

Now I can hopefully concentrate on doing a little more reflective writing. There's a lot coming up this semester. I'm looking forward to meditations on standards-based learning, the influence of private businesses on curriculum, and the power of local communities. But first, I'm going to read for pleasure for a little bit...

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wisdom in The Atlantic! (My first real article as a freelance writer)

So I've been wanting to write about "wisdom" for about six months now—especially in relation to literature, my job as an English teacher, and the state of our culture in general. I've had some awesome talks with Melissa, and some inspiring talks with fellow teachers, my church group, and good friends, but I wanted to write some of these ideas down. So today was exciting for two reasons—I finally wrote an article, and I published it as my first "real" piece as a freelance writer for The Atlantic's website.

Here's the link to "The Wisdom Deficit in Schools," which peaked at #2 on the "most popular" list of their website.

Some post-publication thoughts:

1. The general feedback (on Twitter and elsewhere) was really positive and exciting.

2. I absolutely loved working with The Atlantic. Very professional, and very good for my writing (even if it as a little humbling at times).

3. I actually liked what the commenters wrote at the bottom of the article. It seems like an educated, reasonable, and caring audience (for the most part).

Some of my favorite reactions and comments from the article:

1. Somebody included a quote from Flannery O'Connor:
"The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted: it is being formed."

2. Somebody touched on an issue that might be the topic of my next piece: "There is a debate we are having in the United States right now without realizing we are having it or we are not being direct about the stakes and real issue. I think the real issue is a debate over the point and purpose of education. One side seems to believe that the point and purpose of education is merely economic. They want education to produce better workers...The other side believes that there is a higher purpose to education and that is to create a citizenry that is intellectually curious and loves the world. Or as the author of this piece mentions, they want education to focus a bit more on intangibles like values and a love for learning and literature and discovery. This is very hard to put on a graph.  Can education stand to be reformed? Probably. The question is which side should hold the reforms.

3. Another possible future topic is a reflection on whether this gradual movement away from classic literature will make the classics something of an elitist luxury. Somebody beat me to the punch: "It has been disproportionately the realm of the upper classes, and this is because it requires vast amounts of time and repeated and deep exposure, under some level of well-honed and cosmopolitan guidance."

4. And somebody else pointed out: "It's like Brave New World; technical reading for the future technicians and literature for the young Alphas." Is this is true (I forget), what a perfect allusion).

And finally, I'm really enjoying hearing from different types of people, from different parts of the country. I recently read something like, "In these modern times, it's not really collaboration if you stay on your own school site." I believed it, but I'm really feeling it now. I'm learning new ideas and fresh perspectives from totally different occupations, from totally different regions.

All this is making me excited to keep writing, keep thinking, and keep teaching. If you have any comments on the article, feel free to leave them below—just don't kill my buzz.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Serial Lesson Plans are published!

After at least 100 hours of work, the first three units of the Serial Podcast lesson plans are finished and published. All told, there are over a hundred pages of lessons, vocabulary lists, printable worksheets, and lots and lots of time stamps (so you know where to find what you're looking for in the podcast).

Unit 1 (10 lessons on the first episode) is available here.

Unit 2 (Episodes 2-4) is available here.

And Unit 3 (Episodes 5-7) is available here, and it's free for today.

Unit 4 (Episodes 8-10) is almost done, and Unit 5 will include final projects and be done soon.

And then I can hopefully concentrate on doing a little more reflective writing. There's a lot coming up this semester!