Let’s Get Blogging!

Another Snow Day!

UPDATE: We will have some time in class to review the information below, but for those of you curious, feel free to get a head start. What else are you doing on this beautiful snow day?! 🙂

For the rest of the year, we’ll be taking some of our writing into the online world through blogging! Blogging will be your opportunity to share your thoughts and ideas with each other outside of class. As an added benefit, blogging will also give you the opportunity to improve your writing (and thinking) skills. Even though you’ve heard the word blog before, here’s a great 3-minute overview from Common Craft videos:

Before you can begin blogging, you’ll need to sign up for our blogsite, which will be housed on WordPress at aplang1516.wordpress.com. You can also find the link to your blogsite anytime by using the dropdown menu above.

FIRST, you will need a WordPress username. To get a WordPress username, click here to sign up. Once you have done that, you will receive a confirmation email. Be sure to activate your account.

SECOND, send me your username by filling out this form. I will invite you to our blogsite using the information you provide.

THIRD, check your email for your invitation to our blogsite. Accept the invitation. When you click “accept,” you may receive another invitation that says something to the effect of “You’ve been added!” with a “view blog” link.

IMPORTANT: You can’t get started until you receive an e-mail invitation from me. If you do not get an e-mail invitation, let me know.

FOURTH, now that you’ve been added to the site, learn how to log in and take a quick tour with the video below. Just note that I made this video for last year’s students, so some things may be slightly different, but essentially it’s all the same. 🙂

IMPORTANT: Some students have reported that the drop-down menu in the tutorials is not working/appearing. To get to the “Dashboard” found in the tutorials, add /wp-admin to the end of the web address, as such:


Once you’ve watched the intro, continue by heading over to our blog site, reading the overview, and following the tutorials there!

A Year in Our Reading Lives: An Infographic

As the culminating project for their 9th grade year, my students created an infographic to represent their year in reading. They included the 9 books they read as part of the course (our “whole class” novels) and then any additional books they completed as part of our independent reading endeavors. I’m so incredibly proud of the reading they accomplished, and I think the highlights in the gallery below speak for themselves:

(Click here to see assignment details.)

A Visual Syllabus

One of the first documents I revisit at the start of any school year is the syllabus. After all, it’s the first thing I hand out to students. The syllabus provides students with their first overview of what they’ll be learning in the upcoming year. It’s the “first impression” they have of the class and, by extension, of me.

Each year, I update my syllabus to reflect changes in the curriculum. But aside from swapping out a book title and changing the dates, the syllabus usually stays the same. Recently, however, I came across an interesting idea on Dr. Curtis Newbold’s blog, The Visual Communication Guy. In a post titled “Would a Course Syllabus be Better as an Infographic?”, Newbold shared his experience changing his syllabus from a traditional text into an infographic. He received an overwhelmingly positive response from his students and colleagues.

I decided to try it out for myself and spent some time updating the course syllabus for my AP Lang class. I used ease.ly to create the infogaphic. When I was finished the design process, I could then download the infographic as a PDF as well as JPEG file.

So here’s what my syllabus looked like before:

AP Lang traditional syllabus combined

And here’s the infographic version I created last week:

APLangSyllabus 1

 Just looking at these two documents, it’s not hard to see how the infographic version is much more attractive of the two. If I were a student, I know which course I’d rather take, and honestly, as a teacher, I know which course I’d rather teach!

So what did I learned from this exercise?

For one thing, moving to a visual syllabus meant that I had to cut down on text. . . and cut down substantially. My original syllabus was two pages long. I made a decision that when I made the infographic version that I would limit myself to a single page. Because I had this limit, I was forced to really think about every piece of content I wanted to include and decide whether or not it was really necessary. What was essential information and what was nice-to-know-but-not-necessary?

Doing this also forced me to think about my audience—my students—in a way I hadn’t before. In deciding what information was essential, I had to put myself in my students’ shoes and think about what they needed to know. My previous syllabus had all the information my students needed, but they didn’t necessarily need all of it. Then I had to frame the information in such a way, using words and pictures, that they could best understand it.

Finally, creating a visual syllabus made me rethink the course itself. What is the course ultimately about? How can I convey this information using pictures and other visual elements such as font and color? How can I then arrange the information so that it’s both attractive and easy to read? In thinking about these issues, I wasn’t just writing a syllabus, I was designing one.

Applications / Implications:

  • In what ways can other information be revised to be more visually appealing and interesting?
  • What opportunities can I give students to not just gather information, but to also design it?

On a related note, Newbold has another great post titled “10 Lame Documents that Would Be Better as Infographics” about . . . well, you can probably guess. 🙂


I have drawn a map. It’s one of the first things I did. 

– J. K. Rowling

One of my new (school) year resolutions is to try to tap into the power of visual art. As a hobbyist photographer, I know first-hand the power of the image and its ability to convey emotion, truth, and wonder, sometimes in ways that the printed word cannot.

A single picture or image, if well-chosen, can often times communicate an idea more succinctly than words. Words and pictures, in tandem, can be powerful tools. Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist is just one of many example of this new type of “hybrid” communication.  Here, for example, is one of my favorite pages from his book:


Kleon could have written hundreds of words to describe the gap between where we are now and dreams we strive for. But the simple image above is powerful because it tells us everything we need to know with relatively few words: that the gap can be wide, that it will take hard work—and some creativity—to make it across, and that it may require a certain amount of risk to make that critical leap if we want to achieve our dreams.

My interest in Kleon’s work led me to other visual artists, including the work of Dan Roam, whose “show and tell” premise is simple, but powerful:

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 1.01.25 PM

Anyone who has watched a TED Talk knows that this is the basic formula for many, if not most, of them. And although I’m clearly not on the same stage as Sir Ken Robinson, Elizabeth Gilbert, or Daniel Pink, I “present” material every day to my students. Why not integrate even a little bit of these three steps into my teaching?

As an English teacher, I think I’ve got a handle on numbers 1 and 2. After all, isn’t telling the truth through story exactly what great literature does?  Alas, my actual drawing skills leave much to be desired.

The thing is, I used to love to draw when I was younger. In fact, I carried a sketchbook around with me throughout high school even though I never actually took an art class. Because I “thought” I was going to be a doctor one day, I doubled-up on science classes in high school, leaving no other room in my schedule for electives. It’s a decision I still regret, and perhaps one reason I find myself enrolling my sons in extra art classes during the summer.

But visual notetaking has tremendous potential. After all, we process so much information visually.

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 4.16.53 PM

Here, and below are two excerpts from a great infographic, “Why We Crave Infographics” – very meta!

We also remember information much better when we engage our visual and kinesthetic senses into our processing. Drawing, after all, is kinesthetic as well as visual.

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 4.28.18 PM

But like I’ve said before, my drawing skills are definitely lacking. And I imagine that while there are plenty of students who are naturally gifted artists and visual thinkers, many more may feel the same nervousness I feel when asked to draw.

But there’s just so much upside to learning how to integrate writing and drawing. I became even more convinced of the potential for visual note-taking after seeing this TED Talk earlier this year.


As the speaker, Rachel Smith, points out, visual note-taking “is not about drawing. It’s not about making beautiful pictures. It’s not about making detailed images. It’s not about accurately drawing a person or a car or a lightbulb. It’s not even about doing something that’s recognizable to anybody other than yourself.” She continues,

The thing you need to do with visual note-taking is capture what you’re hearing in a way that’s memorable for you.

Smith goes on to outline three simple steps for getting started: 1) pick a took, 2) develop a few basic icons, and 3) listen for and capture key points. After that, it’s all practice.

In my experience, the only way to conquer a fear is to face it head-on. So this year, I’ll be drawing alongside my students. I’ve already started practicing some techniques and have even ordered Michael Rohde’s The Sketchnote Handbook.  He has some amazing examples of sketchnotes produced from his book on his website, sketchnotearmy.com. Looking at these sketchnotes, it’s easy to imagine how engaging this process could be for students, and of course, for me, too. 🙂

My first feeble attempts at sketchnotes.



New (school)Year’s Resolutions

Each August brings with it mixed feelings.

The first is always shock: Wow, August already? Didn’t we just get out of school?

The second is denial: August? Really? It can’t be. Didn’t we just get of school?

Then anger: What, August?!? Why?!? We just got out of school!!

Eventually and slowly comes acceptance: August? Okay, deep breath, and here we go. For some teachers, this can happen in mid-August; those are the teachers who can be found coming to school early to get their classrooms set up.  For other teachers, acceptance may not happen until sometime during the first inservice day when they look around and realize: Wow, I guess this is really happening.

August always comes too quickly for me, mostly because I tend to have a huge to-do list for the summer that never gets done. This summer, for example, I was supposed to paint the downstairs powder room and renovate the boys’ bedroom. I got as far as picking out a few paint swatches from Lowe’s and taping them to the wall. (Somehow I still overestimate how much I can accomplish while watching/entertaining/feeding/herding my three boys.)


These guys keep me pretty busy in the summer (and year round)!

But now that it’s officially August, thoughts of back-to-school take center stage again and nervous excitement builds as I get closer to that first day. I love the beginning of the school year—the energy, the optimism. While January may be the time that the rest of the world makes their resolutions, for teachers, September is our new year, our time to begin anew, to set goals, be inspired. I suspect some students feel the same way, too.

Sometimes students ask if I get bored teaching the same thing over and over again. And my answer is always no, of course not! First, my students are different every year, so even if the material is the same, it’s the unique interaction between students and the material that makes each year special. And second, every year, I make it a point to try something new. Sometimes that means piloting a new book—such as when I introduced The Kite Runner two years ago. Or a new project—like the This American Life project my colleague Ben Smith and I did with our juniors last year.

So what will this year bring? A few of my goals:

For all my students:

  • Integrate more visual art—paintings, sketches, photography—into my writing instruction.
  • Create a system of visual note-taking or sketchnotes in my own notebook and teach students how to do the same.
  • Redesign various parts of my current instruction to reflect a more “Creativity Workshop” approach, including more opportunities for creative writing and for students to develop/express their voice

For my ninth graders:

  • Implement a more comprehensive reader’s/writer’s notebook approach with my ninth graders
  • Establish clearer goals and more structure to the independent reading program
  • Find a place to include more Asian literature in our world literature course

For my juniors:

  • Teach rhetorical analysis writing more explicitly, with a focus on pre-20th-century texts
  • Explore some flipped learning opportunities with writing mini-lessons

Of course, looking at this list already feels overwhelming! But it’s a good kind of overwhelming. The truth is that teaching can be an incredibly frustrating job. Increasingly, teachers are being tasked to do more with less: fewer resources and less time. That’s why setting personal teaching goals have been so valuable for me: they provide a sense of autonomy and a little “light at the end of the tunnel” even when there are outside forces tugging in other directions.

Writing with an Artist’s Eye

Three years ago, I took a course called “Visualizing Words and Worlds” through the PA Writing & Literature Project (PAWLP) and this past July, I had an opportunity to co-teach the class for the second time at the James Michener Museum in Doylestown (a fantastic museum, by the way!).  The premise of the “Visualizing” course is simple: by integrating art and other visual activities into our instruction, we can help students become better writers and readers.

If you think about it, this makes sense. After all, we learned how to read by first looking at pictures, and when we teach younger students how to write, we often ask them to draw pictures next to their sentences. Too soon perhaps, we begin to rely on text only. Pictures disappear from books and doodles are relegated to the corners of notebooks when students are bored in class.

To get teachers thinking more deeply about art-reading-writing connections, every day during the course, a visiting artist comes in to teach, with each artist working in a specific medium.  We learned how to paint using watercolors, sketch a human face, make original prints, and finally, create our own found object sculpture. Although none of us were certified art teachers, the connections between art and reading and writing became more clear with each passing day.  An illustrator who draws a picture uses a variety of brushstrokes to achieve a specific effect. In the same way, a writer can “paint” a picture in the reader’s mind by using his own set of “brushstrokes”—a dramatically short sentence, a sentence fragment, a metaphor, a pun.

Children's book illustrator Peter Catalanotto's sketching workshop

Children’s book illustrator Peter Catalanotto’s sketching workshop

Even some of my best student writers struggle when I ask them to “show not tell.”  What does it mean to show?  Visual artists, however, are always “showing.”  The concrete details of their art—the choice of subject, the flurry of each brushstroke, the precise shades of color—work together for an intended effect.  When we think visually when we write, it’s easy to see how it’s the simple concrete details that can speak volumes.

In an essay for Now Write: Nonfiction, NPR contributor and teacher Christine Hemp writes:

William Carlos Williams dictum about things being the life of poetry holds true in creative nonfiction. . .  The essay teeming with “stuff” is much more memorable than one that floats in abstraction.  A piece about love doesn’t end up in our cells unless it is grounded in the softness of your lover’s neck as it disappears into the collar of his sweatshirt.  Or what about that scab you picked while you were crying on the phone to the man you knew would leave you by spring?  Just like the strong poem, the strong piece of prose is rife with metaphorical power—from your mother’s out-of-tune piano to the orphan sock that keeps showing up in your tangled underwear drawer.  When we turn to things, the truth comes at us through the back door, and we are surprised by ideas and emotions we didn’t know we possessed.

As Hemp points out, it’s the visuals that create meaning for us as readers.  And thinking visually means thinking—and writing—with an artist’s eye.

Printmaking workshop (with artist Jean Burdick)

Printmaking workshop (with artist Jean Burdick)

Taking and even teaching the “Visualizing” course also reminded me also of what it’s like to be on the other side of the classroom as a student.  You could measure my level of artistic ability with your pinky—that’s how talented I am!—and as such, being asked to sketch a human face on the first day of class is an intimidating experience.  But my nervousness with drawing is not unlike the trepidation many students feel with writing.  Working in the visual arts, as opposed to the language arts, forces me out of my comfort zone into a place where I have to take risks. And isn’t that what we want our students to do, too?

Finally, the course has inspired me to try taking integrating more visuals into my writer’s notebook as well.  Like I said, I’ve got pinky-sized artistic talent, so we’ll see where this goes…

To view more images from the course, click here. 

Special thanks to all the artists who gave their time to work with our teachers, and to Adrienne Romano, Director of Education, New Media, and Interpretive Initiatives at the Michener Museum, who is instrumental in making our course happen.