Interviewing Ken Burns

As second interview, as part of a Virtual Professional Learning Series, will be live on April 29th!

This was such a cool opportunity. His perspectives on history are phenomenal but I love how he helps connect history to current events and circumstances. Also check out Unum, hosted by PBS. David will soon have posted great questions connecting content to AP US History and I wrote several to help students with AP Language and Composition.


Teaching during Black History Month

Black History Month can be a tough recognition to include in lessons, especially if you are not black. This evening I am hosting a Twitter chat for #akedchat on this topic so we can discuss how to include Black History lessons in our instruction year round, not just during February. Here are some resources for getting started, and doing it right. The first, Teaching Tolerance, helped me create the questions for this evening’s chat.

Annotation and close reading

pexels-photo-632470.jpegWhen I was a sophomore in high school I was assigned selections from Hamlet to read in my English class. I read it, understood it, and took notes in the margins as I was asked to do. But the following day I was told I didn’t have “enough” annotations and was assigned a detention (a Friday Evening Inconvenience – it was boarding school).

But what is “enough” when it comes to annotation? As a college student I think I finally learned to annotate so that my thinking – at the time I took the note – was clear to me when it came time to use the note.

I think that, as teachers, we need to help students connect to the text through annotation. This starts with how we select the text and how we select the assign the annotation. We have to give them clear guidelines and support. Annotation is a skill that needs to be developed

Chunk – How can you break up longer texts?

Purpose – What’s the learning objective? Make this explicit to the students so you can all begin with the end in mind

Quantify – How many comments do you expect per paragraph, per page?

Notations – What do you want to see in the margins? Symbols, questions, definitions, specific connections? Symbols or color coding should include a key each time.

Rereads – When you need them to reread for fluency or in a coaching group, give them a different purpose or lens for the next read

We can use technology or low tech tools to support students through universal design.

  • Color coded sticky notes with questions or comments written on them
  • Hypertext annotation to definitions, expansion of ideas, etc.
  • Kami – potential shared annotation
  • Google Docs – comments in the margins
  • A document camera will allow you to model the annotation, with out-loud metacognitive thinking about why and how you are annotating, for students. Some document cameras will allow you to record the whole thing for playback later.

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9/11 – addressing difficult things

Last year South Anchorage High School teachers began the tradition of teaching a common text on the same day. This year they will do it again with texts about 9/11, starting with this old blog post of mine that I shared.

September 11th was a current event and now it’s a moment in history; most high school students weren’t even alive in 2001. This is also a very personal event for most of us. We have a personal connection to what happened because it changed the world around us and changed how we view the world.

I taught the events of 9/11 through my personal story (my dad worked in the South tower and, at the time the building collapsed we still had not heard from him) and through poetry.

And then we went to stories that have been written down. I read “The Names” by Billy Collins and I told them it makes me think of everyone I’ve lost, that echoes of people are everywhere. Next came “Prayer for the Dead,” by Stuart Kestenbaum. His line, “…if you discover some piece of your own writing, or an old photograph, you may remember that it was you and even if it was once you, it’s not you now…”  because that’s the reason I have them write an autobiography over the course of the year, so they can look back and see themselves as freshmen in high school. And the last poem, “Five Years Later,” by Tony Gloegger, addresses survivor’s remorse and the pain all of us go through when forced to tell about or relive something traumatic.

I love how new-to-South teacher Ken Hemenway added to the ideas and discussion.

I was attending graduate school in Boston on September 11 and went to New York to visit a girl I was dating in Hoboken, NJ, Friday through Sunday of that week. I have very vivid memories of the smoke, smell, and utter bewilderment of the whole situation from a personal perspective. Needless to say it was surreal and I’ll never forget the numerous places where people had put up papers, pleading for information regarding their lost, loved ones.

I attended Boston College with a young man by the name of Welles Crowther. He played lacrosse and our paths crossed being I was also playing hockey at the time and the student athlete population was a close knit community.
He lost his life on September 11th and I put a link for a short ESPN video presentation entitled “9/11 The Man in the Red Bandanna.” I’m not sure if anyone would like to use this, but I think it may compliment some of the great material shared above.
I’m eager to see how this looks in classes on Monday and will be visiting a teacher to see it in action.
How do you teach 9/11 as an English/language arts teacher? How do you teach other difficult topics and current events like Ferguson, Charlottesville, Syrian refugees, etc. so your students build empathy and cultural literacy?


This is my seven year-old’s drawing of September 11th, some sort of pirate airplane attack – that is how he created context. I don’t know what prompted him to draw it for me but I have it hanging in my office as a reminder of the importance of teaching kids about difficult topics.

Creating Multimedia Timelines

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The other day I stumbled across Timeline JS, a site that assists you in creating multimedia timelines. I found the site while searching for visual autobiography tools for my seniors but after assigning a short, paper, biographical timeline of John Steinbeck, I realized it would be a good project for my Honors American Literature 10th graders.

I suppose it is a bit similar to Prezi but it looks more like a traditional timeline running at the bottom and you control it in a more linear fashion. The website gives you a couple of different ways of compiling the data sets; we used the provided Google spreadsheet with our school district Google Apps accounts. Students were divided into two teams of about 15 students each with one group creating a timeline of the author and the other a timeline of the Great Depression; after appointing a team leader they began populating the spreadsheet with evidence from the web. I appreciate that it has places for students to credit the creators of the material rather than just copying and pasting links.

note the name of the YouTube poster at the bottom right of the video

note the name of the YouTube poster at the bottom right of the video

Here are the timelines : Before the timelines were officially “done” I  viewed each while running Screenr to give feedback to the students and have them make the necessary corrections. I posted the links to those videos here in case anyone is interested in how to give verbal/video/screencast recorded feedback.

I like the end result and the variety of media that the students chose to tell the story of their subject. I think this would also work well as a way of proving a thesis for a problem-based learning project or another multi-media assignment that benefits from being more linear in nature. Comparing and contrasting timelines of The Great Depression and The Great Recession perhaps? Students were a little thrown by how finicky editing a spreadsheet can be, but I thought they did a good job of finding evidence.

Walden podcasts

American Literature students created responses to Walden in 2007 and 2008.

Students chose a theme to illuminate and then two quotes from Walden that illustrated their theme.

Title: False Reality

Quote: Do you live in a false reality? Yes. So maybe you should listen to this. Unless you’re too “cool”. Which you aren’t, you just think you are becuase you are living in a false reality. Ha! So listen and learn about your own false reality.

Student examples can be found on my website.

Walden assignment seminar

The Walden Experiment

Created March 2009

What it is
Step 1: choose three quotes from Walden that “speak” to you personally

Step 2: find two contemporary books (other media must be approved) that relate somehow to your quotes and record the bibliographical information

Step 3: implement an action plan that makes a change in your life and is related to the quotes – you will give a presentation to the class during the first week in March


become vegan

eat a healthy breakfast every day

stop wearing a watch

live in a tent in the yard

keep a dream journal

stop cracking knuckles

create a piece of art every day

create a musical composition each week

read children’s literature

clean out closet & donate clothing

clean out storage boxes

At the end of the assignment students filled out self-evaluations with the following questions:

  1. What worked in my project these last few weeks? What did not work?
  2.  What brought me happiness/disappointment?
  3. Where was I successful?
  4. What were my greatest challenges/lessons?
  5. What am I most proud of ? What do I most regret?
  6. How did I grow, improve, and expand myself?
  7. What letter grade would I give myself (add +s and -s) for this project? Think about whether you pushed yourself enough and how you could have improved.