Category Archives: Guest Post

A Lot of Dancing, Please — Guest Post by Billy Eastman

My beautiful and vivacious and pernicious six-year-old daughter frequents a Kindergarten class. She pretends her way through life these days; it’s a problem. But, a problem I refuse to address. Because, one day, that problem with vault her to success in something.

Violet uses a wheelchair. She doesn’t use it all the time. Most of the time, she traverses time and space with arm crutches — but at school, she uses her wheelchair so she doesn’t become fatigued from chasing other small people around.

The other day, an adult at Violet’s school admitted something to me:  she caused Violet to school hallwaytip over in her wheelchair in the hallway (Don’t worry, no daughters were harmed in the making of this short narrative). Really, Violet wasn’t hurt, but the big person was distraught.

I thanked her. For tipping my daughter’s wheelchair over in the hallway. You see, they were dancing. An educator was dancing with Violet in her wheelchair. They were spinning and twirling and tipping and falling. I prefer that.

So, this is what we should prefer in our classrooms as well:  possibilities, no limitations, risk and reward, fear and excitement, falling down, getting up and saying “I’m OK, and some dancing (at least on the page). A lot of dancing, please.

Random undiscernibly identifiable adult:  please continue to dance with Violet in the hallways.

Teachers:  dancing is better than walking in straight lines with bubbles in your mouth.

And, this clearly applies to reading, writing, and thinking—which is what I was writing about this whole time.

Billy Eastman is a curriculum coordinator for English Language Arts and World Languages and Culture in League City, TX. He enjoys talking with folks and finding ways to make smart ideas happen. Follow Billy on Twitter @thebillyeastman



Readers-Writers Workshop: But, Does It Work? by Jessica Paxson

1444217.pngThere are many things that are frustrating about teaching in general, and teaching SENIORS.  They are almost adults who think they are already adults, and say they want to be treated as such, but show that they want to be treated like a child for just a little while longer.

Me too, guys.  Adulting is HARD.

This makes for quite a few venting sessions during our PLC time.  A few days ago, a fellow teacher was venting about our Shakespeare unit.  She and another colleague noticed that the feedback from walkthroughs seemed to be nudging us more toward skill teaching rather than teaching whole works, especially in Shakespeare.  She then began to vent about college readiness.  They will HAVE TO read whole works in college.  If they’ve never read anything cover to cover, they will never survive in college!

Obviously I began to feel my Reading/Writing Workshop senses going off.  They’re much like Spidey Senses, but possibly even more dangerous.  These topics are often thin ice with teachers, and if you stomp too firmly into the conversation, you’ll break right through and be left to freeze on your own in the frigid pool of, WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T WANT TO TEACH SHAKESPEARE?  In an effort to be heard and not misunderstood, I gingerly began to ask questions.

  • But will they need to have read THESE works, specifically?
  • Do you think non-liberal arts majors will encounter an entire work of Shakespeare during their time in college?
  • Do you think what they need to know is the stories of Shakespeare, or how to parse difficult language in general?

Then, finally, quietly, with the shaky hands I often get when I’m about to make something dear to me vulnerable to scrutiny, I asked: Have you ever read Book Love by Penny Kittle?

I’m surprised how many issues have come up this year during PLC to which the best solution would be, emphatically, give them choice on what they read; write more than you can grade; give them choice on what they can write; start where they are and gradually encourage more challenge and nuance.

I thought it would be helpful to write about some of the most Frequently Asked Questions I’ve received about RWW, even with less than a year under my belt of these practices.  Here they are, in no particular order:

  • How do you make sure your students are reading challenging books?
  • How do you test their knowledge?
  • What if they lose your books?
  • What do you mean, use mentor texts?  Are you talking about your Creative Writing class?
  • How do you grade if they all do different stuff?
  • Why are you making this so hard on yourself?

I have to tell you, I don’t know a definitive answer to all these questions.  By no stretch of the imagination have I perfected Reading/Writing Workshop.  (If you have, I’d love to borrow your brain for a day or five.)  

What I do know, is that it works.  

Don’t other things work, too?  Maybe, but it depends on your goal.  If the goal is for students to know facts about the plot of a handful of works, and know how to fill in a graphic organizer, sure.  


Now, if only I could figure out how to answer questions on the spot, we might be in business!

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX. She also attempts to grapple with life and all of its complexities and hilarities over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

Mini-Lesson: The Simultaneity of Instants by Jessica Paxson

I am an anti-bandwagon jumper.  I tend to think if everyone is flocking toward something, I’m likely too cool for it.  I attribute that to my father, and I’ve discussed it before, but that’s beside the point.  

18143977.jpgThis year, as I made the venture to RWW, I knew I would need to read lots of buzz-worthy books, simply for the purpose of recommending.  Needless to say, I have slowly been broken down from my rigid ways. It’s because of this anti-bandwagon mentality that I am so late to the Anthony Doerr party, particularly in respect to All the Light We Cannot See.  

I decided to tackle this novel over Christmas break because of how many people had recommended it to me.  I was reluctant, but of course, Doerr drew me in with his utterly gorgeous descriptions of difficult cultural situations, the relationships between characters, and the flawless knitting together of a nonlinear storyline.  

So.  I’m a fan.  Likely at least two years after everyone else, but better late than never, right?

I was specifically intrigued by one of the chapters near to the end, entitled, “The Simultaneity of Instants.”  This chapter reminds me a little bit of the montages that occur at the end of a movie or a season finale in which all characters come together for a final appearance.  The only difference with this chapter is that they did not come together in the same place, but simply in the same moment.  I thought this would be a great way to coach my students through describing an important moment with a bird’s eye view.  

Objective: Students will describe an important moment in their life by also providing a glimpse into that same moment for other “characters” in their story.

Mentor Text

Lesson: First, students will begin by writing about a specific moment that they remember vividly.  You could draw from many different forms of pre-writing for writing about memories, but a few of my favorites are Writing Territories and Blueprinting.  After students decide on a moment that was important to them, we will do a quick draft for about 10 minutes.  

Next, students will begin to brainstorm about what other people might have been up to at that very moment.  The key here is for students not to get hung up on what actually happened, but to simply imagine that moment in time from a broader scope.  

Finally, after brainstorming simultaneous instants, it’s time to weave them together.  This is the moment in which Doerr’s writing as a mentor text will be unequivocally valuable.  Students will ask, “Well, how do I know which moment to put where?”  And I’ll say, “What does the mentor text do?”  And on and on until we have pieces of writing of which the students never imagined they would be capable.

I hope to do this along with my students, and I’m particularly imagining a Simultaneity of Instants starting with the Presidential Inauguration, or Obama’s farewell wave, or something to that effect.  I may already be blubbering as I brainstorm.  

Follow Up:

I teach Seniors and Creative Writers.  While my CWers will work on this concept soon, I may save this for my Seniors until their end of year MGPs (anyone want to help me plan?).  I think an imaginary Simultaneity of Instants as they walk across the stage.  This will end up resembling an end-of-an-era-montage, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with!

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX. She also attempts to grapple with life and all of its complexities and hilarities over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

How Can I Create a Culture of Reading?

Guest Post by Alex Murphy. I’m sure Shana, Lisa, and I have a ton of ideas for this new teacher, but we’d like to know your ideas. Dear TTT Reader, please read Alex’s post and share your thinking:

We have a chant in my English I classroom.  Every class before we begin our day’s work, I summon my best Nick Saban bellow and ask my students, “What’s our theme?”

“Stories have power!” they respond, sometimes with gusto, other times a bit more sluggishly.

Regardless of the level of enthusiasm, I have taught the kids to respond this way because I believe it to be deeply, potently true.  Drawing on the teaching of my all-time favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that stories indeed have more power to communicate truth and combat lies than even the best-structured arguments our expositors have to offer.  As Tolkien said in “Mythopoeia”:

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray

from gazing upon everlasting Day

to see the day-illumined, and renew

from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

As Shana Peeples reminded us in her keynote speech at the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts Annual Conference [this weekend], stories—“mirrored truth,” as Tolkien calls them—indeed have power to combat the Doublespeak we hear so often from the halls of power.  “Stories are political tools,” she reminded us.  It is a lesson well worth remembering.

But dearly as I hold these principles about the unmatched power of stories, the Friday afternoon workshop hosted by Holly Genova and Amy Rasmussen convicted me that I have not yet created a culture of reading in my room—a community of readers in which students devour books with purpose and swap stories with joy.  As I listened to Holly and Amy discuss the power that reading choice has in their classrooms, the desire to cultivate a similar culture in my own classroom washed over me.  Indeed, I was inspired to start right away.

It took about seven seconds for my inspiration to dissolve into fear.  I froze, half-way through tossing Monday’s lesson plans off the balcony, as the scenarios hit me one after the other:  What if I can’t convince my students that reading is important?  What if I don’t have time to encourage independent reading and also teach the standards sufficiently?  What if my administrators don’t get on board? What if my own inadequacies as a reader start to show through?   What if I fail?

This is my first year teaching; I don’t even have a decent classroom library.  It feels like an awful risk to undertake a paradigm-shift from assigned reading and direct instruction to instructing through independent reading, especially when the English I STAAR test is seven instructional weeks away. However, if my mission is to convince my students that stories have power, nothing could be more important.  So, to the wonderful educators at Three Teachers Talk, I have several pressing questions:

  1. How should I start the work of creating a culture of reading in my classroom this deep into the year? What should be my first step in the transition?
  2. How can I undertake this shift and still ensure my scholars are equipped to perform well on the skills-based assessments they will take in so short a time?
  3. I want to show my administrators the benefits of this shift while also acknowledging the risks. How should I communicate this plan to them?

Amy and Holly put together a career-altering professional development session this weekend, and now it’s time to capitalize.  Any thoughts you have on the best way to do this will help me.


Alex M.G. Murphy

Alex M.G. Murphy teaches English I and U.S. History in the beautiful community of southeast Fort Worth, where he lives with his wife Rebekah and pit bull Sullivan. He is a graduate of Rice University.


The Seemingly Small by Jessica Paxson

url.jpgSometimes, in teaching, you just need a day.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  You have all of these beautifully planned lessons, but there are always scraps and pieces that don’t seem to quite fit perfectly into any single day.  Sometimes these tiny scraps need to get done, but cannot be just tossed anywhere for fear of interrupting that creative flow.  Creativity ebbs and flows, and so should lesson plans.  

It was the week before Thanksgiving and I needed a little of that ebb, so I planned a station day.  We began the day just like any other, with SSR followed by writing in our notebooks.  The rest of the period was intended to be spent tying up loose ends.  Here’s what I had on the docket:

  • Find a reading quote from the pile that speaks to you.  Glue in notebook and “write-around.”
  • Recommend titles for the Library of Paxsonia (classroom library).  Enter titles in the Google Form along with why this book stuck out to you.
  • Confer with Mrs. P./Reading Reflection: Mrs. P. will call you up individually.  Complete the reading reflection as you wait.
  • Writing Folders: Find graded work and organize neatly in your writing folder.
  • Reading Accomplishment Poster and Photo Booth: Make a page-sized poster detailing your accomplishment and growth as a reader this semester.  What makes you proud?  
  • Take a photo at the photo booth and send it to Mrs. P. for our Thank You Package.

As I began to circulate and chat with students, the conversations I heard were incredible.

Student 1: I’ve read an entire book for the first time in 4 years!

Student 2: I finally found a book I didn’t have to lie about reading.

Student 3: I finished a book in one weekend and asked for another one.

The day went on, and the students, of course, needed a bit of clarification.

Student: Mrs. Pax, if I haven’t finished a book, but I’m close, can I put that I finished a whole book?

Me: Remember, not what are you GOING to accomplish, but what HAVE YOU accomplished?

Student: Okay, can I put that I’m not finished yet, but can’t wait to get to the end?

Me: There you go!

Here are a few more of my favorites:

“I finished one and a half books in one semester!” -Sydney

“This is the first time I’ve finished a book and actually enjoyed it.  Thank you for such amazing books to read!” -Lacey

“I’ve finished one book in this semester and I’m proud!” -Dipo

“I finally finished the last three pages of a book.” -Edgar

“5 books down!” -Lauryn

“Mrs. Paxson helped me rediscover my love for reading.” -Zoe

In developing readers, it’s absolutely essential to remind them that it certainly doesn’t happen overnight.  Becoming a reader is a lifelong pursuit–as is becoming a writer, a leader, or someone who stands up for what she believes, for that matter.  

Unfortunately, there’s no TEK or Common Core Standard that says: Students will be able to celebrate the seemingly small accomplishments on the journey to becoming a better reader or writer, and recognize them as the big stinkin’ deals they truly are. (Disclaimer: If I wrote Standards, they’d have a bit more sass and spice.)

If we have to take a break from the “real stuff” to recognize the REAL STUFF–our growth as readers and learners–so be it.

This day turned out to be one of the most productive in all the ways that are not reflected in our daily objectives, but that are essential to building a reading culture in the classroom.

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX. She also attempts to grapple with life and all of its complexities and hilarities over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.


Appleman’s Lenses by Michael Janney

51rakay9iel-_sx396_bo1204203200_When I hear teachers underestimate their students, it really grates on me. Setting high expectations that aren’t always met doesn’t translate into failure on anyone’s part. It simply notes varying levels of understanding. With time and repeated exposure, all concepts and skills we want to teach can be worthwhile.

I had such a conversation a few years ago with a Ph.D. literature student who had spent some time as a high school English teacher. We were discussing the resource classic “Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents” By Deborah Appleman. I said that I loved the idea, as I didn’t get much exposure to literary theory in high school — or college for that matter. She disagreed, arguing that “in high school, you’re just not ready for it,” and that literature instructional time would be better spent on close reading.

I still think students are ready for it. We live in a complicated world and teach in highly-politicized public school environments. High school students — and all of us — could take more time to view our surroundings through critical lenses.

Appleman says so herself:

“Literary theory is not intellectual cake for adolescent cake eaters — those who are privileged by social status and other factors to have significant educational advantages. Because many of the theories deal with issues of power, students on the margin, for particular reasons — ethnicity, class, ability — are often more receptive to the basic ideological premises of these theories than are their more privileged peers, who sometimes view theories such as those of gender and class as mechanisms for using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.”

But how to introduce these critical lenses? Of course, students need a concrete definition of each lens as a start. They also need texts that strongly suggest analysis with each of Appleman’s chosen lenses.

Resources that lean toward direct instruction just won’t do either. The readers’/writers’ workshop centers itself around authenticity and treating each text you introduce to students as a work that can stand on its own. It isn’t about supplements, but about connections.

So, it’s got to be something short, familiar, and striking enough to make them remember the learning when they’re analyzing other texts later in their lives.


Yes, Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Yogi Bear and all those other other goofy, googly-eyed weirdos; you get a small story that’s entertaining and rich with material to pick apart.

Here are my suggested cartoon pairings for Appleman’s lenses. Try one out when you need students to understand critical literary theory, and let me know how it goes!

Reader Response — “Steamboat Willie”

Begin with a classic! While “Steamboat Willie” wasn’t the first cartoon short ever, it’s the first with synchronized sound and it’s synonymous with Walt Disney. Simple in its form, it gives students a chance to offer their interpretation of the text — the essential element of reader response theory — as well as comment on the form of the cartoon short.

Race Theory — “Old Rockin’ Chair Tom”

This one’s a personal addition, because it isn’t in Appleman’s book, per se. It’s much needed, though, as many of the texts bureaucrats approve for schools lack diversity. This particular short features the recurring “Tom & Jerry” character Mammy Two Shoes, a classic example of the mammy archetype that shows how texts can perpetuate stereotypes and prevent us from recognizing the individual as part of diversity, and not a generic “other.”

Marxist Theory — “Hen House Henery”

Henery the Chicken Hawk and ultimate Southern gentleman Foghorn Leghorn battle over farm capital — the hens — in this short. Each character is confined to a particular role in the farm society, and Leghorn gets to use the knowledge afforded through his age and social status to succeed in keeping his and the farm’s wealth.

Gender/Feminism — “Mississippi Hare”

In one of Bugs’ many gender-bending shorts, he poses as a Southern belle as a last resort to thwart his adversaries. Here, you might ask students why cross-dressing Bugs is taken so lightly as opposed to his true self? Cross dressing is a common gag in comedy, so this cartoon also opens up discussions as to why the act is so funny.

Postcolonialism — “Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt”

Bugs Bunny runs circles around the subject of the classic Longfellow poem. While the cartoon Hiawatha can be interpreted as a stand-in for Elmer Fudd, he also becomes the brunt of Bug’s antics. It can start a dialogue with students about how colonial powers can marginalize aborigines through cultural works after they’ve already conquered them politically, economically and socially.

Deconstruction — “Duck Amuck”

Daffy Duck is ready to star in a cartoon, but the cartoonist keeps changing the rules of the game on him. Bit by bit, the animator rips apart each part of the cartoon: scenery, setting, clothing, sound, etc. Daffy’s frustration grows each time the cartoonist makes a change, precisely because those changes are a contradiction to the Looney Tunes form and what fans have come to expect from his character. This is the essential pivot of deconstruction, and probably one of the most concrete — and hilarious — examples on the list. My personal favorite!

Try one or all of these cartoons as part of your next reading unit and let me know how it goes. You’ll be surprised what connections students can make with applicable examples of each literary theory.


Michael Janney, 9th grade English teacher, Yearbook advisor; Shepherdstown, WV
When I sit down to read a book or write, I’m not concerned about circling the nouns or verbs. I’m not concerned with labels or checklists; right or wrong. Instead I’m focused on purpose and aesthetic— authenticity. If we want our students to become authentic readers and writers, we have to offer them experiences in the classroom that transcend the artificial routines of school culture. These experiences must include choice, creativity and validation so students can realize their power as readers and writers in the grand conversation of English/Language Arts.

A Former College Admissions Officer on Teaching College Essays by Amy Estersohn

my-small-page-notebookAs fall rolls into winter, I’m noticing that a lot of high school writing teachers are writing about teaching the college essay to their students.

I have a little bit to say about college essays.  Actually, I have a lot to say about college essays.  Before I was a classroom teacher, I read about 4,000 college applications over three years as a college admissions officer.   

If you work on college essays with your students, here are five things I want you to know about teaching college essays:

1.  A college essay is not the beauty pageant section of the application.

I’ve talked to dozens of students over the years who fear that their essays are going to receive the Simon Cowell (or insert harsh reality TV judge of your choice) treatment when they are being read by admissions officers.  As a result, a lot of student writers start aggressively self-editing ideas before they even start to write…. Their ideas aren’t impressive enough, their writing isn’t sparkly enough, etc. etc. etc.  As a result, the essays they submit are mild, canned narratives about a time they did something notable or won an award.

Here’s what I like to say to that kind of writer: a college admissions officer is going to have a lot of data points about you when he or she is reading your essay, including your performance on standardized exams, your academic history, your accomplishments and extracurricular activities, and recommendations from your past teachers.  If you try to present yourself as more impressive than who you are, college admissions officers will be able to tell that something fishy is going on.

Instead, college admissions officers are looking for evidence that you are thinking about something, that you can organize your thinking, and that you understand how to present yourself professionally in writing.

2.  Diagnose and treat common college essay issues.

Early drafts of student essays tend to fall into one of two categories: Play it Safe or Mile Wide, Inch Deep.

Students whose essays fall into the Play it Safe category write a story where readers can easily predict the ending and the message, if one exists.  An example of a Play it Safe essay is one where a student writes about overcoming a rough sports season to win a tournament is going to write about the importance of optimism and hard work.  The essay could be adequately written and could demonstrate an understanding of how to use word choice to impact meaning or how to vary sentence structure to engage the reader.  However, a Play it Safe essay lacks engagement and entanglement with a complex idea.

Encourage Play it Safe writers to consider a difficult question their essays could address. For example, how do you save face during a demoralizing season? What does it feel like to be an athlete on a team where the games aren’t well-attended by the student body?  If you play on a team where your games are well-attended, what does it feel like to have such a big audience for your victories and your fumbles?   What does it feel like when a coach says something like, “You’ll play better next time, I know it,” and then you don’t?  Is the coach lying, trying to be optimistic, or a little bit of both?

Students who write Mile Wide, Inch Deep essays have a lot to say, but in saying so much about their background, their hobbies, and their families, they often lose sight of an interesting story.  Find the golden nugget sentence in their essays and tell students to make that golden nugget sentence the first line of a brand-new essay that will only be on that one topic.  Remind Mile Wide, Inch Deep writers (again) that college admissions officers are going to come into an application knowing a lot more about the student than what’s on the essay, so there is no need to review what the admissions officer is already going to know.

(Side note: it might be worthwhile to go through the Common Application as a class to show writers what the admissions officer is going to know, including things whether the writer has moved around during high school, what his parents do for a living, how many siblings she has, and what he might want to study in college.

3.  Better to have many mediocre drafts than one near-perfect piece.

Depending on how many colleges a student applies to and what the applications look like, a single student may have to produce between 1 and 15 original pieces of writing for his college applications.  The more mediocre drafts and half-baked ideas a student is able to get down, the easier it will be to churn out an answer to a question like “What do you do for fun?” and “Explain something meaningful to you.”

If you teach writing workshop, you may ask students to write a page or so a day for a span of several weeks.  Invite them to write about what they think about in the shower, what they think about on long runs, what keeps them up at night.    It’s no secret that I enjoy writing in a small notebook… so that when I draft, I can write more pages and then brag to my writer friends about how many pages of rough work I produced.

4.  You (English teacher) shouldn’t be the only one reading a near-finished college essay.

I have always encouraged students to share their work with family members, coaches, clergy, and friends for feedback.  Sometimes we as teachers only see the student in one way and approach a piece of writing through an assessment lens and an assessment lens only.  If a student shares an essay draft with a trusted person in their lives, they’ll get the kind of feedback that’s most important to the essay: a check on whether this essay sounds like them or not.

5.  It should be clear from the first paragraph what the essay is mostly about and what issue, conflict, or question it will address.

This is probably my most non-standard advice.  Writers love to play, and part of creative and valuable play is play with leads.  Student writers often try blind leads, where they leave the reader guessing on setting, characters, and central issues until partway through the piece.  We see this kind of trick all the time when we read, so of course we want to try it ourselves.

However, this trick is likely to backfire when the admissions officer reading an application is underslept, overcaffeinated, and on application 72 of their weekend expectation of 80.  It is likelier to confuse and frustrate the reader.  On the other hand, if the writer makes it clear what the essay will mostly be about from the first paragraph, it allows the reader a smoother time reading through the thoughts to follow.

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in Westchester County, NY.   She also reviews comic books for   Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MSE.



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