Category Archives: Lisa Dennis

Settling into Summer: Simple Suggestions to Take the Break You Deserve

This post is for the teachers who can’t turn it off. For the educators who long for summer and then don’t know what to do with ourselves once we get here. For the realists who know it will end all too soon. For the battle-weary who are almost too tired to enjoy it. For those who end the school year, just to jump into more and more work without so much as a nap. You are not alone. Remember, you too are entitled to a break. 


Looking back at my summer posts from the past few years, it would seem that I have a problem. It’s a problem that 97% of Americans would likely sneer at, as summer vacation doesn’t readily suggest problem to the general public. It is, after all, weeks of freedom from work. The option to spend the day in yoga pants. Daytime television access that few get to enjoy (if that’s the right word). An opportunity for extended relaxation reserved for educators who share their very souls for roughly 180 days, plus weekends.

Every year, as summer approaches, I suggest to my colleagues that it doesn’t feel real. Maybe it’s the habit of nine months of all encompassing giving. Perhaps it’s the bone-Rest-Relaxationtired confusion of early June. Maybe it just seems too good to be true, but either way, we wake up one fine morning and school is over. Disbelief likely continues. A bit more guarded excitement bubbles up. Then, because we are hardwired to keep pushing forward at all costs,  we dutifully race into vacation (with a fevered pitch eerily reminiscent of the one we used to make it through the final crazy weeks of the school year) and look around wide-eyed wondering where to start. Having dragged ourselves across the finish line, heads down but thumbs up in our classroom community successes, we snap to once again to “get this summer thing underway.”

If you are anything like me, this frenzied shift in daily responsibility quickly manifests itself in lists. The to-do lists that instantly stretch out five country miles and look strikingly similar to the lists created for the endless responsibilities of work, but pay no attention! Get moving!

No wonder I don’t feel like I’m on vacation…I could fill every minute with need instead of want and find myself in mid-August with a cleaner house, every health related appointment scheduled and managed, minimalist ambitions catalogued and embattled against my concurring desire to shop, habitual Twitter monitoring accomplished in order to continue professional development, email checking to assist students with summer work and stay on top of administrative requests, and end up just as fatigued as I was on the last day of classes, and maybe sunburned too boot.

Don’t get me wrong, the entire summer can’t be spent on want over need. We are adults and there are responsibilities to attend to year round. However, I think what I quickly forget, or habitually ignore, is that based on the taxation of careers, most professionals do in fact take vacations.

What was that again?

Professionals take vacations.

Now, to be honest, I typed that twice, and made it gigantic once, to make myself believe it, because I think I’m terrible at heeding my own insights. When I try to relax, my brain runs on guilt-ridden overdrive: There is so much to be done! There was no time before, and nothing but time now! Fill it up! MAKE something of today! List, list, LIST! 

Welcome to my brain. Don’t stay too long, you may develop anxiety.

Thankfully, this post is helping me process, and here is the insight this therapeutic writing has directed me to: If I don’t figure this out, everyone is going to suffer.

Sunshine and rainbows today, aren’t I? But it’s true. If I don’t shut off my teacher brain, so valuable during the school year to keep me on top of the 5.2 million divergent tasks we tackle in a day, I’m going to suffer during a time I should be recharging. My family is going to suffer because I’ll still be stressed out. My future students will suffer because I won’t get my mojo back to start the year with rested enthusiasm and rejuvenated vigor.

In a few short weeks it will be July 4th, strange psychological turning point for my own summer, so it bears repeating that I need to give myself an actual break. You need to give yourself an actual break. Unplug, get lost, be silly, tune in to your hobbies, hold tight to your passions, reconnect with your own children, have ice cream for dinner, and stay up until 2:00 A.M. reading.

I read once that if you’re sad, you should stand before a mirror and smile at your reflection until you feel happier. Scientifically speaking, your mood will in fact improve, and the smiling will have helped to change your trajectory. Perhaps it’s the same with summer. Do more and more summer everyday, and you’ll get yourself into that habit. More pool lounging, campfire sitting, lemonade sipping fun. Additionally, might I suggest:

  1. Be aware of your drive to keep pushing, and actively work to put the brakes on. Make yourself take a day away. Then two. Perhaps a week or two without work. You’ve got the time, so make the conscious choice to use it and appreciate it. As I rockssuggested to myself and to you last year (when will I ever take my own advice?!) – Remain Calm.
  2. If you must work, as most of us do, treat yourself in small ways. Try not to let the work consume your whole day, or peel away your sun-soaked attitude. Whether it be your casual attire, a shot of flavor in your traditionally black coffee, and/or the guilty-pleasure read you put in your bag to fill mandatory breaks along the way, remember that you get to enjoy these days too because you’ve worked hard to earn them.
  3. If your summer break involves a good deal of work beyond your teaching career, as some of us legitimately need to additional employment over the summer to make ends meet (but that’s a whole other post), try and make small breaks mean more. Completely unplug for a day or take a drive on your own with your journal and spend one day exploring, writing, reading, thinking. Whenever possible, be mindful of the mental and physical breaks you still desperately need after a year in the trenches, and ask for the help from friends, family, and neighbors to get it. It takes a village!
  4. Put a little bit of you into every single day. Take the time to read what your heart desires. Take the time to write for you. Take the time to sleep. Heaven knows that school does not afford much time for napping, once we get rolling again, so employ the summer catnap early and often.
  5. Embrace a little transcendentalism. If you have work to do, try and do it outside. If you are insistent on perfecting your educational practice and/or yoga moves (yes, I stumbled upon a guided script on yoga for teachers…enjoy), connect with nature while you’re doing. Better yet, keep in mind – Thoreau would want you to remember that the nature of our reality is governed by experience. The more you get out and do, as opposed to list, ruminate over, or worry about, the better off that reality will be…just make sure you reflect carefully on your experiences in a small cabin located next to a quiet body of water.

Summer is a gift. Lift your foot off the accelerator for a bit and look around at what you might not notice if you don’t take the time to refuel. You deserve this break. Make it a priority to enjoy it just as much as you use it.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. This summer, she’s hoping her new bullet journal is going to assist her in her pursuits to relax. She sees the irony in this and is also ironically powerless to stop it. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

 

 

 

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What Should I Read Next? – How to Further Fuel Your Bibliophilic Ambitions

Hypothetically, this post will offer upwards of 387,993 book recommendations for your ‘To Read Next List.” Honestly, I’m terrible at math, so that number may be a bit hyperbolic, but I bet it got your attention. Realistically, you may be cursing me by the end, because summer is NOT going to be long enough to explore all of these texts, even the mere fourteen I’ll link up to below may give me a run for my money (not in number, but I already have a lengthy “to read” list!), but oh my, my, did I hit the book recommendation jackpot.

My gal Shana who texted me just a few days ago suggested a podcast that has quickly become my latest obsession. Shana knows what’s what. She’s up writing at 5:00 A.M. almost daily, has rearranged her extensive personal book collection in a color-coordinated bliss that reminds me of High Fidelity, and is moving her family to Wisconsin to be closer to me. Ok, she may be moving to Wisconsin because of her lovely husband’s medical career, but she will be in the same state as I am. In short, she’s all kinds of awesome and I trust her recommendations implicitly. When she told me I needed to listen to this podcast, because it reminded her of me, I was tickled.

My husband is likely glowering as he reads this, knowing he has been trying with little success to get me hooked on podcasts for nearly a decade, but Shana’s suggestion that I check out the What Should I Read Next? podcast with Anne Bogel has my book list laden with enough literary lovelies that I’m going to need to take a sabbatical.

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Ms. Bogel is the author of the hugely successful, and likewise entertaining, blog Modern Mrs. Darcy, that explores countless angles to life as a modern woman.

Readers Beware If you click on the above link, you will land down a delcious rabbit hole of reading guides for book clubs, summer book lists, links to works of major authors, not to mention over one hundred podcast episodes talking about books and reading. It’s a biliophiles delight for sure.

After listening to only one episode of her podcast,  I wanted to someday be able to claim to have known Anne Bogel for years and chatted with her about books over a big bowl of Chex Mix with Peanut M&M’S, and I had a list of fourteen books that I want to check out. That’s a book recommendation every four minutes in a fifty-two-minute podcast. (My list from the followup episodes I’ve digested is likewise lengthy).

On this episode (one of four I have listened to in just the past three days), Annie Jones, owner of The Bookshelf bookstore in Thomasville, Georgia, chats with Bogel about recommendations for summer reading and the joys and trials of reading for a living.

As my workshop teacher senses apparently never go off, I not only mentally cataloged a lengthy list of book recommendations, but some advice I wanted to share with my students next year as we set reading goals and look to the future of our reading lives in the 2018-2019 school year: Never allow your reading life to be bogged down by a number. Whether you feel overwhelmed because your goal is so lofty that you end up flying through books instead of relishing them, or you nervously look at your elbow partner’s number and yours is nowhere near the depth, breadth, or drive of his/her reading life, don’t get discouraged.

Reading is all about finding balance.

The balance of goals with other parts of our lives.
The balance of genres.
The balance of what we feel we should read vs. what we want to read.

So, without further ado, here are a few suggestions from episode 132, “The books we can’t wait to read this summer”:

  1. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction. Last Christmas break it was America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie (and their latest, My Dear Hamilton). In episode 128, Tracie Haddock recommends I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe. A woman disguising herself as a man to fight in the American Civil War? I’ll raise the flag for that!
  2. I often feel like I’ve got to read what’s hot. Well, what about what was hot a few years ago? Jump back a few years and check out these biographies of some seriously awesome women. Abigail Adams by Woody Holton and Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd.
  3. Looking for a super hot memoir?  Educated by Tara Westover fits the bill. I had a student scoop this one up, but I am going to make sure to get it back and read it myself over the summer.
  4. Looking for last year’s super hot memoir? Try The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner.
  5. That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam was named one of the most anticipated books of 2018 by everyone from Buzzfeed to Vogue. A text classified as “Women’s Fiction” that’s written by a man and recommended by Celeste Ng. I feel like name-dropping, in this case, is what it’s all about.
  6. The Royal We by Heather Cocks is the ultimate Kate Middleton fanfiction. So…yeah. Beach read, anyone? This is a quick downhill on the Penny Kittle reading roller coaster for sure.
  7. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was one of my favorite reads this year and disappeared from my classroom the day I book talked it with the quote “Hell is the absence of the people you long for.” Post-apocalyptic symphony, pandemic flu, and multiple plotlines make this a truly powerful read.
  8. For musicians, lovers of music, and those that buy books based on their covers comes The Ensemble by Aja Gabel.
  9. A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza arrives in June and introduces Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint, SJP for Hogarth.
  10. Tangerine by Christine Mangan is a delicious Gone Girl type historical mystery. And to take it up a notch…
  11. Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton is apparently the R-Rated version coming out this summer.
  12. The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert will most definitely be in my classroom library next fall as a YA fairy tale about fairy tales.
  13. The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey follows a young lawyer in 1920’s Bombay as she tries to execute the will of a man who leaves behind three young wives. This book is a multicultural adventure that introduces a sharp new sleuth for mystery lovers.
  14. Coming in July, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon which is a “powerful, darkly glittering novel about violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young Korean American woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.”

There is certainly something here for everyone, and the few episodes of this podcast that I’ve listened to would suggest that there is something for everyone at What Should I Read Next? too. It’s quickly become my go to as I twiddle my thumbs and wait for my Libby library holds to catch up with my ambitions.

Happy listening and happy reading, friends! Summer IS just around the corner.

What’s on your summer reading list? Have you read any of the books in the recommendation list above? What did you think? Please comment below!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her current read is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and she’s eagerly awaiting her next Libby hold, Stephen King’s On Writing.  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

Do You Have A Date For Tonight?

You do now!

Join Three Teachers Talk tonight as #3TTweets with the incomparable Cornelius Minor. With his boundless enthusiasm, unparalleled generosity of spirit, and passionate drive in promoting equity across our nation’s schools, Mr. Minor will be tweeting with us tonight in an “Ask Me Anything” Twitter Chat!

If you missed our post with Mr. Minor, be sure to check it out!

Then, set a reminder for 8:00 P.M. Eastern tonight, jump on Twitter, search #3TTweets, and follow along, shout out, and/or ask your burning questions. We can’t wait to pick Corn’s beautiful brain and we hope you’ll join us.

3TT Corn Chat

We Cannot Act Alone – Equity For Every Classroom by Cornelius Minor and Lisa Dennis

3TT Corn Chat

Rattling around the dimly lit corners of the teachers’ lounge and shuttered mall locations of Successories nationwide, one can find the oft-quoted sentiment that teaching may well be the greatest act of optimism.

However, I would argue that today’s teacher is far more likely to embody optimism by learning.  

When we stretch, scrutinize, professionally and personally grow, challenge, inquire, and courageously push ourselves to learn for the sake of better understanding and connecting to our students, then we are better educators and better leaders and better agents of change in our classrooms.

Because we need far more than optimism. We need realism.

At the upcoming NCTE conference this November in Houston, Texas, a convention focused around raising student voice, the passionate crew from Three Teachers Talk will be honored to share with a you a talk entitled, “Accomplice”-ing Great Things: An Action Plan for Equity, Inclusivity, and Allied Partnerships in ELA Classrooms.

Additionally, in the realm of hardcore fangirling, I am pinching myself to report that the incredible, incomparable, inimitable Cornelius Minor has agreed to be our Chair for the session. As Lead Staff Developer for Columbia University’s Reading and Writing Project, Mr. Minor is a tour de force in the fight for equity in the classroom whose passion and persistence is blessedly catching to all those who yearn to do better and be better for our students.

The crew at Three Teachers Talk has been in love with Cornelius Minor for years. I had the pleasure of first hearing Mr. Minor speak at the 2016 NCTE conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I recall being so struck by his words that I uncharacteristically approached him after the session. My thanks for his message turned into some sort of incoherent blubbering, I’m sure, but Mr. Minor smiled that blazing smile he’s known for and gave me a hug saying, “We’ll talk soon, ok?”

Maybe my teacher universe didn’t really pitch wildly at that moment, forever altering the trajectory of my work with students, but really, it did.

Among countless brilliant insights Cornelius shared that morning in Atlanta, I was particularly struck by his statement that it’s our job as educators to teach children how to “maintain partnerships” in order to “define our culture.” I recalled this statement recently as Amy, Shana, and I brainstormed on ways to best share our ideas at the NCTE’s 2018 Convention – Raising Student Voice.

Thus, our work as accomplices to our students came to the forefront of our planning, and a few things became clear.

Chief among them; We cannot become who students need us to be if we act alone.

This work toward equity is deeply personal, beautifully nuanced, and to many of us, it is brilliantly new. We are in a constant state of knowing that for far too many children, there is a savage gulf between what education promises and what education is.

We know the research. Girls are underrepresented in science and technology. Children of color continue to be suspended at exponential rates compared to their white peers. Poor children are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources. These outcomes are sexist. They are racist. They are classist. School, as an institution, continues to perpetuate them. We can change this, and we are certain that the way forward is together.

In the spirit of moving forward together, we’ve invited Cornelius to join us for a very special Twitter chat.

So that we can share as much as possible, we’ll be using an “Ask Me Anything” chat format. AMAs, as they are commonly called, are a little different from traditional Twitter chats.

Cornelius will be moderating, but he won’t be posing the questions. You will!

For one hour, you will be able to ask Cornelius anything about literacy, education, equity, activism or Fortnite.

We’re looking forward to seeing where this goes! We’ll put a little bit about Cornelius below so you can get to know him before the chat. Feel free to comment below too with any questions that you hope he’ll answer as we Tweet the night away. 

Can’t wait to see you in the Twittersphere!
Thursday, May 10th at 8:00 p.m. (EST) / 7:00 p.m. (CST)!
#3TTweets 


Here’s a sampling of some of Mr. Minor’s recent (brilliant) thinking:

“We Can Do Better” from the March/April publication of ILA’s  Literacy Today. 

“Five Steps to Launching a Schoolwide Social Justice Movement” from Education Week Teacher

A two-part interview conducted with Laura Hancock at Literacy Junkie


What questions do you have for Cornelius Minor? Leave them in the comment section below as we look forward to watching Cornelius’s fingers fly over the keys on May 10th! Please join us and spread the word for this important discussion with one of today’s foremost educational leaders on equity. 

 

Racing to the Finish Line: What Does Your Workshop Practice Need Most Right Now?

My Spring Break brain is still turned on. Fortunately, this means I’ve been very good at sleeping the past few days. Unfortunately, it means my capacity to focus and otherwise try to be brilliant is at an all-time low for April. It would seem my enthusiasm is likewise dormant, as I’m struggling to harness my usual oompah-pah for school, running, parenting, you name it.

What to do? What to?

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The view from my driveway during Spring Break.

 

I could stare at a thermometer and attempt to inch the mercury up with nothing by my sheer will and determination to curtail this never-ending winter.

I could establish a formal countdown of the school days as I’ve noticed several students and colleagues have done. (Ok, ok. I’ve done this already. There are exactly 40 days left of school.)

I could count and recount how many summative writing assessments I have left to grade, even if it’s likely true that I’m spending more time counting than I am actively providing feedback to my students.

So. There. Where does that leave me? Counting a lot, apparently, which is something I don’t particularly enjoy.

Still Thursday. Still 40 days to go. Still staring out the window at the 42-degree rain.

So. There. Where does that leave us?

For that, I look to you, dear readership of Three Teachers Talk.

help me

This is an all call for a bump in creativity, a burgeon to our daily workshop flow, a change of pace. Do you need more book recommendations for your classroom? Workshop friendly prep for an AP test? Ideas for mentor texts in a specific area of study? Blog posts that commiserate your struggles, or successes, or both? What can the writers and contributors at Three Teachers Talk focus on to help you most in the coming weeks? How can the writers at Three Teachers Talk help make these last few weeks of the 2017-2018 school year all kinds of amazing in your classroom?

When your inbox pings with a post from 3TT, what insight would tickle your fancy, make your day, or just help ease the stress of wrapping up the year in a workshop classroom? We’ve got writers who teach from Foundational Freshmen to AP Language/Literature, coach current teachers, prepare pre-service teachers, and everything in between.

We all need a little help now and then, so we’d love to hear from you:

Please take a moment to fill out this quick survey and let Three Teachers Talk help move your workshop practice forward to round out this year and/or get you rolling for the next.

And as always, remember the rich archive of posts on a variety of topics that you can search on the right side of the screen at threeteacherstalk.com. You can search by keyword, contributor, and/or topic. The special sauce for your next few weeks of teaching may already be right here!

As a collaborative community of educators, we look forward to hearing from you and pointedly adding to the amazing wealth of workshop knowledge that Three Teachers Talk readers and writers share. Have a great weekend!


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Also, a friendly reminder, if you would like to write a guest post for Three Teachers Talk, please send your ideas to me at lisadennibaum@gmail.com. We are always looking for fresh voices, ideas, and experiences. Thanks!

March Madness – A Book Bracket that Breaks a Few Rules

As I write this post, I can’t help imagining what it will feel like at this time Thursday night when I am up to my eyeballs (finally) in all things Spring Break. I’m envisioning an episode of This is Us, an adult beverage, and perhaps some Easter candy the bunny just won’t get a chance to deliver. Maybe I’ll throw caution to the wind and rent a movie, stay awake for the entire thing, and put extra butter on my popcorn. Don’t try and hold me back, friends – I’m going to let ‘er rip. This girl is going to calorically navigate every day of this vacation.

Because let’s face it, sometimes we need to break the rules and revel in what feels good. Sometimes we need to abandon the stress, irritation, and seemingly endless march of…March.

Sometimes we need to break the rules.

Now I know, if I were you, I would be reading on in great anticipation of a reflective post that smacks at the very heart of pushing aside what’s prescribed and going instead with the deeply personal, life-altering, philosophy-bending, workshop work that fuels lives rich in reading, writing, and empathetic connections across our school communities.

Well…did I mention I am only four class periods away from vacation? 344 total class minutes. 18 total hours on the clock. 27 miles there and back to my nice warm bed. Dozens of warm smiles and well wishes for a well-deserved break to all my lovely students and colleagues.

Some will voyage to lands far and wide. Some will go on great adventures.

I will gladly go to my couch. My brain is fried.

 

As such, I wanted to share with you my experience with a March Madness Book Bracket, in the hopes that if you haven’t tried this yet, you’ll consider it for next year, or even better, you will ditch the March Madness component and just create your own Book Battle for April or May of this year to stir up passions around the current favorite titles in your classroom.

Personally, this idea came from two places:

  1. A random picture I saw on Twitter at some point that highlighted the excitement around a classroom book battle.
  2. March Madness Hoopla (punny is as punny does) here at Franklin High School.

Our school is blessed with a great number of hugely passionate, committed, and just all around awesome teachers and administrators across the building. This past month, Franklin saw the advent of our annual March Madness school-wide event. The incomparable Pat Gain, AP Environmental Science teacher to the stars, organizes an extravaganza the brings the whole school together in excitement, friendly competition, and support of Franklin’s Relay for Life and Best Buddies. Students earn raffle tickets for possible school spirit, teams organize to battle it out on the court, and the entire school gathers for a pep rally to watch the championship games and other fun at week’s end. This year, it inspired me to jump on the bandwagon and create a book bracket in my room.

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After the fact, I found this awesome March Madness Book Bracket that includes book trailers, printable brackets, a bracket reveal video, and the wherewithal to organize it all way ahead of time and share it so classes across the world can vote. You can vote in their championship matchup between The Hate You Give and Scythe right now! These people have t-shirts. It’s legit.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with my humble pie and share with you what I did and what I want to try to do for next year.

First, a disclaimer. I said I broke rules. I did. But it still worked.

  • There was no actual bracket to fill out.
  • I don’t know a lot (enough, much, anything) about basketball.
  • My bracket had no actual lines.

But it all worked out. Check it out below.

Mrs. Dennis March Madness Book Bracket 2018…

  1. Each of my classes did a quick write on their favorite read so far this year. We chatted after writing, reminisced about great books, added to our “I Want to Read” lists, and then put some titles up on the board. Over the course of a few days, the suggestions for awesome books grew, and I picked 16 that represented the most consistently raved about and most passionately advocated for in each class.
  2. I matched up the books somewhat appropriately in logical pairings. Two classics up against one another. Two historical fiction texts. Two books in verse. Etc.
  3. I printed images of the book covers for each title and set up a rudimentary book bracket on the back wall.
  4. A Google Form shared on Google Classroom gave my students the opportunity to vote in any/all of the matchups they felt compelled to vote for. I also shared this Google Form with other members of the English Department and encouraged them to share the link with their students and to vote for their own favorites.
  5. After the initial matchups, I was left with eight books in illogical pairings, so I had students vote for their top four choices one week, their top two the next, and now we’ve arrived at Championship Week.
  6. Before voting each round, students lobbied for the books they felt should move on to the next round. Which were the most worthy of advancing? Which changed student thinking? Which were the page-turners? It was awesome to hear kids going to the mat for their choices, and even when their favorites lost, they continued to try and sway people to still give the book a try. It did make it to the Big Dance after all.

Franklin March Madness Book Bracket Every Year From Now On…

  1. Start the whole process earlier. Give students a chance to pick up a book or two from the bracket and add fuel to the fire of how many kids have a book in the race.
  2. Complete actual brackets for some random and cheap prizes from my Kelly Gallagher-inspired Bag of Fun Crap.
  3. Random pairings. I love the idea from the link above to let the chips fall where they may and let books battle au natural. This eliminates my perceived issue of illogical matchups. Brackets are made to be busted!
  4. Measure twice, cut once. My book covers were almost too big. I had to move furniture! The hallway may be a more appropriate space and would promote the matchups to a wider audience as well.
  5. My pithy neighbor Brandon suggested that tape between the matchups would make it look a lot more like an actual bracket. Touché.
  6. Expand the empire and work to involve more students, more grade levels, more opinions, more passionate pleas for books to advance. More. Madness.

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My March needed a bit of madness and I look forward to doing it again next year. Though we didn’t have any actual brackets to fill out ahead of time, or league sanctioned seeding, or even actual matchups past the first round, the results involved a whole lot of passionate talk and writing around books.

When students hustle in the room to see which books are winners, as opposed to hurridly taking one last glance at their phones before the bell rings, I consider it a slam dunk.

(He he…told you I needed a vacation).

Our bracket is down to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Which one would be your winner? Which books could go the distance with your classes this year? Please leave your comments below!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her knowledge of basketball is limited, but her support of underdogs is fierce. Let’s Go, Loyola! Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

Politically Motivated: Positively Harnessing Student Passion in a Time of Uncertainty and Fear

 

Yesterday morning, I stood outside for 17 minutes. Per the instructions of my administration to maintain the opportunity for all students to learn without interruption should they choose, after a moment of silence in our school for the victims of the Parkland shooting, if students chose to participate in the national walkout, teachers were to follow only if every student in his/her class left the building. After a few seconds of looking around at one another, one by one my sophomores stood up and filed quietly out of the room.

Outside, a small group of students had prepared statements to lead the several hundred students gathered in the chilly March sunshine through 17 minutes of reflection, support, and silence. The group was large, diverse, respectful, and unified, if not in purpose (likely a few students were carried out more by curiosity than conviction), then in the experience itself. A hush I’m not used to experiencing in the company of several hundred high school students quickly fell on the chilly March morning and the group stood in near silence, listening to their peers eloquently unite the crowd in peaceful purpose.

Teaching in time when I feel that I must often couch statements with a reminder that logic and facts should not be considered political, I must again come to you today and suggest that the overwhelming pride I felt in the students gathered in front of our school yesterday, and at the student-led debrief/discussion held during our resource period afterwards, had nothing to do with the politics of their statements. It has everything to do with the way I saw students, our students, standing together in support of one another to promote safety, unity, and empathy, not only for our schools but for our communities.

Several weeks ago, after the tragedy unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I was compelled to write about how we can help our students (Shana too wrote beautifully about positive activism in the classroom), those young people who were not even alive when the shooting took place at Columbine in 1999, process such violence and uncertainty as a constant shadow to their educations. Little did I know that our school too would need to process an alleged threat to safety, a school day where several hundred students stayed home out of fear, social media-fed rumors of possible violence, and countless discussions with students who said time after time that even though this particular brand of violence has been taking place for the entirety of their educations, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to feel. They didn’t know how to cope.

They just want it to stop.

I looked at their faces and saw fear, anger, and pain that frankly frightened me, and for the millionth time this year, I knew I needed to figure out what we could do.

Discussion, writing, reflecting, sharing, and hugging was working, but much like this past month, something felt different.

These kids needed to DO something.

My colleague Sarah and I decided to have our AP Language students write letters to their representatives, expressing their researched opinions on how to end the violence of mass shootings. Their arguments would be their own, bolstered by research to better understand the issue, their own positions, and their audience.

social changeWe were clear with students from the very beginning that this was not an assignment in support of any particular political agenda. Instead, it was an exercise in better understanding our preconceived ideas and more deeply, and diplomatically, developing our rationale for how to bring about change  As long as their research came from credible sources, students could argue for changes to gun laws, support of the 2nd amendment, mental health considerations, school security, or any other defensible position to end mass gun violence. They could write to state or local representatives, as long as they researched that representatives current position on related issues, providing students with key insights to audience consideration we’ve previously only talked about or tried to emulate through blogging.

Supported with ideas from Kelly Gallagher’s incredible argument unit published over the course of 12 days on his personal blog, Sarah and I helped students through pointed research to build letters rich in ethos, persuasive argument, and pathos that could only be provided by the very students whose passions for activism have been flamed because they are so heavily and personally burdened with the threat of this particular brand of violence.

Over the course of the past two weeks, I have:

  • Seen students come in more for help/feedback with this assignment than any other throughout the year. When I asked a student after school yesterday, what had him so dedicated to crafting this particular summative he said, “Because my school work matters, but this assignment is going outside of the school. It matters outside of these walls.”
  • Watched young people who before could not identify who their state or federal representatives even are, research these people and their positions on key issues, and write directly in response to those issues in order to argue to an authentic audience.
  • Helped students channel their feelings of helplessness into purpose, simply by picking up a pen.

What these kids have produced is incredible. I am so proud of the way they have positively focused their overwhelming emotions into powerfully convincing letters to the men and women with means and opportunity to make changes to protect our students from further disaster.

Here are a few excerpts from letters that have started rolling in. In the coming days, we will get the letters printed, addressed, and mailed to Madison and Washington.


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I am a firm believer that addressing issues in a constructive manner is a significant step toward positive change. We owe it to our students to provide them with, encourage them around, and support their efforts in making positive changes in their own communities. Though unequivocally necessary as a foundation to an informed electorate, we will not raise the citizens this nation so desperately needs on standards, skills, and summative assessments alone. A new reality is built on the combined knowledge and passions of the humans willing to take risks in support of that reality.

I will certainly never stop teaching my students that deconstructing a prompt is the best way to dig into a timed writing task or that commas don’t occur only where you would naturally take a breath, but I will also never stop supporting them in all they have to teach to us. Our students deserve our help in amplifying their voices to bring about a better world. In this, our jobs have never been so important.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

 

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