Category Archives: Lisa

What Will You Read Next?

I’m always on the lookout for ways to keep moving my readers forward. To stave off the lethargy that unrelenting mid-forties temperatures and 17 weeks of gray skies (winter makes me hyperbolic) can leave in a classroom. The novelty of a new year, with its resolutions and fresh semester, has succumb to the bleak midwinter pall of third quarter and we need something that says, “If that groundhog claims six more weeks of winter (rat-face that he is), we’re going to need a plan…and a good book or two.”

Well, thank goodness I have an unhealthy addiction to Twitter (Ummm…Cornelius Minor just started following me last night. I’m going to need to step up my game. Significantly).  Years ago, it was Pinterest, but that was back when I had time to scroll and save ‘Best Brunch Recipes to Feed a Hangry Crowd’ and ’19 Ways to Burn Booty Fat’ (not to say I couldn’t still use both).

My scrolling these days, however, is far more literary in focus and professional in nature (19 Ways to Burn Booty Fat for Educators – Conferring as Cardio). Seriously though, Twitter has led me to countless quick write topics, mentor text ideas, blogs to follow, inspirational quotes, professional development opportunities, booklists, laughs, collegial exchanges, and pedagogical articles to stretch my practice. #TrachersWin, #LoveToLearn, #StrongThumbs, #TwitterScrollingSavesLives.

A few days back, Penny Kittle posted this photo:

I quickly screenshotted the image to replicate in my room. This visual reminder of where we’re headed (another book and/or a swing toward spring) will provide the push forward we need. Get it on the wall!

My students needed something to set their sights on, so I asked them to take a look at their ‘I Want to Read List’ and choose what their next reading would be. This wouldn’t just be a goal to finish our current texts, but would also give us something to look forward to.

I encouraged students to take this as an opportunity to challenge themselves outside what they have been consistently reading, either in complexity or genre, and select a book they were excited to get their hands on.

Each student then took an index card, on which went the name of the book, the author, and the date they plan to start this next text.

My aide, an artistic genius, drew the book that would be the center our our display (It even has dozens of book titles written on the first page – I LOVE it, Hailey!) and started arranging the ‘Next Text’ cards around it. The whole back wall of my classroom is going to be a sea of texts we can look forward to.

I’m loving my current read (Shout Out: #3TTTBookClub – Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things), but I too will be adding a card: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

(A freak and serious arrest of my artistic development in the second grade prevents me from sharing my card with you. Please imagine it’s simplistic beauty and that might help me create something wall worthy)

Let’s Get Excited About Where We Are Heading! What Will You Read Next? Please leave your text choices in the comments below. Happy Friday. 

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.


15 Reasons to Read as Written by High School Seniors

I was giving my thumb a workout last week on Twitter, scrolling past political fallacies and pundit reports, quips from Ellen about cats, and sad attempts by the Packers organization to distract themselves from their lack of big plans this Super Bowl Weekend (single tear running down my cheek) and I came across an irresistible link: 15 Reasons Why You Should Read.

Aaaaaaand, I’m hooked.

And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but 15 reasons to read, linked in individual blog posts (wait for it!), written by students for their Senior English Seminar class blog and inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School.

A little investigation had me scrolling (no wonder my right eye has been twitching for two months…I may need an eyepatch soon) through the class blog of, English educator and doctoral candidate at Fordham University, Lauren Zucker’s third period students, whose sweet smiles look just like the seniors in my own classroom: five parts confidence, fifteen parts senioritis, three parts fear, two parts energy drink, and boundless potential.


The possibilities with these blogs are endless:

  • Have your students read through them and reflect on one that stands out to investigate further.
  • Put just the rules up on the board and generate some discussion on initial impressions, connections, etc.
  • Comment on the student posts with personal experiences to connect student blogger to student in your classroom.
  • Have students write their own blog posts about the benefits of reading.
  • Challenge students to synthesize some of the logos from these blog posts into an oral defense of the endless beauty that is reading.

Below, brief explorations of each reason to read. I loved diving into this student thinking and connecting their ideas to my classroom.

  1. Reading Improves Your Social Understanding by Andrew Zayas 

    Andrew speaks to a common theme in high schools across America : We live and work in bubbles. As I suggest to my students, reading affords you the opportunity to live lives, solve problems, and meet people you may not have even considered before. Those experiences can provide, as Andrew suggests, “an unlimited source of social knowledge,” that is invaluable in a time when people need to understand one another better if we ever hope to overcome all that divides us.

  2. Reading Reduces Your Stress by Avery Semkow

    Avery explores a study by the University of Sussex in which test subjects were taken through several activities to elevate their stress levels. Reading silently for only six minutes slowed the subjects’ heart rate and relaxed muscles to a level of stress that was even lower than before they started. SIX MINUTES! When student sit in our classrooms and read for ten minutes, a veritable spa service with those four extra minutes, we are helping them to calm, focus, center. Namaste, fellow readers. Let’s do our hearts some good.

  3. Reading Helps You Sleep Better by Ben Tyler

    Similar to the study above, Ben’s piece suggests that reading, again for as few as six minutes, can help you fall asleep much faster. I’m not sure I love what this means for my classroom (at 7:20 a.m.), but I know it to be true in my own life. Or maybe that’s the full time job and a preschooler at home. But seriously, our students need more and better sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, only 15% of high school students get the recommended eight hours of sleep each night. If we can’t get them to bed sooner, at least we can help them fall asleep faster (and without glowing phones in their faces). Challenge your students to start small and commit to heading to bed with their books to read for even five minutes. It’s like a certain snack crisp that comes in a tube…bet you can’t read for just five minutes.

  4. Reading Develops Empathy by Skylar Giarusso

    If there is one thing our world needs right this very minute, it’s more empathy. Not sympathy, not apathy, but empathy. The words of Atticus Finch ring more and more true each time I read them. If we could all just “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it,”  I think we could benefit from the shared perspectives that promote more patience, tolerance, and civil discourse.

  5. Audiobooks Are Another Great Option by Thomas Hamrah

    Let’s get this out of the way – I have never listened to an audiobook. Not because I don’t want to, but mostly because I haven’t broken my longstanding addiction to NPR, so most of my car time is either spent listening to Morning Edition or, if Ellie is in the car, “Let it Go” from Frozen. What’s interesting to me is that Thomas explores the idea that students think listening to an audiobook is cheating, but like most things, it’s only cheating if you don’t do the actual work. Attentive listening is a necessary life skill, one we promote in the classroom as it is often underdeveloped in our students (Let’s get real. Many adults need more work at listening too. Listen first. Think of a response and talk later). Stories are meant to be heard. Listening isn’t cheating.

  6. Reading Shapes Your Personality by Tori Murry

    Tory takes her self described “fascination with psychology” and uses the same study as Skylar but moves her conclusions in another direction. The class discussed which parts of your personality are genetically linked to relatives and which parts you can craft. I know that adolescence finds our students at the prime point in their lives to become independent thinkers, and thereby, independent people. I’d like to believe that I’m equal parts Elizabeth Bennett, Mary Anne Spier, Jo March (though I’m probably more of a Meg, so room to grow in spirit there), Offred, and the Lorax. I think it would be a blast to have students help support elements of their personalities with book characters.

  7. Reading is Fun by John Miele

    I loved that John explored how reading can challenge you to solve a mystery, allow you to escape reality, and be a “part of something” all at the same time. I’ve seen it happen in my room. I gushed so long and hard about A Monster Calls, that I now have a group of about 25 students that want to meet on a Saturday at the movie theater to see it together. “We can go to the movie and then get coffee. You know…be collegiate and talk about whether or not the movie does the book justice.” Fun! In addition, that social element can be defining. “Everyone” read R.L. Stine when I was a kid. Our students “all” read Harry Potter. Books promote belonging and genuine belonging promotes positive feelings. This is at the heart of my classroom and I may be biased, but it is fun.

  8. Reading Will Make You Live Longer by Maeson Nolan

    I’m going to need extra years in my life to read all the books on my “next up” list, that’s for sure, so if a study from Yale is telling me that reading 3.5 hours per week will add two years to my live, I’ll dismiss my misgivings about sample size, variables, and math in general (never been my strong suit anyway). 730 days is a lot of reading. Now, I just need to get Yale to do a study on beach reading.

  9. Choice Encourages Reading by Nicole Kudelka

    Choice is nothing new to 3TT, but what struck me about this perspective was the way one of Nicole’s classmates phrased her insights on why choice matters: “Assigned books become more of a obstacle, and shortcuts are taken because the grade is more important than the actual book.” Amy’s post on choice yesterday, shared this same sentiment: When we “make kids read a book,” we might as well mandate that they enjoy it while we’re at it. My honors kids, by and large, didn’t read more when I assigned nine whole class novels, they just got better at convincing me they read nine books. Cultural literacy and choice can coexist, they need not be mutually exclusive, so we must work to increase choice to build volume and then push for complexities (classic or not). Penny Kittle says that we must first engage in order to build volume, then complexity can follow.

  10. Reading Doubles Your Vocabulary by Brian Sayre

    A voluminous lexicon can be procured through bibliophilic tendencies. Win.

  11. Reading Preserves Your Memory by Claire Blass

    If I am going to live two years longer, I’d like to remember those years, and all that came before. No surprise, that stimulating your brain with books can help sharpen brain function. In fact, I told my classes today before silent reading that I was presenting them with an opportunity to not only be smarter, but think smarter. Seriously, will my benevolence ever cease?

  12. Just Ten Minutes of Reading Yields Better Reading by Griffen Klauser

    Griffen explores the idea that 10 minutes of reading per day (again, classes, you are welcome) is a stepping stone. In his own small experiment over Thanksgiving break, he challenged himself to read just ten minutes per day. By the end of break, he read 90 minutes in one day because he was so “into” his book. As the brain is a muscle, it needs training. I’m never going to make it through a sixty minute spin class if I haven’t exercised in months. I’m never going to finish 601 pages in East of Eden if I don’t keep after it in small chunks. And if I could give two hoots about what I’m reading, I’m not even going to make ten minutes a day for it. So, please see #9.

  13. More Reading = Better Writing by Nick Frasco

    “Reading molds your writing style.” Preach, Nick. Preach.

  14. Reading Changes Your Perspective by Noah Slakter

    I love that Noah’s insights run completely contrary to my piece Books Can’t Be Bullied. He argues that the text means nothing without a reader to understand it, and that understanding can vary from person to person (Transactional Theory), anyone?. I think back to my earliest days of teaching. Five sections of freshmen per day. Five days per week. It’s the year I developed my saying about supporting an opinion on a text with text evidence: “As long as you don’t tell me it’s about a giraffe (as I have never read something solely about a giraffe), you’re right.” Their opinions varied as widely as their converse shoe color, so we learned to synthesize those perspectives to get at meaning. Did opinions change? Certainly. Did students grow in hearing the varying perspectives of their classmates? Certainly.

  15. Reading Gives Your Brain a Workout by Samantha Bernstein

    Reading these 15 pieces certainly gave my brain a workout! I’m proof that it’s true. I also loved Samantha’s voice when she said, “The mental task of reading words on a page, processing them, hearing the voice in your head, creating a picture in your mind, and following a plot is not only a mouthful but a nice stretch for your noggin.” She encourages us all to show our brains “some love.” I love it.

If you’d like to read the student blogs in their entirety or pass along the readings to colleagues and students, take a look at each of the pieces here. And don’t forget to follow Lauren @LGZreader for more great ideas and insights. If you want to take a look at how she’s having her students promote their work on Twitter, take a look at #SESNH.

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.



Books Can’t Be Bullied

Books: “They don’t get tired and give in, they don’t rearrange their words to soothe their reader’s ego or get a better position on the shelf, and they can’t be bullied”  – Josh Corman for Book Riot.

I’m not going to get political here. I promise.

I’m quite frankly exhausted by, though no less involved in, politics these past few weeks, but when I saw this quote, I knew I needed to explore it. It does (fair warning) come from a pretty politically charged piece that you can seek out and read, if you like, but I first saw this quote completely out of context and feel that it’s a powerful statement in and of itself.

The push and pull of it intrigues me.

I first pictured a book: proud, immovable, and cool. Spine bent ever so slightly, tantalizing a reader with the ideas inside, like the love interest in a dark romance who reads Goethe in tiny coffee shops and spells color with a “u”:

I’ve got what you need, but I’m in charge here. We go at my pace. Turn my pages to see where I will lead you. You aren’t the first and you won’t be the last. 

Aloof in the face of need, careful not to promise too much. If you come to this book looking for fulfillment, it won’t permit you to find it. Too easy. It’s not about you. It’s about the message.

I can also see this book as a soldier on the front lines, battling to retain pride in its themes. Beat down by two star Amazon reviews, milk spilled across its pages, and the misrepresentation of translation, reprinting, and censorship. Not desperate, but insistent:

See me. See what I really am. What I have to offer. I am not what you purport me to be. I am not what others say I am. Think. Judge for yourself. 

But what does any of this mean for our classrooms?

For my students, It means we are going to write about it. I want to know what they think. What identity this quote suggests books have, and thereby what role in our lives? What impact?

See, in an age that not so subtly suggests that books are made better by individual interpretation, I would argue we sometimes give ourselves too much credit.

I might go so far as to suggest that we need books to be a bit immovable these days.

It’s not all about us. What we like. What we need. What we get out of an experience.  Of course, authors need to make money to keep writing books, but on the back of my copy of East of Eden, Steinbeck is casually smoking a cigarette and weaving a tale of good and evil. Is there really so much room for interpretation there? Should there be?

Yes, we, and our students, benefit immensely from challenging conventional thought and learning to build meaning from difficult texts through personal connection, but at the end of that journey, the book remains. The nuance may be up for debate, but the message, perhaps not.

Books offer us a place to see that which does not grow old. The words are pressed between the pages, meaning what they did when they were published. It is we who change and must work to balance how perception influences theme.

Tweets scroll past in soundbites on the screen. Facebook spins and updates with a thousand new ideas with every pull of a thumb. Books remain what they always have been. They cannot be bullied to change with the times. They are timeless, and as such, essential to our survival in the era of eight second attention spans.

So as we bring ourselves to a text, we must be willing to meet it halfway.

It’s not about you, or not only about you.  It’s about the two of us. Book and reader. We can only succeed if we work at this together. 

What better lesson for these times, political or no, than to meet in the middle and align our unchangeable past with the possibilities that carefully crafted ideas can suggest for our future? A book, afterall, still needs a reader.

Let’s produce millions of resilient readers, hungry for truth, who will open books and listen, because a book is always ready to talk, and frankly, we could all stand to listen a lot more than we do.

I’d love to hear your reflection on the quote. Please feel free to join the discussion below in the comments. 

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout. She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.


Down and Dirty Diction

My AP Language and Composition students have been waist deep, nay, armpit deep in literary analysis these past few weeks. Of the three types of essays my AP’ers will write, this is always the one that gives them the most trouble. Students are asked to read a piece of prose and then write an essay in which they analyze how the rhetorical strategies the author uses help to achieve his/her purpose.

Though students are familiar with literary analysis, they are often most familiar with analysis that gets at the “what” as opposed to the “how.” I explain to them that deep literary analysis involves what the author is trying to achieve with the writing, as opposed to only what the content itself suggests.

Once we get into it, students often have a lot to say, but lack the developed analysis skills to artfully communicate what they’re seeing. We work to expand and deepen the analysis with specifics.

Early in our study of analysis, we utilize two key acronyms to hone our craft study. DIDLS (which makes everyone giggle) and SOAPS.


Amelia provides suggestions to a peer on diction analysis of an AP practice essay

Students can use analysis of Subject, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, and Speaker to provide context to their essays and justify the purpose sandwiched in the middle of this acronym. Then, in terms of which rhetorical strategies we can analyze that achieve that purpose, we jump into Diction, Imagery, Details, Language (as in figurative), and Syntax. Our discussions focus on adding the elements together to comment on, for example, how diction contributes to imagery, pathos is built through details, or how various elements create an overall tone for the piece.

Of all the DIDLS (mmwahahahah) components, however, diction is the one that students struggle with year after year. Case in point, a claim about diction submitted on a post-it note after our first look (without direction from me) at diction:

The author uses diction to achieve his purpose.
Ok…You’ve zeroed in on one element. Good. But you are telling me the author uses words. I’m not sure that’s exactly the specificity the AP readers are looking for.

To combat (or encourage, if you are feeling friendlier) such insight, I’ve developed several components to diction study.

  1. Detail with students what their options are. They need to be specific in relating how the diction is used, so we start with something basic like fill in the blank.

    The author uses __________ diction in order to ____________. 

  2. Then, they need the tools to fill in that first blank. I provide a list of terms that could be used to describe diction. We define a few they are curious about, discuss some they are already familiar with, and then choose several to brainstorm around.

    Nostalgic might be used when the author wants to fondly remember the past. 
    Patriotic would be found in political speeches or Fourth of July gatherings. 

  3. I then have students practice focusing their own writing using these words. During quick writes, students choose a specific type of diction and purpose, then set off to match the two in a quick piece on a topic of their choosing.

    Technical diction to write about a process for downloading an app. 
    Curt diction to decline an invitation to prom with a jerkface.

  4.  Next up, my students are going to be analyzing some actual AP prompts specifically for diction and for homework, locating an editorial they can analyze for the same purpose. We’ll be doing quick 1 minute speeches that consist of analysis of the editorials purpose and specific words used to achieve it.

Other practice comes from analysis of diction in their independent novels, some work with Nancy Dean’s Voice Lessons on diction, and quick table discussions around taking famous lines with specific diction and changing that diction to completely change the connotation or meaning of the selection.

It was the laziest of times, it was the craziest of times. (A modern diction twist to reflect senioritis in the classroom).


Amanda provides feedback to a peer on her AP Analysis practice 

All in all, students are swimming in words and I love it.

It’s how this happens: 

The author uses diction to achieve his purpose.
Ok…you are telling me the author uses words…
The author uses colloquial diction to achieve his purpose.
Better…the specificity of the diction gets you closer, but why use that type of diction?
The author uses colloquial diction to talk with his son about sex.
Interesting. Why would the author want to do that? 
The author of this passage, a father who wants to connect with his teenage son, uses colloquial diction to try and ease the awkward nature of a conversation about sex. Not surprisingly, this attempt to be super hip backfires when his son realizes this false “cool” is not at all hip, let alone effective.

How do you help students explore an author’s use of diction? Please share some ideas in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.


Looking to the Future: Students as Changemakers

As teachers, we have a unique opportunity, and I would say responsibility, to see our students not only as the beautiful (challenging, curious, and occasionally perplexing) people they are, but also as the adults we want them to be: consumers of information, thoughtful citizens, empathetic neighbors, considerate collaborators, creative problem solvers, and kindhearted souls.

Specifically as English teachers and workshop practitioners, we lay a foundation for these futures with classrooms rooted in a sincere passion for reading, writing, speaking, and listening. We advocate for our students through literacy, because their futures depend on a capacity to actively engage with the human condition.

P. David Pearson,  founding editor of the Handbook of Reading Research and professor of Language and Literacy and Human Development at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, said that “a teacher’s job is always to bridge from the known to the new.” We work each day with students whose experiences, beliefs, passions, and preferences vary as widely as our own, but together we take what is fixed and challenge it to stretch, bend, and grow.

In the process, we end up with countless stories of students falling back in love with reading, challenging their opinions through talk with fellow classmates, digging into their writing to push past self imposed limits of where words and expression can take them. I shared a quote from Barbara Kingsolver with my students the other day, specifically for diction analysis, but probably more importantly for talk:

“Art is the antidote that can call us back from the edge of numbness, restoring the ability to feel for another.”

We discussed the far reaching definition of “art” (including literature and composition) and the suggestion in this line, art not only speaks to us, but heals us and build empathy within us. Several students throughout the day noted the need for this type of beauty in our current politically turbulent times.

“Congress should have a book club,” one student suggested.
“The whole country needs a book club,” another chimed in.
“Yeah, make them talk about feelings and stuff like Mrs. Dennis does.”
“Well,” I smiled slowly, “if they used our small group discussion rubrics for assessment, they would have to provide text evidence for their opinions, politely disagree with other members of the group and support their contrasting ideas with more evidence when necessary, and work to show leadership skills by actively engaging all members of the group. Sounds like a good place to start for all of us.”

See, even high school students know that art can be the mirror we need to lift up in order to carefully consider our actions and how those actions impact others and the community at large.

It is with this in mind that I share a few brief stories to further inspire your commitment to and passion for the work we do. Students that internalize the power of words, communication, and concentrated energy for making the world a better place become living mentor texts that we desperately need in order to motivate current students to keep pushing, keep questioning, and keep believing in their own capacity to make a difference.

Sam Kraemer was my student twice, and was the type of kid you’d like to fill your whole classroom with: thoughtful, inquisitive, charming, hard-working, funny, and smart. Having made the decision to be a newscaster in the sixth grade, Sam now finds himself as the weekend anchor for the 5:30 and 10:00 o’clock news at NewsCenter 1 in Rapid City, South Dakota, a position he was promoted to after less than a year on the job as a reporter. sam-2

Sam recently came back to school to visit and, of course I could believe the confident young man standing before me, but what struck me was the depth of understanding he already had about the role he is playing in this world. Having asked him where this passion for reporting came from, he said firmly, “the storytelling.”

samHe knows that his reporting efforts can show “the American people what is actually going on” and  that “the world is a better place when facts are clearly established and people have the right to think for themselves. I guess I just enjoy my role in presenting info & stories for people to use in that thinking process.”

How often do we all preach about the importance of clear and careful thought? And here is a young man, in an age when journalists have become a group too often mistrusted and maligned, whose believe in the power of educating the opinions of others, makes my heart swell.

Sam goes on: “A lot of people don’t have time to follow government closely, pay attention to how things happening nationally or internationally affect them, or even know about crime/incidents just down the street for them. Through ample & clear communication, I can be that trustworthy source of information. I can present the facts — not with opinion, but with context — for the viewer to consume and formulate an opinion on.”

What more could we want from our kids than for them to realize that their role in the future matters? That writing and storytelling and communication that ensues matters.

 As Sam concludes, “I know I can share relevant information that either gets people thinking or even spurs action. And that right there is how I try to make the world a better place.” (Shared with me like all of the convictions that truly make a difference in the world, via Facebook message at 3:15 a.m. Classic).

Here is one of Sam’s recent broadcasts. A piece, where as he says, that presenting both sides of an issue with national implications,  “let [his viewers] decide whose argument had more merit.” Fair and balanced news reporting? Sign me up.

Sarah Matuszak graduated from Franklin in 2012 and to say she was passionate doesn’t do her soaring spirit justice. A deep thinker with a kind heart, Sarah finds herself as a paramedic in North Dakota and recently took her “constant obsessive preoccupation with sarahthe world’s bleeding” to Standing Rock. Having worked with the United States Army, firefighting, and in law enforcement, Sarah says that “being a paramedic comes close to what sets my soul on fire, but I’ve found that activism is where I belong. I use all the skills I’ve learned from those aforementioned fields, and apply them to activism.”

Now, just as we’ve all encouraged our students to do, Sarah has taken her passion to print with an article for The Huffington Post detailing her position on and work at Standing Rock.

When she published her piece, “December 5th Is Not the End Of Standing Rock,”  Sarah posted it to Facebook and tagged me. Years ago, right before she took the AP Language test, I gave Sarah a note of encouragement, telling her that I not only knew she had no reason to be nervous for the test, I also knew I would see her writing in the New Yorker someday. Little did I know, she would keep the note all these years and dedicate her first published piece to me.



To say that Sarah is invested in the betterment of our planet, would be to shortchange the depth of her character and the depth of her commitment to humanity. Sarah was destined to take her educated opinions and make the world think about them long before she ever walked into my classroom, but the encouragement she received along the way, meant something. And just as she says, “firsthand experience makes it real,” seeing the potential of our students makes their dreams that much more real too.

Austin Bohn spent some time with me in the classroom last year. He inspired several of my students to challenge themselves, specifically Bennett Dirksmeyer. I wrote about it in a post about students inspiring students. Both young men credit our shared class IMG_0123experiences, and the books and essays they’ve read as a result, with teaching them how to think. Bennett, I’ll be writing about again in a few years when he becomes the first President of the United States to listen more than he talks, but Austin is already putting his passions to good use through writing.

His two published pieces appear on Medium, an app designed for “readers on the go.” Both selections, “New popularity for unpopular opinions…and new a responsibility for the unpopular” and “Dissonance of the Day: Is Twitterspeak Orwell’s Newspeak?” use Austin’s charismatic voice and probing curiosity to challenge readers’ thinking. In fact, I just went back and reread his piece about Twitterspeak and his insights from last January on Orwell’s 1984 are feeling eerily familiar as the novel is once again a bestseller in our age of alternative facts and fake news.

Our students listen.
Our students internalize our enthusiasm.
Our students have big dreams, and we can give them mirrors in the form of books, time to write, and safe places to develop and share their ideas, that allow them to see themselves more clearly.

If we’re lucky, they turn those mirrors around and hold them up to the world, so we can see each other more clearly too.


How do you encourage your students to be changemakers? Share some stories in the comments below of students and former students who are out there making a difference! 


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

Clickbate Goes to College: Challenging Readers Daily

With my daughter Ellie fast approaching the age of four (when did that happen?), we watch a fair amount of Sesame Street these days and we are working on letter sounds (“N, nah, Narwhal” makes me smile every time), so at our house, C is for cookie. However in my classroom, with the start of the new semester, I’ve been telling my students that C is for Challenge.

Choice has been at the forefront for most of the year so far, and while it’s a workshop non-negotiable I have personally seen the power of, we need to step up the challenge portion of our programming.

For some, this means simply getting through a text. Yes, workshop breeds excitement around reading and an increase in the number of students consuming books is sure to follow, but there are always holdouts (Shana has a list of books to hook those holdouts, so have at it). I have several holdouts this year. Some are too busy, some are too easily distracted, and some are too downright stubborn. As a result, their reading has stalled.

Other students are entrenched:
Dystopian novels or bust.
Jodi Picoult or nothing.
Nicholas Sparks is the only one who can speak to my soul.
John Green is my God. 
I’m allergic to nonfiction.
This book has more than 300 pages…so, yeah…that’s a no.

Now, don’t get me wrong. These kids are reading, but even though my book talks are riveting (I’m sure) and full of variety, and we explore countless texts together through mini lessons, and, and, and…they are still reading only what they know already. For this group, and for all, I’m going to try Amy’s Personal Reading Challenge. 

However, if you are anything like me, sometimes the long game is…long. To maintain momentum for all, I am constantly on the lookout for pieces that will both interest and challenge each and every day. Sometimes the successes need to be a bit more bite sized. Thought provoking essays and articles, as opposed to entire novels.


Enter: Arts and Letters Daily.

My AP Literature colleague Kevin Nettesheim shared this resource with me a few weeks back and I love it, love him, love it all.

Much like Amy’s post about using The Skimm as an easy way for kids to stay informed about major current events (and as she puts it, to just be smarter), Arts and Letters Daily is a one stop shop for pieces from, as the website states, the “Chronicles of Higher Education.” Started in New Zealand in 1998 by  Denis Dutton (university philosopher…sounds like a thought provoking post), the website was created as a place for people to go for a “daily for a dose of intellectual stimulation.”


A quick glance across the homepage, proves to be a feast for the intellectually curious (or those we hope will be). Articles, reviews, and essays from all over the web are organized by Articles of Note, New Books, and Essays & Opinions.


Beneath each of those three headings is an extensive collection of recently published works, each summed up in about 20 words meant to pique your interest:

  • Fake news is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, fake news is older than real news. As facts recede, the power of concocted stories will only grow
  • What’s to blame for the death of the Western artistic tradition and the beginning of something entirely new? The dangerous idea of creative genius
  • How did Wallace Stevens, who lived an excruciatingly mundane and superficial life, write some of the most inventive poetry of the 20th century?
  • Science’s biggest dilemma isn’t funding, replicability, or lack of public respect. It’s language. Science has an English problem, and that means a lot of lost knowledge
  • The power of “yuck!” and “ew!”. Disgust, which comes from our evolutionary fear of germs, goes a surprisingly long way toward explaining our manners, morals, and religion

As for research opportunities, just glance down the lefthand side of the page. Links to:

  • 26 world newspapers
  • 16 television news websites
  • 107 major magazines
  • 52 book reviews
  • 54 links to other collections of content specific media, blogs, and ideaspaces

So far this year, I have used ALDaily in several ways:

  • Quick Write response – I asked my AP students to spend a few minutes searching the site for an article that intrigued them. I gave them several minutes to read the piece, reflect on it in their notebooks, talk at their tables about what they found, and then share out some of the interesting topics. We ended up talking briefly about procrastination, Arthur Miller, stem cell controversies, and Freud.
  • One Pager – Students needed to chose an article from ALDaily, read it, select a quote that struck them, and write about their expanded thinking related to the selection.
  • Article of the Week – I’m not as faithful to this practice as the name would indicate, or as Kelly Gallagher would likely advocate, but we do study information texts and practice skills involving main idea and word choice analysis, summary skills, and bias identification. My most recent article of study was with my sophomores. We read and discussed “Shame on You,” a piece with a hook that asked “What would Plato tweet?” We discussed the perceived freedom and catharsis of social media against the dangers it poses to honest reflection and conformity.
  • Beefing up my own quippy wit – This week, I’ve already talked with various groups of kids about science, poetry, an obscure language of the Amazon, and Emily Dickinson. I’ve also been able to share with kids that I am practicing what I preach : “Spend some of your time reading what matters. What matters to you and what matters to those around you.” 

The motto at Arts and Letters Daily is “Veritas odit moras.”
It means “Truth hates delay.”

Challenge your readers without delay, every day.

Arts and Letters Daily can be found at

Have you used Arts and Letters Daily? How might you use a collection of intriguing works to challenge your readers? Please comment below.



Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

Survival Strategy: Return to Structure

The Google calendar that the Three Teachers share has us on a rotating schedule. Fixed days with suggested ideas around types of posts and the three of us cycle through clock_stockeach week. Today, my friends, the suggestion is “strategy,” and boy do I need one.

After this lovely break from school, my daughter’s sleep schedule is a mess, I think I’ve put on five-ish pounds of cookie related belly weight, and the house is an unmitigated disaster zone of new toys without homes, student papers I’m placing around the house in an effort to combat “out of sight, out of mind,” and the organized chaos that comes with putting away all the holiday decorations while my daughter yells, “But we CAN’T put the tree outside! It will be lonely!”

So, what I guess I’m suggesting with all of that is that, although it has been legitimately lovely, I need to return to some structure or I’m going to lose it. I can’t watch The Grinch one more time, or I might pop Cindy Lou Woo in her tiny little nose. Bah! Humbug!

Was it really only a little over a week ago that I sprinkled unbridled joy across the blog in my Holiday Poem? My…how the Merry has fallen.

handsPlease don’t get me wrong. I’ve had an amazing break from work. Many aren’t able to share in the blessing of having such a richly restorative holiday from their employment, and I am grateful. I spent time watching my three-year-old revel in the magic of the holidays. We shared time with family and friends, laughing, toasting, and just generally enjoying one another’s company. I stayed up late reading. I rediscovered the thrill of flying down a sledding hill, shrieking like a teenager and giggling with my daughter. I even had one day where everyone was out of the house. I napped. On my own couch. Without having to block out Dory telling me to “just keep swimming” for the six millionth time.

However, while summer affords one the opportunity to release from the stresses of work and still find plenty of time to get on a schedule of chosen activities, winter break is a whirlwind, from which, many feel they need a vacation.

So, here is my strategy. A strategy to shake off the crazies and get back to some workshop non negotiables to send us back to school with a renewed enthusiasm around structure:

Step 1. Get back to school. Easier said than done, I’m sure. That alarm is going to go off tomorrow at 5:15 a.m. and I am not going to be happy, but this past week has reminded me that without consistency, I start to lose it. I need more purpose than Netflix programming selection. Much like workshop, I need consistent components of purpose in my everyday. They give me a roadmap to achieve goals. Goal one, get out of bed for work tomorrow.

Step 2. Read with my kids and then talk with them about what they read over break. I’m guilty of getting away from reading/conferring with my kids in the past few weeks. In the flurry of planning, preparing for exams when we return, fifty meetings after school, PD time to plan for, and countless other distractions, I started to let the few precious minutes at the start of class slip back to menial task time. Check email, organize papers, finalize workshop activity, etc. Our first day back, I’m going to read with my students at the start of each class (Warning! Shameless plug for #3TTBookClub to follow: Perhaps I’ll choose East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Between the World and Me by Tah-Nehisi Coates, or  Assessing Writing, Teaching Writers: Putting the Analytic Writing Continuum to Work in Your Classroom by Mary Ann Smith and Sherry Seale Swain. All fantastic choices for the month of January). The next class period, and those that follow, I need to talk with my kids at the beginning of the hour. Their only homework was to read over break. I want to hear about it.

Step 3. Set reading rate goals with my kids (another practice I slipped away from over the weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter Break…talk about a need for resolutions. If the past paragraph didn’t indicate my own failings at upholding a major tenant of workshop, this one sure will. I never slip on giving my kids time to read. We have 82,793 things to work through in a class period, but I don’t take their reading time. It’s just that important. However, holding them accountable for their reading outside of class? That’s a never ending battle. I’m going to get back to students setting goals in their notebooks, then I’m going to employ my newly favorite technique: Have students snap a picture of the page and email it to me. Stacks and stacks of notebooks are occasionally necessary, but they also give me hives. An inbox full of messages is somehow a challenge, as opposed to a stack of notebooks which is somewhat of a burden, meaning I end up collecting them far less than I would really like to.

Step 4. Get back to writing. We religiously write in class each day. Over the weekend, I wrote thank-you cards and last Wednesday, I wrote down my Jimmy John’s order for a friend. On the drive home from my in-laws tonight, I looked out at the last of the Christmas lights on passing houses and smiled at the memory of the big, old fashioned lights on the bushes outside the house where I grew up. The memory was quickly followed by an ache to write about it. I miss writing when I let myself feel “too busy” to do it, so I need to take William Wordsworth’s advice: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” Tomorrow, we will write about what makes us ache.

Step 5. Reconnect with kids. In one of the many moments I allowed myself to be distracted from work today, I saw a Tweet from literacy specialist Shawna Coppola, who said, “Relationships with students are more important than any curriculum.” Please see step 2 above and repeat that daily during workshop, drafting, small group work, experimentation, last 30 seconds of class, time.


The New Year is a time to move forward with renewed vigor. My final exams this semester will ask students to reflect on their growth as thinkers over the course of the first half of the school year and discuss specific takeaways from our work. They will then be asked to make suggestions as to how they will apply that learning during second semester.

In much the same way, I’m reflecting on how a lack of structure makes me more tired than teaching, parenting, and living combined. I was certainly ready for a break, but I’m also ready to get back at it.

The strategy is simple: Get back into workshop WITH your kids, and refresh that commitment to do what works each and every day.

Happy New Year, All. Welcome back!

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Though loathe to discuss herself in the third person, she does delight in hearing her daughter ask for ‘just one more chapter,’ dreaming about European vacations ala Rick Steves, and sitting in the snugs of authentic Irish pubs. She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels.
Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.



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