Tag Archives: AP English Language

Mini-lesson Monday: Remembering 9/11 and a study of language

Our students are too young to remember the events of 9/11. And while we are not history teachers, I do think we have a responsibility and an opportunity to help them try to make sense of the horrors of that September morning and how it impacts their lives today.


Pvt. Hyrum Chase Rasmussen

In church yesterday, the congregation stood and sang three verses of “The Star Spangled Banner.” This song has new meaning for me since my son Hyrum joined the Army this summer. It may have new meaning for you if you’ve been following the Colin Kaepernick-taking-a-knee-event-fall-out-and-discussion. I want my students to be able to make sense of their world and one way I can help them do that is to provide them with thought-provoking pieces that help them make connections. Maybe one of these texts will help them find their own “new meaning.”

In honor of September 11, the every day people and every day heroes who lost their lives, the families who still mourn loved ones, the soldiers who valiantly died facing foes in foreign lands, and the men and women willing to serve today in a time of unrest and war, this is the lesson that I will share with my students today.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will react to a first-hand account of 9/11 in their writer’s notebooks. They will formulate ideas on how this one story relates to our growing theme of what it means to be courageously human. Students will then analyze a text and compare the writer’s use of language to a text read previously.

Lesson:  We’ve already discussed the question, “What does it mean to be courageously human?” a phrase I borrowed from a text we read last week. (I read Chequan Lewis’ piece as a read aloud, wanting students to just listen and enjoy his use of language. Then, later we read it again and analyzed the literary and rhetorical devices he uses to create the meaning. I modeled how to annotate and asked students to write their own notes in the margins — something I will expect them to do throughout the year.)

Today I will remind students to read texts with pens in hand, noting the writer’s interesting use of language, any points of confusion, any words they don’t know, the structure of the text, and any and all devices the writer uses to craft meaning. Today’s text is the masterful piece Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote September 12, 2001.

After students have time to read, annotate, and discuss in small groups, we will come together as a class and craft an anchor chart that details the moves Pitts makes in comparison to those craft moves made by Mr. Lewis. I will charge students to model these moves in their own writing throughout the year.

Follow up:  The anchor chart will hang in the room as a reminder that writers are intentional in the moves they make as they craft meaning. Students will be expected to be intentional in their own writing as they work on various forms of writing in class and on their blogs this year.

I Prefer a Community of Confident Writers — Our Jump into Understanding a Writer’s Craft


Before spring term was over, I’d written two pages of notes in the back cover of my writer’s notebook. I titled it “Remember to Do Things to do Differently.” I’m a bit ambitious — and I realize, often, too hard on myself. Although I knew my students learned last yearemember-to-do-things-differentlyr, I wasn’t confident that they couldn’t have learned more.

I imagine you’ve been there, too. Always second guessing.

One of the things I knew I needed to improve was my relationships with students — I needed them to be good and strong, faster.  I also needed to help students jump in quicker to the complexities of craft analysis without scaring the poor little dears.

So last week, the second week of school, I did what Lisa just wrote about yesterday. I “Encourage[d] Students to Start Sharing Who They Are,” and I did it by sharing a favorite poem by Wislawa Szymborska: “Possibilities.”

I asked students to study the poet’s language in each line and then write their own “Possibilities” poem, imitating the poet’s sentence structure and word play. I gave them a copy of my annotations and wrote my own poem as a model.

This proved to be an excellent lead into the rhetorical analysis students must be able to do in AP Language. I was able to see which students quickly understood how to look closely at an author’s craft — and which ones did not.

The best part though was what I learned about my students. All their preferences!!

Last Friday, when their poems were due, we did our first Author’s Chair share in class.

First, to help students build confidence, they read their poems to a partner.



Then, volunteers sat in our Author’s Chair and read their poems to the class.

While the student read his poem, everyone else sat with sticky note and pen in hand ready to offer “blessings,” things they liked about the author’s use of language, or connections they could make to his ideas.


After each writer shared, the class flooded him with “blessings.” Smiles grew wide, trust blossomed, and the community that I felt was missing for too long a time last year took root.readingblessings

Bonus:  When students read their little notes, carefully crafted by peers who listened to
their writing, their confidence as writers grew. Too bad we ran out of class time. I might have run out of sticky notes if all students would have felt the desire to share.


I wouldn’t have minded.

I would not have minded at all.


I would love to hear your ideas on building community and/or introducing students to rhetorical analysis. Please join the conversation and share in the comments.

Poetic Rhetoric — Spoken Word Poems in AP Lang

For a long while now, I’ve wanted to write spoken word poems with my students.

I use Sarah Kay’s “Hands” at the beginning of the year to start students thinking about their lives and the important moments that shape them. We draw hands in our notebooks and fill them with words that represent our memories. Like many of you, I first did this myself with Penny Kittle, and now I draw a hand in every notebook as one of the first pieces I write in it.

I use Shane Koyczan’s “To This Day” and ask students to write a response to it. Sometimes they tell me things that break my heart. Like the fall on the first day of school when two different girls in two different classes wrote about the abuse they experienced from their fathers at home.

These and other poems students find interesting and inspiring, and while they’ve always worked as never-fail quick writes, I wanted to challenge students to use all the skills we’ve focused on this year to write their own poetry. My student teacher, Zach, and I finally figured out how.

And students wrote some powerful poems with some perfectly poetic language.

We called the assignment:  Poetic Rhetoric. what-matters-most-in-life-are-quotes-and-stuff-that-tell-you-what-life-is-really-about_motto

The initial task read like this:  Craft a spoken word poem that addresses a personal conflict and/or a social issue, include rhetorical techniques and literary and rhetorical devices to convince your audience of the need for positive change. Perform your poem for the class live, or create an automated slide show with visuals, or a video recording as a way to digital.

Every day for a week we shared a different spoken word poem. Sometimes we wrote responses as a way to mine for our own ideas for topics. Sometimes we studied the lyrics, closely reading and analyzing structure, tone, and literary devices. We encouraged students to use the work of these poets as their mentors:  “Remember, we learn to write when we study good writing.”

We listened to “Paper People” by Harry Baker, and we talked about theme and sentences that hold the most weight, ones that might be his position statement.

We listened to “Education” by Aadil Malik, and we talked about evidence and examples that support the main idea.

We listened to “Touchscreen” by Marshall Davis Jones, and we talked about repetition, puns, and other literary devices that make language clever and meaningful.

We analyzed the structure of “To This Day,” and we talked about how Koyczan moves from self, to another, to another, to everyone as a way to finally get to his moving plea “to get a better mirror.”

Zach taught mini-lessons, reminding students how to use personification, puns, allusions, and fresh figurative language. We gave students time to write in class, and time to talk with one another, and time to talk with us about their process and their product.

We provided resources on how to write performance poetry like this and this and this.

And students wrote beautiful and meaningful arguments.

Most students performed their poems live in class. (I did allow for a teleprompter since I am the worst at memorizing myself.) We have a slam poetry night coming up on our campus in April. I hope many of my student will perform their poetry again there.

Here are the lyrics to some of the ones I personally enjoyed. I wish I had video of the performances. You’ll have to trust me — they were awesome.

Nefertiti Franklin:  WelcomeToStereotypesAA

Jennifer Melendez:  Find Your Charge, which includes an evaluation of her writing process

Kennedy Jenkins: Use Your Mind

Fabian Gutierrez: ADPoem

And here is an example of one of the poems published digitally. I love her language.

Jessica Ortiz:  People Love to Talk

Reminders to self for when I do this writing unit another year:

A. Take more time with topic selection. As with any writing, if students choose topics that are too broad, or they do not know enough about, the writing is harder to revise.

B. Meet with students more often. Conferring is essential to helping students find what they want to say. Too many students procrastinate and then think they can produce quality writing at the last minute. I must remember to confer at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the writing process. Schedule time for this.

C. Allow time for students to provide one another more targeted feedback. Although they met in small groups and talked about their writing, they did not use their time as effectively as they could have. If I will be more purposeful in modeling what a helpful feedback group looks like, students will be able to help one another more.

I love teaching students to write. I’m not sure there’s a better gift than reading their published work and seeing that they understand the power of their voices. Sometimes they blow my socks off with the force of their wisdom. I love it when they get it.

Have you used spoken word poetry in your writing class? How? What are your favorite poems?

#FridayReads — Oh, Mercy! Have I got a plan for this mentor text

Usually I read about four books at a time. This makes for a mess on the bedside table, the coffee table, the kitchen table. I rarely use bookmarks, which is a shame because I have quite a lovely collection.

I end up leaving books split open and sound asleep right where I left them –sometimes just so I can remember the parts I know I want to use in class. I refuse to read on until I capture the sentence or passage that gives me pause. Such is the case with my new now bent-spine-copy of Just Mercy, a Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. I’ve been stuck on page 18.

Here’s a portion of the passage I will use with my AP Lang students. You will, of course, find the rest of it when you buy the book, or here.

     When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison: one in every three black males babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.

     We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.

     We also make terrible mistakes. Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death and nearly executed . Hundreds more have been released after being proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing. Presumptions of guild, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.


     We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and — perhaps — we all need some measure of unmerited grace. 


Before we ever read the text, and I did pull much more of it than I’ve posted here, we’ll spark our thinking with an image like this, posted at The Sentencing Project, and then write our initial responses in our writer’s notebooks:

Next, we will TALK. I know my students will want to share what they think about this graphic. Many will identify personally with it because they know a family member or a friend who’s served prison time.

When I introduce them to Stevenson’s text, I’ll give them a purpose for reading — besides just comprehending the message (identifying the purpose is a breeze since he tells us the reason he writes the book) — I want my students to notice the structure, the progression between ideas, the repetition and patterns they will see in the language. All the clues that build the tone.

I will ask them to mark the text, noting their thinking about these things. Without a purpose for reading, too many of my students struggle with the stamina they need to make it through even a page when I ask them to read critically.

Next, we will TALK. Talking will help some students understand what they read. It will help other students clarify their understanding. Some students will have noted what I asked them to notice as they read. I will rely on them to help the others — skill level is just one way my students are diverse.

I will also hand them a stack of questions that prepare them to write. They will read something like this:

What do you know about the writer based on what he writes?

What is the Stevenson’s purpose? Why does he come out and tell us so plainly?

What are the facts in this piece? What are opinions? How do you know?

What do you notice about the structure, any patterns, repetition? What do they do for the message?

How does Stevenson move between ideas?

And then we will write. Maybe I’ll give a prompt like this: Based on the text, and our discussion, is Stevenson’s opening argument effective, why or why not?  Maybe I’ll ask students to come up with their own analytical-style question to respond to. (I like this idea a lot.)  [see Talk Read Talk Write]

That’s probably enough for one class period, but my mind is still stirring:

  • What if I ask students to problematize the issue? Who are the stakeholders? Think all the way around the issue. Why do they care? Why do we care? What kinds of questions do we have about the claims Stevenson makes? What kinds of evidence do we need to convince us they are valid? How and when could anything regarding this issue change?
  • What if I ask students to identify just one of Stevenson’s claims and then research it? I assume the author provides support throughout the book. I’ll know when I keep reading. But what if students did a bit of research and then collaborated on substantiating Stevenson’s claims. Collaborative writing can be a powerful learning experience.
  • What if I ask students to brainstorm other issues Stevenson’s text suggests? We could probably create a pretty elaborate bubble map of ideas. These could lead to student choice in research topics.

What do you think? Any other ideas?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

See the #Storify of #engchat March 23, 2015 — Fantastic Resources for Poetry

Thanks to @Drama_Chick for this Storify.

For one very fast hour this evening, Twitter blew up with the talk of poetry as English teachers near and far shared ideas for immersing their students in the beauty of words. So many fantastic resources and such great thinking! Thank you to everyone who participated, and thank you for taking a look here even if you didn’t.

I remembered one thing I wanted to share and didn’t. It comes from the book  A Surge of Language–Teaching Poetry Day by Day by Wormser and Cappella. I modify this list a bit and use many of these questions with my AP Language students as we look at non-fiction passages for rhetorical analysis.

Ten Questions to Ask About Words

1. What word intrigues you most?

2. Is there a word that confuses you?

3. What word surprises you?

4. What word seems most metaphorical?

5. Is there a word that seems unnecessary?

6. What word is most important?

7. What is the most physical word in the poem?

8. What is the most specific word in the poem?

9. What is the strongest sound word in the poem?

10. What is the most dynamic verb in the poem? (12)

I believe that poetry can make us better humans. If every person immersed himself in beautiful language, we’d all find much more peace. Be more kind. Loving. Genuine.

Let’s try it.

Challenge on.

Why Workshop? It’s All Very Simple

Attending the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute for the past two summers has been one of the best blessings in my teaching career. I’ve remembered what it means to be a student, replete with pages and pages of reading assignments, almost nightly research papers, and the expectation that I will participate in class.

Sure, I earned graduate credit, but more importantly, I sat as a student. I remembered what it feels like to have a teacher present a task, encourage a discussion, require I read something. I remembered what it means to be the pupil. And I wanted to learn.

I think all students want to learn. I also think that many of them do not know how.

Last week I met with my new friend Holly. We shared ideas about our plans for August and how we will more fully implement readers/writers workshop in our classrooms. We discussed what it means to struggle as a student in an English class where English is not our first language, and reading books is a new idea, and the lack of food in our home is just one component of the lack of security we feel every single day. We talked about what it must feel like to these children to fail state tests year after year. Because they do. Holly will be teaching 10th grade for the first time, and her ESL background will benefit her students immensely. I will be teaching AP English Language, and all my students will be in the AVID program. I am convinced the AVID philosophy is one every teacher should embrace:

Hold students accountable to the highest standards,
    provide academic and social support,
 and they will rise to the challenge.

It’s a philosophy every good teacher I know applies in his classroom. It’s also why so many of us choose the pedagogy of Readers and Writers Workshop. Our high standards might be the same for all students, but the support we must give them to help them rise to the various challenges with reading and writing must be individualized. Their needs are different; therefore, we must differentiate. One-on-one reading and writing conferences become daily events. We encourage, and nudge, and teach the skills that a student needs at that moment, during that task. This is authentic instruction. And it invites authentic learning.

As I think about this new school year on a new campus in a new district with new colleagues, new administrators, and new schedules (block days versus the traditional eight period days), I want to remember what it feels like from the student perspective.

“I need you to notice me, support me, show me how to learn.”

I had a colleague ask me recently, “Which is harder to plan:  teaching the traditional way with teachers making choices, or your way with students making the choices?” I should have said, “Is that really the right question?” which would have been a better response than the one I gave him.

It is hard work being a teacher in a workshop classroom. I have to know my students. I have to talk with them and know what they do with their time outside of school, who their friends are, what their dreams are for after high school. I have to be a reader, and I often have to read books I’d never read except to try to match the right book with a student who hates reading. I have to allow choice in topics, and get used to feeling uncomfortable. I have to give up control, and let teens be real in an environment that invites their opinions, and sometimes their scorn. I have to write in front of them and show my vulnerability. They have to see me struggle because all writers do. I have to love moving students as readers and writers because ultimately, if I am their English teacher, and I am not moving readers and writers, I am not doing my job.

Is it hard? Absolutely.

But here’s the thing: It’s really not a have to as much as it’s a get to.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”  ~Steve Jobs

“It’s all very simple. But maybe because it’s so simple, it’s also hard.” ~Natuski Takay

Writing Well is What Changes the World

Recently, I read Penny Kittle’s article “What We Learn When We Free Writers,” and I learned as much about myself as a writer as I did about my students. I needed to rethink some things.

See, I am trying to write a book. Most days I’m lying when I say so. I haven’t written well enough or consistently enough or passionately enough to say so.

But I am trying to.

I started reading Writing Down the Bones–Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, and I’m marking lines that resonate. So far, this is my favorite:

Write when you write (26).

I wrote it out and stuck it to my computer monitor, and during my lunch 20140407_114704break I open up my document in Drive and throw my thinking on the page. This is hard–I am so easily distracted. And the perfectionist in me nags until I go back and make revisions. I’m trying to quiet that voice.

The #100words100days challenge is helping. This started as a simple idea during #engchat a few weeks ago. I’m not consistent in posting my word count or links to what I’ve written, but I am writing. That’s what matters.

Back to the article:  Penny refers to the advice of Don Murray regarding authentic writing instruction. It includes just three things:

  1. Teach process, not product.
  2. Write yourself.
  3. Listen to your students.

I do all of these things. But sometimes, I do not do them well.

A few students and I had a big disconnect last week. They pushed back at what I was trying to get them to do. They didn’t understand. A lot.

I had failed at a few things:

A. I failed at making sure students knew that I do every writing assignment I ask them to do.

B. I failed at sharing (in a way that they understood) the enduring understandings and essential questions that directed my planning.

C. I failed at helping students see how process writing will help them with the timed writings that they will have to do on the AP exam, and it will help them with the writing they will have to do in college and beyond. (I still don’t get how they missed that.)

I assumed way too much. I guess I forgot these students are 16, and English class would be low on their list of priorities, if they kept a list.

So this morning, we slowed down. We thought about our writing and our writing habits. We wrote self-reflections, we evaluated our writing processes, and we talked.

First, I projected the stages of the continuum that Penny shared. Like her, I can see my students’ writing practices somewhere between “I won’t write” and “I freely write.”

Interestingly, when students placed their own writing practices on the continuum, with the exception of just two outliers, they all said they sat in “Stage three:  I will write, but I’m not deeply engaged with my own thinking. I want you to tell me what to write, so I can do it the way you say so and move on.”

This makes me sad, but I think I get it.

I am trying to break the writing habits students have practiced for years. Years of teachers giving prompts and writing assignments that students did not choose. Years of students writing only what they had to for a grade. No play in notebooks. No writing just for the pleasure of writing. No writing without penalty for poor grammar or mechanics.

Now we are in the fourth quarter, and I have roughly two months to turn the tide. Two months to help students get what I so desperately want them to get:  Writing well is what changes the world.

It is, you know. Just think about it.

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