Inspiration from Exceptional Student Work

Can students in any grade and any school create exceptional work that inspires others and impacts their communities? Can they accomplish these lofty goals while also meeting academic standards? Should education enable students to create something valuable, something more than a project for a grade?

The answer is yes! If you would like to see examples of exemplary projects created by students, then I encourage you to explore Expeditionary Learning’s Center for Student Work. From a book about the universe developed by fourth graders to a community resource guide created by middle schoolers to a cookbook designed by high school students, this website includes a variety of projects spanning all grade levels and all subjects.

I have had the opportunity to see many of these projects in person as well as on the website, and I have never been more inspired by student work. These projects serve as a wonderful reminder that high expectations for students do not need to be limited to high achievement on tests; high expectations for students, as well as for adults, should be about creating quality work that somehow inspires or helps other people.

Is this an idealistic view of education? Yes. But these projects prove that sometimes reality can meet our ideals, if we only give students the chance.

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Deeper Learning and Innovative Schools

After one semester of graduate school, I have been inspired to look for innovative approaches to education. During my three years of teaching, I became increasingly frustrated by the traditional structure that prevails in the majority of our public high schools. Education can and should be more than a series of classes including an endless string of assignments, papers, projects, and tests. Education should mean something more to students than grades and credits; it should provide them with opportunities to make connections to the real world and to develop skills that will prepare them for their futures. If you would like to read about innovative middle and high schools that are living up to these ideals, then I highly recommend Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century by Monica Martinez and Dennis McGrath. The eight schools discussed in the book are:

Avalon School (St. Paul, MN)

Casco Bay High School (Portland, ME)

King Middle School (Portland, ME)

High Tech High (San Diego, CA)

Impact Academy of Arts & Technology (Hayward, CA)

MC2 STEM High School (Cleveland, OH)

Rochester High School (Rochester, IN)

Science Leadership Academy (Philadelphia, PA)

While these examples demonstrate the amazing potential of education when an entire school focuses on deeper learning, they also provide inspiration for any teachers who strive to create authentic, engaging learning experiences for their students. For all teachers who sense that the traditional curriculum is not preparing students for the future, these innovative approaches present an exciting vision of what education can become if we make deeper learning a priority.

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Young Adult Literature Review #5

Title: The ArrivalScreen Shot 2014-12-11 at 6.37.54 PM

Author: Shaun Tan

Reading Level: N/A, but interest level grades 7-9 (according to Scholastic)

Synopsis: Through illustrations that are simultaneously whimsical and realistic, Shaun Tan uses only pictures to depict the story of a man who migrates to a new land in order to create a better life for his family.

Context/Themes: In this book, much of the story is left up to the reader’s interpretation. Though the ambiguity inherent in a story without text might make some readers a bit hesitant at first, having very explicit instructions about how to read this book could help reduce any resistance. The pictures, while wonderfully detailed, lack any indication of an exact location or time period, thus presenting universal themes about change, fear of the unknown, belonging, and relationships. In the classroom, teachers could ask students to respond to the story through a creative writing prompt – possibly putting a scene into words or writing a letter from one of the character’s perspectives. Having students compare their responses could lead to a fascinating discussion about how people interpret stories differently and would require students to refer to the pictures in the story to support their interpretations, which would be good practice for close-reading skills (except with images).

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(Educational) Holiday Handouts

IMG_0886Now that I have turned in my final papers and projects for the semester, I am able to relax during the second half of December for the first time in years. In the classroom, the weeks leading up to winter break always required an exhausting amount of ingenuity as I designed educational activities exciting enough to engage students distracted by visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.

Last year, I created a couple of activities that satisfied my requirements for educational value and my students’ desire for holiday fun.

  • Activity #1 Holiday Carols Mad Libs – In this activity, students review parts of speech while creating amusing mad libs out of lyrics from popular holiday songs.
  • Activity #2 Winter Scattergories – Based on the board game, Scattergories, this activity requires students to think of winter-themed words starting with each letter of the alphabet. Though this activity is mostly just for fun, it also helps students brainstorm winter words and topics for the next activity.
  • Activity #3 Winter Story Board – In this activity, students review plot elements and exercise their creative writing skills as they complete a story board for original winter-related stories (snowboarding snowmen, holiday mysteries, evil reindeer…the possibilities are endless!).

The handouts and accompanying PowerPoint are included below. Happy Holidays!

PowerPoint: Winter Mad Libs!!!

Handout: WinterMadLibsandStoryBoard

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Connectivism Reflection

In an earlier post (Sept. 18), I wrote that learning about connectivism has made me rethink how I ask students to respond to literature and participate outside of class. To review, the guiding principles in a connectivist class are “that each person creates their own perspective on the material by selecting what seems important to them, and that it is these different perspectives that form the basis for the interesting conversations and activities that follow” (Downes, 2011). In addition to learning about connectivism, I experienced this approach to learning as a student this semester. One of my graduate classes required students to create our own methods of participating outside of class; we could create a blog, contribute to the course’s Twitter hashtag, or find another way to interact with our classmates online. All of the separate contributions were then aggregated onto the course’s website.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 9.26.29 PMFor my participation, I checked the Twitter hashtag often, tweeted about relevant articles occasionally, and most importantly, started this blog. To summarize my thoughts about connectivism, I have created a short video using Powtoon, which is a great resource that enables teachers to create short animated videos. It is very easy to use, especially if you choose to modify an existing template, as I did for my video. I learned about this website from some of my classmates’ blogs. This is one great benefit of connectivism: it encourages people to share ideas and resources and learn from their peers. Thank you to my classmates for introducing me to this resource! To learn more about my reflections on connectivism, please enjoy the video below.

Article Source: Downes, S. (2011). Connectivism and connective knowledge. Huffington Post.Retrieved from:

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Young Adult Books and Classic Novels


As mentioned in my last post, I recently created a bibliography of young adult books that can be paired with classics. I found several books that could be paired with novels that are often taught in middle/high school. They are listed below!

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins. 2010. Recommended for Grades 7-9. Recommended Pairing: Night by Elie Wiesel

The novel first follows the perspective of Chiko, a Burmese boy forced to be a soldier, and then switches to the perspective of Tu Reh, a Karenni boy who captures Chiko. Though on opposite sides of the conflict, both boys strive to protect their families and learn how to be brave, respectable men. Paired with Night, this book could help students connect past atrocities to present-day wars that still affect young people around the world.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. 2012. Recommended for Grades 10-12. Recommended Pairing: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Julie, a Scottish spy captured in WWII, provides information to her captors rather than endure more torture. The significance of this decision emerges when the novel switches to the perspective of Julie’s best friend. This captivating story depicts horrific conflicts of war occurring beyond the battlefield. Teaching this novel with All Quiet on the Western Front would expose students to a variety of hardships and ethical dilemmas faced by those who fought in WWI and WWII.

The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian. 2001. Recommended for Grades 9-11. Recommended Pairing: Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Josh criticizes society through a blog that he starts under the pseudonym Larry. When his website garners unexpected levels of attention, he struggles to retain the integrity of his message within the publicity frenzy. Humorous footnotes throughout the novel highlight Josh’s witty narrative voice. With several references to Walden, Josh considers how to be a philosopher in a media-driven, consumerism-based society, and this book adds a unique 21st century twist to Thoreau’s classic text.

Nothing by Janne Teller. 2010. Recommended for Grades 10-12. Recommended Pairing: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Pierre Anthon startles his classmates with his declaration that life has no meaning. In response, Class 7A creates a “heap of meaning” to disprove Pierre’s claim. The innocent effort quickly turns grim as the students force each other to make sacrifices of greater meaning. Though horrifying at times, it could complement Lord of the Flies as it explores similar questions about mankind’s innate capacity for cruelty even within the boundaries of a civilized society.

Shattered: Stories of Children and War by Jennifer Armstrong (Ed.). 2002. Recommended for Grades 8-10. Recommended Pairing: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

This collection of twelve stories by a variety of authors illustrates the brutal effects of war on children. Told from children’s perspectives, the stories focus on the personal and humane ramifications of war, and a ribbon of text at the bottom of each page provides context for the conflicts depicted in the stories. Read alongside The Things They Carried, this book could extend the themes raised by O’Brien to a multitude of wars and cultures.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron. 2007. Recommended for Grades 11-12. Recommended Pairing: Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

During the summer after high school, James struggles to find meaning in his life. He does not want to attend college, and through a witty first-person narrative, he explores his conflicting feelings about his past, present, and future. Hailed as the modern-day Catcher in the Rye, this novel could be paired with the classic tale in a unit examining subtleties of tone, voice, and style as well as themes of happiness, loneliness, and young adulthood.

A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson. Illustrated by Philippe Lardy. 2005. Recommended for Grades 7-10. Recommended Pairing: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

In fifteen connected sonnets, known as a heroic crown of sonnets, this book uses evocative imagery, allusions, and metaphors to depict the horrors of racism and Emmett Till’s murder. The accompanying illustrations juxtapose the evil behind the crime and the awareness of injustice that was raised by Emmett’s death. Complete with an explanation of allusions used in the poems, this book could help students explore many themes from   To Kill a Mockingbird through poetry.

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Young Adult Books and Classic Plays


This semester, I took a young adult literature class, and for my final project, I created a bibliography of young adult books that can be paired with classics. I found several books that could be paired with plays that are often taught in middle/high school. They are listed below!


Blushing: Expressions of Love in Poems & Letters by Paul B. Janeczko (Ed.). 2004. Recommended for Grades 7-9. Recommended Pairing: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

This collection of poems and letters depicts the twists and turns of love, from the spark of affection to the sting of heartache. Including love poems that are both iconic and unexpected, this accessible collection invites readers to explore multiple poetic portrayals of love. Touching on many themes presented in Romeo and Juliet, these poems could contribute to a unit on the famous play that asks students to examine literary representations of love.

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman. 2009. Recommended for Grades 8-10. Recommended Pairing: Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee

This biography reads like a novel as it focuses on Charles’ relationship with his wife, Emma, and their struggle to reconcile his scientific beliefs with her religious faith. Without belaboring scientific details, the book captures the significance of Darwin’s work and his agony over how it would be received by Emma and by his contemporaries. This intimate depiction of how the creationism/evolution controversy originated would be an excellent prelude to Inherit the Wind.

Fair Coin by E. C. Meyers. 2012. Recommended for Grades 9-11. Recommended Pairing: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

When Ephraim discovers a magic coin that grants his wishes, he immediately changes his life for the better – or so he thinks. As his wishes begin resulting in unintended negative consequences, he starts to regret using the coin. Unfortunately, his friend Nathan has no qualms about using this power to his advantage. With Ephraim and Nathan as foils, this novel could complement Macbeth as it raises questions about how greed and power can affect people.

Going Going by Naomi Shihab Nye. 2005. Recommended for Grades 10-11. Recommended Pairing: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

On her 16th birthday, Florrie requests that none of her family visit a franchise establishment. This begins Florrie’s movement to protest franchises and support independent businesses in nearby towns as she yearns for an America that reflects the ideals of hard work and freedom. Despite slightly underdeveloped characters, the novel could be paired with Death of a Salesman to examine the illusions and realities of the American Dream for people running or working in small businesses.

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