Category Archives: education

Lesson planning in a suitcase

“Pack it in a small suitcase.”

That’s what a colleague told me after commiserating over our struggle to streamline our lesson plans. There are common core standards to consider, differentiated student needs, personal interests and curiosities, and high hopes for what can be accomplished within a single class period. Like many teachers, I find myself planning multi-layered lessons, only to feel frustrated when they are derailed by student distractions or fly over students’ heads for myriad reasons.

So my colleague’s words, “Pack it in a small suitcase,” were refreshing. As a traveler, it was a metaphor that my mind readily processed. When packing for a trip, my first impulse is usually to pack all 10 of my favorite dresses (or what have you). But when it comes down to actually carrying my suitcase around, I’m a lot happier when I just choose the three dresses that are most versatile (adaptable) and durable.

I’ve kept this in mind while planning out the last quarter of my first teaching year. It hasn’t been about leaving things out, but about narrowing down to key essentials. And, honestly, I’ve felt my load become lighter. Even better, I’ve seen my students ready to grasp on to the carefully-chosen pieces I present to them. A single, small suitcase is a lot easier to carry than a stack.


National Poem in Your Pocket Day

Did you know there’s a holiday called National Poem in Your Pocket Day? Until yesterday, I had no idea. But today, I’m so glad for it. After hearing of the mini-holiday from a colleague and from this NPR story, I decided to celebrate it in my classroom. Never mind that I wore an outfit with no pockets. I still had poems.

From what I can see, the purpose of Poem in Your Pocket Day is to celebrate the joy of sharing a favorite poem. For me, the poem that first came to mind was Billy Collins’ “On Turning Ten,” which is as follows:

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

Billy Collins always gets me with a surprise punch in the stomach. That last stanza just kills me!

And while “On Turning Ten” is one of my favorite poems, this video of 3-year-old Samuel Chelpka reciting Collins’ poem “Litany” will probably be my favorite poetry performance until I die. Or until I have a child of my own who willingly recites poetry. Whichever comes first.


As a follow-up to Poem in Your Pocket Day, I’m hoping to have my students collaborate on a “Litany”-style poem. Each student will list an image or sensory experience that makes life wonderful for them — something simple such as “the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine.” From there we will arrange the students’ lines into a poem that follows the format of Collins’ “Litany.” While it won’t be the most original poem in the world, I am hoping it will be beautiful in a way that surprises students who are quick to say, “Poetry? I don’t like it.”

Related reading: “Love of words brings child, poet together

The skill of listening, the power of story

This fall I’ve taken on a long-term substitute position teaching high school Language Arts. Every weekday I spend three hours teaching remedial English — grammar and spelling for the most part. Many of my students are learning English as a second or third language and many others have a hefty share of learning disabilities and personal challenges that I can hardly comprehend. It became clear to me soon after taking this job that I would need to work with these students on the skill of listening.

Initially, I wanted to teach listening skills for my own benefit. I needed students to listen to ME! We couldn’t get anything done if we didn’t address the volume levels and impulsive chatter in our classroom. But it occurred to me that listening is a skill that can help these students in their personal lives as well.

So I implemented weekly listening activities based on the ideas behind StoryCorps, NPR’s national effort to honor and record the stories of everyday Americans. Each story is archived in the Library of Congress, and many of them are arrestingly intimate, funny and heart-breaking. If it were possible to have a wild crush on a project, StoryCorps would be at the top of my dreamboat list.

So far, our listening lessons have involved students pairing up and taking notes on each other’s stories about something simple, like their best or worst-ever Halloween. I modeled the process by telling my own favorite Halloween story (seventh grade, when I wore a George Bush Sr. mask), then asked students to answer the 5 W Questions about my story (Who? What? Where? When? Why?). Then they did the same with each other. They were a little reluctant to share, but they seemed to enjoy having a lesson with built-in social time.

The next step we took showed me how well these lessons could work. I had them watch an animated video based on a StoryCorps piece called “John & Joe,” which is about two brothers who were killed on 9/11. After we watched the video, students answered the 5W Questions and spontaneous discussion erupted. “Can we watch another of those videos?” “Did Saddam Hussein cause 9/11?” “Was 9/11 a government conspiracy?” It was the most engaged I have ever seen them.

For me, the real proof of the effectiveness of the StoryCorps activities was when I checked in about them with one of my most difficult students. He has academic challenges that are baffling even to veteran teachers, and just sitting in a classroom can be a struggle for him. But I asked him to answer the 5W Questions about “John & Joe” this week and he recounted the story in surprising detail. It was one of the most affirming moments of my life. He showed me that, as rambunctious and reluctant as my students can be, they’re starting to understand the power of listening and the power of story.

Using a Dipity timeline for Shakepeare

At first glance, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice struck me as odd and fairly racist. I wondered what ole Will was going for when he wrote this play and its comic villain Shylock, with his “pound of flesh” threats, and I wondered what exactly my students were supposed to get from it in our study of Shakespeare this spring.

Then, at my mentor teacher’s nudging, I did a bit of research and found out that this play was written during a time when Jews were expelled from England. This knowledge caused a dramatic shift in my interpretation of the play and I wanted to share the history with my students in a way that wouldn’t put them to sleep.

Having heard of Dipity’s timelines, flipbooks and maps of contemporary news (such as the chronology of the Bin Laden raid or of key events in Charlie Sheen’s string of bad behavior), I created a Dipity timeline showing a brief history of persecution of the Jews in England before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice.

Overall, Dipity was user-friendly and I was able to combine dates, info and images onto a timeline, flipbook and map in about 20 minutes. The frustrating part came when I realized that Dipity is blocked on many school computers because it’s considered social media. So I remedied this by taking screenshots of each Dipity flipbook page, then cropping them and dropping them into Keynote, and finally exporting to PDF/QuickTime.

I’m pretty new to Dipity and haven’t done much with slideshows in the classroom yet. Any success stories? Frustrations? Recommendations or cautions? The only major caution I have is that every time I look at I get stuck thinking of the “Doo.Da.Dipity.” line from Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours.” Which, of course, is a reminder of that bizarre hip hop hamster commercial. Be warned.

Too many stories! Too many ads! Too many pages!

Flexibility. That’s what all this comes down to.

When our student team initially took to publishing at this year, it was because our newspaper had lost its printing budget. Issuu provided a means of publishing when there wasn’t money for paper and ink.

In April our team used Issuu to publish a two-page tribute to a student who died this year. We remarked over and over again how nice it was to have the option to publish a mini-issue of two pages rather than the typical minimum of four required in print shops.

But in May we found that Issuu helped students solve an entirely different problem. It wasn’t that we didn’t have money for printing, or that we had too few pages to print a full issue. This time was that the students had about 22 pages of content to lay out (that’s right — 22 pages of their ideas and hard work). AND they had raised enough money through ad sales to cover the cost of printing as many as 16 pages.(Our ad sales were almost nil before the budget was cut — necessity truly is the mother of invention, and that should be a blog post in itself.)

So now the puzzle was figuring out how many pages to print (8, 12, or 16?), which pages would be published on paper and which ones would be online-only. There was also the wonderful challenge of juggling page layouts in order to accommodate last-minute ad sales. Can I just say it? These are the BEST PROBLEMS a student newspaper could ever have.

The students handled these challenges deftly, using Issuu as a cornerstone for most of their solutions. (I promise, no one is paying me to say this.) Because it gives them an online publishing option that essentially has the same production process as their print pages, and because Issuu publications aren’t bound by page quantity, students can easily shift the order of their page layouts. If a story needs more time to come together, it can be bumped to the online edition with a longer production timeline. If a page is suddenly dominated by a large new ad, students can add a new online page for the content that gets bumped by the ad.

Once again, it’s all come down to flexibility.

Our final publication of the school year will be released May 31. In the meantime, here’s a link to the newspaper’s previous editions, which have garnered more than 2,000 page views since our online launch in March.

My only complaints about Issuu at this point are that it’s difficult for viewers to post comments, and some readers find the full-screen view hard to navigate. It seems easiest to navigate with a laptop mouse, but a little awkward with a traditional mouse.

If you’re using Issuu for classroom projects or other presentations, let me know how it’s working for you, or if there are other free publishing sites you recommend.

Here’s to having wonderful problems to solve!

My student featured on

I love me some memoirs. And I love brevity. So when Smith Magazine rolled out the Six-Word Memoir project, I knew it would be part of my life in some way.

Oddly, I’ve never posted my own Six-Word Memoir on But I bring it up in conversation and compose mini-memoirs in my head all the time. It’s a brilliant vehicle for sharing personal stories that are razor-sharp.

This month, as a warm-up for their writing exercises, I started asking my high school English students to write six-word memoirs at the beginning and end of our free-writing sessions. I hoped that my students would eventually find meaning in the practice, and I soon found out that one student had taken ownership of the six-word craft in a way I hadn’t expected.

“Ms. Thompson, I love six-word memoirs!” she said when she came to class one morning. “My mom grounded me from my computer, but I told her I had to log on to SmithMag.”

A week or so later, she came to class radiant.

“People are reading my six-word memoirs now!” she said. “I’m getting comments and people like what I’m writing. One of them recommended that I write posts on”

Today we were preparing for our last day of the in-class state writing test. I was trying to cross a hundred ‘t’s while dotting a thousand ‘i’s before we started our session. But my mentor teacher asked me to pause and hear some good news from this student.

“They gave me the featured memoir of the day!” our student reported.

I was about to tell her how proud I was of her when she showed me the chosen memoir. Now I’m more than proud of her. I am awed. And grateful.

Going electronic with a student newspaper

Several weeks ago, the newspaper staff at my student teaching placement site learned that they would have no allotted budget for the coming school year. To save money and to propel their newspaper into a new era of publishing, our team got innovative and put the newspaper on The results (as seen here) have been fantastic:

  • The publication has the look and feel of an e-magazine.
  • Our team saved money by printing only four pages (which were distributed throughout the school) and including teasers on those pages to lead readers to an additional six pages online. (I should note that this idea came from our student team, and was a key part of moving our team in this new direction.)
  • Within a couple of days, the online publication had about 200 views. There were about 400 views within a week, equivalent to a quarter of the student body.
  • The online publication is in color, allowing for more emphasis on photography and new options for our page designers.
  • The account that allowed us to do all this was free.
  • The viewer statistics we receive from will be used in advertising sales packets. And the opportunity to publish additional pages online means there will be more room for ads.
  • We are already planning online extra issues in between our major scheduled publications. This allows us to memorialize a student who recently passed away, to provide sports updates, and to be available for other breaking news reports.

We have our current issue up online, along with two archived issues in black and white. You can see them all right here. We plan to use at least for the rest of the school year, hopefully in conjunction with a news website that a student is developing.

I know this blog is getting a lot of traffic from readers who are interested in classroom publishing and student journalism. Are any of you using Which online resources have helped you and your students save money or reach new audiences?