Category Archives: Teaching

Diversity in Texts Includes Mental Illness and People with Disabilities

I’ve been SO excited to see the buzz on Twitter of people posting diverse booklists. I’ve posted some of those tweets below.  As a special education teacher, I just want to make sure that diversity in texts also means representations of people with mental/physical disabilities.  It’s important for all students to see themselves represented in the world on a consistent basis.  I just completed reading Lighter than my Shadow (Goodreads review below) by Katie Green and I’ve thought of three students I want to pass it on to in my classes. I didn’t think of the students because they have the same issues, I just know it is a book they will all enjoy.

There are several amazing books you can include in your classroom libraries, and possibly include excerpts in your different unit plans. Some examples:

El Deafo by CeCe Bell

My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s by Peter Dunlap-Shohl

Epileptic by David B.

Lighter than my Shadow by Katie Green

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

The Fault in our Stars by John Green

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Like graphic novels and novels, there are now many television shows and movies that can be added to this list.  When you are creating a diverse curriculum, how do you represent students with disabilities and people with mental illness?




Lighter Than My ShadowLighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Quiet, thin, creative and cute, Katie’s early imaginative days fill the first pages of the graphic novel with memories that connect you to that childlike, innocent experience. A picky eater as a child (so was I), she also has strange quirks that would now be labeled as OCD. As Katie grows older, she seems to want to capture that innocence and take it with her which consequently results in her moving more inward. Choosing a path that looks like control, Katie becomes powerless and loses herself, her dreams, and hope. Will she ever lead a normal, healthy life?

Katie Green’s visual storytelling combines with well-chosen words, immersing you in her experience. A brief warning, if you don’t want to read about multiple mental health issues combined with sexual abuse, then forgo the 500 pages. While some might feel that parts of the story are repetitive, this is what recovery looks like. Anyone who writes a story of his/her struggle is rarely telling a new story, but we all need to be reminded that overcoming our own personal demons is possible.

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Google Certification: Is it Worth it?

Looky at what I did!

What if I said you can take a 180 minute test that you pay for, and not get a raise for it? Then, if you pass that one, you can do it again and pay even more? Oh, did I mention the test only is valid for a short period of time and you’ll have to take it again? Who’s in? Well, if you’re anything like me, you’re ready to sign up, no more information needed.

Most of you may be aware that Google has educator certifications that showcase a person’s ability to seamlessly integrate technology into the classroom in order to deliver meaningful instruction that promotes critical and creative thinking for students at all levels. But is it necessary? Will schools recognize your efforts to engage in independent professional development?

The answer to the first question is: Yes! Every teacher should work towards, at the minimum, a Level 1 Educator certification.  I know that *all* is extreme language, however, the benefits of being able to harmoniously utilize technology in a purposeful manner while teaching should be a goal for every teacher. Adversely, the answer to the second question is: No, or probably not! As teachers, we constantly strive to improve our craft, whether that be through improving content knowledge or improving engagement strategies. These efforts are typically not rewarded monetarily or in any other tangible manner by administrators.  However, as teachers, these are not the rewards that motivate personal professional development.  As teachers, we respect and admire professionalism and strive to improve the experience for students in our classrooms.  In this manner, your efforts to gain a Google Educator certification will be immediately rewarded.

The Secret to Passing Level 1 and Level 2 Educator Certifications

Perhaps different from most people, all through high school and college, I LIKED taking tests.  I would dress up, pride myself in always being the first one done, and typically set the curve or bar. When I started Googling information about the certifications, several prominent people in education circles (even published teachers) wrote about failing the test the first time they took it. Admittedly, this rattled by confidence.  I even considered PAYING for a course to prepare for the test.  That notion quickly dissipated when I saw people were charging $100-$250 dollars for such a course.  Whenever you decide to become certified, DON’T pay anyone.  Google has an absolutely free module in their Training Center that completely prepares you for the exams.  If you know something–you can skip over it.  There are self-checking quizzes along the way that show how questions will be phrased in the exams.

The modules do take some time to complete but the experience is completely worthwhile.  I found myself trying new things in my classroom after completing almost each module. I passed both certifications on the first try; therefore, the secret to passing the certifications is to complete Google’s absolutely free training and simultaneously use the skills immediately with your students.

The Benefits of Certification

There are so many reasons to prepare and take the certifications for educators:

  • Increased student engagement due to exciting learning environment
  • Students are enabled to think critically and creatively
  • Technology integration is seamless
  • You learn how to connect with other Google certified teachers for support
  • You can utilize your knowledge to support other teachers

The truth is I sometimes forget the benefits because GAFE (Google Apps for Education) have become such a natural part of my lesson-planning process.  It wasn’t until I looked at ONE lesson plan that I created the other day that it dawned on me how much I have learned in the past two years.  As we start the new year fresh with students, in American Literature I always want to explore the different layers of identity and power so that students can readily see who is included and who is systematically excluded in society.  In my lesson, without having to even think about it, I utilized Google Classroom, Google Sites, Google Drawings, YouTube playlists and self-made instructional videos to create a dynamic experience for my students about identity.  That’s the true benefit of certification-the seamless integration of technology to develop students’ abilities to read the world.

My ultimate goal is to become a Google Innovator. My question for you is: What is keeping you from taking the next step and becoming certified?



What can we learn about Native American history through artistic expression? What can we learn about ourselves?

As winter break looms before us, the students enter class smiling, chatting, excited; but also stressed, overwhelmed and frantic. The class has completed their writing final, and now they await the summative final which is still a week away. What can I do to make this last week meaningful and engaging for the students without increasing their tumultuous feelings about impending finals?

As a precursor to planning my final week of instruction, yesterday I interacted with two online texts that helped guide me with instruction.  The first, I listened to while walking my dog Onyx,  A Cult of Pedagogy podcast by Jennifer Gonzalez titled “What to do on Lame-duck School Days.”  She offers many suggestions that might work at some point in my teaching, but each was too far a departure from where I’ve been with the students this year.  The second text was a post on Twitter from Teachthought:


Both of these online interactions put me in a position this morning of wanting to create a continued, inspiring experience for the students that will simultaneously utilize skills they will need for the summative final (creative and critical thinking). Here’s what I came up with:

What can we learn about Native American history through artistic expression? What can we learn about ourselves?

I’ve embedded the interactive slide show that the students will use as a guide through multiple activities that require creative and critical thinking combined with self examinations.  Unfortunately, you cannot see the directions because they are in the speaker notes. You can make a copy of the Slides here.  I should also note that it was my TA who shared the beautifully made program Injunuity with me via a text on Saturday!


Poetry, Figurative Language, & Student Engagement


Confession: my husband, an elementary school teacher, despises poetry.  He’d rather do dishes, take out the trash, cook, clean the litter box, go to the dentist, watch a RomCom, than read whatever I present to him as: “This is the single best poem on the planet, you must read this!”  Whenever I win the epic battle and he actually reads a poem, he admits to enjoying it; however, he refuses to discuss it.

This example illustrates the feelings of many of my high school students.   Typically, students are forced to read a poem (it’s part of an assignment) and several will say, “Mrs. Lee, I actually like this poem” as if the possibility of enjoying “The Truth About Public Transportation” by Allison Joseph seemed as impossible as enjoying school on Saturday.

On this three-day weekend I’ve been reading Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins, pausing after each poem  smiling, thinking of a specific person that matches each poem, and wanting the opportunity to share each one with my class.  But would the students allow themselves the freedom to be playful and enjoy this poetry?

Students feel like they don’t ‘understand’ poetry.

At the beginning of any year, there are groans when I pass out a poem.  Due to this, I start with narrative poems that help students connect personally with the writing.  For example, I often start with “Little Brother” by Naomi Shihab Nye and the assignment is for students to annotate with reactions and connections only.  I have sentence stems on the board, but after a few times, students don’t need the stems and they are comfortable with more organic annotations.

At this stage, I don’t ask for any academic language; my goal is connection and enjoyment.

High school students struggle with identifying and understanding figurative language.

One day, I expressed frustration that my students were not able to identify figurative language, let alone discuss the impact of this choice on the text.  My husband responded by saying, “Similes and metaphors were hard for me in high school.”  First, growing up on Ray Bradbury stories, this idea of not recognizing a metaphor in a bucket of unimaginative phrases seemed  implausible.  Second, who was this non-poetry reading man I had married?

Since this discussion years ago, I’ve not focused on identifying the figurative language as much as I have focused on responding to the impact of figurative language.  Typically, if I asked students to pull-out their favorite line in a poem, it contains figurative language and then we can have a discussion about the writer’s choice.  At the same time, I still provide activities to help students independently identify similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, etc. Here is an example that will serve as a warm-up for this week:

You can make a copy here.

I think the key to allowing high school students who don’t love poetry to gain an appreciation for it is to inundate them with amazing texts.

If you would like to see some of the poems I use, click HERE and please add one poem that you would recommend to the list!


How Do You Keep Parents Informed?

Teacher Workload

Sometimes, I think teachers must be those people who thrive on stress.  There should be some official category for this in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. How else do you explain the existence of an estimated 3.2 million teachers who stand in front of classrooms with coffee in hand, a plan, and a smile? Maybe it’s hitting me harder this year because I am lacking the conference period and I find it a struggle to keep smiling for six periods and then once the last student leaves, find time to do THE REST OF MY JOB. Admittedly, unless a child is proving to be a behavior problem in class, parents are generally not high on my list of must-dos for the day.  However, as a special education teacher, I know that the parents are critical in the success of my students.  Therefore, I have found the only way to keep parents involved is to PLAN for parent communication.

Schedule Email Time

The only way I will communicate with parents is to write it into my weekly plans. Even with this, I am only contacting parents about every six weeks, but in doing this, I open the door so that parents know they can also contact me.  My plan is fairly simple:

  • Every week, focus on one class
  • Email the parents of any student receiving a D or lower
  • Send out POSITIVE emails
  • Use canned responses

At first, I debated about whether or not this was worth sharing on a public forum.  But if I were to tell the truth, my first years as a teacher involved very little parent input.  Perhaps most teachers find  parent communication a natural part of the profession–however, I struggled with this responsibility for years.

Canned Email Responses

This year, my school enabled Gmail and canned responses is an amazing option that saves me time each week.  Before this, I simply had canned responses saved in Docs and I cut-and-paste my responses fairly quickly.

Enabling Canned Responses in Gmail
Creating a Canned Response

In following this simple plan, I have increased parent engagement throughout the past year and I’ve been able to utilize an enormous resource (parents) for my students.

How do you keep parents informed?


How the Internet Transformed My Teaching

The Problem

After so many years of teaching, I was stuck.  Students were still awesome, but teaching was not the Shiny Dream I had imagined. for some reason, I thought the teacher’s lounge would be this central location where you went before/after school and at lunch.  People brought their work there, graded, joked around (very intelligent jokes) and created this sense of camaraderie that made any of the unavoidable, awful teaching moments bearable.  There would even be a vegan table where we traded the best cookie recipes.  In some of my dreams, there was funky music, and in others, Miles Davis filled the air with restlessness and innovation.

Much to my dismay, I found teaching to be a lonely and isolating experience. I spend the majority of time in my room, grading, planning, writing IEPs, just trying to complete paperwork. My Teacher’s Lounge is in reality the Staff Bathroom where I see the same fellow teachers at the same time and we talk about our weekends of summers in this bizarre setting. I usually walk out smiling or laughing. On my high school campus, with over 100 teachers, there just isn’t time to be social, or truly collaborate and become a better teacher.

The Solution

For my sanity, and the for the sake of my students, I needed to find something to fill the ever-growing void I was feeling daily. With a sudden burst of courage, I joined a Twitter chat: #aplitchat. First of all, this may seem like an unusual choice considering I teach high school English in the special day class (SDC) setting.  However, I think most teachers recognize that good teaching practices are just that, and these practices work with all students, and they can even work for a vast range of  grade levels. Secondly, it DID take courage because I was completely a novice at using Twitter.  I had been following people for quite awhile, but I’d never used it as a platform for engagement.  Honestly, I don’t remember the topic of my first chat; however, I do remember a feeling of being accepted where I was at with technology and my teaching practices.  Furthermore, I found educators who expressed openly the same feelings I was experiencing.  Finally, I found new inspiration and people who still continue to challenge my teaching pedagogy.

Soon after that first experience on a Twitter chat, I found #cwpchat which is associated with the California Writing Project. These were people who I know, or know of through the Northridge Writing Project who have similar attitudes as myself in regards to teaching writing.   Due to these two ongoing chats, I am now able to pop-in on any chat on Twitter and participate and more importantly, gain new ideas and approaches for the classroom.  Since then, these forums have allowed me to continue to grow as an educator and also bring innovative experiences to my students.

Even if you’re not ready to participate in live conversations, there are amazing thinkers to follow on Twitter, and many of the likewise have blogs that can inspire you for the entire year.

Some of my favorites:

Who inspires your thinking about your teaching practice?


Reflection: Student Created Syllabi

Student Created Syllabus

On the first day of school, students asked for the class syllabus because they received them in their other classes.

“Did you read it?” I asked.

Most kids said no; while a few read PARTS of it.

“What parts did you read?” I asked.

Grades, rules, homework, and some students said they read the required supplies.  One student said, “I hate when the syllabus requires you to have a glue stick and then you never use it. ALL year.”

One student said the teacher READ the entire syllabus to the class.

On the second day of class, students wrote a class syllabus.

I have never given an assignment where I learned so much about the students.  Most notably, almost EVERY student had Homework and a Homework policy.  What does every kid complain about? Homework!!!

Read this very serious homework policy!
“Does there have to be homework? I asked the next day.

Yes! Most students responded.

“Why?” I asked.
  • So we know more
  • We won’t remember what we did in class
  • You at least have to read and fill something out
  • You just have to

Our Educational Practices Have Brainwashed Students!!!!

Students could not provide a reasonable justification for spending hours each night on homework and yet they included it in their syllabi. It almost seems like students have given up on the true joy of learning once they get to high school.  As an example, one student didn’t fill out anything except for one class rule:

Sad Rule

Class rules: This Section is Important to Students

Class Rules Matter

First, it’s important to note that almost every student wrote about respect in their class rules.  Second, all students included some type of rule about the bathroom.  Believe it or not, I’ve had many students tell me about teachers who won’t let them go to the bathroom ; (  Third, most students want to be free to eat or drink in class. Finally, most students want to listen to music when they work independently and they also do not think using the cell phone in the classroom once in a while is a Major Crime.

A Funny Example

The Insult!!!


Can we as teachers give the students the same respect we expect? Is there a way to go to the bathroom, listen to music, eat a snack and maybe look at your cell phone during class in a respectful manner? What rules can I loosen up? The outcome will be happier students who learn how to function appropriately in class AND I might have extra time to notice something more positive about certain students.



Pupil Free Chaos

Every summer, a week prior to the start of school, I receive a Pupil-Free Agenda that typically follows this format:

  • All Staff Meeting
  • Opening Bulletin
  • Opening remarks from Executive Director
  • All Staff panorama photo (this takes too long)
  • Dept. Meetings
  • Room Prep

This year was no different. . .until it was.  The agenda came and I threw it on the floor for the cats to play with and rip into shreds.  However, when I arrived, there had been a change.

This guy. . .and I still don’t know his name. . .ran the meeting.

Top Boss Chef

We were placed in groups, given ingredients and told to make a dish that would be consumed by all.  There were no instructions. . .and it was a contest that would be judged. Here is one picture of the results:

The Feast

I have since forgotten every Pupil-Free day previously, but do you think I will forget this event? School starts tomorrow for the students and I’m so excited! There is only one shot at a #FirstDay and this year I will be sure not to waste it.  Many of us have probably been following the twitter hashtag #FirstDay where amazing teachers have been sharing their ideas.  While I previously stated that you can only have one first day, how can you add a little spice into EVERY day and have students excited to come to class? The following are a few things I’m changing this school year:

Digital Instructions

No more repeating instructions, answering the same question over while other students groan and wait to get started.

The slides are linked here so that you can see the videos if they won’t play on this format.

A ton of time is wasted in (my) class by explaining assignments and answering student questions that they should be trying to answer for themselves.  What you see above is not complete because for each assignment there is a link to Google Classroom that provides some clarification or additional comments.  However, part of preparing students to be successful in the future is to enable them to be self starters who can interpret an assignment and then create a product that is to be shared publicly. While students navigate the digital directions, I am then free to walk around the room and assist students who really do need more support without holding back students who are inventive and have their own ideas about how to proceed.

Students start class with 10 minutes independent reading and then they can transition to the project/activity for the day and move at their own pace.  The videos are all around 25-30 seconds long because students won’t want to watch more than that at one time.  The reason I’m posting the example of my videos is not to show how GREAT they are–but to prove the exact opposite.  The videos are not that fantastic–and yet I feel it will really help the students to connect with the learning task and me at the same time.  It’s extremely hard not to be critical of yourself on video and wan it to redo it, and yet we ask students to put themselves out on a limb, in public, all of the time!

Infographic Syllabus
Infographic Syllabus

This year, after seeing many examples on the internet (even from Chemistry professors who teach at the university level), I’ve decided to create an infographic syllabus.  While I’m waiting on approval from administration to use this as the parents’ version also, this is what I will present to the students and also use with the parents on Back to School Night.  Actually, this year I’m not going to ‘present’ the syllabus in class.  Instead, I will have the students form groups that are each assigned a small portion of the syllabus and they will in turn create skits to perform for the class.  I’m not doing this until the second day and I have no idea what to expect!  I will most likely create a few scenarios or characters on index cards for students who struggle with creating the skit.

Ditch that Homework #DitchHW

Ditch That Homework is an amazing book that just came out by Matt Miller and Alice Keeler.  Above, I shared one of my favorite sections from the book that delineates many questions to ask before assigning homework.  It looks like they put the most important question first, “Does it increase the student’s love of learning?” (XVI). Naturally, the answer is probably not.  The natural follow-up question is: Does grading the homework increase your love of teaching?

Standards Based Grading

Finally, the last HUGE change I’m making for this school year is shifting TOWARDS standards based grading.  I’ve read tons of literature that talks about the Why, but nothing that talks about the How.  My goal is to do a 50-50 split between participation and standards based grading.  In this way, students will be rewarded for participating in class and for improving their skills.

As you go through the year, there are obvious peaks and valleys of enthusiasm for both students and teachers.  When you find yourself in a deep valley, revisit this tweet by John Stevens  to lift you up:



NEH Fellowship: The First Week

Researching @ the Schomburg

After only one week of my first NEH experience-I am completely blown away!  The title of my summer institute: From Harlem to Hi-Hop: African American History Through Literature and Song, is horrifically terrifying due to the fact that my experiences with Hip-Hop are limited to: 1980s ghetto blasters, music videos, radio play, an unfortunate but memorable experience with Wyclef Jean, Eminem (I love MANY of his narratives), The Beastie Boys, and what I call Hard-Rap/Rock-Rap like Rage Against the Machine, or the much later Prophets of Rage.  The institute is a collaboration of Dr. Laura Nash and Andrew Virdin, who openly retell stories about how their first proposal for the fellowship was rejected by the NEH. Luckily, this agenda passed through all of the readers because in one week I’ve been connected to inspiring, intellectual voices in the vast field of African American studies.

Dr. Yohuru Williams

I think you can tell from the smile in the picture, Dr. Williams is an engaging speaker  who is not only knowledgeable, he introduces and models critical strategies that can immediately be used in the classroom to engage and challenge students.  At the same time, he is a prolific writer and I’ve included some links that you should NOT IGNORE!  In a later post I will share some lessons I am working on inspired by Dr. Williams.

The Nation, Huff Post, Books, The Progressive, The History Channel 

Dr.  Arnold Rampersad

We’ve enjoyed three Skype sessions with Dr. Rampersad who has been a Stanford faculty member since 1974 and also written books about W. E. B Dubois, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and others.  The generosity of Dr. Rampersad cannot go unmentioned as he volunteered to Skype with any of the teachers present individually or in a smaller group to aid in research.

Dr. Tricia Rose

While Dr. Tricia Rose is most notably known for her books The Hip-Hop Wars and Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, her expertise and scholarship on 20th Century African American studies on politics, gender, social thought and popular culture allow her to reveal hidden layers in society that even well-read people have missed, or simply grown accustomed to over time.  Her lecture mainly dealt with the practice of Redlining and how that still impacts African Americans, as well as other underserved minority communities to this day.  While Dr. Rose is currently working on a new book, it will probably take me that long to unpack everything she shared at our institute.  An interesting website to look at is Mapping Inequality.

Sylviane A. Diouf
Sylviana A. Diouf

Our visit to the Schomburg exploded into a unique talk given by the curator and director of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library! Though soft-spoken, I could feel through her words a woman of achievement and a certain amount of power who still has to fight to bring education to the public.  The two exhibits Sylviana A. Diouf worked tirelessly to present are Power in Print and Black Power! She let us know the irony of her speaking to us, for she had herself proposed an NEH institute for the summer, but she was denied because the readers felt it was propaganda.  While there have been various exhibits about The Black Panthers, Diouf explains this is the FIRST exhibit strictly about Black Power.

Digital images of the two exhibits: Black Power! & Ready for the Revolution


Research at the Schomburg
Langston Hughes burial

Before arriving at the institute, I booked an appointment with the Schomburg research library in the Archives and Special Collections department and I was able to spend hours underground, reading letters written by Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Dubois, Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and many, many others! While entrenched in a tapestry of letter-language, the Harlem rain poured outside.  At some point, I will write extensively about my specific research.


DJ Ivory Snow

The Hate U Give: A Great Companion to Citizen: An American Lyric

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Navigating two worlds and a young life full of tragedy, Starr Carter drops into your view in that headline moment, at a party that is broken up due to a gun shot. While the obvious binary conflict of Power vs Oppression occurs in the moments after the party, when Starr and Khalil flee the party in his car, the less-than-visible conflict of Appearance vs Reality brings Starr’s different lives together. Will Starr have the strength to become one whole person?

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but I must confess that at one point I felt like Thomas gave Starr too many problems to overcome and this somewhat slowed down the pacing of the novel. After completion, I changed my mind and I realized that the issues in the book, and in our country, are so complex that no one can fully realize the ramifications of one interaction. Obviously, if you are unwilling to have an open conversation of the black/white divide that continues to create conflict, then this book is not for you. Likewise, if reading about drugs, alcohol, and language that typical teenagers use, then don’t read this book. However, if you want to read a well-written book that depicts real problems and real feelings, then READ IT NOW! One of the most enjoyable aspects of Thomas’ writing is her realistic dialogue that allows you to feel like you are actually sitting in the car. For example, when Starr is in the park playing basketball with her brother, she ends up speaking for the first time to one of the neighborhood gang members with whom one of her friends acts ridiculous over, Starr says, “Yeah, I’ve heard about you. And you may wanna get some chapstick if your lips that dry, since you’re licking them so much” (147). This illustration reveals that if Starr can speak her mind to a known gang member, she may have the strength to be honest with herself and everyone else in her life.

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