School’s (Already) Out for Summer: Educational Enrichment During Covid-19

Across the country, schools are shuttered in the face of the current Covid-19 pandemic, in some states (like mine) for the rest of the school year. Yesterday afternoon, Governor Northam of Virginia announced that all private and public schools will remain closed through at least the end of this academic year. This announcement no doubt panicked parents, and I know firsthand, saddened many teachers. To their own surprise, even many students were disappointed. Within minutes of the Governor’s announcement, I received a flurry of emails from distraught students, many of them containing messages like, “I never thought I’d say this, but I really miss school!” For my own part, I feel cheated out of the time I thought I still had with a group of students I really enjoyed and care about, and that just scrapes the top of the iceberg of my emotions right now.

No one knows yet what this extended closure will mean for grades, graduations, or promotions, but in the meantime, we need to make sure our children and students stay engaged, active, and productive. This could be a great opportunity to get to know each other, our neighbors, our communities, and ourselves better. Below are some resources colleagues have shared with me, as well as some I created myself, to help children, parents, and educators navigate these uncertain times.

All Ages

Listen to a Story

This morning, a colleague of mine who is also a parent shared that while schools are closed, Audible is offering free audiobooks for kids and teens. If you’re working from home and want to offer your children more than another TV show or movie, offer them an audiobook! You can ask younger children to draw pictures of what they heard, and older children to write summaries or reviews.

Become a Citizen Scientist: Zooniverse

Another colleague notified all of the teachers in our city at the middle and high school levels about Zooniverse, which allows students (and parents and teachers!) to become citizen scientists. The hands-on involvement in real projects and studies lends to the authenticity of the task, and can be not only educational, but also empowering. Children can choose which projects to be a part of, according to their own interests, talents, and skills. Projects are available for various ages catering to all kinds of interests with a range of topics, including art, language, biology, climate, nature, medicine, social science, physics, and more.

Preschool to Early Elementary

Write to Pete the Cat

Our superintendent sent along an invitation to become pen pals with Pete the Cat. Many young children are familiar with the beloved feline literary character. Right now, children can engage with him through letter-writing. Writing a letter to Pete the Cat could help activate your child’s imagine, as well as help him or her practice his spelling, handwriting, and grammar skills. You could even pick a certain topic to focus on (writing a specific letter your child struggles to write, spelling a specific word, using a specific type of punctuation, etc.) as you help your child write the letter.

Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts can be a great way to get outside, get moving, and activate the mind and imagination. So far, I have created and completed two, both with children between the

scavenger hunt fh
The Littles (Nacho, left and Soda, right) during our scavenger hunt at Forest Hill Avenue Park in Richmond.

ages of 4 and 7. One is geared towards teaching children a little bit of the history of their city (in this case, Richmond, Virginia) while the other teaches them just a little bit about ecology and the food chain. Make your own or, if you’re local, use mine!

The Rocketts Landing and VA Capital Trail Scavenger Hunt takes place in Rocketts Landing and on the Virginia Capital Trail. If you turn right, which is what we did, the out-and-back route is about 2.75 miles long. Our group of two children, five adults, and two tiny dogs completed it in just under two hours.

scavenger hunt rl vat
Nacho during our scavenger hunt along the Virginia Capital Trail in Richmond.

As its name implies, the Forest Hill Avenue Park Scavenger Hunt takes place in Richmond’s Forest Hill Avenue Park. It’s about 1.6 miles long and our group of three adults, four children, and two little dogs took about two hours to complete it (we spent a lot of time playing on the rocks and in the creek).

Late Elementary through High School

Become a Primary Source for Historians: Journal

Writing in journals is a good practice for the mental health and emotional well-being of people of all ages, as well as for improving their writing skills; stimulating their minds and imaginations; and, in these unprecedented times, providing genuine, primary sources for historians in the future. Before asking your children or students to write, have them read this article, shared with me by a colleague, on how important their journal entries could become. Sometimes, writing for an actual audience increases motivation and purpose. As poet Denise Riley writes, “You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.” The ideas in the article should provide young writers with this “feeling of futurity.”

“You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.”

-poet Denise Riley

Middle and High School

Read a Book

Students often don’t have time to read for pleasure, with homework, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, and sports practices monopolizing most of their time. This period of social distancing is the perfect opportunity for students to enjoy a good book (or several). Below is a list of book recommendations I shared with my high school students a few days ago. I would recommend clicking the link to learn more about any given book before handing it off to your child or recommending it to your students. Some are better suited to specific age groups than others.

  • My Grandmother Asked me to Tell You She’s SorryFredrik Backman (I am reading this right now and it is SO GOOD!)
  • Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys (I read this about a year ago and recommended it to my parents and my neighbor, all of whom loved it. It’s YA historical fiction, based on real events that happened during WWII. It’s a look at WWII that you’ve probably never gotten before.)
  • East of Eden, John Steinbeck (One of my all-time favorite books, this novel is by author who wrote Of Mice and Men and Travels with Charley) **Note: My academic classes read Of Mice and Men earlier this year, while my honors class read Travels with Charley as one of their summer reading books.**
  • Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (another one of my all-time favorite books)
  • Dog Songs: Poems, Mary Oliver (Admittedly, I haven’t read this yet, but I want to!)
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (really uplifting read; nonfiction by a Holocaust survivor–yes, an uplifting book about the Holocaust…!) **Note: This would be a particular timely read given the current pandemic.**
  • The Things They CarriedTim O’Brien (somewhat autobiographical essays about the Vietnam War from a Vietnam War veteran)
  • Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, Shauna Niequist (nonfiction; about living a life that is more important and meaningful to you instead of trying to always conform to society’s expectations; it is SLIGHTLY religious, FYI; really spoke to me when I read it!)

Rewrite the Ending

Ask students to think of a book, the end of which they did not like (most of my students were appalled at the way Of Mice and Men and The Crucible ended). After having them read a summary of the work or watch the film (if available) to refresh their memories, ask them to rewrite the ending as they wish it had been.

Reasons for Optimism

While much about the current times can seem bleak, scary, and confusing, this period of social distancing and sacrifice can also prove a time of increased creativity, new perspectives, innovation, introspection, and enrichment.

Consider the advice provided in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “To keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your while development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.” Or, perhaps even more timely: “But your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.” And finally: “…it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”

“But your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Though many people feel isolated and alone due to quarantines and social distancing, we are fortunate that in this day and age, we have innumerable resources available to us to stay connected: social media, cell phones, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, etc. While there has been concern that people, in particular young people, have become too reliant on or even addicted to their devices and technology, this period of relative isolation might serve to remind us that while screens can provide for temporary connectivity, the human presence–face-to-face conversation, a hug, a handshake, someone to sit beside at the movies or the dinner table–provides an invaluable connection. While texting and calling can help us stay in touch right now, I believe we will also all be reminded of the importance of interpersonal communication and genuine relationships.

 

 

School Year’s Resolutions

Today marks the final day of 2019, the final day of the last decade. As we look ahead to a fresh decade and think about our New Year’s Resolutions, I want to share the way I like to start a brand new, fresh school year with my high school English students.

Setting Goals

Sometime during the first week of school in September, I show my students the goals for our class. (Once on the site, scroll down to the section titled “Our Goals.”) We read through and discuss them together.

After that, I instruct students to fill out this School Year’s Resolutions handout, and share what they come up with the small group of students sitting around them.

Following their discussion, each student creates a small poster based on his or her goals. The poster includes a list of written goals, and pictures to go with them. Then, they tape or glue their School Year’s Resolutions handout to the back.

When students have completed their posters, they display them on our classroom bulletin board, titled “School Year’s Resolutions.” If we have time, each student also stands up and presents his or her goals to the class as a whole.

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This portion of the activity serves as an ice breaker, gives me invaluable insight into my students, helps students understand the context and purpose of the class and associated material, requires students to present information orally, and gives students insight into me–for I, too, set and share my goals.

This school year, the goals I set and am working on are:

  • Get more sleep
  • Reduce stress
  • Get back into running
  • Read at least three books for pleasure before school ends in June.

Reflecting on Progress

At interim (progress) report time, or around when report cards go out for the first grading period, I assign students a journal topic that requires them to assess the progress they are making (or not) or have made (or not) towards achieving the goals they set at the beginning of the school year.

This part of the activity asks students to reflect and requires them to write.

As for my own progress at this point in the school year, I would say I’ve been fairly successful at getting more sleep. During the week, I typically succeed at getting to bed between 9:00 and 9:30, and I get up around 5:15, give or take a few minutes.

I’ve also experienced moderate success in terms of reducing my stress. My job is just as stressful, if not more so than usual due to changes coming down the pipeline from the state level, but I love my students and have made and mostly kept this promise to myself: I will work eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. No more, no less. The only exception to this rule is if I happen to feel inspired to work longer hours, in which case, I will. I bring work home every night in the event that this happens, and sometimes it does. In the past, however after spending roughly eight hours at work, I would bring home an additional one to three hours of work to complete in my family room or out on my back deck. My husband would say, “Do you want to watch a show tonight?” And if he was asking any time between September and June, 99% of the time, my answer was a pat “I can’t; I have papers to read/tests to grade/projects to evaluate/plans to make.” Now, I remind myself that while I was at work, I worked. Now, I am at home. And that means I don’t have to work at the moment. I’ve discovered that somehow, I still complete all the work I need to complete. Just not as quickly. And that’s okay.

As for getting back to running, I’ve been less successful there, but it hasn’t been a total bust. I used to stick to a strict regimen of runs. I planned my mileage out for each week–or, if I were training for a race, months in advance. And I stuck to these running routines religiously. After saying goodbye to Jack and Sadie, adopting Nacho and Soda, and totaling my car, for the first time in over a decade, my running sort of fell by the wayside. I had deep emotional and minor physical injuries to recover from, and running, once at the top of my priority list, wasn’t even on the list at all. I do miss it, though, and currently, I am running when I feel like it, or when I enjoy some found time here and there. Some weeks I might run one mile. Others, I am fitting in one or two miles three, maybe five, times a week. It’s coming along. It’s a work in progress. So am I.

Finally: Read at least three books before the end of the school year. I would say I have been the most successful here. I started reading Madeline Miller’s Circe in September, and though I didn’t finish until December, finish I did. (And I highly recommend it. I immediately loaned it to a colleague, a Latin teacher, who, last I checked, was also thoroughly enjoying it. It’s thought-provoking to the point of an existential crisis–in a good way.) Following Circe, I picked up Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter Solstice, which my sister recommended and which seemed seasonally appropriate. I read that considerably more quickly, using winter break to my advantage. Just a few days ago, I started reading Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist, a book my best friend recently gifted me for Christmas, with the inscription that it’s the highest recommended book for my Enneagram type (Type 1, with occasional deviations to Types 3 and 6). I’m on page 33, and let me tell you–the book speaks to me. So, I am on book three and we’re not even halfway to June yet. Definite progress there.

Further Reading

For more on the subject of resolutions–whether for the upcoming calendar year or a future school year–check out my blog post about student me, and why it’s important we teachers don’t forget what it’s like to be students.

Reading Recommendation

No matter what your Enneagram type, Niequist’s Present over Perfect is a fabulous read to ring in the new year. If you are looking to slow down, simplify, and live a life more authentic to the true you, start with this book.

NYE 3.jpg
If you are looking to slow down, simplify, and live a life more authentic to the true you, start with this book.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

NHS and Beta Induction Ceremony Speech

In many professions, people are rewarded for their hard work and performance with accolades, bonuses, raises, and trips. Earlier this year, my brother won a trip to a tropical island resort for his performance at his job. Three years ago, my husband and I spent a few days at Disney Land because of his performance in his job. One of my best friends has been in the workforce only a year longer than I have, and earns a salary three times larger than mine. As a teacher, I consider my year a success if a few students ask me to sign their yearbooks at the end of the year. (I’m not being facetious; that really does mean a lot to me.)

While I will never be offered a tropical vacation or hefty pay increase for my performance at work, honors like being invited to attend the Senior of the Month dinner and earning the title Teacher of the Year have been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

Last night, for just the second time in my fourteen-year teaching career, I was privileged with another honor: delivering the speech at the NHS and Beta induction ceremony. For weeks, I mulled over what to say, and how to say it. Below is what I came up with.

NHS and Beta Induction Speech

November 2019

Good evening and congratulations. I am so happy to be here tonight to share with you a celebration of your achievements and accomplishments. For those of you who might not know me, my name is Mrs. Creasey. I wear a lot of hats here at the high school, but the most important one to all of you is probably my English teacher hat: I teach English 11 and English 11 Honors. It’s precisely the English teacher in me that decided to write a poem to express how I feel about your induction into NHS and Beta, and what it means. Don’t worry; this isn’t going to be some cheesy, rhyming, rhythmic verse—it’s an acrostic poem—a poem that describes its subject matter using the letters that spell the word. It’s called “Honor,” and here it is:

acrostic honor

Some of you are probably familiar with the quote, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” True statement. But I would argue that equally true is this statement: “With great honor, comes great responsibility.”

Now, I know a lot of you, so I know you have a lot of responsibilities, and I know you experience a lot of obstacles to taking care of them. I would almost be willing to bet money that when I say the word “responsibilities,” a lot of you think of some of the following:

Studying

Getting good grades

Going to sports practices

Working a part-time job

Going to club meetings

Passing your SOLs (preferably advanced)

Earning a high score on your SATs

Getting into a good college.

And I would wager that the obstacles you face in achieving these things typically include:

Not having enough time

Not getting enough sleep

Having too much to do.

What does all of this lead to? Stress. A lot of it. So I want you to ask yourself something: What is it all for? Why am I in these honors and AP classes? Why am I involved in the clubs I am? Why am I even here at this induction ceremony tonight? If the answer is because it looks good on your college resume, I want you to reconsider.

It is true that studying, earning good grades, and achieving high test scores are your responsibilities. But accomplishing these tasks is not an end in and of itself. Your true responsibility is not to earn an A in every class you take and get into the best possible college; it is to learn the material to the best of your ability—to really engage with it, understand it, and apply it, so that you can use it to help others, to improve the human condition, to make the world a better place. There is no “A” in “honor.” In fact, there’s no “B.” There’s not even a “C.” Honor does not manifest itself in grades on a report card. Someday, when you’re as old as I am (not that that’s that old, because it’s not), it won’t actually matter whether you got an A or a B in any of your classes. What will matter is what you learned—and what you did with what you learned.

I want to share another acrostic poem with you. This one is about your actual responsibilities as an accomplished, intelligent, capable student—a member of NHS or Beta. I call it “Light.”

acrostic light

This responsibility is not heavy or burdensome—it’s light. Your most important responsibilities are not staying up past 2:00 in the morning to study for that Wordly Wise quiz or running from school to track practice to work, only to complete five hours of homework when you get home. Your most important responsibilities are to be a good influence, use your gifts to give back, develop your talents to develop the world, and lift others up. You are here tonight because you are being recognized as studious, capable, ambitious, hard-working, and honorable.

When you start to feel overwhelmed or stressed out because your to-do list is 500 miles long, tell yourself to do the most honorable thing. “How will I know what that is?” you might be asking. “How can I decide if I should study for math or finish my APUSH outlines or write my English literature portfolio or clean my room or help my mom cook dinner or just go to sleep?” Well, I’m going to share a mantra with you. It’s one I’ve been trying to live by this school year. Next time all of your obligations are vying for your attention and you need to prioritize them, you can use my mantra. Ready? Here it is: You don’t need to get the most done—you need to do the most good. That is how you judge your priorities. Don’t worry about getting the most done; worry about doing the most good.

One day last spring I was driving to school early so Mrs. S. and I could meet with the NEHS officers. I was crossing the bridge over Swift Creek—you know, that bridge over by Wagstaff’s—when I saw a bird, a king fisher, lying in the road. It had been hit by a car. I looked at the clock in my car. 6:55. The meeting was supposed to start at 7:05. I engaged in a little inner battle, one side telling me I had a responsibility to be at the meeting, another side telling me I had a responsibility to help this otherwise helpless bird lying in the middle lane of The Boulevard. I drove another 500 feet or so before turning around. At least I could check and see if the bird were alive, if I could help somehow.

The bird was, indeed, alive. So I wrapped it in a blanket and laid it gently on the passenger side of my car, texting Mrs. S. that I might be a little late to the meeting. As things turned out, I didn’t make it to the meeting at all (though I was at school on time). I stopped to help that bird because I knew it was the right—the honorable—thing to do. When we see someone who lacks what we have, someone we can lift up, it is our responsibility to use our resources and talents. It is our responsibility to lift others up if we have the power to do so—and you do. Your generation is going to face some difficult problems. Human rights issues, a failing infrastructure, political divisiveness, climate change. But each and every one of you in this room is up to the challenge if you nurture your talents, skills, and capabilities, and apply them for the greater good. You have the perspicacity to help solve these problems. We need you—like the bird needed me, we need you. That’s why you’re here. That’s why you’re being honored tonight. You are bright. You are capable. You are dedicated. You are diligent. You are talented. You have been gifted with these traits, and it is your responsibility to use them to improve whatever you can. You should feel honored to do so. Thank you.

Even before I began composing the speech, I was excited about the evening. It means a lot to have a group of young people decide they want to hear what you have to say, so I felt an enormous amount or pressure to live up to the honor. Adding to this was the fact that the day after the speech (today), many of the students I would be addressing were assigned to deliver their own speech to the class for a quiz grade; I had to set a good example.

I knew I had succeeded when, today, several students I don’t currently teach made special trips to my classroom just to tell me that the speech had made them cry, had been exactly what they needed to hear, had hit all the right notes. One student shook my hand. One gave me a heartfelt hug. One told me her mom sent her compliments, but “wouldn’t have picked up the bird.”

Tonight, I spent my Friday evening sitting on my couch with the Littles, reading my students’ Friday journal entries and writing back to them. I closed one and laid it in the basket with the others, reaching for the next one, only to find I had read them all. I was done. And instead of relieved, I felt a little disappointed. I had been looking forward to reading what my next student had to say. Just as they wanted to hear what I had to say, I love to read what they have to write.

 

9 Tips for Writing Your College Essay or Personal Statement

If you’re a high school senior, you might be getting ready to start applying to colleges and universities this fall. Most, though not all, schools ask that you compose and turn in an admissions essay (sometimes called a personal statement) with the rest of your application materials. For many students, this essay proves to be the most difficult element of their application process. What follows are some tips to make it a little easier–and to make your essay that much stronger.

1. Hook ’em!

Many students fall into the trap of starting their essay by simply rewording the prompt the college provides. For example, if the prompt asks: “What is one thing you want us to know about you?”, many students are going to start their essay like this: “One thing I want INSERT COLLEGE NAME to know about me is….” While this promises to answer the question, it’s boring. It lacks personality, color, creativity, and voice. The admissions officer reading your college essay is going to read hundreds of essays–many of which start just like that. You don’t want to bore your reader from the beginning, and you don’t want your essay to sound like everyone else’s. Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

But…what’s a hook?

A hook is simply an attention-grabbing first sentence or two. It’s interesting and makes your reader want to keep reading (instead of making your reader want to yawn, roll her eyes, and say to herself, “Here we go again…”).

Here are a few tips for writing your hook:

  • Let your hook set the tone for the rest of your essay. If your essay will be funny, your hook should be funny. If your essay will be serious, your hook should be, too.
  • Your hook should relate directly to the rest of your essay. Don’t just write an interesting sentence or two and then follow it by either rewording the prompt, or writing an essay unrelated to your hook.
  • Write your hook in your own authentic voice, and continue in that voice for the entire essay.

2. It’s All About YOU

Remember, the main purpose of the personal statement is for the college to get to know you better. What kind of person are you? What are your skills and talents? What experiences have you had? Who are you? For this reason, make sure the focus of the essay is you, and use the first person (I, me, my, we, us, our). This advice may seem obvious, but there are two traps students fall into.

Trap No. 1: Writing about someone or something else

While you do have to answer the prompt, make sure you answer it in the context of your life and experience. For example, if your prompt asks about a famous figure from history you’d like to meet and why, your essay should focus more on why you want to meet that person than it should on that person himself or herself. Avoid writing a biography or an essay in praise of the person, and instead focus on why you admire them, how you aspire to embody their best traits, etc. This holds true for essays about your favorite place, your favorite word, etc. We refer to this as the 80:20 rule. Eighty percent (or more!) of the essay should focus on you, while 20% (or less) can discuss the other person, place, word, etc.

Trap No. 2: Using the second person

Your college essay is about you–no one else, so use the pronouns that refer to you–“I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “us,” and “our.” Avoid writing something like this: “You know when your mom calls you by your full name, you’re in trouble.” Instead, make it true to your experience–so we know it happened to you, and not just anyone: “I know when my mom calls me by my full name, I’m in trouble.”

3. Be Honest and Authentic

Like I mentioned above, the college wants to know about you–the real you, not just who you think they want you to be (besides–you might be wrong!). Don’t write what you think they want to read (again–you might be wrong). Be honest with who you are, the life you’ve lived, the experiences you’ve had, the dreams you dream. Be the real, authentic you. Write almost the same way you speak, for the most part–but use proper grammar, punctuation, etc. And while you might be tempted to use big words to make yourself sound smarter, don’t. Avoid using big words for the sake of using big words. They usually stick out like a sore thumb, and make your essay sound, well, weird. If you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it.

I once heard a college admissions officer give this advice: “The best essays make us laugh or make us cry. So, make ’em laugh or make ’em cry–but don’t try to be funny if you’re not.” Be true to yourself. If you’re not naturally funny, don’t try to write a funny essay. You want them laughing with you, not at you.

As a quick side note: You have to tell the truth in your college essay. It’s nonfiction. On the application, you will sign a statement that basically says everything in your application packet is true to the best of your knowledge. That holds true for your essay, too.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

Lots of students make the mistake of writing an “essay” that is really just a long list. It reads something like this: “I am a very hard-working student. If I need to get a good grade on an assignment, I will do whatever it takes. I always try my hardest. I love to play football, and work very hard at practice. I work hard both in the classroom and on the field.” And so on and so on. While those sentences tell us a lot of things, they don’t show us anything–it’s not substantiated. Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about. For example, if you want the admissions office to understand you’re a hard worker, write about a time you were a hard worker–tell the story about the time that you came in for extra help after school for two weeks to understand chemical reactions, and still got your math and English homework done, and still took care of your little sister and puppy. If you want the college to know you love animals, don’t just tell them, “I love animals.” Use your essay to show the reader that love. Write a story about your time volunteering at a local animal shelter, or the time you rescued the injured turtle from the roadway, or the time you helped that little lost dog find his way home.

Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about.

5. Tell a (True) Story

Think of your essay as a slice of life and use it to tell a story. It’s a snapshot from the photo album of your life. You should pick a singular experience that helps express whatever it is you want to express, as explained above.

6. Follow the Rules

Make sure your essay actually answers and addresses the prompt. Stick to the word limit, but not obsessively so. If the word limit is 500 words, it’s okay to be a little over or a little under–as long as each word is absolutely necessary. If the college says to put your full name in the upper left corner, do that. If the college says to include your social security number (SSN) at the bottom, do that. Make sure whatever formatting requirements the college lists, you follow. Also, if you plan to use the same essay for various colleges (which is permissible), make sure you modify the essay accordingly. A big mistake people make is to reuse an essay and forget to change the name of the college. For example, they might write: “I just know Virginia Tech is the college for me.” Then, they proceed to send that to both Virginia Tech and UVA. Oops…

7. Use a Strong, Varied Vocabulary

This advice actually comes verbatim from another, longer post I wrote a while back about common writing errors, but it holds true for your personal statement, so here it is:

Avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs.

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

8. Proofread

Really, this should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: Proofread. Proofread more than once. And then, proofread again. Personal statements are typically a mere 250-500 words. That’s not very long. If your short essay includes careless mistakes, it says one of two things about you.

  1. You honestly didn’t even know you made the mistake. You truly think you used the correct form of “there,” “their,” “they’re,” but you were wrong. Now, you look uneducated, or maybe even ignorant.
  2. You were simply too careless or rushed to bother reading over your essay.

Obviously, you don’t want your prospective colleges to think you’re stupid or  careless, as those aren’t particularly desirable traits in prospective students.

Also, realize that the spell checker feature doesn’t catch everything–and neither do you. You can read your essay 28 times and still miss glaringly obvious mistakes. For this reason, in addition to doing your own proofreading, you should also ask a trusted adult to read over your essay. Better yet, ask two or three trusted adults. English teachers and guidance counselors are good people to start with.

9. But What Should I Write About?

Sometimes, college essay prompts are pretty specific, making it easy to decide what to write. Other times, they are painfully vague. Some prompts may be as open as: “Write a 400-word personal statement.” That’s it. Go.

If you’re struggling with what to write about, try these exercises:

  • Brainstorm topic ideas by listing your favorite memories, funny stories, favorite vacation spots, future dreams, and goals
  • Read back through old diary or journal entries
  • Look up writing prompts online.

Keep in mind as well that it’s not what you write about, but how you write about it. Your voice, vocabulary, use of literary devices, and ideas make the essay, much more so than the topic does. I once had a student write an essay about a ball of yarn, and because she wrote it so creatively and imaginatively, it was much more interesting to read than her classmates’ essays about, well, anything. Hers is the only essay I remember from that year, because it was so unique.

It’s not what you write about, but how you write about it.

 

 

 

 

Writing Activities for Your Classroom

One reason I find my job as an English teacher meaningful is because I truly believe that a person’s ability to clearly communicate, both in person and in writing, is key to success in almost every field. Even a math major in college is going to have to write a handful of papers. Even a science major will be required to compose lab reports. My aunt, an interior design major who has successfully worked in that field for decades, wrote more papers than she ever imagined she would during her time studying the field in college.

Similarly, in their careers, most of my students are going to be asked to write at some point, whether it be e-mails, memos, letters, blog posts, social media updates, or newsletters. Very few professional jobs that don’t require a strong ability to communicate exist.  For this reason, my students and I complete what I am sure they feel is an exorbitant amount of writing. Below are some of the activities we (or at least I!) enjoy and find beneficial.

For Journals

Every Friday, my students spend ten minutes at the beginning of the class period composing an informal journal-writing assignment. I provide a prompt, but it is a suggestion; they can write about whatever they want. I read and respond to every student’s entry. While I do correct writing errors I might come across, mostly, my responses are personal in nature, and relate largely to the content. The Friday journal entries are an informal, fun way for my students to practice their writing without the pressure of a grade, and for us to get to know each other. Almost all my students enjoy writing in the Friday journals–and I enjoy reading them. Below are a few of my staple prompts.

Right Now I am…

Over the course of the last two years, I have participated in several Life in 10 Minutes workshops. Each session begins with a “Right now I am.” Essentially, writers/students write the phrase “Right now I am…” and roll with whatever comes next. It proves a good way to get any distractions, stressors, etc. off our minds so we can focus and be productive.

What I Wish My Teacher Knew About Me

I often use this prompt fairly early in the year as a way to learn important information about my students–information that could help me understand them better, teach them better, and motivate them better. I simply ask them to answer the question: “What do you wish your teachers knew about you?” I have learned which students’ parents are suffering from cancer, which students help financially support their families, which students believe they are visual learners, which students struggle with English but love science, etc. I believe this also fosters a sense of trust and openness between each individual student and me, and that helps build rapport in the class as a whole.

20 Questions

This prompt also provides a way for me to learn about my students–but also allows them to learn a bit about me. I instruct them to write 20 (school appropriate) questions for me to answer–but they must also provide their own answer. For example, they might set it up like this:

What’s your favorite color?

Me: Red

Mrs. Creasey:

They can also ask questions to which they would not yet have answers, and simply provide an explanation. For example:

Where did you go to college?

Me: I hope to apply to JMU, UVA, and GMU.

Mrs. Creasey:

In each case, when I read the journal entries, I answer all students’ questions and comment on some of their answers.

Evaluate this Course

Admittedly, this can be a scary one, because ‘ya can’t please ’em all,’ but despite the barrage of complaints and criticisms it can sometimes open you up to, it is more often extremely valuable and helpful. Near the middle of the course and sometimes again at the end of the course, I ask students to evaluate the class. I tell them to consider elements such as amount of homework, rigor, usefulness of various assignments, meaningfulness of various assignments, group work, projects, classroom atmosphere, etc. I also ask them to provide any suggestions they might have. Sometimes, they have really good ideas that I can incorporate for future students.

Advice for Future Students

One of our last journal topics of the year requests that students, having survived the semester, write a letter to future students giving them advice on how to succeed and get the most out of our class. I tell them ahead of time that I plan to anonymously incorporate their advice into a Power Point to show to the following year’s students during their first week of class (which I do). This can be a very enlightening entry to read, as it reveals what was most challenging, difficult, and meaningful to the students. Students also enjoy the authenticity of the assignment.

For Revising/Self-Awareness

Sometimes it seems students think every writer magically wrote the perfect draft the first-time around and never had to proofread, revise, or struggle. They fail to see that writing is often a messy process, and that just because you wrote something, doesn’t mean you’re done writing it. Often, there is a lot of rewriting to be done before a product can be called complete–or at least complete enough. Below are some activities to help students understand the value of the process, as well as how to engage in it.

W.O.W Writing

W.O.W is an acronym for “Watching Our Writing,” and it’s an activity designed to help students become more self-aware writers, as well as more adept revisers. You can tailor it to focus on any area(s) you wish, depending on the needs of your students. For example, maybe you are trying to teach them to replace adverbs with strong, precise verbs. Maybe you are trying to teach them to avoid to-be verbs in favor of more specific verbs. Maybe you want them to make sure they have included enough credible research in a paper, as shown in the sample chart I created and share below.

W.O.W Sheet for Research Paper

Writer’s Memo

A Writer’s Memo is an excellent way to help students identify their own purpose when they write, as well as to write deliberately and thoughtfully. When my honors students write their Gothic short stories (see below), they are instructed to attempt to emulate the works we read by either Poe, Faulkner, or Gilman, and to identify at least three Gothic elements they will incorporate into their story. In conjunction with writing this story, they are required to write a Writer’s Memo. In their memo, they have to explain, with textual support from their original stories, which author and work they emulated and in what ways, as well as what three Gothic elements they included and how. This forces them to thoughtfully engage with their own creative process, and analyze their own writing–not to mention hopefully write with a greater sense of purpose and direction.

Thank-You Letter

One way to teach the proper formatting of a letter, as well as to help students become more aware of the many people in your building who go above and beyond to help, is to assign them a thank-you letter. Each year before Thanksgiving, my students pick a teacher, coach, administrator, or other school employee to whom to write their letter. The day before our Thanksgiving break, they turn the letters in to me, and I deliver them to the designated recipients chosen by my students. The students appreciate the authenticity of this assignment (someone is actually going to read their writing other than me!), and I enjoy delivering the letters. This would also be well timed during Teacher Appreciation Week.

For Comprehension, Connection, and Application

Three purposes writing can serve in the classroom, regardless of discipline, is checking for and supporting comprehension, fostering retention, and applying concepts learned. Below are some assignments that can help achieve those goals.

R.A.F.T writing

R.A.F.T is an acronym for Role Audience Format Type, and the activity can work well for any subject area or discipline. It allows students to engage with class material, exercise creatively, and show understanding (or lack thereof, letting you know what to remediate), as well as provides an outlet for supported peer evaluation. An example is below.

RAFT writing assignment

Gothic Short Stories

This assignment allows students to demonstrate an understanding of Gothic elements and the Gothic genre, an awareness of author’s style and technique, and their purpose as an author. It also allows them to write creatively, which most find enjoyable. After we read and study a poem and story by Poe, a story by Gilman, and a story by Faulkner, students are assigned to pick one of the pieces and authors we read to emulate in their own, original short story. They are to use some of the same Gothic elements, as well as some of the same literary techniques, but to craft their own original setting, plot, characters, and theme. The Writer’s Memo, explained above, works in conjunction with this assignment.

Vocabulary Stories

After assigning new vocabulary terms to study, assign students to write an original short story, mandating that they correctly use each of their new vocabulary words in the story.

Literature Portfolios

This assignment requires students to actively engage with their reading material, as well as to draw connections between assign texts and the world at large.

For the former goal, students must keep a Reader’s Journal that consists of the author’s use of motifs, symbolism, theme, and indirect characterization. They must also choose what they believe is a quintessential passage from the text and explain its literary significance.

For the latter goal, they must write four connection pieces over the course of the semester:

  • Connect to World
  • Connect to Art
  • Connect to Literature
  • Connect to Life.

The Connect to World assignment requires that they connect the assigned text to a current event, and explain the connection. Connect to Art requires students to explain how the assigned text connects to a work of art, which could be a painting, photograph, sculpture, statue, digital artwork, etc. Connect to Literature asks students to elaborate on a parallel they see between the assign text and another novel, or a memoir, autobiography, song, poem, biography, etc. Finally, Connect to Life asks students to relate the assigned reading to their own experiences.

For Creative Writing

In my twelve years of teaching high school English, one resounding request I hear from students is the desire to do more creative writing. Below are some ways to incorporate it (preferably after students are already comfortable with poetic devices).

Recipe Poetry

Recipe poetry is a great way to work on deciphering a nonfiction text, completing math (such as fractions), and thinking creatively. To see the step-by-step plans for teaching a recipe poetry lesson, click on “Recipe Poetry” above.

Ligne Donne and Kasen Renku

Writing ligne donne (shared line) poems and Kasen Renku poems are a great way to foster cooperative learning and get your entire class involved in the writing process. To see lesson plans for these poems, click “Ligne Donne and Kasen Renku” above.

Perspective Poem

For this assignment, students look at a photograph. Instruct them to pick one item in the photograph and write a poem from its perspective. Then, have students read their poems to each other and guess what item in the photograph the poem told from.

Story Circle

This is another great way to get the entire class involved in the writing process. Tell students to put their desks in a circle, and get out a piece of paper and a writing utensil. Instruct them all to write “It was a dark and stormy night” or “It was the first day of summer break” or some other opening line of your choice on the first line. Then, set the timer for five minutes and tell them to write until the timer goes off, when they must drop their pencils–even if they are mid-sentence. Tell them to pass their papers to the left. Give them a minute or two to read what the student before them wrote. Then, set the timer for five minutes, during which they should add to the story.  Continue this process for as many cycles as you left, warning students before the end so they know they need to write the ending. At the end, return the stories to the originator, and allow students to share with the class on a volunteer basis.

 

 

My Current To-Read List

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I’ve started to allow myself about 15 minutes of pleasure reading before I close my eyes for the night most nights. Currently, I’m enjoying Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler.

I don’t get to read much during the school year (unless, of course, you count the nearly never-ending string of my students’ persuasive essays, journal entries, literary analyses, and research papers). But last month, I spent several hours in the Bozeman airport waiting for my travel companions’ plane to land so we could make the trip to Big Sky together. Though I admit to reading several persuasive essays during my wait (yes, during my vacation…), I also perused the little airport shops.

And I found books. Lots and lots of books.

There were at least a dozen I wanted to buy–and probably would have, if my luggage had not already weighed 52.5 pounds when I left home that morning. I always have a long Summer To-Read List, so this year, though I limited my Bozeman book-buy binge to three books, I decided to get started early. Most nights of the week since I’ve been home from Montana, I’ve been allowing myself 15 minutes before bed to read for pleasure. Currently, I’m about 100 pages in to Yellowstone Has Teeth, and in the beginning chapters of Salt to the Sea, which I’m reading as part of the novel-writing class I’m taking (and loving!) at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

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Currently Reading

Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler

One of the planned activities I was most excited about during my trip was a day-long coach tour of Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t wait to see the park and its feature in the snow. The last time I visited, it was summer and I was in elementary school. I was looking forward to the spectacular juxtaposition of colorful hot springs with white snow. I bought this book thinking I’d have time to start reading it before our visit to the park,  but all I managed to read during the entire trip were persuasive essays. Still, starting the book once I returned home has been a nice way to savor my memories of our snowy day in the park.

I also bought this book because I love books about people’s lives. I am incredibly nosy about everyone’s routine, right down to the most mundane details, so I’m enjoying reading about how Ambler and her fellow winter residents managed to tote groceries home on snowmobiles, the ways they managed to keep warm, and what their day to day job obligations were.

If that weren’t enough, I always love books about nature. Reading about other peoples’ observations in and connection to nature helps me better appreciate my own time in the out of doors, enhances my own ability to be aware and open and in touch. I enjoy the introspective reverie of one alone in nature.

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Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

IMG-1980A fellow writer in my novel-writing class who happens to work as a librarian recommended our class read this book as an excellent example of writing craft. It’s a Young Adult (YA) novel about four teens during World War II. So far, it’s an incredibly fast read. It’s riveting. The book is impressively thick, but the chapters are incredibly short and it’s not hard to read several in one sitting–not only because of their brevity, but also because of their pace. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of each of the four characters. So far, each chapter is a first-person account of the same experience or moment.

My To-Read List

A Modern Dog’s Life: How to Do the Best for Your Dog, by Paul McGreevy

You can probably tell from this blog and my corresponding Instagram account that my dogs are a huge focal point in my life, so it’s no surprise that the title of this book caught me eye. It seems to promise A) that will learn about how my dogs experience life and B) that I will learn how to make their lives the best lives possible. I actually came across this book while I was conducting research for an article I was writing for ScoutKnows.com, and when my brother asked me a few days later what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for this book and he delivered. I can’t wait to learn more about my dogs and how to make their lives better, and I have a feeling the information in this book will also help with my writing for Scout Knows.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young

I want to know the secrets of the natural world–and I like birds–so this book seemed like a no-brainer purchase. It’s another that I bought at the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman airport. I’m excited to read about what I can learn from my backyard birds.

I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O’Farrell

I haven’t purchase this book yet, but I first heard about it on NPR a few weeks ago, and then read a review of it in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In both cases, it sounded intriguing and thought-provoking. I have a feeling it will alter my perspective on many things.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey

I think my cousin Katie originally told me about this book, and it’s another my brother bought me for my birthday. As I wrote above, I love introspective writing like I expect to read here.

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Just a small pile of some of the books on my to-read list

Ol Major’s Last Summer: The Story of a Very Special Friend, by Richard Sloan

This is my third Bozeman airport book buy. Each purchase of this book donates money to animal causes, and it’s written by a local writer. Plus–it’s about a dog. How could I resist?

I do expect this book will make me cry, so I have to plan my reading of it wisely.

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

One of my best friends bought this book for me for Christmas last year. He hates reading, but this is his favorite book, so it must be good. I’ve actually already read it, but I was a sophomore in high school and remember very little.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I’m a firm believer in reading the book before seeing the movie (or, in this case, show), but I let my husband talk me into watching Season One of The Handmaid’s Tale before I read the book.

I am also a firm believer that the book is always better than the movie (or the show)–so I have got to read this book. If the show is any indicator, the book must be mind-blowing.

Lastly, the novel I’m currently writing is, according to my instructor, speculative fiction, so I am sure I can also learn something about craft from reading this book.

 

 

Lesson Plans: The Crucible, A Scavenger Hunt through Salem

I’ve been reading Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible with high school English students since I first began my teaching career in 2006. I’ve been teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for almost as long. A few years into my career, I went on a campaign to convince my family that we should spend part of our summer touring around Salem, Massachusetts. I wanted to experience first-hand the place I had been reading about since I myself sat in a high school English classroom studying these works, and I knew I could gather material that would enhance my teaching of the play, the two fascinating and terrifying time periods it explores (the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Era),  and the novel. For reasons I don’t remember, the trip didn’t happen, and years went by–but this past summer, my aunt and uncle moved to Cape Cod, and when I visited them in June, they were kind enough to help make my years-long dream of visiting Salem a reality (though it meant about as much time in the car as it did on the streets of Salem!).

Witch House Purple Flowers
The Witch House is one of the many sites my students “visit” on their scavenger hunt of Salem through the halls of our high school.

After visiting, reading about, and photographing The Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace, The House of the Seven Gables, The Custom House, The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, The Old Burial Ground, The Witch House, and several other points of interest, I felt exhausted, educated, intrigued–and a little like there was still so much to see, and so little time! Still, I had gathered tons of interesting information to share with my students and satisfy (or pique!) my own curiosity, and I had taken dozens upon dozens of photographs to share with my classes come September.

But what to do with this information and these photographs? Sure, I could throw the photographs up on the screen and give my students the “My Day in Salem” lecture. I could put the photographs and information into a Power Point, Prezi, or Google Slides presentation. I could print them off and pass them around the room.

But none of this was good enough. None of it even approximated the real thing.

Victims' Memorial
The Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts

 

About a month went by, the photos still on my phone, the information still in my head, before I realized that what I really wanted to do was, well, take my students to Salem…

This, of course, was not as realistic as a “My Day in Salem” Power Point. But it would be  so much more effective!

So what if I mimicked the experience to the best of my ability…by turning the halls of our high school into the sidewalks and streets of Salem, Massachusetts? I typed an e-mail to my principal, and with her approval and support, set about creating my Salem Scavenger Hunt. With the help of my colleagues, the plan went smoothly this fall. So smoothly, in fact, that two of my colleagues created their own subject-specific scavenger hunts for their classes. This spring, with the help of Erin Ford, our school’s resident technology genius, I’m confident it will go even better. Erin has helped me incorporate technology like augmented reality to enhance the experience and further engage my students. Using the app HP Reality, formerly Aurasma, our scavenger hunt is going to come to life–to approximate an actual visit to Salem as closely as possible.

 

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Throughout our reading of the play and the novel, my students were still referring back to things they had learned in the scavenger hunt. It was far more effective than a lecture, worksheet, or presentation would have been. As much as possible, it brought the places, the people, and the time period alive for my students. The plans are below. I hope you and your students will get as much out of this as my students and I do!

Below is the original, more “analog” version of the scavenger hunt, which uses photos I printed and laminated from my trip.

A Visit to Salem Scavenger Hunt.docx

Thanks to Erin, you can find the technology-enhanced version below. It will require you to download the HP Reality app and set up your own augmented reality. You will still use the photos available in the analog version above, but when students use the app and hold their phone over specific photographs at each site, they will see videos, articles, etc. relevant to that site (once you have created your specific Aurasma).

Scavenger Hunt Rules

Following the technology-enhanced scavenger hunt, students are then asked to create a presentation using what they learned. They could also do this in the less technologically involved version, as well. Find a template here:

Travel Log

Regardless of whether you opt for the more analog version or the more technological version, you will need:

  • enough copies of the rules/worksheet packet for each student
  • colleagues willing to chaperone your students in the hallways
  • photographs of the sites, placed ahead of time at various locations around the school
  • enough copies of a map of your school, marked with the locations of the sites, for each student or each group of students.

My execution of this technology-enhanced version is slated for February, and I can hardly wait to see how it goes!

Witch House IV
The kitchen of the Witch House, where the trials initiated.

Still a Writer

As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”

“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”

This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.

On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.

And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.

Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.