Category Archives: Writing

Building a Collective Understanding of Prisons.

Last summer, I devoted much of my month abroad to writing an article about an SLA unit on prisons and imprisonment, originally developed by Humanities Teacher Josh Block. I’m happy to announce its publication in English Journal this month.

Here’s a little preview:

As a teacher who values critical thinking and getting students to see the bigger picture, I look forward to pushing their thinking on this topic. Sometimes it feels like I’ve got a big box of figurative dynamite hidden beneath my desk—if students have a hard-and-fast notion about the way the world works, I am there to blow it up. (It can be as simple as one question, like, “Why don’t men wear skirts?”)
Getting students to a new understanding, though, can be tricky. I want students to be more aware of the systems and structures around them, but I don’t want to push them toward a particular worldview or, worse yet, make them feel like they are under attack and have them shut down. This feels especially true for this unit. Prisons may be under-discussed in schools, but that doesn’t mean that students don’t have preconceived, and sometimes deeply personal, ideas about what’s going on with our justice and penal systems

Check out the whole article here. Many thanks to Heather Hurst for researching my classroom, taking transcripts, and then encouraging me to write this piece when she saw the call for submissions.

Fitting together the puzzle of thesis and support.

passingI just finished reading a batch of Self-Reflective 2Fer Essays from my 11th graders, and a common weak spot they talked about was when your support in your body paragraphs doesn’t (quite) match your thesis.

I have been tinkering with this trouble in my mind for a few weeks. As teachers of writing, we often encourage students to pick a topic and “zoom in” early, and workshop their thesis statement too — but sometimes the statement is the cart that comes before the horse. They’ve fine-tuned it before they’ve really exhausted their line of inquiry. Then the thesis becomes a jigsaw piece too carefully cut for the puzzle that is their essay.

When we wrapped up reading “Passing” in the 10th grade, I decided to try the opposite approach, and asked a simple question:

“What are you still wondering?”

From that question, we made a list on the board. The questions often looked something like this (spoiler alert!)

  • Were Brian and Clare really involved?
  • Did Irene push Clare?
  • Would Jack have accepted his daughter now that he knew the truth?

Of course, we can’t see into the fictional future and find out what happened. (“Can’t we ask Nella Larsen?” “Nope, she’s dead.”) But we can re-write these questions so that the point towards the text, instead of past the ending:

  • What evidence does the book present that Brian and Clare are having an affair?
  • What motivations did Irene have to push Clare? What was her attitude towards Clare?
  • Which impulse was stronger: Jack’s love for his family, or his racism?

Students then received a sticky note to write down their question. They could grab one off the board, or brainstorm their own. That sticky note then became a bookmark as they hunted down a page that helped answer their question. Once they found some worthy evidence, they were handed a chart with the following questions:

  • Context – what’s going on in this scene? Give the basics in a sentence or two.
  • Patterns – what words or phrases stand out to you on this page? Write them down here.
  • Analysis  — what conclusions do you draw looking CLOSELY at those words and phrases? How does this page give some clues to your deep question?

The final prompt in the chart:

  • Answering your question – So, based on all of your close reading, how can you answer your original question? Your answer will probably take a couple of sentences.

It was not until the next day that I revealed: That closing prompt? It’s the core of your thesis, and your intro paragraph. A few students rolled their eyes: they’d been tricked! But a few of them smiled with surprise. That was a complete outline they had just done! And though the write-up was rough, with plenty of first person and opinionated statements, the inquiry was real. In most cases, the puzzle fit together.

Independent Reading: The Rubric.

There was a lot of interest at EduCon about our grading rubrics at SLA, so I’m putting out the one I wrote for the Personal Reading History.

The Friday before the project was due, students completed a peer editing routine similar to the one that they do for 2Fer Essays. (This was also EduCon Friday, so if you visited on that day, chances are good this is what you saw.) The peer editing sheet had the following questions, with room for written comments as well. I often use this blend of on-screen and on-paper notes, especially when there is no natural way to leave comments in Prezi.

PEER EDIT CHECKLIST          Peer Editor: ___________  Creator: _____________

Does the Prezi include the student’s name in the title or first slide?    Y   /   N

How many items for their Reading History do they have?  _____________ Are they numbered?  Y   /  N

Does the Reading History do more than just share details? Does it share why these scenes are important for understanding the student’s approach towards reading?

Do they have a basic description / intro for their book?   Y  /   N

Does the Prezi include the book’s title AND author?    Y   /   N

How many items for their Annotations do they have? _______________   Are they numbered?   Y  /   N

Is there a good variety of annotations? Does it share why these annotations are KEY to understanding the book, and the larger themes and ideas behind it?

Do they have two clear items of reflection at the end?   Y   /   N

Does this reflection explain both what they gained from doing the annotations AND examining their personal reading history? Does it connect the two in some way?

Presentation – is the project free of spelling, punctuation, sentence structure issues? Note SPECIFIC problems here, because you can’t mark Prezi with a red pen:

Design- Does the Prezi have a unified theme? Does it flow nicely? Does the path make sense? Note specific moments (by number) that have problems, and explain:

The rubric was published on the back of this peer editing sheet — and we discussed it once the rounds of peer editing and finished, and before revision work began.

The final product was then presented in class on Monday — students did a gallery-style presentation, where they loaded their Prezis on their own computers, and then rotated around the room in 10-minute cycles. They left comments for each other in the rubric section, which was on the back of their peer editing sheet. I left my comments after the student comments, and sometimes in dialogue with what was already written: I agree! Or, I disagree! Each category is out of twenty points, which I scribble as small as possible in the corner of each section.

Design – The flow of the Prezi is both logical and engaging, and incorporates both text and visuals. There is a unified feel to the project. Student comments:



The project reflects a deep understanding of the student’s personal reading history as well as the many ways a book can be annotated and analyzed. The content of the project does much more than just scratch the surface of these topics.


Student comments:







Different forms of annotation are applied to the book, and the annotations include commentary about why these details are significant. Closing reflection ties the commentary about the book together.

Student comments:





Project is well-edited and is free of errors in spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Images or other media included are of high quality.

Student comments:





All points of the project were completed on time and beyond the basic requirements.

Pahomov only:

Reading History:       / 5          Annotations:         / 5

Final Product:        / 10


Link to Reading History Peer Editing form and Rubric 




Looking at both sides of language and power.

I wrote about reading James Baldwin and unpacking language and power with my 10th Graders earlier this month, and now I’d like to share a few of their final projects in that unit.

Here’s a snippet of the instructions:

Your language autobiography will investigate some of the themes from our language unit and relate them to your life. The expectation for this paper is a polished piece of writing that combines personal experience with larger analysis and reflection.

This is NOT a traditional “thesis paper” — you will share a deep understanding about yourself, but you want to lead your reader to that instead of sharing it in your intro paragraph.

Your paper must contain at least one descriptive scene from your own life — and this will probably include dialogue — along with deeper analysis. You must also incorporate a quote or idea from the language essays we are reading together.

If you’re familiar with the diverse makeup of our student body, you can imagine many of the relevant subjects that many of our students explore. Code switching, slang, foreign languages at home, neighborhood accents, are all topics that students often gravitate towards.

Every year, though, there are also students who hesitate when the assignment is given. They don’t see anything noteworthy or unusual about their language; they have never experienced it as a place of conflict. They might be white, or middle class, or sound like news broadcasters, or something else entirely — it all depends.

This unsureness can turn into a situation where the majority or dominant culture feels under-celebrated, like they have no unique experience. (This is, I think, where the motivation for things like “White Studies” comes from.) The privilege and power might be something to be defended, or ashamed of, instead of examined.

I am blown away every year when kids actively resist this path, and take the time to explore their individual stories. Whether they’re coming from a place of struggle or a place of comfort, each can be examined in the larger context of society. Students do a great job getting past cliche and to real meaning.

And with that, I give you two Digital Story versions of this project. Both take on this project through the lens of school — and present the opposite, but equally relevant sides of the same coin.

“You Have Nothing To Hide From”

“Listen to Our Words”

Thanks to Josh Block for handing me both the original assignment and the Digital Story remix.

Truth and Storytelling: Two Final Essays

My example of a journal brainstorm: "Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world."

My example of a journal brainstorm: “Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world.”

I started this series two months ago, but here’s the final project that goes with the Things They Carried: Truth and Storytelling Unit.

Your benchmark task is to answer the essential question:

What is the relationship between the self and the changing world?

(Sub questions: How does the self react to and deal with change? How does the world in turn react when a person changes? How does this cycle work? What is notable about it?)

You will do this by writing an essay that is both analytical and narrative.

The analytical portion of you essay will identify a major lesson O’Brien gives us about the self in the changing world. You must analyze how he conveys this message in his book. Once this formal analysis is complete, you must then apply your understanding from the book it to your own beliefs and experiences, and then write a personal essay around that theme. (This section can resemble one of the stories in the book.)

The analytical section really just reinforces the writing skills we’ve been working on all quarter with the 2Fers — and students see this. The narrative assignment, though, really blows things wide open. I emphasize that, while you can focus on death or trauma (and many students do), there are so many lessons embedded in the book about the self in the face of x y or z change. I also rely on lessons from Peter Elbow to get these ideas really flowing from students — not always easy after a few months of mostly analytical composition.

Students write about the acute anxiety of transferring schools, or refusing to watch a loved one die in the hospital; to be intensely attached to every item in a care package sent to summer camp, or to have an anger that they bank down inside them, only to have it seep out at unexpected moments.

I love this project, and it’s a fitting end to a unit where we have explored the purpose of storytelling in their lives. (At this point they usually get over the fact that Tim O’Brien was “lying” with his book of fiction.)

“What I’m really trying to say is…”

Instead of starting class with our computers out, I handed them a one-page photocopy.

“I’ve been reading this book called Writing Without Teachers, and I think some of the advice might help you with your essay drafts.”

“Writing without teachers? Sounds great,” one student quipped.

“I know how you feel,” I said. “Sometimes, when I’m writing, I wish I wasn’t there, either.”

I read them a few key items from the list:

Avoid doing all writing or doing all sitting-back-thinking. And above all avoid being caught in the middle where you write only a couple sentences and stop and wonder and worry.

Don’t let beginnings be a problem. Write through them by brute force. I often have to use all-purpose beginnings: “And another thing…” “The thing of it is…” “What I want to talk about is…” “You want to know something?” At the end you can write better beginnings.

“Who writes their first sentence, and then immediately deletes it? Who does this half a dozen, a dozen times?” Much of the class raised their hands along with me. “This book says, try letting go don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time. Allow yourself to write the crap that will get you to the good stuff.”

Several students shook their heads emphatically no. That’s not how they operate, they said. They want to get it right the first time.

“I get it,” I told them. “I wrote a 15-page article this summer, and I probably wrote half a dozen different intros before I thought I found the right one. All the while there was a voice in my head saying, ‘this is not right.’ ”

“But when one of you is stuck in a writing rut, the question I always ask is, “well, what are you really trying to say?” And nine times out of ten, what comes out of your mouth is exactly what you should be typing. So, why not just start your writing with that phrase? And we’ll get rid of it later.”

We start with outlines, and we finish with peer editing and revision, but somewhere in the middle we need to set ourselves free in order to find our voice. I hope that “What I’m really trying to say” helps us get there.

#Engchat Reflection: The college essays you shouldn’t write.

As I mentioned on #engchat this past Monday, my father is a retired college professor. He taught at Bryn Mawr College, and also read applications for admission there (they rotated faculty into the process each year).

Since he retired, he has been coming to SLA every fall to meet with seniors one-on-one and workshop their college essays. This has been a great resource for the students, and also for us teachers — he gives each of them 20-30 minutes of his undivided attention, time that’s hard to carve out of a regular teaching schedule.

He and I have talked plenty about what makes a good essay. Sometimes, to help drive the point home with students, we flip the focus and talk about what makes a bad one. One year we actually gave a joint presentation to rising seniors about college essays, and came up with the following list of Yellow, Red, and Green Flags for essay topics:

Yellow flags:

  • How you’re so awesome. How did you get that way? Your essay should make you look awesome without just saying it.
  • Your High School Drama. Because it makes you look like high school is your whole life, instead of thinking about college.
  • Your Travel Journal. It can be done well, but you have to show what YOU gained from the experience, not just how cool the places you visited were.
  • Religious or Philosophical Arguments. Figured out the meaning of life? Great. But don’t preach to the person who’s reading your essay.

Red Flags:

  • Quoting famous people. Martin Luther King once said… that students should come up with their OWN brilliant words!
  • Making fun of the prompt. You can put a little humor in the essay, but don’t try to turn it into a satire, or be cynical – colleges won’t want you on their campus.
  • Your Excuses. There may be very good reasons that you didn’t perform as well as you should have in high school – but this should be coming from your advisor. Stay positive in your own essay.
  • Your Illegal Behavior. Even if you got caught, got punished and learned from the experience… colleges don’t want trouble.
  • Hot-Button Topics. People have strong feelings about topics like abortion, terrorism, gun control, police, etc… no matter what you write, you may offend the reader of your essay.

And a few Green Flags:

  • Stories outside of high school. Show that you’re engaged with the larger world!
  • Show how you’ve grown. You may be awesome now, but what key life experience, mentor, or idea did you have which helped you get there?
  • Specific personal details. Your essay should be so specific that there is no WAY it could belong to anybody else.

He also shared his perspective as a former admissions worker, which was eye-opening for the students… he described having 40 applications to read in a day, and what it feels like when essay #38 has spelling errors. On the flip side, he noted that a powerful essay makes him want to go to bat for a candidate.

What other do’s or don’ts do you share with your students? What do you think sticks?

Slideshow of those points:

Like Teacher, Like Student: First Day Surveys.

Towards the end of the first day of class, I ask all of my students the following survey questions:

  • Tell me about your name.
  • Where are you from? How do you feel about it?
  • How do you like to express yourself?
  • What’s a book that has made an impression on you? Why?
  • How can I help you this year?
  • Anything else I need to know?

Before they dive in, I read my own answers to this survey aloud. I tweak my answers every year (especially for that last question, there’s always some new random factoid to share.) I’m not going to post the whole thing here, but I share plenty of details, both serious and whimsical. Especially key is my answer to Question #5, which sets up an important class expectation:

I guess I’ll turn this around and say how you, my students, can help me: 

Give up your stereotypes and be your best self.

At some time or another you have had a teacher–or maybe many teachers–who have judged your character. Teachers who labeled you dumb/quiet/loud/angry/rude/hopeless, and you could never shake it. I promise never to judge you this way, and I will always work to bring out your best self in my class — even when you’re struggling or having a bad day. Of course, if I don’t use labels, then there are no labels to hide behind! So get ready to redefine yourself.

I realize I’m a little late to the party, posting a first day activity in October. What brought me to it now, though, is that these surveys continue to be a resource for me all through the year. I read through them the first week, and I take notes on any crucial details that students shared, as well as learn their names through their stories about them. But with a full course load, many of the details don’t stick the first time around. Here’s some things that I look for when revisiting the surveys later in the year:

  • What did the reluctant readers say for the book that made an impression on them? How could this information inform my approach with them?
  • Are there any books in our curriculum that get mentioned a lot? Why?
  • For students who are struggling: What was their advice for how can I help them?
  • For students who are excelling: Same thing as above.
  • What patterns are out there? Does this reflect a similarity in the students, or our teaching? Or both?

Of all of my responsibilities as a public school teacher, one of the ones that weighs on me the most is that I’m expected to have meaningful interactions with my students every day. The ideal in my mind is a personal conversation or exchange — but with 120 students, that’s not possible on a daily basis. The first-day survey gives me a valuable starting point that I can always return to.

Like teacher, like student: daily journaling

This strategy is anything but new, but I thought I would describe how it works in my classroom.

The first ten minutes of almost every English class I teach is devoted to journaling. We’re talking old school, marble journals, no talking, no thinking (too much), no stopping. I don’t like to police use of phones and other tech in my class, but for those first few minutes the class must be absolutely “tech free” — I describe as strength training for more arduous tasks like the SAT.

I have read so many times that writing alongside your students is key — and to be honest, I do not achieve this the majority of the time. I produce my own versions of some major assignments, but not every year. With Journaling though, I have my own, and I succeed in writing in it for most class periods:

One reason I don’t write in it every class period — apart from general fatigue — is that I let students read and reply to my journal. They have the option to leave their journal for me to read, and I value that. So it seems unfair that I wouldn’t also put myself out there.

I can’t say that kids are clamoring for my journal every period. One way I often use it is by handing it to someone who is so clearly done writing for the day (even though the instructions are to just keep pushing through.) Sometimes this has no effect. Sometimes, though, they go a little bit nuts over the stuff I’ve written.

Of course, I still have my Ms. Pahomov identity on while I’m writing. But I also share lots of personal details that would never have a reason to come up in class. Like this random page from last may, which includes references to my best friend, my partner, and an unfortunate incident that happened at 23rd and Washington:


If we share, I can read mine too. If I notice that I don’t want to write on the prompt, I’d better change it next time. And if students are making noise, my teacher glare is much more effective if I am also scribbling away. We are all in it.

#Engsschat Reflection: professional collaboration in action!

While participating in #engsschat today, Diana Laufenberg asked what people were doing around the election. She brought up the idea of looking for logical fallacies, which in turn reminded me of this poster:

Click to see bigger versions and/or to download

I knew Laufenberg had done a State of the Union bingo with her history classes in previous years… what if we applied this to the election? In English, we are working hard on our skills of analytical writing, with some persuasion naturally thrown in. Reviewing these fallacies would naturally support our essay work, and what they observed during the debate could then be discussed after the fact in American History class.

We teased this idea out during #engsschat, and then I shot of a quick e-mail to the 11th Grade English and History teachers at SLA. Is this definitely going to work out, or look anything like I just described? I can’t say for sure, but we’ll end up with some variation on this idea for sure.

That’s a part of the point of this post — to showcase a little moment of teacher collaboration as it’s being worked out. Watch this space for what we come up with, and how it goes. And steal this idea and build a plan for your own students!