Category Archives: Writing

Building a home in the real world.

At SLA, like at many schools, we emphasize the importance of doing things in “the real world.” If at all possible, projects are designed to be shared publicly, and also to make sense to the general public — not just to the people who read the instructions.

Sometimes, this means we’re posting public art next to the school. Sometimes we’re planting a community garden. Students apply to and speak at conferences, travel around the world on service trips, and generally feel connected with what’s going on beyond the school’s walls.

A bit tricker, though, is our online content. The easiest way to share is to post on our class blogs — and we do that plenty. I love reading, viewing, and listening to work posted there, but the emphasis is often more on a student’s individual portfolio than the collective effort of a project or a class.

It only recently occurred to me that we could build our own spaces for those projects that benefitted from a customized home. After a week of pouring over different designs, our first Journalism class picked the template and the content areas that would  become

Going this route made me more aware of other student-centric sites in the area, like UPenn’s The Blacktop and Mighty Writers’ forthcoming Mighty Post. When media was print-only, students were relegated to the annual newspaper poetry contest or maybe a letter to the editor. There are a few outposts for printing student writing at the “professional” level — The Concord Review  and The National High School Journal of Science come to mind — but those are few and far between.

Now that we’re online, professional venues still don’t make much room for student writing* — but they’re conveniently no longer the gatekeepers. We can set up our own showcases, not just in emulation of professional organizations but at their level.

With all this in mind, fellow 11th Grade English Teacher Meenoo Rami and I have just established The 2Fer Quarterly. 

2Fers, in brief, are short analytical essays that SLA juniors write every two weeks — on any topic they choose. If you want to know more about how to teach them, go here. But if you’d just like to get to the good stuff, watch this space in the next couple of months:


Students will be invited to post 2Fers — not every essay, but the ones they think are best — in a venue that, quite simply, is designed to be classy. Expect independent ideas and commentary on everything under the sun — science, humanities, media, politics, technology, and hopefully some criticism of 2Fer writing itself.

Are we going to get the same traffic as Slate or Salon? Goodness, no. But we know there’s an audience out there for us, and we hope that you’ll be a part of the process and the conversation.

*A notable exception is The Huffington Post, which does feature columnists who are at the college and high school level — although usually only for education-related topics.


Taking Time To Think

Writing in Berlin

Ok, class report: What did you do during your summer vacation?

As evidenced in the photo above, I wrote a fair deal. I produced a resource for NWP’s Digital Is about turning traditional essays into one-minute videos, my first attempt at a scholarly article (fingers crossed), and a proposal for a book chapter (fingers crossed, now both hands are busy).

I also continued to not post to this blog for several months. Last year I had some great spurts of posting — and those posts reached people in the way that I had hoped — but there were also long, long periods of drought. I could never find the right spot in my week to make writing a routine, and the magical moments of inspiration did not happen frequently enough, or at least did not translate into blog posts. And the summer reminded me that, for the big stuff, writing always takes me a few days.

What did you do during your break? How did you refine your practice?

I also spent a whole month in Berlin, dusting off my German — can you tell by that foreign-looking window in the picture?

“Analysis Must Show Thought”

This post is me collecting my thoughts in preparation for the #Engchat discussion I will be helping out with on Monday, 2/13. We will we talking about teaching analysis skills — and not because I am an expert on the topic. Because, in looking for resources and suggestions, I browsed the Engchat vaults, and couldn’t find any chats around this theme.

My awesome #ux students do some analysis & synthesis on literary interactions

What I have noticed in my class is that analysis is something I tell kids to do a lot, but don’t necessary explain. Here’s some examples of what I say, usually to help with analysis in writing:

“Analysis comes after the context and the quote in your body paragraphs. And it should be the biggest part of each paragraph.”

(What, like a big cut of meat? That I can put on the scale for a grade?)

“Analysis should always justify your example, and explain how it relates to your thesis.”

“Don’t summarize, analyze.”

“You analysis should explain the how or the why behind something, not just take a position on a topic.”

What it all seems to boil down to, though, I stole from fellow SLA teacher Matt Kay:

“Analysis must show thought.”

Are you thinking? Are you thinking? Are you thinking?

(Quick, where’s my think-o-meter?)

So I’m interested in exploring all the little tips and tricks that can help massage students’ thinking. But most of all I am asking myself — how do we create a culture where that great analysis can happen in the first place?

Creative Commons photo via Flickr.

Starting up the 2Fer tradition.

In the last year, I have made a few presentations about using Google Docs as a venue for student essays at SLA. During those presentations, I tended to gloss over the assignment we first adapted for GDocs — which is a shame, because it deserves its own moment in the spotlight.

The original brainchild of Mr. Chase, the instructions for 2Fers currently read as follows:

A 2Fer is an analytical paper on any topic you choose. There are four basic guidelines that must be followed:

1. The 2fer has a thesis statement that is unique, insightful, and debatable. It does not re-state a commonly held belief or choose sides in a worn-out debate — it reflects an observation and conclusion you have come to on your own.

2. The 2fer uses at least two outside sources to support your thesis, and cites them correctly. This includes integrating the information seamlessly into the text of your essay, and using correct MLA citation for both the in-text citation and the works cited page.

3. The 2fer never uses the first or second person (“I” or “you.”) Instead of writing “I think that…” just write what you think!  If you quote a source where the speaker says “I” or “you,” that’s fine.

4. The 2fer proves its thesis statement through the quality of analysis and factual support, not raw force of opinion. Avoid topics where your personal feelings dominate the paper, or rely heavily on individual experiences or beliefs (the existence of an afterlife, the nature of love, etc.) Look instead for topics where there is a wealth of credible outside material you can mine for support. A well-written 2Fer doesn’t argue, it proves.

You want to write about the magazine you’re reading? Do it. The video game you’re playing? Awesome. The mysteries of SEPTA? Absolutely. Are you feeling meta today, and want to attempt the 2Fer-about-a-2Fer? A valiant endeavor, where many students have gone before (with amusing results.)

This freedom of choice is obviously a blessing and a curse. To help students narrow it down, we’ve been talking about how to come up with a viable thesis statement — which, of course, first requires that you ask the right question. See the slide deck below for a glimpse into our conversations.

A new daily tradition.

This is where I will be writing all year.

Last year, we had some hiccups with commenting on our public classroom blogs. After one class had published a round of personal reflective essays, I decided to go analog with our feedback, and we wrote notes of appreciation to each other — folded, signed, and hand-delivered.

It was an unexpectedly fabulous day in class, and did a lot to foster community. The writing was different than straight-up thank you notes; instead of showing your gratitude for something given to or done for them specifically, students were applauding something that they had simply observed. In a typing-heavy environment, writing them by hand was novel. And everybody delivering them felt a bit like an elementary school on Valentine’s day — in a good way.

Afterwards, I kicked myself for not grabbing a few cards and joining in. As an English teacher, I write tons of feedback, and never in red pen (or font) — but sometimes I feel like the moments for pure appreciation get away from me, moments of inspiration, resilience, or kindness that are observed but never mentioned. I get caught up in the grind.

So last week I ordered myself a year’s worth of notecards and envelopes. I plan on writing one note a day, every day we are in school, and then delivering it by hand. The goal is to appreciate everybody in the building at least once before the year is over. And some I will photograph and post here as well.

(In case you’re worried, I did the math: this year I teach 130 students, plus 22 advisees, plus 25+ on staff. Thank goodness the school year runs 180 days.)