Student #voice: bulletin boards and literary analysis

In my ongoing efforts to give my students more voice and choice in our classroom, I decided last summer that I would hand over the bulletin boards to them. I wasn’t sure my students even noticed what was on our walls, and I was pretty sure that I didn’t know what they needed to see that might impact their learning. But the start of the year came and we hit the ground running with our NaNoWriMo work. My bulletin boards continued to be filled with traditional classroom stuff: reminders of rules and procedures, inspirational quotes, book posters, comics that reflected fun with language, and occasionally some student work.

Over winter break I decided that the start of a new semester in January would be a good time to address this. Our classroom was now an established community, so it might be easier to talk about what we need on the walls: How could the walls support our learning? What could students add to the walls to make the room more their own while also inspiring them and their classmates?

I thought I would go in over the break and take everything off the walls, but then I decided it would be worth taking the time to have my students first notice what was there and try to figure out why I chose it and how it might affect our environment.

Then I opened my plan book and realized that I had a tight schedule in January that included lessons introducing literary analysis and the start of a novel that the class would read together. How could I squeeze in the bulletin board remodel? But then I noticed that the work I wanted my students to do with our current walls (what do you notice? how does it affect us?) could be tied to the very literary analysis lessons we needed to do. So this is my plan for Monday:

  • First I will introduce analysis in simple terms:
    • what do you notice?
    • why does it matter?
  • Then I will demonstrate this thinking with a couple items from our classroom walls:
    • “I notice a poster of a runner going over a hurdle, and the words, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.'”
    • “This matters because it helps athletes connect the work they do in a sport to the work they have to do in school. This also matters because it reminds us that we have to keep working hard, even if we are already talented at the work we need to do.”
  • Students will then spend time reading the walls of our classroom and taking notes on what they notice and why it might matter to our environment and our learning.
  • We will come back together to share out what we’ve discovered and talk about what they would like to see on the walls.

The next step is still a little hazy for me. I don’t think I should have all 32 students decorating the walls at the same time, and I have another class of 32 students who will also need to participate. My plan is to divide the semester up into 2 or 3-week time periods and assign small groups to be in charge of certain areas of the classroom. To get them thinking about their contributions (while also practicing analysis), they will take pictures of their wall, add it to their Google Sites portfolio, and write a paragraph about what they added, why they chose it, and how it might positively affect our environment.

This is a brand new idea for me and I have no idea how it will be received and what my students will choose to put on the walls. But they didn’t let me down when I gave them ownership over other aspects of their learning (like writing their own novels, publishing their own magazines, choosing their own digital projects, or producing the school’s daily news show), so I am confident that they will surprise and impress me with (and I will learn a lot from) their bulletin boards.

I’ll share again in a couple weeks when our first student-designed bulletin boards are up! In the meantime, has anyone out there given students ownership over classroom walls? I’d love to hear your story.



T.G.I.Summer: time to get some work done!

Good thing I have the whole summer off!



Brainstorm backwards, then look ahead

The first time I read Billy Collins’ poem “On Turning Ten,” I thought it would be wonderful if my 8th graders wrote poems about the nostalgia of childhood and the uncertainty of growing up, since they were kind of in the middle: finished with elementary school and looking forward to high school. We watched a video of Collins reciting the poem, and I distributed it on paper so we could dig in to the imagery that made the poem so powerful. We talked about the value of specific details (“I could make myself invisible by drinking a glass of milk a certain way,” “my bicycle never leaned against the garage as it does today, all the dark blue speed drained out of it”), and then they started working on their own poems.

Bicycle at Venice Beach, by Michael,

Bicycle at Venice Beach, by Michael,

But before long, they started complaining. They didn’t know what to write. They didn’t understand why Collins would compare growing up to “a kind of measles of the spirit, a mumps of the psyche, a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.” They didn’t get the nostalgia at all. One student helped me see why the assignment that I thought would be so sweet was falling flat: “Mrs. Bradley, we aren’t sad about growing up! We can’t wait to get to high school, to learn to drive, to get a job!”

Ah ha. Now I got it. They were a little young to be feeling nostalgic about childhood; in fact, they were still in it. Collins, after all, didn’t write “On Turning Ten” when he was nine going on ten. He waited until he was an adult and could appreciate those years.

But I wasn’t ready to give up. I knew my students would experience rollercoaster emotions as they hurtled toward the end of 8th grade and began to anticipate moving on to high school. It may not be cool to fear growing up, but many of them were feeling just what Collins did; they just didn’t know how to identify and express it.

boys being boys, by Mighty mighty bigmac,

So we worked backwards. They took out their notebooks for some brainstorming. We started with kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade: what clothes do you remember wearing? What TV shows did you watch? What did you do at recess? What did you eat for lunch? Who were your teachers? Your friends?

Thinking of my now-grown children, I tossed out some memories of my own: “Did you wear those light-up shoes?” The room exploded! “I had those!” “Those were soooo cool!” “I had the rolling ones!” And then I asked, “Did you watch Blue’s Clues or Sponge Bob?”

The room was filled with happy remembering. Now it was my turn to be quiet while they got lost in the details of their childhoods. They brainstormed with their friends, bouncing memories off each other until the room swirled with sweet nostalgia, these just-turned-teens so worried about being cool, laughing as they remembered their worn out superhero costume that they insisted on wearing everywhere, including the grocery store.

Anders Ruff superhero party by Becca Bond Photography

Anders Ruff superhero party by Becca Bond Photography,

Now I know that we need to start this assignment with backwards brainstorming, giving them time to fall into nostalgia on their own, to appreciate their innocent little selves before they think about growing up. And then when we read “On Turning Ten,” they get it. They sigh at the closing lines:

“But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,                                                                                    I skin my knees. I bleed.”

They understand those sidewalks now, and when they write their own poems, they are so sweetly nostalgic they make me cry, every time:

Now it’s time to hang up my invisibility cloak.                                                                                               Now you see me                                                                                                                                                       Exposed to pain and responsibilities.  ~Humberto

I was the crazy little girl who jumped off her bed                                                                                                 thinking I would dive into the ocean                                                                                                                       but instead ended up with a sprained arm.  ~Dulce

Math Facts, book reports, mission project, and cursive writing                                                                     These things troubled me about turning 10                                                                                                            I was worried about big changes.  ~Lucas

I won’t cry out of sadness                                                                                                                                              I refuse to give in to my fear                                                                                                                                         I can’t let go of the warm rays of sun on my skin                                                                                                 I’ll never let go of my imagination.  ~Brenna

Even if the images were in the past they stay with me forever,                                                                         all I have to do is open my mouth and tell my story with a smile.  ~Amelie

Sometimes a lesson has to go wrong before we can get it right. Right?

Read > blog > discuss > repeat

Blogging isn’t new. In fact, blogging came on the scene a full decade before my current students were born. But have our students discovered the power of their own blogging?

If your students are writing, I challenge you to move that writing to blogs. And if your students aren’t writing, blogging is one way to change that. When students move their work from paper to blogs, they:

  • publish their writing to a bigger (and more significant) audience;
  • can easily access and read their peers’ writing;
  • can engage in online conversations in response to their peers’ writing;
  • learn to work online for academic purposes;
  • learn a variety of digital skills within a meaningful project.

For a few years now I have had my students create digital portfolios using, where they showcase and reflect on the learning they have done throughout the year. I like Weebly because it is a free and easy program that allows students to create beautiful and personalized websites with their own blog pages.

wong blog


blog sample jennifer

So this year my students built their Weebly sites and published one blog post… and then, in ongoing efforts to regulate students’ access to the internet, our district tightened up the filter. And just like that, we lost access to Weebly.

Sigh. Such is life in a tech-integrated classroom. But we know from experience to think fast, change gears, and pivot to the back-up plan.

Did you know that Google Docs make pretty good blogs? Students write their blog post in a Doc, and then their classmates use the insert-comment option to respond to the post. The authors are then able to read and reply to the comments, and shazam, we have our own blogs with comment threads. Take that, filter.

blog sample Tito

Last week my students finished reading Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, by David Lubar, and they were eager to talk about the story. Since they had already blogged their responses throughout the reading, they had a wealth of resources from which to draw for a class discussion.

At the start of class they went to our document of blog links and read entries from six of their classmates’ blogs. In their notebooks, they jotted down the names of bloggers to recommend and topics for our discussion. They shared out what they found and I started a list on the board:

blog topics

(Bonus points for Mikaela for pointing out the red herrings!)

Then we moved our chairs into one huge circle (thank you, flexible furniture with wheels!) so we could see each other as we talked about these big issues.

I am so proud of and impressed by the discussion my students had. They are 8th graders, which means that sometimes they have the insight and sensitivity of adults, grappling with issues like poverty and the presidential election; and then the very next day (or minute) they are more like 4th graders, rediscovering the humor of bodily functions. But after reading each others’ blogs, they entered our discussion understanding that many of their peers, like Lee and Mouth, have been victims of bullying. They saw themselves in Scott’s family dynamics, as well as in the familiar cliques of Scott’s classmates. They recognized the angst Scott experienced as he pined for Julia while discovering unexpected friendship in Lee. And although depression and suicide may seem like scary and far away concepts for 8th graders, my students discovered through blogging that some of their classmates had been close to those very situations. Their class discussion was polite, mature and sensitive, and covered a wide range of topics inspired by the novel. With all of their blogs as starting points, they could have continued their conversations well past the final bell.

Blogging is a natural for English class (and a powerful platform for English language learners), but teachers and students are also discovering the benefits of blogging in classes like math, sciencehistory and more across the curriculum.

How could your students benefit from blogging? What could they blog about that would further their own learning, as well as prompt their classmates to deeper thinking?

Our best ideas = your best lessons

What’s the #1 complaint from teachers when attending a conference, workshop, training, or professional development session? Besides not enough chocolate, near the top of my pet peeve list is presenters who are not classroom teachers. Even trainers who were once in the classroom lose a bit of their credibility when I find out they’ve been out of the classroom for a few years. Today’s classroom is an ever-changing place!

The same holds true for books and curriculum: I need teacher-authors to write those books so that I know I am getting tried-and-refined curriculum and strategies that will succeed in today’s classroom. And that’s why I’m excited to be part of the launch of a new series of books for teachers, The Best Lesson Series, which is the brain-and-heart-child of Brian Sztabnik, high school English teacher and Talks with Teachers podcaster.


Brian reached out to English teachers across the country, asking if they would contribute one chapter on one really great literature lesson that has been successful with their students. I was happy to share one of my lessons that helps my students develop their literary analysis skills, but even better is having access to 14 more lessons that have been developed, tested, and refined by boots-on-the-ground, face-to-face-with-students, innovative classrooms teachers.image1

The timing is perfect to check out the first book in the Best Lesson Series, try a chapter for free, and then grab a copy for yourself. You just might find the lesson you need to get you and your students through the holiday craze, another brilliant strategy to welcome them back in January, and 13 more that will energize your teaching for months to come.

Thanks to Brian for putting this all together, and to Todd Finley, Dave Stuart, Jr., Susan Barber, Jori Krulder, Dan Ryder, Heather, Wolpert-Gawron, Josh Stock, Joy Kirr, Amy Rasmussen, Shanna Peeples, Brianna Crowley, Gerard Dawson, and Ruth Arseneault for sharing their best literature lessons.

Now get out there and do what resourceful teachers have always done: steal other teachers’ best lessons!