A Love Letter to Toni Morrison

Back in February, I was inspired to write a letter to Toni Morrison. It was near her birthday and I had been reading The Source of Self-Regard. She never saw this letter, but in honor of her life, I am compelled to put it out there in the world.

Feb. 18, 2019

Dear Ms. Morrison,

I remember the summer I met you. I was 16 years old, laying on a beach towel, my pale young skin soaking up UV rays and Florida’s scorching heat. Beloved, as a physical item, seemed innocuous. The lightweight paperback fit easily enough in my beach bag, while the blue and pink colors on the cover did not threaten danger as clearly as the red and orange flags flapping above my head, warning of rip tides.

And so, with the resolve and naivete of a high school junior with a summer reading assignment to complete, I waded into your fiction with that infamous opening line: “124 was spiteful.” In that moment, the waves became the pages I turned — odd and even, ebb and flow. Words crashed. The seagulls were silenced as the voices of Sethe and Denver and Paul D arose from between the grains of sand.

Had I known it back then, I would have used the word “woke” to describe my experience reading your words for the first time, but, as it was 1996 and I was just a teen, I described your book as “awesome” to my friends and family. Now, I reflect upon the aptness of that response if only I had meant it in the Biblical sense, as in, “I am full of awe at this novel.” Such is the wisdom that comes with age.

The story of Sethe created structures of understanding in my emerging mental landscape. I imagine us as construction workers: you, pouring words into a bucket, and me, adding gray matter to form the cement; you, unspooling sentences from a measuring tape, and me, marking off the ends of chapters. The two of us installing bay windows to let in limitless light.

At the end of that year, after having read Beloved and The Bluest Eye, I proudly told my teacher, “I love Toni Morrison.” I intended to convey my admiration of your writing, but in the corner of that comment was literal truth.

In college, I enrolled in an entire course dedicated to your writing. We read Jazz, Sula, Tar Baby, and Song of Solomon and two thick spiral notebooks stuffed with literary criticism essays featuring words like “biographical myth” and “feminist archetypal theory.” I wrote an A+ paper entitled “The Great Mother Within Eva,” but it was our class discussions that led me to an even deeper appreciation of the layers of your genius.

It was in this period of life that I decided to become a high school English teacher. Though I made no conscious connection between your writings and my resolve to teach literature to young people, every discussion of your writing was a paver on the professional path that called to me. As I have learned, and as you already know, literary love spreads from teachers to students. It’s like microscopic pollen carried through the classroom air that, if given time and space, will bud and flower into a new reader.

In 2003, I graduated from college and moved hundreds of miles north to teach at a small, rural school outside of Manassas, Virginia. That was also the year I saw you in person. You had just published Love and were promoting the book at readings all over the country, including one in D.C.

The night of the reading was chilly, I remember that. I remember emerging from the Metro station, hands in pockets, walking quickly down the poorly-lit street toward the large, stone church at which the reading was to be held. I slid into a row near the front and sat on the hard, polished wooden pew. Warm conversation flowed around me while soft light glowed on Mary’s marbled arms and her son’s upturned face.

Surely, someone introduced you, but I can’t recall those words or how the event officially began. Rather, the first image seared into my memory is of your back as you ascended to the pulpit. Straight, confident, and precise was your walk. Your hair was styled in the most beautiful salt and pepper ropes that fell about your shoulders and swayed with your gait. They looked like coiled wisdom, like if a person could hold one to her ear, she would hear ancient voices reciting stories, plays, and poetry. When you turned to the audience, aloft, you did so with measured patience, placing your hands on the pulpit with care, as though allowing each movement of your body its due respect.

I sat there and held my breath. When you spoke — oh, how can I describe it? Your voice was deep, aged, and resonated from the high ceilings of that holy space. It lifted the inked words off the page and penned them in airy golden letters so they threaded the audience and drew us together in a net of language that no one wanted to escape. I formed a prayer of gratitude that night, for you, for your words, for the winding road that had led me to that moment.

And that was the last time I saw you, until two months ago. Sixteen years have gone by. I married that boyfriend and we now have two kids. We had spent a day of our winter break in D.C. and our last stop was the National Portrait Gallery to see the portraits of President Obama and Mrs. Obama. The painting of the former first lady is stunning, so I hope you’ll understand why it wasn’t until five minutes after entering the room that I noticed your portrait just a few feet away. I gasped and brought my hands together. “Oh!” I exclaimed, while my seven year old daughter looked at me, confused and trying to figure out who I must have recognized. In just three strides, I stood in your presence once again. Once again, I was struck with awe.

You stand in the middle of the frame, confident and poised. You are wearing a dark gray sweater over a black shirt, stark against the white-ish background. Your left eyebrow is arched and your mouth is set to render your verdict on America’s soul, or perhaps American souls. Your eyes bore into the observer with directness and power as if to say, “Let us see each other clearly, and to hell with these layers of oil.” I marveled at the artist’s talent to capture your essence, those same qualities that I’d observed in the church so many years ago.

This weekend I began reading your latest collection, The Source of Self-Regard. In fact, I was only two essays into the book when I felt compelled to write you this letter. I had finished “Racism and Fascism,” which is perhaps even more relevant now than it was 24 years ago, and as I sat there, in that booth at Panera, I was once again awestruck at your wisdom. I love Toni Morrison, I thought. I should tell her.

So, Ms. Morrison, I love you. Over the course of 22 years your words have awakened me, moved me, and made me a better person.

Thank you for everything.




Summer Reading Recommendations

P1230259Summer time, and the reading’s easy. Isn’t that how the song goes? To my Compelled Blogger Tribe members, I apologize for the tardiness of this post. My house has been more project than home over the last two months, but things are finally (FINALLY!) coming together, so I’ve been able to put the paint brush down for these 20 minutes and write this blog. Full disclosure: I’m probably writing under the influence of paint fumes.


Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel. Yes, I admit, I’m partial to this one because it opens with actors performing a scene from King Lear, but people: buy this book. It is absolutely riveting and beautiful and terrifying and full of hope and humanity.

Seveneves by Neal StephensonI have no idea why I picked up this book at the library. Normally, I’m not drawn to sci-fi, and especially not sci-fi that is 800 pages long. But there was something about this book description that made me take a chance, and I’m so glad I did. First, Stephenson is a genius. I’m hoping he’s not a prophet, but he has definitely earned the job title “futurist.” (Which is really his job title.) Some sections got a liiiittle too technical for my attention span, so I freely admit to skipping a few chunks here and there, but most of it was fascinating. Best of all, I know read technology announcements and think, “Oh, I already know about that. It’s in Seveneves.” Not bad for an English dork!


Do people still use that word? Well, I do. Here’s my trifecta: The AtlanticThe New Yorker,The Washington Post. I just discovered a new, online publication called Guernica. The writing is to swoon for.

One article of the last few months stands out for my in hi-definition, and I would go so far as to use the cliche “must-read” for any teacher. You can find it here on The Atlantic’s web site, where Paul Tough has made it tough to ignore the importance of students feeling welcomed and valued in our classrooms and as agents of their own education.


I’ve been fascinated with early childhood education ever since my daughter entered preschool. (I know, you’re thinking, what a crazy coincidence!) These are two books on my to-read list:

The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christiakis

Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff PhD and and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek PhD .

Also on my to-read list is a book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for months: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I have a quotation from Maud Casey in my library that reads, “I was born with a reading list I will never finish.” It’s the damn truth, people. And I wouldn’t want it any other way!

Happy reading, and enjoy!

Don’t Just Appreciate Teachers, Pay Them

Teacher Appreciation Week kind of irks me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being appreciated. I continue to treasure every single note and email from my students and their parents, and I still reread them regularly. Those words truly make me feel like I achieved my deepest desires as a high school teacher: to make a difference in young people’s lives.

I understand that Teacher Appreciation Week is a kind, genuine effort to publicly demonstrate and recognize the hard and influential work of our nation’s educators. Many thoughtful hours of parent planning go into celebrating a school’s teachers, and the week often serves as a way for teachers and parents to connect on a purely positive level, which is important for building and maintaining the relationship between two groups of people critically involved in students’ education.

I myself have now entered the stage of life where I’m a room parent cutting out paper hearts to show my kids’ preschool teachers how much they mean to my family – and  I absolutely mean it and am glad I have the opportunity to do so.

At the same time, I also think my kids’ educators, those from early childhood to college professors, should be paid more competitive salaries, worthy of their professionalism and craft.

According to The Teacher Salary Project, “teachers make 14% less than people in other professions that require similar levels of education” and the average starting salary is $39,000. Yet teachers work an average of ten hours a day and annual salaries increases are typically only a few hundred dollars. There are no bonuses or promotions, which is why the average salary after 25 years in the classroom is only $67,000.

In America, we want to hold educators accountable. I absolutely believe that’s an essential component of revising our profession, along with revising the recruitment and training of new teachers. But who wants to enter a profession known for being overworked and underpaid?

We – American citizens – shouldn’t show our appreciation during one given week in a year. Teacher Appreciation Week should be called Payday, and it should happen every two weeks of a school year.

What if, alongside our banners that say “We Love Our Teachers,” we also add, “And We Should Pay Them More”? What if, at the end of a thoughtful note, we also tell our teachers that we have written to our local school board members or state officials demanding an increase in their salary? What if, instead of hosting a breakfast, we host a community event to discuss how to take action on improving teacher pay?

Let’s make teachers know they are appreciated. We can tell them every two weeks, when they receive the paycheck worthy of their value.

What do English teachers and Gollum have in common?

My Precious still

Here’s a little secret about English teachers: we are fiercely possessive of what we refer to as “My stories.” No, I don’t mean the physical books we keep in our classrooms – those are usually given out freely and with love. I mean we will get uuugly if someone in a different grade level starts teaching “my book” or “my story” or “my poem.” The conversation usually goes down like this:

Teacher A: One of my students told me Mrs. 8th Grade is teaching To Kill a Mockingbird.

Teacher B: (eyes bulging, full head swivel) Excuuuus me?!?!

Teacher A: She said they read the whole thing and she cried when they watched the movie.

Teacher B: (spluttering, now a deep shade of purple): They watched the movie too?!?! Great! Great! My plans are all ruined now. Who is this woman? Why can’t she just teach her own books?! I can’t believe she has the nerve. She should be spending more time on grammar anyway.

Sound familiar? Been there? Me too, I admit.

Why do we get so mad? There are several reasons, some more important to one teacher than another.

First, there are those instances when you want to be The One to Introduce the Most Important Story of All Time to our students. If The Tell-Tale Heart is your absolute favorite story, it is entirely understandable that you want to be the one to watch kids’ eyes grow big at the beating heart under the floorboards.

Second, we don’t want anyone to have an excuse to get out of the work. It’s hard enough to make sure kids read something the first time; how can we make sure they’ve read it twice?

Third, what if the kids are bored? It’s a challenge to keep them engaged with new material, so how will they be entertained by the same story?

Ideally, ELA teachers at all levels in a district are given the opportunity to meet and develop curriculum in vertical teams. (This should actually be a paid and valued series of meetings, to all wonderful administrators out there reading this blog.) But whether it’s due to intentional planning or lack thereof, the teaching of the same text at multiple grade levels actually offers its own unique benefits.

Many secondary ELA authors have written about the benefits of re-reading as a strategy, notably Kylene Beers and Dr. Robert Probst. There are also longer studies and articles that you can access through the National Council of Teachers of English or the International Reading Association. To make my points in this blog, I actually want you to think about ghosts.

Allow me, for a moment, to be the Ghost of Reading Experiences Past. Travel back to when you were a young child. Did you have a favorite book? Did you make your parents read it to you a dozen times? A hundred? A gajillion? I know I’ve read the Biscuit books to my kids more times than I would like to “woof, woof.” (Seriously Biscuit, can’t you yelp or bark or howl every once in a while?)

Young kids aren’t trying to torture their parents when they ask for the same book over and over again; there are actual, legitimate developmental reasons for their fascination (re: obsession) with Goodnight, Moon or Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site or the decidedly less popular, Goodnight, Goodnight – I Already Said Goodnight!

Now, let’s have a visit from the Ghost of Reading Experiences Future. Think about your favorite books, stories, or poems. Do you plan on rereading these texts? As your future adult self, can you see yourself suddenly realizing that you never truly considered the depth of Mrs. March’s emotions? That as a young girl, you didn’t grasp Marmee’s loneliness and inner strength because you were thinking about Jo and Laurie?

Maybe you have a book you like to read every year. In the five years prior to having my own kids, I used to read the entire Lord of the Rings series over winter break. Returning to that story was like meeting up with old friends and reliving our favorite memories. Recently, NPR’s Juan Vidal wrote a column on the joys of rereading. He articulates many of the reasons why adults enjoy rereading – reasons that apply to our students as well.

So let’s take a look back at our initial concerns and debunk them.

1) The One to Introduce the Most Important Story: Does a story become any less important to a person because they’ve read it multiple times? Of course not. Every time we read a text, we uncover new layers of meaning. From year to year, people of every age evolve and grow, which means the personal lenses through which we see a text change color and sharpen. Even if kids are familiar with a text, you still have the opportunity to watch them make meaning and form new understandings.

2) Making Sure They’ve Read It: Knowing that kids are familiar with all of the basic details like character, plot, and setting, means that you can ask deeper, more thought-provoking questions. Its way easier to pass a quiz that poses questions like “Which Greek God tried to help Odysseus?” than a quiz that asks students, “In what ways did Athena play a critical role in assisting Odysseus on his journey?”

3) Fears of Boredom: Yes, some students may greet the news of re-reading with exclamations of “Again?!” But you can realign their attitudes and meet the kids where they’re at. Assure them that you don’t want them to be bored, so ask them what kinds of things they learned about or what activities they did with the story. Now, move them forward. Plan the text in light of the standards you know you need to address and the weaknesses of your students that you’re trying to strengthen. Reassure them that this is a great opportunity for them to stress less about understanding the story and to really dig into the deeper layers they didn’t have time to uncover in their previous class.

Reading the same text two years in a row (or, gasp, every year!) is not a bad thing. In fact, in can be a really, really great experience for students. Sometimes our passion for the texts we teach can cause a knee-jerk, head-spinning reaction when we perceive that someone is messing with what is “ours.” We become Golums, sitting in our classrooms, stroking “our” book, murmuring “My precious. My precious.”

If you ever find yourself in that situation, please drink some coffee. I’ve found that solves most problems. Next, remember that re-reading offers educational benefits and rich teaching opportunities. And finally, keep this in mind: these texts don’t belong to you or me or any one person. They are gifts that were forged by writers and given to humankind to share.

Just call me Samwise. Throw your fear into Mount Doom. Trust that the writers gave us these stories because we are meant to read them over and over and over again.

Moments of Professional Growth

I consider the Compelled Tribe topic for the week: stories of professional growth. I place the concept in my mouth and chew it, slowly. Stories of professional growth. Stories of professional growth.

I’m in graduate school. I stand in front of my very first class on the very first day of my internship and realize, Oh shit. I still have 20 minutes left. Like an oven, I feel my face pre-heating to 500 degrees. I have no backup plan or experience on which to fall back. The students start talking amongst themselves, and I fade to the back of the room and try to look busy with whatever scraps of paper I find on my “desk.” At home, I cry. But then I plan. And plan. And by the end of the night, I have designed enough lessons to teach an extra two weeks before running out of things to do. Professional growth.

It’s my first year of teaching. I don’t know it at the time, but the experience is akin to being a first time mother. I want to be so much to those kids –  their inspiration, their educator, their role model. On that first day of school, my heart runneth over with the prospect of Changing People’s Lives. Fast forward to a Tuesday in month three and I’m sending two freshmen to the nurses’ office because they won’t stop farting in class. These are not the things for which graduate school prepares you. That year, I cry a lot. I cry because I’m tired. I cry because I’m overwhelmed. I cry because everyone else in my department is pushing 60, because I’m also the yearbook adviser, and because there’s no supply cabinet and I have to buy my own tape. But most of all I cry because I know – I know – I am not yet the teacher I aspire to be. Professional growth.

I’m in my fourth year of teaching. There’s a girl in my AP Lang class who radiates contempt for everything I teach, and it seems at times, for me personally. I can’t understand why, and sometimes her actions frustrate me to the point of – yep, you guessed it – crying. Because I have a modicum of self-restraint, I don’t cry at the school, but I’m sure the other students sense the tension between us. I ask her to stay after class so we can talk. She thwarts my efforts for an entire week – rushing out as quickly as she can – before I’m finally able to convince her to stay. We stand facing each other. The room is dimly lit by the overhead projector and the sounds of other students fade down the hallway as everyone leaves for the day. I ask, “What’s going on?” She tells me that her mom has brain cancer. I am momentarily stunned. She apologizes for her behavior toward me, but says she just can’t bring herself to care about articles concerning obesity in America. How can I blame her? I realize that it was never about me. We cry. We hug. Humility stares me in the face: it was never about me. Professional growth.

If life is like a box of chocolates, the tears I’ve cried as a teacher are like a box of crayons. Some represent the absolute joys of working with teenagers – the radical red and the electric lime. Some are the color of frustration and angst – raw umber and shadow. Some tears are just cerulean relief and others are hopeful mountain meadow.

Tears have often signaled watershed moments of my professional growth, and I guess I’m not surprised by this realization. All living things need water to grow, and teachers are the amazing living things who Change People’s Lives.

Tribal Member

The birth of my daughter five years ago began a new chapter in my personal and my professional life. Since that time, I’ve been out of the traditional classroom and have been finding my own ways to engage in the field of education. Enter: Twitter.

I’ll be honest. I scoffed at my younger brother’s use of Twitter six years ago. I may as well have been Lady Grantham considering electricity for the first time. “A tweet?” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “Indeed!” (Ok, I didn’t really say that last part, but man I love that layered and politely condescending expression.)

Lo, these many years, and here I am, a Tweeter with Peeps. I’ve drunk the Kool-aid and it is a tall glass of professional development, education news, and networking potential. (Also pee-your-pants memes and one-liners and weather updates, but I digress.)

It was through Twitter that I first came across The Compelled Educator, otherwise known as Jennifer Hogan. I’ve been following her (that’s the most stalkerish phrase I’ve ever had to use) and reading her blog for several months now. A few Saturdays ago, I participated in a #satchat she hosted that focused on blogging. A few days later, I received a tweet inviting me to become a part of the Compelled Tribe of bloggers.

And here we are today. This is my first post as an official member of the tribe. I’ve been assigned to a subset of the tribe that is “Fueled by Wennstrom.” I think that means someone named Wennstrom will send me coffee once a week, but I’m not completely sure. Either way, I’ll be writing two blogs a month (Accountability, thou art a stern mistress of production), one of which will be on an assigned topic and one on a topic of my choosing.

It’s been a while since I’ve had co-workers, so I’m thrilled to be part of a group of educators who genuinely love learning and have sought to carve a space in this field for their own voices. Our nation’s future hinges on the degree to which we are successful in educating future generations. What’s more compelling than that?

What constitutes “real learning”?

There’s one last question posed in the introduction of Most Likely To Succeed to which I would like to respond. Following closely on the heels of “What is the purpose of education,” Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith state, “Few can define what constitutes real learning.”

Five years ago, my definition of “real learning” would likely have been very different than the one I’ll give today. Why? Because five years ago I was a high school teacher who didn’t have any children. Now, as the mother of a 5 year old and 2.5 year old, I’ve witnessed learning in its purest moments, which has influenced my concept of learning in the teenage years.

An anecdote: At seven months old, my daughter could sit up on her own. One day I watched her hold a lightweight plastic ball above her head. She stared at the ball for about 20 seconds before lowering her arm, and then repeated the action a few more times. I realized that I was watching a milestone moment happen in real time. New pathways were forged in my daughter’s brain as I stood there, amazed.

Let’s take that moment and talk about the process of learning I observed. First, in order for this milestone to occur, she had to already have mastered the skill of sitting up on her own. In other words, this new skill did not occur in a vacuum; it had to occur once other skills were mastered.

Second, Z had selected the appropriate tool with which to learn this skill. If I left a bunch of bowling balls laying around, Z would not have been successful and would likely have become frustrated. (Not to mention upset when mommy got sent to jail for leaving bowling balls around.)  The appropriateness of the tool allows learning to occur. 

After she lifted the ball, Z had time to observe and think about what was happening. Yes, this only took 20 seconds, but those were a critical 20 seconds. What would have happened had I interrupted her as soon as she lifted the ball into the air? I’m sure she would have become distracted and not really processed what she was doing. It’s important to provide time for learners to observe and think without being interrupted. 

Finally, Z had the opportunity to repeat the step several times, immediately following her first real moment of discovery. Repetition leads to mastery and embeds the skill in one’s thinking process or skill set.

There are other factors that played a role in this moment that I think have implications in our classrooms. One, nothing else exciting was going on in that moment. In other words, the environment was such that she could focus on something at her own pace and in an uninterrupted fashion. She felt safe. There was intrinsic motivation to learn this new skill. She was curious. And of course, she received positive feedback from me once she noticed me standing there.

 So, what do I think constitutes “real learning”? I think real learning occurs at the crossroads of ability and challenge. It occurs when learners have the tool that enables them to develop the new skill. This tool might something tangible, like a microscope, or it might be something intangible, like a new equation. Real learning occurs when the learner is motivated, focused, calm, and given time to observe, think, and reflect, both in the moment and through repetition of the new skill.

If/When I go back into the classroom, I cannot help but be influenced by my new perceptions of learning that have been informed by observing my own young children and reading professional and scientific studies on the topic. I will cut back on quantity and make quality my North Star of Planning. My classroom was always “homey,” but I will go further and add “calming” to my interior design plans. I will designate more time to repetition and reflection, and I will do a better job of trying to find the crossroads of ability and challenge for each individual student. And I’ll always be there to provide positive feedback, which has always been my favorite part of teaching and parenting.

What is the purpose of education?

In their book Most Likely to Succeed, Dr. Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith write, “…people follow the assertion that ‘education is key’ with the concern that ‘our schools need to do much better.’ But few can answer the overarching question: ‘What is the purpose of education?’

First, I’ll narrow the focus by asking myself, what is the purpose of K-12 public education? In other words, for what purpose does K-12 public education exist?

To continue our genetic lineage, we procreate. To continue our national legacy, we educate. America is founded on and fueled by the American dream. It’s not just the freedom to pursue happiness; it’s the ideal that any citizen within our shores can achieve success and prosperity. If we fail to educate our youngest citizens, we will weaken their ability to achieve the American dream, which means we will weaken the very DNA of our country’s strength.

Our public education system is the means by which we make the American dream an achievable reality for our citizens. We invest in public schools in the hopes that our children will be educated well enough to live happy, successful lives while contributing to America’s prominent standing in the world.


Entering the conversation

A few weeks ago, I began reading The Global Achievement Gap by Dr. Tony Wagner. It was published in 2008, so I realize I’m eight years late to the table, but I’m still so glad I found this book. On just about every page, I’m tempted to write, “Amen,” “Yes,” or “Preach!”

What’s funny is that at the time this book was published, I was in my fifth year of teaching and feeling many, many of the emotions Dr. Wagner expresses he felt while in the classroom. How I wish I had read his book at that time in my career! Perhaps I would not have felt so alone in my professional frustrations.

Because of my admiration for Gap, I also purchased Most Likely to Succeed, which was written by Dr. Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. As I began highlighting questions they pose, I thought about how great it would be to enter the conversation too. Then I thought – I have a blog! I can enter the conversation!

In their Introduction, Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith mention that they “have found it invaluable in setting the tone for a discussion about education to ask participants to reflect on their school years. Specifically, we ask them to describe what aspects of their education had a profound positive impact on them” (4).

For me, it started in kindergarten. My teacher Mrs. Sapp was fun, energetic, and loved teaching. I don’t remember anything specific about that year. I’m sure I learned math and spelling, but that’s all faded into the blurred colors of childhood. What I do recall is the joy I felt going to school.

At my public high school I had several amazing teachers and an amazing administrator as well. I had Mrs. Pecor for Algebra II and AP Calculus. She was tough, tiny, and had a raspy smoker’s voice. I was afraid of her in the best possible way – I didn’t want to let her down. Her tough standards did not preclude a willingness to help, and I always felt supported. In this class, I felt challenged as an individual and learned the benefits of working hard on a seemingly impossible task. (Math was never my strong suit, yet earned a 4 on the exam. That’s a badge of honor for me!)

Mrs. Hartley was my AP Lang and AP Lit teacher, as well as my newspaper adviser. We read and discussed and wrote, and then we did it all again. Her classes were the only ones in which I discussed modern day issues through the lens of multiple genres. I enjoyed the creativity behind working on the school paper. As many other people report in Most Likely to Succeed, I too liked working on a collaborative project, being given adult responsibilities, and being challenged in my abilities.

My drama teacher, Ms. Schwarz, offered guidance, humor, support, and opportunities to be both myself and someone other than myself. We worked as groups and teams, learning to perform and how to manage pre-show jitters.

Mrs. Featherstone was an assistant principal at the time, and we formed a bond that has continued into my adulthood. She is working mom who was a teacher, assistant principal, and is now a National Board Certified Principal working on her Ph.D. Is it any wonder why she is a role model to me?

Reflecting on these teachers makes me realize something: the most profound positive impact on my education were these intelligent, hard-working, funny, giving, and talented women. They constantly challenged me and held up high expectations for me, but they were always there to support me as well. I didn’t want to let them down, but I didn’t fear failure. I knew they were on my side and there was a mutual respect for one another.

But it wasn’t like we all sat around singing kumbaya. They TAUGHT me. They made me think and write and calculate and act and learn. There’s no doubt that I wouldn’t have been the teacher I became without those teachers to show me the way.

And now I’ve entered this conversation! Next up is Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith’s question: “What is the purpose of education?” and trying to find a definition of what “constitutes real learning.”

Using the President’s State of the Union as a Teachable Text


[Note: This year's State of the Union will be delivered on Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 9 p.m.]

Often, secondary English and Social Studies teachers use older texts to teach the standards of our subject areas. This is a good thing; however, in doing so, we are constantly asking our students to look back to the past, when we should also be asking them to think, discuss, and analyze their present and future.

One way to bring our classrooms into the present and to bolster the relevancy of our curriculum is to create lesson plans around texts being created now. One such opportunity arrives every year in the form of the President’s State of the Union Address. No matter whether our current president is a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, he or she must give this address, which makes it a great teaching text – we can count on it every year, yet every year it’s something new.

Below are four steps for using the President’s SOTU as a text for rhetorical analysis in your classes.

STEP ONE: Rationale and Objectives

Before students watch the speech, they need to understand why you are asking them to do so. The objectives must be clear so that students understand this is not a political or partisan exercise, but one in which they are analyzing language and its effects. Here are some sample objectives:

  • Students will understand the rhetorical situation of the President’s State of the Union Address.
  • Students will analyze how the President’s use of figurative language relates to the rhetorical situation.
  • Students will analyze how the President’s use of persuasive appeals works to achieve his purposes.
  • Students will analyze how the specific word choice (diction) relates to the rhetorical situation.

STEP TWO: Understanding the Rhetorical Situation

The rhetorical situation is the phrase used to describe the set of circumstance in which a text is created; in this case, the circumstances in which the State of the Union is being given. In order to write an effective speech, a speaker must have a clear understanding of the following elements:

Method of delivery: How will the speech be transmitted to other people?

Audience: Who is the speaker addressing?

Purpose: What are goals/objectives of the speech?

Speaker: Who is giving the speech?

Context: Under what specific historical circumstances the speech being given?

Prompt: What is the immediate prompt for this speech?

Subject: What is this speech about?

That’s a lot of moving parts, especially considering the fact that there are multiple answers for nearly all of those questions. You can discuss each one with your students or choose the one in which you would like them to focus their analysis. I use the acronym MAPS CPS to help students remember they are “locating” the elements of the rhetorical situation.

STEP THREE: Live Engagement

Ideally, we want students to be active viewers of the speech, just as we want them to be active readers. How to achieve this objective? Well, you’ve got two options: low-tech and high-tech.

Low-tech: As they watch the speech, students should take notes on specific phrases, words, or moments that strike them as important. Since the text of the speech is not released in advance, students can’t annotate while they watch, so this is the next best thing. Additionally, students can write down questions they have regarding the rhetoric of the speech. (You may also encourage them to write down questions regarding the formalities of the event, especially if it’s their first time watching a SOTU.)

High-tech: If your students are able to tweet, create a class hashtag that you will all use while tweeting during the Address. Instruct your students to tweet specific phrases, words, or moments that strike them as important. Since we want them to stay focused on the speech, you can instruct students not to worry about engaging in an actual discussion. After the conclusion of the speech, students should scroll back in the feed and indicate their favorite tweets by clicking the (ridiculous) heart icon. Tell them ahead of time that the most “loved” (seriously, when will Twitter bring back the star?) tweets will be the ones you all discuss in class, so it’s important that they follow through on that last step. You can also encourage students to tweet questions during or after the speech, re-emphasizing the focus on rhetoric and format, not politics and policy.

STEP FOUR: Follow-up Discussion

Using the students’ notes and/or tweets as a jumping point, you are now ready to engage in a student-driven class discussion.

One way to do this is by providing students with photocopies of the actual speech text, which should be released following the conclusion of the speech. Having a hard copy of the speech will allow students to make notes during your discussion and remind them of the context for specific words and phrases. (If you can’t get hard copies that quickly, you may want to delay an in-depth discussion by a day so that students can annotate on the hard copies during the discussion.)

Another way of building upon the students’ observations is to create a Google document of the speech’s text that all your students can access. Again, the objectives should be clear. You may want students want to discuss diction, and so you ask them to highlight specific words and write a brief analysis of the connotation and effect of that word choice. Or you may want them to highlight examples of when the word choice reflects the audience to whom the President is addressing. Or maybe you want students to comment on the organization of the speech as it relates to the achieving the President’s purpose(s).

STEP FIVE: High-five yourself on an engaging, thought-provoking, analytical lesson that also makes your students active participants in the democratic rituals of our great country.