Partnering Possibilities

One of my favorite components of the PAGES program at OSU’s Wexner Center for the Arts is the collaboration. I am an educator who thrives on gaining knowledge through talking with other educators. I continually share, steal, build and modify. I want the best for my students and working together is what’s best.

I was fortunate to collaborate with Kari Gunter-Seymour (Ohio’s 2020 Poet Laureate), Sarah Robison (Manager of Teaching, Learning and Interpretive Practices at the Wexner Center for the Arts), Dionne Custer Edwards (Director of Learning & Public Practice), as well as educators from other high schools involved in the program.  However, I didn’t have to look far for one of the most rewarding and beneficial collaborations I have had at the South-Western Career Academy- Kelsey Hodge, our own guidance counselor!

Kelsey is one of two guidance counselors in our school and I reached out to her early in the year to see if she’d like to be there with us through the PAGES process. Thinking, reflecting and writing can sometimes uncover some surprising feelings, and I wanted to make sure our students were supported. Not surprisingly, Kelsey was on board. She is compassionate and empathetic.  

Some writing was lighthearted and silly. Write a letter to a famous person about something that triggers you. Cut up some words and paste them in your journal in a new way. But some writing was heavy. Students free wrote in their journals about fears, family issues, failures.

Kelsey joined us in the classroom and on our virtual and in-person trips to the Wex. One of our experiences had us viewing and discussing Holler, a film about a smart young lady in a run-down factory town, faced with the decision to stay stuck and work in the factory or to leave her dead-end town and head to college (and figuring out how to afford either).  Students were fortunate to view and discuss the film with writer and director, Nicole Riegel!  

Kelsey and I brainstormed ways to connect students with the themes in the film.  We met to share the lines, scenes, and ideas that resonated with us and we talked about ways to engage students in thinking and discussing those.  It was Kelsey’s idea for the students to recreate an impactful scene from the film, focusing on colors that represent the tone of the moment.  We split the students into three stations where they worked with creative writing prompts provided by Kari Gunter-Seymour, they brainstormed goals and plans for college and career, and they created an artistic piece capturing the tone of a scene.  We discussed themes including parenting, forgiveness, life’s purpose, proving yourself, roots, survival from nothing, addiction, failure, plus gender and regional stereotypes.

This collaboration helped the students see beyond English class and a film to consider how working, talking and writing through the themes makes them applicable to their own lives.  Plus, it was fun! I look forward to finding more non-traditional collaborative opportunities with Kelsey and other colleagues in the future.

Here’s more about the PAGES program and more about our school, the South-Western Career Academy.  








Life Graph

Here is an example of a life graph I completed as an example for my juniors.  We are in the brainstorming stages of a personal narrative.  My artistic skills are not so great, but I hope you can understand the symbols I used to represent events in my life!

My life graph

How to Teach ELA in a Career Technical High School for Dummies

Guess what? This book doesn’t exist.


I skimmed through my inbox, clicking “delete, delete, delete” in response to the various emails flooding my mailbox.  Adobe Creative Cloud…Quizlet…Newsela Daily. I paused on a forwarded email from my head principal. It was from Ohio Dominican University: “ODU CCP teacher credentialing app and grant.”  Well, I had not considered pursuing a second master’s degree, but the price was right and our high school was looking to add CCP English classes.  “Why not?” I thought. As a lifelong learner, I am always looking for new challenges to keep myself current and relevant in my teaching practice. I turned in the necessary paperwork and application.  Soon, I was a college student- again!

That was two years ago.  I think about that email and the journey it initiated.  It had been ten years since I completed a degree at Ashland and decades since my undergrad.  What started off as a goal to earn CCP certification turned in to a full-fledged Master of Arts in English.  Why? My time constraints as a full-time high school English teacher, part-time YMCA employee and single mother did not leave much room for a new endeavor.  However, I found myself in love with being a student again. I was reading and discussing challenging literature, pushing myself to complete research and write lengthy analyses.  My professors and colleagues engaged me in serious thought and my feeling of accomplishment grew for each class I completed.



As I neared the end of this journey, I found myself at a crossroads in my career. After twenty-one years of teaching ELA in a general education setting, I made the decision to move to the district’s career academy.  In my new role, I wanted to make literature relevant, practical and engaging for my new students, who have chosen one of seventeen career technical pathways. I decided for my capstone to research career technical pedagogy and develop lesson plans integrating literature in a career technical English classroom.  

I wanted to develop lessons that would engage my students and make my ELA classroom relevant to their chosen pathway, whether vocational or college.  I researched the history of career technical education reforms and found there is a need to raise academic standards, diminishing the distinction between career-bound and college-bound students.  



I found that I was naive in my thinking.  I had expected to find a clear answer to my question, how do I teach ELA in a career-technical setting?  Instead, I found that quality teaching is quality teaching, no matter where it occurs, and all students need and deserve rigor, whether in a traditional high school setting or in a career technical one.  Authentic learning is collaborative and relevant, with real-world applications. Students need to be able to use critical thinking skills to solve real problems. Classes must have high standards and expectations for all students, with interventions in place to help students meet the learning goals. Project and problem based learning, as well as integration of technology are tools to help students access rigorous academics and problem solve.  Learning should take place in authentic environments, be collaborative and relevant. Teachers should be facilitators.



It is my goal to challenge my students with engaging, meaningful lessons that are applicable to their lives- whether career or college, and I will write specifically about individual lessons and ways I do this in future posts.  Stay tuned!

Challenge the Challenges

A couple of weeks ago, after students finished reading parts of Beowulf,  I thought it would be fun for them to create storyboards and a movie trailer, capturing the most suspenseful moments, establishing a mood, and generating interest in the story.  Alas, English teacher fun is not English student fun!

I knew there would be some resistance.

“We have to create a movie trailer?”



“I don’t know; work with your group and figure it out!”

“I can’t do this.”

Part of learning is learning HOW to learn; we live in a day and age where information and tools are readily available.  I explained this to my students with a personal example of my own.  Our first-floor toilet had been running constantly and I knew there had to be an easy way to fix it.  I wasn’t about to call a handyman.  I looked online, found a video on how to install a toilet flapper, made a trip to the hardware store, and replaced it myself.  Now what might seem like an easy task to someone else was completely foreign to me, but I did it.

“I’d rather fix a toilet than do this movie trailer,” Karen complained.

Well, guess what?  They did it and I think they were pleased with the results.  They worked together and found online tools, and when they shared, they were genuinely interested in viewing each other’s.  We had a great discussion about the scenes they selected and the mood they were trying to establish (and we shared some laughs!).

Here are some examples:

The Battle with Grendel


Beowulf 2 (clearly these guys had some previous experience with this)

Obviously, none of these will be nominated for any Academy Awards, but I’m proud of them!  We need to raise the bar for students (and for ourselves), embracing, encouraging and engaging in challenging situations.   It forces us to learn how to learn and network with each other.

Breaking Out Of Routine

Want to solve a murder mystery?  Nab an art museum bandit?  Escape zombies and prevent global destruction?  Now you can!

Escape rooms are the newest trend in entertainment.  Couples, families and friends around the world enjoy working together, discovering clues and solving puzzles to complete a mission.  Critical thinking and collaboration is essential.  Why not transfer those skills to the classroom through similar activities?

This year, with the help of our media specialist, my students participated in several breakout games.  I created the first one for my AP Literature students to apply literary terms.  Students entered the room to the sound of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” blaring on the speakers, with the lyrics scrolling on the screen.  They found two locked boxes on their table, along with a note which read: “Your lyrics are unique because they utilize many literary devices.  You receive an urgent text message from one of your bandmates telling you that Rolling Stone is about to publish fake news about your latest song, which is sure to be a top-ten hit.  Rolling Stone is going to give YOUR song songwriting credits to Taylor Swift!  Evidence proving this news is bogus is stored in their editor’s lock box.  You need to break open the box soon because the story goes to print in 45 minutes!  You must rely on your knowledge of literature terms studied years ago to solve the clues and break into his box before time is up!”

Students were curious and excited to tackle this mystery.

The first clue comes from the allusion in the lyrics: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”  Upon hearing that line, most students recognized the words and used their electronics to find the source.  For those who didn’t notice the allusion, I rewound the line again and again until it was painfully obvious!  The line leads them to Psalm 23:4, which is the code for the first lock.  Inside the box they found an black flashlight and a poem- another clue.  By using the literary terms we studied in class, they were able to solve a variety of puzzles, open the final box and find their reward!


The students loved this activity and begged to do it again.  Here are some of their comments from their subsequent reflections:

“Playing this game showed me just how unique each of us are with individual skills and certain parts of the game required skills that the other had. I learned that I am a really analytical thinker. I heard it a lot from my teachers but it’s another to see it really play out.”

“Me and my group worked together by sharing each other’s ideas and trying them. We gave each other turns to try different things. Playing this game taught me that I actually have some patience.”

“Solving a puzzle in the game relates to solving a problem in the real world because you have to go through steps to solve it, the things you solve could be real problems that need to be solved. Also because you could use the ways you solved the puzzle to solve your real world problems.”

“I found it very entertaining and mentally intensive.”

“I thought the Breakout activity was very beneficial in applying our knowledge of literature while also exercising our brain to conclude and be like detectives: thinking quickly… We didn’t want any hints because we knew we would feel better getting to the conclusion without cheating our way to it.”

Since the first try was a success, I also had my general ed English classes try breakouts over literary terms and Macbeth. The results were the same. This is an engaging activity to use with students at any level!

Our resourceful media specialist, Jessica Klinker, was fortunate to receive a grant from the South-Western City Schools Educational Foundation (SWCSEF) to purchase the equipment, but before that, we made do with regular wood boxes and locks the staff donated.  Breakout EDU has many free scenarios available.  Our next step will be having the students create their own breakout games.  The critical thinking skills necessary to plan the clues take it to a higher level.   I would strongly suggest trying it out with your students!



Capturing Literature and Seizing Sound

Last summer, I took my children on a family vacation to Utah.  At the zoo we fed rhinos and watched elephants paint masterpieces, and we drove to the top of the mountains to play in the snow and take in the scenery.  When we enjoy beautiful moments like these, it’s impossible to capture each second with a camera.  Weeks later we sifted through the pictures and chose the best ones for our album- the ones that captured the beauty of the landscape and our enjoyment of our time together.

This year through the PAGES program, I was reminded of this process.  The students and I visited the Wexner Center to experience A Thousand Thoughts: A Live Documentary by Sam Green and Kronos Quartet. Before our visit, we explored the ways in which language and sound coexist, the ways sounds in words express meaning and tone.  Saxophonist, composer and teacher Michael Torres helped us toy with sounds and analyze what they communicate.

One activity involved each student recording a “found sound” on their phones to share in class.  In the midst of our busy days, we often overlook the many sounds that compose the soundtrack of our lives- a winter coat zipper zipping, coffee beans grinding in the grinder, water sloshing and swirling down the drain while we wash dishes.  Students shared their sounds without revealing the source and while listening, we wrote.  We described a perspective, a scene, a character, or a story.  Michael played his saxophone to mimic and speak back to the sounds.  The students’ writing was highly imaginative and descriptive and they were engaged in sharing their varied interpretations.  What’s truly amazing is that they automatically took their writing to a higher level without prompting.  Instead of writing, “This sounds like a machine making a noise”, they wrote things like, “Tick, tick, hum, crunch.  She slowly churned the handle, allowing the rhythmic motion and redundant sounds lull her into a trance”.

Another activity incorporated The Scarlet Letter.  We had been reading the novel in class and students were so preoccupied with figuring out the plot, characters and tensions that they had lost sight of an appreciation for Hawthorne’s prose.  Arts educator, poet and PAGES founder Dionne Custer Edwards pulled individual sentences from the novel, sentences that were figurative, alliterative, and/or euphonious.  Students came into the room and found a sentence on their desk.  They each read their sentence aloud and discussed the arrangement of the words, sounds and meaning.  Then they wrote, and again, students pushed themselves to mimic the elevated diction of Hawthorne’s writing.

PAGES taught us that much like choosing photos for a family album, we can (and should) slow down, isolate and appreciate more fully the music that makes up our daily lives and isolate and appreciate the individual words and sentences that weave together to create literature.


Living in the Music

Through the PAGES program at the Wexner Center for the Arts, students analyze art as a text, a form of communication. Painting, sculpture, photography, words- those are all fixed forms.Today, listening to the Kronos Quartet perform at Mershon Auditorium, I was reminded that music is a transitory text, which adds layers of experience. Students need this experience of trying to make sense of something that seems impossible to hold onto.

One of the musicians in the documentary compared music to perfume. Try describing your favorite perfume. Flowery? Pungent? Fragrant? How does this even begin to capture the essence of the scent?  It’s difficult! How do you describe something that is invisible and constantly evolving?

My students are used to tangible, visible words- they can easily identify themes, figurative language, shifts, and tone. The real challenge is to have them do that with something intangible, invisible and ephemeral- music. Michael Torres, composer, saxophonist, and resident artist, tells my PAGES students to “live inside the music.” He tells them to stop and listen to the silence and listen to the everyday sounds of our experience. He shows us how.

In one exercise, students brought “found sound” recordings on their favorite devices- their phones. These are sounds that are part of their everyday experiences, but are neglected sounds. The tap tap tap of fingernails on a keyboard. The soft sounds of bubbles and running water in the sink. The swoosh swoosh zip of a thick winter coat. We more than heard the sounds, we listened. We identified tensions and layers and created a narrative. Our responses were grounded in the experience. We were living inside the sounds.

This practice will benefit them as they grow. They will be able to transfer these skills to different situations and different mediums. Their world is transitory and they will be better equipped to navigate it!





for a landscape full of fragments



broken pencils, jagged glass, cigarette butts frayed and peeling

hair ties, straws, gum permanently smashed into the concrete

carmax tube, bottle caps, candy wrappers whirling in the breeze

god’s creation is a wasteland



As part of the 2017 Blogging Challenge, students from around the world write posts and complete activities about common themes.  This week’s challenge is about global issues.  After yesterday’s chemical weapon attack that killed at least 20 children in Syria, I needed to write about Syria’s crisis.  The videos and images of children gagging and choking, and parents crying over the lifeless bodies of their babies broke my heart.  Why is the world allowing this to happen?

Syria’s Civil War

In 2011, peaceful anti-government groups were squashed by violent government crackdowns, and  opposition groups have been fighting the government for six years.  Since then over 470,000 people have died.  Not only that, but the prolonged conflict has allowed ISIS to flourish.  Read more about the Syrian civil war here: Quick Facts: What You Need to Know About the Syria Crisis.


Yesterday morning, planes dropped bombs full of weapons in Syria.  This attack was heinous; these are war crimes on civilians.  I don’t understand why the global community doesn’t do more for Syria.  Russia backs the Syrian President Assad and says the rebels are to blame for the nerve gas. The rebels who are fighting a corrupt government; a government that would murder its children.

A man carries a child into a makeshift hospital after Tuesday’s attack in Idlib province. (AP photo)


AND this isn’t the first time.  In 2013, hundreds of civilians were killed after two chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Bodies of victims of a suspected chemical attack on Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. © 2013 AP Photo/Shaam News Network



Global Response

Reuters reporters write that President Trump said yesterday’s attack was “horrible” but has not announced what the U.S. will do.  He also blames the Obama administration for this mess. His dilemma is “… whether to openly challenge Moscow and risk deep involvement in a Middle East war by seeking to punish Assad for using banned weapons, or compromise and accept the Syrian leader remaining in power at the risk of looking weak” (Tsvetkova).  Meanwhile, “British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who two months ago shifted his country’s policy by saying Assad could be allowed to run for re-election, said on Wednesday that he must go” (Tsvetkova).

Can we stop name-calling and blaming and focus on the problem now? Too many innocent people have died! Enough is enough.  Can our global powers unite? What about the U.N.? Britain changed its mind about Assad ; why can’t we all follow suit?  What can we do as civilians?


The following resources give ways we can help.  Sadly, I can’t open my home to Syrian refugees since Syria is on the U.S. banlist, but I have used these recommendations to do what I can.

The Global Citizen gives us “15 Ways You Can Help Syrian Refugees Now.”

The Huffington Post: “Outraged About What’s Going on in Syria?  Do Something About It”

Cloning Socratic Seminar

After viewing Never Let Me Go as part of our PAGES experience at the Wexner Center, students were eager to learn more about human cloning.  We read the following articles in class: “Human-Pig” Chimera Embryos DetailedWhatever Happened to Cloning? and The Science of Human Cloning.  Students read independently and together, annotating their texts and generating questions.  Questions fuel Socratic Seminars!

Socratic Seminar is a great way to get students involved in a text- questioning, analyzing and citing.  If you need more information about what a Socratic Seminar is, guidelines, or need forms, I like this Teacher Resource Packet.

On the day of seminar, we sat in a large circle.  Students were expected to contribute to the discussion meaningfully at least three times (asking a question or responding to a question).  When applicable, they needed to refer specifically to one of the texts.

I was impressed with the discussion and the willingness of students to participate!  We could have easily spent two days on this.  Some interesting points and questions that students came up with are:  cloning clones, how to define what is right and wrong, and the need to evolve and change.  Students came up with interesting analogies and even brought in the issue of cloned food.  You can see our notes here:  Human Cloning Seminar Notes.

There are a lot of variations you can try with seminars.  If you have a large group, you could split into two circles, creating a fishbowl (inner and outer circle).  Students could then have a partner with whom to collaborate.  Each circle would have the chance to discuss in the inner circle, while the outer circle tracks their partners and writes notes of anything additional to bring up next.  If students are struggling generating questions, or if you don’t have a lot of time, you could use teacher-generated questions.