Why I Teach Shel Silverstein to High Schoolers (And What It Means for How We Choose Texts and Mentor Texts)

Three years ago I realized that my poetry unit needed help. While I gushed about the thoughtful symbolism of “Ozymandias” or the elegant simplicity of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” I looked out and found far too many worried or blank looks on the faces of my students–looks that spoke to them being lost, indifferent, or both.

So the next year I started my poetry unit with a request that students bring in poems that they love, thinking that these favorite poems would show my students that poetry wasn’t something foreign or beyond them; it was something they already knew and loved. But, as is so often the way in the classroom, things didn’t exactly go as I’d scripted.

What happened was that in two sections of 9th graders, nearly 30 of the 60 students brought in a poem by Shel Silverstein. Volumes of Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree populated my desks, and while I have my own fondness for Shel Silverstein, I was at first deeply annoyed by this. Bringing him in felt like a mockery of the class and the assignment. Obviously, “Peanut Butter Sandwich” has no place in a high school–or so it seemed to me at the time.

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Why Poetry Should Be a Daily Part of All Writing Classrooms

My understanding of poetry while I was a
student in the 90s.

As a middle and high schooler, I felt that poetry was something akin to a doily: a frilly, ornamental, and somewhat useless thing that was cool for people who were into that kind of thing (aka, not me). Whenever a teacher said it was time for poetry, I sighed internally, held my nose, and got through it as quickly as possible.

As an English major in college I had to take a poetry class, and at first my mindset and experience was similar to middle and high school, but then one day the professor brought in a poem called “Root” by a Hungarian poet named Miklos Radnoti (full text at the bottom). Radnoti, who was of Jewish heritage, wrote the poem while on a forced death march towards the end of World War II–a march that would ultimately take his life. The poem “Root” was one of a number of poems that were found on his body after the war and published posthumously.

It has been nearly 20 years since that class, and I remember nothing else about it, but “Root” remains seared into my consciousness. There was something so amazing about Radnoti’s imagery, the raw emotion, and the fact that it went into the ground with him and then came out again to tell his story. I’d read hundreds of poems before, but that latched onto my soul and like the raven it still is sitting there today.

This moment with “Root” was when I realized what poetry really is. Far from a needlessly frilly doily, poetry is humanity reduced into its essence. It is experiences, emotions, ideas, and language compressed into little bite-sized pieces, which makes it, when wielded well, an incredibly powerful tool in the writing classroom. It took me a while to figure out how to use it right (next week’s post is on how I win over the poetry skeptics in my classes), but today I use poetry daily in my writing classes and in a myriad of ways; I simply can’t imagine my classes without it. Here are five of the most impactful ways that using poetry helps me to be a better writing teacher:

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How to Make Student Goal Setting Actually Work

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This post is adapted from my upcoming book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out from Corwin Literacy.

I’ve discussed the power of student goal setting before—how having students set regular writing goals comes in at or near the top of a number of meta-studies focused on effective teaching practices, likely due in part to the way it grants students some autonomy, frames the student’s growth as a collaborative endeavor between the teacher and student, and allows students to in part pursue the topics they value most.

And yet, despite the research supporting it and the clear logical reasons for why it would be valuable, real and serious student goal setting tends to be rare in our educational landscape. And I have heard from a number of teachers that it often falls flat when they try to engage in it.

So, today I want to borrow upon a section of my upcoming book Flash Feedback and discuss how we can make goal setting actually work:

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Using the Fresh Start Effect to Improve Student Motivation, Habits, and Beliefs

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I was lucky enough to recently read an advance copy of Troy Hicks and Andy Schoenborn’s upcoming book, Creating Confident Writers, and while I will undoubtedly be posting about it again once it comes out (it is wonderfully smart and practical), they reference a concept that I’d somehow never heard before that felt both timely and important to explore in this first post of a new decade: the Fresh Start Effect.

The Fresh Start Effect is the idea that while most of the moments in our lives are spent engaged in a “seemingly unending stream of trivial and ordinary occurrences that happen to us every day,” there are occasional points in time that standout from those trivial and ordinary moments. These landmark moments (as they are referred to in the literature) can be artificial constructs (for example, new years, new semesters, or in our case right now, new decades) or natural milestones (birthdays, losing a loved one, etc.), but what makes them noteworthy for this blog’s purposes is that during those moments we are more open than usual to changes in motivation, identity, and behavior.

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The Remarkable Power of Surprise as a Teaching Tool

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One of the most important landmark literature reviews in recent memory, Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners, poses the following, all too common, situation:

Consider the example of a ninth-grader who enters high school unsure of his academic ability and worried about finding friends. When he struggles with the problems on his first math assignment and has a hard time finding a lab partner in science class, he interprets these situations as evidence of his intellectual and social shortcomings. These experiences contribute to growing preoccupations with a lack of belonging and ability which then begin to undermine the student’s academic performance, leading to further academic difficulties and lack of confidence. Though the student entered high school feeling unsure of himself, his interactions within the high school context and his participation in its routines reinforce his initial self-doubts and lead to increasingly negative mindsets. These mindsets can become self-perpetuating as the student interprets his school experiences in a way that further undermines his self-efficacy and self-confidence. He withdraws effort from his schoolwork, which results in further poor performance, [creating] a recursive, negative loop between academic mindsets, academic behavior, and academic performance.

-Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners

This situation or ones like it are far too common in our schools, and while the answer to them–breaking the cycle–is pretty clear, how to do that for any given case is an incredibly difficult question. The tricky part is that persuading someone to change a deeply-held belief is one of the hardest things for a human to do. If you don’t believe me on this, I encourage you to come to Thanksgiving with me next year and say something political.

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The Best EdTech Tool For Improving Writing Instruction

Ellis’s Essay (written by a person, not a computer)

In 1966, Ellis Page, often referred to as the father of computerized grading, published an essay (see right) in Phi Delta Kaplan where he argued that “We will soon be grading essays by computer, and this development will have an astonishing impact on the educational world.”

The computers he was talking about? Mainframes that took up entire rooms, and according to him the “soon” was right around the corner.

It has been over 50 years since Page published his essay on “The Imminence of…Grading Essays by Computer” and yet his dream of a computer program that can take over grading or feedback duties remains out of reach. While some EdTechtrepreneurs try to state otherwise, no AI program currently exists that can reliably grade or providing feedback to writing at a high level.

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The Power of Implementing a Feedback Cycle

This post is an adapted excerpt from Flash Feedback, my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy.

Me for far too many years.

For years I struggled with the fact that I would spend untold hours scrawling notes and suggestions through each set of student papers only to have the next set of papers feel almost as if my feedback to the previous paper had never been given. Like some endless and highly frustrating Groundhog Day, my students tended to make the same mistakes as I gave them the same responses over and over and over.

I now have a culprit for what was going wrong: I was falling victim to the Forgetting Curve, which is the subject of one of the more popular posts of this blog and can be summed up like this:

We forget nearly everything we encounter only once, with well over 90% evaporating from our minds in a few days.

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Why I’ve Gone Grade-Less

I have always hated grading papers.

It is right up there with watching state-mandated online training modules and filling out our labyrinthian teacher evaluation as one of my least favorite parts of the job.

Before moving on, I want to make it clear though that I don’t mean reading or responding to student work when I say “grading.” As I discussed earlier this year, grading and responding to student work are often used as synonyms, but they are actually highly different tasks. Feedback is the act of giving students information that they can use to grow and move forward; grades, on the other hand, are static markers meant to communicate to the student and others where a student’s skills are right now. And as a teacher, I have always felt much more comfortable with helping students chart a path forward than I have with rating them.

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What Makes Writing Authentic?

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Last spring, during my month spent blogging about teaching the essay, a teacher asked me a question that I had no ready answer for:


It is one thing to have students write narratives that they share with others or practice argumentation through writing letters to real people, but how can teachers make essays about books in their classes authentic?


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Feedback 2.0: Using Digital Resources to Give Better Feedback, Faster

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I am a luddite in so many ways. I don’t own an e-reader, I prefer vinyl to my Alexa, and I look forward to the times where I can hike or travel far enough away for my phone to get no reception.

This tendency sometimes follows me into my classroom as well, as I find that while we are often quick to proclaim technology a universal savior, there are plenty of places where it can be an unnecessary complicator that detracts from the core work of the classroom—namely reading, writing, and thinking. 

The one area where I am utterly convinced that technology is an unequivocal upgrade, though, is in responding to student work.  

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