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Breaking Down and Creating Your Own EngageNY Unit

I’m sure at this point most (if not all) of us have seen the EngageNY materials and marveled at them.  I remember my first experience with an EngageNY lesson.  It was like a choir of English teachers were surrounding me in song and Carol Jago was looking down on me with a reverent smile.  However, […]

Close Reading Strategies and the CCSS

Anyone else feeling the stress of the Common Core State Standards?  I find the barbed “c” and “s” sound appropriate for the moniker CCSS: devious and calculating.  In reality though, the CCSS isn’t out to get teachers.  Instead, I think it is to refocus how we approach literature with our students and encourage us to […]

Teaching the 2013 Rhetorical Analysis Question

When the 2013 AP English Language and Composition exam prompts were released, I was instantly enamored with the second question, the passage from Richard Louv. The passage is highly accessible while also being highly complex, allowing a variety of interpretations.  As a result, I’ve decided to use it with both my AP English Language students and […]

Analyzing Graduation Speeches

It never fails; I always cry at graduations.  I’m not sure if it is the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the feel of polyester gowns and mortarboard hats, or the foolhardy grins on the faces of seniors when they cross the stage, but I always cry. While I love graduations, I’m usually lukewarm at graduation […]

Close Reading Satire

Okay, I have a guilty confession.  I am a very naïve, gullible person.  I will fall for anything.  So when I was an 18-year-old and was assigned to read “A Modest Proposal,” of course I believed that Jonathon Swift was advocating the eating of children.  I mean, he is a writer.  He wouldn’t lie.  The next day in class I was admonished by my peers and teacher for my stupidity.  People couldn’t believe I was naïve enough to take the text at face value.  Read more

Advertising & Rhetoric


Perhaps it’s because I can’t resist a good laugh.  Perhaps it’s because of Elaine Benes and the J. Peterman catalogue.  Whatever the reason, I love SkyMall. It’s free entertainment.  Cat toilets and portable infrared sauanas—what’ s not to love?

But if I’m truthful the product descriptions are the best part.  Anybody who can write up a product description about Skel-E-Gnomes deserves respect.  Plus with the Aziz Ansari stamp of approval there isn’t a reason to debate the importance of this magazine.

As English teachers, most of us teach visual rhetoric and advertising too. SkyMall can be an excellent way to implement some of the rhetoric studied.

Have students examine the catalogue.  Then, ask that they write their own product descriptions.   This type of an exercise offers students the opportunity to practice rhetorical strategies in a small space.

Provide them a list of images from the magazine.  They will choose one and write its product description.  It’s important they don’t see the original.  This should be an exercise in advertising and rhetoric. You can set a word count and ask that they employ a certain amount of rhetorical devices too.  You might even end this exercise by having students work with the 2005 AP Language and Composition rhetorical analysis from The Onion.


Possible Skymall Products


Possible Rhetorical Devices

  • Anaphora
  • Epistrophe
  • Polysndeton
  • Asyndeton
  • Metaphor
  • Alliteration
  • Simile
  • Rhetorical Appeals
  • Testimonals


If you’re feeling very adventurous you might have them construct a product description and a satirical version as well.

Close Reading Through Isolation

It is no coincidence that the hardest texts for students to understand are also the ones rich with style.  Typically, it is the style that, to the students, prevents comprehension.  They get so caught up in the metaphor in the opening paragraph that they aren’t truly paying attention to the details and content of the remaining of the passage.  Or maybe the students see a word being repeated and get so fixated on that one word and why it is repeated that they are unable to stand back and take in the passage as a whole.

This is somewhat of a blessing.  Students confused by style also indicates that they recognize style and are curious about it.  But, as teachers, we need to find ways to tap into these observations and translate them into reading strategies.

As a result, when it comes to teaching students how to read closely, sometimes the best strategy is isolation.  Instead of an anticipation guide to introduce a work, isolate some of those stylistic elements for students to study.  Literally, pull out the notable elements of style and ask the students to react to them.

One example I have had success with in the past is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  There are several notable (albeit “challenging”) components to this text:  the imagery, the word choice, and the repetition.  To prepare for class, I begin by identifying major images in the text and locating actual pictures of those images.  I have embedded several key images from the text on this webpage to highlight what my students will examine.  Then, I type up specific words that have strong connotations with them, words that Jonathan Edwards used to evoke fear in his congregation.  I also extract words that are repeated for a dramatic effect.  In this piece, “nothing” is repeated three times, so, for the activity, I make sure I type “nothing” three times.  Then, I cut out each word and image and sort them.

The students play a type of word association game.  The students are shown an image or a word and have to record their gut reaction to it almost instantaneously.  They might react by thinking of a synonym to the word/image or recording an emotion associated with it.  Sometimes students respond with how they feel when they see the word/image, especially when they have seen “nothing” three times in a row.  Then, I ask them to look at the reactions they recorded thinking about linking factors.  At this point, without even have read the piece, students are able to make fairly accurate predictions about the content, speaker, audience, purpose, and tone.  This activity helps students analyze the text and conduct a close reading of it—without even having the full text in front of them.  Then, when I give them the text, they are able to discuss the extent to which their predictions were true or false.  They are reading each word carefully to better understand how these words/images are used in the text.  This strategy of isolating the challenging stylistic elements encourages the students to think more critically about a piece, while making it easier and more manageable for them to do.  They are able to get through the portions that “block” their understanding because they have already overcome that hurdle.

Next time you have a challenging text, bypass an anticipation guide and extract the words and images that complicate the meaning.  Taking these aspects in isolation will help your students better know the material, while helping them practice their close reading skills.






Ethical Dilemmas: Lance Armstrong


Over the past week it was hard to ignore Lance Armstrong.  Interviews, articles, threats from the USADA, Armstrong’s “I give” statement.  All of it was a constant reminder that heroes are capable of failure or worse that heroes might not even exist.  I still felt sad and I never wore a yellow LIVE STRONG bracelet.

Doping isn’t new.  An athlete disappointing his fans isn’t new either.  But the moral and ethical dilemma of an event like this is a good place, as many of you begin the year, to have your students discuss the role of sports and “heroes” in our culture.  It offers students the opportunity to read, critically think, construct essential questions and wrestle with their own opinions.

Use Lance Armstrong to frame the discussion.  Ask that they construct their own essential questions about athletes, sports and our cultural relationship to both.  Then have them read Linton Weeks’ piece on NPR entitled “When a Hero Lets Us Down.”  Ask that they SOAPSTone and then discuss as a class the “complexity” of sports heroes within our culture.

Later this week we’ll talk about how to take this opening discussion and turn it into a writing assignment, classroom debate or AP Language and Composition style exercise.  For now, poll your students.  Determine if moments like this really still make us feel sad.

Close Reading Through Repetition

To students, annotating a text is just underlining a bunch of random words and phrases.  However, underlining does not indicate a close reading.  It might indicate comprehension, it might indicate completion, but it doesn’t provide clear evidence that the student knows the intricacies of the passage. Read more

Rhetoric: Olympic Advertisements

As promised, today we talk about Olympic advertisements.  While the 2012 games are over, it’s still a good way to engage students in the process of viewing advertisements through a critical lens.   Introduce this particular exercise by discussing the sheer size of an Olympic audience and the role that Olympic sponsor.  Some good resources for this kind of discussion include:

Begin by asking students to simply watch the commercials without pens and pencils.  They’ll think you’ve lost it.  Then, ask them to watch a second time recording responses for critical thinking questions and SOAPSTone.  You may choose to discuss as a class or have them turn in for a grade.

P&G “Proud Sponsor of Moms

As you watch the commercial construct a series of detailed notes for each category of SOAPSTone. 

Speaker Occasion Audience Purpose Subject Tone









  1.  Explain the impact of using this particular age/size of children?  Why not babies?  Why not teens?


  1. Describe the emotional impact of the commercial itself and explain how that effect is accomplished.



  1. Why is there no dialogue until the very end?


  1. Why end with the image of a diver? Why not the weightlifting or balance beam?




Nike’s “Find Your Greatness

As you watch the commercial construct a series of detailed notes for each category of SOAPSTone. 

Speaker Occasion Audience Purpose Subject Tone









  1. Why begin with only the noise of the jogger’s feet on the pavement?


  1.  Define greatness in modern culture.  Define greatness according to this video.  Put both in your own words.


Now, identify the pros and cons to the videos perspective on greatness.  Be thoughtful in your responses. 

Pros Cons


  1.  Why argue that “greatness” is not a rare DNA strand?  Think about audience and where/when this commercial was aired.


  1. What argument does the commercial convey?  What might be the purpose of such an argument in light of the audience/event in which it aired?

Rhetoric: Olympic Advertisments

The lengths to which I will go to watch Olympic coverage in my own house has become ridiculous.  As I crawl into bed, I still feel compelled to watch one more race, one more event, one more dive.  Perhaps it’s the competition or my own fascination with events like track cycling that glue me to the TV for hours. Whatever the reason, thank god they’re over.

Now please IOC don’t take this the wrong way.  I love the Olympics.  Truthfully. Synchronized swimming nose clips and all.  I’m just not sure that I could take many more of these late night rendezvous with Bob Costas.  His after 11 p.m. coverage was killing me.

And while I always watch the Olympics avidly for the events, there’s no denying the role of the commercials themselves.  Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” campaign was a jaw dropper.  And that’s of course where it gets interesting for any English teacher.  It’s not as if we don’t already look to commercials to  teach the elements of rhetoric or make students practice SOAPSTone. We do.  But teaching that plus the rhetoric of the Olympics.  Now that’s a bonus.

And since school has just started for so many of you, why not “wow” your new students by introducing rhetoric via Olympic advertisements?   My next post will highlight commercials that can be easily partnered with an introduction to rhetoric or used as part of an advertising unit.  Until then glory in the U.S. medal count and for goodness sake go to sleep.

Starting the Year

Imagine what it is like as a student on the first day of school.  The go to first period and are given a note-card to fill out pertinent information, then they are given a syllabus for the course and rules that the teacher tends to go over ad nauseum.  The same thing happens second period…and third…and fourth.  In fact, much of their first day of school is sitting listening to teachers drone on and on.  While I think these are important things to cover, I think it is best to open the year in a way that is indicative of what they can expect the course to be the remainder of the year.  After many years of practice, I have narrowed down a first day lesson that I think serves a nice introduction to the course and then sets the students up to introduce themselves.

In 1992 the AP English Language and Composition exam had a passage from Nancy Mairs for students to analyze from her piece “On Being a Cripple.”  While the whole excerpt is fantastic to use, I tend to only give the first paragraph with the students on the first day.  I like them to see how an in-depth study can be accomplished with only a few sentences and I think it is rich with material to discuss.  The excerpt opens with:

I am a cripple.  I choose this word to name me.  I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are “handicapped” and “disabled.”  I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so.  Even now, I’m not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering.  People – crippled or not – wince at the word “cripple,” as they do not at “handicapped” or disabled.”  Perhaps I want them to wince.  I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely.  As a cripple, I swagger.

I read the passage to the students twice so they can hear the way the punctuation functions in this paragraph.  Then I ask them what stands out to them.  Knowing today’s teenagers, a lot of them want to talk about why she uses the word “swagger,” which is a fine jumping off point.  We discuss what “swagger” means to them and how it is a sign of confidence.  However, I point out to the students that “swagger” is only used once in the paragraph and not until the end. This gets students thinking about the placement of words and what comes before.  We begin tracing how Mairs feels about herself from the beginning of the paragraph until the end.  This leads to a discussion about her purpose.  We examine her repetition and I ask questions like “why does she keep repeating the word ‘cripple’”?  This also causes us to examine how the word affects the readers.  We examine her use of syntax and why it is so significant for her to use such brief sentences to open and close the paragraph.  We study her use of verbs.  “Choose.”  “Want.”  “Am.”  They all convey an impression of Mairs that helps to explain her purpose in writing the piece.  Often times, we end up debating if Mairs’ does these things to obtain power over her condition or power over others who try to label her.  Regardless, many students come to the conclusion that Mairs is trying to define herself so others can’t have power over her.

It is at this point that I ask students to think about how they would define themselves.  We return to the fact that Mairs made a very deliberate and conscious choice to define herself and her personality, not just her disability.  She took into account how others perceived the word and the various denotations and connotations of it.  This is the basis of their first assignment.  That night they need to determine one word that they choose to define themselves.  We then go around the room and the students introduce themselves to the class by providing their selected word, the definition of it, and then a brief description of how it captures them.

When they’re presenting, I like to write down the words the students select for themselves and use them the following year when writing college recommendation letters. I like how this lesson incorporates an accessible but rich passage for close reading and then provides a natural way for students to introduce themselves.  To me, it helps encapsulate the course and my expectations in a way that a syllabus and reading of the rules never can.

Welcome Back

Guess who’s back?

No, not just a new school year.  Your favorite resource for teaching English is back.

Like many of you I am dreading setting an alarm clock but am looking forward to reconnecting with my students and getting back into a routine.  I start school in August with a new year resolution.  This year I am striving to not spend hours at home on the computer revising lessons.  To do this, I have decided that I need to leave my battery pack at school every day.  I’m hoping that this will keep my work at home to only the most essential and allow me more time to treat myself to bad television.  As a blog, we hope to continue to inspire you to try new things and revise old favorites, to think about the needs of your students, while also thinking of your needs as a teacher, and, above all things, that you don’t work harder, but work smarter.

While we are celebrating our year anniversary of blog writing, we are also thinking about the future of the blog and are making some big changes.  One thing you will notice is that instead of writing five days a week we will instead be composing1-2 posts per week on a given topic.  What this means to you is that our posts might be a little longer, but they will be much more focused and concentrated on the strategy. We hope that this gives substance and specificity, making it easier for you to find exactly what you need to help you.

Tomorrow I will be posting a unique way to start the year with a close reading of a passage that leads into a “get to know” activity.

Happy back to school! May your first week be filled with freshly sharpened pencils and eyes eager to read.

AP Annual Conference

We have updated our website to reflect information from our AP Annual presentation.  The resources can be found here after scrolling to the bottom of the page.

In the right hand margin you can search for texts or skills that might also be of use to your AP class.  As always, please email us with any questions or comments: admin@wheretheclassroomends.com