Tag Archive for non-fiction

Non-Fiction: Letters of Note Week in Review

           Friday Dialogue from                

                                      Your Two Favorite Educators 

As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit to discuss the role of letters and non-fiction in the classroom.  

1.  What value is there in teaching students about the language and style of correspondence? 

What does Emily say?Emily:  I think you have done a great job this week providing lessons and samples that highlight the honesty that is found in physical correspondence, not just emails.  Studying the language and style of the correspondence helps students recognize various ways in which emotion and personality can be conveyed through writing.

Aubrey: I do think there is an intimacy and truthfulness in letters that we rarely see in email.  Maybe that’s just because it’s hard to be nostalgic for email and being nostalgic is something we like doing.  Most email feels like a chore or worse a punishment.  

2.  How to do you go about teaching students to read annotate a letter versus a speech?  

Emily:  I think the key difference for students to recognize is the role of exigence in the construction of the letter itself.  Unlike a speech, something precipitated a personal and intimate response.  Analyzing the contextual situation of a letter is vastly different than that of a speech because of the role of intimacy.  Similarly, while I use SOAPSTone with letters and speeches like you suggest this week, I think asking students to spend more time thinking about the “Audience” is important in analyzing the text.  

Aubrey:  We spent a lot of time talking about voice.  It’s so much different inIs Aubrey right? correspondence than that of a speech.  I also like to have students consider the element of eavesdropping.  Not only is this conversation not for them but it was never meant to be seen, heard, reproduced or annotated.  Considering yourself as an “intruder” of sorts should change your interaction with the text.

3.  When is the last time you received a letter?  Do you save letters?  If so, why?

Emily:  Let’s be honest.  Every teacher has a box they use to save letters they have received from students that we open up on bad days when we question our profession.  I’m kind of a letter baiter.  I basically force my students for whom I write college recommendation letters to write me a thank you card, most of which include really nice letters.  They are so uplifting and reaffirming in a profession established around test scores and GPAs.

Aubrey: I actually have all of my student letters in a folder I’ve marked “Happy Thoughts.”  Sometimes I use those letters as my “breathing exercises” when I’m really irritated with a student.  I’ve also  I’ve kept all of the letters my husband wrote to me in college.  Now keep in mind, I demanded these letters because I believed true John Keats like love required a series of love letters.  Let it not go without saying that I was romantic and demanding at the same time.  What I didn’t recognize is that demanding the poetry of Keats does not necessarily mean getting the poetry of Keats.  It’s a good thing that he was a patient 19 year old.  

4.  Do you think the art of letter writing is dead?

What does Emily say?Emily:  It isn’t dead but is certainly dying.  But, as a result, the letters that are being sent are written with more care and consideration.  Since letters are written sparingly I think their writing and reception are so much more special.  I know I’m going to sound old by saying this, but when letters were more commonly written and received I didn’t think twice about them.  Now, when I get a letter I value it so much more than I did before.

Aubrey: I honestly can’t remember the last time I received a letter.  My mother sent me a birthday card and it had notes written in it but I’m not sure that technically counts as a letter.  My students don’t even really know how to formulate them and I simply don’t write them.  So, yes.  I’m pretty sure it’s dying.  I can’t decide if this is a loss but I do know that I agree with Catherine Field’s argument in The New York Times.   There is something about holding a letter that breaks down the barriers that separate us and it is both rare and special to feel that way.

5.  If you could receive a letter from anyone explain who would it be? What would it contain?  

Emily:  Hmm…this one is tough.  I know it might sound silly and is impossible, but I’d love a letter from my future self.  Receiving a letter from myself might be vain, but I think it would be nice to see what is in store for me.

Oh, crap.  That  sounds all philosophical and useful.  I want a letterIs Aubrey right? from David Sedaris telling me I’m funny and one from NBC News Anchor Brian Williams telling me that I’m important.  There.  I’ve said it.  I want to be funny and important. Kind of like Tina Fey or Justin Timberlake.

Non-Fiction: Letters of Note & Media Literacy

As we discussed in yesterday’s post, the website Letters of Note can easily fit into preexisting units of study.  It helps to have Mark Twain the “letter writer” teach Mark Twain the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  However, part of what makes the website so enjoyable is its archive of letters that deal with popular culture.  Letters from cartoon characters, animators, cartoonists, astronauts and Muppets find their way onto the list and for no small reason.  They offer some of the most interesting content and rhetoric.


When using letters from this popular culture category consider asking that students reflect upon what these letters argue about society and culture.  What importance can be found in a fan letter to Charles Schulz?  Is there significance to the fact that Marge Simpson “writes” to First Lady Barbara Bush?  This exercise asks students to assess the role of popular culture and its impact on the individual and helps them to learn those pesky critical thinking skills that often elude them.

One of the most interesting ways to employ these letters is to shape them into units based on topic.  Pairing “passages” together allows students to examine history, popular culture and television to create big picture arguments about who we are culturally.  Below I’ve included three letters that deal with space exploration. Perhaps it’s been on my mind since the AP Language test used space exploration as the theme of its synthesis questions in 2009.  Or perhaps it’s because I have a Star Trek problem.

Whatever the case, all three letters explore the final frontier in an effort to show you how to partner images, video and letters to create a “themed” focus for writing and discussion.  The first is William Safire’s contingency speech for President Nixon in the event that Apollo 11 was unsuccessful and all astronauts were lost.  The second letter is from Neil Armstrong on the 25th anniversary of the moon landing extolling the virtues of his spacesuit.  The third letter, and a personal favorite, is from Muppet Labs to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Consider showing students the included video clips in order to lend context.  

William Safire for President Nixon, “In Event of Moon Disaster

  1. Read and SOAPSTone.
  2. Consider the title first. What tone does the language set?
  3. Examine the opening line.  Explain the choice of the word ordained.  What effect does it create?
  4. Record the number of times the word “men” is employed.  Explain the impact of this repetition.
  5. Examine the progression of the word mourned.  How does this mourning change as it progresses?
  6. Identify two implicit arguments made about the U.S. in this speech.  Explain the significance of these arguments.

Neil Armstrong, “It’s true beauty, however, was that it worked

  1. Read and SOAPSTone .
  2. Examine the image of Armstrong’s suit.   What importance is there in choosing the word “spacecraft” to describe it?
  3. Identify Armstrong’s tone.  Explain the difference between him as a person and as an iconic based on this language.
  4. Discuss Armstrong’s use of the phrase “it worked” to describe his suit.  How does this language relate to Nixon’s speech above?

Consider using the Muppet Labs video below to introduce Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker.

Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, “Scientifically, yours

  1. Read and SOAPSTone.
  2. Explain and identify the use of quotation marks throughout the letter.  Explain how these add to tone.
  3. What role does the P.S. have in this letter?  The P.P.S?
  4. Why would clearly fictional characters find the need to “write” a letter to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab?

Overall topics for writing

  1. Construct a paragraph that makes an argument about space exploration based on all three letters.  Use one piece of evidence from each letter.  Be sure to assess the role of the “final frontier” in your commentary.
  2. Construct an argument about Safire’s speech for Nixon and Armstrong’s letter.  How to the two texts relate to one another?  What is the argument about Apollo 11’s mission?  Use language directly quoted from each letter to formulate your argument.
  3. Construct an argument about the interplay between television/film and current events.  What can be argued about fictional and reality?  Why?

Non-fiction: Letters of Note Overview

Incorporating more non-fiction is a consistent goal within most English curriculum planning. Common Core expectations focus on literary non-fiction and analyzing rhetoric as does AP, Honors and IB curriculum.


But supplements can be difficult and time consuming to find.  Trolling through websites can eat away at my sanity especially as we march closer and closer to the end of the year.   Between AP tests and state mandated testing it can feel as if there just isn’t time.  No time to find material and certainly no time to implement it.  It’s easy to give up, become frustrated and revert back to all “Gatsby” all the time.

Never fear. Letters of Note is an excellent online resource for a classroom teacher of English or History. Shaun Usher, website curator, has compiled over 700 letters that span centuries and whose topics range from Stark Trek to the Civil War.   While letters include the handwritten notes of celebrities and iconic historical figures, some of the best correspondence is that of people we do not know.

With a post per day, it’s more than likely you will be able to find a new non-fiction supplement each week for things you already teach.

This week we’ll highlight some of the best letters and discuss how to seamlessly employ them within your preexisting classroom structure.  Expect letters from Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, John Adams, Steinbeck and more.  Expect letters ready made for teaching style. But most important, expect assignments about the role of correspondence in modern culture.  All will be easy to implement, and all will help enrich literature and rhetorical analysis.

Documentaries: Oscar Nominees

One of the best ways to introduce documentaries into the classroom is simply by having students examine those that have been nominated for Oscars.


Between two categories, documentary feature and documentary short, there are ten different films from which to choose.  This week we’ve focused on how to implement smaller elements of documentary films in order to still allow for critical engagement without usurping too much classroom time.

Today’s post will focus on how to use the trailers of those Oscar nominated documentary features and shorts.  While we will only highlight a few, you might choose to peruse the list and choose several other trailers based on your needs in class.  There are two ways to think about implementing this type of assignment.  You might partner trailers with texts that you are teaching or you might simply do a smaller study of documentary films as non-fiction texts.  Either way have students consider documentary trailers as condensed, “mini” versions of the film itself.  You might ask that they SOAPSTone the trailers, answer questions and even create their own.

You might also consider using any of the Oscar nominated documentary features or documentary shorts.  Documentary Feature Hell and Back Again as well as Documentary Short Incident in New Baghdad would work in conjunction with teaching The Things They Carried, Catch-22 or All Quiet on the Western Front.   Documentary Short, The Barber of Birmingham would be a wonderful way to compliment a unit on speeches of the Civil Rights Movement or To Kill A Mockingbird. Below are three Oscar nominated films, their trailers and some ways for incorporating them into the classroom.

Saving Face

An HBO Documentary and winner of a 2012 Oscar for Documentary Short, Saving Face will air today at 8:30 p.m.  HBO offers a short synopsis of the film.  Consider using it as an introduction to having students view the trailer.   Also consider having students examine the resources for the film HBO lists.  Many of them are ways to get involved and build knowledge about the documentary’s topic of violence towards women in Pakistan.  Consider the questions below as a way to have students engage in viewing the trailer.

HBO Documentary Films: Saving Face Trailer by HBO

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. Describe the overall argument of the trailer.  Offer an argument from the point of view of the women, the doctor and the filmmaker.
  3. Examine the text used in the trailer.  How does it add to the message?  Consider thinking about subtitles too.
  4. What is most noticeable about the trailer?  What elements draw in an audience?

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

An Oscar nominee for best documentary short, this film outlines the March 2011 tsunami in Japan.  The trailer, included below, has much to offer.  In fact, it’s one of the best from the Oscar Nominees to use this year.  It is both beautiful and heart wrenching.  You might consider having students read director Lucy Walker’s interview from Cinema Without Borders. Consider the questions below as a way to have students engage in viewing the trailer.

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. What effect does cutting between real footage of the disaster and first person interview have on the audience?  Explain.
  3. Identify elements of both beauty and terror.  Why would a filmmaker have those two in such close proximity to one another?
  4. How does the filmmaker use emotion and humanity to reach an audience?
  5. Pick two images from the trailer that stand out.  Explain their significance.


This film, Oscar winner for best documentary feature, offers students a story about overcoming in spite of circumstance.  This would be a good partner to teaching Hope in the Unseen.  Consider having students read the Los Angeles Times interview with former NFL player Ed Cunningham, one of the producers, as a precursor to watching the trailer.

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. Explain why the trailer begins with the coach listing the “troubles” of his team.  What effect does this have on the audience?
  3. Identify the primary themes present in the documentary’s trailer.
  4. In the final scene of the trailer, the coach argues that, “You think football builds character.  It does not.  It reveals character.”  Explain what the implicit argument is in such a statement as it relates to the trailer for this documentary.
  5. Explain what is important about the footage, music and text.  How do they work together to create an overall feel for the film?  Explain.

Documentaries: Corporate Sponsorship


If part of our task is to challenge students to weigh pros and cons, especially in their writing, discussing the idea of sponsorship and documentaries can be a powerful tool.  Have students examine just this concept via some of the trailers and shorts below.

Begin with Morgan Spurlock.  My recommendation?  Start with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.  Now I know what you’re thinking.  It’s ninety minutes.    The same length as Food Inc. which I’ve already admitted I struggle to show in its entirety.  So, instead use the trailer, a Spurlock interview and some source material from the film’s website as a starting point.  This week is about making documentaries work in the classroom.  Sometimes spurring a class discussion and allowing students to explore on their own offers some well needed exposure without overtaxing your classroom time.

Have students begin by examining some of the following resources.  Spurlock gave an interview with Forbes Magazine detailing his thinking in creating a film about product placement.  Or consider having students use Ebert’s review of the film itself as a warm-up.  Better yet have them watch Spurlock’s interview with Tavis Smiley.   At around 11 minutes it’s a good way to see him in action and hear his point of view.  Questions below can be used to accompany the interview.

Watch Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

  1. What is Sprulock’s argument against product placement in TV programming?
  2. What Spurlock’s purpose in creating the film?
  3. Identify Spurlock’s argument about schools and advertising.  Defend, challenge or qualify his point of view.
  4. Spurlock argues that modern films rely on product placement because they need money to fund their creation.  Explain the moral/ethical dilemma in such decisions.
  5. Is entertainment that’s a “commercial” such a bad thing?
  6. Identify one question that should be posed to Spurlock that Tavis Smiley omits.  Explain your reasoning.


Then have students watch the trailer.  Ask that they consider examining it as a condensed version of the film. Several examples have been included below.

  1. Identify how Morgan Spurlock incorporates humor.
  2. Describe how Spulock’s pitches appear.
  3. Describe the trailer.  What stands out in the way it is produced?
  4. Identify the purpose of the trailer itself.  How might this differ from the film?
  5. Identify Spurlock’s argument.  Defend, challenge or qualify Spurlock’s point of view in regards to marketing.


If you’re looking to give them even more exposure to documentaries sponsored by businesses have them checkout GE’s Focus Forward, an initiative to highlight great ideas and filmmakers.  Included below is an example documentary from Focus Forward.  Ask that students consider whether or not big business sponsorship changes the purpose of any documentary.


 Heart Stop Beating 

Heart Stop Beating | Jeremiah Zagar from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

  1. What message does the film convey?  What seems to be its purpose?
  2. Identify two elements that strike you from the film itself.  Explain what make them interesting/remarkable.
  3. What has been omitted from the film that you as a viewer would like to see?  Explain your reasoning.

Documentaries: Overview


Every year I try to have students watch all of Food, Inc.  It isn’t an innovative way to end our study of Fast Food Nation.  It’s not even a documentary on a new topic with vastly new information.  But I’ve told myself that in this world of grade level calendars and common assessments, it’s important.

And yet, every year I get within twenty minutes of the end and “run out of time.”  I panic at the amount of time we’ve spent “sitting.”  Every year, when pressed by students if we will watch the end my responses are numerous.  We have to start our next book.  We need to prep for the upcoming battery of spring tests.  We don’t have time.

Teaching in classrooms that have state tests and rigorous curriculum standards put many demands on our time.  With these expectations, it can be difficult to “find” ample time for film.  That being said, documentaries are a powerful way to teach students rhetoric, argument and bias.  They can be the cornerstones of research projects and an important way to build student knowledge on a range of topics that they would otherwise ignore or neglect.

For the last several weeks we’ve highlighted resources like Good Magazine and Brain Pickings in response to suggestions for expanding student knowledge.  This week we’ll focus on how to use documentary shorts fit into classrooms. And while it’s clear that this isn’t unchartered territory, the goal is to use smaller aspects of documentaries as a weekly staple in the Humanities classroom.

QR Codes: Non-Fiction Lesson

There are a multitude of great QR classroom uses out there already.  In fact the Daring Librarian has a great post from December of 2010 about different QR codes and a great video about how they were used in one high school for multiple classrooms.

Today, I’m going to offer one approach to using QR codes in the English classroom.  This is quite simply a teacher driven, small groups at stations, QR code assignment. Keep in mind this post is quite lengthy so as to give you an activity and an example of how to use this with Fast Food Nation.

The purpose: to extend student learning on topics that relate to a non-fiction book.

Things to consider: You may, depending on  your means, want students to use ipods, phones and ipads.  A bigger screen would be useful if you plan on having students use any of the articles below.  You may also want to encourage your students to share devices.  You’ll absolutely want them to bring headphones as some of the QR codes, when scanned, link to videos and podcasts.

Non-Fiction, Teacher Generated QR Codes

This activity could be used at anytime during the study of a unit of novel. The goal: create a deeper/broader understanding of the concepts studied.  Choose a series of articles, podcasts, images, cartoons, etc. that could be easily used for synthesizing a larger understanding.  I’ve chosen Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation as an example because non-fiction may be an easier way for you to attempt this type of activity.  Resources should also be easier to find. Read more

Novel & Unit Projects: Day Two


 I find it helps to organize books and units around one “principle.”  This principle will be modeled and practiced throughout the entirety of the unit from a variety of angles.  It’s always my goal to then have students “produce” that skill on their own or in small groups by the end of our study.  Today I’ll provide two different approaches. The options for today all focus on culminating activities that measure writing ability.

Idea #1

It seems to me that many of the books we give our students are meta “texts.”  Novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, All the King’s Men, even The Scarlet Letter include a series of speeches, sermons or courtroom arguments that have their own “life.”   Books that include other “texts” within them offer a range of opportunities for end projects.

Read more