Teaching Romeo and Juliet: Part Four

Prehistoric Romeo and JulietWho killed Romeo and Juliet?

The answer isn’t as simple as one might think, and determining who is most to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet makes a great writing exercise for students. I can no longer remember where I found this idea, as is so often the case with us educators, I suppose, so if you find it, please let me know so I may give proper credit.

In order to prepare for this assignment, students can write summaries of each act as they read and keep the summaries in their notebook. Depending upon the students’ level, the teacher may decide it is OK to skip this step. Next, the teacher should lead a discussion of each character’s flaws or traits. The way I usually do this is to create a web with the character’s name at the center.

Romeo Character Map

The character map above is just a small example. For the final step, students examine their plot summaries coupled with character maps to determine which character was at fault for Romeo and Juliet’s deaths. They write a persuasive essay incorporating examples of actions on the part of that character that led to Romeo and Juliet’s deaths. For example, one student of mine two years ago argued that Friar Laurence was most to blame for the deaths. She determined that Friar Laurence did not do enough to make sure the lovers were both in on the plan he made. Many students argue that Romeo, Tybalt, and Capulet are most responsible. Interestingly, students invariably see Juliet as innocent, even though she stabs herself in the end.

This assignment can easily be adapted to fit the standard five-paragraph essay format:

  1. Introduction, including thesis about who is most responsible for deaths.
  2. One reason why the person is responsible (action or words).
  3. Second reason why.
  4. Third reason why.
  5. Conclusion.

As my students have already written two essays for this unit, I have decided to adapt this assignment into a Socratic Seminar. In order to do this, my students will discuss the characters’ traits tomorrow. We will begin planning for the seminar by marking passages that offer evidence of a certain character’s blame with post-it notes. On Wednesday, students will hold the seminar. This would be a great time to do a podcast, but as I explained yesterday, I’m not quite ready for that at this point. If we need to roll into Thursday to finish the discussion, that’s fine. Greece Central School District has some great resources for Socratic Seminars.

Update: Borrowing liberally from Greece Central School District’s information I created a document to explain to my students what a Socratic Seminar is all about (Socratic Seminar handout) and an accompanying rubric (Romeo and Juliet Seminar rubric). My students asked me if they could have two class periods (today and tomorrow) to prepare for the discussion. They were busily marking their books with post-its and asking me about their ideas. One student excited showed me a list of twenty events in the play that contributed to Romeo and Juliet’s deaths.  Following the discussion, I will ask them to complete the Self-Evaluation (Word doc) created by Greece Central Schools.

They are so much more engaged in the text through an activity like this than they would be if I just gave them a test.

[tags]Romeo and Juliet, teaching, education, Socratic Seminar[/tags]

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I am excited about using blogs and wikis in the classroom, and my students have used both to create content, discuss books, discuss writing and grammar, and to share their ideas. You can see their work at Room 303 Blog and Mrs. Huff’s English Classroom Wiki. I have to admit I’m daunted by podcasting for some reason. Many educators are beginning to use podcasting to great effect. Mike Hetherington and Bud Hunt have used podcasts to great effect, and I know both Will Richardson and David Warlick champion their use. I know there are many others, and if you know of someone or are someone using podcasting, please show me so I can check it out.

On Wednesday my freshman are going to participate in Socratic Seminar on the topic “Who is responsible for Romeo and Juliet’s deaths?” I had a brainwave that it would make an excellent podcast, but frankly, I’m not sure we have the proper tools to make one. I’m checking into that. At any rate, don’t look for a podcast soon. A certain level of comfort is required, and I’m not quite there yet. I also want my students to be prepared for and comfortable with doing one. I don’t think springing the idea that their discussion will be recorded the day before they have it would be a good idea.

I guess you could say I’m in the exploratory stage; I’m not ruling out podcasts in the future, but I’m not ready for one yet. However, you can learn about how one school is using podcasting to share what they’re learning about Jamestown in this 400th year of its founding.

You know, I don’t even own an MP3 player? I look longingly at them behind the glass in my local department store, but I have not yet been able to sock away the funds necessary to purchase one.

[tags]podcasting, education[/tags]

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Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

Romeo and Juliet PosterIn my experience, people have a strong reaction to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: they either love it, or they hate it. A teacher friend of mine once told me, “I refuse to show my classes the Leo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet because… because… because it’s such a crock of shit.” Yet another colleague called it “lush and visually stunning.”

My students often refer to this version as the “new” one. It seems strange to refer to Baz Luhrmann’s production as the “new” version, when it is now ten years old; however, I think it does retain some freshness. It doesn’t appear dated, at least not yet, but I do feel that it’s potential to become dated is greater than that of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 production (which seems dated only in some of the hairstyles).

One of the chief complaints of many people who don’t like the film is the modernization, which some believe borders on sacrilege. My department head mentioned she thinks it is weird to hear Shakespearean dialogue amidst the gunplay. Others dislike the so-called MTV quality of the film. Noted film critic Roger Ebert declared, “I have never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that the new punk version of Romeo & Juliet makes of Shakespeare’s tragedy” (via Rotten Tomatoes).

I have often hedged before telling someone I liked it, simply because those who react negatively to the film do so in such a, well, violent manner. No, no one’s ever hit me — but their crazy-eyed, passionate hatred has scared me! If I may be so bold, I have noticed that many people who dislike the film have such a strong, visceral reaction that they are unable to see that the film does have some merits. For example, given that Zeffirelli’s film is so true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s play, it might surprise you to learn that Luhrmann’s version actually contains more of the text of the play. Shocking! In fact, Zeffirelli’s version cuts one of the most famous lines: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” (Act II, Scene 2). If my memory serves, the most important line that Luhrmann cuts is Juliet’s famous “O happy dagger / This is thy sheath. There rust and let me die” (Act V, Scene 3).

I have to admit that I do not care for Luhrmann’s Balcony Scene. I don’t think there was any reason to put Romeo and Juliet in a pool, aside from amping up the sexuality. I wish also that the characters Sampson and Gregory had not been made Montagues rather than Capulets, and that Abra (Abraham or Abram) had not been made a Capulet rather than a Montague. My objection to this stems only from the fact that when I use the movie in class, this change can cause confusion.

Swapping guns for swords does not trouble me; I feel that Luhrmann handled that in a clever way, and in fact, the exchange really emphasized the violence in Romeo and Juliet’s world. Think about it: in the 1400′s it was not uncommon for the average male to carry a weapon or two. I think it makes sense that the omnipresence of weapons makes it more likely that weapons will be used. However, this was not something that particularly struck me as frightening until I saw all those guns. Why be more afraid of a gun than a sword? I’m not sure, but I know I felt as though life in Verona Beach, Florida was more precarious than life in Verona, Italy, even if this was not remotely a reality.

The massive throw-down at the gas station? It hooked me. A black Mercutio dressed in drag for the Capulets’ feast? I loved it. Miriam Margolyes’ Hispanic nurse screaming “Hoo-lee-etta!” Classic. The twist at the end, when Juliet awakes just before Romeo takes the poison? Clever and heart-wrenching. I should add that I have never had a class that didn’t laugh at Claire Daines’ echoing cry after Romeo dies. It does sound a bit, well, fake. What masterful use of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde after she dies!

In the balance, I like both films equally, and I use both in my class, though I only show the entirety of Zeffirelli’s version. After all, we only have so much time in class and a lot o curriculum to teach. However, I invite interested parties to come to my room at lunch to view Luhrmann’s version. Two years ago, I had a couple of girls who came to lunch and watched it over and over and over. I have not noticed that the students favor one version of the film over the other. For the most part, my students have enjoyed both. If you are interested, you can download and view a Power Point presentation in which I utilize images from Luhrmann’s film (designed to introduce Shakespeare’s play to students).

[tags]Baz Luhrmann, William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet[/tags]

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Blogging Huckleberry Finn, Part Two

After a few hiccups, my American literature students have started blogging about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The first post was about superstition in the novel. If you have a minute, go ahead and check out what my students are doing over at their blog. They will be posting four days a week, excluding weekends.

[tags]Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, blogging[/tags]

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Teaching Romeo and Juliet: Part Three

Juliet by John William WaterhouseIn my last post about teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I mentioned a writing assignment I like for my students to do: an analysis of Juliet’s relationship with her nurse. In my first post in this series, I discussed an activity in which students compare and contrast two filmed versions of the Balcony Scene (Act II, Scene 2). Until I taught today, I didn’t know I was going to write about today’s lesson, as I didn’t consider it to be particularly noteworthy, but a student’s comment at the end of class changed my mind.

When we begin Act III of Romeo and Juliet (really any Shakespearean tragedy — or at least all the ones I can think of right off the top of my head), I tell students that this is the act in which “all hell breaks loose.” I know I have more license to say things like that than some teachers, but students usually appreciate the humor. Sure enough, in the first scene, Tybalt and Mercutio are both slain. We actually read this scene on Friday. One of the students asked a question about Mercutio’s death. I can’t remember exactly how the question was phrased, but it had something to do with why Tybalt did it, especially since Mercutio was related to Prince Escalus. Didn’t he worry about being executed? I thought it was a very good question, and I mentioned that though Shakespeare’s stage directions leave this scene open to interpretation, both movie versions I had seen approached the scene in a similar way: Mercutio’s death was an accident. In Franco Zeffirelli’s version, Tybalt and Mercutio are clearly not seriously trying to hurt each other. At one point, they even exchange an exasperated look as Romeo continues to try to part them. Michael York’s face displays shock when he pulls his sword away and sees blood. In Baz Luhrmann’s film, Tybalt is defending himself from an aggressive Mercutio, but John Leguizamo, too, looks somewhat surprised (or at least dazed) after he stabs Mercutio with a large piece of glass. I told students that it is possible to get around the “wasn’t Tybalt thinking” problem by directing the scene so that it is clearly an accident, but the truth is, one could also argue that Tybalt is hot-headed by nature and didn’t think about the consequences or who Mercutio’s connections were. The beauty is that either interpretation makes perfect sense. It all boils down to how much of a jerk the director wants Tybalt to be.

We learn that Romeo is exiled at the end of Scene 1. When Scene 2 opens, Juliet has not yet heard the news of Tybalt’s death or Romeo’s banishment. We stopped and talked about how the nurse confuses Juliet; she isn’t clear about who died or what happened at first, and Juliet mistakenly thinks Romeo is dead. One of the students asked why the nurse wasn’t more clear. I said she was very upset and wasn’t thinking straight, but it also makes for some great dramatic tension, as we (the audience) already know what happened. Juliet recites a fantastic list of paradoxes/oxymorons:

O serpent heart hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despisèd substance of divinest show,
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st.
A damnèd saint, an honorable villain!
O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In moral paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? Oh, that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace!

When I teach Romeo and Juliet, I ask students to look for examples of foreshadowing, oxymorons and paradoxes, puns, allusions, metaphors, and personification, but when we run into any of those literary devices in use, I always stop, and ask students “What is that?” They’re especially good at picking out foreshadowing.

In Scene 3, Romeo learns about the Prince’s judgment. Friar Laurence tries to convince Romeo that it isn’t so bad — it’s possible that with time, a solution can be found, and Romeo and Juliet can be reunited. I mentioned that I thought Romeo was being whiny, which gave the students an opportunity to tell me I was too harsh.

In the next scene, Juliet’s father decides to marry her off to Paris. When we read the earlier scene in which Capulet declared, “Woo her gentle Paris, get her heart / My will to her consent is but a part,” we stopped and talked about it, and I told students to remember he said that. Sure enough, one of the students said, “I thought he said she was too young earlier.” I said, “He did, didn’t he? And he also said she had a say in the matter.” I pointed out that Capulet is sure that Juliet will be happy about the news; it never occurs to him that she will not want to marry Paris.

Capulet has a great scene in which he explodes at Juliet’s seeming ungratefulness. Both of Juliet’s parents say some fairly awful things in their anger, and Juliet turns to the nurse for advice. The nurse tells her that it would be smart to marry Paris. Romeo can’t very well come to Verona to challenge the marriage, and after all, Paris is wealthy nobility. Juliet determines never to confide in the nurse again. This decision is critical. I asked students to think about what this means for our young lovers. One student mentioned she could still talk to Friar Laurence. I said, yes, she could, and she is just about to — she told the nurse she was going to confession.

One of the things I sometimes do when I’m talking during discussion is draw a student in, even if he or she isn’t really participating at the moment. An example might be, “I think Romeo’s being a real whiner here, right Bob?” or “I don’t know about you, but I’m scared for Juliet. Aren’t you scared Sally?” I don’t know why, but the students think it’s funny. It’s not the same as that teacher tactic of calling out when someone is not paying attention. It’s kind of a playful way of paying attention to a student.

At the end of class today, I summed up Act III: “So was I right? All hell broke loose! Mercutio and Tybalt are dead. Romeo has to leave town. Juliet has to get married, but she’s already married.”

The room was nearly empty. Just two students were still packing up their notebooks and backpacks. One of them smiled down at his desk and said, “Ms. Huff, you’re crazy cool.” I said, “You are too.” And he said, “Thanks.” I didn’t really realize I was doing much here — just reading and discussing together. But then again, no one ever accused me of being “crazy cool” after assigning a compare/contrast essay about the Balcony Scene.

[tags]Romeo and Juliet, teaching, education, Shakespeare[/tags]

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Piles of Papers

Papers, Papers, Papers: An English Teacher's Survival GuideThis is my ninth year teaching (tenth, if you count the year I taught pre-K, but for our purposes today, I won’t). I have been caught up on grading once this year. I have yet to figure out how to manage my piles of papers so that I do not constantly have a stack of some sort. Taking work home with me is merely an exercise in moving papers around, as I have three children running around, a cluttered house, and supper to cook. I try to tell myself this is OK, but it sincerely bothers me that it takes me so long to grade papers. I can remember being in the students’ shoes and wanting quick feedback, so I know how they feel when they have to wait a week or so for papers.

Carol Jago has a book called Papers, Papers, Papers: An English Teacher’s Survival Guide. Has anyone read it? Did it help?

My schedule is a modified block schedule. We do subbing in-house. Some days, my schedule is somewhat light, while on other days, I barely sit down even once. I teach fewer than 60 students, but I do a lot of writing. Students generally write an essay for me every three to four weeks. All of my students. I also do other types of writing assessments. Rubrics save my life — my grading goes much more quickly.

I can remember my students doing much less writing when I taught in public school and simply had too many students to make it effective. How much writing do your students do? How do you stay on top of grading compositions?

[tags]grading, assessment, composition, writing[/tags]

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Thinking Blogger Award

Thinking Blogger Award

Thanks to Ms. George for nominating me for a Thinking Blogger Award. The rules say that “if, and only if” I am tagged, I must “write a post with links to five blogs that make [me] think.” It is an honor to be considered a “thinking blogger,” and I am honored to nominate the following blogs:

  1. Nighthawk, by Roger Darlington. Roger has been a ‘net friend of mine for a couple of years. He always has interesting insights, no matter what the field, and he loves to learn and share what he learns with others. Had he chosen a different path in life, he’d have made a wonderful teacher.
  2. Bud the Teacher might be one of the first English teachers I found in the blogosphere. His podcast was also the first podcast I ever listened to. He has a lot of interesting ideas about technology and education.
  3. Mike Hetherington uses blogs in his classroom in ways that get me excited and thinking about how I can adapt some of his ideas for my own classroom.
  4. Lorelle on WordPress is a great find for anyone who wants to get the most out of his/her WordPress blog, whether hosted on WordPress.com or on one’s own domain, like mine. I’ve learned a lot from her blog.
  5. The Super Adventures of Ben and Noah makes me think about the small joys in life, and reminds me to appreciate them more.

I need to mention that there were many other blogs on my own personal list of blogs that make me think, but I knew they had already been tagged, so I didn’t tag them twice. If I did tag anyone twice, I apologize — I checked each blog to see if a post about being nominated as a Thinking Blogger was present, and at the time I checked, none had such a post. Please check out my blogroll for more great education blogs.

Thanks again, Ms. George!

[tags]Thinking Blogger Award, meme, thinking[/tags]

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6+1 Writing Traits®

A few years ago, I had never heard of the 6+1 Writing Traits® ¹ assessment, but now it seems to be all the rage. I think these sorts of rubrics are fairly intuitive; teachers have probably been assessing the same areas for years before this popular system was discovered/invented. The pervasiveness of 6+1 Writing Traits can be measured, I suppose, by the fact that textbook companies are now creating materials to help teachers use this rubric, and Rubistar has a template for rubrics based on the premise of 6+1.

I think at its core the idea behind 6+1 Writing Traits is sound. However, I have found rubrics that I find to be more exact. Jay McTighe shared these rubrics with us when he came to speak at our school last year. They were created by Greece Central School District in New York. The areas of achievement are broken down into six levels, as opposed to four or five. The rubrics measure Meaning, Development, Organization, Language, and Conventions. I really like the way these rubrics break down.

In comparing the 6+1 Writing Traits model with these rubrics, I found that the Greece rubrics combine 6+1′s “Voice,” “Sentence Fluency,” and “Word Choice” into “Language,” while “Ideas” is split up into “Meaning” and “Development.” That tells me that perhaps the 6+1 model focuses more on learning how to write for an audience, selecting appropriate words, and varying sentences, whereas Greece’s rubric focuses more on communication of ideas.

I love using the rubrics, as they keep me honest. There have been times I have wanted to grade a paper more harshly for problems with conventions, but in looking at the rest of the rubric, I realized they did a better job communicating and developing their ideas. I look at each area separately, and circle the level of achievement I see for that specific area. Usually, students cluster in one level across all areas of achievement, but every once in a while I run into a paper with no grammatical mistakes, but also no substance, development, or organization. I have developed a method for converting rubric scores into true writing scores, and I recommend that teachers use this method rather than simply muliplying the levels of achievement by the areas (in the case of Greece’s rubrics, that’s 6×5=30), then dividing the student’s raw rubric score by the product (for example, 25/30). In the case of a student who scored 5′s across the board — a high level of achievement — the grade would only be a 83. Using my method, the grade would be a 90. Before you exclaim that I’m “dumbing down” my rubrics, let me ask you — do you give 0′s on assignments when students really try to do the assignment? Or do you give F’s that lie somewhere between 50-59?

¹ 6+1 Writing Traits is a registered trademark of Northwest Educational Development Laboratory.

[tags]6+1 Trait Writing, writing instruction, rubrics[/tags]

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Could This Be a Meme?

I participated in a Book Meme at my personal blog the other day. The list of books was eclectic and interesting. This morning I put my teacher nerd hat on and figured I’d adapt it for teacher books. This is how it works:

For books that you have read, put the title in bold. Books you want to read go in italics. Books you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole are struck out. Books on your bookshelf are underlined. Books you have never heard of are preceded with a ? question mark. Books you’ve seen a movie or TV version of are preceded with # a pound mark. Books you have blogged about are preceded with an ! exclamation point. Books you’re indifferent to have no text decoration. Books you loved are starred *. To sum up:

  • Books I’ve read
  • Books I want to read
  • Books I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole
  • Books on my bookshelves
  • ? Books I’ve never heard of
  • # Books I’ve seen in movie or TV form
  • ! Books I’ve blogged about
  • Books I’m indifferent to
  • * Books I loved

If you don’t know how the HTML code for the text decorations, and your blogging software doesn’t have buttons for them on your interface, at the end of this post, you’ll find a primer for how to decorate your text.

  1. The Essential 55 (Ron Clark)
  2. In the Middle (Nancie Atwell)
  3. Possible Lives (Mike Rose)
  4. With Rigor for All (Carol Jago)
  5. The English Teacher’s Companion (Jim Burke)
  6. # ! * The Freedom Writers Diary (Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers)
  7. Experience and Education (John Dewey)
  8. Elements of Style (Strunk and White)
  9. * The Writer’s Reference (Diana Hacker)
  10. * The First Days of School (Harry Wong)
  11. The Myth of Laziness (Mel Levine)
  12. Classroom Instruction that Works (Robert J. Marzano)
  13. ! Understanding By Design (Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe)
  14. The Homework Myth (Alfie Kohn)
  15. Classroom Management that Works (Robert J. Marzano)
  16. Fires in the Bathroom (Kathleen Cushman)
  17. ! * The Teacher’s Daybook (Jim Burke)
  18. Lies My Teacher Told Me (James W. Loewen)
  19. The Unschooled Mind (Howard Gardner)
  20. A Place Called School (John Goodlad)
  21. Punished By Rewards (Alfie Kohn)
  22. * Inside Out (Tom Liner and Dan Kirby)
  23. * Teaching Poetry Writing to Adolescents (Joseph Tsujimoto)
  24. Bridging English (Joseph Milner and Lucy Milner)
  25. * Teaching Grammar in Context (Constance Weaver)
  26. ! * How to Read Literature Like a Professor (Thomas C. Foster)
  27. English Teacher’s Survival Guide (Mary Lou Brandvik)
  28. * Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth (Peggy O’Brien)
  29. * Making the Journey (Leila Christenbury)
  30. Teaching with Fire (Sam Intrator)
  31. Multiple Intelligences (Howard Gardner)
  32. A Mind at at Time (Mel Levine)
  33. * Teacher Man (Frank McCourt)
  34. # My Posse Don’t Do Homework [Dangerous Minds] (LouAnne Johnson)
  35. The Shame of the Nation (Jonathan Kozol)
  36. Educating Esmé (Esmé Raji Codell)
  37. Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School (Theodore Sizer)
  38. Savage Inequalities (Jonathan Kozol)
  39. Reviving Ophelia (Mary Pipher and Ruth Ross)
  40. Among Schoolchildren (Tracy Kidder)
  41. Cultural Literacy (E.D. Hirsch)
  42. * Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises (Stephen Dunning and William Stafford)
  43. Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire (Rafe Esquith)
  44. Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms (Will Richardson)
  45. Other People’s Children (Lisa Delpit and Herbert Kohl)
  46. Teach With Your Heart (Erin Gruwell)
  47. There Are No Shortcuts (Rafe Esquith)
  48. Small Victories (Samuel G. Freedman)
  49. Discipline with Dignity (Richard L. Curwin and Allen N. Mendler)
  50. Lives on the Boundary (Mike Rose)

I know I probably forgot your favorite education book. Please forgive me and feel free to add it if you decide to participate in the meme. I am also well aware this list is skewed toward English teachers, so feel free to delete those books in favor of books in your subject area.

Primer for Formatting Text

  1. To make something bold, wrap the text in the bold HTML tag: <b>bold text</b>.
  2. To italicize something, wrap the text in the italics HTML tag: <i>italicized text</i>
  3. To strike out something, wrap the text in the strikeout HTML tag: <s>strikeout</s>
  4. To underline something, wrap the text in the underline HTML tag: <u>underline</u>

[tags]meme, education[/tags]

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Blogging Huckleberry Finn

Beginning on Tuesday, February 20, my 10th graders will be blogging about Huck Finn as part of their study of the novel. You can follow their blogging at my student blog. Watch for it!

Meanwhile, Anne sent me a link to Taylor Mali’s audio poem, “What Teachers Make.” Enjoy!

Download link

[tags]Huckleberry Finn, blogging, Taylor Mali[/tags]

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