Rhetorical Assignment

One assignment I’ve been using in my class to strengthen my students’ ability to think through argument is a rhetorical assignment.  It has a simple structure, and it is very efficient to grade.

I post articles on my website every two weeks, and they simply do the following in response.

  1. Describe the author’s purpose.
  2. Identify the main argument of the article.
  3. List any supporting details/statements that directly support what they listed for step 2.
  4. Then under each supporting detail/statement, they must identify it as ethos, logos, or pathos.
  5. Finally, under each of the supporting details/statements, they must agree, disagree, or qualify the author’s statements.  In doing so, they must also include their own evidence from their own experiences/observations.

Problem Areas:

  • Students have problems with the difference between the author’s purpose and the article’s topic.  We had to work on that.
  • They also feel uncomfortable doing the last step at first.  You have to model this step when introducing this assignment.  By the third assignment, they have it all down.


My Gatsby Focus This Year

Each year I pick a new focus when teaching The Great Gatsby to keep it fresh in my classroom.  Having taught it 10 years, I feel the need to do so to increase my understanding of the novel.  Here is the list of angles I took while teaching the novel. in the past:
2013- Motifs in The Great Gatsby. I pulled 32 motifs from the novel. Each student picked one and charted the use of the motif in the novel. Then they had to write a paper in which they argued whether or not the novel was used as a symbol (looking for a pattern surrounding the motif’s use).

2012- Methods of Control for Various characters
Using the power and control wheel, we examined how various characters attempted to control characters in the novel. (NOTE: This chart worked well throughout the year. We also used it with Their Eyes Were Watching God.)

2011- Modernism in The Great Gatsby
We explored stylistic and conceptual elements of modernism as seen in the text.

BUT this year (2014), I am focusing on two topics.
1. Whether or not the racism exhibited by Tom is written into the novel to reflect the times or simply to add characterization.
2. Collecting info on all the time-specific pop culture references.

Mental Floss features “24 Great Gatsby Facts”

1. Would a Great American Novel by any other name be as sweet? Based on the other titles F. Scott Fitzgerald considered for Gatsby, I’d have to say no. At one time or another, all of these were in consideration: Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; Trimalchio; Trimalchio in West Egg; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; Gold-Hatted Gatsby and The High-Bouncing Lover.

2. Fitzgerald was quite close to choosing one of the Trimalchio titles until someone persuaded him that the reference was too obscure. The original Trimalchio was a character in a first century work of fiction called Satyricon. The story had other famous fans, too: You can find mentions of Trimalchio in Les MiserablesPompeii, and works by H.P. Lovecraft, Henry Miller and Octavio Paz, among others.

3. The Great Gatsby was partly inspired by a French novel called Le Grand Meaulnes, written in 1913. It has since been translated into English with the titles The Wanderer and The Lost Estate.

4. The famous cover of the book was designed by Francis Cugat, who later went on to become a designer for actor/director/producer Douglas Fairbanks. Fitzgerald so loved Cugat’s art that he rewrote parts of the book to better incorporate it.

5. The poet who “wrote” the novel’s epigraph never actually existed. He was a character in Fitzgerald’s previous book, This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald also occasionally used it as his pen name. Here’s the epigraph:

“Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry, “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”

6. At the time of its publication in 1925, the novel cost just $2.

7. Unlike Fitzgerald’s previous two novels, Gatsby was not a commercial success. It sold just 20,000 copies in the entire first year of publication.

8. Fitzgerald was convinced that the reason the book wasn’t a rousing success was becauseGatsby didn’t have a single admirable female character—and, at the time, the majority of people reading novels were women. He also thought that the title, which was only “fair,” resulted in poor sales.

9. Gatsby wasn’t a critical success with everyone, either. A few of the not-so-rave reviews:

“Why [Fitzgerald] should be called an author, or why any of us should behave as if he were, has never been satisfactorily explained to me.” —The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

“We are quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great writers of to-day.” —The New York Evening World

“Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.” —The Baltimore Evening Sun


10. The joke’s on the Evening Sun, because not only was much of Gatsby probable; it actually happened. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald moved to Great Neck on Long Island after their daughter Scottie was born in 1922. That’s where Fitzgerald witnessed the collision of “old money” and “new money.” People who came from Great Neck had recently acquired money, while those who came from nearby Manhasset Neck or Cow Neck had inherited theirs. Cow Neck does sound quite classy.

11. In fact, even Jay Gatsby’s lavish mansion was inspired by a couple of real mansions, including Oheka Castle, in Huntington, New York. Even today, nearly a century after construction began on it in 1915, Oheka Castle is still the second-largest private estate in the United States.



Some literary scholars also liken Fitzgerald’s description of the mansion to the structure Beacon Towers, a mansion with more than 140 rooms that was owned by William Randolph Hearst and demolished in 1945.


12. Gatsby’s estate wasn’t all that was inspired by the real-life comings and goings of the most beloved couple of the Jazz Age. Many of the characters were based on flesh and blood friends and lovers. Daisy was based on Ginevra King, a Chicago debutante and one of Fitzgerald’s girlfriends. One Fitzgerald scholar says his romance with King was the most important relationship he experienced, even more so than the one with his wife. That may be true, considering that these words, found written in Fitzgerald’s ledger, are thought to have been said by King’s father: “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”

13. Similarly, Daisy Buchanan’s best friend Jordan was modeled on one of Ginevra’s good friends, Edith Cummings. Cummings was not only a fellow debutante—one of Chicago’s “Big Four,” the most eligible women in the city—she was also a famous amateur golfer. Dubbed “The Fairway Flapper,” Cummings won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1924, the year beforeGatsby was released.

14. Speaking of Jordan Baker, her name was a play on two popular car brands of the Roaring Twenties: the Jordan Motor Car Company and the Baker Motor Vehicle. The play on words was meant to invoke the feeling of freedom and a “fast” reputation.

15. “Meyer Wolfshiem” is a thinly-veiled reference to Arnold Rothstein, the man behind the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. If the somewhat similar names didn’t give it away, the fact that Wolfshiem is said to have fixed the World Series probably did.

16. Gatsby himself—or at least his line of work and one of his famous phrases—may have been inspired by a WWI vet named Max Gerlach, a “gentleman bootlegger” Fitzgerald knew from Great Neck. Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Bruccoli discovered a newspaper clipping in one of the Fitzgeralds’ numerous scrapbooks. The clipping, apparently sent from Gerlach, was a photo of the Fitzgeralds accompanied by a handwritten note that said, “Here for a few days on business—How are you and the family old Sport? Gerlach.” “Old sport,” of course, is the way Gatsby constantly refers to narrator Nick Carraway.


17. So what great sum did Fitzgerald receive for writing one of the most beloved novels of all time? A $3993 advance, and $1981.25 when it was published. He later received $16,666 for the movie rights.

18. Too bad the movie, which was released in 1926, sucked—at least according to Zelda Fitzgerald. In undated letter to Scottie, Zelda wrote that the silent film based on the novel was “ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

19. Sadly, when Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940, he had mostly disappeared into obscurity. At the time of his death, Gatsby’s publisher still had copies of the book in its warehouse—and that was from a second printing of just 3000 books. Fitzgerald’s works saw a revival in 1945. Helping in that revival: 150,000 copies of Gatsby were sent to Americans serving in WWII.


20. Mad Money host Jim Cramer has a group of 13 stocks he calls “The Great Gatsby Index,” which tracks the spending of rich people. The group: Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Lululemon, Whole Foods, Nordstrom, Panera bread, Toll Brothers, Brunswick, Coach, Tiffany, Saks, Starbucks, and Estee Lauder.

21. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a deplorable speller. He was so bad, in fact, that American literary critic Edmund Wilson called This Side of Paradise ”one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published.”

22. Fitzgerald was named after his second cousin, three times removed: Francis Scott Key. Key wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

23. In 1917, Fitzgerald dropped out of school—he was already on academic probation—and joined the U.S. Army. Terrified that he would be killed in the war, thus denying the world his literary genius, he hastily wrote a novel and sent it off to Scribner. The Romantic Egotist was rejected, but Scribner sent him an encouraging letter and asked him to submit again in the future.

24. Hunter S. Thompson retyped The Great Gatsby so he could feel what it was like to write like Fitzgerald.

Link to original article can be found HERE.

Motion v. Action: Moving on with goals

[The following article was posted on Lifehacker.com]

There is a common mistake that often happens to smart people—in many cases, without you ever realizing it. The mistake has to do with the difference between being in motion and taking action. They sound similar, but they’re not the same.

Here’s the deal…

Motion Vs. Action

Motion is when you’re busy doing something, but that task will never produce an outcome by itself. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will get you a result.

Here are some examples…

  • If I outline 20 ideas for articles I want to write, that’s motion. If I actually write and publish an article, that’s action.
  • If I email 10 new leads for my business and start conversations with them, that’s motion. If I actually ask for the sale and they turn into a customer, that’s action.
  • If I search for a better diet plan and read a few books on the topic, that’s motion. If I actually eat a healthy meal, that’s action.
  • If I go to the gym and ask about getting a personal trainer, that’s motion. If I actually step under the bar and start squatting, that’s action.
  • If I study for a test or prepare for a research project, that’s motion. If I actually take the test or write my research paper, that’s action.

Sometimes motion is good because it allows you to prepare and strategize and learn. But motion will never—by itself—lead to the result you are looking to achieve. It doesn’t matter how many times you go talk to the personal trainer, that motion will never get you in shape. Only the action of working out will get you the result you’re looking to achieve.

Why Smart People Find Themselves in Motion

If motion doesn’t lead to results, why do we do it? Sometimes we do it because we actually need to plan or learn more. But more often than not, we do it because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure.

Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism. It doesn’t feel good to fail or to be judged publicly, so we tend to avoid situations where that might happen. And that’s the biggest reason why you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to delay failure.

Yes, I’d like to get in shape. But, I don’t want to look stupid in the gym, so I’ll just talk to the trainer about their rates instead.

Yes, I’d like to land more clients for my business. But, if I ask for the sale, I might get turned down. So maybe I should just email 10 potential clients instead.

Yes, I’d like to lose weight. But, I don’t want to be the weird one who eats healthy at lunch. So maybe I should just plan some healthy meals when I get home instead.

It’s very easy to do these things and convince yourself that you’re still moving in the right direction.

“I’ve got conversations going with four potential clients right now. This is good. We’re moving in the right direction.”

“I brainstormed some ideas for that book I want to write. This is coming together.”

You feel like you’re getting things done. But really, you’re just preparing to get something done. And when preparation becomes a form of procrastination, you need to change something.

Ideas for Taking Action

I’m sure there are many strategies for taking action, but I can think of two that have worked for me.

Set a Schedule for Your Actions

Every Monday and every Thursday, I write a new article and publish it to the world. It’s just what happens on those days. It’s my schedule. I love Mondays and Thursdays because I know that I will always produce something on those days. I’ll get a result. That’s a good feeling.

For weightlifting, I train on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That’s the schedule every week. I’m not planning workout exercises. I’m not researching workout programs. I’m simply working out. Action, not motion. For ongoing goals and lifestyle changes, I think this is the best approach. Set a schedule for your actions and stick to it.

Pick a Date to Shift You from Motion to Action

For some goals, setting a daily or weekly schedule doesn’t work as well. This is the case if you’re doing something that is only going to happen once: like releasing your new book, or launching a new product, or taking a big exam, or submitting a major project.

These things require some planning up front (motion). They also require plenty of action to complete them. For example, you could set a schedule each week to write each chapter of your book. But for the book launch itself, you could spend weeks or months planning different venues, locations, and so on.

In a situation like this, I find that it’s best to simply pick a date. Put something on the calendar. Make it public. This is when X is happening. For big projects or one–time goals, I think this is the best approach. Force yourself out of motion and into action by setting a hard deadline.

Choose Action

Never mistake activity for achievement. —John Wooden

Motion will never produce a final result. Action will. When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result. Are you doing something? Or are you just preparing to do it? Are you in motion? Or are you taking action?

The Mistake Smart People Make: Being In Motion vs. Taking Action | Buffer

Beowulf and Fire-Breathing Dragons

Picture by John Howe

I am currently reading Gulp: Adventure on the Alimentary Canal, a book by Mary Roach. She also authored my favorite non-fiction book Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. (Reluctant readers love Stiff.)

In Gulp. Roach touches on the possible origins of legends of fire-breathing dragons, which immediately make me think of Beowulf. I love the epic poem.  In grad school we were given the task of translating it in my Old English class. In my Beowulf in Context course, we studied a plethora of sagas and mythic tales that gave us a broader understanding of the text.

TANGENT: The few times I’ve had the opportunity to teach it, I have tried to make the poem as concrete as possible.  I play the Radiohead lyrics of “Climbing Up The Walls” (which is about a serial killer) alongside the first descriptions of Grendel coming through the darkness.  I think it helps the students see the possible interpretations of the evil monster.

NOW WE ARE BACK: I will quote the passage below, but I feel like I need to prep you with the context of the quote first.  Mary Roach has been taking me on a journey from the lips through the digestive tract.  In this chapter we take a break from the colon to talk about gas.  She consults Stephen Secor, of the University of Alabama.  He has done some research on the expulsion of hydrogen gas from snakes as the exhale.  So here is the quoted passage (Roach, 230):

Roll back the calendar back a few mellennia and picture yourself in a hairy outfit, dragging home a python you have hunted.  Hunted is maybe the wrong word. The python was digesting a whole gazelle and was in no condition to fight of flee. You rounded a bend and there it was, Neandrethal turducken. Gazython. The fact that the gazelle is partially decomposed does not bother you. Early man was a scavenger as well as a hunter. He was used to stinking meat And those decamp gases are key to our story. Now I will turn over to Secor.

“So this python is full of gas. You set it down by the campfire because you’re going to eat it. Somebody kicks it or steps on it and all this hydrogen shoots out of its mouth.” Hydrogen, as the you and I of today know but the you and I of the Pleistocene did not know, starts to be flammable at a concentration of 4 percent.And animal at a concentration of about 10 percent. Secor made a flamethrowery whoosh sound. “There’s your fire-breathing serpent. Imagine the stories that would generate. Over a couple thousand years, you’ve got yourself a legend.” He did some digging. The oldest stories of Fire-breathing dragons come from Africa and south China: where the giant snakes are.


Writing in Math

Recently I have been working with some math teachers while leading RMWP‘s Summer Institute.  In case you are not familiar with the National Writing Project, I highly suggest you check it out and seek to experience this life-changing professional development.

I find math useful in the English classroom.  Calculating how long the story of An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge really lasts and some uses have come in handy in my English class.  (I usually need the math team members to come to my rescue.)

In trying to come up with some ways teachers around the country are using writing in math and to help the teachers in the Summer Institute, I compiled this list of resources.

These are amazing resources I found tonight.  I hope they can inspire you as you strive to incorporate more writing into your math curriculum.

With the following site, click on the PUZZLES AND PROBLEMS tab and then click “Write Math with the Math Forum”.  You can search lessons based on grade levels and what not.

I love this source: http://mathforum.org/wmmf/


Here are links to sites

 Journals in the in Math Classroom


iPad Apps for Language Arts

Here are some iPad apps I presented on 2/17

Goodnotes: I LOVE this app!  Many of the note-taking apps look horrible when I try to write on them. And if I use the typing ones, I find that I quickly fall behind.  This allows you to instantly zoom in so you can write clearly.  I know it is a small detail, but for a lefty, that is HUGE!


iAnnotate PDF: I use this for grading student work.  You can have them place their email address in the document you are grading and immediately send the work back to them.  It allows you to write on PDFs as well as record voiceovers.  You can also broadcast in real time through your projector.


Mobile Mouse: While this app did cost me $2.99, I think I might have purchased it for $5. Lets your iPad take control of your computer.  If moving around the room is useful for you, this might be the app for you.


Workflowy: This app allows you to quickly organize thoughts and ideas.


Google Drive: You can view the documents you’ve created on Google Drive.


iA Writer: This app is a great app for writing.  It optimizes the keyboard so that it speeds up the writing process.


Penultimate: This is another note taking app.


Skriv: This app is a note taking app with a built in web browser.


TED: Presents talks from some of the worlds most fascinating people.


iTunesU: The free iTunes U app gives you access to the world’s largest online catalog of free education content from leading institutions — on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch.


Mindjet Maps: This app lets you easily enter ideas, tasks, and meeting notes into intuitive visual maps that help you quickly organize concepts and prioritize action items. Instantly create new maps or import them from Mindjet Connect.


ShowMe: This app allows you to create voiceover whiteboard tutorials to save online.


Wikipanion: A Wikipedia engine.

Prezi: An awesome presentation app that allows students to create PowerPoints on steroids.  Imagine having a single piece of paper on which you could store and infinite amount of information.  That is prezi. 

GoodReader: A powerful app for annotating PDFs, this app has many uses for engaging with texts actively. I find the legion of options rather cumbersome so I am on the looking for a similar, but simpler, app for text annotation.

Instapaper: A great app for simply saving articles and documents offline in case any wireless network problems ensue.

Snapseed: Currently free, this is a great app to edit photos in a variety of ways.

Socrative: A great app for creating a variety of quizzes for instant formative or summative assessment.

Keynote: Effectively Apple’s PowerPoint, it is a nice smooth app that facilitates some lovely presentations. Similar to PowerPoint, it does take some time to get  to grips with.

CloudOn: A free app that provides the opportunity to create Microsoft documents for those who wish to use the familiar tools of the likes of Word or PowerPoint.

Motifs and Archetypes in Their Eyes Were Watching God

If you have not read How To Read Like A Professor, I would highly recommend you doing so.  I have started teaching the content of the book to my students this semester because I see it as an invaluable lens through which they need to view literature.

We are  currently reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, which has glaring uses of motifs and archetypes throughout the text.  I will come back and update the process of charting the motifs/archetypes as we move through the novel.  For now, I will place a link to the worksheet I created below.

Motifs/Archetype Worksheet

Unpacking the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

During the RMWP (Red Mountain Writing Project) we have been working with the CCSS and the College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) in order to prepare our teachers to build a year of  skills-based instruction.

Here is the graphic organizer we composed to help teachers unpack the standards.

CCRS Worksheet Unpacking

Here is how you use it:

  1. Look through one strand of your CCSS/CCRS (for example, look at the Reading Standards for Literature strand).
  2. Pull out the core verbs that call for an action on part of the students.  These will be words like CITE, DEMONSTRATE, etc.
  3. Pick one of the verbs and place it in the CORE VERB box of the graphic organizer.
  4. Then, look through the section of standards for other uses of that verb.  Look under all of the subheadings  (Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity).
  5. Record phrases associated with the verbs in the boxes labeled  SKILLS PHRASES.  For example, under the Key Ideas and Details subheading, I find DETERMINE used with the following phrases: “determining where the texts leaves matters uncertain,”  ”determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text”.  There are others, under the subheadings below that, but I will let you find those.
  6. After you have your Skills Phrases down, go to the box labeled SUBJECT MATTER and write down units or lessons you would use to teach these.

After you have explored the verbs and skills required by the CCSS/CCRS, you are ready to start determining where you will EXPLICITLY teach these skills as a primary learning task verses a peripheral learning task.  For example, you might require students to identify themes or central ideas with every piece of literature you read, but you will explicitly teach it with the first genre of literature that year.  The rest of the year you should be able to do mini lessons to help the refine the gained skill.

I hope this helps!

If anyone would like to book some professional development, comment below.

RMWP 21st Century Literacy Conference Session

I will have a 3 hour seminar on tech for RMWP on April 21st. Here is a link to the brochure.

Here are the sites I am presented at the conference:


  1. http://www.makeuseof.com/
  2. http://www.google.com/edu/teachers/

Conversion Site

  1. http://www.online-convert.com/

Text Visualization

  1. Wordle.net   http://teacheng.us/?s=wordle
  2. http://www.tagxedo.com/

Visual Language/Design

  1. http://coolinfographics.com
  2. http://mat.usc.edu/wp-content/uploads/childrens-books-infographic-large.jpg
  3. http://glogster.com
  4. http://prezi.com

Collaborative Sites

  1. http://crocodoc.com/
  2. http://www.wallwisher.com/
  3. http://popplet.com/
  4. http://www.schoology.com/

Screen Cast

  1. http://www.screencast.com/

Slide Show

  1. http://www.vuvox.com/

Cellphone Polls

  1. http://cel.ly

Podcast/Audio Sites

  1. http://audioboo.fm/
  2. http://voicethread.com/#home
  3. http://blabberize.com/

Story/Book Creation

  1. http://www.storyjumper.com/
  2. http://storybird.com/tour/
  3. http://lulu.com

Time line

  1. http://www.timetoast.com/