Sociology in English Class: Doing Personal Narratives Differently


I used to start every semester off with a brief unit on personal narratives. We would read short pieces and excerpts of longer narratives, discussing important themes and moves the writers made in telling their stories, and the unit would ultimately culminate in students writing their own personal narratives. I abandoned this a few years ago, when semester after semester I received flat, lifeless writing that failed to capture anything other than student compliance. I wanted to learn about my students—who they were, what had shaped them, where they wanted to go in life—but I wasn’t getting much depth or substance. It seemed that nothing I did changed the outcome, so I sat personal narratives aside and moved on to other things.

Reading the March issue of the English Journal, I came across the idea of sociological imagination in Shekema Silveri’s “The Courage to See Clearly.” Silveri sites sociologist C. Wright Mills in explaining the concept of sociological imagination as what “enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.” Essentially, sociological imagination affords us the ability to understand how we are shaped by the world and how we, in turn, shape the world. Silveri’s article discusses utilizing literature and writing to expand sociological imagination; her ideas intrigued me, and I wanted to educate myself further on sociological imagination, so I took to the internet and stumbled upon the sociological autobiography.

The purpose of a sociological autobiography is to tell your life story (or a portion of it) while also investigating your “politics of location.” In other words, you critically consider what agents of socialization have influenced you and how: how has being male, female, middle class, economically disadvantaged, aboriginal, white, black, a “visible” minority, able-bodied, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, gay, transgendered, anglophone, francophone, Catholic, Buddhist, Atheist, Southern, Appalachian, fat, thin, geeky, popular, etc. affected your life? How have your life experiences influenced the way you think about these issues?

In a nutshell, the sociological autobiography is a personal narrative with a very specific and important agenda in exploring how the world around us shapes our identities, but also how our experiences shape our perspectives on these identities, as well as how various identities affect our experiences in the world. I love this so completely because this kind of thinking and writing and reading opens us up in so many ways. Not only are we considering all the different identities we associate ourselves with (and the ones others associate with us) and how these influence the ways in which we navigate (and are restricted from navigating) the world, but we are also exposed to others’ differences and become more aware of social issues associated with various identities. This, paired with literature by authors like Rudolfo Anaya, Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Julia Alvarez, Angie Thomas, etc., as well as a handful of deliberately chosen nonfiction texts, would result in culturally relevant and deeply meaningful writing and conversations.

I know I’m not offering a fully formed assignment or activity your can take into your classroom straightaway, but I am offering you something new to look into—a meaningful alternative to an otherwise empty assignment. This idea is still so new to me, I’m not entirely sure how I will use this in my classroom, but I do plan on developing a unit around the sociological autobiography for the Fall. Perhaps you have ideas about the perfect texts to pair or supporting activities to go along with the writing—if so, I would love for you to share with us!

WVCTE is wondering what new ideas have you come across to bring into your classroom! Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Sarah Krause teaches Honors Sophomore English and Dual-Credit Senior English at Hurricane High School. Beginning her career as a full-time instructor for Marshall University, Sarah is completing her fifth year in public education. If she is not in the classroom, grading papers, or conducting research, Sarah enjoys working on developing her professional website and blog at You can also follow her on Twitter @teachtwdchange.

Sketchnoting: Expanding Student Choice

I’m constantly consuming professional literature and find myself in a perpetually reflective/revisionary state regarding my curriculum and practices. I remain haunted by one of my more recent intellectual feasts, EMPOWER: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning, by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani (read more about it here). While I’ve been a PBL convert for a couple of years now and found Spencer and Juliani more or less preaching to the proverbial choir, the authors posed one question in particular that I just can’t shake: What decisions am I making for my students that they could make for themselves?


This question has lead me to make changes to both the elements and processes of my passion project (and will likely continue to do so), but it has also sent me on a hunt for more ways to make my classroom adjustable and flexible and to provide students with even more choice.

Enter sketchnoting.


I might be a little behind the curve on this one, but I had never before heard about sketchnoting until a colleague recently passed on an article about it, thinking it would be “right up my alley.” I was instantly intrigued and took to the internet to find more. Someone on the Twittersphere pointed me in the direction of Tanny McGregor, who, catching the tweet, sent me a link to the first chapter of her text Ink & Ideas, which you can find here. I would highly recommend McGregor’s text if you’re completely new to the idea, as she does a splendid job of breaking down sketchnoting into different design elements to consider: lettering and fonts, connectors and arrows, frames, bullets, faces and figures, word pictures and symbols, colors, placement, etc. McGregor also provides a variety of ways to introduce sketchnoting and use it in your classroom—she even provides a handful of templates if you prefer a little extra guidance getting started. In the spirit of sketchnoting, I even tried my hand at the process while reading McGregor’s text:



Sketchnoting doesn’t necessarily have to include pictures and drawings, though. If you or your students are like me, you may be more comfortable with a more text-heavy approach to note-taking—you can still sketchnote! Check out this brief video where Doug Neill demonstrates a no-drawing approach to visual note-taking.


Finally, if you’d like to see examples of sketchnoting, check out this TED blog post for examples of sketchnotes done while watching TED talks (something you can do with your students to introduce and practice the concept!).


I firmly believe that note-taking is essential to learning—to thinking, connecting, synthesizing, and even creating—and I always will. But just as there is no single writing process that works for all writers, there is no single note-taking strategy that works for all thinkers. Sketchnoting is simply one more tool I can offer my students; it is their choice to either place it in their toolbox or set it aside for something else they find works better. While I will always require students to utilize a note-taking strategy in reading and research, moving forward I will equip them with a variety of strategies—including sketchnoting!–in an effort to emphasize student choice and create a more flexible and adjustable classroom.


WVCTE is wondering what changes can you make to create a more flexible and adjustable classroom! Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Sarah Krause teaches Honors Sophomore English and Dual-Credit Senior English at Hurricane High School. Beginning her career as a full-time instructor for Marshall University, Sarah is entering her fifth year in public education. If she is not in the classroom, grading papers, or conducting research, Sarah enjoys working on developing her professional website and blog at You can also follow her on Twitter @teachtwdchange.


SURVIVOR Citation Island: How to Host an MLA Game Show


Easing into March, we’re rounding the corner on research time (at least in my department). While research has become the most enjoyable part of my curriculum since launching the passion project, most of my colleagues seem to dread the research portion of their curriculum, finding it downright painful and cumbersome, with one of the more tedious components being citations.

For years, I struggled with how to effectively teach students how to correctly compile a works cited page and properly format in-text citations. I used to do worksheets and quizzes—the age-old drill-and-kill method—hoping at least some of it would stick, resigning myself to the fact that there are some parts of curriculum you just can’t make fun or interesting or engaging. In a word, it was pretty much awful.

Then one day I thought, why can’t it be fun? HOW can it be fun?? What if it was a game?!

I know this is probably pretty hokey, but I grew up watching the game show Survivor—I loved it. I loved the division of “tribes” and the puzzle challenges and the mix of group and independent competition. So I decided I would create a game to practice MLA citation, and I would model it off of Survivor.

Let me set the scene a little.

The board is decorated in enormous colorful letters, spelling out, “SURVIVOR: Citation Island.” The deep rhythmic drum of tribal music fills the room as the Survivor theme song blares from the speakers. Desks are arranged in groups of four or five, ready for tribe members to take their places. Students walk in with a mix of confused/curious/amused/weirded-out looks on their faces. And I, their Jeff Probst stand-in, await their arrival.

I ask the castaways (I go all out with the terminology and even try to dress like Probst) to gather at the front of the classroom. I explain that they have found themselves contestants on the new game show “SURVIVOR: Citation Island” and will be divided into tribes to compete for a grand prize. Before explaining the competition, I split them into tribes. One by one, they come up and draw their buffs (different colored hairbands in a paper bag) and join their tribes. After each student has been sorted into a tribe, I give them about five minutes to come up with a tribe name—some get pretty creative and some stick with the color of their hairbands. I write the names of each tribe on the board for the purposes of keeping score and begin to explain the first challenge.

Challenge One: The Works Cited Entry

The first challenge has three rounds (though you could do as many as you’d like). Each round focuses on a different type of source; I typically do the three most common ones my students use: a novel, a scholarly article, and a website. For each round, tribes receive a plastic baggy with a works cited citation cut up into slips of paper (i.e. “Title: The Hobbit” or “Place of Publication: Chicago”). I label each piece of information, but I do not include the punctuation or even italicize titles or use quotation marks—part of the challenge is being able to do all that correctly on their own. No one is allowed to open the baggy until all tribes have received one and the game show host shouts, “GO!” Using a quick guide cheat sheet, the first thing the tribe must do is look at the pieces and determine what kind of source they are working with, then they have to write out the works cited entry ABSOLUTELY CORRECT. One person in each tribe is responsible for this task, and once a tribe believes they have it written out correctly, they throw up their hands and the host goes to check their answers. I always stress to the other tribes to keep working, as this tribe may not have it written correctly. I check the tribe’s attempt against my answer sheet and if even one punctuation mark is incorrect, I’ll tell them they don’t have it and to try again. The renewed fury and speed with which every student in the classroom bends over those strips of paper is both amusing and intoxicating—they are all caught up in the rush of competition. Each attempt has to be a newly written entry, as it’s too difficult to read around all the scribbles and poor attempts at erasing mistakes. The first tribe to have a completely correct citation gets the point for the round, the pieces are collected, and round two is distributed. Typically, I start off with the easiest source and progress to the more complex.

Once we make it through the three rounds of the first challenge, we move to the second (and final) challenge.

Challenge Two: The Parenthetical Citation

For the second component of the game, each tribe must select one tribe member to come up to the front of the room to complete a challenge. I have arranged a row of desks at the front of the classroom and on each desk is a sealed envelope. Once the elected member of each tribe takes their seat, they are instructed to open the envelope and reveal the challenge. Out falls a small pile of puzzle pieces (I find these at Hobby Lobby and typically get circles to complicate the challenge a bit more). On each puzzle is written the same excerpt from an essay, utilizing a quote, but the parenthetical citation is empty. Below the excerpt is the necessary works cited entry. The tribe member must work entirely alone to assemble the jigsaw puzzle; his/her team can cheer them on, but they cannot help them in any way (to do so means immediate disqualification). Once the tribe member has the puzzle together (and you will laugh until your cheeks hurt at the hilarity of how difficult a 24 piece jigsaw puzzle apparently becomes when under pressure) his/her tibe-mates can race up to join them and solve the empty parenthetical citation. The first team to accomplish this correctly is awarded the points for the puzzle round.

For prizes, I give out candy—because who doesn’t love that?! The winning tribe members each get a little baggy with several pieces in it, but everyone gets two pieces for playing along and having fun.

I teach ninety-minute blocks, and it usually takes up my entire class period doing three rounds of the first challenge, followed by the puzzle round. This is ALWAYS, without fail, a tremendous hit in my classes, and it definitely goes a long way toward altering their attitudes about MLA citation. I hope you try it out and have a little fun–let me know how it goes!

WVCTE is wondering what new twists you put on an “old trick” to get your students engaged! Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Sarah Krause teaches Honors Sophomore English and Dual-Credit Senior English at Hurricane High School. Beginning her career as a full-time instructor for Marshall University, Sarah is entering her fifth year in public education. If she is not in the classroom, grading papers, or conducting research, Sarah enjoys working on developing her professional website and blog at You can also follow her on Twitter @teachtwdchange.

A New (and Exciting!) Way to do Shakespeare

I know I should probably keep this a secret, but I hate teaching Shakespeare. I visibly cringe (and occasionally twitch) when that part of the semester rolls around. I can hear the eyes rolling before I can even completely get the name Shakespeare off my tongue (and, yes, when 28 sets of eyes all roll simultaneously it’s as audible as gravel grinding against asphalt). And, if I’m honest, I’m holding back my own eye roll, as I pass out the tired and worn out materials of the same-old-same-old and prepare for the halting, robotic voices that stumble and stall out over Shakespeare’s unfamiliar language.

Now, though, things are different.

Last Spring, I attended the WV ELA Conference at WVU, hosted by WVCTE and NWP. There, I had the great pleasure of meeting Corinne Viglietta of Folger Shakespeare Library and participating in two of her sessions. I almost didn’t go to the breakout session, because “Ew. Shakespeare. Amiright?!”–BUT! I did. And sweet bard and butter, I’m glad I did! Because guess what? My kids had FUN with Shakespeare–and so did I.

After the conference, I quickly secured a teacher membership with Folger Shakespeare Library (which came with an awesome t-shirt, by the way!) and began scouring Forsooth, the IN-CRED-I-BLE teacher resource/community addition to the Folger Library, for all things Macbeth. I did a complete overhaul of my unit, Folger Ed style.

Day one of the unit, I would normally torture students with a day of Charlie Brown teachering about good ole’ Billy Shakes, the Globe, iambic pentameter, and yada-yada-yada–you get the picture: glazed eyes, bodies so slouched and low you’d swear they were melting, drool pooling in the corners of mouths–the whole shebang. This time, things went a bit differently.

I began by counting students off by three, separating them into smaller groups. Each student got a card with a word from one of Shakespeare’s works (I have a list if you want them!), and each group got a ball. The idea was simple: the first person says their word out loud, tosses the ball to another person in the circle who says their word out loud before tossing the ball to yet another group member, repeat. I let them do this long enough that most people had spoken their words a handful of times. Then, I asked them to continue the same process, but this time when they say the word, they may say it in a rage, seductively, or as a question or in confusion. Some of them got pretty animated–especially with the rage option. But I saw them having fun and enjoying the language, even though they may not have realized it. We talked about how the activity felt (which ranged from cathartic to weird to silly to fun) and where we thought these words might come from–someone in each class guessed Shakespeare.

We then shifted from language to looking at style and meaning in Shakespeare’s writing with an activity shared with us at the conference by Brain Sztabnik. I reviewed the elements of a sonnet with students and divided them up–boys against girls for a bit of friendly competition. Both groups received a copy of Sonnet 116 cut into its fourteen separate lines. Working together and using the notes on the board about sonnets and their own abilities to create meaning from texts, each group had to reassemble the sonnet. Whichever group got it correct first, won.

And boy, was competition fierce. The boys huddled together and moved with urgency, arguing over inferences and theories informing decisions on line order. The girls worked in hushed whispers, but listened and communicated well with one another. It was interesting to see the different approaches, but it was awesome to see all students eager and involved. In my second block, the girls won, leading the boys to call for a rematch. But in fourth block, the boys kept neck and neck with the girls and pushed ahead for the win right at the end. We talked through each quatrain, making meaning from what another student said might as well be a foreign language. When the bell rang dismissing class, they left full of energy and excitement, talking about Shakespeare!

The next day, we began class by putting on brief performances with two-line scenes, a great resource available through Forsooth. Each student was given a slip of paper with a line from Macbeth on it; after pairing up, they make a mini scene using only the lines they were given. I had all the desks arranged in a large circle, and each group would enter the ring to perform their scenes, many of which were hilarious, and would exit the ring to the sound of thunderous applause. We followed this up by a very animated 20-minute Macbeth (also a Folger activity!) before moving into the first Act. When it came time to assign roles, students were jumping at the opportunity to participate.

Just two days in, I was so excited and energized by what I had seen so far, and I could not wait to move through this play with those kids. I think the most successful element that ties all these activities together is the mentality of “safety in numbers”–what I mean is this: no one was alone. No one had to stand in the middle and be the only person performing; everything was done with a partner or the occasional trio. It was a risk to perform in front of everyone, but it was a shared risk. Everyone was goofy, everyone laughed, and with everyone in on the joke, no one felt highly self-conscientious. And wasn’t that what Shakespeare’s plays were intended for–entertainment?

Over the next several weeks, we moved through the play with a variety of incredibly engaging activities and, as a culminating group project, students had to put on their own production of a scene. They had to turn the play into a script, make notes about scenery and tone and character positions, entrances, exits, costume, props, etc. They cut lines, and in some places added them. The ultimate goal was to perform the finished product for the class, and several groups chose to film their performance rather than perform live (which actually lead to some pretty sick effects being applied–kids are editing geniuses these days). I was overwhelmingly impressed and entertained by each and every group performance. Not a single one was “just meh.” And we had fun. All of us. We were all engaged from the first day to the last, and when we were finished, they had a better understanding of the play than any other group I have ever done this play with.

So, long story short, I don’t hate teaching Shakespeare anymore. In fact, it’s something I very much look forward to. If you have the pleasure and good fortune to be attending the conference this March, the Folger sessions are an absolute must. I promise it will change your teacher life.

Expanding Agency and Inquiry in the Classroom

I posted previously sharing some of the incredible work my students have been doing with the Passion Project, and the presentations they shared before the winter break have had me doing some serious thinking about what more this project could be in my classroom. And it’s not just because of the quality of work my students put forth (which is, undoubtedly, the best work any individual student produces in a semester); it’s what it has done to the sense of community in my classroom.

As I wrote in the most recent blog post on my site, Evolutionizing Education, I changed a lot about my teaching this semester; with a heavier emphasis on the Passion Project, I wanted to carry that sense of freedom and dialogue over to other parts of the curriculum. I talked a lot more with these kids—not just on an academic level, but on a personal one—and, more importantly, I listened even more than I talked. I made my classroom a safe place to discuss, to challenge, to consider, explore, debate, divulge. And in simply being more real with my students, I opened the door for them to be more real with me, without even realizing I had done that. Several of these kids have bared their souls in these projects—something I have never before experienced and truly never expected to. The Passion Project is responsible for this—I would have never gotten to know and love them as I do had it not been for this project. The nature of the Passion Project opens up pathways and topics of discussion that otherwise would be left undisturbed. And it creates, out of pure necessity, an atmosphere of trust and respect and openness—and it is amazing what those things can do to the relationship between teacher and pupil. I feel honored and humbled by what each of these kids brought to the table this semester, and I am going to miss them moving forward. But I suppose in the end that’s what I’m meant to do: empower them to move forward, leaving me behind. How bittersweet that duty.

Beyond sharing their completed projects, I also asked them to think about the process and journey of the project itself—what worked best and what more they needed or wanted out of the project and out of me as a facilitator. Surprisingly, I received incredibly thoughtful and reflective comments from just about everyone, and there were definite patterns in their responses. The most repeated suggestion throughout presentation week (and, really, on and off throughout the whole semester) was the desire to have the same kind of freedom and control over other work in the course. This has stuck with me the past weeks and has had me thinking, “Why not?!”

Doing what I normally do, I rolled up my sleeves and set out to find resources that dove deeper into project-based learning and inquiry in the classroom. I have several texts still yet to work through, but I’ve found one in particular that is going to evolutionize what I do next semester: Liz Prather’s Project-Based Writing. Prather’s process closely resembles the framework of the Passion Project, but her focus is on writing projects. Prather offers a variety of activities to move students toward discovering an idea, creating a bank of possible writing material they can refer back to and expand on over the semester. After settling on an idea, students begin to frame the work they will set out to do, developing a pitch and proposal. While students work independently on their projects, there is a great deal of sharing and feedback that happens within the writing community of the classroom. After receiving approval of the class, students move forward with planning, developing specific project goals and outlining a project schedule, which they revisit daily, documenting the work they actually accomplished. Then they begin doing the real work—individual “studio time” writing and developing their piece, researching and building a project library, conferencing regularly with the teacher.

Midway through the process, they share an “inquiry draft” with the whole class, accompanied by questions for readers the writer evolved from their project goals. The writer uses this extensive feedback to revise and further develop their project. Students compose a project reflection to accompany the final product, as well as design an individual evaluation form (again, revisiting the goals and inquiry draft questions) which they will use to self-assess, classmates will use to complete a community score, and the teacher will use in determining the effectiveness of the product. Finally, working off the feedback they received at this stage, they make any final adjustments to the final product and look for a way to share it beyond the walls of the classroom (Prather provides multiple avenues for this, as well).

Prather’s text is chock-full of materials and resources to utilize, and the process is one that is easily and practically carried out in any classroom—even easily adaptable, if you only want to try it out as a mini-unit to dip your toes in the waters of project-based learning. Between what I’ve garnered from her text and from my students’ honest reflections, I will be making additional changes to the Passion Project before relaunching in Spring semester. But, even more than that, I am committing to launching my entire course utilizing project-based curriculum. I asked my students what they wanted, and I’m listening. I’m ushering in a new era of expanded agency in my classroom, with a keen focus on inquiry. I am excited, though admittedly a tad nervous, to see what my students will do with this newfound freedom to direct the course of their own education in full and not just in part.

WVCTE is wondering what changes have you made (or want to make) in your classroom to enhance student agency! Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Sarah Krause teaches Honors Sophomore English and Dual-Credit Senior English at Hurricane High School. Beginning her career as a full-time instructor for Marshall University, Sarah is entering her fifth year in public education. If she is not in the classroom, grading papers, or conducting research, Sarah enjoys working on developing her professional website and blog at You can also follow her on Twitter @teachtwdchange.