Metaphorically Speaking

Me: “Today we are going to talk about poetry! Who’s excited?”

Every class I’ve ever had: *crickets*

I’m not sure about your students, but mine don’t love poetry.  A few years ago, when we switched to the standards which shall not be named and our focus shifted to informational text, I saw a downward trend in the ability of my students to “attack” a poem.  For a lot of them, even my advanced kids, poetry is challenging and really makes them think.  My students, especially the ones who are used to breezing through with good grades, hate being wrong!  They hate doing work that can be subjective and more open to interpretation.  When the work is more gray than black and white, my students tend to express their vulnerability through negative comments and closing themselves off from peer-to-peer or teacher-to-student interaction.

For years, I’ve taught my students the TP-CASTT method of poetry analysis as one way to attack a poem.  It’s formulaic, but for students who shudder at the mere mention of the word poetry (think of the hyena in The Lion King who shudders at the word “Mufasa”), it provides an icebreaker.


TP-CASTT is an acronym for a method of poetry analysis:

T – Title – Before reading the poem, read the title and consider what the poem might be about.

P – Paraphrase – Put the plot of the poem into your own words.

C – Connotation – Mark the figurative language in the poem.

A – Attitude – Identify the tone(s) within the poem.

S – Shift – Identify any shifts within the poem.

T – Title (again) – Re-examine the title on an interpretive level.

T – Theme – Identify the possible theme(s) of the poem.

For the most part, I can anticipate that students will struggle most with tone and theme when we’re working with poems, but occasionally the figurative language struggle is real!  This has been one of those years.

As my students were working with Plath’s “Mirror,” I realized that a review of simile and metaphor was needed.  While students could rattle off the definitions of the terms, and they could even identify them in the poem, they struggled understanding the metaphor because they were struggling with the context.  When my students came to class the next day, we paused our study of “Mirror” and instead focused just on metaphors through what I like to call an “arts and crafts day.”

As they entered the classroom, each student received a blank piece of printer paper and an index card with a one-line metaphor.  Some of the metaphors I borrowed from other poems or song lyrics: “Hope is the thing with feathers…” and “my heart is a stereo…,” for example.  Others I made up: “Bill is the bacon in my BLT…” and “she is a prime number” were two of my favorites.  My students were challenged to write a poem that included the metaphor and provided context and meaning for it.  Once their poems were drafted, they wrote their final versions on the printer paper and illustrated it to add to the context of the poem.

Xwn770WvQjanv56C54OdMQ        gcQv1pwZRM2ghw4GHmilfQ

9G%Sd+QVRR+K3M1bE7w     xPABCcdvQuGdSwEkUqdrFQ


Once students were asked to create context and meaning for a metaphor, they were able to apply that skill to a reading a “Mirror” and were able to apply metaphor to theme.

I don’t know that I’m ever going to have a classroom full of students who sit and read poetry for fun, but as their knowledge and skills grow and develop, they are less reluctant to interact with a poem.  At the end of the day, I want my classroom to be full of chattering students rather than chirping crickets (metaphorically speaking).


WVCTE is wondering how you engage your students with poetry.  What are the biggest obstacles to understanding and student engagement?  What is your favorite poetry lesson?



Filling My Bucket

By: Toni M. Poling

There is something about the first few days of the month of May that makes me happy.  The air is perfumed with lilac and the books in my classroom windowsills are dappled with sunlight.  If there was a Maypole outside, I wouldn’t be able to resist dancing around it.

There is also something about the first few days of the month of May that makes my blood pressure skyrocket. The days in the school year are numbering fewer and fewer but my “To Do” list continues to grow longer and longer. My calendar resembles the one in the 1-800-Contacts commercial used by the lady who can’t fit in an optometrist appointment because she has to take her cat to the masseuse, though my issue is more likely taking my kid to the orthodontist.


This is the point in the year where my tank is empty, my bucket is empty, even my classroom pencil holder is empty!  Every container I have has a gauge that reads “E,” but my classroom remains full of students and I have to figure out a way to give them what they need.  I have to find a way to fill my bucket.

Let the Students Fill Your Bucket

Recently, I presented at two statewide conferences: ECET2 and the WVCTE conference.  At both conferences, I presented on what I call transparent teaching.  For me, transparent teaching is essentially acknowledging to my students that the “why” and “how” of what I’m teaching and the pedagogy involved deserves an answer.  It’s checking in with my students to make sure I’m meeting their needs.  It’s keeping them in the loop and really listeningto their feedback.

One tenant of the teaching profession I do my best to live by is that teachers should be reflective practitioners.  I consider it part of my job responsibilities to actively reflect on my teaching, learning objectives, and curricular decisions to ensure I am making the best decisions for my students.  It occurred to me some time ago that my students should be involved in those processes as well.  After all, they are an integral component in my classroom equation.

My PLC at school has been focusing this year on 180 Days, the latest collaborative work from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. In the text (which I LOVE), they discuss using book clubs (similar to the literature circles many of us remember from our pasts).  I curated some novel sets, let the students sign up for the novel of their choice, and provided time for discussion.  The groups kept discussion logs and I floated from group to group to sit in and join the conversation.  I loved it! Group discussions around books are some of my favorite things!  At the end of the unit, my students’ culminating assignments were a book review (think Amazon-style) of the novel they selected AND a reflection paper on the book club experience itself.  Admittedly, when it was time to read the reflection papers, I was a little nervous.  I knew the book clubs hadn’t run perfectly and there are definitely changes I will make before I do them again, but I had enjoyed the experience so much that I really wanted to make sure my students had enjoyed it, too.  Even more than that, I needed to know that they had learned during the process.

When I read the reflection papers, I was struck by how insightful my students were.  The papers provided excellent insight in to ways to increase the scholarly conversations that were occurring.  One in particular suggested doing a modified Socratic seminar (a technique we’ve used in class many times) to provide an opportunity for whole class sharing from the small groups:

“I think it would be beneficial to split the discussion time up; for part of the class, allow the people in each group to gather and discuss the book they read and gather their thoughts. For the second part of the discussion period, allow the books to form one circle (similar to the Socratic seminar setup we did for the discussion of Robert Frost’s poems) and give each group a specific amount of time to discuss the novel they read and compare/contrast various aspects of each novel.”  (Emma)

I will definitely be incorporating this in to the next round of book clubs!


Perhaps the most surprising part of the students’ book club reflection papers is the personal notes the kids included.  Some of these personal notes brought tears to my eyes and they all contributed to refilling my bucket.  Some of the comments discussed connections to previous activities:

“During the first book club, I finally realized the fruit of our labor in class when we hadstudent-led discussions. Time and time again [Mrs.] Poling led us in discussions on pieces of literature and during book club I felt as if the training wheels were off and I was doing great. Our discussions were pertinent to today’s society as well as our book, they were intellectual and philosophical conversations in which everyone who was present benefitted.”  (Jacob)

Others were more personal:

“Lastly, thank you for this book club experience, I enjoyed my partner, the book (for themost part it was a little sad), and the discussion time in class.”  (Maleri)

There is no better feeling than when a student acknowledges, recognizes, and appreciates the efforts we put forth in our teaching.

The bottom line is that we all need to acknowledge that sometimes our buckets are low. Sometimes they even feel empty. It’s at those times that we need to find a way to fill our own buckets, take some time for ourselves, so that we can get back to being the types of teacher- leaders our schools and our professions need us to be.

WVCTE is wondering how you fill your bucket at this pointing the year?

Beware the Ides of March: An Open Letter to New Teachers


Beware the Ides of March: An Open Letter to New Teachers


For the past decade or so, I’ve been supervising all of the student teachers in my building, as well as working with first year teachers in my county and department.   My own learning during this process has been invaluable.  One of the many lessons I’ve learned, however, is that October and March are two of the hardest months of teaching.

New teachers and student teachers, I see you.  I see you coming to school early with your tired faces and shuffling feet.  I see you at your desk eating a lunch of whatever is in your refrigerator because you can’t seem to find time to get to the grocery store.  I see you at the end of the day lugging your teacher tote bags full of papers to grade. I see you feeling behind and overwhelmed.  I see you wanting to give up.  I see you. I’d like to offer you a few pieces of advice.


  1. Don’t grade everything.  Students come to us with a wide-range of abilities, but our goal as teachers is the same for every student: meet them where they are and help them get better.  Exploring a topic, taking risks within the safety of our classrooms, and a willingness, an acceptance, of failure are essential components of learning.  Gallagher and Kittle tell us in 180 Daysthat “[g]rading increases the fear of failure and an increased fear of failure reduces the willingness to take chances” (p. 10).

Assessment is an ongoing part of the learning process and that feedback can occur                        in a variety of ways that allows for real-time reteaching in a student’s learning. Not only   does choosing not to grade everything benefit your students, it can also alleviate some of     the pressures on a teacher as well, freeing up some of our limited time to prepare high quality lessons and research new teaching methods to reach our most challenging learners. Not everything produced by our students needs to be reduced to a point value.

  1. Ask for help. Teaching can be a very isolating profession.  Even though there can be a sense of liberation that occurs with the autonomy of having your ownclassroom, there is also a sense of being alone on an island, only instead of hungry sharks swimming in the waters, it’s children who all desperately need your attention with something.  Teachers can feel as if we need to be everything to everyone and when we cannot, we feel like failures.  I’m going to say it again for the people in the back: ask for help!

Our schools are full of people who can help us: administrators, counselors, special educators, librarians, master teachers, etc.  Identify your tribe, your group who will listen, offer suggestions, share resources, and support you in your choices.  Surround yourself with the people who love the work they are doing and ask them to help you get what they have.

  1. Practice self-care. Get your nails done, eat chocolate, get a massage, watch a ballgame, read a good book, or take a nap; do whatever you do to pamper yourself.  Teachers spend all day caring for students and it can be exhausting.  We share in their joys and triumphs; their successes are our   Conversely, we share in their struggles and traumas; their wounds are our woundsYou have to care for yourself before you can effectively care for others.
  1. Establish your priorities. For me, I need to leave on Friday with the next week’s plans written, copies made, and everything laid out in my classroom for Monday.  It makes the weekend and the start of the next week much less stressful!  This allows me to spend the weekend being present with my family.
  1. Just say no. First year teachers can sometimes be asked to take on jobs everyone else no longer wants to do.  Class/club sponsor, yearbook advisor, coach, fund raiser, and many, many more titles can be yours!  All of these extracurricular roles are vitally important to our schools and out students, but they can be overwhelming for a new teacher.  Don’t be afraid to say “no.”  Think of it as prioritizing your responsibilities.  Think of it as practicing self-care.  Think of it as a way to ask for help.  Think of it however you need, but be okay with saying “no.”

Every teacher in every school was once a first-year teacher.  We all survived, and so will you.  It gets better, I promise!  The work we do in our public schools is incredibly hard, but incredibly important. Trust me, it’s worth it.





Disrupting the Literary Canon: Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Disrupting the Literary Canon: Culturally Responsive Pedagogy


  • The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  • Billy Buddby Herman Melville
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


These titles could have been pulled from any high school English reading list; a Who’s Who of dead, educated white males in the literary canon.  In ancient Greek, the term canonmeans “standard” or “measuring rod.”  In modern vernacular, we often use the term canonto mean the best and/or most representative works of a certain kind.  In literature, canonical works are often valued because they provide uniformity in education and scholarship.  When our students graduate and enter higher education, they enter with a common knowledge base of canonical works they’ve all read and studied, works that are supposedly worth our time and intellectual energy to both read and teach.

The truth is, however, that there are several works in the canon that I feel strongly that students should experience before they graduate.  Works like To Kill a Mockingbird, Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, and The Turn of the Screw.  These are works that I value based largely on the criteria used to establish our literary canon:

  1. Aesthetic elements: language and style
  2. Subject matter
  3. Innovation
  4. Authenticity

The titles listed at the beginning of this article are all book I studied in high school.  The only selection I can remember in any detail is Julius Caesarand that’s because I’ve taught it, not because I read it in high school.  When I look at that list from my veteran teacher lens, the problem I see is that there is not one character in those canonical texts who looks like me, talks like me, or offers me a shared experience.  These works have, without question, stood the test of time in terms of their aesthetic elements.  They were, indeed, innovative and authentic for their time(s), but the question I find myself asking now is whether or not the subject matter is such that our modern readers can engagewith the text in a way that allows for the creation of critical connects: text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world.  Can our modern readers study To Kill a Mockingbirdand understand the connection to the current context of race in our society?  Can they relate to the experience of Mayella Ewell and understand that she, too, is a metaphorical mockingbird?  Can they look at Atticus Finch and “climb into his skin and walk around in it”?  Can our students be empowered to be social justice warriors from this novel?  Is this literary work the best way to get my students where I want them to be or am I teaching it only because it’s in the canon?

I’ve spent the past couple of years focusing on building my classroom library with meaningful, impactful, and diverse texts that reflect the students who read them!  A portion of my class every day is dedicated to self-selected independent reading and I want to make sure my students have quality texts to choose.  My current library houses works like:

  • Becomingby Michelle Obama
  • Boy Erasedby Garrard Conley
  • Americanizedby Sara Saedi
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jessmyn Ward
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • Dear Martin by Nic Stone
  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter byErika L. Sanchez
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • Persepolisby Marjane Satrapi
  • The Poet Xby Elizabeth Acevedo
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates


I have also found the value in pairing diverse modern text with more canonical texts.

TKAm                                                                                    THUGTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee                           The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

TCINTR                                                                              BAC                                                    The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger                       Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

            Night                                                                                          BSOG                                 Night by Elie Wiesel                                                    Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

RJ                                                                                            TFINOS

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet                                The Fault in Our Stars by John Green







Building a Classroom Culture of Inquiry

By Toni Poling

In all my years of teachings I have faced no unit more dreaded than the RESEARCH PAPER! In the past, no matter how I’ve presented it or how hard I’ve tried to sell it, it has elicited nothing more than groans, eye rolls, and an exceptional amount of teenage bargaining to do “anything else” in its place.  Last year it reached the point where I was dreading this unit as much as (if not more than) the kids and I knew we all needed a change.


Last year I received a grant to conduct an inquiry project in my classroom around independent reading and its ability to increase reading comprehension, stamina, and fluency.  I spent the summer honing my methodology, data collection/analysis processes, and means of sharing my findings.  I also wanted to be completely transparent with my students regarding the research I was doing and the reasoning behind it.  So, on the first day of class, I introduced the idea of inquiry-based learning.  I explained by own year-long inquiry project, the goals I hoped to achieve, and how I planned to apply my findings to make changes in my teaching.


Since that first day, we’ve approached every unit with inquiry as our focus: What do we know? What do we think we know? What do we hope to find out?  This new approach fits perfectly with my goal to teach transparently and empower students in their own learning.

As the dreaded unit was approaching, I decided to scrap the research topic(s) I had used in the past and instead provide my students the opportunity to inquire about a topic that interests them; my only guideline for topics was that it be related to a social justice issue.  I introduced our new Inquiry Unit (no more using the term “research paper”) by opening up a discussion about the definition of “social justice,” followed by a brainstorming session on social justice issues.  My students FILLED THE BOARD with social justice topics and EVERY student left with a solidified topic idea.  I heard topics around voting rights, vaccinations, poverty, homelessness, quality education, access to clean water, etc.  I did not hear one groan, see one eyeroll, or hear any begging to do “anything else.”


Because they have a genuine interest in their topics, there is a buy-in from my students.   There is a sincere excitement in my classroom and a desire to share all they’ve learned.  We are still in the early research phase of our inquiry project, but the change in attitude from past classes is undeniable.  I guess it’s true: inquiring minds do want to know.


WVCTE is wondering how you foster a classroom climate of inquiry.