If I Could Turn Back Time: End of Year Time Capsule Activity

Image Credit Amanda Perez

I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m fairly certain it is not a train.  

As we are coming to the end of one of the longest school-years ever, and as life is beginning to look marginally more normal, we are eager to truly return to normal. Our students are anxious to turn off their chromebooks and throw away their masks, and frankly so are we. As we close the e-books and sign off of our Zoom meetings, it is a good time to reflect.  

How has your world changed? How are you a different person in May of 2021 than you were in March of 2020? How would your students answer that same question? 

hands with latex gloves holding a globe with a face mask
Photo by Anna Shivets on Pexels.com

I don’t know about you, but on top of all of these weird emotions, my teacher brain is shutting down after a year and a half of working on full speed. Here is an end of the year that I developed (inspired by one of my teaching buddies who helped me brainstorm last week). I hope it helps you and your students reflect. 

First, as a short writing activity, I had my students use the website futureme.org to send a letter to themselves in the future. I wrote one too. I did not require my students submit the actual letter to me, but just asked that the screenshot of their confirmation e-mail to ensure that they completed it. Additionally, I recommend that students use a personal e-mail, rather than a school e-mail so that they will have access to it after they graduate or if they changed schools. Below are my directions:  

Step 1: Letter to the Future 

Write a letter to yourself using the website futureme.org https://www.futureme.org/letters/new . Make sure to use a personal e-mail, rather than your school e-mail address to ensure that you will receive the e-mail later. I suggest that you choose to receive the letter in 5 years, or to receive it in May of the year you graduate.  

Ideas on What to Write:  

  • Goals for the rest of high school/plans after graduation. 
  • What is going on in your life right now.  
  • Something you are proud of that has happened recently. 
  • Something you fear happening or that has happened recently. 
  • What is going on in the world right now and what you think about it. 
  • Your current interests or favorite things.  
  • Read these public letters to get some ideas (don’t worry, yours will not be public unless you choose to make it so when you submit it). 

Step 2: Covid Time Capsule 

I gave my students the option to create a physical or a virtual time capsule to remember this time. I’ve also been asking “What would you put in a pandemic time capsule” while interviewing students for a scholarship.  The reflection and insight that they have given me has been powerful. Although a time capsule assignment could be a great way to end any year, it feels especially meaningful considering the covid-world we are living through. In short, the students choose 5 significant items, create a container, and write about the items. My directions for the assignment are posted below: 

It has certainly been an unusual year and a half.  Not only have you made it through your sophomore year, but you’ve lived through a pandemic. You’re probably tired of hearing this, but you are living through history right now. Though there are probably a lot of things you want to leave behind you after this year, I want you to consider what you will remember.  

Museums have already started considering what we will save to remember this time. Read this article about what museums are already thinking about to remember this time. 

Part 1: Photo collage (This will count as the first of your 5 items). 

Look through the pictures on your phone between March 13 2020 and now. Select 6-10 pictures that describe your year. They can be personal pictures, or ones that give a sense of the weird world we have lived in for the past year. 

Part 2: Design a unique container for your time capsule.  

There should be a symbolic purpose behind its design. This could be as simple as decorating a box, or as complex as finding/creating a unique container that shows something about you, or about your year. 

Part 3: Select items 

Select 4 more items that best describe the last year/year and half of your life. The items can relate to personal falls and triumphs, or to global events.  

***If you cannot physically place the item in the time capsule because of its size, or because you will need it, you may take a photo of it.  

Step 4: Write about the items.  

You must write a description of at least 200 words for EACH ITEM. Explain what the item is and why you chose it. Explain how it exemplifies your experience. 

I hope that you can use this time to reflect along with your students. Teacher, we are almost there. May you find rest in the days ahead as we look to a future better than the year we leave behind. 

Jeni Kisner is the secretary of WVCTE and was previously a bimonthly blogger on the best practices blog. Jeni teaches10 Honors English, and English 10 at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. This is her 9th year of teaching, and her first year as a Mom. Jeni enjoys reading and listening to books, crafting, and spending time with her husband, daughter, and dog. She has an unhealthy obsession with T-rexes, unicorns, and buying far too many books.

Distance Learning & Rumbling with Discomfort

I’ve been thinking a lot about something my maw-maw used to say.

These near five weeks of social distancing and wobbly online learning have reminded me of how I sometimes felt as a new mom—that overwhelming frustration and resignation when the baby would whine and cry and fuss without end.

If we were having a day like this, my new baby squirming out of my arms in supreme dissatisfaction, Maw-maw would nudge me, in the way only a grandmother can and say, “Well honey, how do you feel when you’re tired or hungry? You’re not very happy either.”

By Karla Hilliard

I’ve been thinking a lot about something my maw-maw used to say. 

These five-going-on-six weeks of social distancing and wobbly online learning have reminded me of how I sometimes felt as a new mom—the overwhelming frustration and resignation when the baby would whine, cry, and fuss without end. 

If we were having a day like this, my new baby squirming out of my arms in supreme dissatisfaction, Maw-maw would nudge me, in the way only a grandmother can and say, “Well honey, how do you feel when you’re tired or hungry? You’re not very happy either.” 

I’m not here to talk about the heroic acts of teachers. You already know. I’d bet that you’re doing some heroic deeds yourself. 

I’m here to talk about squirming in supreme discomfort. 

Before we go any further, I’ve got to tell you that I’m a big fan of Dr. Brené Brown, whose work has informed some of my reflections in this post. She has a new podcast out called Unlocking Us and on the first episode Brené talks about something she calls FFTs or F-ing First Times. As a social scientist who studies emotions, Brené always seems to capture the really messy stuff in a clear, “I feel seen” way. In short, the FFT is about fear of the first times and the vulnerability that follows and is required to become braver. Listen to this brilliant first episode and then go here to read Brené’s encouraging follow up where she talks about teaching, distance learning, and parenting. 

And while my timelines and inbox have blown up with advertisements for free digital teaching resources, newly unlocked features, virtual tours and tutorials, and offers to “enhance” my teaching, and while I appreciate all that is now suddenly free and available, I have found myself squirming. Or, to borrow Brené’s language, “rumbling.” 

In a single day, I’ll feel like I’ve nailed distance learning and created authentic opportunities for students to enrich their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, but also possibly completely failed. 

I’ll feel connected to my students, colleagues, and friends, and at once feel totally alone. I’ll look at my children and think, “man, somebody ought to name me Mother of the Year” and throw a bouquet of flowers at me, and the next moment wring my hands over all of the many ways I am probably screwing them up for good. I’ll go on a five mile walk today and take up residence as a near permanent feature on the couch tomorrow. I’ll have brussel sprouts for dinner and chocolate cake for breakfast. The quarantine pendulum swings. 

And I’ve accepted it. I am rumbling with the discomfort, and I am seeking, always, the ordinary moments that make life joyful and meaningful.   

Teaching during a global pandemic is unprecedented and revealing, and the conversations happening as a result are difficult, uncomfortable, and necessary. They are issues we must face and rumble with. Perhaps you, too, have recently stumbled your way through frustration, resignation, fear, anxiety, acceptance, meaning, and even gratitude. Or perhaps you’re like me and you run the emotional gamut daily. 

Like Adrin, I’m learning. The past five weeks of parenting and teaching and living have forced me to do some internal work. And I am the most called by the following: 

  • Effective teaching is not a hustle, and comparison and perfectionism are unhealthy and unproductive.
  • Dr. Adam Jordan said what we’re doing isn’t distance learning; it’s “triage teaching” and I think he’s right. 
  • Distance learning shines a light on inequity that has always been there, and, if we were looking the other way, we cannot continue to do so. We cannot back-burner the conversation and treat equity as a one and done, plug and play PD. 
  • Teaching is hard and important, but so is every other job, and this pandemic has crystallized that.
  • Connection and community make us whole. 
  • We can’t expect students to behave, work, participate, communicate, and learn as if things are normal. Nothing is normal right now. 

There’s more, but the list above represents the endless loop of internal dialogue challenging me, asking me to rumble with discomfort, and helping me to find a path forward with more compassion and perspective.

It gets me thinking about my maw-maw and her question that would gently nudge me out of my own frustration and discomfort, “How do you feel when…?” 

WVCTE is wondering how you’re doing…how are you feeling? What are you rumbling with? Now more than ever, we are one another’s greatest resource.

Speaking of, if you have an idea for a post, a great activity or no fail lesson, if you have words of wisdom or a reflection you’d like to send into the world, drop us a line by email at wvcte15@gmail.com.

Making it Matter: Out of the Box Activities for the Last Days of the School Year

It is the last week of May. The countdown is on the board. The kids are restless, the teachers are tired. How do we still make these last days meaningful?

My traditional end of year burn-out started early this year as result of the craziness that was the 2017-2018 school year (Remember? The eclipse in August, the WV Work Stoppage in February, A random snow storm in March, a shortened spring break in April). On May 1st, I really didn’t know how I’d make it to June 6th (the last day for students in our county). I was tired of my students, tired of grading, tired of going to work every morning.

In mid-May, my school family was affected by a horrible accident that resulted in the death of one of our students, a senior, a week before he was set to graduate. It was the worst week of my career. I cried with my students, I comforted them, and they comforted me. It is a loss that we won’t soon recover from.

This tragedy reminded me to make the most of my time with my students. I was reminded of the brevity of life, and the significance of my calling. The Sunday after the memorial service for our student, I posted the following on twitter:

Our job matters so very much, even in these last days of the school year. I made it my goal to have as much fun as possible with my kids as we finished up the year.


Are you also singing the Can’t-Wait-for-Summer Burnt-out Counting-Down-the-Days blues? Here are a few of the things I’ve used to get my kids out of their desk and into a book:

  1. Play with Chalk—Character Body Maps

“Can we have class outside? PLEASE!!??”

We’ve all heard it before. Sometimes, on a glorious pre-summer May day, you just have to give in. And, sometimes, even in high school, we need to channel our inner 7-year-old.

For this activity, I assign each group (2-3 students) a significant character from the novel we’re studying. Then, I have students trace one of their group members on the sidewalk in a position that demonstrates something significant about the character. For example, for Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, a student might curl their arm to show his presumed strength. Or, for Jordan, they might swing a golf club.

In the body outlines, students write 3 adjectives that personify the character (for Tom: selfish, arrogant, brutish). They then choose 3 significant quotes said by/about the character. They also are instructed to include at least one object that symbolizes the character (for Gatsby: a dollar bill, perhaps).


I’ve also done this activity with black butcher paper and chalk inside, and it is always a fun way to get out of our normal groove.


  1. Musical Chairs Theme Analysis (AKA play with Expo Markers and Post-It Notes)

“Don’t write on the desk. That is destruction of school property.” I’ve said that before. But, does this rule need to apply to dry erase markers? Nope!

For a while, I’ve seen teachers on social-media writing on desks, or having students write on desk. I figured, why not? It’ll wash off. My students were beyond excited to draw on the desk (and they are in 11th grade).

For this activity, we were discussing big ideas in Gatsby. Before class began, I wrote many big ideas on students’ desks: society, compassion, deceit, love, American Dream, wealth, poverty, dissatisfaction, achievement, isolation, fate, greatness, beauty, success, memory, time, loyalty, truth, morality, class, greed, and opulence. When students entered, they had to sit at a desk that had a word on it (it did not have to be their normal assigned seat). I then gave each student 6 post-its.

At their first word, students used their phone to look up a dictionary definition of the word. Then, I had students stand up with their post-its, a pen, and their books. Students had to dance (or walk) around the room to 20s music, and when it stopped, they had to sit at the word closest to them.

At this point, they had 1 of 3 options: Write a quote that exemplified the idea, write an example from the text that showed the idea, or list 6-7 words that they associated with the idea. We did this several more times until students had been to at least 4 of the big ideas.

One last time, we played “musical chairs”. At this last stop, students had to create a theme claim statement about the big idea (What was Fitzgerald saying about ______). They could reference the post-it notes left by their peers to do so. Here, I supplied them with Expo markers to write their statements on their desks.


A simple activity, but a great way to do something out of the box. Side note: Clorox wipes do the trick of cleaning up this messy activity.

Extra extension: I generally have students turn these into definition poems for significant characters. Check out the activity here.


  1. Mind Map Character Analysis:

This is not a complicated activity, and truthfully, I probably originally saw it somewhere in the Twitter-universe, but I don’t remember where.

Like the body maps, this is an artsy way to discuss character development, especially for characters that are very different than the rest of their society.

For this, I provided my students with a blank head outline with a line dividing it down the middle. On the left side, they wrote 2-3 quotes that demonstrated the character’s personality, goals, or other character traits. They also included 2-3 objects that demonstrated significant aspects of the character.

The right side is focused on the character’s society. Here, they also include 2-3 quotes and 2-3 images. However, in this case they are demonstrating what is “expected” of the character. What is “normal” or “traditional” in this character’s society.

For my students, this served as a quick analysis of character vs society in Anthem.

So, as we count down the days until we can turn off our alarm clocks, and read books for fun, let’s make the most of the time that we have.

Think about an activity you do normally, and find a twist. Play with chalk, or expo markers, or even Play-Doh. Find something that is fun for you, and fun for the kids.

Most importantly, lets remind our students how much they are loved. After all, that is the most important lesson we can ever teach.

What are some of the things you are doing to make learning meaningful in these last days? What are out of the box activities that have worked successfully for you? Leave us a comment, tweet @WVCTE or connect with us on Facebook!


Jeni Gearhart teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all six years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books. 

Look at Me Lines

By Jessica Salfia

On April 20-21, 2018 WVCTE co-hosted along with NWP@WVU our first annual WVELA conference. This event featured some incredible teachers, speakers, presenters, and writers who inspired the ELA teachers of West Virginia all weekend. (And don’t worry–a blog post laden with ALL the #WVELA18 reflections and feels is cooking as we speak. Look for it next week).

Among the brilliant writers who shared their work with us at this conference was Robert Gipe. Gipe is the director of the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College in Cumberland, Kentucky, and is the author of Trampoline and Weedeater. I have written about Trampoline on this blog before.  You can find that post here.

Both Trampoline and Weedeater are illustrated novels, and Gipe treated the crowd to a reading from both works and a discussion of his writing process. During the Q&A portion of his presentation a teacher in the crowd asked him how he decided which lines to illustrate.

He responded:

“When I was a kid and my dad was talking to us, when he got to something real important, he would say ‘look at me.’ That part of the talk was the thing he wanted us to really remember. It was line he really wanted us paying attention to. When I wrote the books, I went through and circled what I thought were the ‘look at me lines’ and then illustrated them so that it was like that character was saying that line right to the reader.” 

I loved this idea–that a writer or character would ask a reader to “look at me” with language. This is also an essential skill that we want our students to possess as writers– to make a reader “look at them” so to speak.  And when a teacher loves an idea, it usually becomes a lesson.

Last week in my creative writing class, we read “All of Us Animals” by Annie Frazier. You can read this story HERE.

I first came across this story on my Twitter feed, and as soon as I read it I loved it and I knew my students would love it, especially my creative writing students.  I had them read the story as writers annotating for structure and writers moves, identifying how Frazier seems to blend fantasy and reality to create the extended metaphor of the girls becoming feral creatures or pack animals.

**Side note: This story also elicited a rich conversation about harassment, the #metoo movement, and when and if it’s “ok” to “hoot and holler” at someone you find attractive.

Then, I asked the students to read read chapter 1 of  Gipe’s Trampoline and specifically to pay attention to which lines get illustrated.  You can read chapter 1 of Trampoline online HERE. 

(Trampoline, pg. 61)

I told them Gipe’s “look at me” story, and we discussed the importance of “look at me lines” in great storytelling.  The students did some small group Socratic discussion regarding the lines Gipe illustrated in Trampoline and which lines they saw as “look at me” lines in chapter 1 that maybe didn’t get illustrated.

Next, I asked the students to go back to Frazier’s story, identify two “look at me lines” and illustrate them.  The goal here was not necessarily to create beautiful illustrations, but to pick out the line from the story that stood up and shouted at the reader–the line that said “look at me.”

Here are some of their choices for “look at me” lines from Annie Frazier’s “All of Us Animals”:

Once they finished their illustrations, the students then shared out which lines from Frazier’s story they thought were the “look at me” lines and why. They had to read the line out loud (even if someone had chosen the same line), and explain their illustration.

The cool part about this was seeing the same line identified several times as a look at me line, but also seeing the wide variety of “look at me lines” the students identified.

Finally, they had to pick one of the lines they identified in Frazier’s story and write a flash fiction story of their own that contained Frazier’s “look at me” line.

This activity created some truly great conversations and generated some terrific writing in from my students.  Let us know if you decide to try “look at me lines” in your classroom!

WVCTE is wondering…

What are some great texts you could use with this lesson? How else could you identify “look at me lines?” 

To Whom It May Concern: Mentor Texts and Persuasive Letter Writing


I love to get a real letter in the mail. It is a special treat when the remainder of the envelopes are either bills or junk mail. In a world of tweets, instant messaging, and terse e-mails, we seem to have lost the art form of letter writing.

In AP language, letters are often a go-to for rhetorical analysis. The 2014 AP Exam included an analysis of Abigail Adams 1780 letter to her son John Quincy Adams. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is considered such a “seminal historical document” that it is in West Virginia’s College and Career Readiness standards as an exemplar text.

Analyzing the SOAPStone (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Subject, Tone) of any letter provides a wealth of opportunities to discuss rhetorical significance. How does the intended audience affect how the writer speaks? What do we learn about the speaker based on what is contained in the letter? What is the occasion? How does the occasion motivate the letter? What is the historical significance of this letter? We can easily spend a full class period digging into one letter.

Analyzing letters is not a novel concept in a high school English class. Writing them, however, is something that we seem to have left behind. This year in my AP Lang class, we did a mini letter writing unit, and I loved the results.

A little background to this unit first. I acquired 60 copies of March Book 1 by John Lewis through a county grant and through a DonorsChoose project. This graphic novel details Georgia State Representative John Lewis’s experiences as a leader in the Civil Rights movement. It is a beautifully illustrated text with an incredibly powerful message about the power of social change, independent thought, and civil action.


After our unit on the book, I asked my students to write thank you letters to John Lewis with the intent of trying to persuade him to skype our class (an unlikely possibility—but you never know unless you try, right?!). A few days later, I collected the letters, and they didn’t wow me. They were boring, and certainly not persuasive. My students were stuck in academic writing and had lost their voice.

Have no Fear — Mentor Text to the Rescue!

For those who are not yet familiar with the work of Allison Marchetti and Rebecca O’Dell, check out their website now. They focus on using mentor pieces (real world writing) to help students to “read like a writer” and therefore become better real-world writers.

I pulled three very different letters for this assignment. With permission, I used a letter to West Virginia legislators written by WVCTE president, Jess Salfia. This was right before the teacher strike, so it was a perfect relevant piece. I also showed them one of my letters, but we primarily used Jess’s as the mentor for this activity. I also pulled Kurt Vonnegut’s inflammatory letter to the Drake School District, “I am Very Real” and “To My Old Master”, an 1865 letter from a former slave, Jourdan Anderson, to his old master. Though these were the three that I chose, there were a plethora of unique letters on the website Letters of Note.

These three letters had three very different purposes. One was persuading for legislative change, one was a fiery argument against censorship, and one was a sarcastic “break up letter” (my students’ words, not mine). All three, though, contained beautiful rhetoric, and many stylistic choices that my students could incorporate into their own writing.

My students annotated each of the letters for homework, and in class we brainstormed a list of things that writers of great letters do.

Writers of powerful letters . . .

  • Start by introducing the writer
  • Provide relevant ethos early in letter. Tell them who you are!
  • Use repetition (anaphora, repeating key phrases)
  • Appeal to authority
  • Use inclusive language
  • Use strong illustrations
  • Use clear evidence (like statistics)
  • Use anecdotes as evidence
  • Use strong emotional appeals throughout
  • Refer back to the audience frequently
  • End with a persuasive “mic drop”

We also discussed how the purposes of the three letters drastically affected their style of writing. Jess’s letter was formal yet impassioned. Because her purpose was to persuade for legislative change, her tone could not be as angry as was Vonnegut’s letter. Anderson’s letter was humorous, which showed a very different rhetorical effect.

After our annotation, discussion, and listing, students used these three letters as mentors to revise their John Lewis Letters.

In a last-minute decision prompted by the political climate of February, I also gave them the option of scrapping their Lewis letter altogether and writing a letter to a West Virginia senator about any subject about which they felt passionate. One student wrote about gun control, another wrote about health standards in schools. And about 1/5 of the students wrote letters about education.

The students’ letters in this second go-round were beautiful. Their voice was present, their rhetoric was persuasive. Because we were writing to a real audience about a subject that they cared about, their letters took on a drastically different tone. My students felt that their writing mattered.

Let me share with you one of my favorite letters (name removed for privacy):

Dear Members within the West Virginia House and Senate,

My name is C. I am a valued student at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. I am a member of various National Honor Societies and volunteer within a few school organizations. As well, you will find me in multiple advanced placement classes and honors courses. Being a student who values the quality of their education –I am incredibly concerned about the state of education here.

I have been born and raised here in West by God Virginia, my family’s roots run deep within her mountains. I have been lucky enough to have attended Hedgesville Schools all my life; a school district that strives to give each student the most enriched experience possible. Much of that statement is due to the teachers that most students have taken for granted. I have never been denied afterschool help, nor have I ever had one lack-luster teacher in my schooling career. I have been lucky enough to have teachers that are not only qualified to teach high school courses, but as well as a college curriculum. Hedgesville, as well as much of Berkeley County, has gone above and beyond in their search for overly qualified teachers to insure we have the best education possible. The care my teachers have given through the years allowed me, a child who comes from a broken home, learn that I am worth so much more and can make something out of myself through the power of knowledge. Teachers go way outside of their job descriptions to insure the quality of life for their students – kids they claim to be their very own. I can attest to this firsthand. Teachers are the unsung heroes. However, much of those teachers I have come to love and appreciate are seeking employment elsewhere. To us students who have relied on these teachers for our education, as well as being our rock when life at home was hard, this news is heartbreaking.

In regard to recent events –I now ask you, the Legislators of this wonderful state, why you choose to jeopardize the quality of education that the future generations of West Virginia are receiving? The generation of students who could possibly be your doctors one day, or even government officials such as you. Why don’t we mean anything to you? Why are we not the priority in your topics and affairs? You obviously have valued your own personal education, so why not ours? Why have you even implemented such ideas that compromise the living of teachers? These are some of the people that matter most in our lives and we are losing them, because of a decision you each have made.

I hope that you can look at this issue at hand more than a political one, and rather assess it based on your own morality and solve it with the goodness of your hearts. As a student of West Virginia, I deserve a well-rounded, quality education –the type of education I have received for the past twelve years of my life.

My teachers, and the rest of the teachers in West Virginia, should be valued. They should be valued much more than 1%. I hope that, you, the Legislators can make this right.


Junior of Hedgesville High School


We teach our students that they should see value in their voices. 2018 has been demonstrating that youth have incredibly powerful voices. I can’t wait to see how they change the world.



 Jeni Gearhart is a member of the WVCTE executive committee. She teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all six years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.