Art as Argument

By Jessica Salfia

Understanding visual rhetoric is not just an important part of most AP Language and Composition curriculums, but it is an essential skill our students need as members of society. We are bombarded with images—images intended to persuade and influence us. Our students must be able to identify the arguments and claims in both text and images.

I have been crafting visual analysis lessons and units in my classroom for several years, and I have written about the importance of cultivating visual analysis skills for the WVCTE blog before. You can read that post here.

These lessons have taken the shape of a unit in my AP Lang class called “the Argument for Art” that culminates in trip to the National Gallery of Art and a research analysis essay modeled after the essay “The Capricious Camera” by Laila Ayad. Recently, several teachers have reached out asking about some of these activities, so for today’s post, here is an overview of this unit:

Introduction: Appalachian Studies Unit

My students are introduced to images as argument early in the year in our Appalachian Studies unit. Besides numerous written texts, we study several visual texts that complicate and disrupt the single story of Appalachia. We discuss how the Looking at Appalachia project complicates and disrupt the single story of our region. This project was in reaction to the “war on poverty” photos that have become representative of our region.  Karla Hilliard has written about how she uses Looking at Appalachia in her classroom for the WVCTE blog, and you can read that post here.  We analyze how the photography of Builder Levy complicates the idea that the West Virginia coal fields were populated by a white, homogenous workforce, and we study the Appalshop documentary, Sludge, as a visual essay. We then read the illustrated novel, Trampoline, by Robert Gipe and discuss the way Gipe uses his text and his illustrations to create a complete idea or argument.

After this unit, students are primed for Art as Argument.

Day 1-4 Edward Hopper and Joyce Carol Oates

We begin with a painting by Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942.


Students spend a day analyzing and discussing the painting, and then read the poem Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, 1942 by Joyce Carol Oates. We talk about if we think Oates’ analysis is accurate, and we discuss what visual elements led her to those conclusions. Then, students choose another painting by Hopper, and write a poem using Oates’ poem as a mentor text. This specific lesson is detailed in this blog post with handouts included.

Days 5-8 The Capricious Camera

Next, we read, analyze, and annotate the essay, “The Capricious Camera” by Laila Ayad. In this essay, Ayad analyzes  a black and white photo from World War II captioned, “Mounted Nazi Troops on the Lookout for Likely Polish Children.” See the photo below:

capricious camera

Ayad’s essay is an excellent model for visual analysis, but also for how to use research and source material to support your claims. I start with asking my students “What do you notice about the author’s interpretation of the photo? And what do you notice about how research impacted the analysis?” After discussing in small Socratic groups and as a whole class, I tell the class that this essay will serve as their mentor text for their own analysis of an artwork.

(This essay can be found in the ninth edition of the Bedford Reader, but can be a bit tough to locate online. Here is a PDF copy: capricious_camera_essay copy)

Days 9-13: Bansky Does New York

Next, we look at how art of all kinds, not just photography can function rhetorically by watching and discussing the documentary, Bansky Does New York. This documentary focuses on a 31 day self-proclaimed residency and pop-up project that occurred in and around New York City in October of 2013.

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 1.26.59 PM

From the description:

On October 1, 2013, the elusive British street artist known as Banksy launched a self-proclaimed month-long residency in New York City, posting one unique exhibit a day in an unannounced location, sparking a 31-day scavenger hunt both online and on the streets for Banksy’s work.

Capturing this month of madness, Banksy Does New York incorporates user-generated content, from YouTube videos to Instagram photos, from New Yorkers and Banksy hunters alike, whose responses became part of the work itself, for an exhilarating, detailed account of the uproar created by the mysterious artist.

With installations spanning all five boroughs of New York City, and including a mix of stencil graffiti, sculpture, video and performance art, Banksy touched on such wide-ranging subjects as fast-food wages, animal cruelty in the meat industry, civilian casualties in Iraq and the hypocrisy of the modern art world. Daily News reporter Beth Stebner, who covered Banksy’s residency, was struck by the wide array of people drawn to his work, noting, “You had art students, you had plumbers, you had gallery owners. It just brought New Yorkers out.”

The film is wonderful because of all the art analysis, but also because the focus is how Bansky’s work is functioning rhetorically. In the final moments of the documentary, Banksy’s voice over can be heard saying, “The artist asserts…” We try to hone in on the rhetorical elements of Bansky’s project and what he was arguing with the project.

Day 14: National Gallery of Art

The students are ready now to pick out a piece of art to analyze. I give them this handout which details due dates and expectations for the final paper of this unit:

Art Analysis Paper Task Sheet

I live in a place where we can take a 2hr train ride to D.C. and visit the National Gallery of Art, but this part of the project could easily be done at a local small scale museum or gallery, or even online with a webquest or a digital museum tour.

However, one of the most special days of the year with my students is when we get out of the classroom, and set off to explore the museum together. It’s a great community building and bonding experience, and one of the most memorable parts of the course.

Their goal(s) of the day is to pick a piece of art they see functioning as an argument, but also to have a lot of fun. (And I may have given them the challenge of “find a piece of art that looks like you”. Here are some hilarious kids from this year’s trip.)

Days 15-21 (or longer): The Paper

The final product of this unit is a research essay in which the student analyzes the piece of art they have selected on our trip. Again, The Capricious Camera is their mentor text for this assignment. We take this paper through the whole writing process. The final product is a 4-6 page research essay, and I also use this assignment as an opportunity to shore up my students knowledge of MLA formatting, in-text citations, and embedding figures into a paper.


This unit produces some of the most thoughtful analysis and conversations about rhetoric and language of the year, and definitely produces some of the best student writing I get to score. For most students, this paper is always one they select as one of their best pieces of writing and this unit as one of their favorite assignments when we do end of course evaluations.

Do you use art and visual rhetorical in your classroom? Share with us how!

WVCTE is wondering….

How do you incorporate visual analysis into your ELA curriculum? How does art play a role in how you teach English? Message us and let us know, or share with us on Facebook or Twitter!

Valued and Validated: Making Time for Journaling

Valuing and validating your students’ voices is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Here are four reasons responding to student journals should become part of your teaching practice.

By Adrin Fisher

When I was a girl, I always had a diary. I remember one in particular. It was red and white, with a cover photograph of Annie, beaming in her “Daddy Warbucks” dress. Many years later, when I was going through a rough patch in college, someone suggested that I keep a “Blessings Journal.” Rather than record activities, you list three good things from the day. That’s all. Simple. Quick. Transformational.

Daily journaling is a discipline that few undertake, but quickwrites in the classroom seem more common. In the PLC I facilitate in my school, we’ve been reading some of the most prominent current voices in teaching English, Kittle and Gallagher. In their books, particularly in 180 Days, they have “notebook time.” They ask students to collect, study, and then imitate techniques writers use as well as to generate their own thinking (2018, p. 35-36). They differentiate their writer’s notebooks from a standard classroom journal by creating different sections for collection and writing. Done in this way, the journal becomes a tool for reading engagement and skill development.

Journaling was not a big part of my education. As a student, I only had two teachers who required journals. First, my greatest and most favorite teacher, Linda Orr Morgan, had us purchase steno notebooks for AP English. She gave us prompts and pages to fill, and then responded in her distinctive handwriting. Because I looked up to her, I felt honored that she spent time reading my thoughts. Later at WVU, I had Dr. Cheryl Torsney for an American Lit survey. She collected responses to Whitman and Rowlandson and wrote back. Again, I was baffled that a professor cared about what I had to say. The fact that both of these teachers required, and most importantly RESPONDED TO, the journals of their students amazed me. I felt valued and validated.

Even so, requiring and reading journals didn’t enter my own teaching practice for many years. After I’d been teaching 7th grade Reading and Language Arts for a while, a fresh first-year teacher took over the co-teach section. I remember watching Stacey Angelo pull one spiral notebook after another from a crate. She said, “It’s no big deal. I just read the entries and write ‘LOL’ or add a comment or question.” She collected journals every Friday and read them all. Because of her enthusiasm, I began doing journals too. And like my teacher-mentors, I read them all. And since that day, about fourteen years ago now, I’ve done them with every student, every year.

A caveat: I do not have students journal every day. That’s too much for me. Many days, we are doing Daily Grammar Practice as bell ringers, or we’re handing in essays, or getting out laptops.

Another caveat: Grading journals is time-consuming. I drag a crate home and spend a few hours over the weekend going through and responding. Unlike Stacey Angelo, I don’t pick them up every week—but sometimes I wish I did. I have found that somehow, anything over ten entries seems to double the grading time. It’s a trick of the mind, but a significant one.

One last caveat: In my classes, journal grades are based on completion. I ask for a half-page of thinking and I never correct grammar or usage. And the half-page mark is subjective too, as it depends on handwriting size and spacing. It’s kind of fun to take a break from the laser focus of correction in favor of just listening in. Because I’m essentially grading participation, this is a low-point value assignment—normally, 5 points per entry.

A class of journals, ready to be graded.

I’ve had many, many teacher-friends—including my husband—tell me I’m crazy for grading journals. So, why do I bother?

Well, first of all, I do it to provide a way for students to engage the material. To begin Hamlet, I ask students to write about ghosts. Partway through Act 2 of Macbeth, I ask the kids to talk about “the domino effect.” In A Separate Peace, I wonder how they feel about competition between friends. In The Canterbury Tales, I ask them to imagine which pilgrims they’d invite over for dinner. Best practice demonstrates that students respond out loud more precisely and more confidently if they respond in writing first. And this method fits squarely in Hunter’s anticipatory set model.

Who knew that Iron Maiden’s “Fear of the Dark” fit with Beowulf so perfectly?

More importantly, I use journals as a way to get to know my students. In a recent article on Edutopia, teacher Sarah Yost writes about the importance of knowing her students. The three strategies she presents are ones that I, too, have used for many years. This journaling thing, though, is the icing on the cake. My students reveal their thinking. They name their heroes. They tell family traditions. They share superstitions. They connect heavy metal songs to literature. Sometimes they share secrets—ones that I have to follow up with—or talk about conflicts. Sometimes they’re silly. Often they are writing—just writing—in their own unique voices.

Writing like this is a simple way to help develop an authorial voice. Kids aren’t worried about grammar or spelling or supporting a thesis. Journaling gives them space to just be, for a few quiet minutes in an otherwise frenetic high school day.

Journaling supports content generation. When preparing to take on dual-credit English 12 with a local university this year—a first for my school and a first for me—I met with a couple of professors. One said that she gives class time to write informally, as she’s found that college freshmen have trouble filling pages. To be sure, my dual-credit students have complained that I’m not telling them what to write about or how to write about it:  it’s up to them to choose the models that work for their pieces and then think of ideas, and then support their ideas. So, of course, I’ve required journals during this first semester. And I’ve read every word.

Imitating a mentor text to add sentence variety.

I love it. I don’t look forward to the stacks of journals. I complain to my husband. Some entries are really boring, and sometimes the handwriting is indecipherable—even to English-teacher eyes. And I always have a zillion other things to do, lessons to prep, dinner to cook. But then there are the entries that make me laugh or push me to think or make me angry or open a window into these teenage lives. Because high school can be hard. Life can be relentless. I learn so much about these kids through reading and responding to their journals. I hear their voices. I value them. I’m a better teacher—and a better person—because of it. 

So, when you’re thinking about impactful instructional strategies and you’re weighing cost versus benefit, I would encourage you, teacher-friend, to do it. While you may choose to land on the side of “ungraded practice” like Kittle and Gallagher, you may also choose to try my way: read it all, goofy ideas and improper syntax and creative spelling and all. Resist the urge to mark corrections and take the opportunity to ask them questions, to laugh, or cry or commiserate or suggest books or movies or restaurants.

And if you already make journaling a habit with your students, I thank you.

Remember that hearing your students’ voices is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. 

Remember that as a trusted adult, your response matters.

At a holiday party last weekend, my uncle, a retired school bus driver, told me about a girl who used to ride his bus. She used to sit up front because she didn’t have many friends, and he’d give her candy and chat as they drove along. She’s in her 30s now, but she came to visit recently. She told my uncle how much his kindness meant to her. How her grandfather whom she’d loved had passed away when she was a kid and how, simply talking to her and giving her candies from his jacket pocket, my uncle comforted her. Uncle Richard just shook his head as he told the story, amazed that she remembered such a simple thing. “You just don’t know,” he said, “how you’re making a difference every day.”

What a gift you have, teacher-friend, in your capacity to touch students’ lives meaningfully. All it takes is the willingness to respond.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. How does journaling impact your classroom experience? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you grace. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of essays, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or teaching Shakespeare “like a boss,” you can find her reading, tree bathing in a wintry park, writing in her current composition book, or re-watching the Star Wars saga with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Novel(ty) November

Teacher-friend, escape the drab November of the soul by injecting novelty into your days: lean into life and take a chance. Here are three concrete ways for you do have a Novel November personally and professionally.

By Adrin Fisher

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”  So begins Moby Dick.

Now, I have never felt the urge to take to sea—probably owing to my landlocked upbringing in the Mountain State, and to the fact that lots of big, deadly things live in the sea—but I can still identify with Melville’s sentiments about escape.

October is the month of glory: the trees are bright, the sky is blue, and the air is crisp.

But November heralds the dark, wet death of the year. The leaves blow down and gather in sloppy wet piles against walls. That large murder of crows returning to their roost down by the river becomes ominous. And spring—and the sweetness of high school graduation—seems impossibly distant.

Truly, the November of the soul is upon us, teacher friend. Between the NAEP results showing that our students are not, in fact, number one, the flurry of end-of-quarter parent emails, and strikes and rumors of strikes, the stresses of teaching can feel overwhelming. 

So how can you combat the cold, November rain?

One way is to inject a little bit of novelty into your long work days. To head to sea, if you will.

Blast into the Past!

When my school underwent an extensive renovation a few years ago, the library decided to part with its delightful collection of bound periodicals. As one who came-of-age in the 1990s, I have fond memories of searching the stacks of my local university looking for a particular magazine article for my research paper. Well, I’m not sure how fond those memories are, but I am fond of realizing how much easier research has gotten since my high school days. 

Anyway, I saved ten bound volumes of Life magazine from World War II years. Once a year, I pull them out and let the sophomores flip through them in order to get a sense of the setting of A Separate Peace. While they’re at it, they choose a “current event” and analyze an accompanying photo using a worksheet created at the National Archives.  It always surprises me how much my students love this—who knew paging through a giant, dusty book of old magazines could be so fun? My favorite comments include “They could advertise that?” and “Are those actual dead bodies?”

Students analyze a photo about a polygamist family.
Students analyze a 1940 photo showing a polygamist family.

I would imagine that, with a little effort, you too can scrape up some bound periodicals. Or, with some digging, you can access period advertisements or photos online.

Understanding historical context is a powerful analytical lens. And, as we know, we need to help students become critical consumers of media, so this activity pulls double duty. Novelty for the win!

NaNoWriMo Strikes Again!

Though the times change, there are some things we can count on. One of these is National Novel Writing Month. According to its website, “The challenge: draft an entire novel in just one month. For 30 wild, exciting, surprising days, you get to lock away your inner editor, let your imagination take over, and just create!”

There are many resources available to intrepid teachers who want to guide their students through writing their own novels, including everything from lesson plans to student workbooks to classroom kits. The program is totally free and it maintains a large social media presence, including real-time challenges on Twitter, Pep Talk videos and emails, and a whole host of supports. 

But for you—teacher friend—for you, there’s also the concept of you devoting yourself to something for you. If writing a set number of words in 30 days is too daunting (50,000 is a big number), you can try my modified version:  writing for a set amount of time per day (20 minutes). That’s workable. And rewarding!

Whether you choose to take your students on this ride or do this one solo, NaNoWriMo is definitely a novel approach.

Pressure Makes Perfect!

My final tested and true idea to inject some novelty into this month comes in the form of a contest format. For the past couple of years, I’ve tried my hand at the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction contest.

It starts out in July with a few thousand writers who are divided into heats for each round of the competition. With the entry fee, you are guaranteed to write the first two stories; the top five in each group move on to the third round, and then the top three in your new group move on to the final.

The trick here—and the fun!—is that each round of the contest runs for precisely 48 hours.  You’re assigned a genre, a location, and an object. And it’s totally random, as you can see below. I was assigned to write a 1,000-word historical fiction story that took place in a cement plant and featured a massage table. This weekend’s story was quite a challenge!

This is a sampling of the creative prompts of NYC Midnight contests.

For me, the NYC Midnight contest has been a game-changer. I respond to the pressure, setting aside all the other things crowding my plate (including the 80 essays I could have marked this weekend…) and working those 1,000 words. The contest has pushed me creatively:  I’ve written a romantic comedy, a mystery, a couple of horror stories—all genres I never would have attempted. In addition, all writers get quality feedback from three judges for each story—whipped cream on the pumpkin pie.

Now, of course, you can’t expect your students to pay to enter a writing contest. And maybe you’re not interested in it either. However, you can replicate the idea. In fact, after reading some thrillers to celebrate Halloween (like the disturbing “Hop-Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe), my sophomores drew a location, a murder weapon, and an additional object to incorporate into their original horror stories. To replicate the pressure, they had a time limit and a word limit. After we finished writing and shared our horror stories, the kids unanimously voted to try this high-pressure writing again. A novel approach yields results, every time.

Head to Sea

So teacher-friend, escape the drab November of the soul by injecting novelty into your days: lean into life and take a chance. 

As naturalist Edwin Way Teale wrote, “How sad would be November if we had no knowledge of the spring!”

We know what’s coming—both in terms of the weather and in terms of the flowering of all these students in our care—and it’s going to be beautiful.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What new ideas get you through the dark days of teaching? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

The picture shows a table with a stack of essays, books, and calendars, an open computer and two small journals.  One is open with notes written; the other is closed and says "Create your own happiness" on the cover.
Part of my weekend’s work and play.

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you novelty and peace. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of books, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, tree bathing in the park, or dreaming about life and readings in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

3 Tips for Using Literature as Mentor Texts

“When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.”

Here are 3 tips for using the literature you’re already studying to guide your writers. @ncte #nctevillage

By Karla Hilliard

*This post originally appeared on Moving Writers. See the original post here and make sure to follow this INCREDIBLE blog for effective writing strategies for your classroom. 

Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.

But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)

As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.

When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.

Tip 1

Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.

I like to…

  • Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
  • Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response. 
  • Look for variations in structure and style.
  • Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.

Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied: 

The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.


He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

 – from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Tip 2

Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?

Allow  students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want  to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…” 

Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature. 

After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice? 

(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)

With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes. 

For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another. 

I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own. 

Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out. 

Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:

Here they are reading like READERS: 


Here they are reading like WRITERS.


Tip 3

Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing. 

If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals. 

I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of  writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.morethan unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere. 

Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.

The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post. 









How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter@karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook! 


On a Mission

Students should be the prime stakeholders in their education. Let’s teach our students to create the future they choose. Vision Letters and Mission Statement Collages can help students set goals for life.

By Adrin Fisher

Once upon a time, I taught an English “lab” class. I’d have a group of freshmen for two extra periods in a six-day cycle. My teammates and I treated the time as an enrichment opportunity. We (the Babes of English) taught from the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. A best-seller on Amazon, this book outlines paradigm-changing habits of mind that lead to success.

Though I no longer teach those English labs, there is one habit that became ingrained in my teaching: Begin with the End in Mind.

Naturally, we teachers have expectations. At the beginning of the year, we set classroom rules, cell phone policies, small group expectations, discussion norms. Every day, I explain rubrics, display model projects and journal entries, and write on the document camera in front of their eyes. And yet, it’s not enough.

Students should be the prime stakeholders in their education. With that in mind, here are two ways for STUDENTS to set their own expectations.

Vision Letter

Right at the beginning of the year, I ask students to write a Vision Letter.

I first heard of this idea at a High Schools That Work conference in Atlanta. The teacher had all students write themselves a letter explaining why this (current) school year had been the best year ever…dated on the last day of this current year. It takes a bit of imagination to explain (and some fancy tenses to write about), but students write about things they will have accomplished by June. For example, students write about maintaining an Honor Roll GPA or getting their license, asking a date to homecoming, graduating or improving their social skills or winning a state championship ring. Every August for fifteen years, I’ve asked my kids to imagine having achieved their goals in the next ten months.

They write their vision for the school year on a piece of brightly colored paper. I collect and read the letters—adding to my personal notes about each student new information about his life or goals—and file them away until the last week of school. I love watching my seniors pull those bright pages out of their diploma envelopes after they’ve walked across the stage in their caps and gowns. They did it, and they saw it coming.

Mission Statement Collage

The Mission Statement Collage is my favorite opening activity for seniors—a staple in my co-teaches and my dual-credits alike.

First, we figure out what a mission statement is. Then we look at examples—everything from the Preamble to the US Constitution to Starbucks’s plan for world domination (“one cup at a time”). I ask students to think deeply about their lives and who they want to be, but I do it with simple questions like, “If you could have dinner with any person dead or alive, who would it be and why?” Using examples from Covey’s book, we talk about options for their statements: sentences or bullet points; song lyrics; a quotation from another writer; an acrostic poem; a phrase.

Then they’re on their own to set their mission.

And finally, they decorate it.  Using magazines, photos, clip art, stickers, or drawings, they create a 5×8 collage that shows what their mission looks like.

I want them to share these statements with their classmates and families.

To post them by their mirrors or on their bedroom walls.

To read them every day. 

To stay focused and on mission. 

To be the best people they can be.

All of these goals—they’re my goals, my dream for their lives. And while it’s important that I see my students for who they CAN and WILL be, it’s not enough.

The goals that will make a difference—THE difference—are the goals THEY set.

Teacher-friends, let’s give our students the tools and the vision to create positive, life-long habits.

Let’s teach them to create the future they choose.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. How do you help students invest in their own lives? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of books, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, tree bathing in the park, or taking notes on life in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin