Back to School: Creative Writing

Three years ago, I was asked to relocate to a new classroom in my school. I packed up ten-plus years of teacher things and moved to a more-or-less identical room in another part of the building.

This summer, in another shuffle of classroom assignments, I was asked to move again — back, it turns out, to 226, the room where I’d started out and taught for so long. I was happy to discover, when I returned, the ghosts of my old decorations — postcards, photos, bookmarks, bumper stickers, students drawings — still lingering on the big bulletin board at the front of the room, three years after I left, their memories imprinted into the cork. 

I’m a big believer in classroom decorations, not the mass-produced posters and banners you can buy from the teacher store, but decorations of a more personal and DIY sort. What’s on the walls can go a long way toward establishing the classroom as a safe and creative space, and the less one classroom looks like the next, the better. This year, things are a bit different: most of my decorations are still in boxes from this last, hurried move, and many of my students are learning from home, not in the classroom at all. The need for a safe and creative space is at least as important as ever, but that “space” is more metaphorical. For the moment, in Room 226, the ghosts of decorations past will do.


One Friday in March, we left school for the weekend and did not return until August. I swept through my room just once after that, to grab some necessary books and papers. I didn’t set foot in the school again until July, when I started the move to my new (old) classroom. 

In this last room, the one I packed up this summer, I’d made a mural of huge photos of writers, figures I imagined as some of the patron saints of our class. The students and the photographed writers had no choice but to gaze into each other’s faces all year, which I liked. Early on, I asked my Creative Writing students to warm up for their writing day by drawing, in their notebooks, one of the faces from the wall. Then they moved on to drawing the faces of their own creative heroes. (To see the original mural and a few student notebook drawings, see this blog post from last November.) Before the schools shut down, we started using the drawing time to learn more about the world: students would take about five minutes to Google Czech or Nigerian or Bolivian writers (for example), then choose an arresting face from the images that resulted, draw it, and finally surround the drawing with a few biographical facts, culled from a brief internet search. As an alternative, they could type in their own first names, followed by the word writer, and quickly research and draw a writer with whom they happened to share a name.

In February or March, students had started taking turns drawing their pictures on the classroom’s two whiteboards. I hoped to have every available whiteboard inch covered by the end of the semester. 

But then the virus came, and we went home, and the school stood empty for months. So when I finally returned to pack up the room, I was greeted by all these faces, each of which I still adore. Every one of them is somehow alive with the unique personality of the student who made the drawing:

I was reluctant for a long time to push my Creative Writing students to draw pictures — or even sometimes sing — which are decidedly not activities they signed on for in a writing class. But these whiteboard faces persuade me to believe that our drawing time is time remarkably well spent. If nothing else, the drawings have brought me enormous joy — I’ve looked at them so much it’s hard to believe they might never have existed. And it made me glad to know these figures stood watch over the classroom all spring and summer, when no one else was there. 


Our first assignment in Creative Writing this year had nothing to do with writing. It was inspired in part by Kurt Vonnegut’s now-famous letter to a bunch of high school students in 2006, the one where he implores them to “Practice any art … no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

I share the assignment here, in case you would like to do any of it yourself. I’ve also included, at the end of this post, a few student responses, which have convinced me that this, too, was time well spent.

Thanks for reading, y’all. Stay safe, and be kind.

FRIDAY, 8/21/20:

This isn’t a writing assignment, but more like an invitation to play. The purpose is to shake off some self-consciousness, to do something silly and pure, to open yourself up to art and accident and vulnerability, to express yourself by yourself, for yourself. I will not see the results of this activity, but I do want you to send me a short email after it’s done, telling me how it went. 

Do ONE of the following:

 1. If you have a driver’s license and access to a car: Make yourself a short playlist of the songs that give you the most life and the most energy and the most joy, the kinds of songs that are best if you play them loud, songs you know or can at least fake every word. Go for a 20 minute drive, by yourself, blasting those songs, signing along as loudly as you can.

2. If you don’t have a driver’s license or car access, skip the playlist and the driving. Just go take a shower and sing your heart out. If possible, do this when you are alone in the house, and really sing your heart out. Loud! Make it a long shower, with lots of songs.

3. Without consulting the internet; spend at least 10 minutes trying to do an impression of each of the following. Don’t worry if your impression is terrible. Don’t be afraid to laugh at how hilariously bad you are at impressions. But do make a mental note of which impression is your best. Spend at least a couple minutes each trying to imitate each of these:

+ a family member

+ a famous actor

+ a famous singer

+ a famous politician

+ a cartoon character

When you’re finished, consider: what would an impression of yourself sound like? Can you do an impression of yourself? 

4. Spend 10 minutes making funny faces in the mirror. For inspiration, you may want to first watch the first three minutes of this video, in which Patton Oswalt makes faces for the camera: (The second three minutes may also be of interest, but they don’t include funny faces.)

5. Pour a tall glass of water. Spend a few minutes gargling some of your favorite tunes. Optional bonus challenge: after you’ve done this by  yourself for a while, invite a family member to join you. See if you can gargle in harmony or gargle a duet, swapping lines of the song. For best results, do this standing face to face.

6. Draw each of the following from memory, without consulting the internet: a giraffe, a koala, an orangutan, an ostrich, an owl. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes on any one of them. Live with (and celebrate) your mistakes. Only once you are finished, compare your drawings with online photos of the real thing. Revel in the differences. 

7. Find a place, maybe but not necessarily your bedroom, where you can be totally alone. Lock the door, if possible, and put on a favorite, high energy song. Play it loud enough to drown out the rest of the world. You know that phrase, “Dance as if no one is looking?” Do that. Don’t even watch yourself, because then you have an audience and it becomes a performance: avoid all mirrors. I ‘d recommend going a step further and finding a dark place, a closet or a bathroom, maybe. Turn off the lights and do your dancing in the dark, where all there is is your invisible body and the music. If you have trouble picking out a song, try this one: Whatever song you choose, dance to it at least twice, back to back.

8. Draw pictures with your feet, holding the pen, pencil, or marker in between your toes. A marker may be best because of the thickness; feel free to experiment to find the best writing utensil for you. Draw your own self portrait, first, and then at least 2 of the following, on separate sheets:

+ your home

+ your family

+ your biggest crush, if you’ve got one (either someone you know, or a “celebrity crush”)

+ your pet, if you’ve got one, but wearing a cape

+ Dracula

+  Spiderman vs. Batman, the ultimate showdown

9. Only if you don’t already know how: spend the weekend learning to juggle. Get as good as you can by Monday, even if it’s still pretty rough. Feel free to consult internet videos for help.

Okay, that’s the list. Do one of those things. If you want to do more than one, that’s fine, too, but make sure you do at least one of these, and do it whole-heartedly. Do it alone, and try your best to be as unself-conscious as possible. 

Immediately after you do this, email me a brief description of what you did, how it went, how it felt, etc. Just 3-6 sentences documenting the experience is all I need. 


That was the assignment. You’ll have to take my word that I received a bunch(!!) of inspiring responses. Here are just a few:

I took a shower and sung my heart out as you said, and really gave it my best shot! It was loud, ugly, and loaded with vocal cracks, and unruly shrills! It was … the most cringe-worthy and satisfying thing I have ever done! I butchered: Lewis Capaldi “Bruises” “Someone You Loved” “before you go” and many other great songs. And let’s say…I felt as powerful as a battalion, and that’s a statement!

I did the first option and made a short upbeat playlist and drove for 20 minutes. This made me feel energetic and I wanted to accomplish things after I got home, and I did the rest of the day I worked out did speed drills, and went to the park to play basketball.

During the weekend, I stayed in my bedroom singing national anthems of different developing countries. I didn’t dance because I don’t dance and dancing is not my thing. It made me feel extremely good while singing them because I feel like I want to help those countries.

So, I drove around with the music up pretty high. Higher than normal. It was after work and I was going home. I had a terrible, stressful day and I went on my favorite playlist and felt free. I took the long way home and I normally go under the speed limit, but I decided to go over. I know, so rebellious and scary. In that moment, I was as free as a bird with the world in my hands. I felt absolutely elated and when I came home, I was in a better mood than I had been for a week. 

I did the impressions option for today, and it was a funny experience. For the singer portion I tried to do Ariana Grande, and I was way off, though that was expected. But the funny thing about the whole thing is that my mom heard me from the other room and started laughing. She actually came in to try and help me with my impressions, but we just kinda sat there and laughed for most of the attempts. Then we went out and got ice cream and fries, because why not?


Why not is right. That right there is what I would call some homeschool at its finest.

Draw Your Ancestors

1. Classroom Faces

At the start of this school year, I moved into a new classroom and had a new, big, blank cinder-block wall to fill. So I used one of those giant printers to print out life-sized and larger-than-life photos of a few American literary icons, and I arranged their faces into a huge collage:

Your Words Can Change the World
(Left to right, this is Eudora Welty, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Walt Whitman, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison.)

I think of it as a (partial!) Mount Rushmore of American writing, a wall of literary ancestors. Their job is to remind us that our words, too, can change the world.

Over the course of my Creative Writing course, we’ll read at least a little something by most of these writers, and sooner or later we’ll talk — at least a little — about the rest. To be sure, it’s a subjective and incomplete wall of ancestors, filtering the “canon” through my own biases and tastes, but it’s a start. (I keep in the hollow space of my podium a huge, rolled up head of Kurt Vonnegut, whose impish sidelong glance I just couldn’t fit, physically, anywhere into that puzzle of faces. Later I may create a second line-up on another wall; in the meantime, when Vonnegut comes up in discussion, I can whip out and unfurl his image.)

2. Student Drawings

Especially because Creative Writing happens to be the first period of the day — and because I think some “mindless” drawing can awaken some playful, spontaneous, unpredictable part of the brain — I sometimes like to start the class by asking students to draw for five or six minutes. I’ve asked them to reserve the first three pages of their Creative Writing notebooks for these start-of-class drawings and doodles, so that by the end of the year those pages will be crammed with all sorts of images — images which will serve as untamed and untranslatable intro to all the words that will follow. Of course, half the class complains that they “can’t draw,” which is the real point (it turns out, they can). But because they only have five minutes for the drawings, the perfectionists have to abandon perfectionism and the slow-to-starters have to jump in, ready or not. There’s no time to think, and everybody is equal.

I started the year’s drawing times by having students choose one of the big literary faces on the wall and try, quickly, to draw it. At the start of the year, they’re likely to know something about one or two of these writers — probably Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes — but the rest, so far, are strangers to them. Ultimately you have to choose your own creative ancestors, and I know my students haven’t chosen these particular writers as theirs. But that’s part of what I like about these first drawing activities: I tell them to just choose whichever face stands out or interests them the most, and spend a few minutes with it. Maybe later a voice or a meaning, or some historical weight or baggage, will attach itself to the face and the drawing. But for now you’re just moving your pencil or pen across a sheet of paper, waking up your brain.


Later on, students will add to the same three pages their own self portraits — and self portraits of themselves as superheroes or supervillains — and they’ll look up pictures of their own creative heroes and their own creative ancestors and draw their faces, too. The ones on the wall are just our starting point, and I absolutely adore the results:

Another reason I like starting with the same limited group of faces, before students branch out into their own, is because I love the variation you get from a few repeated, recognizable images. Each Gertrude Stein reflects its drawer’s personality above all; the result is part Gertrude Stein and mostly that student. No two Gertrude Steins are alike — but they’re just enough alike to make those differences magical.

You can see a few of the students’ own heroes and ancestors mixed in among these sample drawings; I’ll post some more later on in the year. (One day I gave them the option of drawing anything in the room. A student in my film class had recently brought in a wonderful, creepy E.T. mask that her father had made her, out of felt, years ago, as a Halloween costume; it was still hanging on a hook in the front of the room, which is why you see that E.T. There are a couple of stuffed Kermit the Frogs on my bookshelf, too.)


3. Your Turn

Here’s an assignment, if you want one. I recommend starting your day with this, to warm yourself up — if not first thing in the morning, then right before you begin the most productive part of your workday. Take about five minutes to draw one of your own creative heroes or ancestors (a writer, artist, musician, filmmaker, comedian, teacher, lawyer, whatever — maybe choose somebody you admire from your own line of work, someone whose example reminds you why you do what you do).

Keep it to about five minutes. That way it’s not a huge time commitment, and it takes the pressure off: you can’t expect it to be super-accurate, and you can’t worry about whether it’s “good.”

When your five-ish minutes is up, look back upon your creation. Don’t ball it up or throw it away. Take a picture or scan it, and send me a copy ( Then put the original on your refrigerator or over your desk, or leave it in a public space for a stranger to find.

Here’s an idea, if you want to really go all-in: get a notebook just for this. Spend five minutes doing this, every day for 30 days — or, if you like, for 365 days. Set a goal and keep it up. Create a diary of five-minute faces, a one-of-a-kind, homemade, ever-growing book of ancestors. Occasionally send me pictures (again:

Or, finally, an alternate assignment, if you prefer the mystery of losing yourself in a stranger’s face: Google “Czech authors” or “Ugandan authors” or “Indian” or “Hungarian authors” (someplace whose literacy ancestry is unknown to you). Choose the face that most arrests you, and spend five minutes drawing it. Be sure to write the author’s name beside, around, or under the drawing, and maybe (quickly) add to that a book title, birthdate, or fun fact, whatever you get when you click that person’s picture.

I am certain that you will create something magical that otherwise would never have existed. Give it five minutes and see.

P. S. This week I got my hands on the new book by Lynda Barry, Making Comics, and it’s wonderful, offering many of Barry’s own exercises to draw your way into unexpected and extraordinary, imaginative places. Don’t let the title fool you: her book isn’t for aspiring comics artists (although those people should get it, too), nearly so much as it is for the rest of us — especially those of us who quit drawing pictures around the same time we stopped being kids.

P. P. S. Here are a few of my favorite things from the drawings above: Langston Hughes at an enormous, blank typewriter; all the Toni Morrisons; the bored, tired, or mildly annoyed Whitmans; “powerful.” Also this truth: that sometimes when you’re drawing, your pencil produces something your brain didn’t mean or want (a “mistake”) and you just have to run with and reclaim it. So Zora Neale Hurston becomes “Evil Zora Neale Hurston” — which is pretty wonderful in itself.

Don’t forget to send me your drawings! Thanks for reading.

whiteboard cinema

I teach a film class to high school kids, and since it’s only a fifty-minute class, we usually have to pause mid-way through each movie and finish it up the next day.

We started the year with Psycho, and after class the movie was paused on a close-up of Janet Leigh’s face. I pulled up the screen and traced her picture with an Expo marker on the whiteboard underneath.

Since then I’ve been tracing scenes from all the movies we’ve watched. Sometimes the drawings compete for space on the whiteboard with notes from this or another class.

Here are a few of the films we’ve watched so far this year:

Psycho 2


Kane 1

Kane 2

Modern Times

If you’d like to see where we go from here, you can follow my brand new(!!) Instagram account, @whiteboardcinema, where I’ll post more drawings as they come up in class. I’ll also be asking my students to send me their own drawings of their own movie favorites, and I’ll post those drawings there too along the way.

(It’s my firm belief, by the way, that everyone should draw pictures, like most of us did at some point when we were kids. You don’t need to be good at it; being “good” is entirely beside the point. And speaking of movies, did you know Roger Ebert liked to draw? I invite us all to embrace his example.)

The School Week (highlights)

In a lot of ways, the school year that’s wrapping up now has been an especially frustrating one. But several moments this week have reminded me of what I like most about this job. For what it’s worth:

1. My first period Creative Writing students have been writing some extraordinary, inspiring words lately–and a group of them have started performing their poetry out loud in some really powerful ways. We’ve snuck off for the last couple of weeks to a little room off the back of the library, and while nobody else is looking they’ve been doing the most amazing things.

2. The same group has been goofily experimenting with various approaches to reading other people’s poetry out loud. The goal has been to get us thinking about the limitless ways in which our voices and our bodies can interact with the spoken word–whether enhancing, complicating, or undercutting the meaning of a text. Earlier this week we were seated around a big glass-topped conference table, and one student walked across the top of it in his socks while reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity.” I was surprised how much this very literal approach to the poem–in which a poet is compared to an acrobat–actually managed to reshape my experience of Ferlinghetti’s words, which I’ve read many times. Lines like “…whenever he performs / above the heads / of his audience…” feel different when the poet is actually performing above the heads of his audience; the same goes for “balancing on eyebeams” and “paces his way / to the other side”–and all the other lines. And then there was this: we were all a little terrified the whole time that the table would break. Both the performer and the audience were physically engaged in a way I hadn’t expected: just as if they were watching a tightrope walker or acrobat, students around the table were holding their breath or clenching their teeth until the poem was over. Some where leaning in; others were leaning out. It was pretty special.

Luckily the table did not break.

3. Same class: a group of students read Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” as if they were reading it to their dogs–in those funny, high-pitched voices people use just for addressing their pets. There is something hilarious about “You can’t beat death / but you can beat death in life, sometimes” when it’s read in a “You’re a good boy, yes you are” voice. (If you don’t believe me, try it.)

4. Another student read “The Laughing Heart” as if he was being slapped in the face with every word. And then, a second time, as if he was being tickled.

5. Two students read an excerpt from Green Eggs and Ham with such genuine drama that the class demanded they finish the rest of the book, so we’d know how it turned out.

6. Meanwhile, in my twelfth grade English class, we had some leeway in the end of our year, so I decided for the first time to throw The Catcher in the Rye into the mix. The first large chunk of it was due today. Luckily, the students are into it so far, and it’s a very refreshing change of pace from everything else that class has read this year. I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t like this book–or think it’s overrated, or whatever–but I don’t need to hear it. (My students are welcome to tell me they don’t like it–I just don’t want a bunch of haters chiming in in the comments below.) I liked the book fine when I first read it in high school, but it didn’t do a whole lot for me. I remember the wisdom was that if you’re going to read this book, you need to read it while you’re still in high school, because the older you get the less it will resonate. I assumed that was true, and like I said I liked it just fine, even if it didn’t change my life or anything. A few years ago I read this book for the first time as an adult, and I discovered how wrong this wisdom was; it meant much more to me then than it had meant the first time. And now that I’ve read it a couple times more I absolutely, wholeheartedly adore it. Reading a few chapters before school today made my morning. That kid breaks my heart in the most beautiful ways. He really does.

7. Then there was this. In my eleventh grade class today, a kid pointed out a disturbing trend: “In every book we’ve read this year, a woman gets slapped.” We all stopped and thought about it. Desdemona had just been slapped by Othello. Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan slaps his mistress Myrtle (really, he smashes her nose with his open palm). Tea Cake slaps Janie (and her previous husband is also abusive). No women get slapped in Of Mice and Men, but one does get shaken to death. And she’s the only woman in the book, and we never even know her name.

I’m not sure what to do about all this, but it surely doesn’t sit well. There’s no question, for starters, that we need to be teaching more women’s voices in our English classrooms, and that a wider range of voices brings in a wider range of experiences. I know that some schools have done better than others at opening up their curricula, but most places I think this is (still) a slow work in progress. As for this theme of literary slaps: if handled well, it can certainly (but doesn’t necessarily) generate some useful discussion about domestic violence, or about the portrayal of women in the “canon” that still shapes so much of what’s taught. I’ve tried to facilitate some good talks along these lines this year, with varying results. But I don’t think those conversations go far enough in counterbalancing a year’s worth of slapping. The worst slap of them all, by the way–because its author, unlike the others, seems so okay with it–is the one Janie receives from Tea Cake, the love of her life, in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Of all these slapping scenes, this is the only one that was written by a woman. It’s an uncomfortable acceptance of violence near the end of a beautiful book that’s (on most of its pages) empowering and ahead of its time.

It’s tough.

But here’s the part that made me happy: a student noticed the trend and pointed it out today, and got the room all worked up about it before the bell.

So all in all, it was a good day.


A P. S.: on teenagers, adults, guns, protests, Greek tragedy, and learning to listen…

Speaking of favorite moments in the classroom, a definite highlight of my year–albeit a heavy one–was the series of conversations some of my classes had about gun violence, student walk-outs, and other issues sparked by the Parkland shootings. I won’t go into all that here now, but feel free to ask me about it if you see me around.

What I do want to say here is not political. I don’t especially care what you think about guns. But I do care what you think about teenagers.

I’ve heard and seen so many adults in the last couple of months, especially on social media, bashing student protesters–mostly bashing those Stoneman Douglas kids–for taking a stance on guns. A popular punchline to a hundred memes suggests that “the same kids” who were eating Tide Pods a few weeks ago are demanding gun control this week. Ha, ha: it’s a dumb generation, goes the joke. I was recently sent–because it was supposed to be inspiring–a  viral “open letter” in which a retired schoolteacher somewhere in America patiently explains to the kids of today exactly why they’re wrong. (“This is not a tweet or a text,” the letter begins, thinking condescension an effective way to make teenagers listen. “It’s called a letter; lengthy and substantial. Do you really want to make a difference? … First of all, put down your stupid phone…”) A whole lot of people, meanwhile, have been pointing out that teenagers are too emotional or too uninformed to participate in an important national conversation. Some have claimed that teenagers, unable to think for themselves, have just become pawns in the schemes of liberals or the media, whose opinions they’re brainlessly parroting. The worst extreme of all this, of course, is the sad bunch adults who have publicly attacked these young people in Florida or have cooked up conspiracy theories about those students’ true identities. It’s reprehensible stuff. But even the more benign, apparently well-intentioned forms of this teenager bashing–that open letter, for example–make me furious.

All I want to say is this. If you consider yourself an adult, please: go ahead and think what you’re going to think about guns. But don’t discount or discredit the young people. For the love of God, don’t bully them, and don’t use them as punchlines.

I’d ask you, even, to listen to them. And learn from them, and with them.

Before we started The Catcher in the Rye, my seniors were reading Antigone, an ancient Greek drama and the third installment in Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy. My favorite character in that play has always been Haimon, the son of the bull-headed king Kreon. This year Haimon’s words seemed more timely than ever. He’s trying to convince his dad to listen to reason, but his dad is incapable of listening to anything or anyone, let alone his own son–a kid.

“Men our age, learn from him?” Kreon sneers. But what if, says Haimon, “I happen to be right? Suppose I am young. Don’t look at my age, look at what I do.

That’s my favorite line in that play. I live in Birmingham, after all, and kids in this town have been known, before, to change the world.

But if you still don’t believe that the kids have something to say–some things we haven’t thought to say, ourselves, and some things we all need to hear–then please: come listen in on my first period class sometime. They will get you straight.


One more P. S.: recommended reading, listening, and viewing…

Before I sign off, a few recommendations relevant to this post:

A week ago today I got a copy of the wonderful book Syllabus by the great Lynda Barry. For the last seven days it has made my world brighter. I recommend it to anyone whose life could use some creative inspiration.

And speaking of creativity and (see above) of Lawrence Ferlinghetti–as another source of perpetual inspiration I will always recommend Ferlinghetti’s book Poetry as Insurgent Art, which he published at age 88, and which is small enough to fit in your pocket.

And here’s a video of Tom Waits reading “The Laughing Heart” by Bukowski.

(Near our school, by the way, there’s a walking/running path that goes through the woods, and there’s this empty little one-room house just off the path. I heard from some students several years ago that they snuck into the house and the words to this poem were written on the wall.)

Here’s one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs.

And speaking of how young people in Birmingham changed the world, here is a 40-minute film I show every year to my students, Mighty Times: The Children’s March. Every year it knocks me out. Every person should watch it. If you’re an educator, you can contact the Southern Poverty Law Center for a free copy and teaching materials (or just watch it at the Youtube link above).

Thanks for reading. See you next time.

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam

For the last several years, the first semester exam for my high school creative writing class has come in two parts, spread out over a few class periods.

For Part One, students receive a small slip of paper that says “CREATE YOUR OWN CREATIVE WRITING EXAM,” and just a couple of sentences’ instruction. They have one 50-minute class period to create an exam for the course, and the only requirement is that they use the entire period. They may take the full 50 minutes to make the exam, or if they finish it before the period is over, they can actually take the exam themselves. One or two students usually panic, afraid that they won’t do it “right”; I more or less refuse to give any other direction, but if a student is sincerely worried I’ll just tell them, “Create an exam you would like to take” or “Just be true to the spirit of the course, and I promise you’ll be fine” — and after a little hand-wringing they start writing.

Somehow I usually manage to convince at least most of the students that Part Two of the exam will be completely unrelated to Part One, that Part One is a stand-alone exercise, a warm-up for something more exam-ish. But of course it is all a set-up: before they come back for Part Two I compile questions and prompts from all twenty-something exams into a single, epic document. They have a little more than two hours, over two days, to accomplish as much as they can. They can skip any questions and go in whatever order they want. Again, the only requirement is that they use the entire allotted time: they shouldn’t try to do it all, just to do as much as they can.

Both parts of the exam are always great fun for me to read. I’m always impressed by how funny and poignant, how creative and absurdist and profound these students can be, even in the middle of exam week, and I’m always reminded how glad I am to know all of them.

In case you would like to take this year’s exam for yourself, I am posting it in the link below. Set a timer for 60 or 90 minutes or whatever feels right and see what you can do. I did not create any of these questions; each one was created by a sophomore, junior, or senior in high school.

Good luck.

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam 2017

P.S. A couple of students’ questions reference the wonderful artist and writer Lynda Barry and this 14-minute video, which we’d recently watched in class — and which I recommend also to you.

Make America America

In about a week we start another school year — my thirteenth year teaching, and my first to teach eleventh graders.

I’m excited for the new class. There’s a unit on the Harlem Renaissance, so this week I started pulling down and rereading some favorite poems and stories, trying to decide which texts to share with my kids. I’ve been flipping especially through the giant Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, one of the first books of poetry I ever bought. It’s been a while since I’ve read “Let America Be America Again,” first published in 1936; I look forward to reading it with my students in the new age of #MAGA.

If you don’t know it, check it out, below. If you do, why not slow down to read it again?

Langston Hughes.jpg

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a ‘homeland of the free’.

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

*   *   *

P.S. I kind of took a summer break from this blog; hopefully I can get back again soon into the habit of regular posting. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s something good you can store away for a rainy day (or a sunny one) soon: Langston Hughes speaking at UCLA in February of 1967, just months before he died.


Advice to seniors

I wrote these words originally for the class of 2015 but I think & hope, two years later, that the advice still stands. My school’s latest batch of seniors threw their hats in the air tonight. In their honor, I’ll share these thoughts again here. I hope it’s not too preachy, hokey, or obvious. But these are things I think young people should know.

Advice to Seniors
May, 2015

Know this: you are not supposed to have everything—possibly, you are not supposed to have anything—figured out. Knowing the questions is much more important than knowing the answers. There is more wisdom in asking than in answering. Embrace the unknown. Embrace confusion. Cultivate an enthusiasm for question marks. Be open to, and excited by, the unexpected.

Learn to improvise.

Frequent taco trucks.

Eat watermelon in the summer, as much of it as you can.

Develop a taste for Indian food, and, wherever you live, know which Indian restaurants you like the best and why.

Prepare meals for and with your friends.

Unless you are in love or in deep conversation with a friend and it’s already almost sunrise, there is never a good reason to stay up all night.  Work—schoolwork or otherwise—is not a good enough reason: one or two all-nighters, total, is the most you should experience in life, for the sake of school or work.

Practice forgiveness.  Forgive everyone, including yourself.  The strength of your character depends upon your ability to forgive.

Seek out the people that inspire you.  Surround yourself with them.

Listen to people you disagree with.  Work to understand what they really think, and why.  Assume they may be right.

Try to know everyone.

Make friends with people who do not look, talk, think, or act like you.  You need each other in your lives.

Smile at strangers.

When you see them on the street, look homeless people in the eye.

Do not be afraid to say hello.

Talk to old people.  Listen to old people.  Ask them questions.  Not just your grandparents, either.

Ask kids questions.  Listen to their answers.

Do not be afraid of your own singing voice.  Never tell anyone, “I can’t sing,” unless it is also true that you can’t talk.  You do not need to be professional and are not expected to be.  Sing in the car or with friends or in the shower or while you worship, or sing to an infant.  Always sing on New Year’s.  Know at least the first verse and chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” by heart.

Read good books.

Listen to good music.

(How do you know if music is good? If you like it! If it makes you smile, or move, or think, or laugh, or sing; if it makes you feel good, or feel whatever it is that you need to feel. If it in any way at any moment makes things around you or in you somehow better than they already are.)

Never interrupt a conversation for the sake of your cell phone.  If there is a live human being sitting or standing in front of or next to you, keep your phone in your pocket.  In fact: if you are standing in line alone, also keep your phone in your pocket.  Learn how to be alone, comfortably, with nothing but your thoughts.

If you are in school, take classes that have nothing to do with your major.

Ignore people who say your major is silly or useless or who make fun of you for changing your major every semester.

Ignore people who say your dreams are silly or useless or impossible. Ignore people who say your dreams are financially unsound.

No matter how you rationalize it, a love for or preoccupation with money is immoral.  Do not let questions of money dictate your decision making—especially in choosing a major or a career.

Around graduation season, lots of people will speak clichés to you: “Be yourself.”  “Follow your dreams.”  Etc.  As an English teacher, I should tell you to avoid clichés.  But listen to these clichés, and take them seriously.  Even if the speakers who spout them don’t seem themselves to live them, be just dumb and gullible enough to believe these lines yourself (you can make your dreams come true! etc!); believe the clichés and your life will reward this gullibility infinitely.

Also, by the way: dreams do not come true unless you are willing to work tirelessly toward them. Wanting something badly is not enough.

When you go outside at night, look for the moon.  When it is especially beautiful, tell someone else to look, too.

Drive with your windows down.

Live, when possible, with your windows open.  That’s not a metaphor; I mean, actually open the windows in your home.

Find a way to spend part of every day outside.

When possible, feel sand in your toes.  Once in a while, feel mud and dirt in your toes.

Always vote, even in the littlest local elections.

Never vote “straight party.”  Vote for issues and individuals, not for parties.  Vote Republican and Democrat, depending on who is running.  Do not assume they are all the same. Vote with your own brain and heart, not with someone else’s.

Do not strap any label onto yourself.  You are more complicated than that.

Do not strap any label onto any other person.

Watch every episode of Freaks and Geeks at least once, in order.

Read Walt Whitman, especially “Song of Myself.”

Take deep breaths.

Make your own choices.

Do not join any club that dictates what kind of footwear you can wear.

Do not join any club that dictates who you can and can’t talk to.

Do not join any club that tells you what to think.

Men: do not join any club that encourages a debasement of women—unless you are willing actively to change that culture from the inside.

Women: do not define yourself according to a man’s desires.  Do not compromise yourself for anyone else’s expectations.

Men and women: do not attend parties where all the men drink beer and all the women drink liquor.

Like yourself.

Remember who you were when you were seventeen.  Every few years, ask yourself: would the seventeen-year-old me like the current me?  If the answer is yes, keep up the good work.  If the answer is maybe, or if the answer is no, take some time to re-bridge the gap between these two selves.

Thank your parents.

Forgive your parents.

Write postcards and letters.  You will forget the texts and emails you have sent and received, but you will remember the cards and letters.  It will make someone’s day to find your handwriting in his or her mailbox, amidst all the anonymous junk.

Always stop your car for boiled peanuts and for kids’ lemonade stands.

Sometime in the next two weeks, get a piece of paper.  Make a list of all the positive traits you associate with the word “youth.”  Determine how you can continue to embody these traits, no matter how old you may get.

Care about your hometown.  Care about all the places you have lived.

Make time, some time, to go to minor league baseball games, whether or not you really even watch the game.

Understand history.  Never stop learning about history.

Don’t settle for history that is clichéd or uncomplicated.

Follow your own dream, not somebody else’s.  No matter how much you love them, and vice versa, nobody else can dictate the shape of your dream.

Be sure you have exactly zero enemies.  Your life is not so complex and dramatic that it needs or justifies anything you could seriously call “enemies.”

Drink lots of water.

Always drink your water straight from the tap.  The water bottle industry represents the greatest scam your lifetime has witnessed.  Don’t give in.

Don’t listen when people tell you high school or college represents the best years of your life.  Make the most of these years.  But make them a beginning, not an end.  Create a life that goes uphill, not down.

Don’t listen when people tell you you are the future.  You are the present.  That’s more important.

Don’t listen when people tell you you are about to enter the real world.  You are already in the real world.  And you’re doing good so far.

Actively work to keep your oldest friends in your life.

At the end of the day, go to sleep, knowing you’ve done the best you can for today.  Let the rest go, and start over fresh tomorrow.

Be courageous enough to hold your ground and stick to your guns.

Be courageous enough to change your mind.

Be courageous enough to change directions.

Find time for naps on sunny days.

Contribute something positive to the planet. Make your time here have meaning and significance that goes beyond yourself.

Listen to your gut.

Be your own hero.

Be humble.

Make it happen.

Go Jags.


Fake News In The Classroom: One Teacher’s Experience

A few weeks ago I asked teacher friends on Facebook how they might approach the topic of “fake news” in their classrooms. A lot of friends responded, teachers and non-teachers alike, and I cobbled together their ideas into a last-minute lesson plan. The following post is mostly for teachers, or for those with an interest in how we navigate the so-called “post-truth” world—and how we teach it. It’s a long post. But I encourage teachers to use whatever is helpful here, and I welcome feedback (not just from teachers) on how to most effectively and impartially navigate this territory.

This isn’t written out as a conventional lesson plan, but here’s my sequence of activities, handouts, etc., with reflections along the way on how it all went for me.

A troubling note: in some ways this lesson is already outdated. When I introduced this lesson, most of my students had not heard the term “fake news”; within a week, our president elect labeled CNN “fake news” in a press conference, and since then his administration has frequently thrown that phrase at reputable, fact-based news outlets. Since I put this lesson together, the conversation about fake news has already shifted and is still evolving. In the meantime, it’s only more and more important that students be given tools for sifting through facts, bias, and outright fakery. So this—with the help of many friends and resources—is my first stab at that.


Back in August, in the first week of our first semester this year, my class started with icebreakers. After that, the first substantive thing we did was watch a TED Talk: Eli Pariser’s discussion of “filter bubbles.” This is a great video to watch with students, and I was surprised by how surprised they all were at this concept. I showed them The Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed, Blue Feed experiment, and we discussed the ways in which our interactions with current events is curated (by algorithms!) to fit our apparent biases. We also looked at how different headlines promoted different interpretations of the same news story, and considered how our online experience of the news can work to distort our perception of events and reinforce our biases.

I was upfront about the the objectives of this lesson. I told students I wanted them to:

+ be informed consumers of media—to be on the lookout for implicit bias and manipulation

 + seek out differences of opinion than their own—to expose themselves to, and truly listen to, the opinions of those they might disagree with

+ first assemble the facts, then form their own opinions—to think for themselves, rather than just internalize and parrot the opinions fed to them by their feeds (or by their parents or friends or their news source of choice)

That was the first week of our first semester.


I didn’t decide to tackle “fake news” until the night before our second semester started. I don’t think about school very much over the holidays. But suddenly I thought it would be very timely—and would give perfect symmetry to our year—if we started Semester Two with a new round of icebreakers, and then with a new look at how we receive our news. Instead of talking about news bias, filter bubbles, and manipulative headlines, this time we’d talk about the “news” that isn’t even based in fact.

I had no idea how to teach this. And I’d run out of icebreakers. So the night before school started back I asked Facebook for icebreaker tips, and I got a million of them. The next night I asked for help in teaching fake news:


I went to bed and woke up very, very early. And, with the help of my friends, I put together a lesson that worked remarkably well. This, adapted from my notes that morning, is what we did:

1. Intro:

I remind students of the conversation that started the year, about filter bubbles. I remind them of why we talked about that to begin with (to make ourselves better informed, to seek out a diversity of opinions, to form our own opinions for ourselves). But, I say, one thing we didn’t talk about was this: how do you even know the news is real? We can argue about the interpretation of facts, but how can we be sure we’re discussing facts to begin with?

Since we talked in August (I said), the subject of fake news has become an increasingly important, and much-discussed, topic.

So: here are five headlines from the last few months. Which ones, if any, do you think are reporting facts?

2. Pope Headlines:

I put five Pope-related headlines on the projector. I tell students that all five circulated the internet widely sometime in the last year (which is true). I hand out notecards. I tell them to identify which headline, if any, is factually true. It might be zero. It can’t be all five—they contradict each other—but it could conceivably be as many as three. Then, on their notecards, they have to briefly explain how they made their decisions.

Here are the headlines:

A. Pope Francis Endorses Bernie Sanders for President
Sources: National

B. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement
Source: WTOE 5 News

C. Pope Benedict XVI Forbids Catholics From Voting for Hillary!
Source: Tell Me Now

D. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Hillary Clinton for President, Releases Statement
Source: KYPO 6 News

E. The Pope Says Spreading Fake News is Like a Fetish for Poop

I take up the notecards (and they’re fascinating—this lesson is already going better than I expected). After looking through the cards I tell students the results, but don’t tell them the answer: only one (out of 20) students got it exactly right. Only one of the headlines reported a fact; and only one student correctly identified the real story without also being duped by other fake ones. I tell them, too, that the most common answer was guessed by 11 students—but was wrong.

I tell them to hold that thought, that we’ll get back to the answer.

3. Chart: Fake News Outperforms the Real

Then I show them this chart.

BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman calculated which news stories—that is, fact-based news stories—received the most engagements on Facebook in the months leading up to the presidential election: which stories received the most clicks, likes, and shares. He did the same for “fake” news stories, reports whose most basic details were objectively false. Looking at the top twenty stories from both categories, he compared which got shared more, the real stories or the fake ones. Look at the chart for yourself. But, in summary: as the election approached, the top 20 fake stories were shared more and more—until, finally, the top 20 fake stories received more Facebook engagements than the top 20 real news stories.

There are, by the way, some issues with this chart, and I indicated my questions and concerns to my students, too. Most of the fake stories showed a pro-Trump bias, while many of the real stories, though reporting facts, carried an obvious anti-Trump bias of their own. The difference was that while some of the “real” stories were clearly slanted—with inflammatory headlines or an overall liberal voice, the sorts of biases we’d discussed last semester—the “fake” stories reported outright lies as truth. I again encourage my students to seek out unbiased reporting—or at least to know how to critically recognize bias—but I suggest there’s a difference between bias and outright untruth. While I may have minor reservations about Silverman’s methodology, his findings are certainly reason enough for concern, indicating the widespread presence of fake news in our culture.

4. Pizzagate

Then we talk about “Pizzagate.” Only one of my students had heard of this. So I give quick background and show this video. There are probably better clips than this, but any reporting on the Pizzagate gunman will get the point across: that motivated by an unfounded news story, a gunman walked into a pizzeria to wreak his vengeance. Fortunately no one was hurt, but students immediately recognize that fake news can have real world consequences. I add that a pizza restaurant in Texas has also suffered harassment for its alleged, utterly unfounded involvement in the Pizzagate scandal.

5. How False News Can Spread

Then I show this video. It’s not so much about what we’ve come to call “fake news” (Pizzagate, etc.), but about how even well-intentioned news sources can get the news wrong.

6. The Pope, Part Two

Now, back to the Pope. (We went pretty quickly through all these items, so it’s only been about 15 minutes since the Pope teaser.) The answer, of course, is that only item E is correct: “The Pope Says Spreading Fake News is Like a Fetish for Poop.” Again, only one person guessed this and only this answer. About three people guessed this answer at all, but the others also guessed a false headline was real.

(As a fascinating aside: 11 students out of 20 guessed that this was the real headline: “Pope Francis Endorses Bernie Sanders for President.” On the whole, students in this class are fairly conservative; several voted in November for the first time, and voted for Trump. But a few wrote as explanation for the Bernie headline—“It just seems like the most believable/plausible headline.”

Those who accurately guessed the “poop” headline, incidentally, all said something along these lines, in explaining their choice: “You just don’t make that up.” Some who rejected the poop story as false offered essentially the same explanation as grounds for disbelief: “That one’s just too bizarre to be real.”)

For kicks, I share with them multiple headlines from the poop quote, to show how different writers will emphasize different elements of a story, even if all are reporting the same facts. So, a few related headlines:

Pope Francis compares fake news consumption to eating feces | The Guardian, Newsweek

Pope Francis compares consuming fake news to eating excrement | Sydney [Australia] Morning Herald

Pope Francis says spreading fake news is a sin | New York Post

Pope Francis compares media focus on scandals to fecal fetish | USA Today

Pope Francis: People Who Report Fake News Are Like Those Who Eat Poop | The Christian Post

Pope Francis: Fake news is like getting sexually aroused by faeces | The Independent

Why the Pope Compares Fake News to Sh*t; Its Readers to Sh*t Eaters | Daily Beast

Did Pope Francis Liken the Spread of Fake News to Taking Pleasure in Poop? | US News and World Report

I also share the Pope’s actual quote, so they can choose for themselves the best way to report the story: “I believe that the media should be very clear, very transparent, and not fall prey—without offence, please—to the sickness of coprophilia, which is always wanting to communicate scandal, to communicate ugly things, even though they may be true,” he said. “And since people have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia, it can do great harm.”

The victim of many fake news stories, it’s no surprise the Pope would speak out against it—even if his analogy is pretty bizarre.

One other important point about all this: for each of the original headlines, as indicated above, I indicated one or more source. A few of my students were savvy enough to take those source names into consideration in determining what was real—but those students still got the answer wrong. Some said they chose the Bernie headline not just because he seemed the most Pope-friendly candidate, but because the sources listed—National—“sound legit.” “Those sources sound familiar,” someone wrote. And this, we discuss, brings up an essential point in vetting your sources: National Report sounds real, but is somebody’s blog, made to look like a news source. You have heard of USA Today; but is not Fake news sites will do their best to appear legitimate, so you’ve got to be sure you don’t let their names fool you.

Other students, meanwhile, said that these sources—WTOE 5 News and KYPO 6 News—sounded like legitimate news sites. Again, this allows us to discuss vetting our sources: the fakers are deliberately, and easily, making up local news stations that will sound real but aren’t. You have to dig beneath the surface to find out whether you can trust it—but a random “local” news network you’ve never heard of should invite suspicion.

Lastly, I’ll admit to one deliberate sneaky trick. Many reputable news sources reported the Pope/poop story, but I sourced a more marginal site ( that I figured none of my students had heard of (neither had I), and whose very name I thought might invite mistrust. Again, a couple of savvy students—who fell for, because it sounded legit—wrote that they rejected the poop story because sounded illegitimate. This quick activity, then, offered several good opportunities to discuss the challenges of deciding what sources we can trust—what pitfalls to avoid, and how to confirm a source is reporting real news.

7. BBC quiz:

Then students take this quiz—and briefly discuss the results. I mention how absolutely I failed this quiz. (This quiz, I tell students, is another good reminder of the pervasiveness of fake news online—but it’s only so useful or telling in itself, since the headlines are totally out of context here. As we’ve already discussed plenty by now in this and last semester’s lesson, you have to go beneath the headlines and examine broader contexts. Still, this or similar online quizzes (there are several) can at least reinforce the simple truth that there’s a lot of fake news out there, and that it’s up to you to be wary.)

8. Survey

Finally, students take a survey (real-vs-fake-news-survey), about their own online habits. Please note, the survey comes from the New York Times’ “The Learning Network” blog, almost verbatim. I reworded or cut a few questions to fit my classroom. You can find the original text—and many other useful resources—here.

This was a lot for a single period, but we did manage to do it all. I had to be much more careful than usual to move the class at a quick pace, but I think the variety of activities and the quick pace made it more interesting—and still allowed for pretty eye-opening conversations along the way.


A Few Days Later…

Later that week, I came in with an embarrassing confession. It was embarrassing for me, first, to admit to my students that I’d shared a cheesy, fluffy, celebrity-gossipy, feel-good article at all online in the first place, something I almost never do (I actually avoid sharing articles in Facebook in general, though I do read plenty). But it was doubly embarrassing to have shared a cheesy, fluffy, totally fake story, at that—and the very same week that I was teaching my students about how to recognize fake news.

It’s a really common fake news trope, too: Celebrity Has Nice Things To Say About Random Small Town. I’d even corrected somebody on Facebook for posting a similar fake story about Birmingham about a year ago. But recent weeks had battered at my defenses and senses, and I saw this innocuous but nice article about Bill Murray (who I like) and the town of Millbrook, Alabama (where I’ve often been), and it was the first positive story in my Facebook newsfeed in days, and so I re-posted it. Because Lord knows Alabama needs more positive stories.

On rereading it, it’s absurd. The story, in short, is this: that Bill Murray was driving a rental car through Alabama, and it broke down on the interstate outside of Millbrook (I know—I cannot explain how I fell for this). And so a local took him to a mechanic and while they waited took him out “to the finest dining spot in Millbrook—some place called Joe Mama’s,” where he got a burger. “Great freakin’ burger too.” And so Bill Murray had all these wonderful things to say about the good, salt-of-the-earth types—real people, not Hollywood fakes—who lived in Millbrook. And the best part: they didn’t even recognize him! (Because, one imagines, in Millbrook, Alabama, no one has ever seen Ghostbusters.)

And here’s the thing, and I told students this, too, when I confessed to them my Facebook sin: while I was reading it I thought to myself, why didn’t they take him to the Millbrook Smokehouse? But I went ahead and believed it anyway, and hit share.

Within five minutes a friend had commented that the story was fake, that indeed the exact story had been published, word for word, about multiple celebrities in multiple small towns.

I told my students all this in shame. So how, I asked, can you know if a story is fake? Then I did, with my students, what I should have done myself before I shared the story: I cut and pasted a quote from the article into a Google search, just to see what we could find—and, voilà:

“Hugh Jackman Said This About Windsor, Colorado Residents”

… and Adam Sandler about Billings, Montana

… and Bill Murray about Rochester, New York

… and Blake Shelton about New Albany, Indiana

… and Bill Murray about Toowoomba, Australia…

Exact same story, every time, just different celebrities and towns—and different restaurants, so locals will read it and believe (there is a Joe Mama’s in Millbrook, though I still doubt it’s finer than the Smokehouse). Our simple Google search also revealed multiple sites that identified this or that story as a hoax. This, I might add, is the same way I catch my students for plagiarism—a simple test that has caught more students through the years than I care to number. But I hadn’t taken the five easy seconds necessary to investigate this story before I hit “share.”

I told my students, attempting to regain a little pride, that I could have deleted my original post. But, as I’d seen modeled by other friends online, I posted an update and apology instead, and edited my original post to confess my mistake. Only after 24 hours, did I take down my original post.

It’s a stupid thing, but I thought it important to share with my kids: that—as a smart, informed consumer of media, and as someone who’s teaching students this week(!!) how to avoid fake news—even I was duped, that I temporarily abandoned my own standards for navigating the truth, simply because I wanted to spread some positive vibes. I told them how embarrassed I was, but I also explained my reasons for not deleting the post altogether. Sometimes we still might screw up. When we do, we have to own it.

Other fake news stories might help sway how we vote—or might send a lunatic into a pizza parlor with a gun. Thankfully my fake news story had no serious real world consequences: it was a silly, innocuous celebrity fluff piece that happened to be fake. But there are consequences for accepting lies, however innocuous they might be, as facts. We become uncritical in our thinking—in fact, we are not thinking at all—and we contribute to a culture where reality and facts no longer matter. And that’s scary.

A Few Days After That…

Later that week, in his first press conference since the election, the president elect publicly refused to acknowledge CNN, saying the network was “fake news.”

Since then, with repeated iteration of that claim, it’s become increasingly fashionable—from the White House on down—to label as “fake” any news source with which you disagree. So the fake news phenomenon has just become more complicated—for students, teachers, and any other citizens—than it already was.

Wrapping Up: A Resource foe Students

After I tell my Bill Murray story and acknowledge the president’s adoption of the “fake news” label, I present students with this handout: “Ten Questions for Fake News,” by the News Literacy Project. I recommend the handout to other teachers—it takes just a few minutes to go over, and there’s some good advice on it.

One Last Handout

Remember the survey that ended our first day’s lesson? One series of questions was this:

How much more careful are you with online sources when you are doing work for school than when you are simply surfing the web for fun? How do you decide what is a reliable source for your schoolwork? Do you use similar methods outside of school?

Universally—not at all surprisingly—students said that they are much more careful checking the reliability of sources for schoolwork than for sources they might engage outside of school. The most common explanation—again, not surprisingly: “In school, it’s for a grade.”

But a couple of students wrote, in effect, this: “Teachers show us how to choose reliable sources for schoolwork, but not for the news.” One student said: “We have a handout about how to choose scholarly sources for school, but we don’t have a handout for this.”

For me, this was one of the most profound discoveries of this lesson. I already suspected this: that we hammer home to students how to choose reliable sources when they research poetry or history, but we don’t have the same conversations about how to engage the immediate, day-to-day world around us. But this student’s comment, in all its helplessness—“We don’t have a handout for this!”—really made this failing sink in. And so I made a simple handout: what-do-you-know-about-these-news-sources.

All it is is a list of news media—online, in print, on TV or on the radio. There’s white space, so students can take a few notes on the different sources named; I won’t require students take notes on this, but I hope some of them will. Clearly, it’s far from exhaustive—I only name a few news magazines and news sites—but it’s a start. I wanted the size of the list to be manageable, and we could debate just what to include; if you teach this, you can tweak the list.

I passed out the handout and asked: what do you know about these sources? Which of these would you trust? Which would you not trust? Which would you trust, but with a grain of salt—or with the expectation of bias? When I introduced this in class, we only had a few minutes to discuss. One student said, “I wouldn’t use BuzzFeed for real news. It just doesn’t make sense to me to get important news from the same site where I take stupid quizzes like ‘Which Harry Potter Character Are You?’” I said I thought that was good logic and asked: What do you think is the purpose of a site like BuzzFeed? The consensus was “entertainment” and “to get more clicks.” That seemed like a good start to the conversation. Then the bell rang.

We haven’t had a chance to come back to this handout, but I plan to give it a quick second look with students next week, since most admitted to knowing nothing about most of these sources. I’ll give my own best, most objective descriptions of the sources and their reputations. The students will have to take it from there.

Postscript: Final Thoughts 

1. I already see, by the end of this lesson, my students throwing up their hands in despair and resigning themselves to this possible conclusion: there’s no way to know the truth anymore! You simply can’t trust the media! “This is scary,” a lot of them say, and some—to whom all this is new territory—look either helpless or hopeless. This, though, is the most important part of this lesson, and it needs to be reiterated more than once: that it’s increasingly hard to know the truth, but it’s more important than ever to seek it out. Giving up on the facts is simply not an option. You have to be vigilant and diligent, but you have to do it. We are neither helpless nor hopeless. It may be hard work and scary, but we have no choice but to do the work of being informed and committing ourselves to truth.

2. Here’s a topic for another conversation, but I’ll bring it up briefly here. The Trump era presents challenges for educators as well as journalists. As a public high school teacher, I’ve never discussed my own politics with students, even when we’ve discussed current events—which we’ve done a good deal over the years. I take this seriously.

I would love to hear from fellow teachers (in the comments below, via email, or in person): how you deal with the challenge of teacher neutrality in the new world of Trump? What if, in its first weekend in office, an administration lies about the size of its inaugural crowd? What if a president claims, without evidence, that nearly three million illegal votes were cast in the last election? What if a president suggests that real news organizations are “fake”? Putting aside (for the moment) every other concern that comes with this administration: how do you objectively discuss current events with your students, when the president makes wildly unbiased claims—and actually, actively lies? What happens when it’s perceived as partisan to simply point out a fact?

Are other teachers struggling with this? Where do you stand on these questions?

What do you do?


P.S. Thanks to multiple friends who shared their suggestions on Facebook; as I mentioned above, this lesson is entirely a pastiche of others’ ideas and work. Kate Harris—who has herself created outstanding, relevant lessons (like this!) for the New York Times—pointed me to the Digital Resource Center and the NYT‘s Learning Network. Heather Fann suggested the Pope activity, which was enormously successful and provoked great conversation. And William Davis quickly kindly pointed out my Bill Murray mistake. Many other friends contributed other ideas and questions and sent me resources I’m still culling through. So thank you, thank you, thank you to all. Let’s keep the conversation going.

A message for desolate hearts

For today’s post I mostly want to share a poem I learned today, by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet. First, a quick backstory. (Skip the story and scroll straight to the poem if you like—I don’t mind!)

Last semester I had in my Creative Writing class an exchange student from Chile—for the sake of this blog, we’ll call him “Nico”—the sweetest, kindest kid you could hope to teach. It was a one-semester deal. His summer just started with the new year, and Friday he goes home; this week he unenrolled from our school. He stopped by today to say goodbye.

It’s one thing when a great kid graduates; you’ll still probably see that kid around, or at least you know it’s a possibility. But when that kid disappears to another hemisphere—that’s a real bummer. It was an emotional goodbye.

My other students are as brokenhearted about it as I am. Once last semester Nico was absent for just one day, and a student insisted we couldn’t go on without him. “He’s the backbone of this class!” she cried. I laughed but demurred. “You’re all the backbone of this class,” I said lamely, and I repeated it and hoped it sounded sincere: “This class has twenty backbones!” I did mean it, mostly. It really is a great group of students, and it’s an appealing metaphor, too—the class as a single freakish organism, made up of many backbones. But we all knew she was right. The day just wasn’t the same.

As it turned out, Nico and I got each other parting gifts. I gave him a copy of Ziggy Stardust; he was really into Bowie’s Blackstar album this year but hadn’t yet heard the stuff that made Bowie famous.

He gave me a Pablo Neruda book, one he had his mom send up from Chile. We’d read some Neruda in class last semester and watched the Italian movie about him, Il Postino. I’d shared with the class, among other things, Neruda’s poem, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines…,” and it made the whole room wonderfully miserable—a triumph for poetry. (I challenged the class to find a better break-up poem or break-up song than that one, anywhere. So far no one has.) We read Neruda’s “Ode to the Tomato” and wrote our own giddy odes to ordinary things. Whenever we’d read Neruda poems in class I’d asked Nico, since he was game, to read the originals out loud in Spanish, and the whole class would sit in attention; then someone would read a translation. I teach Neruda in Creative Writing most years. This year we did more than usual.

The book Nico gave me today was a Chilean edition of a book I’ve never heard of, 20 Poemas al Arbol y un Cactus de la Costa (20 Poems to Trees and a Cactus of the Coast). The poems are printed in Spanish and English, with beautiful illustrations opening each poem, every poem a different tree.

“Those who do not know the Chilean woods,” Neruda writes in a sort of preface, “do not know the planet. From those lands, from that soil and that mud, from that stillness, I have come out to walk, to sing throughout the world.”


After Nico left today I skipped to the last poem in the book, the “Ode to the Cactus of the Coast.” This is why I’m writing this post, to share a chunk of that poem.

It’s a good poem for any January—and, I think, for this January especially. The year opens not just with a sense of uncertainty but for a lot of us with anxiety and despair and, perhaps, a dangerous sense of depletion. At any rate, I know it was helpful for me to read these lines today. Maybe you’ll find help in them too, for reasons of your own. I plan to reread these words often, whenever I can use them.

The translation is by Mónica Cumar. The poem is a few pages longer than this, but this is how it ends, and how the book ends:

… Thus is the story,
and this
is the moral
of my poem:
you are, wherever you live,
in the last
solitude in this world,
in the scourge
of the earth’s fury,
in the corner
of humiliations,
wait, work
with your little being and your roots.

One day
for you,
for all of us
your heart a red ray will burst forth,
you’ll also bloom one morning; the Spring
has not forgotten you, brother,
it has not forgotten you:
I say it to you
I assure you of that,
because the terrible cactus,
the bristly
son of the sands,
with me
entrusted me with this message
for your desolate heart.

And now
I tell you
and I tell myself:
brother, sister,
I am certain:
Spring shall not forget us.