Two years ago today, I sent away my AP Lang class with a flippant, “If we never come back from spring break, it’s been a pleasure being your teacher.”


Of course, we didn’t come back from spring break in person, and for many of those students it was, in fact, the last time I saw them. I think a lot of people are thinking back ruefully about our naïveté two years ago (aside from the then-doomsayers who are, I assume, taking morbid victory laps).

I suspect like many of you, I had to find some ways to spend the time that I suddenly had at home. When you have kids, the time more or less fills itself, but we had to do something. I started off trying to engage my students with online work, but no sooner had I emailed them than the District wrote all teachers, saying “DON’T GIVE STUDENTS ONLINE WORK. WE WILL GIVE YOU FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS SOON.” So then I had to figure out what I was going to do with the extra time we had. The increased anxiety about COVID was not conducive to reading or writing for me; I had a hard time focusing on thinking. I needed something active, something constructive, something that would allow me to shut off my brain.

So I started building a wall.

A small section of my COVID Wall, built from Chilton Steppers, which sounds like an old Vaudeville act.

I had planned to do some landscaping since the previous summer. We had torn out an old ramp that wrapped around the corner of our house, and between the sidewalk and where the ramp had been were a million orange tiger lilies, attractive for about one week of the summer and trashy the other fifty-one weeks of the year. So I had ordered a whole bunch of Chilton steppers, wide, flat stones intended not for building a wall but for laying out on, say, a patio. My plan was for the stones to be freestanding, using no mortar or adhesive to keep them in place, so I thought wider was probably better anyway, so they would be less likely to shift over the colder months. The stones had arrived late in the summer of 2019, too late to begin the project. They sat alongside my driveway through the fall and winter.

Then, lockdown. Faced with beautiful weather, unable to communicate with students. This, I decided, was the time.

I would not say I knew what I was doing, but I was fine with that. I’m not a “how hard could it be” kind of guy when it comes to projects like this, but one thing I had learned from my dad was that if you have access to YouTube, along with some humility, patience, and common sense, you can figure these things out. I dug out the flowers and a whole lot of dirt, and laid the first layer of stone about one-third of the length I envisioned it. I started in the middle for some reason, instead of at one end or the other. Stone by stone, I laid them in place, one on top of the other, trying to consider their complementary colors (they were not at all uniform, as you can see above), their shapes, the lines created where one stone ended and the next began, and just kept on laying them. I may write more about the process later, but the point here is that, although I would have eventually gotten this work done, for me the building of it will always be associated with that first spring of COVID, when the world seemed more still than it had been in a long time, and life was paused.

I tried some other things out as well, but I’ll save those for future posts. What did you try during the pandemic? Did any of it continue to be part of your life when things returned to (at least somewhat) normal?

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Goings On Around the Internet

Have you heard of joro spiders? Do you like sleep? If you said no to both, learn about this enormous new* species here.

Photo Credit: “Joro Spider” by jdnx is marked with CC BY 2.0

I am very excited for the new Obi Wan Kenobi show.

Although it does draw fresh attention to the fact that George Lucas didn’t think through his decision to make robes the default Jedi uniform (warning: language!).

Not a surprise, but another study says that mask mandates were effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

And finally, my Denver Broncos finally have a quarterback for the first time since Peyton Manning retired. Don’t understand the people thinking they gave up too much — if you’re a quarterback away and you go out and get a future Hall of Famer, I don’t care what you had to give up. Patrik Walker of CBSSports agrees with me.

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Welcome Back!

I haven’t used this blog in years and years, but I decided it was time to use it again. (Feel free to go back through and see what I said to my Kennedy AP Lang students in the distant past!)

Here you will not only have access to your colleagues’ blog posts, but also to blog prompts, “best of” posts, and general blogging suggestions. Plus, you have the pleasure of seeing that now I have to blog as well! Enjoy!

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Prompts for March 8

If you need a prompt for one of your posts this week, here are three options: 

1. Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” To what extent do we have control over whether we feel harmed by what others say and do? 

2. In reviewing the reality dating show Love Is BlindAmanda Mull writes that the conflicts among the show’s participants seem “distressingly familiar”: “All couples argue, and lots of them have the same argument over and over again. Defensiveness, poor communication, and hurt feelings have turned us all into jerks on occasion.” Either respond to Mull’s argument, or choose another reality show you like. To what extent is relatability part of its appeal? Why? 

3. Spring trimester often gets people thinking about where they are going, and where they have been. What single piece of advice would you give to eighth graders who are getting ready to start high school?

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Two Assignments and a Suggestion


“This would make a great topic for my next blog post.” (Credit)


I’m going to continue to push you toward using your blog for the preparation work before you begin drafting your Book Review Essay (the requirements for which can now be found on Canvas here and here). So, for your three posts this week, here are two assignments and a suggestion:

  • Assignment One: I’d like you to use at least one of your posts this week to write some initial thoughts about your book. I know people are in different places. Don’t let that deter you. Even if you’re not as far as you “should” be, even if you’re only far enough to give some basic first impressions, do what you can. But if you’re halfway through, you can probably start to shape how you want to talk about this book when you’re drafting the real essay.
  • Assignment Two: Find another outside source about the same topic. Could be anything: a column from a newspaper, a report from a nonprofit organization, a video from YouTube… Just be mindful (as always) of what readers will think, and be ready to answer the questions before they’re asked: “Where did this come from? Who made/wrote it? Why should I trust it?”
  • Suggestion: Do Assignment Two twice, so that you’re even further ahead on developing and articulating your thoughts about the topic of your eventual essay.

PS — Don’t forget, you should still use images/links/etc. in these posts!


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A Few Good Sources

I hope you’ve been making good headway on your nonfiction books in the past several days. So far, I’ve asked you to analyze an existing book review essay, and to think about how the author gives the reader context early on. Now I’d like you to start looking for some additional sources that you might eventually use in the essay you’ll write.

Today, your assignment is to find two sources that could be used in that way.

My suggestions for how you might go about this:

  • Keep track of the questions that occur to you while you’re reading. Not the questions about vocabulary, but those that could be answered through a little further research. Then go looking for articles, blog posts, videos, podcasts, and other stuff that will help you answer those questions.
  • Look for interviews with, or articles about, your author. There, you’ll almost surely find some really useful or interesting tidbits that may prove useful when you’re drafting.
  • Take a look at websites and magazines whose topics align with that of your book. Read around on the site. Look for connections with the book you’re reading. This will make it easier to tie your review to current public conversations.

There are more options than just those, of course. And once again, I encourage you to use your blog posts this week to explore some of these articles, or ideas directly from your book!

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NF Book Questions (part 1)

At this point, you should have your nonfiction book that you’re going to review.

  1. Is there an author’s note? If so, what important information (perhaps about her/his process) does the author tell you there?
  2. In the introduction or first chapter, how does the author make a case for the relevance of her/his subject?
  3. What context does the author tell us we need to understand in order to make sense of her/his subject?
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Book Review Essay Analysis


As we’ve been talking about, you’re going to write a book review essay that follows the basic conventions of the genre. My hope is that you’re already well on your way to getting a nonfiction book, published either this year or last, about a topic that interests you.

To get a sense of the genre you’ll be writing in, and its conventions, you’re going to spend some time analyzing a book review essay. Choose one of these essays from The New York Review of Books linked below. I will provide some questions for you on the Smart Board.

Remember that the goal here is for you to gain an understanding of this kind of essay, not to get the “right” answers to the questions I’m asking. Here are the essays:

The Women at the Top, by Marcia Angell (2014)

Kicked Out in America!, by Jason DeParle (2016)

The Disaster of Richard Nixon, by Robert G. Kaiser (2016)


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Friday Links

Spiders tune their webs like guitar strings. Very short video; worth the click.

This upcoming Macbeth movie looks potentially pretty cool.

Sounds like David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” caused more than a couple of arguments with his editor.

Via Laughing Squid, enjoy this time-lapse of a monarch caterpillar’s metamorphosis.

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Chris Ware, Minecraft, and Visual Literacy

For later use, Ken Parille’s blog post about Chris Ware’s New Yorker cover from the June 22, 2015 issue.

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