Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sensitivity applies to adult learners, too

In August, I was asked by our Superintendent to give a writing workshop to administrators who would be contributing to our school's web site. This assignment was extremely intimidating as the audience members including the superintendent himself, assistant superintendent, high school, middle school, elementary school, and pre-school principals, and the directors of technology and admissions.

He suggested having everyone bring in what they would be writing and that the group would give each other feedback. Although that might be fine, my teaching instinct kicked in and I thought that would be too intimidating. Even though they are all top level educators, critiquing their writing right from the start might not be beneficial to the process. When running writer's workshop, an essential element is trust building. One of the principals was new (she had just started work the week before) and although the administrators knew my name, they didn't necessarily have any kind of in-depth relationship with me.

Instead, we asked them to write an introduction to their school or department to bring to the meeting. The guidelines for writing were as follows:

1. Your piece should be no more than 400 words long, no fewer than 250.
2. Given the brief amount of time that people spend actually reading content, what do you want to get across quickly?
2. Leave an impression of warmth and welcoming.
3. Write in the present tense.
4. Consider the draft language of The Profile of a Learner when writing:
As self-directed  and curious learners, an AIS student is
  • Responsible and Compassionate Citizen
  • Resilient, Persistent, and Adaptable Achiever
  • Critical and Creative Thinker
  • Innovative Problem Solver
  • Effective Collaborator   
  • Skillful Communicator 
  • Insightful and Strategic Researcher

However, we started the session not by critiquing what they wrote, but by looking at other pieces of writing from other school web sites. Here was the "assignment. "

The new web site will serve two functions. The one that we will focus on today is the external site that will serve as a marketing tool for potential students, parents, and teachers.
Directions: In pairs, you will be assigned two or three introductory letters to read. Please analyze the letters using the following questions:
Is the welcome message written in first person, first person plural, or in another voice? Is this an appropriate voice or would you prefer something else?

Given the short time viewers actually read on websites, is what is revealed in the first two paragraphs compelling? Why or why not? Who is the audience?

What do you learn about the school in the first three paragraphs?

Does the writer come off as affable? Professional? Competent? Or are you disconnected from the author?

This provoked much conversation and sparked energy in the room. They wrote their answers on a shared Google Doc which allowed others to see what web sites they could reference when they edited their pieces. 
Next, instead of having everyone look at everyone else's pieces, they peer edited in pairs. There is a difference between exposing your work to one colleague and many. 
The results from this workshop have been tremendous. The pieces are short, warm, and informative. Also, after the workshop the administrators trusted my instruction and were more open to my edits. The feedback was great. 

Dear Sharna,

What a worthwhile hour. I found digging into models with particular criteria in mind for such a relevant task very helpful.


THANK YOU SO MUCH! You kept the essence and gave it a much more professional voice. I couldn't have done it better!
Truly love it.

Mission accomplished! 

Collaborating with 10th grade history teacher to reinforce proper citation methods

Making the transition back from maternity leave as smooth as possible

Probably something very few people discuss is how nerve wracking it can be to re-enter the classroom environment after a maternity leave. The students have just spent, in my case, 14 weeks with another teacher. They have gotten used to her style and her methods. One questions how they can possibly successful after such an absence.

To ease the transition, I decided to spend the first lesson with a balance of introductions and academics. I began reviewing the class rules and expectations. Then I did one  of my favorite (and most appreciated) lessons, "How to Write an Email." This allowed them to get used to my teaching style on a subject that all know and understand.

I explained to students that the purpose of learning how to write an email is to essentially get what they want. I taught them how they should address people in an email, what the email should say, not to use emoticons, and to provide a subject that summarizes the intent. All of the teachers in the school appreciate this lesson as they are addressed more appropriately and can understand what their students want from them quickly. This is a lesson that they will take with them once they graduate high school and it will benefit them in university and the work place.

Then I began the new unit with how I begin each school year, an identity chart. This is a lesson from Facing History. Students evaluate their own identities and then he redo the same for authors that we study. Their identity charts hang in the room. Not only does this provide the basis for a future assignment, but it also shows them that I value who they are.

Then they had write me an email for homework. The email asked the following questions:

  1. What is your favorite subject? Why?
  2. What is your least favorite subject? Why?
  3. What do you hope to achieve in this course before the end of the year?  
  4. Catch me up. What should I know about this class that will help me be a better teacher?
  5. What should I know about you academically to be a more effective instructor?
  6. What should I know about you personally to be a more effective instructor?
  7. Tell me a random fact about you.
  8. Ask me a question, any question. (Within reason)

Between the identity chart and the 8 questions I was able to get to know them without missing a beat. I am sure that there will still be challenges along the way with the transition, but I've done my best to make it as smooth as possible.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

My Requested Endorsement of NoRedInk

I received an email from NoRedInk today asking me to endorse their product for an upcoming meeting that I assume involved funding. Here's what I wrote:

To Whom It May Concern,

NoRedInk is an invaluable tool for teaching grammar. To be frank students hate studying grammar. They find it painful, tedious, and somewhat obsolete. I know better;  understanding grammar helps their writing, understanding of the English language, and even their understanding of other languages. Given that for most of my students English is their second, third or even fourth language, understanding the concepts offered by NoRedInk is critical to their development and achievement. There are a few specific items offered by NoRedInk from which the students benefit and enjoy.

1. The assignment and reference components which allow them to self assess and repeat the lesson if necessary.

2. The feedback that I receive that allows me to decide how much more instruction they need as a class and individually.

3. The personalized nature of the assignments that feature their favorite t.v. shows, characters, etc. It allows them to personally connect with the grammar which helps them remember the concepts.

There is more to say, but I'm actually on maternity leave. However, this program is so valuable that I wanted to contribute.


Sharna Marcus
English and History Teacher

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Empowering students to learn and publish their findings

We are senior high school students, studying at an American, international school, in Israel (WBAIS). As part of our middle east history curriculum, we are reading Side By Side, by Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On, Eyal Naveh, and PRIME Institute. This book is being used as part of our study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in tandem with in class videos from multiple sources such as Crash Course, and the likes of  For Critical Thinkers. We were given an assignment, to review your video, “Conflict in Israel and Palestine: Crash Course World History 223”, and using the book, Side By Side, find pieces of information that may be missing in the video, that could be critical for further discussion of the conflict.

We hope to hear back from you or your team with feedback on our suggestions.


Signed: Yael Ella (Israel), Michael Rivo (Israel), Sang Woo (South Korea), Holly Madore (Canada), Noa Zilkha (Israel), Asaf N (Israel), Raphael Chew (Singapore), Isaac Castellanos (USA), Elisa (USA), Ms. Sharna Marcus (USA).

UPDATE: After the students sent this they received a thoughtful response from the writer and narrator of For Critical Thinkers - Richard Bass. He offered to Skype with them, but it was a couple of days before graduation and we couldn't make it work with the time difference. The students were floored that their feedback really mattered to someone of his caliber. It was a proud moment for them and a great way to end the year.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

World Zionist Congress Adaptation Simulation

This post contains links to a World Zionist Congress Adaptation Simulation lesson plan. The resources include the assignment, content materials, assessment and the evaluation from the observation including my own reflection.

This adapted simulation is not historically accurate nor is it meant to be.

Please let me know if you have any questions. Note: the bulk of the Zionist biographies are excerpts from the Online Encyclopedia Judaica.

Lesson plan with post reflection
The Assignment
The Assessment with Student Answers 


Sunday, April 19, 2015


As a teacher, I've always struggled to incorporate journaling into my lesson plans. This may be surprising because I am an English teacher. However, there is only so much time in a lesson or unit, and often I have chosen to prioritize other skills such as reading comprehension, writing essays, creative writing, speech writing, grammar, and vocabulary. However, I was inspired to integrate journaling into the teaching of a new novel that I am teaching called, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. One of the many reasons I introduced this novel (for another post) into the 10th grade curriculum is that the narrative focuses on teenagers, and after reading classical literature, I thought this would be a great way for my students to end the year. The novel lends itself to journal writing as the themes and topics are relevant to them.

Another reason is that although I do believe mastering the art of formal writing is critical to a students' success, so is the ability to express their opinions and ideas articulately in an informal setting. Also, formal writing is formulaic, or at least the way that I teach it so that they can achieve mastery. Journaling allows students to draw from their own experiences to articulate their ideas however they see fit.

In addition, just like I have written about developing reading endurance, the same is true for writing. Writing for ten minutes every class will help them to become more expressive without fear of their classmates' judgments during discussion.

Lastly, it helps me connect to my students in a non-judgmental and egalitarian way. Although, ideally I hope that I am a teacher who helps teens to be masters of their own education, oftentimes I find myself in the role of critic and disciplinarian. Journaling allows me to have an authentic interaction with my students which, I hope, will enhance our relationships. These enhancements, I hope, will lead to their continued investment in the material through the end of the year and in the future.

So why have I not always had students journal? To be honest, it is a huge time commitment both in class and out of class.  However, Google Docs makes it much easier than dealing with 50 paper journals. Also, our school uses a program called Google Dashboard that allows you to view multiple student folders and documents at once. I can even see if students are actually typing or off task. This feature brings me 1984esque discomfort, so I try to only use it if a student seems really unfocused

One last thought. The questions that you pose to students for journaling have to be both excellent and diverse. You cannot come up with questions at the last minute or your students' answers will reflect your lack of thoughtfulness.  Amazingly, the converse is true as well!

Here are the journal questions from our last assignment:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie author study

  1. Do you feel like “your story” is honored by your teachers and your peers? Why or why not?
  2. What stereotypes do you find people have about your background?
  3. Respond: “It’s not that stereotypes are untrue. It’s that they are incomplete.”
  4. Respond: “Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”
  5. Respond: The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar."
  6. What is your impression of the author based on the Ted Talk?

Friday, February 20, 2015


In my ELL History class, we are moving beyond building vocabulary to reading and answering analytical questions. They are currently studying the Han Empire and were asked a question about the Silk Road on page 105 from the Pearson/ Prentice Hall World History book by Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Elser (2007).

The question is: How do you think the knowledge Zheng gained helped establish the Silk Road?

Not one of the students could answer the question based on the information in the textbook. One part that confused them understandable is that Zheng is also spelled Zhang in the textbook –I don’t know if they fixed that in later version. But the biggest problem was that the answer is not explicit in the text and therefore they needed to think about it.

The book explains using a brief primary source and historical description that Zheng Qian, a Han diplomat, was sent by Emperor Wudi to “establish contact with peoples outsides the Han empire” (104). He went all the way to India and the Roman Empire for his research.  The textbook then explains what he learned in those faraway places helped establish the trade routes of the Silk Road.

So first I asked them what supplies do you need in a school. They answered balls, pens, pencils, paper, computers, uniforms, food, drinks, etc. I then asked, “If you had never been to this school before, how would you know where these items were?”  They answered, “You would have to ask people.”  Then I asked them, “How would you tell people outside the school where they were, if they had never been to the school?” They answered, “You would have to write it out for them or draw a map.”

So they very briefly drew a map of the school as if we were giving strangers instructions, like voyagers on the Silk Road needed if they planned on trading or buying goods.

So I explained that Zheng Quian had to go to different places and talk to different people from far away regions to find out what goods they sold and needed. But one student whose parent is a diplomat said, “That’s not a diplomat’s job. His job is relationships with other countries, like politics.”  So I explained that diplomats also negotiate economic issues and gave examples of economic treaties that are negotiated between governments. I also explained that there is crossover between political and economic issues, for example sanctions.

Also, a diplomat’s job is to provide reconnaissance (not as a spy but as an information gatherer) to offer a perspective to her government.  

That’s exactly what Zheng Quian did. He told the Emperor Wudi what he saw on his journey and that there were consumers for their products. In addition, he reported on possible imports for the empire.  This drastically impacted their economy as well as created a new, eventually powerful merchant class.

Did I plan to spend 45 minutes on one homework question? No, I didn’t.  Is this particular piece of information crucial to their life? No, it’s not. However, I wanted to demonstrate and cue them on how to think through a difficult question and apply a historical concept to their own life. I wanted them to think. And for 45 minutes, they did.

Feedback on Speeches

Giving feedback to students on their writing is a very tricky endeavor. You want to help them improve, but you also don't want to criticize them to a point of causing their writing paralysis. Writing requires confidence, but not hubris. I try my best to keep this in mind when providing them with edits.. However, some students cannot handle any constructive criticism. The goal with them is to gain their trust and open their hearts so that they can learn without feeling like feedback is an attack on their self worth.

I find that feedback is least tolerated by students when the genre is creative writing; unless, the entire course is focused on creative writing. Students are most eager to receive feedback on a speech because they will be reciting it in front of their peers. They want to put their best foot forward. 

Below are links to four students' speeches. The students are diverse and English may not be their first or second language. Their grades last semester range from C to A. All four of the students received some type of individual, in-person feedback either during class or after class after receiving comments on their rough draft. Student 4 was asked to rewrite his speech during a conference; I prefer to tell a student to that in person, rather than in the comments section. 

This is their sixth piece of formal writing this school year. They are 10th graders.  Rough drafts were uploaded to Turnitin. I included three very successful final drafts and one improved, but less successful one. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Giving them what they need

Teachers are trained to create units, to set learning outcomes, and to follow the objectives of a curriculum. There is a perceived and sometimes mandated rush to cover topics. What I am finding is that sometimes though, I’m sacrificing depth for breadth and when I do, no one is benefitting, specifically not the students.

This is something I fret about, but it was confirmed recently when a student wrote on an evaluation that, “sometimes the teacher cuts a discussion short just to get to the next topic.”

Students write all sorts of comments on evaluations. Some I take to heart and some I take with a grain of salt. But this, along with my own professional inventory, I really took to heart.

For example, right now my students are working on their speeches for the school’s annual speech contest. I wanted to cut this unit very short. My excuse was that speech writing was covered in 9th grade and will be covered again in 11th and 12th grades.  I wanted them to write their speeches, get comments from me, practice, and deliver.

However, they wanted more. They requested guided brainstorming and time to revise. Some asked to conference with me. They used and desired time for peer feedback and practice. Some students were ahead of others and hoped to spend their time on practicing vs. revising.

So, I listened and gave them the time.

The first question I asked at the beginning of my English classes today was what do you need so that you can successfully deliver a speech during the next class?

They were a bit surprised by the question. It's not a typical question asked by a teacher to a student. We usually tell t hem what they "need." However, it didn't take long for them to communicate their exact needs. 

Was every student on task all of the time? No, they never are, but are you ever on task for 80 minutes?  But I did my best to monitor their progress and ask questions to get them back on track. 

So as I find myself stressing out over the fact that my lesson plans from last year show that we were already reading Macbeth and that this year we are “behind,” I will remind myself that there really is no such thing as behind. I am not teaching for the state. There is no 10th Grade English test that my students have to pass.   I have some autonomy in determining the pace. For this, I feel very fortunate and so are my students.


Postscript: Their speeches were great and much improved from the first to the second drafts. It was time well spent.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

What do 10th graders at an International School care about?

There are so many assumptions made about teenagers without ever consulting them. Every generation has its labels and this one is no different. But how often do we ask teenagers what is important to them. What do they care about?

As I've written about before, out school holds an annual mandatory speech contest. This provides an excellent window into our students' priorities and values. Knowing what they care about will help me be a better teacher, so that I can make my lessons relevant to their interests. Here is a list of their topics:


  • Schools should ban computer use
  • Everyone should know how to code
  • Technology is taking over our lives
  • Technology is increasing the wealth gap
  • War technology creates a disconnect between the bomber and the victims
  • Piracy is immoral
  • Space exploration is still crucial

Emotional Well Being

  • Mental Illness should be taken more seriously
  • Middle Child Syndrome is a real illness
  • Stop ruminating
  • Say yes to life
  • Enforce a four-day-work week
  • Baking is therapeutic
  • Nothing in life matters, so don't get so upset about everything
  • Success involves hard work and luck
  • The soul exists
  • Intuition is important to develop
  • Count your blessings
  • Cursing is good for you
  • Love yourself
  • The value of internal motivation

Physical Health

  • Why obesity is a serious problem
  • Eat a pepper every day
  • Overuse of antibiotics
  • Why everyone should be a vegetarian
  • Sleep is important
  • Ride a bike to work
  • Lefties are superior to righties

Politics, Religion, and Social Policy

  • Religious extremism is and always has been a great world problem
  • It's time for anarchy
  • Beware of cults
  • Child Soldiers should be a UN priority
  • Street art should be considered equally to other types of art
  • It is wrong to hold whales in captivity
  • Video games do not cause violence in youth


  • Being a 3rd Culture Kids opens your eyes to the world
  • Take a Gap Year
  • Why there should be no speech contest
  • Should students be allowed to choose their teachers
  • Everyone should read more


  • Everyone should be a fan of a sports team
  • Professional soccer needs video replays
  • Why everyone should be part of a sport team

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How is Islam is portrayed in the media worldwide

This semester to begin Middle East History, each student was assigned a different news web site from a different country or part of the world. Into the news' sites engine, they needed to type in the word "Islam" into the search engine. They then copied the headlines into a Google Doc and copied them into Wordle.

If you are unfamiliar with Wordle, it it a graphic representation of the most frequently used words that are copied and pasted into a word cloud generator. It can help students, especially visual learners, easily spot trends.

After creating their Wordles, students inserted them into a Google Presentation. Today, we will discuss what words are currently associated with Islam as indicated by the different news sites from around the world. We will compare and contrast countries to note the emphasis. We will ask why some words are there and some are not.  For example, Islam is a religion but the word "prayer" or  other Muslim observances are hardly mentioned. Why?

This lesson follows a previous lesson authored by my colleague Mrs. Chill, where students examine their own identities and how that may lead to their perceptions in the course. Where a media outlet is located also influences its coverage of Islam and the stories that are written about it.

Just a technical note, not every student has Flash on their computers as required by Wordle. There are many other programs that create word clouds. They are listed here.

Below are a couple of the Wordles generated by this class, but if you would like to see more, visit the presentation.

The next time I do this assignment, the only thing I would change is have students actually delete the word Islam from their Google Doc so we can focus on the other words instead.
The Local (Germany)

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 11.58.24 AM.png
From the Jakarta Post

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Art of Brainstorming Speech Topics

One of the most challenging aspects of an assignment for some students is coming up with an idea. The adage that I subscribe to and teach is to “write what you know.” Currently, my students are working on speeches. Coming up with a topic is challenging because, as one of my students said, “There’s just so much you can do.”

There is a misnomer that a proper brainstorming session involves students shouting out stream of consciousness thoughts, whatever first comes to mind.  This method typically doesn’t produce the best ideas and is challenging to control.

To brainstorm ideas for a speech, I ask students to take a personal inventory of sorts. Individually, each student has to answer a series of questions in a Google Document titled: “What do You Care About?”  After they have answered the questions, students may share their answers with the class. From the answers we generate a Google Document where they can further review possible speech topics. All three sections of 10th Grade English contribute to the document.

After they answer the questions, I use the bull’s eye diagram to further explain why the exercise is important in the brainstorming process. For a typical teenager, the most important and central part of the bull’s eye in the self, next the family, then school, followed by other communities, and lastly “greater society” or the world. I hypothesize to them that their speeches will be easier to write, more authentic and compelling the closer it would fit to the center of the bull’s eye. This hypothesis isn’t absolute. Some student can take any topic, delve into it, and write a good speech. However, when students “write what they know” they may find the elusive “flow” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about. According to Csikszentmihalyi, being in state of flow will help students produce better work and enjoy learning.



Persuasive Speech Topic Brainstorming Session: What do you Care About?

  • What are the three most important things to you about your family?
  • What are three things about your family you wish you could change?
  • What are three things about this school that you really like?
  • What are three things about this school that you wish you could change?
  • What are three things everyone should know how to do?
  • What are three things people take for granted?
  • If you had an unlimited amount of money, to whom/which groups would you donate money?
  • If you had to choose to take one class, all day, every day, what class would it be?
  • Where are three places everyone should visit once in their life?
  • What are three common misunderstandings adults have about teenagers?
  • What are the three biggest problems facing the world today?