Skip to content

Posts from the ‘From the Classroom’ Category

Re-Imagining Romeo and Juliet: Providing Students with Strategies to Help them make Better Choices and Live Healthy Lives

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

“It’s about two teens who fall in love and kill themselves in the end.”

When my 9th graders learned that we would be reading Romeo and Juliet, this was the first reaction I heard in every class.

Once my planning began for this whole-class text, I knew I wanted to do some re-imagining. How could I make this play more relevant for my students? How could I leave them with knowledge that would help them? I vowed to myself that by the time my classes finished reading Romeo and Juliet they would take away more than a sad love story of two star-crossed lovers.

In class we watched and read selected scenes from Stratford Festival‘s pre-recorded play. A colleague of mine recommended the resource–it is amazing! For homework, students were invited to either watch the scenes or read the summaries we were not looking at as a whole class.

Students also read articles that addressed issues present throughout the play and relevant in today’s world. I split the articles and topics into separate days. Students chose at least one article to read, analyze, connect to, write about, and discuss. Day 1 focused on topics related to the first half of the play. The following week, after finishing Romeo and Juliet, students completed similar work for a new set of articles listed under Day 2. I encouraged students to select a topic and article that spoke to them or they found most interesting.

  • Day 1
  • Conflict resolution
  • Peer mediation
  • Ways to control/work through anger
  • Negative peer pressure
  • Mob mentality
  • Day 2
  • Problem solving skills
  • Communication skills
  • Brain development
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Strategies to clam down
  • How to manage stress
  • Mental health resources

The connections students made included text-text, text-self, and text-world. I asked them to consider how the information in these articles would have helped Romeo and Juliet had they had the resources and how these resources might help teens today.

Also, we read the article, “How to Help a Friend” from the National Alliance on Mental Health as a class. I reached out to my guidance counselor who recommended it.

In thinking about our world today and the struggles that many of my students experience, I wanted to provide resources for the issues that come up in the play. My hope for the unit was to help my students move beyond their initial ideas of Romeo and Juliet, make better choices, and live healthy lives.

A few weeks after the unit, I was speaking with one of my student’s parents who thanked me for the way I approached the content of the play and the resources I had provided. In the end, I am glad I re-considered how to teach Romeo and Juliet.

The Mentor’s Role: Fostering a First-Year Teacher’s Confidence and Leadership

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

It is hard to believe that I started teaching 11 years ago because it only feels like yesterday that I graduated from The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) and started teaching in Bergenfield, New Jersey. During this transformative time, my mentor, Pat, guided me through those first few months and supported my new ideas. As the year progressed, we collaborated on a variety of assignments, and I taught her about Self-Selected Writing and the electronic portfolio project. Both Pat and my methods teacher, Dr. Emily Meixner, supported my teaching philosophy and classroom practices. Both encouraged me to share my success.

A defining moment occurred during my second year of teaching: I started to view myself as a teacher of teachers. Dr. Meixner invited me to talk at a “How to Teach. . .” session. After attending many of these professional development opportunities as a pre-service teacher, I felt honored to return as a presenter, sharing my electronic portfolio assignment. Dr. Meixner’s encouragement kindled my confidence to share best practices at local, regional, and national conferences and take on additional leadership roles within my district.

Presentations laid the foundation for my first journal publication and spurred my desire to continue completing informal, action research within my classroom and sharing my practices with colleagues. For me, the goal of presenting and writing is, and was, to “[develop] deep knowledge of content and pedagogy. . .improve [my] teaching practice,” (Hunzicker, 2017, p. 2), and teach both middle schoolers and teachers.

In the years since, I have not reflected too much on this journey from teacher to teacher leader. It was intrinsically motivated and natural. However, in thinking about this process, I have realized that the early support from my mentor and professor have had lasting effects on the way I perceive myself. I am not sure if I would have had the confidence to share my ideas with other teachers if they had not believed in me and my teaching.

I have been thinking more about my experience because I was asked to be a mentor this school year. As Anna’s mentor, I want to support her continual growth and encourage her to share her best practices the way my mentor and Dr. Meixner supported and encouraged me.

To prepare Anna for her first few months of teaching, we focused on her teaching philosophy, classroom practices, a year-long unit of studies calendar, district policies, induction requirements, classroom management, etc. Then, January presented more opportunities for us to work together on new assignments and lessons. The roles of mentor/mentee started to shift to collaborators.

Although I did not realize it at the time, there have been a few key moments that have supported Anna to take on leadership opportunities.

When our school’s English coordinator asked for exemplar narratives to send to the feeder elementary schools, I suggested that Anna should share a few of her students’ writing pieces. I had read three of the narratives and knew Anna’s students deserved to be highlighted in the booklet. In the end, their narratives where included, and perhaps for the first time, Anna helped students outside of her classroom and teachers within our district.

The first time I broached the subject about presenting we were walking outside around our school. Oftentimes in the nice weather, we would take a stroll and discuss teaching. Anna mentioned that the year-long unit of studies had been extremely helpful to her as a first-year teacher and I thought, we should share this method with other first-year teachers!

During an early mentoring session, we discussed the balance between reading and writing genre studies and choice. We considered the amount of time she would need to complete each unit. I asked Anna questions, guided her direction, and helped her design her own units of study. Our district’s curriculum offers a lot of freedom, which can be daunting for a new teacher. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days helped me refine my own units of study, so I knew this organization would help Anna succeed. I bought her a copy of their book that day.

Remembering this important turning point, I asked Anna if she might be interested in talking with me to other first-year teachers. This informal presentation would enable us to work together and for Anna to share her experience and success with other teachers. It would also encourage reflection, which she had already started to do, thinking about what she would like to refine for next year and what units she would like to revise. She was enthusiastic about this prospect.  

I continued to be impressed with Anna’s pedagogy and professionalism. With distance learning, her ideas were innovative, and I wanted her to help other teachers. With the start of the distance learning column on the PAWLP blog, I thought this would be a great way to encourage professional writing. She had adapted the one-on-one Canvas discussion boards that I taught her and was using them for one-on-one reading conferences. To prepare her to write the blog and guide her through the process, she reviewed exemplar blog posts, I asked her questions about her practice, and we rehearsed what she might include in her own blog. I am so proud of her for sharing her best practices in “Distance Learning: Creating Digital Reading Conferences in Canvas.” I commend her on her passion for the profession and dedication to improving her own practice and other teachers’ practices.  She reflected, “my mentor suggested that I write the blog post to share my unique take on the discussion boards” since “I am having success sustaining my students’ love of reading at home, I thought the blog post could be beneficial to teachers looking to do the same. Also, I decided to write the blog post because I thought it would be a fun way to enter the field of professional writing.”

The most recent opportunity for Anna to help other teachers occurred when we collaborated on the final assignment for distancing learning: an adapted electronic portfolio project. I had shared the initial project concept back in the fall, but we needed to make changes in order for it to work with distance learning. Together we determined that students would select and revise 2 to 3 writing pieces for Week 8. Week 9 will ask students to create the portfolio and write their dear reader letter. Week 10 will allow students time to celebrate their writing by sharing their portfolios with peers, friends, and family members.

When we finished developing the directions, I asked Anna if she would be comfortable sharing the directions with our English supervisor because our unit might help other teachers in our district. She agreed and our supervisor emailed them out to the English department.

I have learned a lot about being a mentor these past months. At the heart is guiding a first-year teacher to be successful and confident. Because Pat and Dr. Meixner believed in me and affirmed my ideas, I too believed in my teaching practices and wanted to share them with other teachers. 11 years later, I want to help Anna believe in herself as a teacher and share her positive experiences with others.

By collaborating with Anna and inviting her to become a teacher of teachers with me, I essentially sponsored her and enabled her to gain credibility within the profession. Hunzicker (2017) posits:

Younger, less experienced teachers . . .are more likely to be motivated toward teacher leadership; but older, more experienced teachers are more likely to be recognized as teacher leaders by their colleagues. This dichotomy presents one obstacle emerging teacher leaders might face during the progression from teacher to teacher leader. (p. 6)

To escape this binary, mentors can act as a liaison, transitioning their mentee from beginner teacher to respected colleague. The transformative first year of teaching enables pre-service teachers to wrestle with their professional identity, find success in their teaching practices, and join the academic conversation. Although mentees will continue to fluctuate between novice teachers and teacher leaders, this back-and-forth movement, with the support of their mentors, will aid in building the confidence necessary to lead. Anna shared:

Writing the blog post has made me more prepared and willing to take advantage of leadership opportunities. Before this, I was worried about being taken seriously as a new teacher; however, writing this blog post has shown me that I, like all teachers, have an individualized skill set that other teachers are interested in learning about. After reading my post, a veteran teacher actually asked me to help them set up their own individual discussion boards, and this reminded me that we do our best work by collaborating with one another. Writing this blog post has given me confidence in my status as a new teacher, and it has encouraged me to continue seeking out opportunities to share my knowledge.

First- and second-year teachers: what did you learn during your first years of teaching? What would you like to contribute to the profession? What successes did you have? What struggles did you overcome? Are there innovations that you would like to share? Mentors and professors: are there first- and second-year teachers you would like to recognize or invite to post? I would love to hear from you!


Gallagher, K., & Kittle, P. (2018). 180 days: Two teachers and the quest to engage and empower adolescents. Heinemann.

Hunzicker, Jana. (2017). From teacher to teacher leader: A conceptual model. International Journal of Teacher Leadership, 8(2), 1-27. Retrieved May 24, 2020, from

Meixner, Emily. (2014). Nurturing teacher leadership through homegrown professional development. English Leadership Quarterly, 37(2), 6-9. Retrieved May 24, 2020, from

Saying a Virtual Goodbye to our Classrooms and the Communities we Built Together.

The last few weeks of school are typically some of the best few weeks of school. This is when we get to enjoy all of our hard work and efforts together through writing celebrations, field trips, poetry slams, sharing our favorite reads, and reflecting on the year we spent together while looking ahead at our futures.

So as I  sit here separated from my students by a computer screen, I’m not only mourning the loss of our in-person connections but I’m also pondering how to honor the community we built with an asynchronous goodbye. 

First and foremost, I know I need to give my students choice with how they close out their school year. I realize this school shut down has presented a vast array of challenges for my students. While most deal daily with the boredom and loneliness of social isolation, others have become full time workers, some are trying to navigate online learning while sharing a computer with siblings and a home with 10 or more people, and a few are grieving lost or sick family members. With this in mind, I want to honor the school year we’ve had together while respecting the various hurdles they each have to jump in order to finish it. Accordingly, the following is how I plan to invite students, in their own ways and on their own time, to celebrate the community we’ve built before saying goodbye to it:

Virtual poetry slam: Since we’ve spent the few last weeks reading and writing poetry through our online learning platform, I want to take some time to communially celebrate the creative work we’ve done by inviting students to participate in any or all of several sharing options. Read more

Rediscovering Routines

By Lauren Heimlich Foley

The sun’s rays stream through my slider door, painting golden streaks across my floor. Someone’s weed whacker, aggressive and annoying, threatens my concentration. I breathe and return to the world of dystopian YA literature. Twirling my mug of steaming hot tea, I turn the page, hanging on every last word. And, then . . . I read my line of inspiration: a smile and a reunited love interest. Immediately, my mind sparks alive as I quickly swap out my book for a pen and notebook. Furiously, I write, pouring possible leads onto the page. Finally, I realize the boy I mentioned in my prologue—a quick write I wrote more than a year ago with my students—is not my main character’s love interest but the key to taking down the enemy. Just a week ago, I had not the slightest idea of how he would fit into my story and wondered if I even needed him at all.

The summer of 2019 marked two years after taking PAWLP’s Invitational Summer Institute, and I had the itch to create but no plans to write an article. I just so happened to be out with two of my best childhood friends—a kickoff to summer. Mentioning a story that I started writing with my students during quick write time, they asked if I would continue developing it over the summer. The next thing I knew, they were challenging me to continue writing.

Well . . . Challenge accepted. But, I had no routine.

Don Murray’s words of wisdom from “One Writer’s Secrets” kept playing in my mind:

  • “Write daily.”
  • “Pick the best time for your writing and try to protect that time. Be selfish.”
  • “Read widely as well as deeply; read writing as well as writing about writing”
  • “Keep a list of questions to which you want to seek answers.”
  • “Write for yourself.”
  • “Be patient.”
  • “Write to discover what you have to say.”
  • “Lower your standards.”
  • “Write with your ear.”

With Murray’s secrets, I set out to find the time and space for writing that worked best for me. I felt like Goldilocks, trying out the kitchen table, living room, and porch. I experimented with reading and writing during breakfast and after breakfast. Before or after a walk. Read first then write or write first then read.

In my search, a new pattern started to emerge: after reading a YA book, I found some sort of inspiration whether it be the story arc, characters, writing style, word choice, etc. Pausing to recognize this observation and all of my experimentation, I established some consistency:

  • Over the day’s first cup of tea, I read a YA novel. Usually a chapter or two.
  • As soon as my mind wandered to my own story, or I found a nugget of inspiration, I would switch to writing.
  • I established a goal to write at least three composition notebook pages each day.
  • But, I also realized that I needed flexibility. Some days I wrote creatively, others professionally. Some days I listed ideas or sketched. Some days I wrote first.
  • If the day was going to be a real scorcher, I either woke up earlier or walked first.
  • Interestingly, I found that I liked to read and write in all of the places I tried—the kitchen table, living room, and porch. I allowed the day to dictate which worked best for me.

When I was away with my family, this schedule proved more difficult, but I never left home without a book and a smaller bound notebook that my mom gave me. When school started, I kept to this schedule for September and October, but then there was graduate school and daylight savings—which are no excuses—but I found my mornings filled with professional writing and a little bit of extra sleep.

The good news was that I carved out time on the weekends for my routine. I also found time most school days at lunch to read roughly 15 minutes, and I wrote my story each class period during quick writing and self-selected writing. Discovering this time, allowed me to continue being an authentic participant in our workshop. Moreover, I was still finding most of my mini-lesson examples from the YA novels I read, book talking the books I was reading, and sharing my writing with my students.

I am finding it equally challenging to remain on a reading-writing schedule with distance learning. I will admit it: I am staying up late to watch throwback movies with my family, so I am not getting up early enough to read and write before distance learning begins. I do not have the official pause to write with my students each day or a lunch period to read. It is also difficult to turn off the teaching switch once school is ‘done’ because my classroom is my home.

After reading Courtney Knowlton’s piece on priorities, I am striking a balance. I am taking back my mornings and resuming my reading-writing routine. I know this needs to happen—and I know I can do it because the first two weeks of distance learning I stuck to my morning routine. During that time, I revised the below portion of my story—after being inspired by the flowering magnolia trees in my apartment complex. I shared this section as my example for an assignment two weeks ago.     

I know I am a better teacher when I am reading and writing for me and can share that experience with  my students. In a discussion board conference, one of my students shared how she had writer’s block, and I responded with three possible ways to get out of the funk—three ways that help me. It worked for her, and she recommended those tips to one of her peers during a small-group Teams meeting.

In order to maintain my personal and academic reading-writing life, I need to dedicate the time to read and write creatively and professionally. Reading and writing are some of my most favorite things. I do not want to let anything stand in my way.

So, I challenge you! If you lost your reading-writing routine—for any reason—reclaim it! Take back that sanctified time! Do it. For yourself. For your students. For your profession.

Distance Learning: Reflecting on Pandemic Priorities

By Courtney Knowlton

Back in mid-March my principal sent an email  entitled, “Emergency Staff Meeting at 3:15 pm.” It was a jarring phrase to read in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day. The purpose was to let us know that students would be off the following Friday and Monday, so we could prepare ten days worth of plans for distance learning. Little did we know that Thursday would be the last time this school year that the students gathered at the front doors of our school and we would need distance learning plans for much, much longer than ten days.

That Friday I sat in a classroom with my colleagues to develop a preliminary plan, and for the last four weeks we have taught our students from a screen. One of the most challenging parts of designing this online learning experience was sifting through the bombardment of resources. I received over 40 emails touting “virtual offerings” and “free access due to school closures.” The distance learning paradox is that I seem to have an unlimited supply of free resources, but I have a much more limited amount of time to interact with my students on a weekly basis. It felt overwhelming at first, but I discovered a process that helped to make the best of these challenging times.

When visualizing how to reach students virtually, it helped me to brainstorm a list of priorities. Here is my list so far:

  1. I want to show students that I care using whatever means necessary, whether we connect by video chat, phone, or mail.
  2. I want to develop something that my students can depend on, since they are dealing with so much change.
  3. I want to incorporate elements that my students are familiar with to give them a sense of comfort.
  4. I want to give students choice during a time that they may feel that so much is out of their control.
  5. I want to use technology to my benefit to give students more one-on-one time and specific feedback.
  6. I want to find ways for students to interact with each other. 
  7. I want to assess students with high expectations, but also with flexibility and understanding knowing they have different levels of accessibility and different home situations.
  8. I want to remember to think about my own health and wellness and try to maintain a work life balance.

Throughout March and the beginning of April I have tried to keep these priorities in mind when creating my Google Classroom. So far, I would say I have been most successful with 1, 2, and 5, and honestly 4, 6, and 8 have been quite a struggle. For me, it was an act of inquiry. I would try something, see how my students responded, and adapt accordingly.

Regarding connecting to students, I learned most of them could be reached using the announcement page on my Google Classroom or via messaging their parents on Class Dojo.  Thankfully my school was able to give out Chromebooks and once all the students had access to the technology, the best way to explain how to use it was by inviting them to a video chat and sharing my screen with them. Then, I could model how to navigate the site. I learned to be patient. At first hardly any students attended the chat, but over the weeks more and more logged in. Video chats were also a great way to bring a little fun into our situation. For example, we did one to sing happy birthday to a student, and I found an old party hat and bright pink noise maker in my basement that made the students laugh. 

To create something the students could depend on, I consistently provided information for them and their parents on our Google Classroom. At the beginning of the week I posted a grid organized by day number with a numbered list of work. Then, within the assignments tab, I titled each assignment using the format: Week #, Day #, Description. When the students clicked on the assignment they found two resources. The first was a video that I made using Screencastify. Each video showed my computer screen, while I explained the directions for the assignment. The other resource was their own copy of a Google Doc that I created for them to submit their thinking. Sometimes after checking the students’ work, I realized my weekly plan needed to be tweaked.  If this happened, I would add CHANGE IN PLANS to the assignment title. Even though the work was different week to week, I found that keeping these elements consistent helped to minimize the amount of questions I was receiving for how to complete it.

Over the next few weeks, I will continue to look for guidance with my priorities. Attending Zoom meetings with my professional communities has made me feel more grounded and better equipped to handle teaching from home. In some ways this shift to distance learning has made me feel more alone, but in other ways it has given me new ways to connect with others on a global level.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What does distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? What digital programs are you using? What lessons have you tried out? What routines and expectations are you establishing? How are you finding a balance?

Blog posts will be featured in our Distance Learning column each Monday. Please email the PAWLP blog if you are interested or would like to find out more information.

Poetry Writing Inspired by Shakespeare – Moving beyond the Sonnet

While Shakespeare is well known as a sonnet writer, anyone who has studied any of his plays, knows he had a few more poetry tricks up his sleeves. So, each year as my students study Romeo and Juliet, we notice his poetic language and use it to inspire our own poetry writing. The following are just a few of the poetry freewrites and prompts we experiment with together.

Two-Voice Poems:

When Romeo and Juliet first meet, they speak to each other in a two-voice sonnet. After we spend some time discussing the back and forth of this conversation (and the implications for their budding relationship), we look at other two-voice poems for additional inspiration.

One of my favorites to study is Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye’s “When Love Arrives.” In this poem, Sarah and Phil go back and forth, sometimes overlapping voices, to describe the different phases of love and relationships. It is a great model to watch and notice how they crafted their delivery to enhance the poetic meaning. Students also notice and discuss the contrasts between the relationship described in this poem and the short lived relationship between Romeo and Juliet.

Read more