10 Months.10 Lessons.

Thank you for your readership of Ethical ELA this school year. Thank you for being my teacher-friend.

In a typical school day, the only time teachers may be alone is when we use the restroom (until someone knocks on the door).  Still, teaching can feel quite lonely. Who can understand the joy of a lesson gone well? Who can appreciate when clouds of doubt blow in to rain upon said good lesson? To whom can we confess our tears of joy when a student finishes her first book or tears of regret when we lose our temper? Ethical ELA has been a place for me to work through the most humbling moments of teaching, and I appreciate you being virtually alongside me as I grapple with how to be good enough for the students with whom I am entrusted. So thank you. Thank you.

This is my final post of the school year; it is a year in review essentially, and then I will take some time this summer to just be Sarah (whatever that may be or mean). See you in August.

1.August 2016: Tech is just a tool.

Weekend Reading ExperienceI tend to write about questions and discoveries from our classroom. This year was no different. I started with discussions of technology because our class piloting 1:1 Chromebooks (among other classes across the district) as we transition to a district-wide 1:1 tech initiative.  I spent August trying to blend hand-held books and pens with sharing out docs, slides, and forms on screens I had to bend down to see. I taught tech skills alongside reading skills and tried out new apps and extensions. I know some of the tech lessons were necessary, but others sucked up important reading time.  After August, the Chromebooks became nothing more than a tool for organizing thinking, gathering resources, and preventing the delays and aggravation of  forgot-it-in-my locker, lost-it, dog-ate-it of learning artifacts, and we didn’t need these tools every day. Fridays were tech-free days when we’d look into each other’s eyes and paper pages — not screens.

2.September 2016: Be mindful of how you and your students communicate needs.

5 love languagesI was teaching at DePaul that fall – a course about socio-cultural influences on perceptions and development of middle school students. The Cubs were going to the World Series, and Donald Trump was becoming president. It was an emotionally charged semester within and beyond the classroom. This month was all about getting to know one another, which is the only way I knew we had a chance at a safe space to take risks and grow in junior high or in college classrooms. The “Love Language” post helped me work through many challenging situations with students the first weeks of school; they were testing me, teaching me how to know and relate to them. The love language framework helped me be mindful of the ways we communicate our needs and learn — deliberately– how to treat students and how to teach them to treat me.

3.October 2016: Taking care of yourself is an ethical responsibility.

be the teacherIn a matter of weeks, I was both invigorated by choice reading and fatigued (already) by the hustle and bustle of the schedule. The “honeymoon” phase of the year ended quickly, and I was not only unsure about whether or not to capitalize my blog titles but whether or not I had any business being a teacher. Thirteen years in, and I still had not figured out how to eat and stay hydrated in a school day. My first talk at the Illinois Reading Council made me feel like other people in Illinois actually cared about what I was doing; I had people in my session who came because of Ethical ELA’s work. Still, I had to take personal days to speak at a state and national conference, and I wasn’t so sure I would make it through another seven months with my sanity in tact. Because of this site, I felt like I had to recover from my melancholy, so the “fatigue in teaching” post reminded me to search for (and even fake it till you make it) balance. I bought vitamins and a pretty water bottle, pledging to drink more water in the name of health and sanity. When I fill my water bottle around 8th period, I feel like I am doing something good for me and my students: a hydrated teacher is a happy, rationale, ethical, kind teacher who is more open to choice and conversation.

4. November 2016: Love has to be at the heart of what we do and how we do it.

Imagine Together with BooksThis was the month for the election and for NCTE. It felt so great to be leading a session with Lesley Roessing about how books are mirrors, windows, and maps for our students in a time when I (and my students) were feeling panicked about the future of our country. I met Lesley on Facebook, and we proposed a session about YA lit that enticed a number of teachers looking for new titles and inspiration.  I returned to the classroom inspired by the teachers I met at NCTE — determined to read into new places and experiences. My course at DePaul had read Sherman Alexie’s The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian  and so did our eighth graders. Still compelled to walk the talk and be the teacher I was asking these thirty pre-service teacher to become, I wrote more about how to transition from choice to whole-class novels. In my #bookaday quest, I read several books that included sex scenes; I recalled my own experiences reading romance lit and considered how and if these book have a place in a middle school classroom library. So many of our junior high students experience love (and, yes, sex), and literature could do what the adults in their lives could not — talk about it. And then, there was the issue of assessment. I struggled with how best to assess learning, so I wrote about the “loving test” and how I try my best to test and grade in ways that help support students in their learning.

5.December 2016: Discomfort can hurt, and apologies can heal.

Broken HeartBy December, we had experienced 9-weeks of choice reading and a core text; we were transitioning to book groups. Students were making a lot of choices: books, groups, reading pace, annotating methods, and, of course, snacks for their groups. Some students soared and others acted out, resisting the responsibility overtly or subversively, uncomfortable with choice and autonomy. I was uncomfortable, too. It is so much easier reading one book as a class and using a packet of pre-determined questions to guide everyone to the similar “answers.” Now that we knew one another better, we had to be open to the implications of diverse lives intersecting in a shared reading experience. I made mistakes amidst the discomfort, which I wrote about, and I learned the power of an apology, which I used a lot this year. Discomfort is part of learning, but our reaction to discomfort may hurt others, and when it does, an apology goes a long way.

6. January 2017: It’s essential that you ask yourself this: “What are you doing here?”

After two weeks in Europe including a tour of Auschwitz, I began January with a new student teacher and existential questions. It is natural for teachers, especially student teachers to ponder our purpose, and I was discerning my place in teaching broadly and my position at my school more specifically. The posts this month seem all over the place, but as I look for a common thread, I notice that I wrote about why I am a teacher now. I wrote about my place in the classroom library, my place in the hallways of our school, my place in evaluating students — and the implications of how I use my place. My student teacher(s) helped me grapple with and through this in January because of the many, many conversations we had before, during, and after school. We have to ask questions, do inquiry, and find answers regarding our purpose as teachers.

7. February 2017: Materials, deadlines, and declarations are provisional.

Career Speech, WrittenOne of the greatest frustrations of teaching is time, especially when students are working in the realm of the provisional while the teacher (and school) is working with hard and fast deadlines. Learning, however, is so personal and even ethereal at times that one cannot count or plan or grasp just how and when learning will happen. The elusive nature of teaching and learning hit me hard in February that I could only surrender to its provisionality. Ownership (of books) is relative. Deadlines undermine learning. Lies reveal truth. Inasmuch as schools force neat, measurable ways of quantifying learning and categorizing students, students, as human beings, will remind us that learning is beautifully messy and will (almost never) fit into a school’s schedule.

8. March 2017: Remember and honor your roots.

I have had the privilege of working with several special education teachers over the years in a “push-in” almost “co-teaching” model. These women were gifts to me — having a partner — and to the students — having another adult to attend to (and even love) them. So when I had the opportunity to have a student teacher (another adult to teach and love students) both terms this school year, I said “yes” as long as we could use a co-teaching model. By March, their presence had me thinking deeply about how I became a teacher and who had most influenced who I became (and was still becoming) as a teacher, so I drew my teaching tree and invited teachers to share theirs. I noticed the other posts I wrote this month had nuances of comparison. By reflecting on my roots, I recognized and celebrated the traditions that shaped my becoming, which actually made it difficult for me to take ownership or celebrate a perceived accomplishment. “The Pride and Shame of Sharing” post was about me second guessing this webiste and any sharing I do about my teaching. I am who I am because of my roots and branches, so I feel self-indulgent in sharing any accomplishment or pride in my work. So, I guess I have to make clear that anything I say or do in my work is never wholly mine nor new. Ethical ELA exists because of my beautiful teaching tree.

9. April 2017: Students should create, should be the curriculum.

This was my third year hosting a site for students to write thirty poems in thirty days in honor of National Poetry Month. For this month, we moved away from daily reading of books toward daily reading of poetry — poetry written by students. As I noticed the quality of the poetry, I knew that their work had to “be” our curriculum: reading response to student poetry, text evidence from student poetry, figurative language analysis from student poetry. In thirty days, Ethical ELA hosted close to five thousand poems and comments written by students: a plethora of powerful content. Students wrote blog posts and created comparison projects (Comparison Blog) for their portfolios using student-written poetry. This was the highlight of my year because I finally got out of the way.

10. May 2017: Transition from your teacher-self to just being your self.

As much as I tried to not be oppressive in my practices this year — more choice, more student-created curriculum, less grading, less teacher-talk — I found myself pulling tight the reigns of instruction in our final month together.  In writing “The Countdown,” I realized that I while I help students find closure in our time together with portfolios and letters to their future selves, I do not do enough to help my teacher-self find closure each year. The aesthetic experience of teaching gives me such joy and purpose, that I don’t want it to end and feel lost without it, so this May has been about me trying new hobbies (e.g., swimming, hiking) and seriously pondering how I will spend my two-months off to take care of my heart, mind, and body. As my husband said, “I can’t wait to see who you become this summer.”


Thank you for reading Ethical ELA this year. What are some lessons you’ve learned this school year? What from Ethical ELA has been most helpful to you this school year? What will you do this summer to rejuvenate your heart, mind, and body?

The Countdown: What If I Don’t Want It to End?

Trying out a new audio app, so I recorded this post, sans the final paragraph.


“Dr. Donovan,” Isabel whispers leaning over her desk in between student presentations, “can you tell me which poem I should share at Espresso Self Cafe? I just don’t know which one to present, and we don’t have much time.”

I kneel beside her desk as our student MC calls up the next storyteller and whisper to Isabel, “You should choose, but I am happy to look at your portfolio and give you some suggestions. You wrote so many beautiful poems. Think about which one speaks to the audience. It’s a night to express yourself.”

Isabel smiles. My heart warms.

On May 17th, our school has an event that we call Espresso Self Cafe where student-artists put on display their work, musicians perform, and poets share their poems to celebrate self-expression with coffee and sweets in a cafe atmosphere. I am looking forward to this event, which comes on the heels of our 30Poems challenge, a month long celebration of poetry in honor of National Poetry Month, but I find myself in a state of melancholia at the same time.

30 Days

For thirty days, I wrote a poem and read between twenty to two hundred, written by teens from Illinois to South Carolina. On Sundays in April, instead of writing one post for Ethical ELA about becoming a teacher (after thirteen years, I am still becoming), I wrote seven (one for each day of the upcoming week) hoping to inspire young poets to not only poem but uncover all that poems do for our hearts and minds. And then each day of the week, I would rise early in the morn’ to compose a poem. Throughout the day and evening, instead of checking email and social media, instead of reading my #bookaday, I would read poetry — poetry about our best parts, lists of loves, haiku, lessons learned, super powers, secrets, music, food, family, new perspectives, flaws and strengths, sympathetic joy, how we’d like to be remembered, and any other topic that moved these poets. I would read thoughtful — and I mean thoughtful — comments by poets relating to one another with empathy, sympathy, and respect. For thirty days.

Untitled presentation
Poem Comments (1)
espresso self
30 poems

When I first started teaching over a decade ago, I didn’t like poetry in part because I had only ever read poetry from anthologies and had never written poetry. I didn’t know that when you write poetry it changes you and how you perceive words, people, the world.  I didn’t know that when you share your poetry, you can impact others, and their responses to your words are responses to you, which is proof that you exists, that people see you, want to understand you. And who doesn’t need that? I do. Certainly, our students do. So, this 30poem challenge on Ethical ELA (as many other people and organizations do elsewhere) was for all of us.

We dedicated 20 of our 41 minutes of reading class every day to 30poems; essentially I made 175 junior high students dive into the possibilities of poetry. Some counted down the minutes and others were enthralled reading, responding, writing.

I knew from the beginning that this project was temporal given the “month” of National Poetry Month. The countdown helped me (and students) pace ourselves for the duration, but I lost sight of the finish line. I became so attached to the aesthetic experience that I didn’t want it to end.

About half way into the thirty days, I started noticing a shift in the way some students were using language to express and connect. I started seeing students on the site all hours of day and night. Like me, some students seemed to be drawn to verse.  The aesthetic experience incited by poetry (poets) was so attractive, magnetic, maybe addictive. There is actually research to explain a similar phenomenon: “A recent study shows that recited poetry can spark brain activation patterns that produce emotional responses and engage the body’s reward circuitry”(article). I was feeling this just by reading poetry. Who knows what will happen on May 17th!


Now, just a week into May, I am experiencing withdrawal. My “reward circuitry” feels neglected (and I wonder if the student-poets are feeling the same). I hesitate to use “withdrawal” to describe my syndrome because we often think of withdrawal in relation to the physical and psychological symptoms that follow a discontinuance of an addicting drug. I don’t mean to understate the seriousness of such (especially given recent events in my school).  However, after a day or two post-30Poems, I noticed my mind floundering and my heart seeping into a sort of depression. I miss writing poetry as part of a community; I miss the daily virtual-real connections with students whom I had not known until this thirty-day experience; I miss the comments acknowledging my existence; I miss the comments among other poets showing the potential of humanity to lift up one another.

The daily engagement with words and lives in that virtual space nurtured me psychologically, but it also nourished me kinesthetically — the mental impacted my physical well being with energy. And furthermore, when I saw these poets in the hallways and classroom, I felt alive and connected in being.

As I tried to get back into my #bookdaday the other night, I recognized my symptoms as withdrawal from 30poems. I found myself checking the site for new poems and comments. I sat with my book in one hand and my cell in the other rather lost and unsure what I was supposed to be doing, and in my belly stirred a familiar feeling. I’ve been here before.

The feeling I had at the ending of 30poems is the same feeling I get during summer break.

I have just nine days of class time with our eighth graders, a few more with our seventh graders — and then I will have no reason to get up in the morning. The aesthetic experience of teaching that makes me feel alive, worthy of being alive ends.

Okay, I am overstating this slightly. Like many teachers, I am counting the days. I see posts on social media and emails going around school with the countdown. Everyone knows and accepts and celebrates all that another year of education ending means.

The counting, for me, creates some anxiety about the even more profound withdrawal that I know is coming.

I worry about what happens when I have no one to create for, no one to share the books with (sorry about ending in prepositions). I live in this world where 175 kids are forced to visit h103 every day and spend 41 minutes with each other (and me), but the day comes when they are no longer forced to attend, and therefore don’t. Suddenly, my perceived need expires and that reward circuitry disconnects.

I know this is the nature of our work. There is a beginning and an end every year. Every year I have to figure out how to manage the withdrawal of purpose, the withdrawal of the aesthetic experience. Last year, I took up the #bookaday challenge and read PD books to fill the emptiness. Other years, I worked on a PhD (four years), wrote a book, launched this blog.

Essentially, I fill the emptiness with something — hopefully something healthy. Still, everything I’ve tried has fallen short of satisfying my “reward circuitry.” I am dependent. I am attached. However, my identity is bound up in something that is impermanent, and that is a problem for me.

Accepting Impermanence

I am not Buddhist though I often consider converting because so many doctrines help me as a human. The poem prompt of Sympathetic Joy  was inspired by Buddhism, and I turn to Buddhism’s Impermanence now to help reframe my withdrawal and melancholia. Essentially, the doctrine of Impermanence  asserts that a condition of our existence is “transient, evanescent, inconstant.”

All physical and mental events, states Buddhism, come into being and dissolve…The Buddha taught that because no physical or mental object is permanent, desires for or attachments to either causes suffering.

In considering Impermanence, I acknowledge that my attachment to the classroom causes me a degree of suffering, e.g., withdrawal, sadness.  I am not sure why I hold so tightly to the physical, shared space with students, why the mental work is so enveloping, all-consuming (though the article above helps).  I hold on beyond the ending so tightly that I have to think about what else in my life might be missing or, perhaps more productively, accept and celebrate the transient nature of our work and detach with grace.


I am deliberate about planning closure opportunities for my students: portfolios, class pictures, letters to self that I mail when they are seniors, Espresso Self Cafe; we have a graduation ceremony to reflect on junior high and welcome high school. I sort of thought that these worked as closure for me, too, but I’ve noticed I facilitate rather than engage in these experiences (given I don’t have closure when they leave).

So I need a closure routine just for me. How about this:  First, I will share a gratitude poem on May 17th at Espresso Self Cafe. Then, I will write one more blog post reflecting on my year, sign off, and bask in the gift of another year reading alongside other people’s children. Then, I will stop being a teacher (except for two conferences — CEE and nErD camp) and try just being as I swim, bike, run, play, eat, sleep, and love. One of those had to spark the reward circuitry. And when August comes around, I will celebrate my time away and welcome another school year.

How does that sound? Healthy, right? Yeah, because I should want the year to end. It’s a good thing, right? Yeah, I should want to be Sarah, not Dr. Donovan, for at least two months out of the year, right? Yeah, she might be sort of interesting, maybe even fun, right? Yeah. Right.

Let’s see how that goes in five, four, three, two

Reflecting on 30 Days of Poem-ing

Thank you so much for joining us this month to celebrate how poetry helps us make sense of our lives and the world we live in. Let’s reflect a bit. Please respond to all or any of the questions below:

  1. What did you learn or discover about yourself through this experience? What was the most challenging? Satisfying?
  2. What did you learn about or discover about others, perhaps strangers who might help you see the world or people in a new light?
  3. Which poem (that you wrote) are you most “proud” or pleased with? Why?
  4. What were some poems (written by others) that really resonated with you in some way?
  5. Are you interested in coming to Winston Campus on May 17th to perform.or support others in an open mic?
  6. What would you say about poetry to persuade/encourage someone to try their hand at this challenge next year?
  7. Anything else?
  8. Vote your favorite inspirations.

Poem Thirty: Lines and Verses Borrowed


Inspiration: We have shared this virtual space for 30 days — 30 days of words, phrases, images, and lines borrowed from lives lived and imagined.

Today, we’d like to encourage you to select a day from our 30 days on ethicalela.com and reread the poems looking for lines you can borrow/celebrate to make a new poem, a poem that honors and celebrates other poets who’ve shared their lives with us this past month. After your poem (or after each line) indicate the poets/poems you’ve borrowed as a thank you to the poets who inspired your verse.


  • Pick a day and select lines form several poems to make something new — a found poem.
  • Choose a poem you loved or found intriguing and try to answer someone else’s poem with a poem of your own.
  • Choose a line you especially appreciated. You might pull out one of their lines to make your own.
  • Add another stanza to someone else’s poem.
  • Respond to someone’s poem with a new point of view. For example, I wrote a poem on Poem Twenty-Two from a tree’s point of view; you might write a similar poem from the person or equipment that was doing the deforestation.

Example of pulling lines from several poems to make something new, a found poem: For example, if you enjoyed the super powers day, go back to Poem Seven and find lines from a few poems to make your own. You can blend some of their lines with yours. A special thanks to Rieley, Jasmine, Louie, Kinga, and Ruby for your lines, which come together quite nicely here:

If I had a superpower, I’d

Steal anything I want, pull pranks, have fun (Rieley);
Chuck and move things with my mind, alter someone’s opinion (Jasmine);
Use instant transmission to teleport anywhere, around the world in one day (Louie);
Yes, finally! I’d be able to meet Nicholas Cage (Kinga);

But maybe, sometimes, I’d

Let go of all the imaginary
and focus on finding the super hero (Ruby)


Feedback: Tell us about your poem experience here:http://www.ethicalela.com/30poemsreflection/

Poem Twenty-Nine: Remembered

Inspiration from Mr. Segundo (or is it?): What is your ultimate goal in your life? Geesh, this is a big, deep question to which you may not be ready to respond, but imagine for a minute or two what you would like people to say about you years from now. How would you like to be remembered? For what you’ve done, discovered, accomplished, provided, treated others? Try a poem today about just that — how would you like to be remembered or what would you like people to say about you and how you lived your life (and perhaps, take steps in your life to live as such).

Also, tell us about your 30 days of poems experience here:http://www.ethicalela.com/30poemsreflection/

Poem Twenty-Eight: Favorite Thing with Apostrophe (Ode)

Inspiration from Emma: Write about something that is your favorite and about why that is so.

  • For example, you may write about your favorite book.What’s the story you enjoy reading the most? If you don’t have a favorite, write about multiple book, or just how you feel about books in general.
  • Coffee? Can you describe the coffee with such detail, it is as if we are enjoying it alongside you?
  • Song? What is it? Why do you love it? What lyrics most resonate with you?
  • Game – -video, boardgame, sport? Tell us how you got into it and why you love it.
  • You get the idea.

Guidance: This is basically an ode, where you celebrate something, but try using apostrophe, which is a technique where you actually directly address the object, e.g., Oh, Night, how your words have allowed me to bear witness in ways I hope never to know.  Oh, Dunkin’ Donuts, the iced coffee is the chill that I need at the end of the day.

Feedback. Tell us what you think of your poem experience here:http://www.ethicalela.com/30poemsreflection/

Poem Twenty-Seven: A Sonnet of Sympathetic Joy

Inspiration (and a challenge from Jackson):Sympathetic Joy is the feeling which arises when you are able to be proud of other people’s accomplishments. We rejoice that in the good fortune of others. In this way we overcome resentment, envy, and jealousy and even find inspiration in the accomplishments of others. In other words, it is happiness at the success of others. Read more below.

Today, write a poem that recognizes a friend, teacher, or family member’s accomplishment.


  • who is the person, what is his/her relationship to you
  • what did he/she achieve or accomplish, or what was an example of his/her success
  • what about this accomplishment or good fortune is “good” for that person
  • end with something about how their happiness brings you happiness or joy

Challenge from Jackson: Write it in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. This just means that every line has iambic pentameter (each line has ten syllables), there are fourteen lines separated into three quatrains and a couplet with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This is a big challenge so if you do it, it will show that you’re a real poet.

Sympathetic Joy

Poem Twenty-Six: Flaws and Strengths

Inspiration from Aliyah: It can be really easy to point out our own flaws, and it might be even easier to point out flaws in others.

A flaw is a mark, fault, or other imperfection. Synonyms include defect, blemish, weakness, shortcoming.

A strength is a good or beneficial quality of a person or thing.

But what is “good”? What is “imperfect”? It rather depends, no? Flaws can also be strengths depending on perspective: lazy-patient; pessimistic-realistic; shy-modest; over-analytical-thorough.Similarly, strengths can be misinterpreted: leader-bossy; frugal- cheap; nice-pushover.

Think about your “flaws” and “strengths” today and how these make you, well, you.


  • First stanza can be what you consider your biggest “flaw” and how it has made life different or challenging.
  • Second stanza can be what you view as your biggest strength and how it has helped you in life.
  • Third stanza can be how they both fit together and make you who you are.

It’s day 26. Thank you for being with us!

Poem Twenty-Five: Quatrain Plus One (about today)

Inspiration: We’ve had a lot of free verse this month (free to rhyme or not, free to break lines as you wish or need, free to stanza or not), but how does the structure of a quatrain impact our expression, intention, and meaning? Try a quatrain today and see if it restricts or liberates — or some combination.

Try a quatrain today followed by a single line — to make it five lines total for our twenty-fifth poem. A quatrain is a four-line poem that can have the same number of syllables in each line to create rhythm. You might try an end-rhyme pattern like abab, aabb, abba, or abcb. The fifth line to could follow the syllable and rhyming pattern or not.

Here is an excerpt from a longer poem made up of quatrains; notice each line has 6-7 syllables, and the end-rhyme is abcb (i.e., bank and sank rhyme):

Life is Fine” by Langston Hughes

I went down to the river, a
I set down on the bank. b
I tried to think but couldn’t, c
So I jumped in and sank. b

Here are some ideas for your quatrain plus one. If you need help with rhyming, try this site. I really hope some of you choose the last option”):

  • What made you smile today?
  • Can you tell me an example of kindness you saw/showed today?
  • Did anyone do anything silly to make you laugh today?
  • Did anyone cry today?
  • Did you tell anyone “thank you” today?
  • What made you laugh today?
  • Tell us something you know today that you didn’t know yesterday.
  • Teach us something we don’t know.
  • What kind of person were you today?
  • What made you feel loved today?
  • If you switched places with your teacher tomorrow, what would you teach the class?

Poem Twenty-Four: Characters

Inspiration from Colin: Write about a favorite character from a book, movie, TV show , or play.

For example, express what your favorite character is and what made them your favorite or write from the character’s point of view about his/her family, friends, hopes, dreams, greatest struggles, maybe advice for you.

Guidance: Just start by saying the book character, and then think about questions like “What qualities makes this character your favorite?” or “What abilities or qualities would you most want to have that your character has?”