Expect Unexpected Engagement When you try Hexagonal Thinking in ELA


Trailer: The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast
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60: Students Won’t Read? Don’t Care? One Year to CHANGE That

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So your students won’t read. Won’t do assignments. Don’t care, won’t care.

It’s frustrating. Exhausting. What can you do? Read every book to them? Threaten them with reading quizzes? Failure? Letters home?

This is not what you signed up for.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have been giving this problem a lot of thought. Many teachers in my Facebook group, Creative High School English, are saying the same thing. Students won’t read class novels anymore. Students are willing to fail to avoid the work.

So I’ve been obsessively thinking about what I would do with a classroom full of students staring at me through a dense divide. How would I reach them? This podcast/blog post is my manifesto. The general one year plan I would put into place. I hope it can help you find inspiration if you are staring down the barrel of total disengagement and wondering what on earth to do.

Throughout the plan, you’ll find links to blog posts that I’ve created that go deeper into each subject, so if you’re not familiar with an idea (like Harkness discussions, genius hour, or one-pagers) you can link out to read more. At the end of the post, I will also link to related curriculum sets I’ve designed, so you can get help with your planning if you need it.

You can listen below, or on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher.

Introducing Ourselves and our Space

At the beginning of the year, it would be all about setting up systems that would help us succeed together.

One of the first systems I would want in place would be clear ways for the students and I to know and understand each other better. On day one, I would use name tents to get to know the students, and take photos of everyone with their name tent so I could quickly memorize their names and maybe some of their interests by studying at home.

I’d set up a bulletin board for photos of my students working on their projects and reading, so they could see themselves in action doing good things throughout the year, taking a leaf out of Reggio Emilia’s basic precept that we need to “make learning visible.”  I would try to set up some bonding events early on, like occasional donut Fridays or funny video journal prompts that they could submit videos for.

I’d also want to put a writing makerspace into action right away, and introduce them to the materials. I’d want to stock it with foam core boards and tons of post-its for moving ideas around before writing papers. I’d also want a variety of creative moveable parts – legos, play doh, felt, markers, paints, etc. for designing characters and sets before diving into creative writing pieces. If I could paint a desk or table or wall with chalkboard or whiteboard paint, I probably would.

I’d want to talk to them about discussion, and make big lists with them of what makes a good discussion and what makes group work go well. I’d want to post these lists right away, and refer back to them all year. Teaching each kid to become a real participant in discussion, probably though the Harkness method, would be a huge priority.

I’d definitely set up genius hour projects from the get-go, probably with blogging as our medium. Every student would work on something they were interested in, and then blog about it during class once a week with guidance from me on what type of post to use each week. If I wasn’t going with this blogging curriculum, I would use Laura Randazzo’s free 20 time packet as a guide, because it’s incredible.

Independent reading would be a must, and that would begin immediately too, probably on Fridays. Students would get plenty of time to browse in my classroom library in the early days, with possibly a speed dating a book or book tasting activity in the first week to help introduce them to a lot of titles. Visiting book talkers would begin coming in right away, and I’d start making my Recommended Reading posters on Canva with snapshots of happy readers with their books to put up right away. I’d invite students to try to make it into the “1000+ Pages Club” and try to find a local business willing to put up a fun gift certificate (like a free ice cream, etc.) for kids who made it into the club.

I’d put some thought into making my classroom decor reflect the feeling and mood I wanted in the class. I’d hope to have some flexible seating near my library, some lighting besides hot overhead fluorescent bulbs, some colorful curtains, some plants, and ideally plenty of whiteboards/chalkboards and bulletin boards.

Unit One: 21st Century Writing

Teachers everywhere are in a heated battle with phones. The smartphone is an endless arcade filled with exciting Snapchats, Youtube videos, Instagram posts, and new blog articles to skim. With a truly unengaged group of students, I would start immediately by trying to show them how the skills of ELA are reflected in this online space.

With that in mind, we’d start by looking at blogs with high quality writing and start our own genius hour blogs. We’d listen to great podcasts and experiment with recording audio. We’d look into what makes a powerful social media campaign and try our hand at writing good Instagram posts and Tweets. We might just start our own social media campaign, or look at different online businesses and come up with online business proposals of our own.


Unit Two: Empathy Literature Circles

After exploring writing via modern media channels, we’d move into reading some great fiction with a focus on teenage life and building empathy for young people in many different situations. Because I’d like to give disengaged readers choice, I’d probably use literature circles, the more adult version (no roles).

These are the books I’d try to source for the literature circles, though I’m sure many others could work.

Titles:  The Hate U Give, The Outsiders, I am not your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Love, Hate, and Other Filters, Turtles all the Way Down

For the culmination of the literature circles unit, I would probably do one-pagers, taking lots of time to work on them in class and then putting them up in a gallery outside my classroom so students had a chance to feel proud of them every time they walked by. I might even try to galvanize other teachers to do one-pagers (free curriculum set here) and get a one-pagers fair going at my school.

Unit Three: Design Thinking Projects to make a Difference

The literature circles works could lead us into some nonfiction and discussion threads about mental illness, prison justice, immigration, Black Lives matter, and the refugee crisis. As we explored some of these topics (depending on student interests) I would incorporate some news articles and other snippets of nonfiction in various media – podcasts, videos, articles, art. From there I would build into a design thinking project (learn more about design thinking in this interview with John Spencer) with the theme of making a difference in the world, starting in our school or local community.

For the design thinking project, the kids would need to brainstorm about what issue they were interested in addressing, and think deeply (and with empathy) about the audience for their final product. What would they be trying to help with? What would really help the people they want to help? What steps could they take to create/present/write/perform/etc. something that would make a difference? I imagine we’d be working on this project for quite a while, interspersed with independent reading days, genius hour blogging, and maybe some writing and media creation mini-lessons to help them with their design thinking projects.



Unit Four: Dystopia

From here, we’d move into dystopia and talk about this movement in literature. Why is dystopia so prevalent? What is it saying? Why does it matter?

Using these prompts, we’d try to build answers in our makerspace and discuss them, then continue to work with maker materials to create characters, settings, or conflicts before launching into writing our own dystopian short stories. At the same time, we’d dive into whatever popular YA dystopia I could get my hands on – The Hunger Games, The Uglies, The Giver, Divergent. I’d be hoping that by this time I had enough engagement to get them reading this title at home sometimes, but we’d also do a bit of in-class reading and probably listen to some snippets on audiobook while creating guided sketch notes.

I’d create a big dystopian novel display in our independent reading library at this time too and probably do a dystopian novel reading challenge, as well as bring in some colleagues who like dystopia to do book talks on their favorites. (More posters for my recommended reading wall, whoo hoo!).

Unit Five: Identity & Spoken Word

The student-created program from one of my class’s poetry slams.
Even the typo can’t make me love it less. 

From the ashes of dystopia, we’d build into a unit about identity. What makes us who we are? What power does one individual have in the world? We’d read shorter fiction and nonfiction around this theme, and work with spoken word poetry, building into a poetry slam as a unit closer. If at all possible, we’d put together a school-wide or community identity-themed spoken word event, whether a poetry slam, poetry jam, or local open mic night.

Below you’ll find examples of the types of poems I would want to share with my students throughout the unit. My favorite sources for poetry are Def Poetry Jam, the documentary Slamnation, and of course, Youtube searches. I also hear good things about the Button Poetry channel. 

Unit Six: The Power of Ted

Building from the themes of identity and the power of one, unit six would focus on Ted Talks. We’d watch some wonderful ones, write our own, and hopefully organize a TedX event at our school (which would require a lot of teacher planning and hopefully some collaboration across the department). Ideally, many English classes would do the Ted project and the best two speeches from each class would go on into the TedX event at the school, along with some speakers from the local community. Working on this event would take us all the way up to the close of the year.

Below, you’ll find three very different Ted Talks that would make good elements to this unit. I consider the first a must for any Ted unit. But undoubtedly you could find a lot more that would be especially interesting for your students and their interests. Every class is so different.


While some might argue that these units do not cleave to the canon enough. I think it’s more important to help disillusioned and disengaged students back onto the path of reading and writing than to keep the classics in front of them. We can’t read every book out loud to them forever. They have to take the torch. So if that means a year spent learning that writing, reading, and talking really DO matter more than they thought, that’s just fine and dandy. This course is about defeating apathy and making connections, paving the way for students to develop their love of language so they can be successful students for the rest of their lives.

Related Curriculum Sets on TPT:
Name Tent One-Pagers for the First Day
Writing Makerspace Projects
Literature Circles Activity Set for Any Booklist
Complete Independent Reading Curriculum
Student Choice Blogging Unit
Poetry Slam Unit

One final note. I’ve been thinking for a while of developing an online course. If I was to create a course with the theme of one year for change, which would include lessons on how to do all of these units and the curriculum materials you’d need to put it all into place, would you be interested in that? Or do you wish I would create a curriculum bundle with this full year of ideas in one place? Please, say hi in the comments and let me know if this blog post was plenty for you to get you where you want to go, or if you wish I would put a huge chunk of time into developing an amazing resource set (be it a course or a PDF that would include all of this and make it super easy for you to put into place).

hey there!

I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







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    • Thank you so much for your feedback! I have been thinking and thinking about what kind of course I could design that would be most helpful, and I feel very inspired by this idea. But I want it to be truly helpful…

  • I LOVE the ideas for your year. Saving this post so I can think about what I can work in for the rest of my school year (we're not out until JUNE 26) as well as how to rethink NEXT year! I don't know that I would commit to a full course myself, but I would probably be interested in unit components, particularly the Ted talks!

  • how about individual units, with videos/blogs that we could view to support their implementation?

  • Your blog just gave me some great ideas for this year, as we wind down, and several for next year. I was just having a "moment" of frustration because my students are at that don't care stage. I have been trying to come up with engaging lessons, but nothing seems to shake them out their apathy. Thanks for some encouragment and good unit plans.

    • I'm so very glad if I could help! It's really rough fighting through the don't care, but I hope and believe it is possible. I'm rooting for you.

  • I enjoyed reading your blog and found ideas that could be included in my English 12 classroom. Many of my students are self conscious and I had hoped to utilize the Kanye West video until I previewed it and found the language was inappropriate for school. Please supply sources which will not get us into hot water in the classroom. I have always loved incorporating your ideas into my lessons.

    • Hi there! I'm so sorry about that. I used that particular poem with a special group of students and everyone could handle it, but I hadn't rewatched it recently to remember that part with the inappropriate language. I took it out of the post.

  • I teach seniors who are definitely struggling with apathy. I've integrated independent reading into my curriculum and it's going fabulously, but I LOVE all of this ideas. I would very much be up for a bundle set of these or a PDF. I don't have much time for courses myself, but I always have time to read!

  • I LOVE all of these ideas! I would love to participate in an online course, and I would also love to purchase a bundle. You always inspire me. I bought your Lit Circles for Big Kids unit, and we are having a blast with it! Thank you!

    • Oooh I'm so happy you love the ideas! I'm getting very inspired to work on this – either as a curriculum or a course or both.

  • I love your ideas and think some of them would definitely work with my students, but my school is on a block schedule so I only have my students for one semester. When creating your one year plans would it be possible to create a modified version for only 18 weeks? It's so hard to find resources that are not geared for full year classes.

    • That's such a great point. Thank you for bringing it up! Perhaps it would be most helpful to have each element as an individual unit too so you could mix and match what you were truly interested in?

  • I would be interested in it as a bundle. My concern is that we are an overcrowded school and I have to teach in multiple classrooms. any thoughts on how this could be set up when you don't have your own space? I would need to recreate al of these items in at least 3 rooms ($, time, space).

  • I love your ideas, and would definitely be interested in taking a course.

  • So I'm a few months late reading this, but I love it! I teach 7th grade, so I don't know that I could use some of your units, but if I'm lucky enough to be teaching ELA again next year, I will definitely be using some of this. The apathy does start as early as 7th grade, unfortunately.

  • Hi!

    Thanks for your awesome ideas! I tried the link for your "Writing Makerspace Projects" up top in your blogpost, and it doesn't lead my anywhere. I am really interested in that topic-do you have the correct link for that? Thanks!

  • Loved this post- please develop a pdf resource as I am more likely to use this rather than an online course. Thank you!

  • Love, love, love, your ideas. Since being new to teaching 8th grade ELA, your blog has been a great resource. I would be interested in this course. Keep up the great work!

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