Home for the Summer–now what do you do?

The summer is quickly approaching. The break is certainly something to look forward to, but let’s be honest: the pandemic continues and we have already spent a lot of time at home over the last year. Though watching television and playing video games are fun, there are so many things students could and should be doing to get a little variety in their day and to stay healthy.

Of course, this English teacher’s first suggestion is for you to write. That writing does not need to be more essays, though. You could write about what’s going on during this pandemic. What’s going on in the world, in your country, in your city, in your social circle, in your family, and within yourself.

In a podcast last year, author George Saunders asks, “Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting? The thoughts you’re having? The way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of life?” Students could use their downtime to keep up with such things through writing.

Saunders says, “It’s all important. Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened. Or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us about something crazy that happened in 1960.”

Writing is also a way to make sense of things that are scary, sad, difficult, or boring. In that same podcast, the host Cheryl Strayed says, “Writing is the way I make sense of almost everything in my life.” Through keeping a journal or emailing a friend or family member, young people can both keep “records” and “make sense” of all that is going on and how they are feeling.

But students can also take this time to read. Read something fun. Read something easy. Read blogs, magazines, history books, science articles, anything! Ebooks, digital magazines, and audiobooks are available online. Many books can be found online through sites like Project Gutenberg. Read something your teacher isn’t “making” you read.

Watch documentaries about topics that interest you. Plant some seeds in a pot and leave that pot in a place where you’ll see it often so you can really watch the plants grow. Draw or paint. Have a video call with a friend or group of friends to play a game “together.” Use an online program or a YouTube channel to learn a language.

Exercise. You don’t have to be at a soccer field, gym, or track to exercise. Do some stretches in the morning when you wake up. Do exercises that don’t require a lot of space, like pushups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks. A simple online search will provide you with yoga and martial arts instructors who provide free video lessons.

And, don’t forget to breathe! It’s great to take 3-5 minutes to sit quietly, relax, and breathe. You can do this by sitting in a quiet place with your eyes closed, focusing on each breath you take–in and out. Or search for free guided relaxation videos online.

Whatever you do, though, try hard to get along with those you live with. It’s easy to get irritable and frustrated with people we are with for long periods of time. Try to find your own space, give others their space, respect each other’s needs, and help out wherever you can to create a peaceful living situation.

Ideas for Writing in Nature

I sometimes suggest that young writers spend time sitting outside in a comfortable spot. While out there, I ask that they write down all that they experience: the smell of fallen leaves, the chirping of a bird, an ant crawling on the ground, or the feeling of the cool breeze. In itself, it is a productive activity for exploring sensory imagery and leisurely writing. Later, these notes might even evolve into a descriptive essay, a poem, or a short story.


The activity is fruitful, I believe, because of the depth and beauty the natural world offers us. When we, our students, or our children are facing writer’s block, boredom with the usual prompts, or simply a tiredness of being at the desk, outside is a good place to be.

Connecting our lives to the natural world around us is not a new concept. It is for good reason that we plant trees in street medians, spend Saturday afternoons at parks, stare out at the vastness of the ocean, and are overwhelmed when we look up at a starry night.

It’s an ancient connection that gets to our core of being. I see this connection in the readings I teach—creation stories, the Psalms, Indian animal fables, Jesus’ parables, and poetry from all over the world.

Thomas Merton, a writer and monk who lived in a hermitage in the woods of Kentucky, believed that creation must be experienced and observed. He began many of his journal entries by writing what he was observing in the forest around him. He wrote descriptions like this one:

Mists of damp heat rise up out of the fields around the sleeping abbey.  The whole valley is flooded with moonlight and I count the southern hills, and almost number the trees of the forest to the north.  Now the huge chorus of living beings rise up out of the world beneath my feet: life singing in the watercourses, throbbing in the creeks and the fields and the trees, choirs of millions of jumping and flying and creeping things.  And far above me the cool sky opens upon the frozen distance of the stars.

He did this as if he had to—as if these things had such an influence on his contemplative life and writing that he had to acknowledge them first.

Nature is a good place for a writer—young or experienced—to begin.  To get you started on your outdoor writing adventure, here are some ideas:

  1. Keep a nature journal.
  2. Sit outside away from people and do nothing. Write anything that comes to mind.
  3. Describe the smallest thing you can see outside. Do it with great detail.
  4. While on a hike, imagine a story that might take place in that setting.
  5. Personify an aspect of nature that you see.
  6. Spend 15 minutes outside observing the world around you. Write about what you notice most.
  7. Go out on a very cold or very hot day. You might be uncomfortable. Try to find the good in what you feel and experience.
  8. When you are outside, which of your senses are you most thankful to have?
  9. If you don’t like to be outside, write while you are outside and tell what you don’t like about it.
  10. Write about the element of nature that speaks to you most.
  11. Write a story or poem about a leaf falling.
  12. Describe what a bird might see.
  13. Read outside. Remember, the key to being good writer is to read.
  14. While inside, read about nature and look at pictures of nature. Let these images and readings inspire your writing. For example, browse through the bird images of Alexander Wilson, American Ornithologist. Tell what you see. Describe how the birds might feel if you touched them. Think of any movement the pictures might suggest.

The options are plentiful and nature is ready for you to experience it—so get outside and write!

NASA Inspired Writing

NASA’s entire collection of images, sounds, and video is available and publicly searchable online. You can use the media any way you like, for free.

Students and writers might look at pictures and videos just for fun, or the resources can inspire short descriptive writings, creative works of fiction, or poems.

Imagine you are describing how a constellation looks up close.

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the spiral galaxy NGC 4845, located over 65 million light-years away in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin). The galaxy’s orientation clearly reveals the galaxy’s striking spiral structure: a flat and dust-mottled disc surrounding a bright galactic bulge. NGC 4845’s glowing centre hosts a gigantic version of a black hole, known as a supermassive black hole. The presence of a black hole in a distant galaxy like NGC 4845 can be inferred from its effect on the galaxy’s innermost stars; these stars experience a strong gravitational pull from the black hole and whizz around the galaxy’s centre much faster than otherwise. From investigating the motion of these central stars, astronomers can estimate the mass of the central black hole — for NGC 4845 this is estimated to be hundreds of thousands times heavier than the Sun. This same technique was also used to discover the supermassive black hole at the centre of our own Milky Way — Sagittarius A* — which hits some four million times the mass of the Sun (potw1340a). The galactic core of NGC 4845 is not just supermassive, but also super-hungry. In 2013 researchers were observing another galaxy when they noticed a violent flare at the centre of NGC 4845. The flare came from the central black hole tearing up and feeding off an object many times more massive than Jupiter. A brown dwarf or a large planet simply strayed too close and was devoured by the hungry core of NGC 4845.

Or you’re writing a fictional memoir of watching a launch based on a short video.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:30 a.m. EST on Jan. 19, 2020, carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft on the company’s uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test. The flight test demonstrated the spacecraft’s escape capabilities in preparation for crewed flights to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

Maybe you are writing a poem about a galaxy.

This image is from NASA Galaxy Evolution Explorer is an observation of the large galaxy in Andromeda, Messier 31. The Andromeda galaxy is the most massive in the local group of galaxies that includes our Milky Way.

Or you’re writing a work of fiction set on another planet.

Imagine standing on the surface of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f. This artist concept is one interpretation of what it could look like.

Perhaps a picture or video can help you describe what it feels like and sounds like to be on the moon.

AS16-113-18339 (21 April 1972) --- Astronaut John W. Young, commander of the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, leaps from the lunar surface as he salutes the United States flag at the Descartes landing site during the first Apollo 16 extravehicular activity (EVA).  Astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr., lunar module pilot, took this picture. The Lunar Module (LM) "Orion" is on the left. The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) is parked beside the LM. The object behind Young (in the shade of the LM) is the Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectrograph (FUC/S). Stone Mountain dominates the background in this lunar scene. While astronauts Young and Duke descended in the LM to explore the Descartes highlands landing site on the moon, astronaut Thomas K. Mattingly II, command module pilot, remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) "Casper" in lunar orbit.

Even audio clips can enhance your descriptive writings and fiction. The site also provides potentially valuable resources for reports. The opportunities are vast, so check it out!

Compare and Contrast the News

Learning composition types doesn’t always have to be about writing essay after essay or filling out worksheets. Turning picture-based IKEA pictures into written instructions is a way to explore process writing, for example. When dealing with compare and contrast writing, thinking outside of the box can open the door to many possibilities that go beyond writing an essay.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is pexels-photo-177557.jpeg

In this post, we’ll go over the components of compare and contrast writing, then we’ll look at different ways to organize a compare and contrast project. In this case, the project can be comparing news articles from different news agencies.

A comparison shows how two or more things are similar. Contrast shows how they are different. All kinds of subjects are regularly compared and contrasted: political candidates, raising versus lowering taxes, deciding which college to attend, weighing possibilities for the weekend, or trying to choose which car to buy.

In essay or presentation form, the compare and contrast can be structured Subject-by-Subject or Point-by-Point.

A Subject-by-Subject approach looks at the political candidates, the colleges, or the cars separately:

I. Introduction with thesis that introduces the subjects of “truck” and “SUV”

II. Truck

A. Uses

B. Price

C. Gas mileage

D. Tow capacity

E. Interior and exterior spaces


A. Uses

B. Price

C. Gas mileage

D. Tow capacity

E. Interior and exterior spaces

IV. Conclusion: restatement of thesis and review of key points

The Point-by-Point approach looks at the features, stances, qualities one-by-one:

I. Introduction with thesis that present the two political candidates being compared and contrasted.

II. Taxes

A. Candidate Y

B. Candidate Z

III. Capital punishment

A. Candidate Y

B. Candidate Z

IV. Drugs

A. Candidate Y

B. Candidate Z

V. Driving age

A. Candidate Y

B. Candidate Z

VI. Marriage

A. Candidate Y

B. Candidate Z

VII. Conclusion

When doing Compare-Contrast, there are some transitions that are specific to the type that help move things along coherently:

For Comparison

  • In comparison
  • In the same way
  • Just as…so
  • Like
  • Likewise
  • Similarly 

For Contrast

  • Although
  • But
  • Unlike 
  • Despite
  • Even though
  • However

One project I like to have students do is “Comparing and Contrasting the News.” Coverage in the news always has some biased. This could be for various reasons, and it is not always noticeable at first. News writers choose certain things to include first, headlines are written differently, certain photos are chosen, and some things are left out. The biased could be related to sports, politics, opinions about celebrities, or emotional attachments.

A project that looks at these differences will help students learn to organize their Compare and Contrast writing. However, it will also force them to consider the importance of paying attention to their word choice, sentence structure, and phrasing when writing an essay, talking to a friend, or presenting their case.

The first step is for the student to search online for “news bias chart.” Many charts like this one will come up:

Of course, even news bias charts could have bias! But the goal here is for the students just to pick one and not dwell on which one to pick–I always have to push students along here and keep focused on the purpose of the project.

Then, the student chooses a news agency from the right side of the chart and another from the left side. Whether they are choosing from the top, middle or bottom, they should choose two agencies that are at about the same latitude.

Next, from each news agency picked, the student chooses an article that covers the same topic. The topic could be about anything: a business closing, a football game outcome, a big storm, the marriage of a celebrity, the death of a famous singer, or a political candidates decision to drop out of a race. As long as the articles are specifically about the same thing, this will work!

After reading both articles, the student uses visualizations to clearly present the similarities and differences of the two articles. This can be done on a posterboard or by using a digital slideshow like PowerPoint or Keynote. The important thing is that the presentation is organized subject-by-subject or point-by-point.

Subject-by-Subject Example

I. Article Y

A. Headline information

B. Lead information

C. Who is quoted

D. What information is at the top of the article; what’s at the bottom

E. The picture(s) that was chosen

II. Article Z

A. Headline information

B. Lead information

C. Who is quoted

D. What information is at the top of the article; what’s at the bottom

E. The picture(s) that was chosen

Point-by-Point Example

I. Headline information

A. Article Y

B. Article Z

II. Lead information

A. Article Y

B. Article Z

III. Who is quoted

A. Article Y

B. Article Z

IV. What information is at the top of the article; what’s at the bottom

A. Article Y

B. Article Z

V. The picture(s) that was chosen

A. Article Y

B. Article Z

An ideal student presentation will begin with an introduction. The introduction should tell what the topic is, what the articles are, and what they agencies are. It should also make some sort of thesis statement. Finally, the student’s presentation should conclude in a way that answers, “What’s the point?” What’s the overall conclusion and takeaway here?

This presentation project can also be turned into an essay format. By considering different ways to approach writing style, we can make composition seem not-so-boring and connect it to everyday experiences.

Process Writing: IKEA Instructions

Process writing can be broken down into “Instruction” and “Process Explanation.” In this post, I explain process writing and how it is used. Then, I present an activity that involves writing out those picture-based IKEA instructions.

Instructions enable readers to perform a process. Instructions use the imperative form of verbs (also known as the command form); this form implies “you”: “(You) disconnect the system, and (you) check the electrical source.” This type of writing is found in the products you buy, showing you how to put something together or use it.

Process explanation helps the reader understand how something is carried out. Sometimes, you cannot even do the process that is explained in this type of writing.  For example, the explanation of ‘How a black hole is formed’ is not meant for the reader to follow–it’s not a set of instructions for making your own black hole! This type of writing is common in science when processes are explained.

IKEA instructions are an example of process writing–but there are no words! In order to easily carry their products in many countries, the company includes instructions in picture format.

For this activity, the student must first go to the IKEA site and find a product (a bed, for example). Then, the student gets the instructions for the assembly of the product. Those instructions the student will need are in the individual product details under “Assembly & documents.”

The task is to then put the picture instructions into words. This can be a step-by-step list of instructions that are numbered:

1. Take out all the materials from the box.

2. Open the plastic bag with screws 4578.

3. Connect part 3267 with part 1490 using the screws.

4. ………

5. ……….

Since there aren’t words in the IKEA instructions, it will be a challenge! To add a twist, the student should avoid saying what the product is. When the instructions are complete, they can be presented to a parent, teacher, or class; then, the audience will need to guess what the product is based on the instructions.

Having complete instruction writing, another layer could be added next. The students challenge is to take those instructions and turn them into process explanation. In this case, the first person (I, me, we, us) and the second person (you, your) will not be used. Rather the focus goes from the person doing the action to the action being done. Heres’ an example:

To begin, all material are removed from the box. Then, the plastic bag with screws 4578 is opened. Next, part 3267 is connected with part 1490 using the screws. Once that is completed…


It is important to use transition words and phrases when putting together the process explanation. Here are some examples: first, next, then, later, once that it is completed, finally.

For more ideas and guidance with writing projects, please contact Lux Writing Center. With Lux Writing Center, students receive daily personalized writing instruction online.

Reading and Teaching Flannery O’Connor

Image result for flannery o'connor stories"Flannery O’Connor was a Southern writer whose works are often set in the rural American South. Her stories are popular examples of Southern Gothic literature, and they explore Southern life, manners, alienation, the grotesque, and religion.

In this post, I lay out some background for reading Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I also give a few questions for a handful of O’Connor’s stories that can lead to reflection, discussion, and essays.

Not only could this information serve as fruitful instruction for your student(s), I recommend her stories to anyone looking for literature that is packed with dark humor and thought-provoking themes.

Some of her most well-known stories are “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Warning: The questions below might contain some spoilers to these stories! I suggest reading the stories one at a time, and then check out the questions in the second half of this post.

The Grotesque

  • The natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature
  • The grotesque fits in between the real and the fantastic (non-real)
  • The grotesque simultaneously fits between being funny and being frightening Gustave Courbet, Art, Painting, Oil On Canvas, France
  • Often linked with satire and tragic-comedy
  • Often contains fusion between human and animal
  • Dating back to the 1500’s the word itself is derived from the Italian “grotto,” for caves or hidden place
  • This is because it was around this time that cave paintings were discovered 
  • These cave paintings mixed humans with animals 

The Difference Between the Grotesque and the Disgusting

    • Makes a character more than a monster, more than a villain.
    • Though we may find the character disgusting—they too were once innocent. 
    • Example: Beauty and the Beast. We want the monster to change and to become more human.
    • Example: Gollum in Lord of the Rings
    • Grotesque is the pairing of disgust with empathy


Whitby Abbey, Dracula, Lightning, Yorkshire, WhitbyGothic Literature

  • Gothic: Combines fiction, horror, and romanticism (emotion, individualism, and glorification of past and nature)
  • Examples: Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Frankenstein, and Dracula 

Southern Gothic Literature

  • A style of writing practiced by writers of the American South  whose stories set in that region are categorized as grotesque, disturbing (involvement or depiction of death), or fantastic incidents to examine the values of the American South.
  • It differs from the Gothic genre:
    • The Southern Gothic uses tools not just for suspense but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South 
  • One of the best known writers of the Southern Gothic genre is Flannery O’Connor

Southern Gothic Literature Often Includes…

  • Innocence: pure; free of guilt
  • Grotesque: ugly or distorted
  • Outsider: doesn’t belong
  • Sense of Place: a clear description of a geographic place and time
  • Violence: physical or emotional abuse
  • Imprisonment: literal or figurative

Flannery O’ConnorFlannery-OConnor

  • Lived from 1925-1964
  • A devout Catholic living in the “Bible Belt” of the Protestant South (socially conservative evangelical Protestantism)
  • Religion plays a large part in her writing 
  • Often involves questions of morality and ethics—elements of a parable 
  • Had a dark sense of humor 
  • Loved birds, especially peacocks
  • She passed away at 39 from complications from lupus


“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

  1. In complete sentences and using details from the story, identify the following traits of Southern Gothic Literature:
    • Innocence: pure; free of guilt
    • Grotesque: ugly or distorted
    • Outsider: doesn’t belong
    • Sense of Place: a clear description of a geographic place and time
    • Violence: physical or emotional abuse
    • Imprisonment: literal or figurative
  1. What do we know about Lucynell Crater? What do we know about her daughter?


  1. What do we know about Tom Shiftlet? Did you trust Tom at the beginning of the story? Explain why or why not.


  1. What criticisms does Tom make about ‘men’ and ‘the world’?


  1. How does Tom serve the Crater family? How does the Crater family serve Tom? Does it appear to be an equal relationship?


  1. Is it enough to view Mr. Shiftlet as an anti-Christ, as some critics have argued? In what sense could we call his betrayal of these women a kind of salvation? From what does he save them? 


  1. How should we view Mr. Shiftlet’s actions in the final paragraphs of the story? Why does he give the boy a sermon on the sweetness of a mother’s love? What motivates his prayer for a cleansing of the world? Does he lack any sense of culpability for his own actions?



  1. In complete sentences and using details from the story, identify the following traits of Southern Gothic Literature:
    • Innocence: pure; free of guilt
    • Grotesque: ugly or distorted
    • Outsider: doesn’t belong
    • Sense of Place: a clear description of a geographic place and time
    • Violence: physical or emotional abuse
    • Imprisonment: literal or figurative
  1. What do Mrs. Turpin and the “white trash” lady in the waiting room say about hogs? How does Mrs. Turpin feel about being called a hog?


  1. What does Mrs. Turpin say she values in life? Why does this make Mary Grace mad? Why would Mary Grace consider Mrs. Turpin an “old wart hog from hell?”


  1. Mrs. Turpin stands in her pasture alone and asks, “What do you send me a message like that for?” To whom is she speaking? What is she asking? What realization(s) do(es) she come to? 


  1. At the end of the story, Mrs. Turpin says, “Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!” How does this relate to the vision that Mrs. Turpin sees at the end of the story? What significance does her vision have on her understanding of the way different types of people ought to be ordered in society?


“Parker’s Back”

  1. In complete sentences and using details from the story, identify the following traits of Southern Gothic Literature:
    • Innocence: pure; free of guilt
    • Grotesque: ugly or distorted
    • Outsider: doesn’t belong
    • Sense of Place: a clear description of a geographic place and time
    • Violence: physical or emotional abuse
    • Imprisonment: literal or figurative
  1. How is the story structured chronologically ?


  1. The story’s point of view is somewhat “unreliable” in that it is biased. In what ways is the narrator’s voice biased?


  1. Look online for the stories of the following and give a brief explanation in list form: Moses and the burning bush (Book of Exodus), Obadiah (Book of Obadiah), Elihue (Book of Job), Jonah (Book of Jonah), Paul’s conversion (Acts of the Apostles).

Image result for paul's conversion"

  1. All of the above Biblical references are alluded to in “Parker’s Back.” In list form, tell how these references show up in “Parker’s Back.”


  1. Write a paragraph in which you discuss the significance of these references.


“A Good Man is Hard to Find”

  1. In complete sentences and using details from the story, identify the following traits of Southern Gothic Literature:
    • Innocence: pure; free of guilt
    • Grotesque: ugly or distorted
    • Outsider: doesn’t belong
    • Sense of Place: a clear description of a geographic place and time
    • Violence: physical or emotional abuse
    • Imprisonment: literal or figurative
  1. Describe the grandmother.


  1. Describe The Misfit.


  1. What was something ironic that happens in the story?


  1. Identify two events in the story that foreshadow events later in the story.


  1. The grandmother thinks of herself as a lady, and a good Christian woman. Is she?


  1. The misfit says, “She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody

there to shoot her everyday of her life.” What does he mean?


  1. Describe the causes of the car accident. Is it totally an accident or can you blame it

on bad choices made?


Preparing for the SAT English Sections: Part Two

As stated in “Preparing for and Understanding the SAT: Part One,” the SAT has both books-1841116_1920“English” and “Math.” Of the “English section, there are three parts: Reading; Writing and Language; and Essay. The essay is optional. We will address the other two sections here.

Reading Test

The Reading Test is made up of 52 questions with 65 minutes to complete it. It’s essential that students practice and prepare for the test. Students will also do better if familiar with the test format and directions. Reading the instructions and understanding them now will save valuable time during the SAT:



The Reading Test is made up of reading passages from different subject areas:

  • One passage on US & World Literature: selection of fiction
  • Two passages on History & Social Studies: selections from fields such as economics, sociology, and political science
  • Two passages on Science: deal with information, concepts, and experiments in the fields of Earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics

This helps keep the playing field level–some people are strong readers of science while others better comprehend fiction readings.

The Reading Test has two unique features to be aware of:

  • Paired passages: a pair of related passages that are on the same topic and interact with one another in some way. For example, the passages might represent two opposing viewpoints on a topic.
  • Informational graphics: Some passages include tables, graphs, or charts that correspond to the topic of the passage.

Before taking the Reading Test, keep some of these tips in mind:

  • Determine the main ideas of the passage (What’s the point?)
  • Understand the sequences of events
  • Comprehend the cause-effect relationships
  • Analyze the author’s or narrator’s voice and purpose
  • If you know you’ll have time, look at the questions first
  • Read it once; there is no need to re-read unless your answering a question about a specific quote
  • Make notes as you read – look at tone, bias, main idea, subjects, and language used

Then, when you read, consider following these four steps:

  1.    If you know you’ll have time, look at the questions first. The questions might mention key details (characters, events, etc.), so make note to look for those in the text when you read.
  2.    Read the passage once; get the tones and attitude of text; get the main idea of the text.
  3.    Make notes as you read.
  4.    Chances are you can re-read a paragraph, but don’t re-read the text.


Writing and Language Test

As stated before, it’s important to practice the test and to know the instructions before going into the test in order to save important and much-needed time:


The Writing and Language Test is made up of four passages. These include non-fiction, informative/explanatory, and argumentative texts. Next to the passages, there are questions. Each passage has 11 questions.

When looking at the passages, consider the following:

  • Macro Logic: How the sentences and paragraphs fit together.
  • Transitional Logic: How to connect different thoughts together.
  • Relevance: Determine whether a sentence fits in.
  • Author Intent: Understand the point of the author and writing techniques.
  • Formality and Tone

When working through this section, remember that everything not underlined is taken as fact; everything underlined is under question. Read through the passage quickly before looking at questions, and don’t worry about looking for errors. Next, read the questions, and look over surrounding sentences for context.

As you work through the parts under question, ask yourself the following:

    • Does this sentence contribute to the topic? Is it new information or is it simply rephrasing the same information? The SAT hates redundancy!
    • Is the style and tone consistent with the rest of the passage? Does the underlined portion fit the author’s voice?
    • Do the paragraphs transition well and are they consistent with the others?

When looking at parts under questions, there are some common mistakes that the SAT tests. Some of it seems too easy to be on such an important test, but it’s actually quite easy to overlook these common mistakes when not paying close attention. So, students should be on the look out for these:

  • Effect   vs affect
  • A lot   vs allot   vs a lot
  • into (movement)   vs in to (I came in to get a drink)
  • then (shift in time) vs   than (comparison)
  • assure (promise)  vs insure (protect risk)  vs ensure (to make certain)
  • less (can’t count)  vs fewer (can count)
  • between (two things, clearly separated)  vs among (several things, not clearly separated)
  • me (you are the object receiving the action–“Please contact me”) vs myself (reflexive pronoun—“I hit myself”)

In the past, students spent weeks studying “SAT words” with notecards. The new format of the SAT covers much more territory and is not as limited, saving students the dreadful memorization of definition after definition. However, knowing a few prefixes can help the student understand the words in the test by their context. Here are a few common ones to be familiar with:

omni – all – omnipotent, omnipresent, omnivore

inter – between – intercede, interfere, interject

intra – within – intrapersonal, intramural

mal – bad – maladjusted, malign

ben – good – benevolent, benefit

grat – pleasing – gratify, gratuity

sub – below – subzero, substitute, subordinate

re – again – realign, readjust

retro – back – retroact (act backward)

se – apart – secession (withdraw from assoc.), secret (kept apart/hidden), select (choose one, set apart)

dys – bad/abnormal – dystopia, dysfunction

sym – together – symbol (bring meanings together)

super – above – supersede (take the place of previous supervisor), superfluous (more than needed)

Of course, the most important thing to prepare is practice!

Preparing for the SAT English Sections: Part One

The SAT covers both “English” and “Math.” Of the “English” section, there are three parts: Reading; Writing and Language; and Essay. In this and the following post, we will primarily look at the Reading section and the Writing and Language section.

Though I help prepare students for the essay section, it is an optional section. Some students choose to complete the essay portion because they are confident they can do well; a high essay score could strengthen a college application. However, the main reason to take the essay portion is if the school applied for requires or recommends it.

Before looking at individual sections, let’s look at the test as a whole. The test covers skills most students have already learned in school: comma usage, subject-verb agreement, commonly confused words, pronouns, and so on. It is a good idea to review basic components of grammar to make sure they’re fresh.

Man, Men, Hand, Person, People, Male, Portrait, HumanAs for the questions, they all count the same number of points, whether they are difficult or easy. Also, the questions are not necessarily in order from easy to hard. Furthermore, there is no penalty for incorrect answers–so students should answer all of them. Leaving a question unanswered automatically forfeits points; it’s better to guess and have a chance at earning the points.

Regarding scores, the test is scored on a scale of 400-1600: 200-800 for Math; 200-800 for combined Reading and Writing/Language.

One useful tool for multiple choice is the process of elimination. First, the student should eliminate the distractors or obvious wrong ones. There are some answer choices that are just clearly wrong! Second, the student needs to eliminate the half-truths, the hyperboles, and incorrect assumptions. Just because it’s “kind of right” doesn’t mean it’s the best or correct answer. Finally, the student should determine which one is most accurate in answering the question.

A main component that slows students down is the actual reading of the passages that are questioned. It’s essential to make a conscious effort to read faster. The best way to do this is to practice. Taking practice tests allows the student to learn to read fast. It also gives the student a strong idea of what the time limit feels like; this will help with pacing.

Here are some other tips to help the student succeed:Book, Reading Book, Reading, Read, Information

  • Work to gain points in your strongest areas.
  • Don’t waste time on the toughest questions.
  • Make an intelligent guess on all questions to which you do not know the answer.
  • Careless errors can occur easily. Pay attention to detail.
  • Avoid “jumping” to conclusions. Pay attention to all parts of the questions.

In the next post, we look at how the sections are set up.

Teaching The Old Man and the Sea: Part Two

When teaching a work of literature in class or with your homeschooled child, it helps to have a work that is approachable in terms of length, plot, vocabulary, and sentence structure–a challenge is good, but it’s best not to scare away shy readers! As talked about in “Teaching The Old Man and the Sea: Part One,” Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea offers this sort of accessibility. But it also provides a clear approach to strong themes and meaningful symbols that illustrate those themes.


OldManandSeaReaders witness a harmony of the young and the old, a young boy who cares for an elderly man, and a mutual exchange of care and wisdom amongst the ages. The novel explores questions regarding wisdom versus knowledge, the role of humanity in nature, the risks associated with pride, and how to be a hero. The examples and glorification of perseverance teach young readers what it means to work hard for something noble. When Santiago faces extreme difficulty, he keeps pushing: “He rested sitting on the un-stepped mast and sail and tried not to think but only to endure.”

The novel pushes the reader to consider what it means to be “good”–a good person, a good neighbor, a good friend, a good teammate. Furthermore, the rich symbolism of the novel serves as clear support for themes that the young reader will be able to grasp.


The Old Man and the Sea exemplifies the use of symbols beyond a mere treasure hunt for literary devices. Symbols are used to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense. Symbols grab the attention of the readers. They help communicate, give understanding, and illustrate ideas.

Symbols can take different forms. Generally, it is an object, person, situation, or action representing another to give it a different meaning that is much deeper and more significant. Works of literature can be interpreted in various ways with various themes, and the rich symbolism of The Old Man and the Sea promote meaningful discussions of these interpretations. 

Be ‘good’ not ‘bad’

Hemingway said, “About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” For Hemingway, the right thing is what makes you feel good afterwards. So, what is it that will make a person “feel good after”? To what does his novel point?

Santiago is a man whose actions and words are rich with Christian imagery. After all, his name is Santiago, or James in English. James, the Disciple, was a fisherman (like Santiago of the novel) called to be a follower of Christ: “He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.”

As the novel moves along, the reader see Santiago hold the fishing line in his fingers, The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingwaymoving them like beads of a rosary as he kneels patiently in the boat. Santiago’s draped sack on his deeply cut back calls to mind the Passion of Christ: “They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him. They began to salute him with, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” The suffering and enduring continue throughout the novel, and the Christian imagery remains.

The story aligns Santiago not with Christ, but as a follower of Christ. He is to be seen as a person who is “good.” What is that he does that is “good,” then? It’s not in church attendance or Bible reading that Santiago’s goodness is found. Instead, his goodness is found in his actions: he endures. He respects the fish, yet he fights hard against it. He knows that he must try his hardest against his “brother” fish.

backIn the face of difficulty, Santiago does what he believes is right, or “good.” The imagery and themes of The Old Man and the Sea align Santiago and his actions with the likes of Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, Homer’s Odysseus, and William Faulkner’s Dilsey. Like them, Santiago pushes, strives, and holds firm to what he knows he must do.

Teaching The Old Man and the Sea: Part One

Teaching a longer work of literature to teenagers comes with its challenges: avoiding spoilers, keeping students interested for weeks, and fearing that the students are running to the comfort of quick online summaries.Image result for the old man and the sea"

Experienced teachers and pedagogical experts have found ways around these issues, while other educators opt to stick with short stories and excerpts. One simple approach is to stick with shorter novels that are accessible yet packed with material for teaching. One novel I have had great success with is The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. From the accessibility of the text to the relatability of themes, I have used this novel with teenagers of different ages in various settings.


When picking up a hard copy of The Old Man and the Sea, I always find students to be surprised at how short it is. As a teacher, that’s a comforting reaction to see from reluctant novel-readers. The novel’s present time is only a few days and it takes place in Cuba and the sea nearby; but Santiago’s memories take the reader back to his childhood and young adulthood, to the coasts of Africa and Spain. It’s a vast setting full of ideas and themes as deep as the waters the great marlin swims in, yet the reader can access it in just a few readings.

The simplicity of vocabulary, sentence structure, and plot that Hemingway has become known for is a breath of fresh air for some students. Hemingway believed that “big emotions” do not need to come from big words. In The Old Man and the Sea, he holds to that simplicity. The simplicity also carries over to his short character list with main characters that are reduced to “the old man” and “the boy.”

Image result for the old man and the sea"Yet, the complexity of his ‘iceberg’ is apparent as the thoughts, dreams, and struggles of Santiago–”the old man”–fill the pages. Still further, the character list grows as Santiago speaks to and personifies those around him: the fish, birds, stars, and the sea. These become characters and take the reader deeper into a theme that explores the relationship between humans and nature.

Section-by-Section Approach Made Easy

The novel doesn’t have any chapters–its brevity doesn’t require them. But section breaks allow for daily readings, discussions, and writings that are more manageable for the young reader. The novel is easily broken up into about five sections. Paired with daily writings, it makes for a great Monday-Friday assignment.

A week spent reading the novel is a comfortable amount of days to spend, but the lesson could go further on both ends. Before starting the novel, the teacher or parent can take advantage of the 20th century Cuban setting to explore connected history, geography, weather, professions, and cultures. After reading the novel, the short plot and the intense climax will be fresh on the reader’s mind, and reflection writings, a detailed summary, and an essay can follow the reading.

In the next post, I look into the accessible and relatable themes and symbols of Hemingway’s classic novel: “Teaching The Old Man and the Sea: Part Two.”