Category Archives: Lesson Plans

Taking the Sting out of the SAT Essay: Tips for English Teachers


In my experience as a tenth-grade English teacher, most students have been terrified of writing the SAT essay. There are so many stressful (and usually unfamiliar) aspects to this kind of essay test that students aren’t applying themselves to the task as well as they might without the burden of anxiety and fear. I’ve heard complaints ranging from apprehensions about the time constraints to not being able to come up with anything to “say” in response to the prompt.

It’s not our responsibility as English teachers to prepare students for success on the SAT – and we’re not allowed to provide specific SAT instruction to the students who take our English classes. But the SAT essay requires students to use good writing skills that will be useful throughout their lives. The College Board is simply assessing these skills, and I feel that we should respect the fact that students need to be able to write this kind of basic response. Being able to communicate a strong opinion supported by substantial “evidence” within 25 minutes can be an invaluable skill in the real world. And that’s why I teach students to master the skills they’ll need to write their SAT essays successfully. Here are a few of the ways I’ve been doing that, and I hope they’ll assist you in your efforts to prepare high school students for higher education and the workplace.

Developing & Substantiating Opinions

Just about everyone has an opinion if you ask the right question. Some questions elicit strong gut reactions from some people, while others are hard-pressed to take a side. But in the real world, if you don’t have an immediate opinion, you’re not going to be an influential force in whatever issue is being debated. It’s impossible to have an opinion about everything, so it’s important to learn how to form a solid one quickly and judiciously.

To help students learn this valuable process, I assign two take-home essays each semester. These essay prompts require students to develop an opinion on the issue described, gather extensive examples to support it, and write an argumentative or persuasive essay that “sells” their perspective to the reader. This kind of basic writing is integral to the process of learning how to communicate clearly and professionally.

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Filed under Classroom Reflections, Lesson Plans

My Favorite Lesson


Buddha's Hand

I love teaching the writing of poetry maybe more than any other thing that I can imagine teaching, so I am biased.  Regardless, the lesson below is not only my perennial favorite; it is also the students’. It appears in my curriculum next week, and I have been eager for that class period since the poetry and nature unit began three weeks ago.

Perhaps, as the year winds down, some of you might have some time to squeeze in a great lesson, especially if you’ve already taught imagery because this lesson will help reinforce that earlier lesson.  There are plenty of variations.  Over the years, I’ve learned that different music evokes different sorts of poems.  It seems essential that it be only instrumental or the words find their way into the poem, which isn’t as much a sensory experience as repetition of someone else’s ideas.  I’ve used Clementines when other fruits were exorbitantly expensive, and that worked less well because the fruit was so familiar.  Nothing is as good as Buddha’s Hands.

I still remember the first time that I touched the strange leathery skin and thought of the inside of my father’s palm—hardened from a tractor accident when he was a child.  At the very end of this post, you’ll find the poem that I wrote when Thylias Moss taught a version of this lesson to me in an advanced poetry workshop at the University of Michigan.


Sensory Imagery and Poetry Writing:

Accessing the Writer’s Senses through Mystery


  • To help familiarize students with sensory imagery
  • To encourage students to appeal to senses using sensory imagery in their own writing
  • To help students express themselves creatively in writing


  • Walden Overhead (see below)
  • Buddha’s Hands (a citrus fruit available in the fall) or Star Fruit (available in the early spring)
  • Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon (cd)
  • Citrus Jelly Beans

Bell Ringer:

  • Have a passage from Walden on an overhead.
  • A student will read it aloud.
  • We will define any terms they need for understanding.
  • Then, we will discuss the types of images being evoked and how they enhance the writing.


  1. Tell students that they will be taken on a journey through the types of imagery that deal with the senses and that there is some mystery involved—show them the mystery bag.
  2. Explain the rules of the activity:  It is crucial that students understand the importance of keeping their eyes shut when they are told to do so.  Also, remind students that they do not need to change the subject of their pieces in order to introduce a new sense.  They should try to find a way to incorporate some aspect of that sense and then continue on with their writing. Continue reading


Filed under Lesson Plans