Our Last Lecture


As we near spring it is time for our annual writing contest at our high school. This is when students step up and show off the skills they have acquired during the school year.

The assignment is simple: What would you say to your classmates, family, and friends if you knew you were going to die soon?

Sound familiar? It is the premise of “The Last Lecture” popularized by Randy Pausch, Ph.D., ten years ago. Pausch, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was asked if he would address the student body and fellow professors on the aforementioned topic. His deadline was in a year’s time. No problem, he said.

As the date drew near, Pausch learned that he had contracted pancreatic cancer and had little time to live. He could have pulled out of the assignment, but instead he saw it as a chance to help others. He delivered the lecture and it became an internet sensation. Soon his talk had more than ten million hits and became a best-selling book.

It is a moving lecture, as were the subsequent interviews he gave to television and radio hosts about facing death, its ramifications, and what he would miss most about life.

But how would high school students react to the same assignment? I found out in 2009, a year after Pausch died.

At first, hearing of the assignment students were baffled. “We’re going to write about death? they’d say. “Why?”

I told them what Socrates said 2,000 years ago: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If we don’t stop every so often and assess the way we are conducting our lives and make improvements, we are doomed to a dull, fruitless existence.

The students saw the point and spent several days dreaming up penetrating questions to ask themselves.

We’ve held this contest every year since Pausch died, and trophies are awarded by me to the top two in each of my five classes. For years I’ve had a local shop design a trophy that resembles the Hollywood Oscar. It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and the students love the fact that it is personalized. It features their names, the titles of their talks, and the dates they were presented.

When I broach the idea of the writing contest every September, I get the usual responses.

“I’m not doing this,” one kid says.

“Do we have to present in front of the class?” another asks.

By the time we write and rewrite hundreds of pages of essays throughout the year and the students see their improvement, they eventually inquire about the contest date.

But there was something different about this year. While I always model assignments for my students, I don’t for “The Last Lecture.” I figure by then everyone ought to be able to jump right into it and produce. However, a couple of students asked me if I would write one, so they’d have a better feel for the assignment.

I did not commit at first, but the next morning about a half hour before class I decided to punch out a talk. It took twenty minutes and while I know it would have been better had I given it hours of my time over a period of days, I knew I could write something that would help these particular students. So here goes:

Doctors told me yesterday that I have contracted a rare disease that is expected to cut down my life within nine months. And though I don’t want to get into the particulars at this time, I do want to tell all of you how much I have enjoyed teaching you this year and that you have meant so much to me.

You always came to class on time prepared to learn, and whether you realized it or not you taught me a lot as well. I can tell you right now that you will be successes in life, but more importantly you are just good young people.

I am going to miss so much about the life I’ve been blessed with all these years and I’d like to tell you a bit about me and what I’ll miss most.

As soon as I got the medical news I began missing my wife, Kathy, and our sons, Kieran and Patrick, and, of course, our dog, Curtis. All of whom I love.

My wife and I met 35 years ago. I knew she was the one for me the moment I first saw her walk through the door that led to the editorial department of The Daily Journal in Elizabeth, N.J. I wasted little time asking her out and even less time proposing marriage ten weeks later. She said YES – three years later.

We married in 1986 and eventually our sons were born. During the following years Kathy and I spent hours with them in all aspects of their lives: Little League, school, and later attending their live music shows right into their twenties. I am so grateful that I have been able to spend so much time with my family. Not every dad and husband is as lucky.

Twenty-five years of my life was also spent as a sportswriter. While I liked that career, it was no legacy. A legacy is when you leave behind something important for others.

So I took up teaching. I’ve been at it for 18 years now.

As I’ve said, I liked sports writing, but I love teaching.

At first, friends and family thought I was crazy entering the world of education. Not much money, they reminded me.

“And kids today are crazy,” they added.

But I saw teaching as a “calling.” And this powerful pull deep within my gut insisted that I had to help others.

Along the way, I received good advice from the man who hired me at Elizabeth High School in 2001. His name is Richard Long. “Every time you step into a classroom try to be the best teacher a student ever had,” he advised.

Now, I may not clear that particular bar in some students’ opinions, but I try. Who knows? Perhaps one day someone might recall me as a “good” teacher or at least “okay.” That’s actually high praise coming from a teenager.

What students have taught me over the years is that you cannot tell them what to do; you need to convince them of taking certain actions.

Case in point: Years ago I spent 90 minutes trying to talk a male student of mine out of having a certain female student beaten up after school. He had gang affiliations and his threat was legitimate. So we talked and talked – and talked.

Eventually the male student said, “I’ll call it off mister if you give me an ‘A’ for the marking period.”

That wasn’t going to fly, I told him. So we kept talking. I think he was impressed that I was so persistent, and in the end he called off his boys. The girl was never bothered again.

Yes, teaching has been a deeply moving experience. During discussions I’ve had with students over the years most often I only listen. Sometimes a young person just needs to be heard.

From those listening sessions, I have learned that many teenagers’ problems are the result of young people not having a father figure in their lives.

Now, if you become a dad or a mom, love your son or daughter, involve yourself in your child’s life, always be a good influence, and be patient.

So here I stand before you at 65 years of age. I am not financially wealthy, but I am wealthy in experience – and that has given me a rich life.

A life I will dearly miss.


Wroxton College, Here I Come. Take That, Dad


During the fall of 1969 I, like millions of other high school seniors, was sending out college applications. Most of us just had the colleges send an application and a catalogue and if we liked the photographs of the campus and there was a cute girl or two lurking in the background guys often signed up right then and there.

I desperately wanted to live away at school. I felt it would give me a greater sense of responsibility and I’d grow up faster. So I applied to Loyola University in Los Angeles, St. Bonaventure in Alleghany, N.Y., Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and the University of Toronto in Canada. I was accepted to all of them.

When I told my dad, he nodded in the affirmative and then pointed out the kitchen window. “That’s where you’re going,” he said. He was pointing to the northeast but not Boston College or Harvard. He had someplace else in mind.

A quarter mile away was the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J.

“I didn’t even apply there,” I told him.

“Well, you’d better,” he said. “Time’s running out.”

“But I want to go away, Dad.”

“I’m not spending $2,500 a year to send you to college.”

“You just spent $2,000 a year to send me to high school.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t work to your potential.”

All I could think of was what high school kid works to his potential? Sure, I had a horrible freshman year — eleven failures. Now keep in mind that my high school sent out report cards every month. You could amass a pile of “Fs” as I did, but I only had to go to summer school for one subject: Algebra I. I turned things around in sophomore, junior, and senior years and raised my G.P.A. to respectability and college admission officers saw that I had matured academically. But my dad did not see it that way.

So I went to Fairleigh Dickinson. I enjoyed the place, had some fine professors — Dr. Walter Cummins and Dr. Neil Salzman come to mind. But one day in sophomore year we were on a class trip to the Frick Gallery in Manhattan and on the way home we got stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel. That’s when I heard professor Cummins talking about Wroxton College just outside Banbury, England. His conversation was intriguing and I knew this was the place for me.

I asked Dr. Cummins if I could go there and he said sure, that I had the grades, it was just a matter of filling out the necessary applications, sitting for an interview, and putting my application up against other candidates from around the country. Wroxton only took 68 students but he felt certain I had the credentials to get in. So I applied.

Meanwhile, I started saving my money from a full-time maintenance job at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, N.J., made certain my grades were tops, and wrote a solid application essay. Now I never told my father any of this. My mom knew, but she was all Irish and she knew how to keep secrets. In fact, she thought it was a hoot.

So on the night of August 30, 1972, after I came home from a John Lennon concert at Madison Square Garden, I told my dad he needed to give me a ride to Kennedy Airport the next day.

“Kennedy Airport?” he said.

“Yeah, Dad, I’ve got a flight to England tomorrow. I’m going to school at a place called Wroxton College.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, you wouldn’t send me away to college two years ago, so I thought I’d send myself away. Don’t worry, I paid for everything: tuition, airline ticket, spending money. You won’t pay a thing.”

His head spun for a while. He even asked my mother if she had sent Fairleigh Dickinson University a check for that semester. She told him no because she knew about my plans all along. He was stunned, but he came to accept it rather quickly and admitted the next day that he was proud of what I’d done. That felt good to hear.

And so I spent junior year at Wroxton Abbey with its 56 acres of woodlands, lakes, and gardens. It was a scene out of Masterpiece Theatre. There was the Great Hall replete with Steinway piano, oil paintings of Queen Elizabeth, Lord North, and knights’ armor. And every morning students took a break from their lectures to convene in the Great Hall for tea time. That’s when we guzzled dozens of bakery-fresh cookies and washed them down with countless cups of tea and coffee.

Weekends were spent traveling through the United Kingdom and every three weeks it was off to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stradford-Upon-Avon to catch productions of Macbeth, Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. Afterward, students met with the Shakespearean actors to discuss their roles and how they went about interpreting their characters.

The next night on campus we’d meet on the grand lawn behind the abbey and have a cookout that featured pig on the spit, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and myriad desserts. I had arrived at Wroxton weighing 170 pounds; I departed at 185. It was a great learning experience that not one of us from the Wroxton Class of ’72 has ever forgotten. And to his dying day my father always liked to boast to his friends about how his son had studied in England and how it didn’t cost my dad a shilling.

The Sure Way to Grab a Student’s Attention


As a teacher, I’m approaching my favorite time of the school year.

No, not summer break. Spring.

A period in which we bid a less-than-fond farewell to the 10-day PARCC tests, the three-day student growth tests, and the morning-long SAT and ACT tests.

Oscar Wilde once wrote in De Profundis, “All the spring may be hidden in the single bud, and the low ground nest of the lark may hold the joy that is to herald the feet of many rose-red dawns.”

Wilde was certainly a romantic genius. As for me, I’m a simpler fellow. I see Spring as the chance to get back to teaching students what they need to know about English literature and send them away in June with at least somewhat of an appreciation for our language.

But, as always, I’m going to have get their attention.

After all, why would 16 year olds want to sit down and pour through a few hundred pages when they can easily tap into Facebook and see what their friends are doing?

Clearly, a teacher must get their attention.

What I like to do is make an immediate connection between my students and the author whose book we will read. That can be done in many ways. Start off with a few compelling questions to the class and get them speaking about certain topics that will be covered in the book. Or go for the jugular.

If you’re going to teach Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller put a revealing, but not too revealing, photo of Marilyn Monroe on your StarBoard. The boys definitely will take notice. They will begin to ask all sorts of questions of the actress, her suicide, her drug usage. It’s amazing what these kids know about celebrity gossip.

Then flash up a picture of Arthur Miller and you’ll hear, “Who’s that old guy?”

When you tell them that he was Marilyn Monroe’s husband and that he wrote Death of a Salesman, he immediately gets street cred and the teacher has a fighting chance to get the students to study the play.

It’s the same with Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. A few kids have heard of the book, but no one has read it, and they certainly don’t know Albom, even though he’s been voted Sportswriter of the Year thirteen times.

So, again, you must make a connection. In my case I can tell them that as a former sportswriter I’ve met Mitch Albom when he worked on the Detroit Free Press. I can take it a step further too.

Two years ago he delivered a magnificent address at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, N.J. Before his talk, I hunted him down and we spoke for twenty minutes in his dressing room about sports, writing, and life. Then he autographed a copy of Tuesdays with Morrie for my English class and wrote a touching message for them about keeping their heads up in life and just keep marching forth. I bring the book in now and show the kids and they are immediately hooked.

How about other authors the students may not have heard of? How are you going to get them interested?

Humanize these writers.

Before I read books I research the authors. Often I find them to be quite a quirky bunch. A good source of material is Secret Lives of Great Authors by Robert Schnakenberg. In it he points out that writers have a reputation for drinking, but did you know that J.D. Salinger partook in quaffing his urine? Or that Henry David Thoreau almost never took a bath? And what about Louisa May Alcott’s addiction to opium? You don’t hear this stuff growing up.

Schnakenberg must have had a blast researching his book, particularly the section about H.G. Wells. The author of The Time Machine, was a “short, fat balding intellectual with small hands and a hitched-pitched voice,” writes Schnakenberg. Yet he bedded down scores of women during his marriage and had five children out of wedlock. And, Schnakenberg added, he did so with a clear conscience.

And so I ask, how can a teacher not grab a teenage student’s attention with this kind of material?

From sportswriter to teacher and never once looking back


For more than 20 years I was a sportswriter. I covered Major League Baseball, the NFL, track and field, boxing, the NBA, tennis, college sports, and high school sports. Met everyone from Muhammad Ali to Mickey Mantle. Then one night I made a phone call to a friend, Chip Phelps. Told him that I had to do something more worthwhile with my life. He asked me what I was talking about. He said that sportswriting was worthwhile, that I informed people, and did so in an entertaining fashion.

I could see his point, but something was lacking in my life.

That was 1993. It would be another seven years before I’d find my true calling in life: teaching.

Until then I became the managing editor of a Catholic newspaper. I liked that a lot, but still something was tugging at me. That something was a first grader yanking on my coat sleeve during a grammar school Christmas sale in 1999.

“Can you help me find a present for my mommy?” he said.

“Sure, how can I help?”

He led me to a table filled with all sorts of small-item gifts. I didn’t offer any suggestions. I let him select and I reached for the item that he pointed to. Such was the extent of my “help.” He ponied up $5 and bought his mom a pair of stained-glass earrings. He said thanks and walked out of my life.

But that moment resonated with me. I actually had helped a kid other than my sons. It was a nice feeling.

More time passed and I helped out on my older son’s Little League team, a minor role, but that too was satisfying to see youngsters grasp a lesson in hitting or fielding.

“Hey, Joe,” a father said, “ever think of becoming a teacher?”

No way. In fact, I’m surprised that I didn’t go right out and buy this guy a gift certificate good at any hospital for a lobotomy, as satirist Tom Lehrer once said. But his words stuck and as the summer wore on, I began to give the profession serious consideration.

Finally I headed to Barnes and Noble to review its education section. I knew that if I were to become a teacher I had to become certified in English.

As I was thumbing through a book about high school English certification, a young lady from Bishop Ahr High School in Edison, N.J., approached me. She asked if I were considering the teaching profession. I said that I was and she began to tell me about her favorite teachers and what made them effective. As she was leaving, she wished me well and predicted that I’d make a good teacher.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because you took an interest in what I had to say.”

Then she waved goodbye and wished me luck.

I’m a big believer in signs from the universe and too many now had revealed themselves to me. So I purchased a test book as well as a copy of Masterpieces of World Literature to review my background knowledge. Two months later, I took the certification test, passed, and I’ve been teaching ever since.

Teaching is everything that I had hoped it would be. While I may grouse about the over testing of students, there is nothing like getting up in the morning with just one thought: Who can I help today? Then it’s off to school, arrive at 6:20 a.m., and teach at 7:30 a.m.

Classes are fun, informative, and exciting. Students like to be taught and if they see that you sincerely care about them, they will always come through.

Sometimes they even get in touch with you long after you have taught them.

Dave, a former student of mine in 2007, recently contacted me on Facebook and we conversed by phone for more than an hour. He’s only 25, but he is married, has a beautiful six-week-old daughter, a new home, and a career that he loves. I told him that I hadn’t accomplished any of that at his age. Now, as a teacher, you’re never jealous when your student surpasses you. In fact, you are delighted that he or she has found success.

Years ago, an educator named Richard Long hired me and promptly offered sound advice. “When you teach,” he said, “always try to be the best teacher a student ever had.”

I’ve taken that suggestion to heart, and while I’m certain that I’m not everyone’s favorite teacher, Dave was kind enough to tell me that I was his favorite teacher.

Not a bad way to end a long school day.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving


I like to tell my high school students not to worry, things will work out for them, as they did for me. They think the bearded gentleman, who teaches them English literature and writing, always knew what he was doing as a teenager and always got straight A’s. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In grammar school I was fine. No problems.

Then came the horror story known as freshman year of high school. That’s when I accumulated 11 failures on my report card catapulting me to summer school for Algebra I. Eleven failures, you may be wondering, and you were not left back? There’s a reason for that. At Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J. , we received report cards every month. That’s 10 report cards a year. And apparently I spread out my failures with great aplomb, except for algebra.

I remember sitting at my desk that first week in class and thinking that I’d better pay strict attention to this instructor because “letters” were now involved in math problems. It was a concept I never grasped. As the months wore on, my grades sank from an 88 to 79 to 68 to 66 to 65 and so on. The final grade was well below 70. So off to Madison High School I went for a six-week course in algebra. Sadly, I continued my string of failure. And if I failed summer school, I would not be allowed back at Delbarton.

What to do?

The fellow teaching me that summer was named Mr. Peyser. Good guy, and I actually understood a bit of what he was teaching, but not enough. My average was 68. The last week of summer school, however, he announced there would be a final test. And if those of us not passing right now passed this test, he would pass us for the summer. A great offer, but I resigned myself to the inevitable: FAILURE.

The morning of the test, I arrived early to class. As as I sat there waiting, I heard a distinct rumble outside. Up pulled someone on a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket, and spinning his way into a parking spot. But when he took off his helmet, I knew I had a chance to pass Algebra I. It was Mr. Peyser. I realized then that here was a man I could reason with. Because my algebra teacher actually rode a motorcycle that meant he was a regular guy. And so when he got to class, I presented him with a proposition. It went something like this:

“Hi, Mr. Peyser, do you have a moment?”

“Sure, Joe, what’s up.”

“Look, I know I’m failing your course and, honestly, I just don’t get algebra. It’s the letters and numbers thing.”

He nodded as if he understood.

“If you could just give me a “D” so I can return to Delbarton, otherwise I’ll be kicked out. I not only would appreciate it, I promise I’ll never return to summer school again.”

He smiled and said, “Well, let’s see what happens.”

I took the final that day and I knew I didn’t pass.

A week later, my summer school grade arrived. I had sneaked out to the mailbox to intercept the grade before my mother and father got hold of it. There was the envelope holding my immediate future. I opened it slowly, unfolded the pink paper inside, carefully, winced and …

A grade of “C.”

My parents were pleased and my father gave me one of his speeches about how hard work always wins the day.

I was graduated from Delbarton three years later. But two things gnawed at me during the graduation exercises: not really passing Algebra I in freshman year meant that I was not officially a high school graduate. And that I never thanked Mr. Peyser for his “gift” which made my graduation from high school — and the rest of my life — possible.

Mr. Peyser, wherever you are, thank you.

The most well-read man I ever knew


As a kid I often read sprawled across my bed on summer evenings, anything from Jack and the Beanstalk, to astronomy, to the encyclopedia, to sports. I’d fill my head with all sorts of facts and figures, anecdotes, oddball characters, inventors, murderers, whatever caught my fancy. By age 10, I thought I was a pretty good reader.

Then I met Andy Mullally.

Andy was the husband of my third-grade teacher, Camille Mullally, who I have written about on this blog. Andy and my father, Carmel, were good friends and each liked to read. They’d tackle all sorts of subjects but in the end, I’d give Andy the edge as the greater reader — by far.  And so did my father.

In 1962, our family was over Andy’s house and he turned to my dad and me and said, “Want to see my book collection?” He had a glint in his eye and I could tell something was up.

Upstairs we went and when he opened the door to one of the bedrooms all I could see was title after title after title. But I had to turn my head sideways because the books did not rest on bookshelves. Instead Andy carefully piled them one on top of the other. Each time he read a book, he’d bring it to the bedroom and gently place it on top of whatever stack was currently building. He stopped when that stack reached the 12-foot ceiling. Then he’d start another stack and stop at 12 feet. This went on for years in that 15-by-12 foot room.

According to his wife, Camille, it was a continuation of a book collection that Andy had begun when he was six years old.

“Andy read everything,” said Camille. “History, ghost stories, boxing, baseball, politics, philosophy, psychology, science, film — you name it.”

The night he was showing my father and me his quirky bookroom, my father asked, “Andy, what if you want to look something up, how do you remove the book without creating the Domino Effect?”

“I don’t remove anything,” he said. “I have a photographic memory.”

But what if your son wants to read something?” my father said.

“Good question.”

(Andy eventually dedicated another room for his thousands of books so his young son, Bill, could access a title without living in fear of bumping into a column of books and being crushed to death by literature’s greatest authors).

Wherever Andy went, he was the Pied Piper of general knowledge. All sorts of people gathered around him to discuss, well, anything. Even kids.

At Camp Coah, a Boy Scout camp on the Delaware Water Gap, a second class scout named Thomas Carasiti once asked Andy at lunch if he would tell a ghost story.

“Sure, but not now,” Andy said, adding ominously, “let’s wait until it’s dark.”

So at 9:30 on an August night, he gathered the members of Troop 53 of Fords, New Jersey, around a campfire and spun a story about a man who was traipsing through a forest looking for his brother somewhere in Europe. The man eventually arrived at a castle, explained his predicament, and gained entrance. The butler took the man’s coat and announced his presence to the owner who was seated at the head of the dining room table waiting to be served.

The owner motioned his guest inside and invited him to supper. The weary traveler sat down and they talked. Then a servant placed delectable dishes of food around the table. Later, the guest commented on the meal saying that the meat dish, in particular, was superb. At this point, one silver plate was still covered and the host asked his guest if he wouldn’t mind lifting the cover. As the guest did, he let out a scream. On the plate was the head of his brother.

I have no idea who wrote that story or how accurate my telling of it is after all these years. But of one thing I am certain: Andy’s dramatic reading that night sent chills down my spine and half the guys in the troop who often moaned and groaned when the scoutmaster shouted “Lights out” couldn’t wait to beat it back to their leantos and throw the covers over their heads.

The next day at the firing range Andy regaled us with stories about Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson. He could tell you all sorts of particulars about each man. By the way, did you know that Bat Masterson went on to become a sports editor in New York City? Well, I do, thanks to Andy Mullally.

Don’t get the impression Andy was some savant who rattled off facts and figures just to impress people. Not at all. He was the best of conversationalists because he listened to you, too. Even when I was a kid, he sat quietly as I told him about the great escape artist Harry Houdini and how he died with a punch to the gut in 1926. I’m sure Andy knew the story — and more — but he nodded assent as I spoke. And he didn’t try to top me either.

Years later we would meet every second Saturday in December at the St. Patrick’s Guard of Honor Luncheon at Mayfair Farms in West Orange, New Jersey. By then I was a sportswriter and Andy loved sports. Now it was Andy’s turn to ask me questions. He was an insightful boxing aficionado, but he wanted to learn the back story to every fight and every fighter I had covered. I now was able to fill him in on all sorts of information and — get this — he was hanging on to my every word as I had hung on to his so long ago.

So what did Andy get from all of his reading?

“Reading teaches you how to live your life,” he said. “And, remember, while it’s good to educate your mind, don’t forget to educate your heart.”

Fifty-two years later as I teach my English III classes, I’m often inspired by the tales Andy told me long ago, and I try to teach my students as if I’m telling them a story, and one that’s good for the heart as well as the mind. The little techniques Andy used to reel people in to whatever he was speaking about I now use to capture my students’ attention. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.

Andy Mullally died in 2005, and I’m certain that he’s in Heaven striking up his pipe and bending more than a few ears. He was a great man — and a great loss — to all who knew him.

If You Motivate Students, They Will Write


I recently read a magazine article in which a teacher was wondering why today’s kids don’t want to write. She blamed the usual suspects: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, cell phones, and software games. I won’t argue that these tech toys are distractions when it comes to academic work and living life to the fullest, but after reading her essay it was clear: she had no idea how to teach writing and motivate her students.

One of her assignments was a 10-paragraph essay asking parents for an allowance. Truthfully, I don’t think I could have completed that piece. It is boring and just how many ways can you ask your folks for money?

She cited a second assignment that her students could care less about: to write a letter of complaint to the principal because the school was serving too many carbohydrates and sweets at lunch. What kid is going to get behind that one? Carbs and sugar have constituted the teenage diet for generations.

This teacher was dumbfounded that her students did not want to write extensively about these topics. So instead of going home and thinking about her predicament, she badmouthed the kids and claimed none of them wanted to use their brains and back to blaming technology she went.

Now, I’m a fan of technology in the classroom — to a point. I believe we should have control over technology, not the other way around like some educators think. Our district invested in StarBoards a while back and they are wonderful educational tools. They can make a very good teacher a great teacher because one can bring up an article, a photo, a film, a piece of music with one keystroke and flash it before students’ eyes. Want to know what a certain historical figure looks like? Just push the Google icon, type in the name, and there you have him or her. What was Mount Vesuvius and its place in history? Well, let’s go back to the city of Pompeii in 79 A.D. and read a passage written by Pliny. Then, if you wish, call up photos of the city of Pompeii today and see the bodies that were frozen in time because Vesuvius’ lava ash had preserved them for almost 2,000 years.

If you get students interested in a topic this way and then engage them in lively discussion, they will have something to write about and be more than willing to complete an assignment.

A recent persuasive essay I gave my juniors had to do with the book The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. It is the story about how Japanese soldiers invaded the city of Nanking, China, in December 1937. Not only were more than 300,000 residents killed, each victim was tortured by Japanese soldiers in unimaginable ways. For instance, teenage boys were ordered to strip naked after which enemy soldiers handcuffed them and lowered them head first into four-foot holes thereby exposing the lower half of their bodies. Soldiers then released ravenous German shepherds who attacked the boys’ exposed private parts.

Other forms of abuse were Japanese soldiers forcing sons to rape mothers and fathers to rape daughters. Japanese soldiers also took delight in spearing infants with their bayonets and seeing how far they could toss them. They kept score by piling up the heads of decapitated victims.

I found a section of the book that mentioned these atrocities yet did not go into them in explicit detail, but the students got the idea. I also showed them film footage of the Japanese marching into Nanking and we listened as Japanese soldiers joked and laughed years later about their actions.

By now the students were ready for their writing assignment.

It was a persuasive letter. In it, they had to pretend they were Chinese teenagers living in Nanking in 1937 and they were to write a letter to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt  requesting that he send American troops to Nanking to put a stop to the atrocities.

No moaning and groaning with this assignment because the students were saturated with information and felt confident they could do the job. They got right to work.

So instead of blaming students for lack of brainpower and an over reliance on social media, take a look at your lesson plan and see if you have designed something that will truly motivate students to want to complete the assignment.