What am I supposed to teach? Part 2: High School

High school actually has a lot of the same elements as middle school, just at a stronger, most intense degree. The buzz word we use in public education is Scaffolding. Everything builds on each. The skills we learned in middle school will be taught again, with a new layer added on each year. That means the main categories are still going to be the same for me:

  • Reading Literature

  • Reading Research

  • Research Writing

  • Creative Writing

  • And all that extra stuff

Again, these are skills that will be taught over and over again, every year. Sometimes even when they say they have it. What I have found is that when students have to use those skills in a practical application, like a test or project, suddenly they will forget everything you've taught them. Repetition is key to understanding.

Reading Literature

I recently became part of a big debate that was taking place on Facebook about the "classics" and their place in education. I've actually written an entire blog post about how I feel about the classics. I'm not a fan of them. Most of them have outdated ideas of misogyny, racism, and civil rights. They might have been the acceptable social norm at the time they were written, but they aren't anymore. Also, a good portion of them are written by white men (not all). This leads to a very narrow view of the world.

My advice is not to force the classics just because they are the books that you read in school. Don't choose them because they are the books that you are familiar with. There are lots of resources available to help you find modern books that can teach the same messages as the classics with a diverse set of authors, a diverse set of characters, and a better representation of what our world truly looks like.


When choosing the books to use for your curriculum, you want books that are going to lead to questioning, inquiry, a desire to research, and the potential to change your way of thinking. The books you choose for high school should make your teenager (and possibly you) a little uncomfortable. This is how you know you are learning and growing. This is how you know you are teaching Critical Thinking, which is the heart of English at the high school level.

Librarians have a saying:

The goal isn't necessarily to offend you, but it is to make you think.

As you are reading, you still want to look at the elements of character, setting, and plot, and how those three interact with each, as you did in middle school. Now you are also adding in theme, mood, and tone. Students should be critically thinking about how the setting of the book affects the mood, or which symbols shown throughout represent the theme. There are a lot more types of figurative language that should be learned, and those should be analyzed to see how they affect the story elements, writing style, or the author's purpose. We'll get to all the writing opportunities this opens up in a coming section.

Reading Research

When it comes to reading nonfiction and informational texts, it's going to be extremely important to prepare students for what is expected at the college level. This means using research or academic databases, knowing how to evaluate websites, and NOT relying on Google. My students know that if they turned in an assignment that used Wikipedia as a source, it would be an automatic failure.


Google is not a source! Google is not even a good place to do research of any sort. Being able to teach your students how to do research is one of the greatest skills you can give them. This means know how to evaluate websites for trustworthiness, bias, and reliability. Students should learn how to access academic databases through the public library, understand how to search with keywords, and use multiple sources to understand bias and objective reporting.

Research Writing

At the start of high school, students should be writing a 5-paragraph essay. This is an opening paragraph that includes an introduction ending with the thesis sentence. The three middle paragraphs all start with a topic sentence and include a minimum of 3-5 supporting details. There is then a conclusion paragraph that restates the thesis statement.

By the end of high school, they should be writing multiple page research papers.

Research writing includes two types of formats, informative or expository writing (which is similar to a report) and persuasive writing. Both of them should be written in a formal and objective tone.


In middle school, students only needed to learn MLA style citations and I only teach them how to create citations for a List of Works Cited. In high school, the need to know how to do in-text citations. I cannot express enough how important it is to know how to do this and to follow the MLA rules precisely. When you get to college, the professors will expect papers to be turned in following the MLA formatting rules exactly as they are spelled out in the MLA manual:

  • List of Works Cited

  • In-text citations

  • Cover Page

  • Margins

  • Headings with name and page numbers


There have been professors who have failed students because periods were not in the right places and margins were not the correct distance (it happened to me). And if you can teach a little bit of APA formatting, that would be helpful also.

Creative Writing

This is a chance for high schoolers to have fun. I feel like so much of high school is focused on learning the research and getting the grades and preparing for college. Don't forget to have fun!


And what I love about creative writing is quite often I combine it with the research writing. Not all research has to have an output that's a boring report. Let students create a website, travel guide, catalog, etc.


I once taught Homer's Odyssey and we tracked Odysseus' journey home through Greece and the trials he faced along the way. I then had my students pick a country of their choosing, they had to research the mythology of that country, create a hero, study a map, and then write a story in which their character went on a journey home fighting mythical creatures along the way.

This lesson combined:

  • research in the country's cultural background

  • research in the country's mythology

  • research in the country's tourist locations

  • craft a three dimensional character that readers will relate to

  • build a world that is rich in detail and believable

  • create empathy so we root for the main character

  • revise and edit

Everything Else

Annotating is still a big skill I teach my students. As they progress I give them different things to look for as they annotate. Depending on the book we are reading, I might have them annotate for specific things, such as a certain theme or symbol. My annotating checklist has gotten more in depth, and my requirements for note taking while annotating is more strenuous. This, again, creates more active reading. They can't get away with speed reading or pretending to read the book. I also check the book to make sure they are following my directions. This has led to some great discussions that I hadn't planned on.


I also plan to do at least one unit of poetry every year. This might be combined with one of my other units through Shakespeare, a biography, or creative writing, or it might be a stand alone on it own. Either way, kids still need that element of expression that poetry brings out in them. There are some absolutely incredible novels in verse being published right now that are so powerful (maybe I'll write a post just on them).

I tend to do less Vocabulary and Spelling lessons at this age. Vocabulary is built into my annotation checklist and will occur naturally as they read. If I see some students still struggling with spelling, I've developed a game similar to the NYT Spelling Bee. We'll practice with that for a while to build their spelling skills

High School

I've seen many Facebook posts that stress it is important to listen to your kids. I agree, to a point. It's important to find books that they are going to be interested in reading, topics that peak their interest. However, you also need to challenge and break them out of their comfort zone.

I had a tenth grade boy read A Midsummer Night's Dream followed by Julie Kagawa's The Iron King, both about faeries. He saw both of the covers for these and said, "Really, Ms. Couch?" with a curled up nose. All he could see were the girly colors, fairies, and a kissing storyline. I told him to trust me. These books would be filled with sword fighting, evil tricksters, and you wouldn't know who to trust right up until the end. He ended up devouring both books and went on to read the rest of Kagawa's series.

Take some chances, and don't be afraid to push them hard. They can do this and so can you. If not, I definitely can!


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