Category Archives: English

Making Connections and More “Ah-Ha” Moments in the Classroom: Curriculum Integration


Yes! I got it!


All of these phrases come from students when they ‘get it’, when the light bulb has been lit, when they’ve finally figured something out. They describe the glimpse of real-time learning teachers strive for every day in their classrooms. These are moments teachers work to see, to witness in their students in every lesson, every activity.sandi

However, these moments are sometimes hard to find, hard to catch, and hard to create in the classroom.  Educators are perpetual students themselves, seeking to better their classrooms for their students and their communities so that more of their students experience these flashes of learning. The question arises at every meeting, every seminar, and every conference: how do we, as teachers, help facilitate more of these moments?

This year, MPA has sought to create a learning environment that will allow students to experience more of these moments in the classroom by integrating our English and History curricula more closely between disciplines. With this in mind, MPA Middle School English and History teachers chose novels, poems, plays, visual media, textbooks, and projects that help bridge the two disciplines, which will link the material they are learning together in a dynamic way.

Our goal is to give students not only content knowledge, but also the space and opportunities to make close connections between the literature they are reading and the history they are learning. Those ‘Ah Ha!’ moments increase in number when students can see that history is the retelling of past lives, and the literature they are reading is a reflection of those lives. Making clear, relevant connections between the two disciplines deepens understanding and builds comprehension and retention.

Currently, students in the 6th grade are reading a young reader’s version of the Epic of Gilgamesh and simultaneously learning about the civilization of Sumer (ancient Mesopotamia) where this great story takes place. Meanwhile, students in 7th Grade English are reading Anna of Byzantium, and concurrently making connections from the medieval Crusades described from the main character’s point of view and the historical events of the Crusades about which they are learning in 7th Grade World History. In addition, while students in 8th Grade English are reading Esperanza Rising, a story of a young Mexican girl forced to immigrate with her newly widowed mother to the United States in the midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, they are learning about Mexican cultural traditions, such as the creation of yarn dolls, and the plight of migrant workers in southern California during this period. Later in the year, 7th and 8th grade English classes will read A Long Walk to Water, which describes the struggles of young children in southern Sudan, and will link together the issues concerning that country and the larger continent of Africa being discussed in 8th Grade World Geography and 7th Grade World History.

Relating people, places, and events in history to the characters, settings, and conflicts in integrated literature will build a network of learning that will carry them into Upper School classes, and later help cement a foundation of knowledge that will endure through college.

By Sandra Burgess

Ms. Burgess teaches Middle School English.

Behind the Scenes at the AP Exam (or: How to Grade 2,500 Essays in One Week)


Each June, educators from across the world gather to score Advanced Placement examinations. Though part of the exam is multiple choice questions scored by Scantron machines, the “open-ended” essays, equations, and problems are scored by educators from both the secondary and post-secondary levels.

This year was my fifth time scoring essays for the AP English Language and Composition exam, and it was nothing short of a fulfilling professional development experience.

Approximately 530,000 students nationwide sat for this exam this year, which meant a total of 1.5 million essays. Roughly 1,500 readers had one week to score them all.

Even though I barely could stomach the name of Cesar Chavez by the conclusion of the week — I scored 2,500 essays! — the experience of working with several thousand knowledgeable and accomplished educators as well as having my own accomplishments in education validated more than compensates the trip. Although it is a grueling seven days of sitting in a giant room reading and scoring essays, the conversations and lessons that I learn and have learned from seasoned educators are priceless.

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5 Reasons Reading to Your Child is Awesome


Nearly every night my daughter and I snuggle up in bed—or sometimes on a couch–and read together. Some days she chooses simple books from when she was younger and other days we embark upon the days- or weeks-long journey of a longer novel.

As a third-grader, my daughter is a fairly independent reader who often reads on her own, either before or after our reading time. So why do I persist in reading aloud to her each night for up to an hour?

1. I love it. As newspapers and websites scream about how busy we all are, I believe it is important to show my daughter that time to relax and spend time together is more important than my to-do list.

2. It is an opportunity to get to know her in new ways. The questions she asks about the books or the things she chooses to comment about let me know what is important in her world these days. Often, during or after our reading, she opens up about things that have been bothering her.

3. We can explore interests together. Our early forays into Little House on the Prairie books have led to a longstanding interest in previous historical periods and thereby to lots of additional historical fiction and, eventually, museum trips. Sharing an interest and learning together will, I hope, set the foundation for lifelong learning.

4. It exposes her to new ideas. Reading aloud together also gives me a chance to expose my daughter not only to different times and places but to new ideas and ways of thinking. Many are the mornings when our breakfast table conversation revolves around something that happened in a book we are reading that she wants to talk about. Why someone behaved as they did, how a situation might have been handled better—all of these are real-life issues we can discuss without judgment because they are about fictional characters.

5. It improves her thinking and writing. I can read books to her that are above her own reading level. This not only increases her vocabulary, it also exposes her to more sophisticated syntax in writing. All this will eventually creep into her own thinking and writing. My experiences teaching English at Morgan Park Academy certainly show me that frequent readers tend to be better writers and even better thinkers. It also prepares her to read these more complex books—on her own or in future classes.

Of course, most of all, I hope that, like me, she will become a lifetime reader who never goes anywhere without a book nearby!

By Claire Concannon

Ms. Concannon teaches Upper School English.

Finding Great New Reads


During my three years teaching at the International College in Beirut, Lebanon, the Upper School required teachers to have a weekly “parent hour,” a recurring time where, as the title implies, parents could meet with teachers to discuss their children.

Far and away, parents’ most common question was how they could improve their child’s SAT scores.

SAT scores were students’ primary currency for entry into prestigious schools throughout the world. Because they often took chemistry, math, biology, and physics concurrently, students routinely aced the math component. The English section? They suffered, to put it lightly.

Before placing blame on those of us in the English Department, humble readers should understand the Lebanese culture. The problem wasn’t that the majority of students spoke English as either a second or third language, but that the Lebanese are not known for reading. My students and their parents told me they rarely read for pleasure.

It would be great if we could pat ourselves on the back, chuckle at their expense, and applaud ourselves for our voracious American appetite for reading.

Enter Mr. Gioia.

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Meet Our Teachers: Peggy Bergin

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Peggy Bergin teaches Middle School and Upper School drama classes and fifth-grade English, directs our fall play and spring musical, and moderates our student Arts Council. She is our Director of the Arts and Curriculum Leader for the Fine Arts department.

She holds a Master of Education degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.


What is the most important life lesson you want students to learn in your class?

Last summer, my fifth-graders read a novel called Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. In it there is a precept (or a “rule about a really important thing”) that states: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This idea, attributed to Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, is a lesson I hope students take away from all of my classes.

What are your favorite moments with a student?

Without a doubt, my favorite moments are watching student theatrical performances after weeks of rehearsals. I find myself very moved by the commitment, creativity, and talents of the students here at Morgan Park Academy, such that by the end of our final performance, I’m wishing that I could watch it again.

How do you keep current with the subject areas you cover?

I try to see as much theatre and art as possible — and I will truly see anything. We are fortunate that we live in a world-class theatrical city, and I enjoy venturing downtown to the major theaters to see what they’re doing. But I also enjoy watching other schools’ productions and community theatre as well. For me, there is inspiration everywhere.

What traits do you look for in your “ideal” student?

My ideal student possesses a fierce sense of integrity, a willingness to try new things, and willingness to succeed and to fail at those things. My ideal student is supportive of the ideas, successes, and failures of his or her peers and — perhaps most importantly — has a sense of humor.

Choosing Books for Readers at All Levels


Whether your child is a voracious reader who gobbles up every book in the house or one who only reads when it is assigned for homework, helping your kids choose books can be tricky. You want to inspire the reluctant reader to find their love of books and you want to be careful that your advanced reader isn’t leaping so far ahead that she is reading content inappropriate for her age.

Advanced Readers

What happens when our advanced readers have an interest in a new book that is written for older children? They are capable of reading it, but should they? Don’t make the mistake of confusing intelligence for maturity.

A few pointers:

• Determine their reading level. Don’t worry about a formal assessment; at Morgan Park Academy, we determine reading level by having a child read a few passages from challenging books. Your advanced reader, like any young reader, should be reading books that are challenging but not frustrating.

• Do your homework. Research the book or even read it yourself. What a great excuse for a quick read and to have a connection with your child and their interests! There are also many resources that review children’s books and other media for kids. I like Common Sense Media.

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