Lesson 3: Using your imagination

“Squidward, don’t you see? Waiting and watching? That’s not what the box is all about! It’s about… [makes rainbow with his hands] …imagination.”
~ Spongebob Squarepants

I remember as a kid watching cartoons with my sister and laughing when Bugs Bunny outwitted a foe. Then we’d hear our dad in the background busting a gut. “Why are you laughing so hard, Dad? What’s so funny?” He’d compose himself and say “It’s hard to explain. You’ll understand when you are older.” My sister and I would shrug our shoulders and return to our regularly scheduled programming. He was right though. When I got older, I realized many cartoons had messages that only adults understood.

When Spongebob Squarepants debuted in the late 1990s, there was a movement by some parents who believed the cartoon was bad for children and dumbed down the intelligence of all who watched it. If those parents really watched some episodes and understood their significance, they would have heard messages of morality embedded in some shows. (And yes, many more episodes are just slapstick humor, but not everything has to have meaning.) Spongebob creators used metaphor, symbolism, satire, and allegory to shine a light on issues such as bullying, swearing, and media manipulation.

As I started to plan my sophomore unit on Lord of the Flies, I needed to teach allegory. I looked for allegorical songs or images that resonated with students to teach the concept. One rainy day, I invited students to spend brunch in my class, and I noticed a lot of  Spongebob, Patrick, and Squidward drawings left on my white boards. That’s when I got the inspiration for my lesson: Spongebob as Allegory. The one episode I knew would hit home was Idiot Box – not because of the name but its iconic meme.

Imagination .gif

Here’s how the lesson shaped up …

Essential Question: What is allegory and how is it used to convey hidden meaning and messages about morality?

Definition of allegory: A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.

“Lord of the Flies” is an allegorical novel about how the desire for power can overpower and destroy the structure of a civil society.

Get students thinking
Look at advertising images for visual metaphors. Make a note of what details you notice. Pair-share with a partner: What hidden meaning do you think the picture is trying to convey?

1. Smoke baby – anti-smoking message

2. Puma leaping over Addias – Puma is a better brand

3. Light bulb – provides energy; also a symbol of a “bright idea” to save energy

Class share out and discussion.

Spongebob as Allegory
Look at allegory in “Idiot Box” (season 3, airdate: 3/1/2002). We’ll stop along the way and look at particular moments to discuss the meaning in each scene.

  1. Stop 1: Patrick and Spongebob receive a delivery of a large box. They unwrap it to reveal a large screen TV. They pull it out and throw the TV to the curb as a dumbfounded Squidward watches on and asks: “Let me get this straight, you two ordered a giant screen television just so you could play in the box?”  What happened? Why did they throw the TV to the curb like garbage? What does that action represent?
  2.  Stop 2: Squidward starts to watch the new big screen TV when he hears what sounds like Spongebob and Patrick exploring in the mountains when they get caught in an avalanche. What do we hear? Is it more interesting than what is on TV? Why?
  3.  Stop 3: From outside the box, we hear another action scene play out with Spongebob and Patrick. Squidward gets mad and asks to get in the box with them. Inside, he only sees and hears Spongebob and Patrick making beeps and sounds with their eyes closed, not the full-blown action scenes heard from outside the box. Why? What does Squidward’s viewpoint represent?
  4. End of episode: What happens when Squidward finally gets in the box by himself? What happens to his imagination?

Class discussion: Add up all the scenes and talk about the overall meaning of the episode.

Allegorical messages:

  1. Watching television erodes young people’s ability to use their imagination for play and creativity. That’s why Spongebob and Patrick throw the TV away, jump in the box and play.
  2. Squidward represents the adult point of view; Spongebob and Patrick the child’s point of view. As an adult, Squidward has lost his ability to imagine and play while Spongebob and Patrick can amuse themselves for hours in a large, cardboard box.
  3. Spongebob is a television cartoon and the creators are telling young viewers to “throw away the TV” and go out and use their “imaaaaginaaaation.”


Students enjoyed this lesson. They got a kick out of watching a cartoon in English class. By watching something most of them had seen or knew about, it engaged students in conversations. We did discussions where each table group took on specific scenes and they had to break down the meaning. I heard great interactions as students went from laughing about something in the episode to analyzing its meaning.  Each class came to at least one of the three conclusions above.

Looking back at this lesson, there’s a lot to change and build on, such as examining the use of imagery, symbolism, and irony in this episode. By showing students how to identify and analyze literary devices in mainstream media, I saw them develop skills around speaking and listening (CCSS SL.9-10.1) as well as interpretation (CCSS RL.9-10.2). When it came time to teach allegory in Lord of the Flies, I had a memorable lesson I could refer back to when students struggled to finding deeper meaning from the symbols and actions in the novel.



Our America Personal Narrative Lesson

Learning Segment Focus or “Big Idea”: Into lesson for Our America. Provide students with context for the book by understanding the adversities and challenges of living in the Ida B. Wells Projects in Chicago.

  • What do you want students to learn in this lesson? Students will learn: How the setting of the Ida B. Wells Housing Project in Chicago’s south side impacts the lives of Our America’s young authors.
  • What should students be able to do after the lesson? SWBAT Write a one-page narrative essay about their own neighborhood, enabling them to consider how their life experience compares to that of the Our America students before starting the book next week.

Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago is the personal narrative of teenagers LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman living in Chicago’s dilapidated housing projects. It was the outgrowth of the award-winning NPR program Ghetto Life 101. The assignment for my 9th grade students was to write about their own neighborhood, using vivid language to paint a picture of a day in their life. This lesson took place on day 3 of the unit, after students had listened to Ghetto Life 101 and studied the language used that painted a picture of LeAlan and Lloyd’s everyday life.

Here’s the flow of the lesson which took place over the course of 4 days:

Lesson 3:

  • Return Day 1 quick writes with comments for students to consider as they start to fill in their graphic organizers and write their personal narratives.
  • Have students pull out the descriptive language worksheets they were given earlier in the week.

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Writing about Your America

  • Pass out “My Neighborhood” worksheet. Direct them to use descriptive words. SWABT brainstorm visual images they can use to write about their neighborhood.
  • Model under the document camera what I’m looking for on the worksheet by filling in things about the house I lived in when I was their age.
  • Have students spend 15 minutes completing the worksheet

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  • Pass out Graphic Organizer.
  • I do-we do: Write in my graphic organizer under the document camera, showing students the pictures and notes about my home/neighborhood from my own “Neighborhood Questionnaire.” Along the way, ask students for ideas about what to write in my organizer.
  • Model writing with descriptive language.
  • Students will then write in the same section in their own organizer (example: I start my intro; they work on their intro).

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  • Once completed, students will begin to write their draft on Chromebooks in Google classroom using their graphic organizer. I will provide them feedback as they write in class.
  • See “Storytellers inside all of us.”
  • Lesson 2: Storytellers inside us all

    “The educator has the duty of not being neutral.”
    ― Paulo FreireWe Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change.

    My second semester student teaching placement was at a school in an underserved community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Whatever your preconceived notions of an “urban” school is (urban being the latest buzz word for impoverished communities), this school was anything but. Yes, it suffered from a lack of resources and limited funding. The building was old – straight out of a movie from the 1950s. But it was clean, surrounded by freshly cut fields and manicured greenery all around.

    Walking on the campus the buzz of teen emotion – joy, fear, anxiety, and excitement – is palpable. Administrators, counselors, and teachers are always nearby interacting with students. Hugs and high-fives often mean more than tests and grades. Working here brought me great satisfaction, sprinkled with moments of pain and tears for both my students and me.

    In their book 180 Days Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher talk about how “The storyteller is deep inside every one of us.” (p. 137) I knew walking onto the campus of this school, my students had stories to tell. It made sense that my first summative assessment would be a personal narrative.

    Of all the lessons in this unit, I loved this one the most. I had students playing with words, challenging them to find more vivid ways to say “nice, ugly, pretty, and dirty.” Under the doc camera, I wrote the beginning of my own narrative, asking for student input on phrasing and imagery.

    When the time came for them to put pen to the page, the collective groans began. “What do I write?” “I don’t know what to write about.” (As an English teacher, I often feel like a therapist assuring my students that they can overcome blank page phobia.)

    One student – I’ll call him BW – was one of my biggest whiners. “I can’t write, Mrs. Santoyo. I don’t know what to write!” He was one of those kids who missed at least one day of school a week for unknown reasons. When he started complaining, I was sure I was going to lose him for the rest of the week and I’d have to give him a zero, dissuading him from coming back to make up all that work.

    I sat down next to him and we looked at a Google Earth picture of his home. We talked through what we saw. Flowers dotting the walkway, trees towering above the rooftop, a white door greeting him at the entrance. I made him write the details down, which he did, begrudgingly. Then he told me he was done. He didn’t want any more help. So I figured BW wouldn’t be at school tomorrow.

    The next day he was in class. Afterwards, he stayed back to talk. When everyone was gone, he asked if it would be OK if he talked about being homeless with his family this past summer. I took a deep breath and assured him I would be the only person to read his piece. “If you are comfortable sharing it with me, I think it would be a powerful personal narrative.” He thanked me and left.

    The next day, he asked me to read his first paragraph. Given how resistant he was to writing, it was a good start. I helped him change some language to make the piece more vivid. He seemed to get the hang of what I was looking for. I even saw a small smile when I praised him for one of the sentences he wrote on his own.

    Here’s his final draft. Names and addresses have been removed for privacy.

    Student narrative essay_SLz

    I wasn’t grading writing conventions for this assignment, just the ability to paint a picture with words. He earned full points for his piece. I was so impressed by what this resistant writer produced. I printed it out with a note to share it with his parents.

    The next day, I showed him his grade. He was brimming with pride. Then he told me “today is my last day.” It was only 6 weeks into the school year. “Where are you going?” I asked. “My Mom is going back to jail. I’m going to live with my aunt and uncle so I have to change schools.”

    I hugged BW and told him to keep writing. He smiled and thanked me. Then he left. It was my first teaching win and loss, all in one day.

    Lesson 1: Learning as I go


    “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”
    ~ E.L. Doctorow

    I have no idea who E.L. Doctorow is, but no truer words have been said. For me, I replace the word “writing” with “teaching.” That’s what the last 6 months have been for me. Starting from nothing and learning as I go.


    This is me, the Saturday before my first real teaching job. I was lucky. I received my preliminary California teaching credential on Jan. 11, 2018. The last day of my student teaching placement was Jan. 18. The first day of my long-term sub position was Jan. 19. I was stepping in to teach the whole second semester for a teacher on maternity leave.

    Earning my credential was the culmination of a 5-year journey to become an English teacher after a 20-year writing career. I remember it was the last day of fifth grade for my son. He was off to middle school. I had spent the last 3 years as a volunteer art teacher through the Art in Action program at his elementary school. I taught pre-developed, curriculum-driven lessons. It was one day a month, but I loved it. It was more than just working in my son’s class. It was teaching about a grand master of art, demonstrating the techniques, and watching as my son and his classmates painted, drew, and molded works of art.

    On that the last day of school, as I watched screaming elementary schoolers hurl water balloons at each other, my son’s fifth grade teacher turned to me and said: “You’re a natural. Have you ever thought of becoming a teacher?” The truth was, I had. But I was a freelance writer making pretty good money. Becoming a teacher would require returning to school, working as a student teacher for no pay, and passing the California Subject Examination for Teachers, aka the CSET. Then there was the final test: EdTPA – The mother of all unit plans. You will never do this ever as a teacher, yet you have to do it for the California Department of Education to grant you a piece of paper to teach.

    Yet here I am, five years later. I followed that little voice in my head and the encouragement of my son’s teacher. Now, with credential in hand, I am ready to go and teach the minds of tomorrow. The blissful words of a new teacher …