Dickinson and Diction

Emily Dickinson House

Last weekend, I presented at a digital storytelling conference in the Northampton/Amherst area, so I took the opportunity to visit Emily Dickinson’s house, now a museum.

Photographs are not allowed inside the house, so I can’t give you a tour, but I would really encourage you to visit if you find yourself in western Massachusetts. I took a docent-led tour of Dickinson’s house, but you can also take a longer tour that includes her brother’s home next door as well. My favorite part of the tour was upstairs. On the stairs’ landing is a replica of Emily Dickinson’s dress. The light shines through the window just right, and it looks almost ethereal. In Dickinson’s bedroom, the docent told us that the room had recently been renovated to include several items that were not previously there and new wallpaper that is a reproduction of the actual paper Dickinson had in the room. Her own sleigh bed is there. I was fascinated to learn Dickinson had pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning hanging in her room. Whether those pictures currently hanging in the room are the same ones or not, I don’t know, but Dickinson’s niece attested to the fact that she had pictures of these two women writers hanging in her room.

Across from Dickinson’s bedroom is an empty room with two poetry installations. One examines many ways in which Dickinson’s poetry stands apart from other poetry—slant rhyme, ballad meter, and diction. The other examines a poem with alternative word choices. The poem is Fr 1469 “A Chilly Peace infests the Grass.” (Fr is the R. W. Franklin number for the poem, and along with Johnson’s edition, is considered a restored, authoritative edition.) In the installation, there are sliders installed so that you can examine the alternative word choices Dickinson was thinking of for some of the words. For “Chilly,” she also considered “lonesome—” and “warning—.” I kind of like the effect of “warning—” myself. There is no final copy of this poem, and it wasn’t published (as many were not), so we don’t know what Dickinson ultimately decided for the poem. Of course, it gave me a great idea for a lesson. I was extremely sad not to be able to take pictures in the museum at that moment, but in speaking with the docent, and taking notes, I did walk away with a good lesson plan, and I was later able to find enough information online to create a good lesson plan.

Caveat: The Franklin edition poems are copyrighted, as are the Johnson editions, so I can’t post what I created, but the limited preview edition of the three-volume Variorum Edition edited by Franklin does include this poem. Be mindful of the copyright. It is probably fair use to use it in your classroom, but it wouldn’t be fair use to distribute the poem online, I don’t think.

Anyway, I re-created the diction variations for this poem using Smart Notebook software so students can interact with the different word choices like I could when I visited the museum. Later, I found this lesson by Cynthia Storrs on the museum website that is extremely similar to my own idea (only much more fleshed out in that Storrs considers other poems as well). After reading Storrs’s lesson, I added the poem Fr 124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—,” which Dickinson appears to have edited extensively. It’s been suggested that she was never really quite happy with it. You can read two substantially different versions on Poets.org’s site. Incidentally, this poem is one of the few published in Dickinson’s lifetime, and she still continued to edit it after publication, so even publication cannot be considered the final word on word choice. I also added Fr 598 “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” as an introductory piece in the lesson, as it had only two alternative word choices. I had forgotten how much I loved that poem. I hadn’t read it in many years.

I don’t believe I’ll execute my lesson in exactly the same way as Storrs has written it. I plan to begin by asking students to journal about the question “How much does word choice really matter?” I did rather like Storrs’s essential questions, so I will borrow those. After a review of what “diction” is, I plan to display Fr 598 and allow students to examine the effect of the two alternate word choices. What is the effect? Which do they like better and why? Next will be the interactive version of Fr 1469. Students will be able to manipulate the word choices. I emailed our math chair to help me with the math, and he walked me through the reasoning (it’s been a long time since I did this). Considering all the word choices Emily Dickinson considered for this poem, there are potentially 120 different versions of that poem. Finally, I will have students examine Fr 124 in some detail, and perhaps with a partner or small group, much as Storrs describes in her lesson.

Prior to this lesson, I will ask students to write poetry of their own (this part is not fully formed in my head yet). They will think about alternative word choices in their own poems and workshop the poems with these alternate word choices.

I wish I’d been able to be in Amherst this weekend, as it was a Poetry Festival. I was definitely inspired by my visit. I’m lucky to live in what is essentially the cradle of American literature, and visiting Dickinson’s house made me realize there are probably similar lesson ideas an opportunities waiting out there for every other New England writer I could think of. I have some work to do. I ran right out and bought the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson and White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple.

A few more pictures before I go.

"Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus)

This gorgeous flower was in Dickinson’s garden. The label says, “Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus). I immediately thought of Shug saying that it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple and don’t notice it.

Emily Dickinson's Grave

Emily Dickinson’s grave is only a short walk from her house, so of course, I had to stop by and pay my respects. I placed one of those stones there. I had to wonder how often the caretakers remove these items.

Dickinson Graves

The Dickinson family plot is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. This plaque is on the gate. There is a tree growing in the plot. I am no botanist for sure, but I suspect it’s a yew tree. Can anyone confirm?

Dickinson family plot

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Diigo Links (weekly)

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Slice of Life #10: What I Like Best

Slice of LifeI have an American lit class that meets after a half hour period we’ve designated for collaborative learning and talking and working with peers and teachers. Many of my students came to class quite early today. Some of the students were discussing a quiz in history, sharing strategies they’d used to study and lamenting faulty memory when reading their history textbooks. I shared with them that my 8th grade math teacher had taught us the SQ3R method for reading textbooks, and since they hadn’t heard of it, I explained it to them. I mentioned I found it helpful for reading history textbooks in particular, but that I thought it also worked well for science. Maybe not so much for English, and I never used it in math. One student mentioned it was kind of strange that a math teacher taught it to us as it might not have been directly helpful in studying math. I said she was the kind of teacher who shared general success tips, such as study hints and note-taking methods, with us, even if it wasn’t necessarily going to help us in her class. She also taught us how to take cluster or web notes. I have never found that technique useful myself, but I’ve taught it to students who have found it quite helpful. My teacher—I still remember her name, Mrs. Sands—cared about our success and not just in her class. I knew she cared about us.

What I like best about teaching is not necessarily teaching the subject, but helping kids learn, whatever it is. I love sharing ideas and hearing from students. The conversation I described was a five-minute conversation before class, but it was a lot of fun for me, and I felt like we shared a bond over the study tips. Will they give SQ3R a try? I don’t know. But it only took a few minutes to show, and it didn’t take a lot of effort either, that I cared about my students’ success, and not just in my class.

I was in a colleague’s classroom either late last week or early this week (I forget which), and he had a small stack of writing taken up from his seniors. I noticed the names of former students, so I peeked (my colleague didn’t mind). I pulled the second paper out of the stack and started reading. It was good. I felt so proud of the student who wrote it. He had spent two years in my English classes, and he didn’t have a lot of confidence when he came in, but he worked very hard. He came in to work with me. He revised. He volunteered to have his writing workshopped. He is reaping the rewards of the effort he put into improving his writing. Of course, writing is an integral part of the English classroom, and we should be teaching students to write for a variety of audiences and purposes. It’s such an important skill to take forward, and I loved helping this student learn how to improve his writing. But make no mistake: he did the work that resulted in that improvement. He’s carrying that success forward in his English classes this year, and I don’t doubt he’ll carry it forward to future writing he does.

It doesn’t take a lot of work, I don’t think, for us to show our students that we are interested in their lives and struggles beyond our classroom walls. They will remember how we cared for them many years after they no longer remember content. Relationships are important. I remember most of my favorite teachers because of a combination of how interesting their classes were and now much we connected as people beyond the subject. I can clearly remember having teachers who made me feel invisible in the classroom, and I knew they didn’t really care about any of their students, or at least I didn’t feel it. In fact, I have had teachers who really seemed to dislike their students. I am not sure why they were teaching. Students are what I like best about teaching. More importantly, students are why I teach. And perhaps most importantly of all, I really like my students.

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Slice of Life #9: Reflections on the Beginning of the Year

Slice of Life

I’ve been back in the classroom for about a week. I’ve learned my students’ names, which thrills me because it’s always hard at the beginning of the year when I want to have discussions and don’t know their names. I know most teachers can relate. I am trying as much as possible to call them by name in class discussion as well.

I’m thrilled to be off to a good start to AP Literature this year. We have so far discussed the AP rubric and tried our hand at evaluating some writing, practiced with thesis statements, and chosen Socratic seminar discussions for our Socratic seminar on Rebecca. We will have the seminar and do a timed writing this week. I have a great, hardworking group of students, and I’m impressed with them.

My American Lit students have read and discussed Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” in a Socratic seminar as well. I have one class that is somewhat quiet, and I am working on ways to draw them out. I have some ideas, but if you know of some tried and true methods for working with students who might lack confidence and are somewhat quiet, feel free to fire away. I had a class a few years ago that was very quiet. Sometimes it’s just the mix of students, but I also am keeping in mind that it’s the beginning of the year, and some classes need time to feel comfortable. I know several of them are English language learners, which is also a factor. I have noticed they are a bit reluctant to work with partners or in groups, so I have a hunch they don’t really know each other outside of my class, or at least not well. I’m using my wait time, that’s for sure.

Another potential factor is the fact that we are in the midst of a heat wave, and my building doesn’t have central air. The fan helps, actually, but it’s just really hot, and the students are having trouble concentrating. We should be out of the woods by Thursday, and I’m hoping that’s an end of the hot weather until next summer. I detest the heat. I really hated summers in Georgia. I was always miserable. I get headaches and other aches and pains when it’s too hot. I would so much rather be cold. Typically, I live in a pretty good place for the kind of weather I like. This summer hasn’t been too bad until just the end of it. I must be really weird or something, but I have never liked summer very much. Oh, I liked it okay when it was temperate, and I could play outside with friends when I was a child, but as an adult, I have always disliked it. Perhaps it is because of the heat. I enjoy time to decompress, but it’s never been a favorite season with me. I have never been a big beach person (at least, not really), nor am I outdoorsy in general.

I knew once school started, I would be busy, but it’s been a hectic week. I have not had as much time to plan as I’d have liked, which makes me grateful I have the first three weeks planned for all my classes. I hope I’ll be more caught up. I was really smart to do my lessons in Evernote last year because it’s really easy for me to look up last year’s lessons, tweak them, and bring them into this year. I am trying to be more mindful of attaching all handouts and documents to my lessons in Evernote as well so that I have everything I need in my Evernote notebook. I was really good early last year about writing reflections after lessons. Reading those reflections has been helpful for tweaking. I have just taken a few minutes to write short reflections about today’s lessons in my notes. So far, so good, but I’d like to make it a more consistent habit this year.

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Back to School 2015

school photoI forgot to post yesterday for Slice of Life Tuesday. I was tired when I returned home from school and wound up taking a nap. While Monday was our first day of school, it was mostly taken up with orientation activities, so Tuesday was the first day we met with our students. We had shortened classes.

This year I am teaching American Studies in Literature and AP English Literature and Composition. American Lit is familiar territory. I have been teaching it for most of my career—and this will be my eighteenth year. It doesn’t seem that long in a lot of ways. AP Lit, on the other hand, is new for me, so I have been doing a lot of work to prepare for that course.

I began the year in my AP class with a chalk talk: “What are your goals for AP Lit this year?” on one poster, and “What challenges do you foresee in this class?” on the other. Students wrote responses silently for ten minutes, stepped back to read what others wrote, and added comments or agreed with peers’ comments by starring, checking or adding some other mark. They liked it, and they discovered they really have similar hopes and fears. I am going to like this class very much. They put me on the spot right away and asked me what my goals are for the class. And as it turns out, we have pretty much the same goals: 1) I want students who are taking the AP exam to go into the test feeling like they are well prepared, 2) I want students to feel well prepared for their college English classes, and 3) I want to have fun while we learn. Today in AP, we examined the rubric. I was proud of them for pointing out its vagueness (I think it could be clearer in the top end as well), and we tried our hand at reading a student’s AP timed writing and determining 1) what prompt the student was attempting to answer, 2) writing the prompt in our own words, 3) evaluating the essay (two students nailed the exact grade the student received, and the rest lowballed the student, which gives me hope that if anything, they will be harsher graders (which is potentially better than grading too high), and 4) talking about thesis statements. They are great, engaged class.

My American Lit students began the year with some discussion of essential questions:

  • What is the American Dream?
  • Is the American Dream accessible to all? Why/why not?
  • What makes a person American?
  • How is America different from/similar to other countries?
  • Why do people come to America to live?

I asked students to take sticky notes and pick at least two questions to reflect on and write answers to. Then they put one of the sticky notes on chart paper and made connections between notes: two ideas were similar, two ideas were opposites, two ideas were connected in some other way. Then I asked them to take another sticky note and put it on the appropriate chart and connect a negative with a positive or make a connection between a note and something they heard in the news. It won’t really surprise most folks (and didn’t surprise me) to learn they didn’t follow the news much, though one student commented he’d heard candidates talking about “anchor babies.” We talked about what that was. I told the students we would put the charts away and take them out at the end of the year and look at them again. We would reflect on what we had learned. Are our answers the same? Are they nuanced in some way? What do we know now that we didn’t know in the beginning?

I think these classes will be interesting in particular because I have many international students. I have students from China, Vietnam, Russia, Sweden, Thailand, Nigeria, and South Korea, as well as students from Massachusetts and the rest of New England. It looks like a really diverse group, and I think they will bring some very interesting perspectives to our discussions about American literature. Of course, they are likely to need support as non-native speakers of English. I always think my international students are brave for traveling so far away to study in a second (or perhaps third or fourth) language. I wouldn’t have been able to do that when I was in high school.

We are plunging into the deep end of the pool without water wings tomorrow as we have a Socratic seminar on Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus.” I like to frame the year with this poem because I like students to ask questions about why this poem is on the Statue of Liberty and whether we believe the idea expressed in the poem (or, indeed, if we ever have believed it). I was proud that one of my former students who is in my class again approached me to check because he remembers our 70-minute Socratic seminars from last year, and he was concerned we weren’t ready as a class to do that yet. He’s right, so I was able to reassure him by letting him know they will have time to prepare for their seminar in class (half the class, in fact), and the seminar would likely be more like 30 minutes. The reason I was glad he approached me is that he 1) advocated for himself, but really 2) advocated for his peers and showed concern for them.

I have written in the past about how I reworked my curriculum so it’s thematic, and it worked well last year. I did the same opening activity last year, and you should have seen my students’ faces when I pulled out their chart paper from the beginning of the year, and they could actually see how their understanding and thinking about the questions had evolved, even if they still basically agreed with the sentiments expressed—they had evidence to back up those sentiments by the end of the year. I am hoping this year’s class walks away feeling the same way: proud of how much they had learned.

My advisory students are now seniors, and I have been with some of them all four years of high school. They are a great group—very conscientious and hardworking. I am looking forward to seeing them through their last year as they work through the college application process and prepare senior projects. I really look forward to seeing them walk across the stage at graduation at the end of the year. I am so excited to see what they will do.

I had a great start to the year. Last year was my best teaching year yet, and I’m hoping to top that one, even. I am really in a happy place right now.

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Slice of Life #8: Hanging Out with Glenda

Slice of LifeLast week, I mentioned how inspiring it was to discover that I had some colleagues at my school with whom I could collaborate as part of a Critical Friends Group®. I think collaborating with teachers outside our individual disciplines or subjects can be really helpful. Secondary teachers can be awfully focused on their subjects and forget what we share in common with all teachers; as a result, they lose out on some pretty helpful collaboration and perhaps, even more important, some supportive friends.

Still, it does help to connect with colleagues in your subject matter. I am glad that my friend Glenda Funk, who lives in Idaho, and I have started collaborating on AP Literature. Both of us are new to the subject this year. We connected via Google Hangout and talked a bit about our respective course outlines and our experiences in AP training this summer. We pooled our resources in a shared Google Drive folder. One of the things Glenda is really good at (and I’m not sure if she realizes this about herself or not) is lighting a fire under others. The Hangout was her idea, and we already have some other ideas cooking (all hers). She is also really good about reminding me to do my Slice when I haven’t. She’s not just a great collaborator but also a great friend. Knowing that she is out there and we can connect easily means I have someone I can run to with the quick question about something I might want to try. We also bounced some other ideas off each other. I told Glenda how I had planned to start off with a chalk talk in my classes and what I thought might be some good questions to ask, and she said that gave her an idea for a lesson tweak she might try on the first day as well. Even better, Glenda mentioned our collaboration on Facebook, and as a result, we’ve invited a couple more friends to join in.

I’ve been working my way through King Lear and A Thousand Acres. I plan to start the year with an introduction to AP—some analysis tools, some practices with both writing and multiple choice, learning how to read, use, and apply the rubric—and my unit on Home and Family with Lear and A Thousand Acres at the center will follow. I am really excited about teaching these pair texts. It has been a while since I read either of them, and they are so rich and powerful. I have been working a bit on a unit, but I realized I needed to finish reading both books completely before I could make progress (and I need my Folger books, which are at school, and I haven’t had a chance to go get them recently).

I think talking with Glenda has energized me, and I don’t think I’d be spending as much time on a unit that is probably about a month away if not for the fire she lights under me. It’s funny how subtle she is about it, too. I often don’t realize she’s prompted me to do something until I’m in the middle of doing it. We all need to have friends like that in our lives. Thanks Glenda!

Glenda and Dana
Photo by Glenda Funk. Next time, I will do something with my hair before we chat! Yikes!

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Slice of Life #7: Help Me Understand…

Slice of Life

I was taking notes today in a professional development session, and I wrote down these three comments: 1) Help me understand where you are coming from; 2) Help me understand what your role is; and 3) Help me understand what is happening. They were not anything anyone else said, but they occurred to me as I was listening to my colleagues. We could understand so much better if we asked people to tell us one or all of these things.

I am attending a Critical Friends Group® training (National School Reform Faculty) at my school. The other people in my group are my colleagues. They are all either department chairs, department directors, or class/school deans—essentially middle management, if you want to think of it like that. We are learning protocols for Critical Friends Groups. As fussy as the word “protocols” sounds, it’s really helpful to have “structured processes and guidelines” in place to “promote meaningful, efficient communication, problem solving, and learning” (Critical Friends Group® Coaches Handbook, Michele Mattoon and Luci Englert McKean, eds.). Many of them, I am finding, can be used with colleagues or with students. I am getting lots of ideas for the classroom as well as department meetings.

I wrote down the three comments at some point when I was listening because it occurred to me that we often don’t know where others are coming from and why they are doing what they are doing until we ask, and we can be much more understanding and empathetic if we do. I thought they might be good questions to ask students, too. If a student is checking out and not being a part of a class, there is a reason for it. It might be they’re worried about something, or it could be that something happened which is preventing them from being present. I once took a phone away from a student, and a colleague later told me that her mother was in the hospital. I felt terrible. She wasn’t following the school rule, but she was doing it for a reason.

I also found out today that I have some wonderfully supportive colleagues, and because we hadn’t really worked together this way before, I didn’t realize I had that network. What an amazing and affirming discovery. I think we as teachers sometimes are so trapped in silos. It helps to hear others validate and support you. These kinds of groups can give us real tools we can use to support each other, which is so helpful. I’m really hoping we can continue to meet as a group through the year. I know we all do a lot. I am really involved in a lot of ways at my school, but as one of my colleagues said, a Critical Friends Group would help so much with a work/life balance.

Help me understand where you are coming from. Help me understand what your role is. Help me understand what is happening.

These three sentences are we should ask students and each other to gain more empathy with the students we teach and with our colleagues. We should also be telling people our own answers to these questions. We are all beginning or preparing to begin our new school year. It’s a good time to take care of everyone and ourselves.

As full as my summer has been (and I can’t do it again next summer), I have had some great professional learning opportunities this summer.

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Diigo Links (weekly)

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Diigo Links (weekly)

  • Conrad’s famous novella is based on a real journey the author took up the Congo in 1890, during King Leopold II of Belgium’s horrific rule. It is a fantastic, imaginative journey to find a man named Kurtz who has lost his mind in the African jungle. It is a journey into inner space; a metaphorical investigation into the turbid waters of the human soul. It is a political journey into the dark heart of European colonialism. It is a nightmare journey, into horror. It is a journey to nowhere, set on a boat lying motionless and at anchor on the river Thames, which also “has been one of the dark places on the earth”.

    tags:guardian the guardian conrad joseph conrad heart of darkness literature books

  • This handout is about determining when to use first person pronouns (“I”, “we,” “me,” “us,” “my,” and “our”) and personal experience in academic writing. “First person” and “personal experience” might sound like two ways of saying the same thing, but first person and personal experience can work in very different ways in your writing. You might choose to use “I” but not make any reference to your individual experiences in a particular paper. Or you might include a brief description of an experience that could help illustrate a point you’re making without ever using the word “I.” So whether or not you should use first person and personal experience are really two separate questions, both of which this handout addresses. It also offers some alternatives if you decide that either “I” or personal experience isn’t appropriate for your project. If you’ve decided that you do want to use one of them, this handout offers some ideas about how to do so effectively, because in many cases using one or the other might strengthen your writing.


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Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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