In terms of my website, I have had a most exciting week. It really opened my eyes to the possibilties for collaboration among teachers. I keep track of my site statistics, and I was so excited to see that two different school systems were accessing two of my online activities for students. One is a Romanticism project that I designed myself with the germ of an idea from an conference I went to about a year ago. The second is a Great Gatsby webquest that I almost complete lifted (with a few tweaks) from Valerie Arbizu. I am so excited to see 30 or 40 computers logged in at the same time, accessing these activities. That means to me that the teacher simply directed them to that URL. That means something I came up with was useful enough to another teacher that he/she simply assigned it.

I have also had the opportunity to feel helpful to a colleague in North Carolina. Waterfall and I talked on the phone last night about writing research papers. In fact, I need to e-mail her some documents I promised. I felt very excited about being useful. You may think that sounds silly, but sometimes, I think all teachers wonder if they’re being of any use to anybody.

This made me start thinking about the potential we have for sharing our expertise. We can seek out teachers in our own schools and we have the world opened to us through the WWW. It is a very exciting time to be teaching, I think. Suddenly the teachers’ lounge just got a whole lot bigger.

Research Papers

I haven’t posted much in a while; my students are working on research papers, which I find leaves me with not much time to stay on top of education issues. I do want to read the Newsweek article about how we are failing our boys and write about that.

All I have to say for right now is that if you are an English teacher and haven’t read Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, you just have to do so.

A New Take: “A Wagner Matinée”

I was fortunate to have a colleague (a former English teacher, currently an instructor in Humanities and Judaics) observe the second time I taught “A Wagner Matinée” — this time to my Honors class, and she gave me some excellent ideas. I was a little disheartened by the feeling I had after I taught the piece to my college prep class that the lesson had fallen flat.

Barbara, my colleague, told me that the best bit of teaching advice she ever had was (and I’m paraphrasing, since I left my notes at school) when you teach, don’t tell students everything you know. Instead, figure out what they know, and meet them there.

I told my students things that she and I would find interesting about Wagner, but she pointed out the students probably don’t care about it. Her suggestion for this lesson was to have Wagner music playing as they entered the classroom. As the students took their seats, I would tell them to listen to the music for a minute. I might then ask if they recognized it. Instead of giving the students a whole lot of information about the composer, I could tell them today we are going to read a story about a woman who loves this music. I should ask them how many of them love music, how many of them listen to it every day? What would happen if they couldn’t have it? I could then explain that the woman in the story loses music because of a choice she makes, and she has the opportunity to listen to this music she loves once more.

We also discussed reading aloud, and I would love to get your thoughts on this, because she confirmed something that I truly believe, but not many people seem to agree with me about. I think reading aloud to students is wonderful. I loved being read to. I still do. When someone is good at it, it is a pure pleasure. I have been told I should read for books on tape by my students, so I guess that means I’m good at it. However, I have been told by other teachers that this practice is not good for students. My supervising teacher asked me, when I did this, exactly whose reading comprehension was I working on? So while in my heart of hearts, I love it, I am always loathe to do it when I am going to be observed. It feels like a secret, “dirty” practice I don’t want anyone to know I do — for shame, I read to my students! Anyway, she asked me about reading to students. She said the student I chose to read aloud did a very good job, but asking students to read aloud in this way is always very risky. Readers need to be very good or it will actually hurt the enjoyment for others. That’s exactly how I feel! I can still recall my favorite high school teacher reading passages to us from Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and I loved it. I can recall Mrs. Elliott reading us The Boxcar Children and Superfudge and Mrs. Esquibel reading Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. I loved being read to, and it broke my heart to be told by colleagues that reading to my students was harmful to them. Barbara telling me it was a good thing made me feel validated. This is an issue I have truly been struggling with for almost all of my teaching career — this feeling that I was going against something everyone else believed was correct because my gut told me to. What do you think of reading aloud to students?

A Wagner Matinée and A Pair of Silk Stockings

We’ve been busy with the change to a new semester. Two-thirds of my students are wrapping up the research paper process, while the other one-third are starting. It’s been a bit hectic.

When I was in college, I took a class in Southern Literature under the direction of James Kibler. Much of the literature we studied, post-Civil War at any rate, was based in Realism and Regionalism. I decided that I really liked it a lot, so I took a course the next quarter in American Realism and Naturalism. I did not love much of the literature we studied, but in retrospect, given the trajectory of my teaching career, it was the single most valuable English course I took. I have been primarily a teacher of American literature since the beginning of my teaching career. It is during the antebellum time period when Realism, Regionalism, and Naturalism developed, that American literature really took on a distinctive flavor — it became different from European literature. Over time, it has become possibly one of my favorite time periods to teach.

Students usually enjoy the works written by writers such as Mark Twain, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce — much more so than they do some of the earlier American writers, anyway. Of course, student interest in the topic always makes it more fun for me, too. After all, I have already read all this stuff… several times. It is experiencing it again through their eyes that makes it fun.

One of my favorite stories to teach within this unit is Willa Cather’s short story “A Wagner Matinée.” If you haven’t ever read it, you might want to take some time to check it out. Alternatively, you can listen to a radioplay version at Scribbling Women, but you may need to register (it’s free). In the story, a young man named Clark hosts his Aunt Georgiana from Nebraska. Much of the story centers around Clark’s fond recollections of Aunt Georgiana’s love for music. When he was a child, his aunt taught him Latin and Shakespeare. Clark moved to Boston. Aunt Georgiana comes to visit because of some legal business with a will, and Clark decides to take his aunt, who taught music before she eloped with Clark’s uncle to the wilds of Nebraska, to a matinée of Wagner music. Aunt Georgiana completely loses herself in the enjoyment of the music. In the end, Aunt Georgiana, faced with going back to Nebraska and leaving such music behind — this time for good — tells Clark poignantly, “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!”

I pair this story with Kate Chopin’s short story “A Pair of Silk Stockings.” In this story, Little Mrs. Sommers (as Chopin describes her) has found herself in possession of an extra $15. She goes shopping, thinking to spend the money on her family. Instead, she finds her hand resting on a pair of silk stockings, on sale at $1.98 down from $2.50. Chopin evokes the Garden of Eden: “[S]he went on feeling the soft, sheeny luxurious things — with both hands now, holding them up to see them glisten, and to feel them glide serpent-like through her fingers.” After that, temptation runs away with Mrs. Sommers. She purchases the stockings, then decides she needs new shoes. She winds up spending the whole $15 on luxuries.

I think the stories have very similar heroines. They speak to what women were (and, in many cases, are) expected to give up for their husbands and children. Sometimes students judge Mrs. Sommers harshly — they think she should have spent the money on her children as she planned. I think they have trouble relating to Aunt Georgiana. Today, even in the wilds of Nebraska, one can listen to Wagner at any time with a CD player or mp3 player. They have trouble understanding how cut off Aunt Georgiana is from all the cultured things she loves, especially music. This matinée will most likely be the last time Aunt Georgiana gets to hear music that she doesn’t perform on her own parlor organ.

I just finished these stories with one of my classes (and I am getting ready to do them with another class). I thought I had my opening activity for “A Pair of Silk Stockings” on my work computer, and I didn’t, so I didn’t do it (which is sad, because it really gets students in the frame of mind to make judgments about Mrs. Sommers’ spending). The activity centers around five fictional people who each receive a windfall of $100. They spend the money in various ways — either selfishly or selflessly. Students rate the five spenders based on how well they used the extra money and a class discussion ensues. After that, students read “A Pair of Silk Stockings.’ You can download this activity in rich text format by clicking this link.

My students concluded that it was OK for Mrs. Sommers to treat herself to one glorious day with the extra money. By the way, I always suggest students take the story home and read it with their mothers so they can have a discussion about it. However, these students concluded it might have been better for Aunt Georgiana to have missed the concert. They felt it was too painful for her to have for just a short time only to have it snatched away again.

As I taught “A Wagner Matinée” this time, I felt it — the students weren’t into it. I stopped in various sections and played some of the Wagner pieces mentioned in the story. I also told them about Wagner’s background and music — I have an “in” because my husband is an operatic heldentenor, so I’ve learned a little bit more about Wagner. However, it should be easy for anyone who wants to try this with his/her own students to learn more about Wagner and find a CD with the pieces in the story on it. The students drifted when I played the music. I thought it was all pretty much a wash until one student raised his hand and commented that he thought the pace of the story seemed to match the music — if I played a piece of music mentioned in the story, then turned it down and continued to read as the music played in the background, the story seemed to rise and swell to the music. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it was an interesting observation, and it was worth it to me if he was the only one that was into it. One student enjoying it and making connections made it worth it. Of course, it’s nice when they all do, but I’m realistic enough to know that’s pretty rare, and often not because of anything I did or didn’t do.

Making Meaning

I got the question today. You know the one, if you’re an English teacher. The one about whether the author truly intended something or other I pulled from the story.

Let me back up. As a teacher of tenth grade American Literature and Composition, it falls to me to teach the research paper. I have taught it so many years now that I have it down to a science. Last year, I decided to walk students through each step by writing a paper myself. I was intrigued by a short story I had not read until last year. It’s called “A New England Nun,” and it was written by Regionalist writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. It isn’t a particularly interesting story, but I found it intriguing because the protagonist, Louisa Ellis, so clearly exhibits typical signs and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I wrote a research paper proving the following thesis: Louisa Ellis, a character in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun,” exhibits signs and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Because the story is obscure, I am able to answer students who tell me they can’t find anything on Huck Finn. (I actually got that one this week!) We read the story so they can see how I was able to draw conclusions about the character and also how I was able to take notes on the story for note cards.

One of my students asked me whether Freeman intended to create a character with OCD. I can’t answer that. I’m not sure Freeman was aware of the disorder. She might have been. Even if she wasn’t, people have been exhibiting OCD behaviors throughout history, and she could possibly have modeled Louisa on someone she knew who was “like that.” So my answer to the student was that I don’t know. I can’t prove it. But I asked my students this — just because an author didn’t intend to put something in a story, does that mean it isn’t there?

For example, J.R.R. Tolkien is famously quoted as saying he hated allegory. Yet, I find it very easy to read his writing as allegory. Does that necessarily make me wrong?

I explained to my students that we all bring things to a story that a writer can’t control, and we make meaning of their writing based on those things we bring. If we make a connection or notice a symbol or develop a theory based on that writing because of what we brought to it, is it necessarily wrong because the writer didn’t think of it (or we don’t know whether the writer thought of it)?

For the first time when I’ve been asked “the question,” I could see wheels turning. The students considered what I said, and I think they found it valid. It was a far cry from the way I used to approach teaching literature to students who didn’t draw the same conclusions as I did — they just didn’t have much experience as a reader. How could they be expected to “get it”?

I recommend a book I read last year called How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. There is a way to get students to understand that digging into a text can make it more interesting and “gratifying.” The book is an engaging read for English teachers who are interested in learning how to get kids to do this.

School Vouchers

How many of you who stop by here teach in private schools? It doesn’t seem as though there are many of us private school teachers out there in the blogosphere. I read Waterfall’s blog; she teaches at a Christian school in North Carolina. If you know of others, I would appreciate links. I feel like an island!

When issues like school vouchers come up, I admit that in my new position as a private, indeed a parochial school teacher, I feel as though I should feel torn. I don’t. I’m against them. Obviously, I have no problem with parents who choose to send their children to private schools and are willing to pay the tuition. I do have problems with parents expecting the taxpayers to send their children to private schools in the form of vouchers. I know of many students at my school that might not be there if not for scholarships, but those funds are freely donated for the purpose of giving students a Jewish education.

The New York Times reported Friday that Florida’s Supreme Court “struck down a voucher program … for students attending failing schools, saying the State Constitution bars Florida from using taxpayer money to finance a private alternative to the public system.” I would venture to guess that many other state constitutions have similar clauses. However, I was surprised to find that the U.S. Constitution did not:

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the federal Constitution does not prohibit vouchers, but it also held last year that states were not obliged to finance religious education as well as secular education. Those actions left it to state courts to decide whether voucher programs were legal, and focused national attention on the battle over vouchers in Florida, which teachers’ unions first challenged in 1999.

Florida’s Consititution says, “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.” [Emphasis mine.] The court added, “This diversion not only reduces money available to the free schools, but also funds private schools that are not ‘uniform’ when compared with each other or the public system.”

And that’s the point, isn’t it? For instance, the curriuculm at my school requires Hebrew and courses in Tanakh (Bible) and Rabbinic Literature (as well as other Jewish studies), in addition to academic courses such as English, math, social studies, and science. I can think of no public schools that require Hebrew (or even offer it) or offer courses in Judaic studies. Our school is simply different from public schools, and students from public schools who enroll often find it is a bit of adjustment. We might not offer classes those students were taking in their public high school, such as French.

Governor Bush seems to be considering amending Florida’s Constitution. He referred to the ruling as “a blow to educational reform.” I just can’t agree with that assessment. It is clear to me that we need to do something to reform public education, but giving students money to go to private schools is not the answer.