Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Part Two

I began reading Huck Finn with my 10th graders today.  I told them near the beginning of the period that I had been looking forward to their class all day so that we could read together.  I wonder if other teachers tell students little secrets like that.  If not, I think they should.  I think it’s great for students to see that we really enjoy the material we’re teaching.  I think that sort of affection and appreciation can be contagious.  We began with Twain’s NOTICE at the beginning of the book.  I asked the students why Twain would write such a thing.  Predictably, their first reaction was to take him at his word and assume he really didn’t want us to find a motive, moral, or plot in the novel.  I asked them, “What do you want to do the minute someone tells you not to do something?” and they immediately understood.  By asking the reader not to look for a motive, moral, and plot, Twain was making sure that the reader would do the opposite.  Clever guy.

I read aloud for the first two chapters.  One student who just finished the book mentioned that until he heard me read it, he couldn’t figure out what Jim’s word “gwyne” meant.  That comment is a perfect argument for starting the story by reading aloud in class.  We had to have a discussion about snuff, which is mentioned early in the story, because the students hadn’t heard of it and wanted to know all about it.  Of course, they immediately leaped to the conclusion that I knew too much about it not to have tried it; sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a know-it-all schoolteacher.  And for the record, no, I haven’t tried snuff.  We talked a bit about superstition and the meanness of Tom Sawyer.

As we read, I was pleased to hear the students laugh in the right places.  I do hope they enjoy the book.   I think some of them were intimidated by the book’s size.  We have the Norton Critical Edition, which has about as much text of literary criticism in the back as it does novel text.  Students at my school pay an activity fee that covers the cost of paperback novels, but the novelty never seems to wear off when they get new books.  Each time they ask if the books are theirs to keep.  It reminds me a bit of that scene in Freedom Writers when the students get new books, and murmur over them.  The only books our students can’t keep are the textbooks or expensive anthologies that we use.

On a personal note, I have taught this class of 10th graders for two years now.  I have them for two classes this year — American Literature and Composition and Writing Seminar.  I’m really proud of how far they have come and all they have learned.  We have accomplished a lot together over the last year and a half, especially this year, and I am excited to watch them grow and learn.  I don’t think I will be teaching them next year.  I think it is a good thing to have different teachers.  But I’m going to miss them next year.

[tags]education, Huckleberry Finn[/tags]

Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Part One

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is, in my estimation, one of those books that everyone should be required to read. In the immortal words of no less a person than Ernest Hemingway, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn… American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Rex Stout proclaimed in his 1969 Nero Wolfe novel Death of a Dude that the sentence Huck utters to himself after he decides to tear up the letter to Miss Watson is the “single greatest sentence in American literature”:

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.

Think about how much Huck was conveying in that simple sentence. Every time I read that passage, I get chills.

When I teach this novel, I have found it important to provide students with a map of some sort that they keep in their notebook for reference. Students have difficulty with the concept of traveling south in order to get to the North — specifically, to Cairo, Illinois. The Center for Learning has a unit plan that has a great map in it.

I begin a study of this novel by focusing directly on the controversy surrounding it. In order to do this, I pass out a list of the ALA’s most frequently challenged books list. I found a good one in Teaching Tolerance magazine about two years ago. These lists are widely available, however. I photocopy the list for each student, pass it out, and ask students to cross out all the titles they’ve read. What they often find is that 1) they’ve read a lot of challenged books, 2) they don’t understand why the books were challenged. This realization opens the door for a good discussion about why someone might challenge Huck Finn.

The word “nigger” appears in the book 212 times. However, in the words of Russell Baker,

“The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynches, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numbskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is ‘Nigger Jim,’ as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.”

Eventually, your students will come to this realization, but I have found tackling the issue head-on to be an excellent way to begin the novel.

After we have our discussion, I begin the novel by reading aloud. I have a bit of a Southern twang, and I can certainly amp it up when reading Southern literature. The dialect can be difficult for students, so I have found hearing it helps them to get a feel for it.

I have not discontinued my series of posts on teaching Romeo and Juliet. I will most likely post more ideas for R&J toward the end of this week or next week. In addition, I will post further tips and ideas for teaching Huck Finn.

[tags]education, Huckleberry Finn, challenged books[/tags]

Teacher Baiting?

The Los Angeles Times (via This Week in Education) reported a disturbing trend among our student today — “teacher baiting.” The object? To see if you can make a teacher mad enough to explode, secretly tape the teacher with a cell phone, then post the resulting clip to YouTube. If it is unclear that “teacher baiting” is the intention behind the filming, why not try checking out a few of these videos on YouTube and see what you think? It became clear to me after viewing just a couple that the students were manufacturing situations in order to purposely upset teachers, including everything from disrespect and refusal to comply with teacher requests all the way up to bothering other students and provoking fights.

YouTube has so much potential. We can use YouTube to communicate, to create content, to share. Sadly, it seems a large number of teens are using it mock, torment, and perhaps even invade the privacy of teachers and other students in their class. I think this behavior is reprehensible. Because we apparently cannot trust children to use the technology in an appropriate way, it will be necessary to remove access to the technology. I think that’s a shame — so much good can come of it when it is used appropriately. However, knowing schools like I do, I am fairly certain the majority of them will opt to take the easiest route and ban YouTube (which won’t prevent students from posting videos at home) and cell phones (which will be easy to get around).

Because of the close-knit community at my school (and, I think, genuine camaraderie and affection between faculty and students), I cannot see this becoming a big problem at my school. It never occurred to me that kids would do something like this. I have to admit, I’ll be watching out for it, and not because I plan to “blow up” or even because I become angry or frustrated with my students on a regular basis. The fact is that I don’t. I am a fairly patient person. I would see this as an invasion of privacy and intrusion upon my personal rights.

What would you do if you saw something like this happen? What do you think we should do to prevent it?

[tags]YouTube, teachers[/tags]

What is Web 2.0?

I must have missed this one when it made the rounds, for it surely must have. My friend Roger brought it to my attention. Better late than never! If you haven’t seen it, you need to:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/6gmP4nk0EOE" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Think about the ways in which this technology has already changed and will continue to change education — if we let it, that is. I am often exasperated by how little teachers are actually doing with Web 2.0.

[tags]Web 2.0, blogging, wikis, YouTube, education[/tags]

The Free Library and DailyLit

Ample Sanity provided two intriguing links that English teachers might enjoy.

The Free Library offers “free free, full-text versions of classic literary works from hundreds of celebrated authors, whose biographies, images, and famous quotations can also be found on the site” as well as “a massive collection of periodicals from hundreds of leading publications.” I spent about five minutes on the site and was immediately hooked. The potential for use in schools is enormous.

DailyLit offers books via e-mail to those “too busy for books.” I scratched my head at first, but then realized that this idea has a lot of potential. I know that I have trouble finding time to read books with three kids and a full time job. I sometime feel like I don’t read enough (I can impose more guilt trips on myself, I swear!), but I always have a book going. Getting books via e-mail can ensure that I will spend at least a few minutes reading, and the selection is great. I think I’m finally going to read Moby Dick.

[tags]Free Library, DailyLit[/tags]

The School of the Future

Computer LabWhat do you think schools will look like in ten years? In twenty? I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey today, and it made me think. In some ways, the 1968 film was oddly prescient about what the year 2001 would look like, but in others it missed the mark entirely. I have found this to be true in many works of science fiction. Predicting the future is incredibly difficult. Thinking about this made me remember a film made by Karl Fisch back in November:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=7281108124087435381" width="400" height="326" wmode="transparent" /]

I graduated from college in 1997 — ten years ago this year. I started teaching during the 1997-1998 school year. I taught at a poor, rural school in Middle Georgia. We didn’t have computers in the classroom. I can’t remember a computer lab or other widespread computer access, but I do remember we had to save our grades on a computer disk. I did mine on a laptop that had been a graduation gift. I can’t remember what the other teachers did. I realize that we had less than many other schools; the school where I did my student teaching had two computer labs. My supervising teacher had a computer in her classroom, but I think that was because she was the Journalism teacher and needed it to lay out the newspaper.

For the next three years, I taught at my alma mater, Warner Robins High, and we had classroom computers. We had a document camera in one classroom, and we thought it was amazing. I know we had a lab, but it was difficult to get into. I had to plan far in advance for time in the lab. This is probably still true in many places. I left that school in the year 2001.

I taught pre-K for a year, then returned to public schools, teaching middle school in suburban Atlanta. Again, we had a computer lab, but competition was even more fierce. I observed a class and saw my first online scavenger hunt, and I thought it was amazing. A fellow teacher had students reading online articles to learn about the Middle East. A peer showed us how to create Jeopardy games using Power Point software. It was hard to get my hands on the projector, however.

I began teaching at Weber in the year 2004. I had a computer in my classroom and access to computer lab most of the time when I needed it (provided someone hadn’t signed up before me — which rarely happened, and not because no one used it, but because our school is small). One of our teachers used a SMART Board. I couldn’t even imagine all it might do.

When we moved into our new building, I received a SMART Board. We have two sizable computer labs with new computers. All of us who had computers older than two years old received new classroom computers (I was one). The SMART Board has so completely transformed my teaching that I’m not sure how I did without it. I introduced my colleagues to blogs and wikis in the classroom on our January staff development day.

My point in recounting all of this is that in my first year of teaching, I hardly could have imagined what might be available to my students and me as far as technology, and this was ten years ago. I suppose some possibilties in the next ten years might include the following:

  • Widespread use of laptops. I would say about 20-50% of my students use them, but I do teach at a somewhat affluent private school. In the future, as laptop prices drop and schools become forced to be more open to technology, I think laptops will be everywhere.
  • Interactive white boards (SMART boards) will be commonplace. Mine has transformed my classroom, and I cannot help but feel it will have a similar effect on others.
  • Blogging and wikis will be used widely in education; in many circles, they may be required. The middle school where I worked required us to use School Notes. I think my administrators are reluctant to require all teachers to have websites, but mine has been well-received by parents (even if it hasn’t quite been used by the students as much as I wish they would).
  • Increasingly, teachers will be responsible for teaching students to navigate the sometimes murky waters of technology; lest we hope such education would be relegated to parents alone, I remind you (or inform you, if you didn’t know) that character education is required by the state of Georgia.
  • Students will increasingly produce products such as videos, podcasts, websites, and the like for school.
  • Students might one day opt for distance learning, plugging in to a school across the country, if they wish, to learn from the comfort of their own home.

That barely scratches the surface. What do you think the future holds in store for education?

[tags]technology, education, future[/tags]

Karen Crow: NFL Teacher of the Year

My grandfather’s first cousin Mary sent me an e-mail today informing me that her niece Karen Crow was selected as the NFL Teacher of the Year based on essay written by her student Devan M., who landed in her school after fleeing Katrina.  Devan’s essay was one of 5,000 submissions.  Karen is the principal of A.G. Elder Elementary School in Joshua, Texas.

Mary said Karen and her family were having a great time in Hawaii, where she will be recognized (we think) during the NFL Pro Bowl game tonight.  Watch out for that.

You can read Devan’s winning essay here.

Congratulations, Karen!

[tags]NFL, Teacher of the Year[/tags]

Keeping it Fresh

I read “Forever Young” (registration required) by Steven Drummond in Teacher Magazine with interest. Sadly, I think most of us have worked with a permutation of this guy:

[A]fter watching the grizzled American history teacher for an hour, I saw why the girl had asked me [to be her teacher].

He’d been on the job for about 35 years, and, as he told me later, he’d passed up a buyout offer because he was at the top of the union scale, and didn’t want to give up his paycheck. The man was apparently having a rough year, though—they’d finally replaced the old textbook he’d been relying on for years.

The students who needed an A or B to get into college—mostly girls—sat up front and quickly filled in the blanks of a Louisiana Purchase worksheet the teacher had passed out. The rest of the class—mostly boys wearing jeans and black T-shirts—played cards in the back, but he didn’t appear to mind.

Minutes before the bell rang, a girl raised her hand. There seemed to be two possible answers to one question on the worksheet. The teacher looked confused as he tried to find the correct one in the textbook. Finally, he pulled out the old textbook, flipping through pages before shaking his head and saying he’d give credit for either answer.

It was a required course, and the students were stuck with him. Even the ones who did the work weren’t really learning anything. Knowing very little about me, a few of them quietly told me as I wandered around that they wished I could be their teacher. Not that I’d done much more than walk into the room: I simply wasn’t the burned-out guy up front.

My first year teaching in a poor, rural school, I worked with a few guys like this. One took all his days off as he earned them. Every month, like clockwork, Mr. H. took his day off. We had a history teacher who retired the year I started. The only thing I ever saw him carry out of the building was his hat. He left right at the bell and never did his bus duty. I immediately thought of that man when I read the above excerpt. He was all but phoning it in at that point. The fact is, though, I can’t say the majority of veteran teachers are like the guy in this article. I don’t think most teachers like this guy last long enough to be “grizzled veterans.”

I was thinking about it the other day, and it occurred to me that for the first time in my career–this year–I have thought of myself as a veteran teacher. This is my tenth year teaching if you count the year of pre-K I taught (neither employer I had after the preschool counts it, however). I mentioned in my first post about teaching Romeo and Juliet that I am currently teaching it for my seventh year. I don’t think I teach the play exactly the same each time. I have also taught works such as The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, The Crucible, and To Kill a Mockingbird many times, and my approach varies each time, but I don’t get tired of any of those novels. Part of the fun of teaching those books is rediscovering the literature each time with new students. This seems to be the lesson Steven Drummond drew from his observations of good teachers over the years: “What I learned is that none of them does quite the same thing in the classroom twice, and none teaches like the other. But they do have one key trait in common: they’re self-propelled.”

One of the things I find frustrating about some teachers is their lack of willingness to change. I am passionate about new technology. My SMART Board projector has been flickering. When the technician came in and checked it out, he told me they could loan me a projector while they fixed mine. He must have seen me blanch, and I told him in no uncertain terms that I can’t teach without the thing anymore, so I have to have it working. He laughed and said it wasn’t the first time he’d heard that. It’s true, though! I didn’t have a SMART Board until September of this school year, but now I am so addicted to it that I can’t be without it. The possibilities are endless–if I know of a website students might be interested in, I can pull it up right then. I can pursue teachable moments. On the other hand, learning how to use new technology is intimidating for some. I know how my classroom has transformed through my use of the SMART board, blogs, and wikis. I know it could transform others. I also know not everyone is patient enough to really learn how to use all of this technology, and that fact makes me sad.

I consider myself an autodidact when it comes to technology, and I actively pursue learning opportunities. I admit to being shy of podcasting and digital video editing, but I have just started getting my feet wet in both areas, and I was so excited to learn something new that can help my students. As Drummond says, “fresh [teachers’] best source of professional development isn’t a mandated chalk-and-talk or some perky pep rally, but their own curiosity.” If you really don’t want to learn how to do something new, and you know who you are, you won’t. Instead, you will grumble about the new requirements/book/class you have to teach, and you’ll likely wind up like the teacher in the quoted passage above.

One the other hand, it isn’t as though you have to constantly do things differently. As veteran teacher Mathias Schergen said, “I guess that’s part of the reason to stay excited and stay geeked up about it,” he explained, “because I see the progress in my own teaching. I just like the idea of always refining and expanding what I’ve done already.” I think I might be able to plan some parts of my curriculum in my sleep. I have a trusty file cabinet repository of ideas, and I remember what worked before. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time I teach. The difference is that I try to stay excited and look for new angles. I like to “stay geeked up” about teaching.

I think there is great potential in technology to allow teachers to connect and grow professionally. One point Drummond makes in his article is that teachers have been expected to work in a degree of isolation. With the explosion of the edublogosphere, many teachers now have a voice and a place to throw out ideas and learn new things. I personally think it is unfortunate that some teachers tend to use their blog as a platform to complain. We all need to vent sometimes, but if that’s all your education blog consists of, what sort of message are you sending–perhaps without realizing you’re doing so–about your satisfaction with your career? Shergen noted, “We have our little powwows and cry on each other’s shoulder, [but] I learned very early on from a very wise teacher that you can get caught in the blame game and you don’t go any further. It’s a way of abdicating your responsibility in the situation.” Barnett Berry, founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality in North Carolina, calls those teachers “lounge lizards.” I have been one myself at one point in my career, I think, but eventually I reached a point when I had to decide if I really wanted to teach or not, and if I wanted to, I needed to force myself not to do it halfway–for the sake of the students and for my own well-being, I had to keep it fresh, or I would not last as a teacher. How miserable must teachers like the history teacher described in the quoted passage above be? Ticking off days until retirement, grumbling about the students/parents/administration in the lounge? Who wants to live like that?

One of my wise colleagues said to me that one of the reasons she teaches is that it keeps her young. That’s because she keeps it fresh, she likes to learn new things, and she has a sense of humor. Teaching is exhausting. It’s challenging. I think you have to be willing to adapt in order to enjoy teaching after 20 or 30 years, but it is possible. I don’t have all the answers, but I know an open mind and willingness to learn is a start. Isn’t that what we ask of our students?

[tags]education, teaching[/tags]

Teaching Romeo and Juliet: Part Two

Stanhope: Juliet and her NurseJuliet and her nurse have a very interesting relationship. Students may not be familiar with the concept of the wetnurse, so when I teach Romeo and Juliet, I explain that the nurse was hired by the Capulet family to nurse Juliet, a common practice among wealthy families for centuries. I also explain that the nurse had a child about Juliet’s age who died: “[W]ell, Susan is with God; / She was too good for me” (Act I, Scene 3). Shakespeare doesn’t explain why the nurse is still employed by the family some ten or eleven years after Juliet has been weaned, but I tell students that her role has expanded into a kind of governess. Capulet mentions other children born to the Capulets who have died: “The earth hath swallow’d all my hopes but she” (Act I, Scene 2). It does not make sense that the nurse stayed on to take care of these children; she would probably no longer be able to nurse (unless, that is, she had more children herself; she mentions in Act I, Scene 3 that her husband is now dead). Therefore, the most logical explanation is that she became a part of the extended family and stayed on to be Juliet’s governess.

Act II, Scene 5 provides us with the most insight into the nurse’s relationship with Juliet. The Folger Shakespeare Library has an awesome lesson plan submitted by Sarah Squier of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, Vermont. I alter her plan a bit in order to fit with my own ideas. First of all, download the handout associated with Squier’s lesson plan. You can decide how you want the students to answer the questions in Part A: 1) as homework, 2) with a partner (I suggest Clock Buddies), or 3) as a class. I’ve done it all three ways, and I have no personal preference. It just depends on the mix of students. It is critical that students formulate a thesis and find textual evidence to support it. At this point, Squier suggests that students draft an essay regarding their position; however, I don’t ask students to draft at this point. Instead, I show students two versions of Act II, Scene 5 (Zeffirelli and Luhrmann), and ask them to take notes on anything they notice about the way Juliet and the nurse relate to each other. I have to admit that I prefer Luhrmann’s version in this scene — Juliet and the nurse have a much warmer relationship.

What I have students do next is outline a five-paragraph essay:

  1. Introduction, including thesis about Juliet’s relationship with the nurse
  2. Textual evidence that demonstrates student’s belief about the relationship
  3. Analysis of Zeffirelli’s version
  4. Analysis of Luhrmann’s version
  5. Conclusion, including which version more closely resembles student’s own thesis about the relationship

I love this assignment because it gives students the opportunity to critically analyze the text and also to think critically about the performance of actors rather than passively viewing.

[tags]Romeo and Juliet, Juliet, Nurse, video, Shakespeare, writing assignment, essay[/tags]