Better Living Through Beowulf

Better Living Through BeowulfScott McLeod sometimes shares blogs that “deserve a bigger audience.” I don’t presume to know how many people read Robin Bates’s blog Better Living Through Beowulf, but I find it consistently makes me think about the connections between everyday life and literature. Robin is an English professor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. He regularly shares his insights regarding literature’s and film’s connections to such wide-ranging topics as current events, sports, and spiritual matters. I often save his posts for last when I’m catching up on RSS feeds in my feed reader because I know I will want to read them slowly and think them over. There’s nothing I don’t love about his blog, from his interesting connections and engaging commentary all the way down to his layout. I think even if you don’t teach English, you can learn something from Professor Bates’s blog.

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The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins

In her latest book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School, Alexandra Robbins, author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities and The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, examines what she calls the “cafeteria fringe”—the group of kids marginalized by so-called popular students. Robbins’s argument is that schools and parents should be doing more to encourage the unique traits often found in the cafeteria fringe because they are the very traits that will make these students successful after high school.

I was a part of the cafeteria fringe when I was in high school. For starters, I went to three different high schools. I played the flute, so at least being in band was an activity that enabled me to make some friends. When we moved to California when I was a freshman, it took me a month to find friends to eat lunch with. I dreaded that hour of loneliness, watching all the other groups congregate in their favorite areas of the school year, wishing I could figure out some group to be with. When I moved to Georgia in the eleventh grade, I was already dreading the prospect of sitting alone for who knew how long. However, a girl in my homeroom asked me to eat lunch with her that day. It was a small kindness, but she has no idea how much it meant to me then and still means to me. In other words, I could identify with what Robbins says in this book about outsiders. She’s absolutely right that after high school, it gets better. Of of the most interesting things about Facebook to me is that it has allowed me to see what happens to the so-called popular kids after high school. Most of them stayed close to home in the case of the last high school I attended. But they are no better or worse off than anyone else. The special status they were accorded in high school did not seem to follow them. And that message is important for all students, whether they are cafeteria fringe or part of the in-crowd, to hear. As a teacher, the aspect of Robbins’s book that bothered me most was seeing teachers not only perpetuating the type of bullying that goes on between cliques, but actively engaging in it themselves.

This is an important book for parents, teachers, and students to read. In fact, it might be a good idea to ship copies to school libraries. I like the way Robbins exposed the workings of high schools by following seven individuals through a year in school: Danielle, the Loner; Whitney, the Popular Bitch; Eli, the Nerd; Joy, the New Girl; Blue, the Gamer; Regan, the Weird Girl; and Noah, the Band Geek. It was easy to identify with each individual for various reasons, but mostly because  the narratives offered insight into how these people saw themselves and their schools; it was easy to see how they were all struggling with similar issues—even Whitney. Interspersed throughout are essays about issues raised and tips for students, parents, teachers, and administrators about how to “set things right and reclaim their schools” (379). It’s a gripping, engaging nonfiction read, which I won’t go so far as to say reads like fiction, as the book jacket does. It’s perhaps more compelling because it reads like the truth.

Full disclosure: The publisher supplied me with a copy of this book.

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In Progress: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

I began reading Alexandra Robbins’s new book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School. I am only a little over 20 pages into the book, and I can already tell this is a book that teachers and parents need to pay attention to. I may journal my thoughts as I read here at this blog as I have with other professional reading in the past. I haven’t read any of Robbins’s other books, but I have heard that The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids is also good.

As a child who had difficulty socially in school and who never was popular, I can relate the book’s message.

So… anyone want to read this one with me? I know that Gary Anderson is already reading it. Summer book club anyone?

Full disclosure: the publisher sent me a free copy of this book (not that it will impact any future reviews).

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Andrew Young on the Youth of Today

We hear so much about how today’s youth are an instant gratification society, and we should be worried, very worried, about the future. It’s refreshing to hear Andrew Young offer a different perspective in this interview with Valerie Jackson on Between the Lines about his book with Kabir Sehgal, Walk in My Shoes: Conversations Between a Civil Rights Legend and His Godson on the Journey Ahead. You will have to listen until the end of the podcast, but it’s worth it—it’s Andrew Young, after all.

Andrew Young on Between the Lines

As a teacher, I find his perspective refreshing. I teach these young people after all, and they’re not perfect, but I am often amazed by them, too.

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More on Homework

1 2 3A couple of years ago when I wrote a post for Grant Wiggins’s now defunct group blog The Faculty Room, I found myself in the midst of a tangle with Alfie Kohn about homework. After reading Shelly Blake-Plock’s post about homework today, I realized Kohn and I were talking about two different things: he was talking about busy work, worksheets, and the like, and I was really talking about preparing for class, although I couldn’t articulate what I meant at the time. Most of the homework my students have is class preparation: reading, answering questions we are going to discuss in class, anticipatory assignments, and the like. Wish I’d been able to explain that was what I meant at the time. However, I’m not sure it would have made a difference, at least not with that particular audience. I have found it interesting how many parents view a large amount of homework, even busy work, as a good thing—it proves their students are learning—and a lack of homework as a bad thing—students must not be learning anything. As in almost everything, it’s the quality, not the quantity, that counts.

Creative Commons License photo credit: D’Arcy Norman

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Catching Up: Folger Education

English Journal September 2009I have been trying all week to finish the last English Journal so I can gush about all the Folger goodness, but I haven’t had a chance. Lest I let too much more time slip by, I’ll discuss the articles I have had a chance to read. Mike LoMonico, as usual, is on target with his suggestions for teaching Shakespeare in his editorial. The Shakespeare Set Free series taught me a great deal about how to teach Shakespeare, but participating in the the Folger Teaching Shakespeare Institute in Decatur last year transformed how I approach not just Shakespeare, but everything I do.

I also read my friend Joe Scotese’s editorial about reading Shakespeare’s text as opposed to easy versions with “translations.” Joe’s description of the words as the tools of Shakespeare’s art (Stephen Booth) was beautiful, and I have had the occasion to bring it up twice in the last couple of weeks during teaching. Thanks for the timely imagery, Joe!

I read Peggy O’Brien’s and Robert Young’s discussions of the history of Folger’s work with teachers (and students) and its present and future. I began reading Susan Biondo-Hench’s article “Shakespeare Troupe: An Adventure in Words, Fluid Text, and Comedy.” You might recall that Susan Biondo-Hench wrote the Romeo and Juliet unit in the first volume of Shakespeare Set Free.

Several of my friends have articles in this issue. Chris Shamburg and Cari Craighead collaborated on “Shakespeare, Our Digital Native.” Cari and I were in the same TSI, and Chris and I connected at NCTE and online. I also met Chris Renino, author of the Macbeth unit in SSF and the EJ article “‘Who’s There?’: Shakespeare and the Dragon of Autism,” at NCTE last year. Chris and I both have autistic children, and though mine are younger, I am obviously excited to read his article for personal reasons as well as professional ones. Christy Desmet, who wrote “Teaching Shakespeare with YouTube,” and I have a long history together. She teaches at my alma mater, UGA, and we worked together about 12 years ago in an online cohort of new teachers, professors, mentor teachers, and aspiring teachers. Our conversations were so helpful to me as a new teacher. We reconnected at the Folger TSI in Decatur last year.

I really wanted to submit an article for this issue, but I was struggling with new roles as department chair and graduate school student, among other duties. I just didn’t have time to do it. And now I’m kicking myself because I would have loved to have been a part of this issue.

In related news, Folger has a new blog: Making a Scene: Shakespeare in the Classroom. Definitely check it out! I’m really excited about it.

I want to talk about all of these articles and blog posts in more detail when I have a chance, but the weeks have been ticking by, and I didn’t want too much time to elapse before I brought your attention to these resources (if you didn’t know about them already).

In other news, I am not able to go to NCTE this year. I knew it was a long shot because I went last year, and the economy being what it is, well, let’s just say I was fairly sure it wouldn’t happen. I do wish I could go, however, because I really wanted to meet up with some friends (not to mention the learning!). I am planning to go to GCTE and possibly ISTE. ISTE takes place in Denver this year, and school will be out, so it would be a good opportunity for me to visit family in addition to attending my first ever technology education conference, so I would like to try to go.

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My Next Book: Readicide

Thank you to all of you who voted in the poll. It was a close one, but in the end Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide inched past Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them by a single vote. The final tally was as follows:

  1. Readicide, Kelly Gallagher—8 votes
  2. Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle—7 votes
  3. Blending Genre, Altering Style, Tom Romano—5 votes
  4. The First Days of School, Harry Wong—3 votes
  5. Genre Theory, Deborah Dean—1 vote

Because the voting was so close, I’ll probably read/revisit the books in the order of voters’ preference. I am going on vacation next week, so I’m not sure if I’ll do Readicide before or after, but it won’t happen at all from July 6-10.

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Designing Writing Assignments: More Writing Assignment Resources

Book Cover of Designing Writing AssignmentsI should begin this post by saying I have not heard from NCTE regarding my complaint that since they have changed their website, they have dropped Traci Gardner’s companion page for this book somewhere. Also, the page for this book still incorrectly links to a page that doesn’t exist. I find this extremely frustrating as I feel that Traci Gardner took some time to gather helpful resources together to accompany her book, and NCTE seemingly is not concerned that they remain available. Gardner begins the final chapter of Designing Writing Assignments with a pointer toward this resource that is no longer accessible. I have sent Traci Gardner a message on Twitter. Perhaps NCTE will be concerned about the issue if the writer says something to them. I’ll update with any responses I receive from Gardner or from NCTE.

The remainder of the chapter outlines several writing prompts that you can adapt for use in your own classroom. The writing prompts are grouped according to type of writing: narrative, informative, analysis, persuasion and literary analysis. I have to say the book is almost worth the purchase and read for this chapter alone. Gardner has some excellent writing prompts. Considering how difficult it can be to come up with writing tasks and performance tasks, I would imagine this chapter reflects a lot of time and hard work on Gardner’s part.

My final assessment of this book is that it is a good addition to any writing instructor’s arsenal, but I think especially middle and high school teachers should read it. In fact, I don’t think just English teachers could benefit. Any teacher who uses writing in his/her curriculum would do well to read it. It’s a very quick read, chock full of practical advice and tips for teaching writing. Highly recommended.

What should I read next? Don’ forget to vote in the poll.

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Professional Reading Survey

OK, just for fun, I thought I’d conduct a quick survey. I will finish Traci Gardner’s wonderful Designing Writing Assignments later today. Which of the following books do you think I should read (and reflect on here) next? Vote in the poll. You can only vote for one choice. Voting will close at midnight on July 2!

Which professional development book should I read next?

  • Readicide by Kelly Gallagher (33%)
  • Revisit and finish Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle (29%)
  • You need to finish Blending Genre, Altering Style by Tom Romano (21%)
  • Revisit The First Days of School by Harry Wong (13%)
  • Genre Theory by Deborah Dean (4%)
  • I think you should read something else (suggest in the comments) (0%)

Total Votes: 24

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Designing Writing Assignments: Defining New Tasks for Standard Writing Activities

The fourth chapter in Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments focuses on “unusual or new alternatives to the standard kinds of writing that students are asked to complete” (48). Some of my best writing assignments have sprung from planning UbD performance tasks with an authentic audience. For example, two grammar UbD units I wrote concern the use of apostrophes and the use of commas. The performance task for the apostrophe unit concerns writing a letter to an elected official in Arkansas who presented a bill before the Arkansas legislature regarding the use of the apostrophe to form the possessive form of Arkansas. The comma assignment involved creating a comma usage manual for a company who lost over $2 million Canadian when a contract was interpreted in a way they didn’t foresee simply because of the placement of a comma. Both performance tasks have been successful in the past, which is one reason I think writing a letter of recommendation for Beowulf could work (see previous post).

Gardner suggests six questions you can use in framing alternative assignments:

  • Who will read the text? Can I choose an alternative audience?
  • What stance will students take as writers? Can the assignment ask for an unusual tone?
  • When does the topic take place? Can the assignment focus on an alternative time frame?
  • Where will the background information come from? Can the assignment call for alternative research sources?
  • Can students write something other than a traditional essay? Can the assignment call for alternative genres or publication media? (49)

Gardner includes a helpful table on p. 50 that lists potential authentic audiences for writing tasks. It would be a great starting point for any teacher creating a writing assignment or a performance task in another subject area. Gardner describes an audience that caught my attention in terms of being able to adapt it for an assignment in my class: how would one of Chaucer’s pilgrims react to the topic for the assignment? Gardner describes a new rule at school, but it could be adapted for a variety of purposes. How would Chaucer’s pilgrims react to some headline in the news? To a major event in politics? To a work of literature? I teach parts of The Canterbury Tales to students: the Prologue, “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” It would be fun for the characters to comment on each other’s tales. I know there is some of that in the prologues to some of the tales, but not in all of them. I have traditionally had students write a compare/contrast essay. I could tell that assignment didn’t go over so well this year, so maybe next year this small adaptation of looking at the stories from a different audience angle could generate more enthusiasm.

In exploring different tones, again Gardner provides a helpful chart on p. 53. Some ideas for adaptation to the Chaucer assignment could be curious, condescending, discouraged, furious, injured, irritated, offended, resentful, shocked, or upset. Of course, some of the characters might feel more amused, which isn’t a choice in the list, but would be good to include in the assignment. Giving students some ideas about possible positions to take would be good exercise for voice and tone, and I have to admit, I don’t build in a lot of opportunities for students to explore different tones. I think I generally ask students write in a formal, scholarly tone, and it’s no wonder they don’t understand tone very well. They don’t get to explore different types of tone enough. In any case, as Gardner notes, I would need to “spend time unpacking the different stances on the list with the class” (52). I really like Gardner’s idea of putting these positions on a continuum given a scenario (such as not receiving a refund for a defective product) in a class discussion—students ranking the positions could see irritation as less extreme than anger, which will inform their writing.

Next, Gardner underscores the importance of freewriting to gather ideas when writing from other perspectives. With interactive notebooks next year, I plan to build in more time for journals and freewrites, and these will be good springboards for writing assignments.

In considering when the topic takes place, I am thinking again of the Beowulf assignment. One of the issues I want to explore when my students study Beowulf is the notion that though we have some ideas about heroism that are different from those held by Anglo-Saxons (or the Danes and Geats of Beowulf), some ideas have remained the same. Joe Scotese has a great exercise on his site that explores the way in which Beowulf is related to 9/11 and how one small act of heroism (that is even murkier because some translations do not highlight it or ascribe different motivations to Beowulf)—saving Brecca—is greater than killing Grendel.

I love Gardner’s idea for a cause/effect essay on p. 57:

If you could look in your crystal ball and determine the most significant thing that happened to you this week, what would it be? Write a cause-and-effect paper that explains what the event is and predicts how it will affect you.

It would be great for ninth graders writing a cause/effect paper. I also love the process of modeling and unpacking she describes for the assignment. I am definitely going to steal that assignment. With so many changes at the beginning of 9th grade—new school, new friends, new teachers, new expectations—early in the year would be a great time to do this assignment. It might even make a good first essay.

The list of alternative genres and subgenres for assignments on pp. 62-63 should be a good springboard for exploring different kinds of writing aside from the standard essay. In fact, Gardner mentions a recommendation report on p. 63, which may be how I can get out of my sticky problem with the Beowulf assignment. If Hrothgar is writing a recommendation report rather than a letter, it might not bother students so much that Beowulf dies at the end. I know writing a letter of recommendation for a deceased person would seem awkward, but a report might be less so.

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