Designing Writing Assignments: Putting Beliefs Into Practice

Purchasing Designing Writing Assignments last November prompted me to introduce “NCTE Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing” into my department meetings as prompts for discussion. You read this important article at NCTE’s Web site.

Gardner begins the second chapter of her book with a discussion of these beliefs and includes the expanded article in an appendix.

One frustration I am having with the text is that Gardner helpfully references ReadWriteThink lesson plans that correspond with the lessons she describes in the book, but when I visit the link given in the back of the book, http://www.ncte.org/books/10850/, I receive an error message. Knowing NCTE moved things around some months back, I tried searching, but I was still unable to find the content. I can’t even access it using the Internet Archive. I did find a link to all of Gardner’s plans at ReadWriteThink, which at least narrows down the search for plans. I don’t blame Gardner; it’s one of the frustrations of dealing with the Web. On the other hand, if it inhibited a serious Web user like me, I imagine it will utterly prevent less-experienced users who will likely give up upon receiving an error message to the URL. I sent a request to NCTE explaining the problem, and I hope they’ll address it soon. I will let you know here what response I receive.

Gardner describes a misunderstanding she had about the word secular. In one essay, she used it interchangeably with religious, thinking they were synonyms, and she says that all she learned from the experience was not to use the word secular. Ever. Even to this day, she says, “I still have no confidence whatsoever in that word” (12). What a diplomatic way of saying a teacher tore up her paper and made her feel dumb. Writing teachers have a lot of power. When we see errors in student writing, we need to educate our students, but we need to do so in a way that helps rather than hurts. I myself can remember similar incidents in my own education, and if I’m being completely honest, I may have caused such incidents for my own students. Sometimes I cringe when I think about my first few years teaching.

I like what Gardner says about helping her students think like writers:

I encourage students to write for themselves as they discover and explore their topics. I ask them to write directly to me about the topic, their progress, and any concerns or questions. I ask them to write to each other, writing questions for the peer readers who consider their drafts. I encourage students to add sticky note annotations to their drafts as well as to the books that they are reading. (14)

It seems to me various Web 2.0 tools would be great for various aspects of this process. Gardner notes that “Students should never be forced to follow a single process, because no two writers are the same” (15). I wholeheartedly agree, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t usually ask students to turn in prewriting and outlines for a grade. I think it’s because I never make outlines when I write, and my prewriting mostly happens in my head. I remember having to turn in those kinds of assignments when I was in school. I almost always did the outline and prewriting after I’d written the assignment, which completely defeated the purpose my teachers had in mind. They were well-meaning, I’m sure, but they also enforced a single process that didn’t work for all students. I do think exposure to different kinds of planning is beneficial. I will never forget one student I had whose writing process utterly changed after he learned webbing in my class. Different systems of planning works for different students. Gardner is right that many times rigid requirements regarding writing process produce “forced or formulaic” writing (16).

I recognize an area where I need to do work. Gardner states that “We have to be explicit with students about what we really want: effective writing that pays attention to the audience and purpose we intend for the activity” (20). I think I probably emphasize writing conventions more than I should, which is not to say that they are unimportant. However, I need to target areas for minilessons so I’m not spending time seeing errors in papers. Collins’ writing method has focus correction areas that serve this purpose. When I attempted to implement focus correction areas, I found that method too constraining. Sometimes a student could address only the FCA’s and still produce a paper that did not really meet expectations for good writing. I know the theory is that over time you work on each common error as it comes up. Maybe I was too impatient. In all, I think the method would work very well for beginning writers or ELL students, but I’m not sure I felt it was as effective for my students, who tend to be more advanced writers. I also need to build time for writing conferences. I give too much feedback after the writing is done and not enough at the beginning of and during the writing process.

Some of what Gardner says about multimodal writing reminds me of the multigenre research paper concept. Students choose different artifacts to display their learning about a topic. Such projects allow for students who don’t have the same access to technology as others to show their learning. I teach at a private school and am always able to get into the computer lab (it should be a A LOT harder to do!), so my students typically have access to technology, but it’s an important point to remember. Virginia Tech, my grad school, requires all students to have their own computer. I’m sure VT isn’t the only school with this requirement. We are moving into an age when access to technology must be a given; how we ensure access is addressed in a variety of ways. One-to-one laptops are one way. I liked the idea of the OLPC project, too. I’m not sure how great the digital divide is anymore or what teachers can reasonably expect regarding access to technology, and I’m sure the answer varies widely depending on who and where you teach.

I love the idea of students writing letters of reflection about writing pieces and including those letters to help me focus on areas they have identified as needing attention. I think this sort of regular reflection could help students really think about the writing they are turning in. One question that kept recurring to me as I read this chapter is how many writing assignments is enough? I am thinking of major essays here because journals and other types of writing that my students do are not assessed in the same way and often do not go through the same process as an essay. I kept thinking of the writing workshop process on every major assignment, and while it’s good and worthwhile work, time would be a major issue. Or am I overthinking it? Porfolios could certainly address part of this issue with time.

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Designing Writing Assignments: The Essentials of an Effective Writing Assignment

Last November at the NCTE convention, I purchased Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments with the intentions of reading it much earlier than I have. I find it helpful to reflect on my professional reading here, so I hope you’ll pardon me if this kind of thing isn’t why you visit the blog (why do you visit, anyway? I’m curious). I don’t intend to rush through the book, but I do have several professional books I want to read this summer.

As its title suggests, the first chapter discusses “the essentials of an effective writing assignment.” Gardner notes that the problem with the language we use in constructing writing assignments is that we typically use academic language the students have difficulty “unpacking” (6), or we use vague “stripped down” language that invites “extremely general responses with unclear purposes and audiences” (1). Gardner cites several research studies and articles, including Storms, Riazantseva, and Gentile (2000); NAEP/NWP (2001); Nelson (1990); Nelson (1995); and Yancey (2004) in support of her argument that one factor in students’ inability to meet expectations for writing assignments is ineffectively written prompts. Based on the NAEP/NWP study, Gardner suggests four essential characteristics of effective writing prompts:

  • The content and scope asked students to focus on critical thinking, rather than reiteration, by interacting with a text.
  • The organization and development provided scaffolding that supported students’ writing process.
  • The audience for the writing assignment focused on communication with an authentic group of readers regarding a topic on which the writer was an expert.
  • The range of choices for students’ focus was balanced with support and direction so that students could engage in the process as equal partners, rather than be directed to complete teacher-driven tasks. (Peterson qtd. in Gardner 2-3)

One area in which I can improve is creating more choices for students. UbD has really helped me think about how to create authentic performance tasks that address audience, and on reflection, I have to say my most effective writing assignments are performance tasks created as part of a UbD unit. I could do more with the writing process. With my lower level students, I build in a lot of in-class writing with the requirement of peer editing, and I think that scaffolding is effective, but it could be more effective if we went through the writing process in a more formal fashion. I noticed a key word in that sentence, too: we need to provide scaffolding for the students’ writing process. To me, that means it’s ineffective to require students create a formal outline as prewriting if a web, jot list, drawing, storyboard, or just plain plunging in and drafting works better for that student. I think construction of questions that focus on critical thinking is at the heart of UbD.

Gardner quotes Kathleen Blake Yancey’s Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice (2004), describing three (often different) curricula in the classroom. The “lived curriculum” is based on students’ prior experiences and knowledge; the “delivered curriculum” is “the one [teachers] design”; and the “experienced curriculum” is the result of the students’ prior knowledge and the delivered curriculum (qtd. in Gardner 5). Garder describes the experienced curriculum as a mashup of the other two types—a term I liked for its connotations with Web 2.0 interactivity. I think it’s important to remember that students don’t always make the connections we think they’re making or learn what we think they’re learning, but we can do more to enhance what Gardner calls overlap between the delivered curriculum and the experienced curriculum: “expand the writing assignment in ways that help students construct a reading that matches the goals for the activity” (6).

One of my favorite quotes from the chapter, which I tweeted in two sections earlier this evening: “Because all readers come to a text with different experiences and prior knowledge, all readings are different and none is absolutely identical to the writer’s original intentions” (6). Gardner isn’t suggesting that all readings are correct or that any interpretation goes, but I have a better answer for students who challenge my or their classmates interpretations of texts than I have in the past. We have all, at some point, been asked by a student if the writer intended something or other we have found in a text. My answer in the last few years or so has been close to Gardner’s, but her sentence captures the essence of what happens with interpretation so much more eloquently than I have been able to do thus far.

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Tom Discusses Teacher Shortcuts

I really enjoyed Tom Woodward’s recent post “There Are No Shortcuts at Bionic Teaching,” but I left a comment that really didn’t say all I was thinking.

Tom mentions using fun fonts to make boring content exciting (and has particular ire for Comic Sans).  I have been known to use fun fonts, but I hope I graduated from using them to disguise boring content many years ago.  One of the main issues I had with a recent word processing assignment I did for one of my grad school classes is that it was intended only to see if I could do a variety of different tasks in Word rather than make something attractive, interesting, and substantial in Word.  The resulting document looked like an aesthetic mess to me because I had to single space, double space, triple space; use three different fonts; prove I could bold, italicize, and underline text; and manipulate images for different effects.  I didn’t wind up with a document I could use for anything later.  In fact, I was embarrassed by how it looked (I was following the directions to the letter).  The content was not an important part of the assignment.  I wound up riffing on what I was currently doing with Beowulf in my classes and putting a bunch of Beowulf-related pictures in the document.  I suppose I proved I can use Word to manipulate images and text, but I don’t think the assignment proved I can use it well to create a document that has substantial content and an attractive design.

That said, I don’t use Comic Sans because I teach high school, and I consider it an elementary font, but I don’t have any particular hatred for it.  Still, I think Tom’s larger idea is that some of us create documents that are crammed full of proof that we can manipulate images and text, but that contain little substantial content.  In the interest of full disclosure, though I labored over this decision, you can download a PDF of the document I created here, but I removed my required heading because I think it’s the polite thing to do.  I also removed the file name from the footer because even though my files cannot be accessed except by my teachers and me, I don’t want to give folks who are interested the encouragement to try to break into my files.  By the way, inserting the file name in the footer of only the last page was the only new thing I learned in doing this assignment.  How useful a skill is it?  I don’t know.  We’ll have to see.

Tom also skewers using technology to make a boring assignment interesting.  Too many teachers fall prey to this trap with Power Point.  I have seen more Power Point presentations that make me want to tear my eyes out!  I would much rather listen to someone talk without visuals at all than view a poorly designed Power Point.  I think this guy captures Death by Power Point really well:

And this guy shows how you can use it effectively to enhance a presentation:

I liked what Tom said about “digital native/digital immigrant” terminology.  I have yet to meet more than a handful of students who know as much or more about technology than I do, and that’s not boasting — it’s an observation.  Granted, I think I know a bit more than the average teacher, but everything I know I taught myself by playing around with it.  I haven’t worked with too many students who are willing to play around with a bit of code or a piece of software to see what happens.  To my discredit, I admit sometimes (a lot of times), I take the easy way out of showing them instead of letting them struggle with it a bit.  How much better would they learn if I asked them to teach themselves a bit?  Likewise, teachers labeling themselves digital immigrants can be a way of giving themselves a pass on being ignorant about technology.  I’m not saying teachers all need to be Vicki Davis (though she’s wonderful and it would be great if more of us were on her level), but I think we’re past the point at which it’s OK to be a complete luddite.

As an addendum to Tom’s admonition about “faking it,” as he did, I can say only that when you genuinely like and understand something the students like, and connection is genuine, it’s wonderful.  I don’t pretend to be up on everything my students listen to, but the ones who like classic rock know I’m a pretty good resource, and if they have a question, they ask me.  That’s genuine interest.  I can talk about my passions, and Tom is right — that’s what students are interested in seeing — not that I like what they like or that I’ve latched on to the latest trend in education.  I can remember vividly the occasions when I saw my teachers’ passions shared and finding what they had to say intriguing even if I didn’t necessarily share that passion.  A good case in point was a recent class of my own that was derailed by a passionate discussion between a visiting teacher and me about why it is important that “Han shot first.”  Truly, the students couldn’t have cared less about the issue (we are going to study Star Wars in that class beginning next week — it’s my Hero elective class), and most of them haven’t even seen the movie (!!!), but they remarked later on how interesting the discussion was.  I felt like a failure after letting my class go off on such a long tangent (we discussed The Iliad very little that day), but perhaps it will be valuable in some other way down the road.  At any rate, they saw two individuals talk about an issue they both knew a lot about and felt really strongly about, and I think their interest in studying the movie is piqued.  And I suppose we were both certainly really ourselves in front of the students.

If you want to a see a teacher who is passionate about what he does and uses technology effectively not only to create handouts that are informative and attractive but also to have his students create thoughtful presentations with Power Point, you need to check out my friend Joe Scotese’s site.  He blows me away.  To me, Joe is a perfect of example of avoiding the shortcuts Tom discusses in his post.  At any rate, Tom’s post resonated with me so strongly that all I could really do was agree at the time.  After spending a couple of days thinking about it, I decided that for all the reasons I have discussed, Tom’s shortcuts shortchange our students, and they don’t make us good teachers or help our students learn.

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One of My Teachers

When I talk about certain works of literature, I can hear the words of my own professors coming out of my mouth.  I truly received a good English education at my college, and I look back in fondness at my college classes, perhaps none more so than the very last one I took, Twentieth Century American Poetry, which was the last class Coleman Barks taught at UGA before he retired.

Coleman Barks is probably best known for his translations of the poetry of Rumi, but he is a fine poet in his own right, and he was a great teacher.

Perhaps he made it a practice every time, but perhaps it was because we were the last class — I remember he asked us to submit our own poems and he had them made into an anthology for us.  I wrote one about my great grandfather that he found kind of dizzying, but to be honest, it really captured my feelings as I watched a man who I wasn’t personally close to, but who was important to my family, slowly dying of Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

We read only one female poet in that class: Adrienne Rich.  I remember we tried to talk about that omission, but he didn’t seem as concerned as we were.  I think he just picked what he liked.

It was a great class, and I remember the day of his last lecture, he was crying as he walked quickly out the door — he was trying to hide his tears from us.

And then he slept through the final exam.  I didn’t know he’d slept through.  I think we were told there was a a problem with a flight.  We waited.  And waited.  Another professor stuck his head in the door, ascertained the situation, then left to find out what was going on.  He returned to tell us that we should just write Coleman letters about what we thought of the class.  So we did.

I didn’t realize until this very day, which is at this point over 10 years later, that Coleman wrote a poem about us.  Wow, I didn’t know he felt that way about us or the final exam.  I’m so glad I found it.

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Helping Families Support Literacy

NCTE Inbox‘s great post “Helping Families Support Readers” is a great resource for teachers looking for materials to support family literacy and summer reading programs. My own tips:

  • Read by example. Let your children see you with a book in your hand, enjoying reading, and they will want to do it, too.
  • Read to your children. Keep reading to them even after they learn to read for themselves.
  • Set aside class time to read. I don’t do this well because my current school schedule doesn’t allow for it, but when I student taught, my supervising teacher set aside each Friday for reading. Also, the entire school had time set aside two days a week when everyone was supposed to drop everything and read. It had a tremendous impact on SAT scores.
  • If you can, allow for some choice. For instance, if you teach American literature, you might want to teach Edgar Allan Poe, but you can allow students to pick which story (or which three stories) they read. You can also allow students to pick a book or two on their own and get credit for a project or paper based on that book. I have successfully integrated this kind of outside reading in my classes before.
  • Make suggestions. I suggested a reluctant reader try Stephenie Meyer‘s books, and she loved them. She might not have tried them out if I hadn’t said I thought she would like them.
  • Give parents and students resources. Many times I have had parents lament that they can’t get their sons to read, for example. I point them toward Guys Read, which has some great suggestions for books for boys.

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Doing School

Doing SchoolDenise Clark Pope explores some interesting ideas in Doing School. Pope shadowed five different students who were chosen by school officials. All were considered high achievers, but the group was diverse. Pope’s goal was to determine how students viewed school. It turns out most of them saw school as a means to an end — work the system (notice I didn’t say work hard) in order to get grades, which will lead to acceptance at a good college and a lucrative career. The aim of school, in the minds of these students, was definitely not to engage in the material or to learn. Their passions, for the most part, lay outside of the standard curriculum. One student was most proud of the community service organization he started. Another was an accomplished actress and scheduled the rest of her classes around drama. A third student was happiest when he could help others.

Because the book only follows five students, it cannot necessarily be considered a scientific study; however, I recognized the students and teachers described in the book. Some of them resorted to cheating. Others made “treaties” with teachers — agreements that allowed the students to do work for other classes in a certain teacher’s class. One girl relied heavily on caffeine — coffee and No Doze comprised much of her diet. The fact that these students look familiar should be alarming because the students are collapsing under the stress of making good grades and violating their own principles in order to make grades they feel are necessary to accomplish their goals. I actually wish, like Pope, that we could figure out a way to eliminate grades, but the fault lies deeper than America’s schools. When the students graduate from high school, they will most likely engage in the same tactics in college and even into their careers. Ultimately, educators have been discussing this problem since Dewey, and not much has changed. I think, in our heart of hearts, that’s because we don’t want it to change. We are just not sure how else to do school, and we’re afraid to try.

I would definitely recommend that teachers read this book. Those teachers in schools where students are struggling to pass classes might read this book wishing their students had these problems; however, struggling students have their own stresses. I think teachers in “high-performing” schools — schools where the majority of students plan to go to college — will find these five students familiar. School isn’t an engaging place, at least not much of the time, for either group of students. If you can’t get away from grades — and I recognize that grades aren’t going anywhere — you can at least do your own part to recognize school from the students’ point of view and try to make your own classroom engaging so that students will view their learning as meaningful and important. And not just because of the grade.

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The Homework on Homework: Part One

As I promised earlier, I am reading the studies cited by Robert Marzano Classroom Instruction that Works. The first study I picked up is “The Effects of Homework on Learning: A Quantitative Synthesis” from Journal of Educational Research, November/December 1984 (full citation at end of this post).

Alfie Kohn’s claim in his rebuttal of my post at The Faculty Room was that none of the studies cited by Marzano, et. al. in the chapter “Homework and Practice” showed that “homework was beneficial for students.” Kohn accuses Marzano of misrepresenting the research on homework.

The focus of the Paschal, Weinstein, Walberg, 1984, which is not one of the five studies Kohn mentions in his criticism of Marzano, is a synthesis of “empirical studies of homework and of various homework strategies on the academic achievement and attitude of elementary and secondary students.” In the abstract of the study, Paschal, et. al. state: “About 85% of the effect sizes favored the homework groups. The mean effect size is .36 (probability less than .0001). Homework that was graded or contained teachers’ comments produced stronger effects (.80).”

As I said, this meta-analysis does not appear to be one of the five studies Kohn mentions in his post when questioning Marzano’s research, but it is in a chart on p. 61 of Marzano entitled “Research Results for Homework.” Perhaps it is not considered by Kohn because it is a meta-analysis or synthesis rather than original research itself. I do think it has interesting things to say about the effects of homework, however. Paschal, et. al. note that “[e]xtensive classroom research on ‘time on task’ and international comparisons of year-round time for study suggest that additional homework might promote U.S. students’ achievement.” However, the authors also note that writing on the subject of homework has largely characterized homework as “unwholesome, professionally unsupervised, or allow[ing] the children to practice mistakes.” Paschal, et. al. acknowledge that attitudes regarding homework seem to change depending upon a variety of factors.

Paschal, et. al. examined “15 studies that compared students with various qualities and amounts of assigned homework. These included the most frequent comparison, of students who were assigned and those who were not assigned homework.”

The authors conclude that “[t]he corpus of evidence shows a moderately large average effect size [0.80] of assigned homework that is commented upon or graded.” However, the authors also acknowledge that “much of the voluminous, 70-year-old literature on homework is opinionated and polemical, and surprisingly few methodologically adequate studies have been conducted.” I can attest to the veracity of the first part of that statement, given my own recent experience. Kohn was the only respondent to my original post who even brought up research.

Obviously, I want to read the five studies cited by Kohn and Marzano, as those studies seem to be at the heart of the contention between the two, but I felt this meta-analysis made it fairly clear that some homework was better than no homework. Marzano’s conversion table on p. 160 translates a 0.36 effect size to a percentile gain of 14. In other words, the average student who does homework (at least, according to my interpretation of the meta-analysis) will have score 14 percentage points higher on a standard bell curve measuring student achievement.  An average student who does homework that is graded and receives feedback on that homework will have a score over 28 percentage points higher on a standard bell curve measuring student achievement.  Sounds good to me.  I encourage you to read the study yourself and draw your own conclusions, too.  Feel free to leave them in the comments.  I will be reading other studies and sharing my conclusions here, so if you are interested in the great homework debate, check back.

Marzano, Robert J., Debra J. Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock. Classroom Instruction that Works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2001.

Paschal, Rosanne A., Thomas Weinstein, and Herbert J. Walberg. “The Effects of Homework on Learning: A Quantitative Analysis.” Journal of Educational Research. 78.2 (1984): 97-104. Professional Development Collection. EBSCO. Weber School Library, Atlanta, GA. 7 March 2008. <http://www.ebsco.com/>.

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Classroom Instruction that Works

Classroom Instruction that WorksI read Classroom Instruction that Works by Robert J. Marzano, Debra J. Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock for an online professional learning course, and I’m very glad I did. The book discusses research-based strategies teachers can use to increase student understanding and achievement. It fits well with Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design.

The authors’ position is that teaching is a science, although it is frequently thought of as an art. I like this position because when we think of teaching as an art, we are more likely to believe a teacher either has it or s/he doesn’t. The Faculty Room examined this question some time back, and I wish I had read this book before I posted my response to the question. I was already of the opinion that good teachers can be made, but if I had read this book, I might have had more armor for my argument.

Classroom Instruction that Works discusses nine teaching strategies:

  • Identifying similarities and differences
  • Summarizing and note-taking
  • Reinforcing effort and providing recognition
  • Homework and practice
  • Nonlinguistic representations
  • Cooperative learning
  • Setting objectives and providing feedback
  • Generating and testing hypotheses
  • Questions, cues, and advance organizers

One teaching practice I questioned as a result of reading this book is the way I check homework. Research has shown that timely feedback on homework is important; however, the way I generally check homework is through reading quizzes and notebook checks. I also need to do more direct instruction in note-taking and summarizing. UbD has been great for helping me set objectives and generate and tests hypotheses.

Many teachers reading this book will feel vindicated by the research presented, but it think it will make all of us, whether we are new teachers or seasoned veterans, look seriously at our practice.

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If You Liked…

In our high school literature studies, we often stick to tried and true classics, which is fine. There are very good reasons why these books are classics. But what if you want to read something newer, but somehow related to a classic? What if you want to extend learning for your students and want to choose a similar book? What if your students must read a certain number of books to fulfill state objectives (Georgia’s GPS require students to read 20 books a year) and you want to steer them toward books related to others you have studied?

I provide you with ten recommendations for extension. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments.

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

Read it with Moby Dick by Herman Melville

What it’s about: In a small passage in his chapter, “The Symphony,” Melville’s Captain Ahab tells Starbuck about his young wife. As God fashioned Eve from Adam’s rib, so Naslund from Melville’s brief description creates Una, who begins her own narrative no less memorably than Ishmael began his: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Una’s story is every bit as fascinating as that of her husband. She meets and rubs shoulders with such ninethenth century luminaries as Margaret Fuller, Maria Mitchell, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The book is a lush garden of literary allusion, from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene to Homer’s Odyssey.

Why students should read it: Naslund’s Una is one of the literary characters you will wish you could meet in real life. She is vibrant and real. Students will learn a great deal about mid-nineteenth century life and history from reading the book, too. The prose is gorgeous literary fiction.

A Thousand AcresA Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Read it with King Lear by William Shakespeare

What it’s about: Larry Cook, a farmer in Zebulon County, Iowa, decides to divide his thousand-acre farm among his three daughters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline, insisting he is saving them an inheritance tax. The daughters do not want him to do this, but Larry possesses a single-mindedness that will not be crossed. When Caroline objects more firmly, she is cut out of the deal. The family gradually implodes under Larry’s seeming madness, a suit to get back his land, and Ginny and Rose’s competition for the affections of neighbor’s son Jess Clark.

Why students should read it: This Pulitzer-prize winning novel closely mimics the plot of King Lear, but gives Lear’s daughters some depth — while Goneril and Regan are “unnatural hags,” Ginny and Rose have good reasons for hating their father, and Caroline is not the unflinchingly honest daughter that Cordelia is. Students will see quite clearly how Shakespeare’s timeless stories and themes still apply to readers today. Students will be fascinated by how Smiley takes a quintessentially British author’s story and makes it profoundly American.

A Lesson Before DyingA Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Read it with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

What it’s about: Jefferson is a young black man who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Falsely accused of murder, tried by a jury of his white “peers,” and sentenced to death by electrocution by a dismissive judge, Jefferson believes the defense attorney’s closing argument, which compares him to a “hog.” Grant Wiggins (no relation to Grant of UbD fame!), a teacher at the black school in the Quarter, is employed by Jefferson’s godmother to help Jefferson die like a man.

Why students should read it: While To Kill a Mockingbird works because a child who doesn’t understand why certain things should be reports what she sees, this novel works because a jaded, bruised, and downtrodden teacher who is all too acutely aware of the oppression of racism tells us the story of the journey to self-discovery. It’s a powerful book, and through a study with To Kill a Mockingbird would make for interesting exploration into the justice system as it existed in the 1930’s and 1940’s, as well as questions of inequity in education and living conditions. Both teach profound lessons about acceptance and love.

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Read it with The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and/or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

What it’s about: Gerard Freeman is an Australian librarian who lives with his mother — a clingy, obsessive woman afraid above all that Gerard will leave her. His only real friend is a pen-friend, Alice Jessell, an English woman with an injury which confines her to a wheelchair. Though the two have never met, they have been corresponding since they were 13 and eventually fall in love. Intensely curious about his mother’s past after finding short fiction written by her grandmother, Viola, Gerard travels to England to see Miss Jessell and learn more about the darkest secrets of his mother’s past.

Why students should read it: If your students thought Miss Havisham was deliciously creepy and loved the haunted Victorian feel of The Turn of the Screw, they will enjoy Harwood’s love letter to both novels. Viola’s creepy short stories are as delightful as the novel itself and would be good illustrations of the “story within a story” idea that students might encounter in other works, such as Hamlet.

The Poisonwood BibleThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Read it with Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

What it’s about: Baptist minister Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo [Democratic Republic of the Congo] to serve as missionaries right before that country’s independence from Belgium. The story is told through the viewpoint of Orleanna Price, Nathan’s wife, and each of his four daughters: Rachel, Adah, Leah, and Ruth May. Africa has a way of getting under the skin of the Price family women, each in a different way, and the book is a grim illustration of America’s own culpability in the devastation of colonialism on the African continent.

Why students should read it: The novel is rich in gorgeous prose and biblical allusion and shows readers a side of colonialism that is an interesting counterpoint to Conrad’s vision in Heart of Darkness. Kingsolver has a gift for creating vivid, realistic characters and bringing her setting into vivid relief (see also her novel The Bean Trees for an example set in America).

The Dante ClubThe Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Read it with The Inferno by Dante and/or selections from the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the other “Fireside Poets.”

What it’s about: A murderer is stalking Boston. Strange and gruesome crime scenes appear to be coming right from the pages of Dante’s Inferno. The Dante Club, the group of poets engaged in helping Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translate Dante’s work, are the only ones who make the connection — which also makes them the likeliest suspects!

Why students should read it: Students studying Dante’s Inferno will gain an understanding of and appreciation for Dante’s work and the path scholars took to make it accessible for American readers. Pearl’s novel is also an interesting insight into literary Boston following the Civil War.

PossessionPossession by A.S. Byatt

Read it with British Victorian poets, such as Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and others.

What it’s about: The relationship between Randolph Henry Ash, a fictional Victorian poet modeled perhaps after Robert Browning, and Christabel LaMotte, is uncovered by literary scholars Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, who turn Victorian literary scholarship on its head with their findings.

Why students should read it: I will admit that perhaps you want to recommend this one to your most voracious and enthusiastic readers because it is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding read. Students will be fascinated to learn about the dark, seedy underworld that is literary scholarship when territorial specialists are more concerned with preserving their pet theories than with disseminating the truth about their “charges.” The love story at the center will likely appeal to the resident romantic in high school and college students.

The Thirteenth TaleThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Read it with Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and/or The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

What it’s about: Margaret Lea, a fan of nineteenth century fiction like Jane Eyre, turns up her nose at the popular books of Vida Winter. Until, that is, her father, a rare book dealer for whom she works, acquires a first edition of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. Margaret tears through the book, dismayed to discover the title is a ruse: the book lacks a thirteenth tale. Miss Winter, impressed by Margaret’s writing, contacts her to write her own biography, tantalizingly promising the secret of the thirteenth tale will be hers if she accepts.

Why students should read it: Setterfield clearly loves gothic fiction of the 1800’s, and I have to admit, I finally read Jane Eyre this past fall because of Setterfield’s devotion to the book as expressed through the pages of her own novel. This novel will hook students with its mystery and gothic atmosphere, while enhancing their appreciation for the gothic fiction of the nineteenth century.

WicketWicked by Gregory Maguire

Read it with The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

What it’s about: Maguire tells the famous story of Dorothy’s nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the West, through her own words and in a sympathetic light. This answer to Baum’s classic becomes a political allegory in the deft hands of Maguire, who imagines the Wicked Witch to be Elphaba, shunned and rejected from childhood, and fashions a complicated past complete with Galinda (Glinda — her college roommate and friend!), the Winkies, and the Wizard himself.

Why students should read it: Most high school and college students won’t be studying The Wizard of Oz, I suppose, but they will benefit from looking at the other side of the story and examining point of view in narrative. Students will be hooked because of what they already know of this story, but they will stay intrigued by what they learn when Elphaba shares her side.

Reading Lolita in TehranReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Read it with Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Daisy Miller by Henry James

What it’s about: Azar Nafisi was a literature professor when the Shah of Iran was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini became the leader of the new Islamic republic. She was fired when she refused to wear the veil, but secretly conducted a book club for female students. This book chronicles her stories teaching Western literature both in and out of a university setting. Her focus is on the four books mentioned above and her Middle Eastern students’ responses to and connection with Western literature.

Why students should read it: Not only does this memoir give Western students a different lens through which to interpret literature, but it also gives students a new and deeper appreciation for these four books of the Western canon. The trial of The Great Gatsby was particularly intriguing to me; I shared this section with my American literature Honors students when we studied Gatsby. I also read Lolita after reading this book (thank you Professor Nafisi — it was wonderful).

Do you have other recommendations for books that can be paired with classics?

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