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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Neil Gaiman: Free Book!

English teachers, here’s one to pass on to your students.  In celebration of his blog’s seventh birthday (quite impressive!), Neil Gaiman is going to post one of his books online for free for a month.  Readers vote on which book they want to see.  It might be fun for book clubs or classrooms to participate in a literature circle or perhaps even create student blogs to discuss the book.

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Stuff for English Teachers

I recently started using StumbleUpon (here’s my profile) in my Firefox browser to discover new sites, and I feel stupid for not trying it before now. Poking around the Internet for the last week or so, I have “stumbled” upon some good sites (and found some on my own):

  • Read Print has online books. I like the Shakespeare section. I did notice a few typos on the site (Hamnet Shakespeare died in 1596, not 1896), but the articles were interesting.
  • I’ve probably mentioned DailyLit before, but it merits mention alongside Read Print. I don’t think I could have finished Moby Dick if not for DailyLit. I am currently reading Emma. All of us have five minutes for a book each day.
  • Guide to Grammar and Writing has some interesting grammar activities; I found it via SMART’s English/Language Arts Resources.
  • NCTE Inbox is now a blog! I missed the inception when I let my NCTE membership lapse.
  • What Should I Read Next? looks like a great tool for teachers to recommend to students who are looking for books similar to ones they already like.
  • BookMooch enables users to swap books.  It’s free (except for postage).
  • Here’s a huge collection of writing resources.

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Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet

I just finished writing UbD units for Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at the UbD Educators wiki.  As I finished writing the unit for Hamlet and saved the page, I lost half the work I had done, and I am still not sure how it happened, so I had to re-do it.  Word to the wise — when working with anything you’re doing online, save and save often.  When, oh when will I learn to do that?

Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Hamlet and Henry IV, Part 1In order to successfully steal the Hamlet unit, you’ll need to purchase a copy of Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Hamlet and Henry IV, Part 1.  I have the edition published in 1994, and I haven’t seen the latest edition, so if you know the difference between the two editions and would care to share in the comments for interested parties, I would appreciate it.  I think the Shakespeare Set Free series is a great resource for educators, but I don’t do all of the performance activities.

While we’re discussing good resources for teaching Shakespeare, don’t forget the Folger Shakespeare Library’s website, which has a large repository of lesson plans contributed by teachers.  If you can get them for your classroom, the Folger Shakespeare editions of the plays have pretty good explanatory notes and glossaries, too.  A Way to Teach has a great selection of Macbeth lesson plans and Tempest lesson plans.

If you are looking for Shakespeare video, you might check out Shakespeare and More over at YouTube.  They have a large selection of Shakespearean video.   Speaking of video, if you were looking at older posts about teaching Romeo and Juliet, you will have noticed the videos don’t work.  I’m sorry about that.  I’ll need to go back and revise the posts so that the video isn’t necessary, as the videos are no longer available at YouTube.

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