Category Archives: Teaching Literature

Independent Reading Check-up

My Growing Shelves
My Growing Shelves

I promised I’d post updates about how the independent reading experiment is going. My students have been selecting their own books, whatever they want to read, and completing a weekly reading log that essentially consists of the following:

  1. Did you read for two hours this week? (If no, explain.)
  2. How many pages did you read this week?
  3. What is your current reading goal?
  4. Did you meet your reading goal?
  5. What book are you currently reading?
  6. What page are you currently on?
  7. Did you finish any books this week (if yes, there is an additional update form to complete)?
  8. Is there anything you want to tell me/ask me in regards to your reading this week?

As long as students read for two hours, I am not too fussed that they are meeting the goals. The goals are more for them than for me—the goal helps them figure out how much to read. Many of my students are still experimenting here, and by and large, I think they are being honest. They are telling me if they didn’t meet their goals and why and often the issue is that they overestimated how much they could read in two hours and need to “recalibrate” their reading speed.

Once they finish a book, they complete a form that allows them to share a quick review (basically a thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs in the middle) and also allows me to spot check how many books they’re reading. Reading a big stack is not the goal. Reading period is the goal. Still, here are some stats.

I have 25 students across two sections of American Studies in Literature. One of my students left at the end of the semester, and she had read one book, so perhaps it would be fairer to count 26 students. One student has read six books since early December. Good for her! By and large, the students are enjoying the books (lots of thumbs up ratings). My students have read a total of 39 books. Of the 26 students, 22 have completed at least one book, nine have read two or more books, and three have read three or more books.

In the space where I allow students to share a comment or question about reading, one student has been recommending the completed Sherlock Holmes to me (though he also says I have probably read it already, and he is right—I have). If you haven’t seen one of those collections, they are pretty fat books, and he’s been hauling it to school each day to read. I like it that the students are not afraid of big books or hard books. One of my ELL students is reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Another student who was somewhat withdrawn has begun to come out of her shell a bit. She’s read two books. Independent reading has been a way for her to explore her passion for basketball in an academic setting.

I have been mixing up my book talks with a selection of YA fiction, adult fiction, and nonfiction. Books that are popular in my class (in that more than one student has read or expressed an interest in reading them): Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, and Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Understanding that reading conferences have value, I have opted not to really do any during our reading time. I do check in with students and help them find books and ask them about the books, but not during that ten minutes. During that time, I’ve been reading with them. I think they actually like that.

This week, my Sherlock Holmes fan wrote in his reading log:

This is not about my reading. This is going to be about what you read and share with us. The form we filled out a few weeks back I forgot to mention a few things. I appreciate what you do in class every day. When you share books and papers with us and read them out loud I can feel that you really do care. I also admire you for sharing these pieces with us because I see they are special to you. You get very excited reading the work and this make me focus and want to learn more about it. Its teachers like you that make coming to school more enjoyable so thank you for all your hard work.

It does not get better than that. So far, I’m calling the independent reading a win, and the only thing I am unhappy about is how long it took me to figure out how to do it in my classes.

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Teaching with This American Life

This American Life
Image via WVTF

For the past two years that I have been teaching American Literature, I have integrated This American Life into my students’ learning. I have previously used episodes, particularly “Act V,” which tells the story of Prison Performing Arts and Shakespeare in prison. It remains my favorite episode of This American Life to this day.

The essential questions I use in this course are as follows:

  • What is an American?
  • What is the American dream and how has it influenced America?
  • How does American literature reflect America and Americans? What makes it uniquely “American”?
  • What makes an effective writer?

There is a storytelling component as well; the culminating assignment is a digital story. Perhaps not everyone would immediately think of This American Life as American literature, but it is. It is one of the finest collections of stories by and about Americans.

I ask my students to select an episode, any episode, and listen to it.  We do this assignment once a month. This American Life is an hour long, and many of my students are English language learners; I am aware that asking them to listen to more than one episode a month would be difficult for many of my students, both in terms of time and in terms of challenge. After they listen, they can select one of the following prompts and write:

  • Why do you think the producers of This American Life have chosen to follow a particular theme at the point in time when the episode aired? What might have been happening contextually (at the time the show was produced) that gave rise to the selection of that particular topic? Furthermore, were such subjects relevant in the past? If so, how?
  • How has the particular production value (tone, music, interview editing, etc.) contributed to the success or failure of the show? Specifically, what aspects of the sound design affected the way a listener might respond?
  • Connect the episode to something we have learned about and/or discussed in class. Thoroughly explain the connection. In what ways is the episode similar to what we’ve learned? What made you think of topic? Did you seek the episode because you thought there might be a connection to class?

If students want to write on something else, they need to clear it with me first. The first prompt asks students to consider what is going on in the country and world around them. The second asks students to think about these aspects of production, which will help them when it comes time to create their digital stories. The third asks them to connect the episode to what we are learning in class.

I always enjoy reading the students’ writing about This American Life. At first, many students are not sure they will like this assignment, but at the end of last year, several students reported liking it very much. One student remarked in his writing that he thought all his classmates should listen to an episode he had chosen, even if they didn’t do it for credit. That particular student was not the most engaged or hardest working student, either, so I think he genuinely meant it. A comment like that is how I knew I was doing the right thing. Often last year, students would come into class the day a This American Life assignment was due talking animatedly about the episode they had listened to.

I think my students derive many benefits from listening to the stories. On one level, they get a feel for pacing of stories and how ordinary stories can grab us (as well as a sense that all of us have stories). On another level, I think they make many connections and enhance their understanding of America and America’s stories in a way that would be hard to do otherwise. It’s also another mode of reading, and listening is a valuable skill for students to practice.

 

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Slice of Life #19: “The Best Book I Ever Read”

Previous visitors might remember that I am implementing independent reading. Students have shared their reading progress for their first full week of independent reading. Almost all of them met their reading goals. A few observations:

  • Most of the students are enjoying their books. One boy declared in class today that Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover is the “best book [he’s] ever read.” He’s been recommending it to others. Another said of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, “This is a really intense and fun book to read, the pictures in the book combine [with] the writing really well and make it even more interesting.”
  • One student said he wasn’t enjoying his book, and I emailed him to let him know it’s okay to abandon it and move on. I think he just needed to know it was okay.
  • One girl finished a project we’ve been working on and read for the entire 75-minute period today. And she told me at the beginning of the year that she didn’t like reading and didn’t read for fun.
  • Some of them need to recalibrate their goals. I had them use Penny Kittle’s method of counting how many pages they can read in ten minutes, then multiplying that figure by six and then doubling it to determine how much they can read in two hours. Some of them didn’t factor in needing to look up words (I have many English language learners in my classes) in their time.
  • One student emailed me to let me know her page count was proving unrealistic, so she recalibrated on her own. I like the fact that my students are doing this kind of thinking: adjusting their own goals and taking ownership over their reading.
  • One student finished John Lewis’s graphic memoir March: Book One. He picked up March: Book II and checked out Winger for over the break.

My student who is reading The Crossover is an interesting student. He’s one of those real charmers, a leader in the classroom. The other students tend to look to him. He’s easily the most outgoing student in the class, so when he says a book is the best book he’s ever read, the others are going to add it to their list. He said he is close to finishing his book and will need another “to read over the break.” And I said, “Yes, of course, because I want you all to keep reading over the break.” He joked that he would cuddle up with the book and a nice cup of tea. I told him he was describing my idea of a party.

So far, the independent reading is quite a success. I am pleased to see the students reading so much. I’ve had a good time reading along with them (I haven’t done any reading conferences yet because at this time, I haven’t identified a need).

The students are already establishing the routine of reading at the beginning of class. I forgot to set the timer and remind them to read today in one class, and they started without me!

As I’ve promised before, I’ll keep posting updates about how independent reading is working. It’s off to a strong start.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Independent Reading Step 1: Selecting Books

My Class Book Speed Dating
Photo by Jenn Hanson

 On Thursday, I took my students to our library, and our Director of Library Services, Jenn Hanson, booktalked several titles. Next, students took 30 seconds to select a book from the clear plastic bins at each table (or grabbed one of the books she booktalked). Students read the books for four minutes, then gave the books a rating (whatever rating scale they wanted to use), and put the book back. Jenn called it “book speed dating,” and I think the students really liked it. We did four rounds, and typically, students had a book in mind that they wanted to read after that.

Students checked out books and we calibrated their reading speed. I asked them to read at a comfortable pace for 10 minutes. After that we multiplied how many pages they could read in 10 minutes by 6 to get the number of pages per hour, then doubled that number for the pages that could be read in 2 hours. I want them to read 2 hours per week at a comfortable pace.

In class the next day, there were some questions about pages. What if some books had poems and you could read them faster? Yes, that happens, so you need to recalibrate for the new book when you get it.

My Class Book Speed Dating
Photo by Jenn Hanson

I participated too, and I was able to find several books to put on my own reading list. I had asked students to turn to the last page of their Reader’s/Writer’s Notebooks to make a list, and every student had several titles written down.

I didn’t notice any overt resistance. Everyone, even my students who describe themselves as non-readers, found a book. In class the next day, all but one of the students remembered to bring their books (and I happened to have had a copy of his book to lend him for class).

I booktalked Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian the next day (only in one class because the other doesn’t meet again until Monday, at which time I’ll share the Alexie book with that class). I told students if it sounded interesting to put it on their list, and I notice that several students wrote the title down in their notebooks.

I also asked students to find one sentence that they really liked for some reason in their independent read and copy it down in their Reader’s/Writer’s Notebook then write one or two sentences about why they liked it. We all shared our sentences. I suggested that if someone’s sentence sounded interesting, students might want to write the title of the book it came from down as well.

The independent reading is off to an encouraging start. The students all chose great books, and Jenn was wonderful at engaging the students in selecting their books.

Updated 12/5/15 to add a link to Jenn’s post about our library visit on her blog.

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Independent Reading

I’ve been meaning to get around to starting independent reading in my classroom for years. Honest. But like so many things I’ve been “meaning” to do, I put it off. I did finally buy Penny Kittle’s Book Love back in June, and I fully intended to read it. It is true that I had a busier than normal summer. So busy it might in fact be called a non-summer. But I didn’t pick it up and didn’t pick it up. Right around mid-fall, I could feel that malaise creeping in. I’m not talking about the students. I’m talking about me. Then I went to NCTE, which always rejuvenates me and keeps me going for the rest of the school year. Once again, I heard the discussions about independent reading. Finally, something clicked. I think there is a statistic about how many times you have to be exposed to an idea before you pay attention to it. I decided to do it, and I decided not to wait until the second semester starts in January. We’re starting right now, this first week of December. Independent reading is finally going to happen for real in my classroom.

At the beginning of the school year, I ask students to write an educational autobiography for me. I want to know what school has been like for my students. I want to know about how they perceive themselves as students, as readers, and as writers. Almost all of my eleventh graders confessed they don’t like to read and do not read for pleasure. That’s a staggering statistic. They are not going to magically become life-long readers, which I say is one of my goals for them, if I don’t do something. I think the students in my class, the ones who say they don’t like reading, just don’t know what they like to read. They haven’t found a book yet. I will admit that I try some different things that make literature study more interesting for students. Literature circles, for example. One of my students confessed he had never read so far into a book as he had the book my students were reading in November, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I attribute that stamina to the literature circle.

If I had ever been asked to choose my own books to read for pleasure in school, it would have been my favorite class ever, and those ten minutes or so at the beginning of the period would have been my favorite part of the day. But I was a reader, and I became a reader in spite of my teachers, not because of them. I don’t actually have memories of reading something I really liked in school (after elementary school, that is) until 11th grade, when we read To Kill a Mockingbird, but even in that case, I didn’t choose to read that book. It was assigned. I read my own things outside of school. I actually liked reading, and I didn’t enjoy the selections chosen by my teachers. Sometimes, I even faked my way through reading because I couldn’t keep up with the assigned reading. I didn’t want to fake it. I actually wanted to read the books. I even faked my way through one of the books I was assigned in college. Even though I didn’t always do my assigned reading, I actually really wanted to read and loved to read. If my students don’t love to read, think how much more they must be faking their way through reading. Sometimes, later on (never at the time), former students have confessed to me that they didn’t read a text I assigned.

I firmly believe no one is going to die if they don’t read a certain book. I know that feeling is pervasive in secondary education, but one reason I don’t share it is that I myself had such a patchy high school education that I managed to graduate and even major in English Education (which at my school, meant only two fewer English courses, before you complain it isn’t as rigorous as English) without having ever read such essentials as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, and so many others. In fact, had I not read them on my own, I also would have missed The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Can you believe I’m still here to tell the tale? What happened was that I read all those books later. I actually think I read them at the perfect time for me to read them, too. So even though I love leading students through a work of literature and watching them enjoy it, I also want them to become readers, and I think this year in particular, my students need my help to figure out how to do that.

Enter Book Love. Though I’m not finished reading it yet, I already have some advice on how to start, which is what I really needed. I had several questions about how this should look, including what to grade and how to grade it. Kittle covers all of that ground in the book. I scheduled a visit to the library, and our librarian plans to book talk some titles so that my students can make their first selections. I have already begun the process of hauling my own books to donate to my classroom library. I even spent some time last week organizing the books on shelves. Once my library is big enough, I’ll organize it by genre, which I think will help students find what they want to read more quickly.

One thing I especially appreciate about Kittle’s approach is that she doesn’t recommend scrapping the literature study in favor of all independent reading. I find our discussions of the literature we read together to be rich and rewarding. I have heard a lot of teachers who seem to me to be ditching the full-class novel entirely in favor of independent reading, and I am not ready to do that at all. Kittle says the key is balance. We need to create life-long learners and build time for independent reading. But students also benefit from full-class novels. I actually don’t teach a lot of novels in my eleventh grade classes, so I think weaving independent reading into the curriculum should be fairly easy and shouldn’t strain my curriculum too much. But I say that if it does, then perhaps some texts need to go. I am here to serve the students, and that doesn’t mean cramming as much curriculum in as I can.

Other teachers at our school are trying independent reading with great success. It feels great to be in their classrooms, watching them conference with students about their reading and talking about books. As much as I knew independent reading was the right thing to do and as much as I wanted to do it, I somehow didn’t find the time to make it work. I think I just needed to hear one more time how important it is. Here we go. I’ll let you know what happens.

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Slice of Life #14: Corrections

Slice of LifeI didn’t write a Slice last week because I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo, and I spent last Tuesday writing all evening. I did want to share a quick Slice this week because I have a few things on my mind—the first two just housekeeping items.

First of all, I’m prepping for attending NCTE at the end of next week, and I’m hoping to see you all there. If we run into each other, please say hi. Also, if you want to connect while we’re there, let me know that, too.

Second, for those of you who wondered, my AP Audit was accepted. I have written before about how much work went into it. I was relieved and gratified when it passed without any suggested revisions or edits, and I sincerely thanked my instructor, who emphasized the importance of including clear revision policies on the syllabus.

The revision policy leads me to my next point. I have been assigning AP-style multiple choice practice to my students and counting it as a quiz grade. I give students a passage and ten questions at a time. I use total points, so I just count the quizzes ten points. I decided after the first such quiz to allow students who earned 7/10 or less an opportunity to do corrections. I mentioned this policy to my class, and one of my students pointed out he wasn’t sure it was fair for those who earned an 8/10 or better not to have a shot as well. I wasn’t sure if earning back one or two points would make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, but I acknowledged he was right and said anybody could do corrections. Not all of my students opt to do so. Many of them do, however, and after a couple of rounds of quizzes, I’m really pleased that I decided to allow students to do corrections and also that I listened to my student’s feedback about broadening the policy. Analyzing where they went wrong and determining why the correct answer is indeed correct will help them build their analysis skills so that they will perform better on the exam. Even if they opt not to take the exam, it will serve them well in terms of helping them analyze the questions more critically.

Just as an example of the thinking that students do on these quizzes, I offer the following examples. Students were quizzed over the passage near the end of King Lear (5.3) when Edgar is filling in the others on where he has been and what he’s been doing. He says, “List a brief tale, / And when ’tis told, O, that my heart would burst!”

One question on the quiz asked

“The word “list” in line 2 means”

  1. Tell.

  2. Enumerate.

  3. Count.

  4. Listen.

  5. Cunning.

Many students missed this question because “list” is used today more like “B. Enumerate.” However, in the context of the quote, that answer doesn’t make sense, and that particular answer did not prove to be the distractor, as I assumed it would be. Students seemed able to eliminate both “C. Count” and “E. Cunning” with no trouble. They had a little more trouble with the one I thought they would NOT be confused by because Edgar tells his story, so why would he be asking Albany to “A. Tell” a story?

From one student who gave the answer “A. Tell,” his reasoning:

The answer should be D—listen—because it makes more sense for Edgar to be instructing Albany to hear a tale rather than having him tell one, especially when Edgar goes on to tell his story. It caught me off guard a little because I thought that “tell” fit best grammatically, but the idea was wrong.

I thought his reasoning was really interesting and showed a lot of insight into why it might have tripped the students up. He is right: “tell” does fit best grammatically. It might be better to say “listen to” for D to work grammatically, but the answer is, indeed, D, as the student reasoned, and for the reasons he describes.

Another student who missed the same question and provided the same incorrect answer said the following in her correction:

In line 2 it says “List a brief tale, And when ’tis told, O, that my heart would burst.” Here list means to listen, because then it continues on to say when I am done telling my story my heart will burst. It does not make sense for list to mean tell because within the same sentence it says when its [sic] done being told, therefore it wouldn’t make sense to “tell” a story when it is being “told.”

I see what she’s saying, and I think she understands how she went wrong based on what she says in the first part, though it might be more accurate for her to say it doesn’t make sense for Edgar to ask Albany to “tell” him a tale when he then goes on to tell one himself.

A third example from a student who also chose the same answer, “A. Tell”:

Although I initially chose A., the correct answer is D. Although “Listing” and “telling” are both highly synonymous words, the context makes it clear that Edgar is not ordering that the story is being told: “List a brief tale / And when ’tis told, O, that my heart would burst (Lines 1-2). If Edgar was ordering that the story be told, then he would speak in the 2nd person, i. e. “And when thou tells it.” The term “tell” and “enumerate” are also soullessly [sic] synonymous that there would not be now a clear answer if either A. or B. had been chosen.

This student clearly reasons through why he was confused, and it has more to do with the answer I thought would be the distractor: “B. Enumerate.”

One last example:

The reason I put “A. Tell” for this one is because at the end of the sentence Edgar says, “List a brief tale, / And when ’tis told” when I saw “told” I figured “List” was another way of saying “tell.” Before I went and second guessed myself I thought the correct answer was “D. Listen,” evident on my quiz because it was the only other answer I didn’t cross off. “Listen” makes more sense in the context of the statement.

This last student gets to one of the most common reasons students make errors with multiple choice questions: they second-guess themselves and think their first hunches are wrong.

I am learning some really interesting things about my students’ thinking by reading through their quiz corrections. Ultimately, I think it’s great for them to think through why they answered incorrectly and explain why the correct answer is the best answer. It will help them approach these questions with more confidence in the future. I am not concerned about any sort of artificial inflation. I asked myself if I was more concerned about grades or whether or not students learned the material. Since the answer for me is obviously the latter, then I’m happy to give them points back for thinking through their mistakes.

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The AP Audit

audit photo
Photo by LendingMemo

Today, I uploaded my AP audit syllabus. What a lot of work. I have been working on this syllabus since about July. I was extremely lucky to have my colleague Cindy Sabik’s AP syllabus from several years ago, which helped me quite a bit, but ultimately, I had to make the audit syllabus my own. I organized it by thematic units, and I have to admit I found Literature & Composition: Reading – Writing – Thinking edited by Carol Jago et. al. extremely helpful in my planning because it, too, is organized by theme, and was invaluable in helping me think about directions in which I might take my class.

I created essential questions for each unit, and I organized a list of authors for shorter works and poetry as well as assessments. I really am crossing my fingers. The materials for the AP audit are lengthy, and though I checked everything against the checklist and think I’ve built a solid syllabus (which actually goes beyond my AP training instructor’s syllabus, which was approved), I will breathe much easier when I find out whether or not the College Board has accepted it.

My AP class has been on my mind. I only meet with my classes three days per week—two 75-minute periods and one 65-minute period. A couple of weeks ago, we had a holiday on Monday and a testing/community service/college visit day on Wednesday—which are the days my 75-minute AP classes meet. We only had one 65-minute class that week, which was devoted to writing workshop of some rumination essays my students had written. I looked at the calendar and realized we needed to get an out-of-class essay in before progress reports. The rumination essay is an assignment I learned about at Kenyon this summer. My instructor, Emily Moore, assigns it to her students and shared the instructions with us. It is a combination of a literary analysis and personal narrative in which students select a quote, analyze it and put it in context, and then connect it to a personal experience. Because I didn’t come up with this assignment, I’ll link you to Stuyvesant High School’s resources for the paper (Emily teaches at Stuyvesant).

My students are currently reading King Lear and A Thousand Acres. I was really impressed with the ways in which students connected to the text in their essays, and because of the nature of the assignment, we didn’t have to have finished reading the play in order to write something substantial. I must admit, I was particularly proud of one of my students, who was also in my regular American literature class last year. He was a most reflective writer, and he quickly emerged as a strong student in that class. I recommended that he try AP this year, and of course, I was thrilled to see him on my roster. He told me recently that he is really enjoying the class. His rumination essay was simply outstanding.

However, in spite of some successes, I have still been worried about the pacing of the course. I fretted about whether I was going too slowly. I was concerned that giving students a play and a novel (and an hard play, to be honest) at the same time as they are completing college applications might be a lot, so I set the pace for reading at an act a week (in class, in small groups), while students read the novel outside of class. I grew concerned that some of my students were not being challenged. I discussed my concerns with two colleagues who also teach AP, and one gave me the obvious and insightful suggestion to simply ask the kids how the pacing was working. Of course. So I did, and they assured me the pace felt “just right” to them.

Whew.

In the same class, we discussed revising and editing their rumination essays and also doing quiz corrections for an AP-style multiple choice quiz I gave them. I suggested if they scored 7/10 or lower, they might do corrections to earn back points. One student asked if that were not unfair to students who earned 8 or 9. I said that I didn’t think two points would make a lot of difference in an overall grade, which was where I came up with my idea about 7/10, but I said he had a point, too. If students want to make corrections and think it will be a valuable use of their time to earn back two points, why not? After all, it’s their learning.

I have to say I’m learning a lot teaching this course, and I am really enjoying it. We have a really democratic classroom, and the students are a lot of fun. I am really enjoying watching and helping them learn. I am so glad I took the time to check in with my students about the class this week. I need to make time to do it on a regular basis. I invited their feedback and shared partly I need their help because I’m new to this, and partly, I really value their comments about the learning. After all, aren’t students are the best kind of AP auditors?

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Slice of Life #12: The N-Word

Slice of LifeI started The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my juniors today, and I always like to begin study of this novel with a frank discussion of the repeated use of the n-word. In a book that uses the word over 200 times, students will be confronted with it often. I wrote the word on the board followed by some quickwrite questions, and as the students settled in their seats and looked up, there were quite a few exclamations and audible gasps. They confessed they thought I’d lost my mind for a minute.

I learned some really interesting things from my students today. The first is that one student has heard the n-word used as a verb that means something like “played a dirty trick,” as in “He really n-d that guy.” I have never heard that use before. Other students shared (and I admit students share this idea often when I teach the book) that the connotation seems different to them when the word is spelled out “n-er” versus “n-a.” I try to wrap my head around that idea, but I admit I don’t have a lot of luck.

We read an essay by Gloria Naylor about a time when a little boy called her the n-word when she was in third grade, and we read Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” which seems simple on the surface, but packs a punch. We also watched part of a segment from the program 60 Minutes on the NewSouth books publication that expurgated the n-word from the novel and substituted it with “slave.” The discussion is a powerful and important one to have prior to reading this novel, I think, but I have two observations:

  1. My students don’t know enough about what is going on in the news and the #blacklivesmatter movement. At all. We are going to talk about it, and if I need to, I’ll bring in the news articles. But I admit to wondering why they don’t know what is happening.
  2. The controversy surrounding this book, 130 years from its publication, which has been a part of the book’s history for the entirety of its existence, still manages to provoke thought and debate. It might be one of the most consistently relevant books written.

I close with a great quote from the preface of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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Slice of Life #11: The Year of Lear

Slice of LifeI haven’t taught King Lear in a few years, but my AP students are reading it alongside Jane Smiley’s modern adaptation, A Thousand Acres. I so enjoyed returning to this play, which is one of my favorites. As students read, they are creating character maps with the twinned characters in each work, detailing which characters are allied with Lear (or at least have his best interests at heart), and which ones are his enemies. At the end of the play, students will create a literary reduction.

A quick Google search of the term “literary reduction” doesn’t yield fruitful results. I learned about reductions from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, who has used them in her own English classes. Essentially, students create graphic representations of what they have learned. Using a standard 8½ x 11-inch sheet of paper, students  distill the essence of the work by organizing quotes, ideas, images, and connections from a work of literature. My students are working in groups focusing on four different themes in the play. They will create reductions based on these themes, so as they read, they are looking for quotes that connect to their themes.

Look what I received in the mail today:

The Year of Lear

I’m so excited for this book. I absolutely loved James Shapiro’s other books A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, and given that I am currently teaching Lear and have often taught Macbeth, I expect I will learn a great deal from this book. Actually, I’ve just read the first chapter, and the first thing I wanted to do was go back in time and do Monday’s class over again. Ah well, I can still share what I’ve learned with my students tomorrow. Shakespeare is a deep well, and even when I think I know just about everything, I plumb a little deeper and uncover something new. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 looks like a great addition to my learning library.

Later this week, I will be presenting on writing workshop in my classes at OESIS (Online Education Symposia for Independent Schools) in Boston. Here is my presentation (for the curious). I want to share one interesting finding. My students use Google Docs to write, and I selected an assignment from the end of last year at random from which to draw some data. I selected an assignment from the end of the year because at that stage, students were acclimated to the workshop process. Students wrote an analysis of Macbeth. I examined how many edits they made to their essays. Keeping in mind that not every single edit is a substantial change, each edit does represent a different time that students opened the document and made some changes. Google Docs saves work every few seconds, but that does not mean a new version is created every few seconds. If you do want to see these more detailed revisions, you can click the button that says “Show more detailed revisions.” Students must stop working and return to the document after some time has passed for it to count as a new version. With that caveat in mind, here are some figures:

  • Students made an average of 8.79 edits on this one assignment.
  • One student made only two edits, but I suspect he wrote his essay in Word and pasted it later.
  • One student made 19 edits.
  • All of the students who made 12 or more edits are currently taking AP-level classes. They were not in an Honors class last year.

Even if each edit was not substantial, I admit I was blown away by these numbers.  It’s entirely possible students were making the same number of edits before I introduced writing workshop / in-depth critique to my classes (but I doubt it). It’s also possible that when students use Word, they make just as many changes, but I can’t see them because there is no revision history available for me to see. This kind of data is just one more reason, in my mind, to use Google Docs.

Just as an experiment, I decided to take a closer look at the student who made 19 edits. His last edit was insertion of a citation and a few word choice tweaks. The previous edit included removing a block quote and adding the evidence to a different part of the essay (and integrating it more tightly), deleting a sentence, lots of word choice tweaks, and reworking his conclusion. The edit previous to this one included the addition of three sentences and the deletion of two others. The previous edit included quite a lot of revision of the first page of the essay—lots of additions and deletions. The previous edit was minor, including only a sentence and a few punctuation marks. Over time, it’s interesting to see the way the essay took final shape.

In our last department meeting, we were discussing writing and the ways in which our school has embraced writing workshop, and one department member shared that he feels that students seem to understand how to revise and edit better than they had in the past. In addition, bringing writing in to the peer editing club has carried a bit of a stigma in the past, but now, he added, it’s just something that you do to improve your work. I couldn’t be happier that the work we are doing is bearing such fruit. When you treat students like writers, including emphasizing the process and teaching them to edit, they become better writers.

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Dickinson and Diction

Emily Dickinson House

Last weekend, I presented at a digital storytelling conference in the Northampton/Amherst area, so I took the opportunity to visit Emily Dickinson’s house, now a museum.

Photographs are not allowed inside the house, so I can’t give you a tour, but I would really encourage you to visit if you find yourself in western Massachusetts. I took a docent-led tour of Dickinson’s house, but you can also take a longer tour that includes her brother’s home next door as well. My favorite part of the tour was upstairs. On the stairs’ landing is a replica of Emily Dickinson’s dress. The light shines through the window just right, and it looks almost ethereal. In Dickinson’s bedroom, the docent told us that the room had recently been renovated to include several items that were not previously there and new wallpaper that is a reproduction of the actual paper Dickinson had in the room. Her own sleigh bed is there. I was fascinated to learn Dickinson had pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning hanging in her room. Whether those pictures currently hanging in the room are the same ones or not, I don’t know, but Dickinson’s niece attested to the fact that she had pictures of these two women writers hanging in her room.

Across from Dickinson’s bedroom is an empty room with two poetry installations. One examines many ways in which Dickinson’s poetry stands apart from other poetry—slant rhyme, ballad meter, and diction. The other examines a poem with alternative word choices. The poem is Fr 1469 “A Chilly Peace infests the Grass.” (Fr is the R. W. Franklin number for the poem, and along with Johnson’s edition, is considered a restored, authoritative edition.) In the installation, there are sliders installed so that you can examine the alternative word choices Dickinson was thinking of for some of the words. For “Chilly,” she also considered “lonesome—” and “warning—.” I kind of like the effect of “warning—” myself. There is no final copy of this poem, and it wasn’t published (as many were not), so we don’t know what Dickinson ultimately decided for the poem. Of course, it gave me a great idea for a lesson. I was extremely sad not to be able to take pictures in the museum at that moment, but in speaking with the docent, and taking notes, I did walk away with a good lesson plan, and I was later able to find enough information online to create a good lesson plan.

Caveat: The Franklin edition poems are copyrighted, as are the Johnson editions, so I can’t post what I created, but the limited preview edition of the three-volume Variorum Edition edited by Franklin does include this poem. Be mindful of the copyright. It is probably fair use to use it in your classroom, but it wouldn’t be fair use to distribute the poem online, I don’t think.

Anyway, I re-created the diction variations for this poem using Smart Notebook software so students can interact with the different word choices like I could when I visited the museum. Later, I found this lesson by Cynthia Storrs on the museum website that is extremely similar to my own idea (only much more fleshed out in that Storrs considers other poems as well). After reading Storrs’s lesson, I added the poem Fr 124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—,” which Dickinson appears to have edited extensively. It’s been suggested that she was never really quite happy with it. You can read two substantially different versions on Poets.org’s site. Incidentally, this poem is one of the few published in Dickinson’s lifetime, and she still continued to edit it after publication, so even publication cannot be considered the final word on word choice. I also added Fr 598 “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” as an introductory piece in the lesson, as it had only two alternative word choices. I had forgotten how much I loved that poem. I hadn’t read it in many years.

I don’t believe I’ll execute my lesson in exactly the same way as Storrs has written it. I plan to begin by asking students to journal about the question “How much does word choice really matter?” I did rather like Storrs’s essential questions, so I will borrow those. After a review of what “diction” is, I plan to display Fr 598 and allow students to examine the effect of the two alternate word choices. What is the effect? Which do they like better and why? Next will be the interactive version of Fr 1469. Students will be able to manipulate the word choices. I emailed our math chair to help me with the math, and he walked me through the reasoning (it’s been a long time since I did this). Considering all the word choices Emily Dickinson considered for this poem, there are potentially 120 different versions of that poem. Finally, I will have students examine Fr 124 in some detail, and perhaps with a partner or small group, much as Storrs describes in her lesson.

Prior to this lesson, I will ask students to write poetry of their own (this part is not fully formed in my head yet). They will think about alternative word choices in their own poems and workshop the poems with these alternate word choices.

I wish I’d been able to be in Amherst this weekend, as it was a Poetry Festival. I was definitely inspired by my visit. I’m lucky to live in what is essentially the cradle of American literature, and visiting Dickinson’s house made me realize there are probably similar lesson ideas an opportunities waiting out there for every other New England writer I could think of. I have some work to do. I ran right out and bought the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson and White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple.

A few more pictures before I go.

"Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus)

This gorgeous flower was in Dickinson’s garden. The label says, “Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus). I immediately thought of Shug saying that it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple and don’t notice it.

Emily Dickinson's Grave

Emily Dickinson’s grave is only a short walk from her house, so of course, I had to stop by and pay my respects. I placed one of those stones there. I had to wonder how often the caretakers remove these items.

Dickinson Graves

The Dickinson family plot is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. This plaque is on the gate. There is a tree growing in the plot. I am no botanist for sure, but I suspect it’s a yew tree. Can anyone confirm?

Dickinson family plot

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