Category Archives: Teaching Literature

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.


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’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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Shakespeare: To Teach or Not to Teach

shakespeare photo I have seen an op-ed published in The Washington Post come across my Facebook feed two or three times now, so even though I knew I wouldn’t agree with it, I decided to read it. You can read the original article here: “Why I don’t want to assign Shakespeare anymore (even though he’s in the Common Core)” and a pretty good rebuttal here: “Why it is ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare in school.”

A few thoughts occurred to me as I read the articles. First, Shakespeare may indeed be guilty of being a dead white male, but his writing does include a profound understanding of humanity that I would argue has not changed as much as we might think. Shakespeare deals with matters of family, race, religion, politics, and love. If he were not Shakespeare, truthfully, many of his plays would be challenged (if not banned) in classrooms because of the themes they explore. Othello was taught when it was not legal for people of different races to marry in some parts of this country. It’s a little scary how often the plot of Macbeth seems to be borrowed by those who wield power. What about the fact that inmates studying Hamlet saw themselves in its characters? Jack Hitt, who covered Prison Performing Arts’ work in “Act V,” an episode of This American Life, quoted inmate Derek “Big Hutch” Hutchinson,

Once Hutch got on this riff he kept going. “Denmark’s a prison,” Hamlet tells Rosencrantz in Act Two. And Hutch says you could do a version of the play that takes this central metaphor literally. All the characters in the play are types he sees in the yard every day. The Claudiuses, who’ll do anything for the emblems of power—money, drugs, high-end tennis shoes, Poloniuses who kiss up to the powerful, Rosencrantz and Guildensterns—rats, he called them—spies who run to the administration with information.

James Word, cast as Laertes in the production that Hitt profiles, says, “I am Laertes. I am. I am.” He found himself in the performance of Laertes, and he concluded,

[I]t was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt. It was like the day my daughter was born. And it made me want to be better. Not just in acting. I mean, it just opened up a whole world for me. Like man, if I apply myself, I can pretty much do whatever I want.

I have seen students connect just as powerfully to Shakespeare as Derek Hutchinson and James Word did. They see themselves in the characters. We all do.

My hunch is that Dana Dusbiber, author of the original article, hasn’t discovered performance-based teaching methods yet, and I would love it if the Folger reached out to her and invited her to participate in a Teaching Shakespeare Institute. I know I sound a bit like an evangelist for the Folger, but honestly, their TSI is some of the best and most transformative PD I have ever experienced, and I hear that from everyone else who has done it, too. The best way to get students to understand and even to like Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, with his language coming out of their mouths. They will figure out what is happening and what words mean when they need to perform. Students want to read Shakespeare. It might seem counterintuitive to make that argument, given the challenges that Shakespeare presents, but my experience has been that students enjoy the challenge, and when they meet it, they feel the accomplishment.

Another argument Dusbiber makes reduces teaching Shakespeare to an either/or proposition—we do not have to chuck Shakespeare in order to be inclusive of diverse authors. He does not speak only to those who lived in his own time or else he would not have endured. Ben Jonson couldn’t have known how prescient he would be when he wrote that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time.”

When speaking about the language Shakespeare used in Hamlet, Chris Harris, who was profiled in the episode of “Act V” I mentioned before, said,

The sea-gown scarf’d about me is the fog. I’m out at night. And it’s the flow of the words. Up from my cabin, sea-gown scarf’d about me, groped I in the dark to find out them. Shakespeare really put some work in this. And this is the only play I’ve really studied from him. But he really is good.

I just don’t believe the argument that Shakespeare doesn’t speak to us today. I have seen too much evidence to the contrary. I have seen teenagers connect to Shakespeare when they connected to nothing else. This school year, in fact, I had a student who absolutely loved reading Macbeth, and he was more engaged in the study of that play than in anything else we did all year.

Another argument in the article, made more by Valerie Strauss than by Dusbiber, is that English majors don’t study Shakespeare as much in college these days. I really don’t understand why that argument is made. Is “you will see it in college” the only reason to study anything? We are preparing students for life, and I think Shakespeare is excellent preparation for many of the issues we will confront in life. At some point, we may feel like King Lear, at the mercy of loved ones who disregard us. Many of us have felt like Romeo and Juliet, desperate to cling to a first love. That is life, and that is the business of Shakespeare—to portray us as we are. The argument about college is trotted out quite a lot, from assessment methods to using lecture in instruction. College is four years. Students need to learn to read, write, and think for life. I have seen the argument of what is or is not done in college given too much weight, particularly from people who don’t really seem to know exactly what is done in college now—just what they remember was done when they went to college.

But of course, that argument is beside the point because the article Strauss linked doesn’t even say that English majors are not studying Shakespeare (despite the deceptive headline). What the article does say is that entire courses on just the Bard are not often required. Big difference. I happened to have taken a Shakespeare course in college, and it was lousy (unfortunately). It is possible to teach Shakespeare in a way that turns people off, and I suspect that may be what happened in the case of Dusbiber.

One argument Dusbiber makes is true: no, we should not keep doing something because it has “always been done that way.” That is why I think performance-based teaching of Shakespeare is so crucial. It is not teaching Shakespeare the same old way. I am guilty of being one of the white teachers Dusbiber decries who will “ALWAYS teach Shakespeare.” The author of the rebuttal, Matthew Truesdale, introduces an interesting metaphor of literature as both a mirror and a window. I love it. I have often made the argument that we read to understand who we are as people, and that literature is a mirror that reflects who we are, but Truesdale is right. It’s a window, too, and an excellent way to learn about what we are not and what we could be in addition to what we are.

Should we include diverse voices in the classroom? Absolutely. Should students be choosing more of their reading? Yes. I don’t think that doing either of these things means that Shakespeare must go, however. It’s long past time for us to think about our approach to teaching Shakespeare, though.

If nothing else, these op-eds have inspired me to get going on planning my King Lear unit for my AP course. And I just got out of school for the summer.

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American Literature: How I Threw Out the Chronology and Embraced the Themes

america photoIf you went to an American high school, I’ll bet your high school had an American literature course. Other courses seem to vary based on type of school, location, and other interests, but American literature seems to be the one universal course. I know it’s the only literature course that all the high schools where I have taught have in common. After all, it makes sense, right? American high school students should study the literature of their country. One would expect British high school students to study British literature and Chinese high school students to study Chinese literature and so on.

Many students seem to take this course in 10th or, more commonly, in 11th grade. My school requires American Studies in Literature for most 11th graders. I have taught an American literature course for a large chunk of my teaching career. Typically, the schools I have worked in have had an American literature anthology such as one of the following:

At one time or another, I think I’ve used all of these books in one of their incarnations. The latest editions I used had lots of nice glossy pictures and references to standards, reading questions, and lots of introductory reading material. I think they are all pretty much arranged chronologically, and therein lies the problem. It’s tempting to rely on the way the textbook is laid out when teaching. Grant Wiggins says in his blog post “How do you plan? redux” (emphasis mine):

For myself, I haven’t ever been a slave to a textbook, and go through the process you describe every time I get a new course, constantly revisiting as I move through the year. I always find that I still go too fast the first year, then slow it way back the second, and then pull in subjects slowly as I get better at designing the course. I encourage all other teachers to do the same. My coworkers are always taken aback when they ask me what chapter I’m on and I say, I don’t do chapters.

The easy thing to do is to use the textbook as the plan, but this year, I ditched the textbook, and it was liberating. Instead of marching chronologically through American literature, starting with the Puritans and perhaps a few token Native American pieces and trying to get through as much as possible before stalling out around the 1940’s or so at the end of the school year, I spent a lot of time last summer designing the American literature course I’m teaching from the bottom. I discovered some really interesting things, too, and it entirely changed the way I approached teaching the subject.

Instead of thinking about the texts, I thought about the themes. The themes that immediately came to mind are the American Dream, the American Identity, and Civil Disobedience. I gave it some thought and wound up with the following themes in the end:

  • This Land is Your Land: The American Identity
  • Song of Myself: Individuality, Conformity, and and Society
  • American Dreams and Nightmares
  • In Search of America

For the unit I called This Land is Your Land: The American Identity, I wrote the following essential questions:

  • What is an “American”?
  • How is an American identity created?
  • Why have people come to America, and why do they continue to come to America?

Then I decided the works of literature we would study would need to respond in some way to these questions, so the final unit included works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but also a short piece from Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club usually titled “The Rules of the Game.” We read the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. We read poetry like Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” Hughes’s “I, Too,” and McKay’s “America.”

The unit took quite a long time, so the first thing I plan to do this summer is examine the whole year and see what reorganizing I can do.

The second unit, “Song of Myself: Identity, Conformity, and Society” included essential questions:

  • How has the concept of civil disobedience influenced America?
  • What is the role of the individual in society?
  • What is good for the community? What are implications for individuals?
  • Why do people conform? Why do others choose not to conform? What happens as a result of these choices?

The unit includes readings such as Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and works by Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes, and Emerson.

The third unit, “American Dreams and Nightmares” includes the following essential questions:

  • What is the American dream? To what extent is it achievable by all? What values does it reflect?
  • Is America a classless society?
  • Can we repeat the past?

We will read The Great Gatsby as a centerpiece and will explore a wide variety of poets from Eliot to Simon and Garfunkel and from Frost to Baraka.

The final short unit will explore the lure of the American highway:

  • Is the journey as important as the destination?
  • How do we relate to our families, communities, and society? To what extent is each relationship important?
  • How do our personal journeys shape who we become?

We will read short works by Welty, Hughes, Frost, Simon and Garfunkel, and Giovanni, but the bulk of the unit will be a digital storytelling project we have been gearing up for with a focus on storytelling that has run through the year, including This American Life, among other texts. Whatever happens, even if I have to chuck out literature I would love the students to study, that digital storytelling project is happening.

One thing I discovered as I planned the year is that without the constraints of a chronology, I felt free to explore works I might never otherwise have chosen, but which define or illustrate the themes quite well and perhaps say more about who we are as a people than works I might have taught in a chronology.

I strongly believe that literature is a mirror. We see ourselves reflected in what we read, and we either connect or don’t connect based on what we see. Using this process, it was my hope that I would choose works that my students could find themselves in but would also still help them understand who and what America is. I felt Barack Obama articulated well what I was trying to create in his speech at Selma.

Obama Selma WordcloudWe are a great country, and we can be greater still if we are willing to take a hard look at ourselves in that mirror.

I discovered that the thematic thinking showed more of an arc—it told the story of America and allowed for more diversity in the literature. I ran across this 100-year-old article in English Journal today when I was poking around online: “Required American Literature” by Nellie A. Stephenson. The first sentence killed me (in the sense that Holden Caulfield means).

For the last ten years I have been slowly gathering the impression that graduates of American colleges and American public high schools are appallingly ignorant of American literature.

Admit it. This person is in your department. She goes on to argue that she thinks too much emphasis is placed on English literature to the detriment of studying American literature (with little data aside from anecdotal impressions) to support her assertion. But rather than “exploding the canon,” she really only argues for establishing a new American canon. Among her essentials are Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman, Samuel Sewell, and John Woolman. Are they on your list? By the way, no references in the article to women writers or, for that matter, any writers besides white men. And therein lies the problem with the textbooks. If we rely on them, we let them tell us who is important. To be sure, many of the texts I chose for my course are also canonical, but I also made an attempt to bring in non-canonical works and writers with a large diversity of backgrounds and time periods (more modern literature always seemed to get the short shrift from me in the past).

What I need to work on now is paring the list down and offering more choices to students. I was struck the other day in speaking with a young teacher who explained that he didn’t much like to read when he was our students’ age because he wasn’t offered a lot of choice, so he didn’t know what he liked to read. Instead, he either read (or pretended to read) the required texts in school. My own high school experience was strange because I went to three different high schools, and as a result, my background in literature was patchy. I hadn’t read all the literature you were supposed to have read. And I still went on to read it later and become an English teacher. I just don’t buy the argument that we have to read certain texts in high school. I think if we really want to read them, we will come to them when we are ready. Or maybe we don’t read them, and the world doesn’t end.

Perhaps we teach the chronology because that’s what we have always done. Perhaps we do it because it makes organizing the curriculum easy. Perhaps we do it because our books are arranged that way. We should think about why we are doing it. If we threw out the book, how would we teach the American literature? Or any course, for that matter?

One thing for sure: there is not enough time in the world to teach all the literature worth reading. There is not even enough time to read all the literature worth reading. The best we can do is remember the dictum of that great teacher, Socrates (or at least attributed to him): “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

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Falling in Love with Close Reading: Chapters 1 and 2

I apologize for not getting this first post up sooner. I have been having some problems with my blog. I just installed a plugin that I hope will help prevent some of the slowness and page load issues you might have noticed. However, I used a similar plugin some years ago, and it totally messed up my blog, so if you notice something technically amiss, please let me know. On to the discussion of  Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts—and Life.

In chapter one, Lehman and Roberts discuss New Criticism, suggesting that close reading really emerged for the first time as a means of “trying to tune out everything else while looking at the style, words, meter, structure, and so on, of a piece of writing” (2). They go on to discuss the other styles of literary critique that emerged either at the same time as or after New Criticism. It reminds me of something very interesting Jasper Fforde once said at a reading. Jasper Fforde is, if you haven’t heard of him, the writer of the popular Thursday Next series, and honestly, if you are a book nerd of any stripe, you should check out those books—especially the first few. Anyway, this was right after his dystopian novel Shades of Grey came out (not to be confused with the 50 shades variety). In this novel, people can only see one color, so they stratify society based on what color they can see. People who can see only grey are at the bottom. One person at the reading asked Fforde if he was trying to make a comment about racism with the novel. He said truthfully that he hadn’t thought about it, but then he went on to describe reading as a highly creative act. He added that a book only belongs to an author as long as he/she hasn’t shown it to anyone. After that, it belongs to the reader, too, and the reader brings everything he/she has read, experienced, or thought to bear on that book as well. It’s one of my favorite things anyone has ever said. I think it’s true that two people can read entirely different books. In fact, one person can read an entirely different book—I have read books at different times in my life and had very different reactions to them.

Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent, but I feel strongly that we can’t cut the reader out of equation. The reader is possibly more important to me than the author’s life (though I do find I discuss biography more with students when it seems more obvious to me that the author’s life impacted the work in some significant ways).

Lehman and Roberts go on to discuss the place of close reading in the CCSS. I think the bottom of page 3 is the first time I’ve ever seen a tweet cited! It’s interesting to think about the ways in which social media will impact the way we write and what we write about.

One thing I do like about this book is the cutaway figures that pull out the essentials: the definition of close reading on p. 4, the central tenets of close reading instruction on p. 5, and so on. It is helpful to have the big ideas emphasized.

Lehman and Roberts describe the structure they advocate for teaching close reading as a sort of “ritual,” and I like that thinking (7). The ritual involves

  1. Reading through lenses.
  2. Finding patterns.
  3. Using the patterns to understand the text.

When I taught Things Fall Apart for the first time, I feared my students would have a lot of trouble relating to Okonkwo and would probably dislike him quite a great deal. I don’t like him, truth be told, but I am able to sympathize with his plight. Achebe lays that foundation to help us see as readers where Okonkwo’s failings come from. But teenagers are much more critical and have a more difficult time with the other person’s point of view. So I decided that perhaps the way we should read the novel is in a detached way. We took on the role of anthropologists, studying the Ibo (Igbo), and we each picked a lens that interested us: gender, religion, farming, etc. We paid attention to what we could learn about the culture’s beliefs through our chosen lens. I think the students found the book more interesting, and they were able to think perhaps a bit more like scientists.

You know, you don’t have to like the protagonist to like a book. It took me a while to figure that out, as I think it takes most readers a while to figure it out. I love Lolita, for instance, and Wuthering Heights, but I hate the protagonists in those books. I think often times, teenagers have difficulty with books that have antiheroes or unlikeable protagonists because they really want to like and to root for the protagonist. But teaching students to read through lenses and to get at what a character wants and thinks, and what motivates a character, really helps students go beyond a simple gut connection with the lead character.

Chapter 2 of the book takes the reader through the process of the ritual Lehman and Roberts mention in chapter 1. I was struck by how similar the process for close reading is to “close looking.” I recently took an Art and Inquiry course through MoMA online with Coursera (great course), and one of the techniques for encouraging inquiry is to ask students what they notice and keep probing. The MoMA does this with student visitors. Questioning students about what they notice is akin to the strategy Lehman and Roberts describe as gathering evidence and then developing an idea (12).

Sprinkled throughout the book are QR codes linked to websites and other media mentioned in the text. Scanning a QR code leaves less margin for error than trying to type in a URL, and I rather like the idea that the book feels more dynamic. Obviously, the changing nature of the web will mean that down the road, the codes might not direct to the right link anymore, but it’s a good idea until we figure out how to put dynamic links in a static book.

I’m not sure I’d have chosen the same song to introduce students to close reading (see page 14), but that’s just me. I might not do a song at all. No reason not to do a poem. I assume the song choice was an attempt to connect to the students using music they like, but my experience is that Justin Bieber is a polarizing figure, and aside from that, I mean, the lyrics are not poetry (not that Lehman and Roberts are trying to convince us that they are poetry—just using them as a vehicle for teaching their close reading approach). In fact, they go on to say that choosing a less challenging text when teaching this ritual is helpful because of the confidence it gives students. It also helps the teachers pinpoint which close reading skills students are struggling with (as opposed to struggling with comprehension). I can get behind that logic.

Lehman and Roberts then include a model for the instruction of the ritual on pp. 17-24. I found the model helpful as it drilled down to each part of the close reading ritual to show what teaching it to students could look like. Then, on pp. 25-27, Lehman and Roberts apply the model to informational texts. I found this model helpful, as many books on teaching reading skimp on informational reading.

Lehman and Roberts advise teachers to “plan to pay careful attention to what [the students] produce when working independently” (27). They provide a helpful chart for revising our thinking about a reading and additional tools for providing extra support to students—using conversation (small group discussion) to evaluate evidence, ranking evidence in terms of which details best support students’ thinking, and teaching students when to close read for evidence (29). In addition, and also helpful, is a list of tools for challenging more advanced students: expanding lenses, seeking out contrasting patterns, and using analytical lenses (29).

The chapter closes with a discussion of close reading details in our lives, which I found helpful in thinking about the digital storytelling project I’d like to do with my juniors this year. I scanned the QR code on p. 31 and found it linked to a StoryCorps recording that would be perfect to share with my students as they create their digital stories. I hadn’t thought about doing close readings of the models I might provide for students preparing to create digital stories, but it makes perfect sense.

Please share your thoughts about the chapters in the comments below. Let’s discuss!

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Falling in Love with Close Reading: First Discussion

I apologize for dragging my feet starting our study of Lehman and Roberts’s  Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts—and Life.

I propose that we read the first two chapters this week and gather here to discuss them next Sunday, August 3. I know we’re butting up into the beginning of school for some folks. I just had a really hectic July, and I wasn’t able to get us started. I’m all set now. Let’s go!

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Summer PD Reading Book Club

Some of you may remember that I have hosted summer PD reading in the past. I hope to get another summer PD reading book club off the ground this summer. I have narrowed the selections down to three choices:

Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts—and Life by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts:

Falling in Love with Close Reading shows that studying text closely can be rigorous, meaningful, and joyous. You’ll empower students to not only analyze texts but to admire the craft of a beloved book, study favorite songs and video games, and challenge peers in evidence-based discussions. Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts offer a clear, fresh approach to close reading that students can use independently and with any text. Falling in Love with Close Reading helps you guide students to independence and support the transfer of analytical skills to media and their lives with lessons that include:

    • strategies for close reading narratives, informational texts, and arguments.
    • suggestions for differentiation
    • sample charts and student work from real classrooms
    • connections to the Common Core
    • a focus on “reading” media and life closely

Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

Just as rigor does not reside in the barbell but in the act of lifting it, rigor in reading is not an attribute of a text but rather of a reader’s behavior—engaged, observant, responsive, questioning, analytical. The close reading Strategies in Notice & Note will help you cultivate those critical reading habits that will make your students more attentive, thoughtful, independent readers. In this timely and practical guide, Kylene and Bob:

  • examine the new emphasis on text-dependent questions, rigor, text complexity, and what it means to be literate in the 21st century
  • identify 6 signposts that help readers notice significant moments in a work of literature
  • provide 6 text-dependent anchor questions that help readers take note and read more closely
  • offer 6 Notice and Note model lessons that help you introduce each signpost to your students

Fearless Writing: Multigenre to Motivate and Inspire by Tom Romano

What does it mean to write fearlessly? Tom Romano illustrates the power of multigenre papers to push students beyond the “safety zone” of narrative and exposition into a place where fact meets imagination, and research meets creativity. A place to try the untried. Fearless Writing empowers students to leap into this personal, multifaceted take on research writing by giving you specific strategies and practical ideas to help students:

  • generate topic ideas
  • design research plans
  • develop core elements of a multigenre project
  • create innovative genres and “golden threads” of unifying elements

While multigenre papers address many Common Core standards, Tom’s passionate response to both the strengths and weaknesses of the Common Core serves as a lightning bolt of awareness, and a rallying cry for a writing curriculum of genre diversity. Expand your notion of writing and teaching writing, fearlessly.

While I cannot make promises or offer guarantees, it is possible that I can persuade the writers to become involved in our discussions. We can work out logistics in terms of how we want to conduct the discussions, and if you have suggestions, by all means, share in the comments.

Please vote in the poll if you want to participate. The poll closes on July 5 at midnight, so please share this post with colleagues and friends who might be interested in joining us.

Which book do you want to read?

  • Falling in Love with Close Reading, Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts (39%)
  • Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst (36%)
  • Fearless Writing: Multigenre to Motivate and Inspire, Tom Romano (25%)

Total Votes: 28

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