B is for Books

443545349_fee917a0ca1As teachers of English, one of our goals is that students will become lifelong readers. We hope they will understand that reading is a great tool for understanding the world around us. In the words of Mark Twain, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” We read articles like this one at The Washington Post, and we’re frightened about the future, which is starting to look more and more like this:

Photo by Will Lion

Photo by Will Lion

We are concerned about the state of reading in the world, and we long to foster a lifelong love of reading in our students. But how to do it?

I am afraid that so much of what we do in our English language arts classes kills the desire to read that most students seem to have when they first learn to read in elementary school. I don’t have all the solutions, and I am sure I’ve been a part of the problem at times (for various reasons), but here are some issues I often see:

  • Students don’t read for pleasure. They read what is required (if they read that).
  • Students have no choices about what they read. The most common form of reading seems to be the whole-class literature study (more on that in a minute).
  • Everything students read is assessed. They are accountable for every page.
  • Schools and teachers cram the curriculum with as many texts as possible rather than go deep with fewer texts.
  • The whole-class literature study often focuses on literature that students do not like and have difficulty relating to.
  • Some teachers have trouble helping students find the literature selections relevant to themselves and their world.
  • We don’t allow students to express their opinions about the books (and they should be taught to back those opinions up with textual evidence), so they learn to feel weird if they don’t like the characters or stories.
  • If it’s fun, and they would choose to read it on their own, it tends not to be something we’d consider for classroom reading, and we wind up teaching students that reading is something that is supposed to be hard work instead of hard (or not hard) fun.
  • We tell them what to read over the summer and don’t allow them choices about how to spend their reading “free” time, either.

I don’t know what you remember about elementary school reading, but I remember we were allowed to pick a lot of the books we read. We had a lot of choices. I used to pick audio books about dinosaurs. I listened to them all the time. I liked the audio books because they taught me how to pronounce the dinosaurs’ difficult names correctly. I do remember sometimes sitting in a circle with the teacher and reading stories out of a basal reader, but I don’t remember hating it. Other students for whom learning to read was difficult might have a different memory, however. I chose books all the time, and teachers read books to us, and I really liked that, too.

Partly, we need to do a good job educating parents. They need to read to their children, and they need to model enjoyment of reading for their children. We need to continue to allow students to make choices about their reading as they go through middle and high school. Are they going to choose to read YA fiction? Yes, some of them will. We need to stop thinking of that as some kind of crime. One of the things I detest in some adults is book snobbery. Some adults I know actually look down their noses at readers who like to read genre fiction or comic books. I mean, we all know real readers read Lit-ra-chure (you have to read that word in your poshest, snobbiest accent). I have never met a K-12 student who is a book snob.

I give reading quizzes all the time, but I stopped giving tests some years ago. I don’t find testing students on the details of their reading comprehension after we’ve done a unit to be all that helpful. I use quizzes mainly to make sure students do read, but the questions tend to be open-ended questions about the connections they make and their opinions. I don’t hold them accountable for every page. Do students sometimes not do their reading for my class? Probably. As a result, they don’t have the opportunity to engage in the discussion, and they missed out on a good book. Too bad for them. A student’s education belongs to that student, and they have to be responsible to themselves for choosing not to engage.

Alternative assessments are also fun. One of my favorites is a Cartoon “Did You Read” Quiz (you might need to join the Making Curriculum Pop Ning to see it, but it’s worth it—great Ning). Or why not use quizzes as a chance to engage with the text and characters: “What did you think about the way Okonwo treated Nwoye?” or “Which character do you like best so far and why?” Give students more opportunities to wrestle with the text through Socratic seminar discussions. I just did a Socratic seminar over the first seven chapters of Things Fall Apart this week, and it was amazing. You should have heard the kids speak. Did they read it? Most of them did, and they were quite articulate about what they read. A couple of students missed out. I feel bad for them. It was a really interesting discussion, and they were left out.

Cramming as many texts into a curriculum as we can is meant, I think, to look like rigor, but what winds up happening is that we cover a book more superficially rather than having deep and engaging discussions and writing reflectively about the reading. I don’t agree that we are doing students a favor by “exposing” them to a large number of texts when they can’t delve deeply. If they engage deeply with a fewer number of texts, they will develop a fondness for reading that will lead them to more reading. It would be interesting to do a study some time, but it’s hard because you’d need to have a control group. I’m not volunteering my students, and I can’t think of teachers who would (at least, not intentionally). And so what if they never read Nineteen-Eighty-Four? I haven’t. And I’m still alive. (I do plan to read it at some point, though.)

I admit I love the whole-class literature study, and I do it a lot, but why not try to integrate more choice? Why not literature circles? Why not allow students to pick three Poe stories to read instead of assigning the same ones to each student? Why not allow them to find poems to bring to class to discuss? I think students do benefit from discussing a book with a whole class, but we should think about which selections we teach. The intended audience for many of the novels we teach tends to skew older than our students. I happen to love The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome, but I can see why a tenth grade boy might not. On the other hand, I think some teachers can teach these novels, even to teenagers, and make them relevant and interesting. We need to help students make connections to the characters in the literature they read and to understand the ways in which literature mirrors our society.

Students need opportunities to choose what they read so that they will learn what they like to read. If we choose every single text they read, even their summer reading, when do they have an opportunity to figure that out? And if they don’t like what they read in class, isn’t it logical for them to assume they don’t like reading and choose not to do it after they graduate? I think often we discourage thoughtful criticism of books students read, too. I think students should feel free not to like a book and to express those feelings. We need to teach them to articulate their reasons. “Because it sucks” doesn’t fly, but students should feel safe in expressing their opinions. I struggle with this idea sometimes, too, and my students don’t always love the books I wish they loved. It makes me sad when they don’t love those books. There are a lot of books I don’t love, however, that other people really love. I think we have to let go. In the same way we should stop dictating every reading selection, we should also stop dictating how students should feel about the reading selections. And yes, I do think how one feels about a book is important. We become lifelong readers because of how books make us feel.

I don’t have all the answers, but we should be having conversations about this issues.

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Professional Development Books that Influenced my Teaching Practices

I am asked often enough for recommendations of this sort of thing that I thought I’d share.

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe was the first truly useful and completely life-changing professional development book I read. I utterly altered the way I taught after reading it. It seems obvious to think about larger questions and determine what I want students to learn or be able to do by the end of a lesson or unit, but I wasn’t doing it before I read this book. This book is an essential in project-based learning. Some of my older posts written as I reflected on reading this book still get more traffic than anything else on this blog. Try searching for the tags “ubd” or “understanding by design” to read them.

After reading An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students by Ron Berger this summer, I completely revamped the way I teach writing, and it’s really working well. For more information about writing workshop in my classes, check out these posts: Writing Workshop Part 1, Writing Workshop Part 2, and Writing Workshop Part 3. One of our history teachers and I discussed how this process could be used in his classes as well, and he has begun to implement it with excellent results. We had an enthusiastic sharing session about it last week. I am so thrilled. The side benefits: 1) students are returning to the work, even after it’s been graded, to refine it further (not every student, true, but the fact that any student is doing this is remarkable to me); 2) no issues with plagiarism, which is a benefit I didn’t even consider when I started (but it makes sense if you are sharing your work with all your peers, you wouldn’t plagiarize it); 3) our classroom is a true community—one student commented on course evaluations that “we are always collaborating” and another said that the class is like “a family.” Students are beginning to ask for workshop. It’s amazing. I can’t say enough good things about how it has changed my classroom for the better, and it’s really because I read this book that I opted to try it out. One thing I’d like to see: an update of this book with consideration of using technology tools. Ron Berger carries around a massive amount of original student work, and digitizing it or doing the projects using digital tools would really help. A new section explaining how to do that would be great (I volunteer as tribute, if the folks at Heinemann or Ron Berger himself are interested).

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember the summer I went to a Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It was phenomenal. The performance-based methods advocated by Folger have increased my students’ engagement in Shakespeare and have helped them grapple with his language and themes. I have used Folger methods with students of all backgrounds and levels, and they just work. I couldn’t teach without this book. It makes me sad that there isn’t one for every play I’d consider teaching, but this volume has Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth, and two other volumes have been published that incorporate 1) Hamlet and Henry IV, Part One and 2) Twelfth Night and Othello. I would love to see one on Julius Caesar. I think that play is hard to teach, and it is so frequently taught. Could be useful. Anyone want to go in with me to design a good Caesar unit? Let me know.

Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing helped me understand the importance of modeling, of the teacher as learner. The book includes a DVD, so you can see Penny’s writing workshop in progress. She discusses how her students keep writer’s notebooks, how she incorporates minilessons and conferences, the ways in which she teaches genre, and how she assesses. It’s fantastic.

I have a lot of books on my shelf that I really need to get through. Hopefully, with some changes coming soon, I’ll have some time to do that.

So now it’s time for the real conversation: which resources do you recommend?

Just for the purposes of full disclosure, I’m an Amazon associate; however, none of the authors or publishers have offered me compensation for sharing these books, and I share these books with you because they have truly been helpful to me. The associate links are a convenience for those who wish to purchase from Amazon.

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The Future of Books

Thank you to my WA colleague Wendy for bringing this wonderful iPad app to my attention:

This app is a digital book based on an Academy Award-winning short film entitled The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. It’s a fabulous film that tells a mesmerizing story about the power of books—how we can give new life to old books by reading them, and they can, in turn, give life to us; how they can change our lives and help us write our own life story. The film comes bundled with the app, which is currently $4.99 (and a true bargain). The reader can interact with every page of the digital book. You can help Morris get lost in a book, spell with alphabet cereal, make books talk, and so many other cool events drawn from the film. As you read, a narrator reads the story to you, the text of which runs along the bottom of each page. My son and I sat down together and read it. He rarely comments on things we read, but he kept saying “Great!” as we were reading. Even though Dylan is verbal, he rarely talks (and when he does, it is often echolalia rather than a direct response), and it is unusual for him to make any remarks at all when he’s engaged in activity like using an iPad app, but he simply loved this one. It didn’t take him long before he was touching everything on the screen to see what it would do.

Two other digital books have recently been released which I haven’t had a chance to purchase yet: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

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And the complete collection of William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which includes Patrick Stewart, Stephen Fry, and David Tennant (among others) interpreting the sonnets:

(“Sonnet 29″ is my favorite poem, by the way.)

In addition to dramatic readings, both apps include the complete text for a new multimedia reading experience, as well as also includes commentary and notes to help readers understand the text and make connections. For the kind of experience you get with these apps, the prices really can’t be beat, especially if you consider that a good paperback copy of either The Waste Land or Shakespeare’s Sonnets, complete with annotations (never mind the media) would probably run at least $13.99.

No one asked me to endorse these apps, but I’m so excited about the rich reading experiences they offer. Would you want to read every book this way? Perhaps not, but for particularly thorny texts like The Waste Land or the Sonnets, it makes a great deal of sense to include all these tools for comprehension and extension that will help readers from a variety of backgrounds—learning difficulties, English language learners, disabled as well as gifted and/or avid readers. I can see the power a book like any one of these three would have. I don’t know how you feel, but the possibility of teaching these books, using these materials, is exciting. I keep thinking of Miranda (and not in the usual ironic kind of way): “O brave new world that has such books in in it.”

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Literary Mixtapes

An old love song!The pop culture blog Flavorwire regularly creates mixtapes for literary characters. Their latest offering is Dorian Gray. Creating mixtapes can be an interesting way for students to think about characters and themes in the literature they read, especially if, like Flavorwire does, they need to justify their choices. Such an assignment could address the following NCTE standards:

  • NCTE/IRA Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • NCTE/IRA Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Creating a literary mixtape would require students to think about the character and his/her conflicts and development as well as the plot and theme of the work in which the character appears. The mixtape could be a fun strategy for helping students comprehend, interpret, and evaluate texts and enables them to draw on their prior experience with music to make meaning of the texts they read.

Instructions

  1. Students should either pick or be assigned a character or work of literature.
  2. Students pick ten songs that somehow illustrate the work’s theme or define that character. Students can also pick songs that would appeal to their character.
  3. Students write a two-three sentence justification for their song selections. Their justification should explain why the song fits the character or work.
  4. Optional: students can present their mixtapes.
  5. Optional: students can design a cover for their mixtape.

Examples

Take a look at these other Flavorwire mixtapes.

At an NCTE conference in 1997, I went to a session that shared a strategy similar to this, and the teachers in that session shared that students had paired “Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette with The Great Gatsby and “Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails with Heart of Darkness. I thought those examples were good, as the speaker in “Univited” is addressing a suitor she isn’t interested in and explores the uneven nature of their feelings for each other, while the speaker in “Head Like a Hole” repeats the refrain, “Bow down before the one you serve. You’re going to get what you deserve.” The last line of the song, “You know what you are,” echoes the end of Heart of Darkness: “The horror”—Kurtz’s last words as he realizes who he is.

Cautions

Be mindful of copyright. Do not ask students to assemble actual tapes or CD’s. Students might be able to find officially released videos on YouTube or the artists’ websites, but they should not try to circumvent copyright laws in order to share the music they assemble. Several online services allow users to stream selected songs and create playlists (Spotify, for example).

This assignment could also work for historical figures or biblical characters.

Update, 1/10/12, 8:45 A.M.: Check out Leslie Healey’s post about creating a mixtape for King Lear. Note: she shares Playlist.com as a way to create mixtapes.

Creative Commons License photo credit: silkegb

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NCTE Session G.41 Teaching the Hero’s Journey: Understanding Our Past, Creating Our Future

On Saturday, I presented with Glenda Funk and Ami Szerencse on teaching the Hero’s Journey. Here you will find my slide deck and handouts. You can find the handouts Glenda and Ami shared here at Glenda’s blog.

View more presentations from Dana Huff

Heroic Journey and Archetypes Note-taking Sheet

Star Wars Levels of Reading (MS Word document)

Star Wars Essay

Hobbit Essay Assignment

Please feel free to share feedback about the presentation and/or add to our list of hero’s journey texts. The Google Doc Glenda shared is not editable, but feel free to add suggestions in the comments. Also, if you have questions or need additional resources, feel free to ask in the comments.

I wanted to add this video for folks interested in The Matrix as a hero’s journey text:

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Thank you Glenda and Ami for being awesome co-presenters.

I will share my own reflections and thoughts about the conference at a later time, but it was wonderful to see you all, and Chicago is a beautiful city.

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Anonymous

Anonymous PosterIn the interest of full disclosure, I should begin by saying I have not seen Anonymous. I don’t need to; its arguments are familiar to me. This blog post is not a review of the movie or even an attack. It’s more of a treatise on why we should view its historicity and arguments with a skeptical eye and why, in my opinion, English teachers should not be encouraged to introduce it into debate about Shakespeare scholarship in their class discussions, as Young Minds Inspired has created teaching materials for high school and college that the film’s producers hope English teachers will use.

First, many Shakespeare conspiracy theorists, whether they support Oxford (current contemporary favorite) or Bacon or Marlowe or any of the other candidates that have been proposed as the “real” Shakespeare, often paint those who believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare as defensive and inflexible regarding opening up the authorship question for debate. If Stratfordians, as proponents of the argument that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare are called, are defensive and inflexible it is because the bulk of rational and historical evidence heavily supports their view, yet conspiracy theorists are unswayed by this rational, historical evidence. Many Stratfordians refuse to engage in the debate because the Oxfordians typically present evidence that is taken out of context, distorted, or just incorrect. People are invested in their pet conspiracy theories, and they often won’t listen to the arguments proposed against them. On the other hand, I have seen some Stratfordians engage seriously in answering the arguments Oxfordians list as evidence for the correctness of their point of view, explaining why and how the arguments fail, only to be met with ad hominem attacks on their open-mindedness and a refusal to debate the matter further (take a look at the comments in the linked post). However, that is not to say that the people who believe that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare are in any way foolish, unintelligent, uninformed, or even not perfectly serious. It must be said that they are not, however, professional Shakespeare scholars, who by and large do not question Shakespeare’s authorship.

Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro was one of the first to examine the authorship question and its history in his wonderful book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. I can’t recommend the book highly enough if you have even a passing interest in Shakespeare and especially if you teach Shakespeare. He mentions early in the book that other Shakespeare scholars tried to convince him not to take on the authorship question mainly because they felt giving the argument serious air would have the side effect of giving it legitimacy. They have a point. This movie is sure to bring up the debate in our schools as our students are often avid moviegoers. Shapiro, however, felt that the time was right for a Shakespeare scholar to explain why Shakespeare scholars believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

The chief argument that anti-Stratfordians make is that Shakespeare was born from humble means and did not have the right education in order to have been able to write the plays he wrote. However, Shakepeare’s “inferior” education at the grammar school in Stratford, which many anti-Stratfordians seem to think was akin to an average modern elementary education, included classical studies in Ovid, Cicero, Plautus, Terence, Virgil, and Erasmus—in Latin—all of which Shakespeare would have studied by the age of 13. One cannot argue he did not receive an education that could inspire the works he wrote. By the way, Ben Jonson’s father was a bricklayer, and Jonson also didn’t go to university, but no one questions the authorship of his plays or poems. Interestingly enough, Shakespeare makes some errors in his plays that one would not expect a Cambridge-educated man like Oxford to make: anachronistic references to clocks (Julius Caesar) and a description of Bohemia as a landlocked desert by the sea (A Winter’s Tale).

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), is the current favorite candidate of Shakespeare conspiracy theorists. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and his candidacy as an alternative author dates to 1920, when J. Thomas Looney published Shakespeare Identified. Looney sought to explain how he felt certain events in Shakespeare’s plays were analogies for events in Oxford’s life and that Oxford had the right education and courtly connections to have written Shakespeare’s plays. Before Oxford, other candidates such as Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe became popular alternative Shakespeares. As I’ve mentioned, Shapiro wrote an entire book examining other claims for Shakespeare, and the website Shakespeare Authorship has a comprehensive section examining the major arguments that Oxfordians make:

In addition, an essay on the site,  How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare: The Historical Facts,  by Tom Reedy and David Kathman, “summarize[s] the extensive web of evidence that identifies William Shakespeare of Stratford as the man who wrote the works of William Shakespeare.”

Another argument I see many Oxfordians make is that such intelligent luminaries as Mark Twain, Derek Jacobi, John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Sigmund Freud, and many others of equal talent all believed that someone other than Shakespeare—probably Oxford, but certainly not Shakespeare—wrote the plays attributed to him. This is a poor argument. Lots of people believe lots of things and the relative fame, talent, or intelligence of those who believe those things should not make them more or less true unless they are backed up also by evidence. Presenting this list as evidence itself is not evidence. It’s just a way of pointing out that one’s company isn’t completely made up of strange people in tinfoil hats.

What concerns me is not that people debate the issue. They can debate it if they like (although I believe it to be rather pointless in light of the evidence). My worry is that there is this notion that teachers who do not engage in this sort of debate in their English classes are perpetuating a lie or at least aren’t encouraging students to think critically and form their own opinions. From the materials produced by Young Minds Inspired:

Objectives:

  • To encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine the theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and to formulate their own opinions.
  • To strengthen students’ communication skills through classroom discussion and debate.
  • To engage students in creative writing exercises.

A look at the language (emphasis mine) used in some of the activities is alarming:

PART A: WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are Shakespeare’s plays the work of a highly educated writer with firsthand experience of aristocracy? Or could they be the work of an author with exceptional creative talent and observational skills who borrowed from learned books to enhance his own writing? Divide your class into two teams, the Upstart Crows and the Reasonable Doubters, to weigh the question: Was William Shakespeare really an improbable genius, or just a front man for someone with real ability?

Here is an essay assignment in the materials:

PART B: WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
Use the information on this sheet to research the theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the author of the “Shakespeare” plays. Then write a persuasive essay supporting your position.

And later:

PART A: WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Based on this short sketch of Edward de Vere and your knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays, what are the arguments pro and con that de Vere was the true author of the plays? Compare ideas, weigh the evidence, and come to a consensus. Then imagine that de Vere really was the true author. Should he have remained anonymous? Should Shakespeare have taken credit for his plays?

These activities are not about encouraging debate about the issue. They’re about encouraging students to believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare. Ron Rosenbaum lists some of the errors the Anonymous filmmakers make about Shakespeare and the times. As James Shapiro says in his New York Times op-ed in response to Anonymous, “promoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems.” He concludes that “the most troubling thing” about Anonymous  is that “the film turns great plays into propaganda,” which Shapiro argues is reductive, and I would agree. In the film, the character Oxford says that “all art is political … otherwise it is just decoration.” That is really the only reason we create art? To make a political statement? When Simon Schama weighed in on the movie, he concluded the biggest problem with it was its “fatal lack of imagination on the subject of the imagination.”

Shakespeare was a gifted genius. What these activities are really going to teach kids is that people like Shakespeare are only possible if they are born into privilege and receive an education at a prestigious institution like Oxford or Cambridge (or Harvard or Yale… you get the picture). And what is also lost in these assignments is an appreciation for Shakespeare’s writing—the words, the phrases, the stories—which is traded off for a sexier debate about whether Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare. What a crime.

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NCTE Annual Convention

My Kinda Town

Just a quick update: I will be presenting at NCTE this year in Chicago. My name does not appear in the searchable program online because NCTE has not received payment for my registration. I am not sure if it will appear in the print program. I will be presenting with Glenda Funk and Ami Szerencse. Our session is G.41: Teaching the Hero’s Journey: Understanding our Past, Creating our Future. My part of the presentation will cover creating a course based on the Hero’s Journey, in which I will describe how I designed an elective course, including backward design, book selection ideas, and handouts I’ve used. It is in Chicago Hilton/Continental Ballroom, Salon B, Lobby Level on Saturday from 9:30 A.M. to 10:45 A.M.

Looking forward to seeing you there. Who’s going to Gino’s to get some pizza with me? I have been told that is the place to go. Oh, and now I hear Garrett’s Popcorn is a must, too.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Stuck in Customs

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Better Living Through Beowulf

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

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Banish the Whole-Class Novel?

the infernoI’ve been thinking about Pam Allyn’s article in Education Week for a couple of days. I read a few of the comments, too. While I think Allyn makes some valid points about putting the right books in the hands of students, I also think that can be accomplished through independent reading and literature circles without eliminating a whole-class novel study. More goes on in a whole-class novel study than just reading books. Critical thinking—synthesizing ideas, analysis, compare and contrast, application of one situation to another, interpretation—the list could go on. Sometimes, students actually do enjoy those books, too. I’ve seen it happen many times, even with books you wouldn’t think. I have had students not want to stop reading when class is over when we studied The Catcher in the Rye. I have had professed non-readers tell me how much they liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. One former student told me when she packed for college, she had room to take three books. One of them was Wuthering Heights, which I had introduced her to (granted, our study of the story was based on the film and I gave her the book to read when she showed interest in delving deeper).  Do all students like all books? No. I didn’t like all the books I read in school either. And sometimes I think we try to teach books that students are not ready for. I’m not sure I was ready for The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I enjoyed it when I read it in my late twenties for the first time. Same thing with The Great Gatsby. However, I have also taught students who were ready for those books in high school and enjoyed them. One student who was in my class in ninth grade blossomed in his English class when his tenth grade teacher taught The Great Gatsby—he loved it. Would these students have read The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter if we hadn’t done a whole-class study? I’m not so sure. Sometimes it does happen that a student finds a book that means a great deal to him or her through a whole-class novel study, and I and other teachers I work with have been personally thanked for introducing that student to that book. And students do enjoy whole-class novel discussion. It’s not a novel, but whole-class study of Romeo and Juliet has been a hit every year I’ve taught it.

While I think we really do want to create life-long readers, and establishing independent reading in our classrooms can go a long way toward accomplishing that goal, studying a novel as a class is not a waste of time, and we can and should incorporate more nonfiction and more books that appeal to boys as well as girls. To me, it’s about balance rather than an all or nothing approach—balancing choice reads with whole-class or literature circle selections. One commenter on the original post said, “It’s not the whole-class novel that’s the problem—it’s how we choose those novels.” I agree. The example Allyn uses to demonstrate problems with the class-novel study is of a twelve-year-old reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I read that novel in eleventh grade, and it was the perfect book for me at that time. I taught it for years as a ninth grade text until students began coming to me having studied it in middle school. Even though I see the value in re-reading a novel, I also had to contend with parents who thought I was teaching a middle school text, so I gave that one up. My personal opinion is that To Kill a Mockingbird is perfect for high school students, but there may be some middle school students who are ready for it. So what do we do in the face of pressure to include more rigorous reading in the middle school? What should all literature teachers be doing to foster a love of reading while pushing students forward as critical thinkers?

Well, the commenter I quoted previously went on to say that “[a]ll choice is no better than no choice.” We need to think about what studying a text will teach us that we can’t learn from studying any other text—the first step in backward design, by the way. When we studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I asked my students themselves to justify its place in our class. Should it even be taught? Wasn’t it racist? Couldn’t some other book do just as well without exposing students to the n-word over 200 times? They put the book on trial, and the conclusion they came to was that it was important for us to study Huck Finn because it captured a moment in our history that was important not to ignore. We should be thoughtful about why we teach anything that we teach.

Next year, I will not be teaching literature classes for the first time in my teaching career, so this is perhaps not even something I need to chew over very much because it’s not a decision I will have to make. However, I do know that any time I ever teach a literature class, I will always teach the whole-class novel as a part of my curriculum.

P.S. Unrelated, but speaking of Education Week, Katie Ash interviewed me for her article “Language Arts Educators Balance Text-Only Tactics With Multimedia Skills.” Key word: balance. Check it out!

Creative Commons License photo credit: church mouth

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