Category Archives: Teaching Literature

The Great Gatsby

This week I begin teaching The Great Gatsby. Of the American literature novels I teach, it is perhaps my favorite. I confess I have a crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I am in love with his way with words, his lavish description. It is perilous to teach something we love.

Rebecca Hayden wrote an article entitled “Teaching Works We Love: Hazards of the English Classroom” for the March 2005 issue of English Journal. Hayden writes of an experience teaching Tess of the D’Urbervilles to a group of students who, well, didn’t exactly share her appreciation for “the novel she credits with turning her into an English teacher” (41). In a pull quote that aptly sums up the gist of the article, Hayden writes,

Like many English teachers, I feel that favorite books are part of my soul, and the question arises, To what degree am I willing to bare that soul to hundreds of adolescents, who may be harboring their own quirks, prejudices, and lightning-quick dismissive judgments?

I think what makes us nervous about teaching works we love is that our students seem to complain about everything they’re required to read, and we just can’t bear to hear that when it’s in reference to our favorite books.

I overheard a conversation between two seniors at our school. They are taking a film class that will serve as their English credit for second semester before they go to Israel (all of our seniors have the opportunity to complete their senior year in Israel). They were actually complaining. Imagine! Watching movies for school… and yet there is still something to complain about! It seems they don’t like the movies — classics such as North By Northwest and On the Waterfront. I know, I know. Sometimes I think there is just no making students happy — unless they have complete choice, I suppose. I’ll bet they’d still complain.

Hayden wonders, near the end of her article, “whether it was worth bringing [her] private self into the classroom” (43). She asks herself, “Why bother?” Indeed.

Last year before I began Gatsby, I actually read this article to my students. I thought about it, and I decided it might be interesting for them to know how I really feel about this book — actually come right out and tell them that when I teach it, I am holding my figurative heart out to them and hoping they don’t rip it to pieces.

It worked.

Students responded to the vulnerability and the passion. I doubt they enjoyed the book as much as I hoped. But I do think the students learned a larger lesson. I suppose one could say they learned I’m human. Or perhaps it’s just a little about my background — who I am. Or maybe it’s even that books can change lives, and this one changed mine. It might not have changed theirs, but perhaps another one will.

I guess that’s why we bother, and ultimately, why we teach literature. Or anything at all, for that matter.

Work Cited: Hayden, Rebecca. “Teaching Works We Love: Hazards of the English Classroom.” English Journal. 94.4 (March 2005): 41-44.

Related posts:

Wikis for Book Discussion

I am showing my students Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which I highly recommend.

However, I noticed that due to a strange confluence of events (or possibly lack of thorough planning), we wound up finishing novels in two classes right in the middle of viewing the film. I was scratching my head, wondering what to do about that when I remembered I have a website.

I asked the students to discuss the novels on the class wiki I set up.

If you want to peek in on the discussion, here are the links:

I think they’re still trying to figure out this technology. It comes more naturally to some of them than it does others.

In other news, my article describing a project that integrates a study of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography with Judaic concepts will be published in English Journal this coming July. I’m very excited; I just received the acceptance today.

Related posts:

A New Take: “A Wagner Matinée”

I was fortunate to have a colleague (a former English teacher, currently an instructor in Humanities and Judaics) observe the second time I taught “A Wagner Matinée” — this time to my Honors class, and she gave me some excellent ideas. I was a little disheartened by the feeling I had after I taught the piece to my college prep class that the lesson had fallen flat.

Barbara, my colleague, told me that the best bit of teaching advice she ever had was (and I’m paraphrasing, since I left my notes at school) when you teach, don’t tell students everything you know. Instead, figure out what they know, and meet them there.

I told my students things that she and I would find interesting about Wagner, but she pointed out the students probably don’t care about it. Her suggestion for this lesson was to have Wagner music playing as they entered the classroom. As the students took their seats, I would tell them to listen to the music for a minute. I might then ask if they recognized it. Instead of giving the students a whole lot of information about the composer, I could tell them today we are going to read a story about a woman who loves this music. I should ask them how many of them love music, how many of them listen to it every day? What would happen if they couldn’t have it? I could then explain that the woman in the story loses music because of a choice she makes, and she has the opportunity to listen to this music she loves once more.

We also discussed reading aloud, and I would love to get your thoughts on this, because she confirmed something that I truly believe, but not many people seem to agree with me about. I think reading aloud to students is wonderful. I loved being read to. I still do. When someone is good at it, it is a pure pleasure. I have been told I should read for books on tape by my students, so I guess that means I’m good at it. However, I have been told by other teachers that this practice is not good for students. My supervising teacher asked me, when I did this, exactly whose reading comprehension was I working on? So while in my heart of hearts, I love it, I am always loathe to do it when I am going to be observed. It feels like a secret, “dirty” practice I don’t want anyone to know I do — for shame, I read to my students! Anyway, she asked me about reading to students. She said the student I chose to read aloud did a very good job, but asking students to read aloud in this way is always very risky. Readers need to be very good or it will actually hurt the enjoyment for others. That’s exactly how I feel! I can still recall my favorite high school teacher reading passages to us from Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and I loved it. I can recall Mrs. Elliott reading us The Boxcar Children and Superfudge and Mrs. Esquibel reading Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. I loved being read to, and it broke my heart to be told by colleagues that reading to my students was harmful to them. Barbara telling me it was a good thing made me feel validated. This is an issue I have truly been struggling with for almost all of my teaching career — this feeling that I was going against something everyone else believed was correct because my gut told me to. What do you think of reading aloud to students?

Related posts:

A Wagner Matinée and A Pair of Silk Stockings

We’ve been busy with the change to a new semester. Two-thirds of my students are wrapping up the research paper process, while the other one-third are starting. It’s been a bit hectic.

When I was in college, I took a class in Southern Literature under the direction of James Kibler. Much of the literature we studied, post-Civil War at any rate, was based in Realism and Regionalism. I decided that I really liked it a lot, so I took a course the next quarter in American Realism and Naturalism. I did not love much of the literature we studied, but in retrospect, given the trajectory of my teaching career, it was the single most valuable English course I took. I have been primarily a teacher of American literature since the beginning of my teaching career. It is during the antebellum time period when Realism, Regionalism, and Naturalism developed, that American literature really took on a distinctive flavor — it became different from European literature. Over time, it has become possibly one of my favorite time periods to teach.

Students usually enjoy the works written by writers such as Mark Twain, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce — much more so than they do some of the earlier American writers, anyway. Of course, student interest in the topic always makes it more fun for me, too. After all, I have already read all this stuff… several times. It is experiencing it again through their eyes that makes it fun.

One of my favorite stories to teach within this unit is Willa Cather’s short story “A Wagner Matinée.” If you haven’t ever read it, you might want to take some time to check it out. Alternatively, you can listen to a radioplay version at Scribbling Women, but you may need to register (it’s free). In the story, a young man named Clark hosts his Aunt Georgiana from Nebraska. Much of the story centers around Clark’s fond recollections of Aunt Georgiana’s love for music. When he was a child, his aunt taught him Latin and Shakespeare. Clark moved to Boston. Aunt Georgiana comes to visit because of some legal business with a will, and Clark decides to take his aunt, who taught music before she eloped with Clark’s uncle to the wilds of Nebraska, to a matinée of Wagner music. Aunt Georgiana completely loses herself in the enjoyment of the music. In the end, Aunt Georgiana, faced with going back to Nebraska and leaving such music behind — this time for good — tells Clark poignantly, “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!”

I pair this story with Kate Chopin’s short story “A Pair of Silk Stockings.” In this story, Little Mrs. Sommers (as Chopin describes her) has found herself in possession of an extra $15. She goes shopping, thinking to spend the money on her family. Instead, she finds her hand resting on a pair of silk stockings, on sale at $1.98 down from $2.50. Chopin evokes the Garden of Eden: “[S]he went on feeling the soft, sheeny luxurious things — with both hands now, holding them up to see them glisten, and to feel them glide serpent-like through her fingers.” After that, temptation runs away with Mrs. Sommers. She purchases the stockings, then decides she needs new shoes. She winds up spending the whole $15 on luxuries.

I think the stories have very similar heroines. They speak to what women were (and, in many cases, are) expected to give up for their husbands and children. Sometimes students judge Mrs. Sommers harshly — they think she should have spent the money on her children as she planned. I think they have trouble relating to Aunt Georgiana. Today, even in the wilds of Nebraska, one can listen to Wagner at any time with a CD player or mp3 player. They have trouble understanding how cut off Aunt Georgiana is from all the cultured things she loves, especially music. This matinée will most likely be the last time Aunt Georgiana gets to hear music that she doesn’t perform on her own parlor organ.

I just finished these stories with one of my classes (and I am getting ready to do them with another class). I thought I had my opening activity for “A Pair of Silk Stockings” on my work computer, and I didn’t, so I didn’t do it (which is sad, because it really gets students in the frame of mind to make judgments about Mrs. Sommers’ spending). The activity centers around five fictional people who each receive a windfall of $100. They spend the money in various ways — either selfishly or selflessly. Students rate the five spenders based on how well they used the extra money and a class discussion ensues. After that, students read “A Pair of Silk Stockings.’ You can download this activity in rich text format by clicking this link.

My students concluded that it was OK for Mrs. Sommers to treat herself to one glorious day with the extra money. By the way, I always suggest students take the story home and read it with their mothers so they can have a discussion about it. However, these students concluded it might have been better for Aunt Georgiana to have missed the concert. They felt it was too painful for her to have for just a short time only to have it snatched away again.

As I taught “A Wagner Matinée” this time, I felt it — the students weren’t into it. I stopped in various sections and played some of the Wagner pieces mentioned in the story. I also told them about Wagner’s background and music — I have an “in” because my husband is an operatic heldentenor, so I’ve learned a little bit more about Wagner. However, it should be easy for anyone who wants to try this with his/her own students to learn more about Wagner and find a CD with the pieces in the story on it. The students drifted when I played the music. I thought it was all pretty much a wash until one student raised his hand and commented that he thought the pace of the story seemed to match the music — if I played a piece of music mentioned in the story, then turned it down and continued to read as the music played in the background, the story seemed to rise and swell to the music. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it was an interesting observation, and it was worth it to me if he was the only one that was into it. One student enjoying it and making connections made it worth it. Of course, it’s nice when they all do, but I’m realistic enough to know that’s pretty rare, and often not because of anything I did or didn’t do.

Related posts:

Making Meaning

I got the question today. You know the one, if you’re an English teacher. The one about whether the author truly intended something or other I pulled from the story.

Let me back up. As a teacher of tenth grade American Literature and Composition, it falls to me to teach the research paper. I have taught it so many years now that I have it down to a science. Last year, I decided to walk students through each step by writing a paper myself. I was intrigued by a short story I had not read until last year. It’s called “A New England Nun,” and it was written by Regionalist writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. It isn’t a particularly interesting story, but I found it intriguing because the protagonist, Louisa Ellis, so clearly exhibits typical signs and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I wrote a research paper proving the following thesis: Louisa Ellis, a character in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun,” exhibits signs and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Because the story is obscure, I am able to answer students who tell me they can’t find anything on Huck Finn. (I actually got that one this week!) We read the story so they can see how I was able to draw conclusions about the character and also how I was able to take notes on the story for note cards.

One of my students asked me whether Freeman intended to create a character with OCD. I can’t answer that. I’m not sure Freeman was aware of the disorder. She might have been. Even if she wasn’t, people have been exhibiting OCD behaviors throughout history, and she could possibly have modeled Louisa on someone she knew who was “like that.” So my answer to the student was that I don’t know. I can’t prove it. But I asked my students this — just because an author didn’t intend to put something in a story, does that mean it isn’t there?

For example, J.R.R. Tolkien is famously quoted as saying he hated allegory. Yet, I find it very easy to read his writing as allegory. Does that necessarily make me wrong?

I explained to my students that we all bring things to a story that a writer can’t control, and we make meaning of their writing based on those things we bring. If we make a connection or notice a symbol or develop a theory based on that writing because of what we brought to it, is it necessarily wrong because the writer didn’t think of it (or we don’t know whether the writer thought of it)?

For the first time when I’ve been asked “the question,” I could see wheels turning. The students considered what I said, and I think they found it valid. It was a far cry from the way I used to approach teaching literature to students who didn’t draw the same conclusions as I did — they just didn’t have much experience as a reader. How could they be expected to “get it”?

I recommend a book I read last year called How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. There is a way to get students to understand that digging into a text can make it more interesting and “gratifying.” The book is an engaging read for English teachers who are interested in learning how to get kids to do this.

Related posts:

Our Thoreau Panel

Our school has a copy of the Discover Channel’s production Great Books: Walden. I think it is pretty good (and short) introduction to Thoreau — in fact, I think the entire Great Books series is, well, great. Inside the videocassette case was a tiny little lesson plan that reminded me that Discoveryschool.com has lesson plans. I searched for one to go with the video and found this one created by Gretchen Surber. I thought that my Honors American Lit. students would really enjoy it. As a class, we took on different parts. The lesson plan calls for a cast of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, and Mother Theresa. My students insisted on adding Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Donald Trump. After that, I said I had to put a cap on it, or we wouldn’t be able to function, because the panel would become too unwieldy.

Unfortunately, Gandhi and Mother Theresa were sick and didn’t come to school, which left our panel of “idealists,” as the students called them, kind of small. I jumped in to play Mother Theresa, but we were left Gandhi-less.

The purpose of the panel was to examine Thoreau’s ideas of simplicity versus acquisitiveness. The students’ responsibility was to research their character and figure out how their character would respond to questions arising from this conflict.

My student moderator directed set up of the room. He had made signs with the characters’ names on them for each panelist to wear. While I can’t exactly say that my students dressed the part, they sure did get into their roles. There was a heated disagreement between Bill Gates and Karl Marx. The students had clearly researched and prepared to answer the questions put forward by the moderator.

A couple of days before this event, the student I picked to play Andrew Carnegie begged to be let off the hook, but I had a hunch that he needed to try this — to stretch out of his safe zone and challenge himself. I wouldn’t let him quit, and I encouraged him to give it a shot. He did an excellent job. He stayed after to help me put the desks back, and I told him what a great job he did. “I was sort of surprised with myself,” he said. “I was surprised how passionate we got, considering we were just playing parts.”

It was amazing. What was really incredible is that I did very little to prepare, aside from creating a handout. The students did all of it. I think they learned a lot — much more than they would have if I’d stood in front of the classroom and lectured on the topic. One thing’s sure — they’ll remember what they learned.

I still recall taking part in a similar activity when I was in 7th grade. It was a Social Studies activity called the Great Redwood Controversy. My teacher assigned us roles, and even though I was the only person in my class who voted for Walter Mondale in our mock election, my teacher assigned me the role of the lawyer who lobbied congress to allow logging in the Redwood National Forest. I remember that even though I disagreed with my character, I got into it. I wanted to win. I didn’t, but my teacher gave me a special award, presented to me by my assistant principal. I still have it.

Maybe I should make one for Andrew Carnegie.

Related posts:

Thoreau’s Blog

English teachers, did you know Henry David Thoreau blogs? Well, not really, but Gregory Perry has taken excerpts from Thoreau’s own journals and posted them on the web. Often, they are a delightful read, particularly if you are an admirer of Thoreau. I was particularly charmed by today’s journal, in which Thoreau calls for city parks to be established.

I am especially fond of this line: “We are all schoolmasters, and our schoolhouse is the universe.”

I visited Walden last February when my students went to Boston on a school trip. Because it was winter, the pond was completely frozen over, and we got to walk on Walden Pond itself. I took some pictures while there:

Weber '07
This is a photo of some of my students “leaving their school’s mark” in the snow on top of the pond.

Weber '07
This is the finished product.

Most of my pictures at Walden didn’t come out well. The light at that time of day wasn’t very bright, and I think the snow reflection had something to do with it, too.

Actually, though, my favorite picture from my visit to Walden is this goofy one:

Feet on Walden
My feet on Walden

Thanks to the Walden Woods Project, it would seem that Thoreau’s vision that Walden be preserved as a park is largely realized.

Related posts:

Textbooks are Killing Literature

Patrick Welsh opines about the state of literature texts in USA Today.

[T]he textbooks are feather-weight intellectually.Take the McDougal Littell text that we finally adopted for 9th- and 10th-graders. It starts off with a unit titled “Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Hebrew Literature,” followed by sections on the literature of Ancient India, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient China and Japan. Then comes “Persian and Arabic Literature” and “West African Oral Literature” — and that’s only the first third of the book. There are still more than 800 pages to plough through, but it’s the same drill — short excerpts from long works — a little Dante here, a little Goethe there and two whole pages dedicated to Shakespeare’s plays. One even has a picture of a poster from the film Shakespeare in Love with Joseph Fiennes kissing Gwyneth Paltrow. The other includes the following (which is sure to turn teens on to the Bard):

“Notice the insight about human life that the following lines from The Tempest convey:

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

Shakespeare’s plays are treasures of the English language.”

Both books are full of obtrusive directions, comments, questions and pictures that would hinder even the attentive readers from becoming absorbed in the readings. Both also “are not reader-friendly. There is no narrative coherence that a student can follow and get excited about. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” says T.C. Williams reading specialist Chris Gutierrez, who teaches a course in reading strategies at Shenandoah University in Virginia. For kids who get books and reading opportunities only at school, these types of textbooks will drive them away from reading — perhaps for life.

This is actually something I’ve noticed. The books are full of flashy pictures and photographs, but there are more excerpts rather than full works, and there are some rather odd choices in terms of what to include and what to leave out. My school actually uses an out-of-print text by Scott, Foresman — the same books, in fact, that I studied from when I was in high school. I do have some problems with the books, and frankly there are things I really like about the newer Holt and Prentice-Hall books. I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect textbook.

Related posts: