Category Archives: Teaching Literature

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.


  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.


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.


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 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 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:


  • 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:

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:

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:

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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Robert Browning and Dramatic Monologues

Lucrezia de' Medici
Lucrezia de' Medici

Many years ago, I taught a model lesson on Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” as part of a job interview. I got the job, and I think the sample lesson was what clinched it. It didn’t hurt that the school was my alma mater and that the department chair was a beloved former teacher of my own, but she herself told me that my lesson made the difference. Essentially, students read the poem “Porphyria’s Lover,” and I asked that we put the character on trial. Is he guilty of the murder of his lover? Students had to rule that he was either guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity. They turned to the text for evidence, and it was a fairly lively discussion. Students had a healthy debate and found evidence for either argument in the text. I still teach the poem that way when I teach it.

However, it has been my experience that Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” is more frequently anthologized. The inspiration for the poem is believed to be Lucrezia de’ Medici, wife of Alfonso II d’Este, fifth Duke of Ferrara. The Duke left Lucrezia two years before she died, and a hint of poison lurks around the circumstances of her death. He later married Barbara of Austria, and one can just picture the Duke showing his prospective father-in-law this imperious portrait of his first wife.

These two poems differ from many that students have read before in that they are dramatic monologues in which Browning uses the voice of a speaker to tell a story. In fact, I often think of these particular poems when I caution students to describe the narrative voice of a poem as “the speaker” rather than the poet him/herself. Clearly neither speaker is Browning, but these poems open up possibilities to students who might not have considered the storytelling capabilities of poetry.

Many years ago, I purchased a book called Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford. On pages 183-194, the writers discuss monologue poems and use “My Last Duchess” as the centerpiece for the lesson. Their suggestions for creating dramatic monologues are fantastic, and if you don’t have the book, do yourself a favor and get it. Over the years, I have used many of its ideas. I am going to take their advice about “My Last Duchess” and memorize it.

Here are some other resources for teaching Browning and dramatic monologues:

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TPCASTT: A Method for Analyzing Poetry

magnetic poetryOne of the difficulties students tend to have with analyzing poetry is figuring out how to start. One method I’ve adopted after seeing it on Lisa Huff’s blog is TPCASTT.

TPCASTT is an acronym standing for title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude, shift, title (again), and theme.

Students begin by looking at the title of the poem to determine what they think it might be about and what it might literally mean.

Next, they read the poem and paraphrase it. What is the “story” of the poem in their own words? They should also define words they don’t know at this stage.

Examining the connotations means looking at words that might have multiple meanings and trying to determine if there is a meaning beyond the literal that lies beneath the surface of the poem. At this stage, students are truly analyzing the text.

Attitude involves determining the tone and emotions associated with the subject. What sort of attitude does the speaker take toward the subject?

Many poems involve a shift in tone. Next, students examine the poem to see if they can detect a shift, and if so, where it occurs, what kind of shift it is, and how it changes the direction and meaning of the poem.

After examining the poem, students return to the title again. Are there any new insights about the title after they have read the poem?

The final step is determining the theme. What greater message did the poet hope to convey? Why did he/she pick up the pen?

One advantage of this method is that it provides students a framework and process for analyzing poetry. Students examine subject, purpose, and audience through this analysis.

My experience has been that students enjoy this organized method of analyzing poetry, and they tend to do well with this sort of guidance. They can learn the acronym and apply it to other poems that they read. I know many AP Literature teachers use this method to teach their students poetry analysis, but I find it works with students of all levels, and particularly with lower level students who have difficulty determining what is important or how to tease out meaning and analysis in a poem. Lisa provides handouts for this method on her blog, too.

I used this method successfully today as my British literature students analyzed Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us” and my American literature students analyzed “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” It was new to my American literature students, but my British literature students were familiar with the method. It was nice to hear students saying they enjoyed the poetry we read, and I think they enjoyed it mainly because they uncovered a deeper meaning and connection to the poetry through their analysis.

I’ll try to post more poetry ideas as the month progresses. Happy National Poetry Month!

Creative Commons License photo credit: surrealmuse

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