Why Fiction Matters

Our EscapeGrant Wiggins made a lot of waves yesterday with a post the ASCD blog The Edge in which he calls for banning the reading of fiction in schools in order to encourage boys to read and help students improve nonfiction reading skills. He says he wrote meaning to provoke, and he certainly did. The blog doesn’t provide a means of linking to comments, but I felt a voice of reason in those comments was Estelene Boratenski. She’s right in pointing out that people listen to Wiggins, and it wasn’t clear that he was writing in the spirit of A Modest Proposal. I don’t have a lot to add to the public outcry.

If you have read any of my archives, you know I’ve long been a proponent of backward design. It just makes sense pedagogically. Wiggins and writing partner Jay McTighe wrote about backward design in Understanding by Design, which remains the single most influential professional reading I’ve ever done. Wiggins was very kind to my readers and to the participants at the UbD Educators wiki. For a short period of time, I blogged with Grant at a now-defunct group blog about educational matters. I have the highest respect for Grant Wiggins.

I also have the highest respect for fiction’s ability to teach us about who we are. I think one thing we need to do to engage boys in high school reading is to offer them choices, but one cannot generalize that boys necessarily like nonfiction more than fiction, and I have known boys who have enjoyed reading such fare as Wuthering Heights, Beloved, and The Scarlet Letter. I think a lot of fiction isn’t taught in a way that necessarily grabs boys, and that’s where backward design comes in. It gives the literature teacher a hook—an issue the novel grapples with that makes for interesting discussion. It is for this reason that one of the essential questions that frames discussion in my classroom for the year in my British Literature and Composition course is How do our stories shape us? How do we shape the world around us with stories?

I wouldn’t argue that we currently incorporate enough nonfiction into our curricula. I think nonfiction is important. I also don’t quibble with the idea that we need to do something to get boys to read. Guys Read is on to something there, I think. I also don’t argue about the fact that we need to examine the choices we make in terms of what books are taught. But I don’t think throwing fiction out the window is the solution.

Literature, fiction, shows us who we are. It teaches us about the human condition. In the words of Hemingway, arguably that most male of writers, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and the afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and places and how the weather was.”

That, to me, seems to be the best reason to teach fiction.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Felipe Morin

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Hero’s Journey Presentation

Something big is coming........I am submitting a presentation proposal for NCTE 2011 on teaching the hero’s journey. I think the presentation would work well with the conference theme of “Reading the Past, Writing the Future.”

If you are interested in and knowledgeable about the hero’s journey, archetypes, and the like, I would like to invite you to present with me. If you are interested, please leave a comment or contact me via email on the contact page. We can talk further from there.

Update: Thanks for your interest. We have a group. Cross your fingers for us that our proposal will be accepted.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Hsin Ho

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But Thence I Learn, and Find the Lesson True

Double Double Toil and Trouble...

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said “Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place; if we do not understand him, it is our own fault.” Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare with inventing humanity. Certainly there is no writer I enjoy teaching more than Shakespeare. Part of what makes Shakespeare special is the way that people from all walks of life can find themselves in his works and can connect their own lives to those of characters created hundreds of years ago. One of the more compelling stories I’ve heard regarding Shakespeare’s ability to impact lives is that of Prison Performing Arts, an organization I’ve discussed before. If you aren’t familiar with their work, please listen to this episode of This American Life and come back. I will wait. You must hear it.

Anyone who has ever listened to that program can never forget James Word, the man who played Laertes and credits Prison Performing Arts with helping him “see options” and to express himself. He says that “The delivery of the message, through Shakespeare and mythology, taught me life’s lessons.” I receive a newsletter from Prison Performing Arts as a supporter of their organization, and in the recent issue, Ann Haubrich has written an update on James Word. He has been released from prison and is attending college full time. He mentioned earning an A on his first English paper, which absolutely thrilled me to learn, and he discussed his desire to start a theater program for young people at his father’s church. As Word says, “If you can catch them while they’re young, before they get sent to prison, they can recognize their potential and be saved.”

It may sound idealistic, but it obviously works. Prison Performing Arts works with people that most of society has given up on, and it’s encouraging to read about their successes. I came home to find this letter in my mailbox after a great day teaching Shakespeare. My students have finished Act 1 of Macbeth, and I gave them a quiz over Act 1 from Shakespeare Set Free Volume 1. I read an article in the September 2010 issue of English Journal by Timothy Quinn and Todd Eckerson about collaborative reading quizzes. I applied this strategy to this quiz over Act 1. The students talked about each of the quotes and came to a consensus about who said the lines, to whom the speaker was speaking, and what the context of the quote was. Both of my classes earned perfect scores on the quiz. Obviously, it means that the methods in the Shakespeare Set Free unit work for helping students remember the language and learn the story. If you could have been a fly on the wall listening to my students talking about the play, I think you’d have enjoyed their discussion. It was especially interesting to hear them figure out when they were initially mistaken about a quote and discuss it. I never said a word. They conducted the discussion and reached the answers on their own.

I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach Shakespeare to my students. Shakespeare belongs to everybody, from prison inmates to Jewish high school students. As Ben Jonson observed, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” His ability to teach us about ourselves, and the richness of his language and his themes never grow old. To paraphrase Domitius Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither [him], nor custom stale / [His] infinite variety.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: Arbron

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“To End Where I Begun”: Backward Design and Shakespeare

I am presenting at NCTE tomorrow morning at 9:30 at the Yacht and Beach Club in Grand Harbour Ballroom South. You can download and/or view all my session materials here.

Note: I think if you visit the presentation on SlideShare and download it, you can get the notes.

Here is my handout for my Macbeth performance task that I discuss as an alternative to a performance.

Here is a graphic organizer for my comparative video exercise for Act I Scene 1. I use the filmed versions of Macbeth directed by Jack Gold, Roman Polanski, and Geoffrey Wright for this activity.

Here is a Wordle made from the text of Macbeth that I use to introduce students to themes in the play.

Chris Shamburg’s radio play of the “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” scene.

If you want to explore the UbD Educators wiki (Understanding by Design, ® ASCD) for a variety of resources, feel free to check it out. You don’t have to join to lurk; you have to join to contribute your own work.

Links to my previous work aligning Folger methods with backward design:

Blog posts about Folger/teaching Shakespeare:

Links to other helpful resources:

If you would like to see the Shakespeare Made Easy activity I mentioned, please visit and join A Way to Teach. You’ll find a lot of great resources there.

If I can think of more stuff to add later, I will, so bookmark this post if you’d like to access it more easily.

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Risha Mullins and Censorship

Banned Books Week 2010 PosterDrop everything and go read this post at Risha Mullins’s blog.

It is amazing to me that with the evidence in their hands that what Mullins was doing was working, the principal and superintendent—and even department members—railroaded Mullins into quitting. She is a brave person, and I admire her grace under fire. If I were a school administrator, her willingness to stand up for her kids and their learning would make we want to hire her.

I have never been in her shoes, and I pray I never will be. Donalyn Miller said last week on Twitter that she noticed it seems to be parents who don’t read who challenge books, and I think it’s very true. The parents at my school are very literate and supportive of their children reading. I am grateful every day for the place where I teach, the students I teach, and the parents that support my students’ learning.

Creative Commons License photo credit: ALA – The American Library Association

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Speak Loudly: Banned Books Week

SpeakLaurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak has recently been the focus of a new attack by Wesley Scroggins, associate professor of management at Missouri State University. He describes the novel as “soft pornography” and apparently levied a formal challenge against this book in addition to Slaughterhouse Five, which he also deems inappropriate because of its language and its description of Jesus, and Twenty Boy Summer. He also has complaints about Republic School District’s (Missouri) sex education program, teaching of evolution, and teaching of American government and history. School Library Journal interviewed Halse Anderson about this latest attempt to ban her work.

I think parents have every right to decide with their children what is appropriate for their own children to read. Note I think the child has a voice and should have some stake. My nine-year-old became interested in the Salem witch trials after we visited Salem this year, so we checked out library books, and she learned more about them. And the facts in that case are not pretty, nor are they easy even for adults to understand, much less children. Man’s inhumanity to man is tough. But I will not shield my child from it because it exists. Not to allow her to learn about difficult subjects is to shackle her education. She can be a part of a better future because she will have learned about the mistakes of history. She will, I hope, recognize a witch hunt when she sees one. Like I do.

Parents like Scroggins are dangerous because they seek to promote an agenda with their challenges—their own. They have decided that the way they parent and their choices are the best and are more beneficial for your children than the choices you would make. They would seek to educate your own children in they way they think they should be educated. They seek to take away your right to make choices with your child.

I wish Speak had been around for me when I was in the ninth grade. It was something I needed. It’s something many girls—and boys—need. I was pleased that my own daughter read it for her English class in ninth grade. I was glad that she could learn about the trauma of rape in a book, that it happened, and that boys you liked and trusted did it—not just strangers—instead of experiencing it firsthand.

Paul Hankins has rallied around Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel with a Twitter-based campaign called #SpeakLoudly. He has also started a Speak Loudly website. We all also need to rally around Slaughterhouse Five and Twenty Boy Summer. Do not let anyone tell you what you and your children can read. Speak up! Speak loudly! Let your voice be heard this week, during Banned Books Week.

Check out these links for more on what you can do during Banned Books Week:

Feel free to share additional resources in the comments. I can add them to the list.

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Summer Reading

This post started with a tweet from Gary Anderson about what his daughters were reading:

Gary Anderson tweet

Donalyn Miller shared how sad that tweet made her in a reply. I jumped in and later Paul Hankins, Karen LaBonte and Kim McCollum joined the conversation. A few others dipped in and out. The bottom line. What is the purpose of summer reading? How do we assess it? Should we even have required books or should we let students choose?

My school requires students read three books (four if you’re in AP). Of those three, one is a required book, one is a choice selected from a list of about ten books, and one is a faculty seminar book—students sign up the previous spring for the book they want to read. We have everything from The Eyre Affair to Hunger Games to Bringing Down the House. The students seem to like it, and there is sometimes a mad rush to sign up for first picks.

When students return, our first unit of study is the required book. I usually ask students to create a project for the choice book. The seminar discussion is the only assessment for the faculty book.

Basically, our conversation last night centered around whether we should assign summer reading. I admit I’m torn. I want students to read over the summer, and I want them to pick up books they want to read. I think we try to have some balance in the way we do it at Weber, but I admit some students still grumble. And what we are doing now is a big improvement over what we were doing when I started: three required books, some type of assessment over two of them without discussion (usually a test and an essay). The kids hated it.

I will go on record as saying the chapter summaries deal that a lot of schools do is just painful, and it kills books. My daughter has had to do that for summer reading, and I have watched it destroy any interest she had in the book. She had to do it with Speak, and not only did it frustrate her because she couldn’t tell what constituted a chapter in that book, but the directions given by the school were also no help. Once school started and the teachers recognized this, they backed off on the requirement, and my daughter, who had done a whole lot of work, just felt resentful. Last year, her teacher required these study guides for each book they read. It’s painful! And no choices at all!

I know we have some students who wouldn’t pick up a book all summer without a summer reading requirement. Truth be told, some of them don’t anyway. So what’s the solution? What do you think of summer reading? What should schools do?

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I’m Still in Salem

At least in my mind. The visit actually ended a week ago. The first thing I wanted to do when I came home was read my favorite books set in Salem. If your students read The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter (yes, I know that one’s set in Boston), and they’re looking for more books about Salem, you might try steering them toward these books.

The Physick Book of Deliverance DaneKatherine Howe’s novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane begins on the cusp of the Salem witch trials. Deliverance Dane is a healer, a wise woman accused of witchcraft. The difference between Deliverance and others accused is that Deliverance actually is a witch. This novel follows the stories of several of Deliverance’s descendants, including  Connie Goodwin, the protagonist of the story. Connie is a history graduate student, and we first meet her during her oral examination. The novel is highly readable. Howe has clearly done her research, and she’s truly writing what she knows—she herself is a doctoral student in history and the descendant of two accused witches—Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not.

The Heretic's DaughterKathleen Kent’s novel The Heretic’s Daughter is billed as “a gripping and original first novel based on family history from a descendant of a condemned Salem witch.” Told from the point of view of Sarah Carrier, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was condemned and hanged during the witch trials, the novel vividly explores the events of the trials. Kent herself is a descendant of the Carriers. This novel is geared toward a young adult audience and might be perfect for literature circles about the Salem witch trials (and I think I just had a really good idea for American literature this year after typing that sentence).

The House of Seven GablesFewer people read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables than its more famous counterpart, The Scarlet Letter, but some readers, including poet James Russell Lowell, felt that Seven Gables was even better than The Scarlet Letter. The house that inspired the story is a tourist attraction in Salem. Hawthorne’s birthplace has been moved to the same grounds. After visiting the house, I feel there is little wonder why the home inspired Hawthorne. The novel tells the story of the Pyncheon family, cursed because of the role an ancestor played in the witch trials. Fun fact: the Pyncheon family actually existed and are the ancestors of writer Thomas Pynchon, so you get a two for one connection.

The Lace ReaderBrunonia Barry’s novel The Lace Reader is more of a modern novel of Salem, but readers are treated to descriptions of the kitschy embrace of its witchcraft history that can be found in modern Salem. The novel centers around Towner Whitney, who is returning to Salem upon the death of a beloved aunt. Towner shares her aunt’s ability to read the future through patterns in lace. Several Salem landmarks are depicted, including the statue of Roger Conant and Red’s Sandwiches. The novel explores Towner’s quest to save herself and figure out who she is. It might be more interesting to more mature female students as opposed to male students, but I enjoyed it when I read it some time ago.

The Map of True PlacesBrunonia Barry’s second novel The Map of True Places is also set in Salem, where the author lives. This novel explores the long-term effects of the suicide of protagonist Zee’s mother. Perhaps because Barry herself returned to Salem after an absence, her novels explore characters who also come back to Salem and the complex psychological associations we have with place and home. The title is drawn from a Melville quote: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Isn’t the cover gorgeous?

So, if you fancy a visit to Salem, give one of these books a try. If you’ve read them, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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Salem Visit

We returned home from Salem late Friday night. I had a great time, and I want to thank Destination Salem, William Morrow, and Brunonia Barry for the great trip!

We were waylaid for five-six hours in Pennsylvania when our car broke down. Our radiator cracked and we overheated. However, I have to hand it to Karl’s Towing in Saylorsburg: they fixed the problem and we were on our way. They charged us a fair price, too. I think given the circumstances, they worked as quickly as they could. It was a rotten situation to be in, but they made it bearable.

It was late at night when we arrived in Salem, so we didn’t get to look around as we had planned. The next day we started out with a ride on the Salem Trolley. We walked around town, looking at everything. We went to the kitschy Salem Witch Museum I took pictures of the Witch Trials Memorial at the Old Burying Ground. We visited the House of Seven Gables. We visited a wonderful old candy store near the House of Seven Gables called Ye Olde Pepper Companie. We had a wonderful dinner at Sixty 2 on Wharf.

The next day we started with a wonderful breakfast at the Hawthorne Hotel and went to the Peabody Essex Museum and rode the schooner Fame. We only had two nights in the hotel, so that evening we visited my friend Ha in Concord. We spent that night in her condo in Cambridge, then left the next day. All in all, we needed more time. I really think that six hours would have made a difference, but c’est la vie, and we had a great time anyway. I would love to go back and visit any time. We had a wonderful time. Everyone was so friendly, and it was amazing to be in the presence of so much history—literary and otherwise.

Here are some pictures from the trip. All of them are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, so if you want to use them for your unit on The Crucible, feel free to grab them.


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

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The Crucible

Salem Massachusetts 011-300As I prepare to visit Salem, Massachusetts for the first time early next week, I thought it would be fitting to share some of my lessons for The Crucible in case you haven’t seen them before.

In Witch Hunt: A Web Scavenger Hunt for The Crucible by Arthur Miller, your students will learn about the inspiration for Arthur Miller’s play, including the Salem Witch Trials, McCarthyism, and possible scientific explanations for the hysteria.

In Crucible, Act Two, Scene Two assignment (RTF,  PDF) your students must consider whether Act Two, Scene Two, added by Miller later on, is materially necessary to the play. Some argue that it changes Abigail’s motives from desire for John Proctor to madness.

In “Half-Hanged Mary” by Margaret Atwood (RTF,  PDF—credit Jana Edwards) students read a poem based on the true story of Mary Webster, accused of witchcraft in the 1680′s. It would make a good introduction or companion to The Crucible.

I most likely will not be posting next week while I am on vacation.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Paul-W

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