What I’ve “Drawn” Up

CreativityIn a previous post, I discussed some trouble I had teaching a lesson, and basically, it all hinged on the vocabulary my students had. One mistake I made, I think, was assuming I needed to get in the middle of the learning. When my other class reads “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” today, they are going to use a remixed version of Joe Scotese’s group work lesson on the poem. Changes I made to the lesson:

  • I took out references to the Milton poem and “The Rape of the Lock.” (Essentially removed questions 1-3 on Joe’s lesson).
  • I tweaked the other questions
    • I removed references to Uncle Remus, Song of the South, etc. from question 4.4.
    • I added the word “pastoral” to terms to look up and discuss along with the image of The Shepherdess by Jean Honoré Fragonard (which I put on the back of my revised questions).
    • I removed question 4.9 because I removed the Pope excerpt.
    • I altered question 4.17 to remove reference to Uncle Remus.

Joe’s work is copyrighted, rather than licensed under a Creative Commons license, but you are free to join his site and download the lesson. I am not able to publish my altered version because I respect Joe’s wishes regarding the publication of his work.

One critical component of Joe’s work is that in the groups, students read the poem and do not go on until they understand what is being said. I think students might need to read with dictionaries in hand, and I will be able to facilitate as they discuss in groups, but putting more of the work on them and making them more active is a positive change. I’ll leave a comment here after the lesson and let you know how it went.

I have also recently come upon Dawn Hogue’s text for Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (PDF). Dawn has created a great text that invites students to annotate and think about the story. A lot of the fat literature anthologies don’t include this story, and I like it better than some of the more commonly anthologized stories, so I am grateful to Dawn for sharing.

I was also pleased to discover Romantic Circles as I prepare to teach Romanticism in British Lit. and Comp. Romantic circles has electronic texts, audio, literary criticism, and teaching ideas.

On an unrelated note, I discovered that my Diigo account wasn’t updating with a links post each Sunday, and I have fixed the problem. My Diigo links should now publish each Sunday for those of you who follow the RSS feed and don’t see them in the sidebar to the left.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Mark van Laere

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Back to the Drawing Board

Tapping a PencilMy lesson on Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” bombed pretty spectacularly today. Well, that might be a bit hyperbolic. Surely the time of day, and few classroom irregularities also bear some blame.

I began the lesson by telling students I was going to tell them a story. In Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain, there is a fantastic story about General James Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in the French and Indian War. Things were going badly for the English and Americans. The French wouldn’t budge out of Montreal, and the only way to get to them was up a steep cliff. To top it off, Wolfe had consumption and was so sick at one point he could barely lift his head. He tried to give orders, but all the English attempts to engage the French were failures. Summer was passing quickly, and before long, fall would come, freezing over the St. Lawrence, and making an attack unfeasible until the spring thaw. Suddenly Wolfe’s consumption went into remission, and he hatched a crazy plan. He had seen a little inlet and wondered if he could get his troops up the cliff. From the text:

At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.

When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.

Wolfe died of wounds received in the battle, but his attack was successful, and the English captured Quebec. And yet he says he would rather have written Gray’s poem. After telling my students this story, I asked them to close their eyes and try to picture the images as I read the poem. That was a mistake. It’s about 128 lines long, which is bearable, but longer than their attention spans for sure. Second, they did not have the vocabulary to picture the images in the poem. After I read the poem, the students journaled, and that was where I lost them. They didn’t know what to write, and they knew they had trouble comprehending the language, so they felt a little lost. That was when I realized my mistake. We read it a second time, and I redeemed myself a bit. If I were to do the activity again, I wouldn’t read the poem aloud. Instead, we would read it together or I would split them in groups to read and annotate. I might even have had them read the poem for homework and define all the words they didn’t understand as they read.

My thinking with the read-aloud is that the poem has such strong imagery that I thought listening would lead my students to a stronger understanding of the images used in the poem. I had always intended to read the poem twice, but the first time through was a bit of a waste of our time.

Back to the drawing board!

Do you teach this poem in your class? How do you tackle the vocabulary?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Rennett Stowe

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Resource Wednesday: Shelley’s Ghost

Starting today, Wednesday posts will feature a close-up of a particular resource, tool, or lesson plan. This week’s resource is the Bodleian Library’s exhibition Shelley’s Ghost.

YouTube Preview Image

At the website you will find images of letters, drafts, portraits, and items owned by the Shelleys as well as multimedia such as podcasts (Harriet Westbrook Shelley’s suicide note is particularly chilling). They also include lesson ideas for teachers.

You can also find their competition entrants (yours truly included) discussing what the Shelleys’ and Godwins’ work means to them. This website is a fascinating collection of information, resources, and media that will help your students studying poetry or British literature learn more about this fascinating family.

Full disclosure: Because only three contestants entered the competition, all three of us were awarded the prize: a copy of Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family by Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. Denlinger.

I hope the Bodleian will make the website a permanent exhibit.

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Teaching “A Modest Proposal”

A Modest ProposalI enjoy teaching “A Modest Proposal.” I think in many cases it’s the first time students have been introduced to satire on that level. Sometimes my students are appalled at Swift for even suggesting such a thing—and that’s the point, isn’t it? To be appalled?

I don’t do anything magical when I teach it, and it’s certainly not creative or new, but maybe sharing what I do will help along someone whose never taught it before, and others of you who do fun things with it—feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

First, I think you need to introduce the concept of satire. I share an article from The Onion without telling students that’s where it’s from. You can take your pick, but one of my history teacher friends gave me this one that she has used for DBQ’s in AP European History: “Industrial Revolution Provides Millions of Out-of-Work Children with Jobs.” The themes of both this article and Swift’s essay are similar—the exploitation of children for the benefit of adults, the loss of childhood innocence, harsh conditions for children.

Read the article and generate discussion. Ask students if they agree with it. They’ll probably say no. Ask why. What’s wrong with it? If they don’t figure out it’s satire, you need to lead them toward that conclusion. Then ask them to generate a definition for satire based on their understanding of what it is. Compare that definition to the one provided by your book or dictionary of literary terms. Ask what is the point of satire? Why not just present the problem and the solution in a realistic way? Why not just directly present an issue? What does satire accomplish? Have them list forms of satire they’re familiar with—mine shared mostly TV, but some of your students will know about The Onion or maybe even M.A.D. Magazine.

Next we look at the argument The Onion article made by analyzing the subject, occasion, audience, purpose, and speaker. I use the acronym SOAPS. Subject: What is this article about? Occasion: Why was it written? What is going on at the time that the author is mocking? Audience: Who is this article aimed at? Purpose: What does the author hope to achieve by writing it? and Speaker: How does the author establish himself/herself as an authority on the subject?

My students told me that the subject was children working in the industrial revolution. The occasion was the current economy and large number of out-of-work adults—they felt perhaps the author was drawing attention to the fact that times have been worse. Audience they felt could be virtually anyone living through our current tough economy. They felt the purpose was to give the reader historical perspective, to think about the difficult lives of children in the past. Finally, they felt using quotes from fake historians and the overall tone of the article established the speaker as someone to listen to. Of course, we talked about the rhetorical triangle in context of this analysis, too.

After we analyze The Onion article, we begin “A Modest Proposal.” I think the vocabulary is fairly difficult, so I read it in class with students. We stop and talk to clarify and define vocabulary. After reading the first few paragraphs, before Swift makes his proposal, I ask students what they think he will suggest. How would they solve poverty and hunger? They offer suggestions, and no one in my class at least thought of cannibalizing babies. After reading and discussing the entire essay and analyzing it as we did The Onion article, discussing the article’s effectiveness in drawing attention to the issue, discussing some of Swift’s better barbs, and in particular, drawing attention to the paragraph in which Swift reveals several reasonable solutions to the problems—taxing absentee landlords, manufacturing luxury goods in Great Britain, etc.—I suggest students write their own modest proposal modeled after Swift’s. It’s not the most creative assignment; I did the same assignment myself in high school, so I know I’m not the first person to come up with it. However, it remains my favorite assignment from high school, and I think it gives students free rein to go kind of crazy with their writing and still exercise persuasive writing skills.

We start by generating a list of social issues. Students should think of an outlandish solution to that problem. They should include a paragraph like Swift’s in which they introduce solutions that are actually reasonable and workable only to explain why the reader should not speak to the writer of such untenable solutions. Swift’s essay makes an excellent model for how to proceed. Students may need to do some research about their issue, too. Students usually have a lot of fun with this essay, but it’s also a great assignment for teaching rhetoric and argumentative writing.

Oh, and I still remember what I wrote about for my own essay in high school. Some of you older teachers remember the garbage barge full of NYC trash that had no place to dump? It was an issue in the news when I was in high school. Well, if we have no place to dump our trash, we should dump it in developing countries. Perhaps the toxicity of living with our trash would cause the inhabitants to die off, solving two problems in one: we would have a place for our trash, and we could stop supplying aid to developing countries and use the money for ourselves (preferably luxury goods).

Creative Commons License photo credit: Charlie & Kasie Bennett

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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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