The Unquiet Library

The Unquiet Library, run by media specialist Buffy Hamilton at Creekview High School in Canton, GA., has a wonderful writeup in American Libraries.

The students are skeptical when the librarian says, “I want everyone to take out their cell phones and check to see if you can get reception in the library.” The young scholars hesitantly pull out their mobile devices unsure of what to make of this request. “Your assignment is to charge up your phones for class on Friday.” This wasn’t like any librarian they had met before.

Here’s how much of a library nerd I am: I teared up as I read the last paragraph. Good for you, Buffy! And for Creekview and its students and teachers.

Buffy does some amazing things. I’m so jealous of Creekview. Check out her online presence and enjoy learning from her:

An April morning in the Unquiet Library

Creative Commons License photo credit:  theunquietlibrary

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Pretty British Literature Handouts

Partly because I am trying to show off the pretty handouts I have created using Apple iWorks’s Pages, and partly because I wanted to try out Issuu, here is a collection of handouts for British literature.

What a pretty way to share handouts!

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Teaching Schedule

Material escolarI received my teaching schedule for next year. I am stepping back into some comfortable areas as well as taking on some new challenges.

I will be teaching two sections (two levels) of British Literature and Composition, same as I did this year, and I will also be teaching my Hero with a Thousand Faces elective first semester and Writing Seminar II second semester. I have taught Writing Seminar II for at least second semester, if not for the whole year, ever since the course was created. The reason for that is the academic research paper is assigned for all tenth graders, including those in that Writing Seminar class, during second semester. Teaching the research paper is one of my areas of expertise, which sounds really self-congratulatory, and I’m not usually like that, but I do understand why I am consistently given the task by my principal.

I am returning to American Literature and Composition, which I haven’t taught for a few years. I already used this word, but that curriculum feels comfortable to me. It will be good to get back into again. I really did kind of miss it.

I am taking on the new challenge of teaching Journalism and running our school paper. I have taught a Journalism course before in middle school, and I feel the course was great considering the lack of support I received by the administration and the lack of materials I received. Aside from getting a local car dealership to underwrite a two-day a week subscription to the newspaper, I had no teaching materials. In my new position, I will have computer access and software, a few seasoned newspaper veterans in the class, and I would wager I’ll have all the support I will need to make a go of it.

As I gave the teacher edition of one of the 9th grade literature anthologies to the teacher who will teach the class next year, I remarked to her that I had taught that course (Grammar, Composition, and Literature CP2) since its inception at our school. Wow. That has been for the last six years. I have taught ninth grade for every year of my high school teaching career. That means teaching Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey every year for 10 years. It was wearing thin, and when I realized a couple of years ago that I was no longer enjoying teaching even these favorites, I knew I needed a break. Maybe I won’t mind coming back to it after a rest.

I think I have decided not to buy a Teacher’s Daybook this year. I find Jim Burke’s planner to be the best I’ve ever used. It’s flexible, but one struggle I’ve had is that I have a lot of preps and a strange alternating schedule, and in my search for a planner that works better for me, I found this: Planbook by Hellmansoft. The video demonstration gives you a good idea of all the planner can do, but here’s a great description from the site:

Planbook is a lesson planning application developed by Jeff Hellman, a high school science teacher. Planbook is designed to completely replace your paper plan book with an intuitive application that lets you harness the power of the computer to make your lesson planning time more productive. You can enter the schedule that you teach (rotating and A/B schedule are easily handled), quickly enter lesson information, attach files to lessons, track standards, print hard copies of your plans and publish your plans to the web for students, parents and other education professionals and more.

Planbook is simple enough to use that you’ll get going in no time, but robust enough to deal with schedule changes, days with abnormal schedules and just about anything else that comes at you.

Given the price, and given all the strangeness in my schedule, as well as all the features and the fact that its on the computer, it just makes sense. I can use iCal or Things to manage any reminders for non-instructional tasks (such as due dates for college letters or recommendation or meetings).

I’m looking forward to next year. I think it will be a good year.

Creative Commons License photo credit: sergis blog

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Planning for Next Year

Titanic BlueprintSome time in April or May, I think a lot of teachers, or maybe just teacher geeks like me, start thinking about next year and how they’re going to make it even better. I have not created an entire curriculum map, but I have a skeleton. A few broader goals:

  • Using wikis for my classes. And I’ve already begun working on one.
  • Organizing a portfolio using LiveBinders.
  • Interactive notebooks need some revision or even perhaps an overhaul.

Here are the essential questions for the British Literature and Composition course:

  • How do our stories shape us? How do we shape the world around us with stories?
  • How is a period of literature a response to the culture/history of that period?
  • How is a period of literature a response to the previous period?
  • What themes/ideas transcend time and culture?
  • What are the key concepts, values, and literary forms of the various periods?
  • How has the English language changed over time?

I have Joe Scotese to thank for the first question because I will be using Grendel, and the idea of the storyteller as a shaper and creator of history comes from that book, but it was Joe who made me think about how it applies to all literature. The next four are those overarching questions that frame or could frame any chronological study. The final two regard the study of literary terms and language. I plan to read about language development this summer, namely The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, which I have on my shelf already.

I have organized the British Literature study into six major units, which is helpful because the textbook does the same; however, because we use a different text for Honors courses, it was helpful to see how I might divide its content. These units are correlated to time periods:

  1. Anglo-Saxon/Medieval
  2. Renaissance
  3. Restoration/Neoclassical
  4. Romanticism
  5. Victorian
  6. Modernism/Postmodernism

Major works either planned or under consideration:

Major authors by unit:

  • Anonymous Beowulf author, John Gardner, Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Shakespeare, Marlowe, Sidney
  • Donne, Jonson, Marvell, Herrick, Suckling, Milton, Swift, Pope, Johnson, Gray
  • Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, P. Shelley, M. Shelley, Keats, Austen
  • Tennyson, R. Browning, E. B. Browning, E. Brontë, Arnold, Kipling, Housman, Wilde
  • Woolf, Yeats, Orwell, Heaney, Huxley, Lessing, Owen, Brooke, Thomas, Hughes, Walcott

Again, just a skeleton.

A mockup of essential questions by unit (excluding essential questions for major works, which have their own).

Unit 1

  1. How does the literature reflect Anglo-Saxon culture?
  2. How did Old English evolve into Middle English?
  3. What can we learn about the values of people during the Middle Ages through their literature?
  4. How did people in the Middle Ages see their world?

Unit 2

  1. How did Shakespeare contribute to the development of the English language and to literature?
  2. How did the sonnet develop as a prominent poetic form?
  3. How did the monarchy influence literature?
  4. How did Middle English evolve into Early Modern English?

Unit 3

  1. How did early dictionaries contribute to the development of the English language?
  2. How did the English Civil War and Restoration of the Monarchy impact literature?
  3. How did the rise of literacy and the rise of the middle class impact literature?
  4. How did lyric poetry and the novel develop as forms?

Unit 4

  1. How did the spread of the British Empire impact the English language?
  2. How did the Age of Revolution and spread of Romanticism affect literature?
  3. How did the rise of industrialism impact literature?
  4. How did Romanticism influence the arts?

Unit 5

  1. How did Victorian reserve impact use of language?
  2. How did the spread of reform and imperialism impact literature?
  3. How did psychology, realism, and naturalism impact literature?
  4. How did the influx of women writers impact the development of literature?

Unit 6

  1. How did the World Wars impact literature?
  2. How does British English differ from American English?
  3. How did concepts of modernism and postmodernism develop?
  4. How did the waning of the British Empire affect literature?

In thinking about the literature, I drafted a list of potential essay/writing assignments, which would make eight major writing assignments in year, or four each semester.

Prospective Composition Assignments

  1. 2 Narrative Essays—College essay
  2. Persuasive/Argumentative Essay—Beowulf as hero
  3. Literary Analysis—characterization in Canterbury Tales, courtly love in CT
  4. Creative—Macbeth directing a scene, Literary Analysis—characters, theme, symbols in Macbeth, Persuasive—witches’ influence, who is to blame, Lady Macbeth’s influence
  5. Persuasive/Argumentative Essay—Satire (A Modest Proposal)
  6. Literary Analysis—Poetry Explication
  7. Annotating a text

I also think students should learn, refine, or develop these technology skills:

  • PowerPoint or other presentation software (specifically, effective use as opposed to “Death by PowerPoint”)
  • Digital Audio and/or video
  • Microsoft Publisher, Apple Pages, or similar newsletter/document-creation software
  • Wikis, Digital Portfolio tools
  • Prerequisite skills—e-mail, MS Word (font, line spacing, formatting), online research—this list comes from previous requirements at the school and within our department.

Because I’m not sure what other courses I am teaching, excepting the Hero with a Thousand Faces elective, I have decided not to sketch out any ideas for other courses.

Creative Commons License photo credit: R P Marks

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Choice and Reading

YouTube Preview Image

I showed my students this video and asked them to journal their reactions to it. Here are some selections from their journals:

I think every high school student relates to these students in some sort of way. As time goes on, and hew and more entertaining technology is invented, reading becomes more tedious than entertaining. If I am forced to read a book that I can’t relate to or understand, of course I will get bored and most likely give up on it. Now on the other hand, I read books on programming and starting businesses all the time, and really enjoy reading them. Just like these students, I would have to say, if teachers gave students the option to choose what they read, kids would enjoy reading a lot more and become better readers. Because of school, reading has gotten a bad name to kids and even some adults. If it wasn’t for my father introducing me to my first book on programming and first book on how to start a business, I don’t think I’d ever pick up a book in my life.

A great example of finding a niche you enjoy, I think.

I think the reason that teenagers around the world do not read as much as teenagers used to read in the past is because of the new and advanced technology. Teenagers go on Facebook or watch TV on their free time instead of reading and it definitely takes a big amount of time (and doesn’t have time for reading). Personally, I wish I could read more because I love it and I think it helps me to widen my knowledge and think of aspects in life in a different way.

Personal note of pride: that last student came into my English class two years ago in February of her 9th grade year with no English. None.

I agree with the fact that it is more enjoyable to read something you’re interested in or chose yourself. Another point I would add is that reading on your own is nicer because you can read at your own pace and when there is no pressure I tend to read more.

As I slow reader myself (I often really did want to finish books assigned in school and couldn’t), I can relate to this student. What do we do about that problem in light of the limited time we have in school?

I stopped reading in 8th grade, too. Then I picked books I was interested in (10th, 11th grade) and books were an amazing source because if you forget a part you can go back to it which is just the opposite of what you can do when listening to someone talk. I completely agree with the students in the video. I think what stops people to read is that they are filling a cup they do not have. That cup is the interest and without it your energy is used for something you think is pointless. I started out reading Frankenstein [a recent required read in my Brit. Lit. classes] with apathy and then I started thinking, why not enjoy this? So I took the info. and used it to gain knowledge and expand my thinking.

This student’s cup analogy is interesting in light of the image of futility it provides.

The message in this video was that forcing people to read books that they do not like then they will not read them.

  • Teens need to read.
  • People read more if they like the book.
  • People use SparkNotes if they do not want to read or use what their peers say.
  • More important to read than read classics.
  • People who like the books will read more of them.
  • Classics are okay but what you like to read is better to read.

This student really summed up the video’s main points well because I think he agreed with them though he didn’t say so explicitly.

I believe that the video was very true. I never read for fun. I think if the teacher would let the kids read what they would choose to read, more kids would read. I read all 3 summer reading books for the first time ever, the books were all boring but I still read them. I usually read 1 or 1.5 summer reading books just because they are so boring & I have better things to do.

I do pick up on a feeling of accomplishment regarding completing freshmen year summer reading.

The video is very true. I read books quicker when I like it. The Things They Carried [a summer reading selection] took me forever. Even though I was at camp, I could never get into it. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time took me not even one night & Saturday morning to read. Though it was shorter, I enjoyed reading it more and it made me enjoy reading. It doesn’t matter what we read because reading in general stimulates our brain cells and benefits our writing and the way we think. Classics might help teach morals & provide philosophical ways of thinking, but they are overrated.

The first thought that leaps to mind is that if this poor student of mine has been convinced somehow that classics should be read so that we can learn morals and widen our philosophy, it’s really no wonder he doesn’t like them.

I also have some students who were more critical of the video:

I do not trust the credibility of this video for the following reasons:

  • The data gathered for this video was taken from only one high school.
  • Never showed an interview where a child actually read the assigned books.
  • In the video the person who didn’t read the book talks about how they understood what happened by gathering information from what people in said in class discussions. This means that someone in that class read the book and understood it enough to discuss it.

Even though the credibility of this video is in question, I do believe that they are trying to get across a valid point. If someone likes what they are reading then they will most likely read the entire thing. Also if you let them choose what they are going to read they would likely read it.

I love the way that student really thought carefully about the validity of the message, even though he agreed with it.

In my opinion, these students are whiners. I honestly think that classics are important as they reflect the time in which they were made. You don’t want to do math, but you do it anyway. Reading is made out to be such a chore these days. Reading is television for the mind. What is wrong with that? Come on, people. Grow up and just read the darn book! I mean, my God! Complain! Complain! Complain! Now how do I, who is not a genius, manage to read books for skill and books for fun at the same time?

While I admire this student’s sentiments and have shared them from time to time, is it me, or does reading sound like medicine you need to take, so it’s better to just man up and take it?

Our school is examining ways to bring more student choice into the curriculum. We have no plans to eliminate required reading as a class, but more independent reading reflecting student choice and literature circles are options we are exploring. What is your school doing to encourage more reading and foster lifelong reading habits?

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The Journey

SeekI think one of the reasons the hero’s journey is so popular in our culture, and arguably in most cultures, is that we inherently recognize that in our lives, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. Once the hero reaches his destination, the story ends.

When I was in my English Education program at UGA, one of my classmates introduced me to Joseph Campbell. I can’t remember the particulars anymore, only that Greg mentioned Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers, which became The Power of Myth.

Greg was one of most well-read people I’d met up until that point, and I respected his intellect. Out of curiosity, I purchased a copy of The Power of Myth. As a fan of Star Wars and Tolkien, I was drawn to Campbell’s ideas.

Many years later, my department chair asked us to dream up possible English electives, and my first idea was to create a course based on the monomyth and the work of Joseph Campbell. My department chair and principal approved the course based on the description I wrote. I titled the course “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” after Campbell’s seminal work.

Regular readers of this blog know that backward design informs my teaching and planning. Therefore, I created essential questions not just for each text, but also for the course:

  • How is the pattern of the monomyth demonstrated by various cultures around the world in various time periods?
  • How do archetypes inform our understanding of literature and the world?
  • How are the Hero, his/her quest, and his/her ideals still valid and useful in today’s world?
  • How has the monomyth been influential in shaping subsequent literature and film?

I begin the course with a WebQuest to help acquaint students with Campbell and his work. Next, I divide students into three groups, and each group reads a section of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Because I don’t have the option of assigning summer reading, and we need to hit the ground running so we can study several texts over the course of a semester, I have found that simply dividing the section of that book that discusses the hero’s journey into thirds—the Separation, the Initiation, and the Return—the work of learning about the hero’s journey can be accomplished more quickly. Each group reads the section of Campbell’s book dealing with their assignment and teaches the information to the class. Last semester’s Return group made great use of video to teach their section.

After students understand the basics, we move on to the texts. Campbell’s two books The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth serve as foundation texts. We also study the original Star Wars trilogy. No other modern work, with the exception of Harry Potter or possibly The Matrix, is mentioned so often in conjunction with Campbell’s work. George Lucas has said that he wanted to create a monomyth after reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the idea seems to have caught fire in Hollywood since then. Campbell’s famous interview with Bill Moyers took place on Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. Another work I felt important to include is The Hobbit. I felt that The Lord of the Rings in either book or movie form would be a bit too long for a one semester course, but obviously that work is a great choice. The Hobbit contains the hero’s journey in a more abbreviated form. Aside from these works, I have also taught The Iliad. In future iterations of the course, we will instead read shorter Greek/Roman/Norse/Celtic myths that conform more closely to the hero’s journey. Achilles, after all, spends most of The Iliad stuck in the “Refusal of the Call” phase of the journey. One could argue Hector is much more heroic, and certainly medieval scholars must have agreed—he was chosen as one of the Nine Worthies, whereas Achilles was not. I have purchased a set of The Ramayana, but never managed to get to it. It is a one semester class, and the Jewish holidays often hit us pretty hard in September/October. I have to seriously curtail reading homework during that time period, which makes it hard to get through texts (also an excellent time for film study of Star Wars).

The course has proven fairly popular. The first year, eight brave students signed up. A few of them really enjoyed the course. One of them recently visited me to tell me he had been accepted to college (he took a year off after graduation), and to tell me he was watching Star Wars with his brother the other day, and kept talking about what part of the hero’s journey Luke was currently experiencing as they watched. As he said, “Oh, now they’re in the Belly of the Whale.” I am delighted that he will not be able to watch a movie again without seeing this additional layer of meaning. Before he left, he thanked me “for a great class.”

This year, the class was full, and I understand quite a few interested students were turned away, as the class was capped at 15 students. A student in my class last semester drew a Venn diagram to help his fellow students understand the prominence of the Hero’s Journey. The diagram has only one circle instead of two. The diagram is titled “Stories that follow the Hero’s Journey.” Inside the circle are the words “All Stories Ever.” I really like the idea that as a result of taking this course, students see this common story in a new light.

My friend Greg, the one who introduced me to Joseph Campbell, was killed in action in Iraq in April 2004 when his truck convoy was ambushed outside Abu Ghraib. Greg was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Meritorious Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal for his bravery—he saved the lives of ten other soldiers before being killed. I know Greg had a deep understanding, perhaps better than most, of the sacrifices a hero must sometimes make for his people. He would have been pleased, had he lived, to learn about this course. He told me once he thought every English teacher should teach Campbell. I teach Campbell because I think his work is important and helps students put so much of their culture into perspective, but it’s a fitting tribute to Greg’s memory, too.

Here you can find a list of links I use in teaching this course or that I just find helpful and have shared with students (or just use for myself):

“For we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us.”—Joseph Campbell

*For more discussion of this essay, see this previous post.

Update: This post used to contain documents I use with the course. I will post the documents again on a future post. A plugin I used to use made them unavailable to users.

Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney

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April Poetry Madness

Magnetic PoetryMarch Madness is upon us. Folks on Twitter are complaining about how lousy their brackets are. It hit me that creating a poetry tournament could be a fun way to celebrate National Poetry Month in April.

I came up with the idea for four brackets: American classics, British/World classics, faculty favorites, and student favorites; however, you could create whatever brackets you want.

Step-by-step directions:

  1. Collect favorites from students and faculty (if you plan to use student and faculty brackets).
  2. English department discussion or teacher determination of quintessential classics of American and British/World brackets (or whatever brackets you have chosen). Alternatively, you could determine which poems should go in the classics brackets through research.
  3. Create your chart. I found downloadable 32- and 64-team blank charts in Excel at this website, but you could create your own if you wish. Google Docs also has several bracket templates you could alter for a poetry tournament. I plan to create a large chart to post outside my classroom using craft paper.
  4. Determine the poems for the first round based on submissions or other criteria.
  5. Pick your favorite way to match the poems up. You can have poetry slams and use an applause meter to determine the winner. You can post the poems and have people check their favorites, then score them. Students can advocate for a poem and determine how to try to convince their peers to vote for their poem. The possibilities are probably endless.

This is the kind of thing you can fill a bulletin board with if you like, but I have already decided to put the National Poetry Month poster from English Journal and all my students’ favorite poems on my bulletin board. Besides, I want to be able to share this project with people walking by the classroom.

Do you have any ideas to add? Please share in the comments.

Update: Well, there is clearly nothing new under the sun; I did, however, have some slightly different ideas as to execution (via Making Curriculum Pop Ning).

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Tales of the Jazz Age

Tales of the Jazz AgeAmerican literature teachers (and lovers)! Tales of the Jazz Age: 11 Classic Short Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald is available on Amazon for $4.99. I don’t usually do this kind of thing, but it sounded like a great value to me, so I’m passing it on. The collection includes “The Jelly Bean,” “The Camel’s Back,” “May Day,” “Porcelain and Pink,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Tarquin of Cheapside,” “O Russet Witch,” “The Lees of Happiness,” “Mr. Icky,” and “Jemina.” I’m not sure how long this price is effective, but I decided it would make a nice addition to my classroom library, and I thought I’d pass it on to anyone else who might be interested.

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The Perils of Teaching the Books We Love

Several years ago, I read an opinion piece in English Journal by Rebecca Hayden entitled “Teaching Works We Love: Hazards of the English Classroom.” (You will need to be an NCTE member and possibly an EJ subscriber to access that article, I think.) This piece really resonated with me because I think all teachers, at some point, teach a book they absolutely love only to be crushed by the lukewarm or even hostile reactions of our students. Hayden discusses such an experience with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Back when I taught American literature, sometimes I would read Hayden’s article to students and explain that the way she felt about Tess was how I felt about The Great Gatsby, and if they could find it in their hearts, I pleaded, I would appreciate it if they could be gentle with me if they didn’t like it.

Now as I prepare to teach Wuthering Heights later this year, I admit I’m worried. I am well aware this book has a certain polarizing effect. My own mother hates it; she tried to read it based on my recommendation, and she could not get into it. I read a post somewhere recently, and I regret I can’t recall where, in which the poster argued that he/she could understand the appeal of the other classics, but not Wuthering Heights. The poster wondered why on earth this book was considered classic and didn’t just die a natural death over time, like so many other forgotten books that are never read and go out of print. And I felt a little bit sick.

I came to Wuthering Heights really late. In fact, I didn’t read it in its entirety until the summer of 2008. I tried to read it when assigned in high school, but I couldn’t keep up with the reading schedule set by my teacher (I am a slow reader), so I gave up. The book sucked me in when Catherine Linton disturbed Mr. Lockwood’s sleep that awful night at Wuthering Heights. It was like Catherine grabbed me and didn’t let go. Over the last year and half, I have developed a sort of unhealthy obsession with the book. I can’t figure it out at all. I don’t like the characters, really. Like is a word one can’t use to describe them. In many cases, they’re horrible people, and it’s hard to dredge up any sympathy for them at all. No, I don’t like them at all. I love them, though. I told my husband that I couldn’t explain how I felt about this book in the same terms: I don’t like it at all, but I love it. In a very real way, I feel like I am presenting my heart to my students with even chances that it will be stepped on. The easy thing to do would be not to teach it, I suppose. Instead, I am going to put myself out there, and before we begin reading, I will say this:

Before we read this book, I need to share a secret with you. I love this book with an unhealthy passion. Harry Potter might be jealous. I’m not sure. The fact is that I think about this book a lot. I Google the title a lot and look at the pictures and articles that result. I watch the movie. And I just can’t tell you why. The characters are horrible people with few redeeming qualities. The book has beautiful descriptions, but I usually respond most to books with characters I like. This book is the lone exception. When you have a work of literature like this that you just love so much, it can be scary to teach it because you might not like it. This book is one of those books that people seem to either really love or really hate. I know that if you don’t like it, it’s not like you’re being personal about it anymore than you are being personal about it when you read an assigned book that you do like. It’s the book you respond to rather than the teacher, although it is my hope that a good teacher makes a book more bearable if you dislike it and even better if you like it. I quote another English teacher when I say, “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?”

You have my permission not to like Wuthering Heights, but I ask you to please be gentle with me, dear readers, because I am handing you my soul when I hand you this novel. Please don’t trample it to death. All I ask is that you keep an open mind. This book might just change your life the way it changed mine.*

*Well expressed portions of this plea were lovingly cribbed from Rebecca Hayden’s article. I just don’t know how to say it better than she did.

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