American Literature: How I Threw Out the Chronology and Embraced the Themes

america photoIf you went to an American high school, I’ll bet your high school had an American literature course. Other courses seem to vary based on type of school, location, and other interests, but American literature seems to be the one universal course. I know it’s the only literature course that all the high schools where I have taught have in common. After all, it makes sense, right? American high school students should study the literature of their country. One would expect British high school students to study British literature and Chinese high school students to study Chinese literature and so on.

Many students seem to take this course in 10th or, more commonly, in 11th grade. My school requires American Studies in Literature for most 11th graders. I have taught an American literature course for a large chunk of my teaching career. Typically, the schools I have worked in have had an American literature anthology such as one of the following:


At one time or another, I think I’ve used all of these books in one of their incarnations. The latest editions I used had lots of nice glossy pictures and references to standards, reading questions, and lots of introductory reading material. I think they are all pretty much arranged chronologically, and therein lies the problem. It’s tempting to rely on the way the textbook is laid out when teaching. Grant Wiggins says in his blog post “How do you plan? redux” (emphasis mine):

For myself, I haven’t ever been a slave to a textbook, and go through the process you describe every time I get a new course, constantly revisiting as I move through the year. I always find that I still go too fast the first year, then slow it way back the second, and then pull in subjects slowly as I get better at designing the course. I encourage all other teachers to do the same. My coworkers are always taken aback when they ask me what chapter I’m on and I say, I don’t do chapters.

The easy thing to do is to use the textbook as the plan, but this year, I ditched the textbook, and it was liberating. Instead of marching chronologically through American literature, starting with the Puritans and perhaps a few token Native American pieces and trying to get through as much as possible before stalling out around the 1940’s or so at the end of the school year, I spent a lot of time last summer designing the American literature course I’m teaching from the bottom. I discovered some really interesting things, too, and it entirely changed the way I approached teaching the subject.

Instead of thinking about the texts, I thought about the themes. The themes that immediately came to mind are the American Dream, the American Identity, and Civil Disobedience. I gave it some thought and wound up with the following themes in the end:

  • This Land is Your Land: The American Identity
  • Song of Myself: Individuality, Conformity, and and Society
  • American Dreams and Nightmares
  • In Search of America

For the unit I called This Land is Your Land: The American Identity, I wrote the following essential questions:

  • What is an “American”?
  • How is an American identity created?
  • Why have people come to America, and why do they continue to come to America?

Then I decided the works of literature we would study would need to respond in some way to these questions, so the final unit included works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but also a short piece from Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club usually titled “The Rules of the Game.” We read the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. We read poetry like Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” Hughes’s “I, Too,” and McKay’s “America.”

The unit took quite a long time, so the first thing I plan to do this summer is examine the whole year and see what reorganizing I can do.

The second unit, “Song of Myself: Identity, Conformity, and Society” included essential questions:

  • How has the concept of civil disobedience influenced America?
  • What is the role of the individual in society?
  • What is good for the community? What are implications for individuals?
  • Why do people conform? Why do others choose not to conform? What happens as a result of these choices?

The unit includes readings such as Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and works by Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes, and Emerson.

The third unit, “American Dreams and Nightmares” includes the following essential questions:

  • What is the American dream? To what extent is it achievable by all? What values does it reflect?
  • Is America a classless society?
  • Can we repeat the past?

We will read The Great Gatsby as a centerpiece and will explore a wide variety of poets from Eliot to Simon and Garfunkel and from Frost to Baraka.

The final short unit will explore the lure of the American highway:

  • Is the journey as important as the destination?
  • How do we relate to our families, communities, and society? To what extent is each relationship important?
  • How do our personal journeys shape who we become?

We will read short works by Welty, Hughes, Frost, Simon and Garfunkel, and Giovanni, but the bulk of the unit will be a digital storytelling project we have been gearing up for with a focus on storytelling that has run through the year, including This American Life, among other texts. Whatever happens, even if I have to chuck out literature I would love the students to study, that digital storytelling project is happening.

One thing I discovered as I planned the year is that without the constraints of a chronology, I felt free to explore works I might never otherwise have chosen, but which define or illustrate the themes quite well and perhaps say more about who we are as a people than works I might have taught in a chronology.

I strongly believe that literature is a mirror. We see ourselves reflected in what we read, and we either connect or don’t connect based on what we see. Using this process, it was my hope that I would choose works that my students could find themselves in but would also still help them understand who and what America is. I felt Barack Obama articulated well what I was trying to create in his speech at Selma.

Obama Selma WordcloudWe are a great country, and we can be greater still if we are willing to take a hard look at ourselves in that mirror.

I discovered that the thematic thinking showed more of an arc—it told the story of America and allowed for more diversity in the literature. I ran across this 100-year-old article in English Journal today when I was poking around online: “Required American Literature” by Nellie A. Stephenson. The first sentence killed me (in the sense that Holden Caulfield means).

For the last ten years I have been slowly gathering the impression that graduates of American colleges and American public high schools are appallingly ignorant of American literature.

Admit it. This person is in your department. She goes on to argue that she thinks too much emphasis is placed on English literature to the detriment of studying American literature (with little data aside from anecdotal impressions) to support her assertion. But rather than “exploding the canon,” she really only argues for establishing a new American canon. Among her essentials are Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman, Samuel Sewell, and John Woolman. Are they on your list? By the way, no references in the article to women writers or, for that matter, any writers besides white men. And therein lies the problem with the textbooks. If we rely on them, we let them tell us who is important. To be sure, many of the texts I chose for my course are also canonical, but I also made an attempt to bring in non-canonical works and writers with a large diversity of backgrounds and time periods (more modern literature always seemed to get the short shrift from me in the past).

What I need to work on now is paring the list down and offering more choices to students. I was struck the other day in speaking with a young teacher who explained that he didn’t much like to read when he was our students’ age because he wasn’t offered a lot of choice, so he didn’t know what he liked to read. Instead, he either read (or pretended to read) the required texts in school. My own high school experience was strange because I went to three different high schools, and as a result, my background in literature was patchy. I hadn’t read all the literature you were supposed to have read. And I still went on to read it later and become an English teacher. I just don’t buy the argument that we have to read certain texts in high school. I think if we really want to read them, we will come to them when we are ready. Or maybe we don’t read them, and the world doesn’t end.

Perhaps we teach the chronology because that’s what we have always done. Perhaps we do it because it makes organizing the curriculum easy. Perhaps we do it because our books are arranged that way. We should think about why we are doing it. If we threw out the book, how would we teach the American literature? Or any course, for that matter?

One thing for sure: there is not enough time in the world to teach all the literature worth reading. There is not even enough time to read all the literature worth reading. The best we can do is remember the dictum of that great teacher, Socrates (or at least attributed to him): “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

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Evolution

gardening photoI have been writing this blog post in my head for months now, and I’m not sure I will really capture what I’m thinking.

I have changed a lot as a teacher over the years. I no longer agree with many of the ideas I expressed earlier in this blog. Perhaps some of the ways I have changed can best be expressed by exploring some of those opinions, why I held them then, and why I no longer hold them.

I used to be strict about late work. As in, I didn’t want to take it. Sometimes, I still would, despite saying, here on this blog, that I didn’t do it. I struggled with the issue of keeping track. It was easier for me, organizationally, if I asked students to turn in work on time. And that has not changed. It is still easier on me if they turn their work in on time. However, despite the fact that my school has a policy about late work, I take work late, and I don’t really penalize for it unless it becomes a chronic issue with a student who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have come to believe that perhaps students do not always meet a standard at the same time. Sometimes, some students need to take a little longer. Sometimes, things happen, and maybe it’s not even that catastrophic. Maybe they forgot. I forget stuff, too. That’s why, when I asked a student about a late project today, and she sheepishly said, “I’m still working on it,” I replied, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar.” It does cause a bit of an organizational issue for me, but one way I manage it is to have students do work electronically (which, by the way, was a suggestion from a commenter on the blog post I linked above). Keeping track of Google Docs and online quizzes works better for me than having bits of paper everywhere, and I find I can manage the work more easily.

Students also ask me if they can revise their work, and I always let them. Why? Because I think it helps them become better writers when they do. And I care more about that progress than I care about keeping a grade at a certain level. Some folks disagree with that stance and call it grade inflation. I used to have some real issues with grading myself, but partly those issues were based on expectations of an administrator who thought I was too easy on the kids. I was actually threatened with my job, so I decided I needed to be harder, and I tried to justify it to myself philosophically as part of being a rigorous teacher with high expectations. I just don’t think my students would say I don’t have high expectations today, even if I allow late work and revision. If I didn’t have to give grades, I don’t think I would. I have come to see them as a false construct. They have the value that we give them, and we can’t really even agree on what that value is. Some folks bestow A’s on students unwillingly and always sparingly, but the grade inflation battle was lost a long time ago. We can keep trying to defend that hill if we want to, I suppose, but I don’t want to die on it myself. So, I have a lot of high grades, and I didn’t used to have as many. I don’t think they came easy. I am quite concerned that students and parents focus too much on grades and not enough on the learning, and the funny thing that happens when you allow students to revise and to turn in late is that it doesn’t really become about the grade. It does seem to help students understand that the issue at hand is the learning, and they will work harder for me and do more than they did when I felt like I had to keep grades lower to please my administrator. At the time, however, I was very concerned that too many A’s said something negative about my expectations and the level of challenge in my class. Now, I think they tend to say students are learning the material successfully.

I used to talk too much in my classes, and some days, I probably still do. But I have really worked on it over the years. I can remember writing lectures that were basically scripts, if you can believe that, when I first started teaching. I had to have complete control and go bell to bell. My second day in my own classroom was a complete disaster. I had just received my 33rd student in the class, and I was trying to get him sorted. I only had 28 desks, I think, and the kids were being too talkative, and I wasn’t starting class on time because I was dealing with this new student, and I said to the kids that they should be working quietly while I handled the situation, adding that “It should be so quiet I could hear a pin drop.” Geez, does that make me cringe. Guess what happened? Every kid in the class dropped his or her pen. I was furious, but then we “started” class, and I pushed through. That first year is not something I like to think about at all. I made so many mistakes. Part of the issue, though I didn’t understand it at the time, is that it was all about me and my control and not about the students. Today, one of my classes had a Socratic seminar. They are actually one of my favorite things to do with students, and I should do them more than I do. Students do all of the work in a seminar. I look down at my notes and do not say anything. Students run the discussion themselves. One of the girls in the class today remarked that it was the best Socratic seminar she’d had in school. The students really need to be taken seriously as leaders of their own learning, and they need to be given the control. Giving students control doesn’t mean we have lost control. Letting them take control of the class, the direction of the discussion, tells me much more about what students have learned than standing in front of a room talking at kids did.

I actually sent this article to my students, my students, today. I honestly believe that ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have shared it with them because I wouldn’t have wanted them to get ideas. A few years ago, I heard a student ask one of my colleagues, “Why do we have to learn this?” and the guy actually responded, “Because I said so.” I cringed. But that the same time, I used to think certain content was dreadfully important to learn. I used to give regular tests. I can’t remember the last time I gave a test (aside from a final, which I was required to give or which I agreed to give because the department wanted to). What I want students to learn has changed completely compared to my early years as a teacher.

  • I want students to learn to work together collaboratively.
  • I want them to learn that writing takes work, and you need to revise. The writing process helps.
  • I want them to learn to communicate their ideas to others with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • I want them to learn to think critically: to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. I want them to learn to ask questions.
  • I want them to learn to create. All kinds of things: videos, podcasts, poems, essays, stories.
  • I want them to learn metaphors. We think in metaphors. When we learn new information, we compare it to what we know and classify it through metaphor.
  • I want them to learn to comprehend, use, and enjoy what they read.
  • I want them to learn the value of critique: how to do it helpfully and how to use it to improve their own work.

These are all important skills and habits of mind that can be taught in a variety of ways. None of it really requires certain content, which is what the article I linked is getting at. Working with content is a means toward teaching these more important skills, but the content is not the end itself. When I began teaching and relied on lecture, content was all I taught. I don’t think students learned a lot of the more important skills in my bullet list. And the truth is, they didn’t really learn the content either.

One of the messy aspects of having a blog is that some of that evolution of thought has taken place in public. As a result, I have had to field emails or comments from people who quibble with some stance or other that I took seven years ago because my thinking on the issue is still published here. I actually had to close comments on older posts because 1) after a year, everyone else has moved on, and the only person who will see the comment is me, so it’s not really a conversation anymore, and 2) most of the time, if it’s a comment on a post that old, the commenter really isn’t invested in a conversation anyway, and they can be downright trolls on occasion. The occasional negative or even rude comment is part of blogging, I suppose, but we all want folks to judge us on what we’ve learned and the progress we’ve made. We don’t want to be held to ideas and opinions we no longer think are important. Maybe we have learned some things that have changed our minds about something we used to believe. We grow, we change, we evolve. Maybe we should let the learning be a little messy and give students that same time to evolve.

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NCTE 2014 Recap

Audience at B.24

Audience at B.24. Photo by Lisa Iaccarino

NCTE is over. My brain is full. I have a few major takeaways:

  1. My students are not given nearly enough opportunities for independent reading. As in none, really. I am not going to go so far as to flagellate myself for malpractice, but I definitely need to bring in opportunities for students to select what they read. There is a good balance I can strike with required reading and self-selected reading.
  2. My classroom library needs an overhaul. I have two bookshelves (inherited) in my classroom. One is broken. The other is leaning precariously against classroom heating system. Both of them need to go. I want my students to be able to peruse the shelves. Seeing a picture of Penny Kittle’s classroom library gave me serious shelf envy. My husband and I talked about it, and he would be thrilled if I would get some of our books out of the house and into my classroom. I really just need to get some shelves and fill them.
  3. I missed YA fiction. I haven’t read any in a while, and one aspect of NCTE that I have always enjoyed is the access to titles and conversations about YA literature. I had Eleanor & Park on my Kindle, and I hadn’t read it yet. I started reading it last night, and I didn’t stop until I was done. I found John Green’s quote particularly compelling: “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.” You know what book I keep thinking about now that I’ve finished Eleanor & Park? Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. I fell in love with that book hard. I wore out my copy. I still remember the cover.

Tiger EyesMore soon. Still decompressing.

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Tales from Writing Workshop

writing photoWhile my students engaged in writing workshop with short persuasive speeches, this year’s workshop really began in earnest this week with essays about the definition of an American. My students have read the frequently taught and anthologized letter by Crèvecoeur in which he offers his famous definition of an American. I won’t link to any particular version because I used a condensed version I edited myself. My students compared their definitions to his. I imagine it’s a fairly standard assignment for that particular piece of early American literature. We workshopped two essays in each of my American literature English classes. My goal is to offer each student in my classes an opportunity to workshop their writing.

As we workshopped the first essay in one of my classes, I could hear the student next to the essay’s writer talking to the essay writer (and not in an out-loud-I’m-sharing-feedback-for-workshop way). I asked him what was wrong; he seemed if not exactly distressed at least a little uncomfortable. He said, “Oh, I just need to rethink my whole essay.” I said, “You won’t appreciate my saying this, but my reaction is: good! I’m glad. How much better is it to figure that out in this early drafting stage than get it back and realize you had some problems?” He agreed it was probably better that way and took my teasing—even if did contain a serious message—in good-humored way.

Because I’m nosy, I just checked his Google Doc to see what the revision history looked like. Check this out:Google Docs Revision HistoryThe pink icon belongs to the writer whose essay we were workshopping. I didn’t tell them to share. They just decided to help each other. I was able to see what the suggested edits were—a couple of grammar/mechanics suggestions. More important to me is the number of times the writer made his own edits, and the substance of edits. He’s not finished either. The end of his document contains quite a lot of notes and ideas for proceeding. In any case, the paper isn’t due until next Thursday.

The evening after this writing workshop class, I received an email from one of my students. He was requesting that we workshop his essay in the next class, if we had time, and he was hoping he could get some help with development and structure. We did look at his essay. It was well written. Some quotes were tightly integrated; others needed more anchoring. He used outside research. He developed his ideas well. He crafted a fine argument. One of my students (just so happens it was the same one who said he’d need to rethink his essay), remarked that he felt sure the writer would have earned an excellent grade without the help of workshop. I pointed out, “But we made it even better.” I could tell the writer was really happy with the accolades of his classmates:

“Please don’t grade my essay after his, Mrs. Huff.”

“Wow, that was amazing.”

“That was awesome.”

“Way to set the bar high.”

I would love to have a picture of his beaming face.

Today, a student in that class came by during our cooperative/collaborative learning time. “After reading that essay yesterday, I realized I need some help with mine.”

Students have an authentic audience of their peers in writing workshop. They learn to be much stronger writers and editors as a result of sharing their own work and reading their peers’ work. My student writers probably did more for helping their peers with their own essays this week than I could have done all year. I’m willing to bet quite a few of them turned to their work with a more critical eye after seeing the possibilities. And it’s only a few weeks into the year.

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Using Evernote for Lesson Plans

Before I get into the meat of this post, I wanted to mention that I’ve been having some issues with pages taking a long time to load and general slowness on this site. I put in a help ticket with my web host after trying to fix it myself without much success. The site appears to be running more smoothly, so even though I haven’t heard from my host, I am wondering if they took a look already and figured out the problem. At any rate, please be patient with me if you are having issues.

This year, I am trying a new experiment using Evernote for my lesson plans. I love Evernote. I use it quite extensively for personal note-taking, such as keeping my soap-making journal, planning trips, and the random article or PDF I want to save. I have Evernote Premium, which allows me to annotate and take notes on PDF’s as well. I also have offline access to notes, higher monthly uploads, and some other additional features, but I mainly wanted to be able to annotate PDF’s without using a separate app.

As much as I use Evernote, I wasn’t really using it for lesson planning at all. When I inquired on Twitter, I discovered Jim Burke would not be publishing a 2014-2015 Teacher’s Daybook. I had decided to go back to the Daybook after trying an electronic planbook that was brilliant, but just wasn’t working for me (not sure why). I was bummed about the Daybook, and though Jim publishes the templates online, I just didn’t want to print them out. Something told me that I wouldn’t stick with it. I happened on Nick Provenzano’s post about using Evernote to plan a while back, and I decided to give it a shot, particularly since I already liked Evernote.

First, I created Evernote notebooks for each of my classes. This process is fairly straightforward, so I’ll skip the explanation, but if you have trouble with it, feel free to ask for clarification in the comments.

I created a calendar template next. The dates can easily be changed each month. In order to create new calendar notes, I use the following process:

  • Navigate to the appropriate notebook (in my case, World Literature II or American Studies in Literature—whatever you called your class).
  • Add a new note and name it with the correct month and year.
  • Go to my calendar template note and copy the text in the note (the calendar grid).
  • Paste the text into my new note.

After I created the calendar template, I created a daily lesson plan template. This template suits my needs. It includes my school’s Portrait of a Learner (objectives), which are not as extensive or complicated as CCSS. This template forces me to think about a good hook or interest grabber at the start and how to tie everything back together at the end of the lesson with a good wrap up. In between, I can list all the parts of the lesson with detail. I can think about which areas of Bloom’s Taxonomy the lesson addresses and be thoughtful about the kind of homework (if any) required. My favorite part, however, is a reflection. After the lesson, at the end of the day usually, I take about five minutes and write short reflections on the lessons.

I can link the daily lessons on the calendar template by right-clicking on the note and selecting “Copy Note Link” in Evernote. Here is Evernote’s Knowledge Base article on this topic in case you need help. Then I paste that note link on the appropriate date in the calendar, and I have a nice, linked up monthly planner that organizes my daily plans.

In addition, I use tags, such as unit titles, course titles, book or other literary work titles, authors, and types of lesson (e. g. writing workshop) to further link my notes. I can then search my notebooks using any of these tags and see all my lessons from a given unit, course, etc.

Evernote notebooks can be shared, so using Evernote is a solution for teachers who are planning together as well.

So far, I am liking it quite a bit. I’ll keep you posted on the experiment.

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Digital Storytelling Workshop

storytelling photo

Thanks to my school, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a digital storytelling workshop with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Denver at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.

I will admit that I went into the workshop with a fair amount of hubris. I thought to myself, I’ve been teaching English for sixteen years. I know a lot about these kinds of projects. I’m a technology integrator. I know iMovie pretty well. I’d go so far as to consider myself an expert in comparison with many teachers—though I’d not go so far as to say I know everything there is to know about it, I can do pretty much everything I might want to do for school purposes. I didn’t really expect to learn very much from this workshop, but I was glad I would have the opportunity to visit my grandparents, who live in the Denver area.

On the first day of the workshop, we engaged in probably the most powerful part of the entire experience (for me), which was a story circle. We were advised to come with a draft of a script, but I tried to sit down and write one, and I found I couldn’t figure out what to say. As it turned out, very few of the participants were prepared with a script. In story circle, we each had twelve minutes to talk about our story, answer questions, ask questions, and obtain feedback from the facilitators and other participants. I think the reason it was such a powerful experience is because it was such a bonding moment. Several of us cried as we reached the heart of what it was we wanted to say, and the facilitators were excellent at provoking us to really think about what story we wanted to tell.

I started my spiel with the idea that I wasn’t going to cry at all. I told everyone I was visiting my grandparents. My grandfather is a WWII vet, and I decided I would make a digital story about his experiences in WWII. He has some really interesting stories about being inducted into the Navy, joining the Seabees, breaking his glasses and running afoul of postal censors when he wrote home asking for his parents to send him two pairs to replace the broken ones, coming up with a secret code so he could communicate with his mother, and contracting meningitis and causing the Army’s 7th Division to fall under quarantine and have their Christmas leave canceled. A couple of years ago, he was able to travel to Washington, DC on an Honor Flight to see the nation’s capital, specifically the World War II Memorial. He enjoyed the trip a great deal. So, I said to the story circle, that’s what I want to tell a story about.

The facilitator looked at me, a pointed expression on her face, and she asked me, “Dana, how is this story about you?” I was startled by the question, but I thought for a minute, and then, naturally, I burst into tears. It was about me because of everything my grandparents had done for me. It was about me because they are elderly, and I don’t know how much time I have left. It was about me because I will be devastated when they are gone.

With this much-needed clarity, I began to write my script. I was having trouble paring it down to the 300-word suggested limit. I thought I might be able to do 500 words, but 300 was too little to say everything I thought I needed to say. I decided I would just rebel and make a longer video, and I set to work with that script. The facilitator helped me record my voiceover. I interviewed my grandfather, who spoke for an hour about his experiences, and I selected the parts I would use in the story. I scanned lots of pictures my grandparents had around the house.

When I began stitching together the different pieces, I accidentally deleted a whole segment in which my grandfather goes into some detail about having meningitis during the war. After I listened to the video, though, I realized I didn’t exactly need the clip, so I let it go, and I actually managed to get the video at the upper time limit. I never thought I’d do that. It has taken me a couple of weeks’ worth of soul-searching and wrestling to decide whether or not to share the story I created.

YouTube Preview Image

The experience of making the video convinced me to pull digital storytelling into my own curriculum. One natural place I could see it falling is in my American Studies in Literature course. I had already decided to incorporate This American Life into my American literature curriculum, as I see media like podcasts and videos as the new “wave” of writing/storytelling. Well, maybe not so new anymore, but you know how it is in education. Near the end of the year, I plan to explore the theme of the journey. I did not select a large number of works because I knew I wanted to do a culminating project of some kind. The journey, can, of course, be a physical journey. It can also be an inward journey, a self-discovery. Like my video was, after a fashion. Here is another example from the Denver director of the Center for Digital Storytelling:

YouTube Preview Image

It really impacted me when I watched it. Obviously, I would not ask students to tell stories that they are not ready to tell, but I think this could be one of the most powerful experiences for my students:

  • We all have stories, and think about how important it is for us to tell them. Think about how interesting your average episode of This American Life and The Moth is. Think about how entertaining it is to read, say, David Sedaris.
  • We often ask students to read the stories of others, but we don’t ask them to tell their own. We ask them to analyze the stories of others.
  • Digital storytelling is a new way of sharing narrative. In the past, we listened to storytellers. Then we read. I think this might be the next thing. Not that we stopped listing to people tell stories or that will will stop reading. But this adds a new dimension to storytelling.
  • The “writing” aspect of this project is some of the hardest writing I have ever done. I can see people challenging the idea that this is writing, but drafting the whole story was an extremely challenging and rewarding process.

Here is more of Daniel Weinshenker on storytelling:

YouTube Preview Image

One aspect of the process that I will definitely borrow is the story circle. It fits hand-in-glove with the kind of writing workshop I have been doing in my classes.

In the end, I even learned some useful technical tricks that made my video better (and here I thought I was an expert!).

Years ago, I was in Coleman Barks’s last poetry class at the University of Georgia. The final project we did in his class was to bring our own poetry to class and share it. Dr. Barks anthologized it. He told us explicitly that after we studied the great 20th century American poets, we were now among them, the next generation if you will. And I believed it. I want to give that gift to my own students.

If you have a chance to take one of the Center for Digital Storytelling workshops, don’t hesitate. They do excellent work. Next to Folger Teaching Shakespeare PD, it’s the best PD I’ve ever had in my life.

Photo by Jill Clardy

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On the Horizon

On the Horizon photoI’m interrupting my alphabet series as the year closes. Today was our last day of post-planning, or post-sessionals, as my school terms it. I had a great year. My students were awesome, and I tried some great things in my classroom.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned my changing role on this blog yet. A few years ago, I went into technology integration. I am going back to teaching English full time next year as the English department chair at my school. I am very excited about this changing role, and I believe in some ways it’s a return to my first love. I did enjoy technology integration, but if it had ever taken me completely out of the classroom, I’m not sure I could have handled it. I don’t think this transition means I will not be talking about technology. I do anticipate this blog will shift back towards more of a focus on teaching English, however.

My school is moving toward backwards design/UbD, and long-time readers of this blog will know how thrilled I am about it. Many of our teachers already use the format for planning, but with a more institutional focus on UbD, I think the teaching and learning will become even better. I work with some excellent teachers, and I think we have the best kids anywhere, so I’m really excited to see the ways in which project-based learning and UbD makes my school even better.

Even more exciting than seeing our school embrace UbD? Grant Wiggins is coming to our school to do a workshop during our pre-planning (pre-sessional) meetings. I am so excited to have the opportunity to meet Grant and learn from him in person.

I also recently had the opportunity to attend a CLA/CWRA Performance Task Academy led by Marc Chun. If you have ever struggled with creating performance tasks, I can highly recommend the workshop, which really helps break down the process and offers opportunities for you to build your performance task with Marc’s guidance.

In preparation for working with Grant, my school has combined our curriculum mapping (which greatly resembled UbD) with our new learning management system. I was one of the early adopters, and I was asked to flesh out one of my unit pages so that I could model use of the LMS to colleagues. I chose to flesh out my unit on The Catcher in the Rye. I will be teaching the novel again next year in a sophomore World Literature class (and I will also be teaching American literature again after a few years’ hiatus—perhaps folks who have been reading a while will remember I taught American literature for quite a long time, and that it was the focus of many blog entries and lesson ideas posted here). Because I’d recently been to the Performance Task Academy, and also perhaps because I love planning, I couldn’t just build my unit page without actually tackling my UbD unit for The Catcher in the Rye. I did borrow the idea behind the performance task that Wiggins and McTighe describe on pp. 199-200 of Understanding by Design. I have used the performance task before without as much success as I would have liked. I realized at the Performance Task Academy that the missing piece was grounding the performance task more solidly in a real-world situation and giving more definitive parameters. The general idea is the same, but the performance task as I revised it will make more use of real-world tools and materials and will have real-world stakes that more closely mimic the work a psychiatrist treating Holden might do. I am really happy with it, though the unit as it is posted is still a little incomplete, as I haven’t finished thinking about discussion questions I will want to use in class discussion.

I have also been fortunate enough to find a fabulous friend and mentor in my Dean of Faculty, Cindy (and I hope she doesn’t mind my calling her out on my blog when I didn’t ask first). It’s been so refreshing to work with her this year (and last), especially as I transition into my new role. She’s my English teaching soulmate, and anyone who has ever worked in a vacuum with no like-minded administrators knows how it feels to find someone like that in your workplace. It doesn’t just make it easier to go to work every day, it makes it fun, invigorating, and challenging (in the best way) to go to work every day. Under her leadership, I joined our school’s Vision Committee, and it has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done with colleagues. Together we designed a professional development day unconference.

With all of this buzzing around in my mind, I’m so eager to get started on planning for next year. I’m really excited about the work on the horizon.

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D is for Deeper Learning

EinsteinWhen I taught pre-K, science was my favorite subject to teach because all of the science lessons I taught involved experiments. What happens if you plant a potato eye? What happens if you let an egg sit in a glass of cola? How can you make a tornado out of two bottles? My favorite science teacher was Mr. Tusa. I was in 7th grade. All I remember about his class was doing experimental labs—everything from combining chemicals and recording reactions to raising small rodents.

Science wasn’t my only experience with deeper learning, or inquiry-based learning, when I was in school. I have written previously about a role-playing game my 7th grade history teacher had us play. In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe write about the “twin sins of design.” The “sin” more often committed at the secondary level (in my experience) is focus on coverage-based teaching. Coverage-based teaching is marching through the content, often at breakneck speed, which doesn’t allow for deeper learning.

Deeper learning offers students an opportunity to explore a topic. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has a good explanation of what, exactly, deeper learning is. One persistent criticism I have heard about deeper learning, project-based learning, and its cousins is that it removes any emphasis on knowledge and comprehension, the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. I don’t think deeper learning or project-based learning means you do away with these foundational types of learning, but I think it asks that you not stop there and that you move into application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation.

The ways in which I try to engage my students in deeper learning mostly involve writing. I have recently described the writing workshop model at the center of my classroom:

Writing workshop involves student collaboration in writing and opportunities to give and receive feedback. It has also improved my students’ writing. Yes, it takes longer, and it results in higher grades (two somewhat controversial sticking points). However, I would argue that the goal of teaching writing is that students become better writers. Period. The goal is not to write essays every single week if students never engage deeply enough with the writing to revise and edit their work, much less receive and offer feedback. Nor is the goal to slap a grade on it and move on to the next one. I know too many English teachers who use writing as a stick to hold students back, and I don’t understand why. I’m not sure they’re consciously doing it, but they are making students hate writing instead of engaging them in learning how to write well.

My students recently selected topics for multigenre writing projects. The way I described the projects was that they were a way to “go deeper” with the material we had learned in class this year. I want to write more about multigenre writing projects later when I get to letter “m,” but essentially I asked the students to pick something we had studied this year that they wished they could learn more about or go deeper with, and the end result was an incredible variety of genres and a profound connection to the texts. One of my students declared, “I’d rather do two of these projects than write one essay.” Truthfully, the multigenre projects were more work than a traditional essay. However, students enjoyed the choice and creative license that the projects offered.

As I was writing, I rediscovered an old post in which I described writing a test with my students. I haven’t tried writing a test or a quiz with my students in a while, and it was a worthwhile activity. I should try it again. It was, I recalled as I re-read the piece, an interesting way to engage students in deeper learning, thinking about the material in ways they had not. It also made instructional design and assessment explicit to them.

One thing we have to consider when we teach, especially at the secondary level, and especially in AP courses, is whether or not we are giving students the time and space to engage deeply with the subject matter. We need to allow them to see the relevance of what they are learning by giving them opportunities to apply it, take it apart, put it together, and connect it. Deeper learning takes more time, and it means not “covering” everything.

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C is for Collaboration

Working TogetherI recently had an exchange with the parent of one of my advisees. He shared a paper his older daughter wrote in college with me. I don’t have permission to reprint any of it here, but she made some interesting comments about collaboration in schools. She made the comment that academics collaborate all the time on lab reports and journal articles, but collaboration among undergraduates and K-12 students is more rare. In some extreme cases, we might call it cheating.

I recently tried out a new way of teaching writing which involves collaboration. You can read my posts about here:

I have had an opportunity to present how it works both to my own colleagues and at a local conference (here’s hoping NCTE is interested as well; we find out next month). One of the things I pointed out both times is that if we write professionally, we expect to have an editor. No one says we don’t really know how to write on our own if someone edits our work. No one says we’re cheating. Yet, with students, I have heard teachers argue that students need to write in isolation. As I mentioned in the post, I have seen students revise much more often now that we are doing writing workshop, but one of the other byproducts of writing workshop has been a classroom community that I didn’t anticipate. I have noticed it even if we’re not writing. Students are friendly and collegial with one another. They have learned to value each other’s voices and opinions. They work together readily.

We were recently working on multigenre writing projects in the classroom, and as I came in the room and prepared to start class, I noticed two students who had both chosen to write about Edgar Allan Poe sitting together. They do not normally sit right next to each other. They had their heads together sharing their work with each other and talking about the different types of writing they were doing for the project. Would another teacher have wanted to keep them apart because they were working on similar projects? Possibly. Why? They shared great ideas with each other, and their projects will be stronger for the sharing and feedback. I think we are afraid sometimes that it is not original work if students collaborate, but truthfully, we often benefit from models. Models can show us how to do something and give us ideas we might otherwise not have had. A recent study by Thomas N. Wisdom, Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone from University of Indiana explores the ways in which social learning can improve problem solving. The implications of the study suggest that sharing ideas and encouraging individuals to work as a team will result in better learning:

The results of both experiments show that imitation can be productive for groups as well as individuals, because it enables the preservation of good tentative solutions in “group memory” and their further improvement through cumulative exploration. These results also showed that the pursuit of larger amounts of exploration can result in diminishing returns for both individuals and groups. (Wisdom, Song, and Goldstone 1419)

One of the things I have noticed about writing workshop is that students often open their laptops and revise their own writing when we are collectively editing a peer’s paper. They notice something they want to change or that they want to try, or they have an idea based on something their peer has said. As such, my students’ writing has strengthened a great deal over the course of the year.

Students might not necessarily go on to be professional writers, but often, the situations in which professional writers work mimic the writer’s workshop more than writing in isolation does. Journalists always collaborate. It’s understood that an editor and copyeditor will work on a journalist’s writing. The writing room for just about every television show you can name involves collaborative writing. Students can apply these skills to the other work that they do.

Students have commented on first trimester course evaluations that the class is “like a family” and that they are “always collaborating.” Second trimester, one student said they “are asked to work together and by ourselves. We do a lot of group work.” The same student added that I make “sure we understand things before we move on.” Another student remarked that the class is “an opportunity to meet challenges.” I share these comments because I think they are a window into how establishing a classroom community and offering opportunities for collaboration helps students learn better and enjoy their learning more. We are reading article after article about the skills employers are looking for in college graduates, and over and over, we read that the ability to work as a team and to collaborate and to communicate well are important. However, we are strangely selective about the opportunities we give students to collaborate. We rarely allow students to write together, and having seen the ways in which collaborating in this way have not only contributed to my students’ ability to write but has also built a strong classroom community, I’m convinced that collaborative learning like writer’s workshop is the way to prepare students for the real work of the world.

Work Cited:

Wisdom, Thomas N., Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone. “Social Learning Strategies in a Networked Group.” Cognitive Science 37 (2013): 1383-1425. Print.

Image by Lolly Man

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B is for Books

443545349_fee917a0ca1As teachers of English, one of our goals is that students will become lifelong readers. We hope they will understand that reading is a great tool for understanding the world around us. In the words of Mark Twain, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” We read articles like this one at The Washington Post, and we’re frightened about the future, which is starting to look more and more like this:

Photo by Will Lion

Photo by Will Lion

We are concerned about the state of reading in the world, and we long to foster a lifelong love of reading in our students. But how to do it?

I am afraid that so much of what we do in our English language arts classes kills the desire to read that most students seem to have when they first learn to read in elementary school. I don’t have all the solutions, and I am sure I’ve been a part of the problem at times (for various reasons), but here are some issues I often see:

  • Students don’t read for pleasure. They read what is required (if they read that).
  • Students have no choices about what they read. The most common form of reading seems to be the whole-class literature study (more on that in a minute).
  • Everything students read is assessed. They are accountable for every page.
  • Schools and teachers cram the curriculum with as many texts as possible rather than go deep with fewer texts.
  • The whole-class literature study often focuses on literature that students do not like and have difficulty relating to.
  • Some teachers have trouble helping students find the literature selections relevant to themselves and their world.
  • We don’t allow students to express their opinions about the books (and they should be taught to back those opinions up with textual evidence), so they learn to feel weird if they don’t like the characters or stories.
  • If it’s fun, and they would choose to read it on their own, it tends not to be something we’d consider for classroom reading, and we wind up teaching students that reading is something that is supposed to be hard work instead of hard (or not hard) fun.
  • We tell them what to read over the summer and don’t allow them choices about how to spend their reading “free” time, either.

I don’t know what you remember about elementary school reading, but I remember we were allowed to pick a lot of the books we read. We had a lot of choices. I used to pick audio books about dinosaurs. I listened to them all the time. I liked the audio books because they taught me how to pronounce the dinosaurs’ difficult names correctly. I do remember sometimes sitting in a circle with the teacher and reading stories out of a basal reader, but I don’t remember hating it. Other students for whom learning to read was difficult might have a different memory, however. I chose books all the time, and teachers read books to us, and I really liked that, too.

Partly, we need to do a good job educating parents. They need to read to their children, and they need to model enjoyment of reading for their children. We need to continue to allow students to make choices about their reading as they go through middle and high school. Are they going to choose to read YA fiction? Yes, some of them will. We need to stop thinking of that as some kind of crime. One of the things I detest in some adults is book snobbery. Some adults I know actually look down their noses at readers who like to read genre fiction or comic books. I mean, we all know real readers read Lit-ra-chure (you have to read that word in your poshest, snobbiest accent). I have never met a K-12 student who is a book snob.

I give reading quizzes all the time, but I stopped giving tests some years ago. I don’t find testing students on the details of their reading comprehension after we’ve done a unit to be all that helpful. I use quizzes mainly to make sure students do read, but the questions tend to be open-ended questions about the connections they make and their opinions. I don’t hold them accountable for every page. Do students sometimes not do their reading for my class? Probably. As a result, they don’t have the opportunity to engage in the discussion, and they missed out on a good book. Too bad for them. A student’s education belongs to that student, and they have to be responsible to themselves for choosing not to engage.

Alternative assessments are also fun. One of my favorites is a Cartoon “Did You Read” Quiz (you might need to join the Making Curriculum Pop Ning to see it, but it’s worth it—great Ning). Or why not use quizzes as a chance to engage with the text and characters: “What did you think about the way Okonwo treated Nwoye?” or “Which character do you like best so far and why?” Give students more opportunities to wrestle with the text through Socratic seminar discussions. I just did a Socratic seminar over the first seven chapters of Things Fall Apart this week, and it was amazing. You should have heard the kids speak. Did they read it? Most of them did, and they were quite articulate about what they read. A couple of students missed out. I feel bad for them. It was a really interesting discussion, and they were left out.

Cramming as many texts into a curriculum as we can is meant, I think, to look like rigor, but what winds up happening is that we cover a book more superficially rather than having deep and engaging discussions and writing reflectively about the reading. I don’t agree that we are doing students a favor by “exposing” them to a large number of texts when they can’t delve deeply. If they engage deeply with a fewer number of texts, they will develop a fondness for reading that will lead them to more reading. It would be interesting to do a study some time, but it’s hard because you’d need to have a control group. I’m not volunteering my students, and I can’t think of teachers who would (at least, not intentionally). And so what if they never read Nineteen-Eighty-Four? I haven’t. And I’m still alive. (I do plan to read it at some point, though.)

I admit I love the whole-class literature study, and I do it a lot, but why not try to integrate more choice? Why not literature circles? Why not allow students to pick three Poe stories to read instead of assigning the same ones to each student? Why not allow them to find poems to bring to class to discuss? I think students do benefit from discussing a book with a whole class, but we should think about which selections we teach. The intended audience for many of the novels we teach tends to skew older than our students. I happen to love The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome, but I can see why a tenth grade boy might not. On the other hand, I think some teachers can teach these novels, even to teenagers, and make them relevant and interesting. We need to help students make connections to the characters in the literature they read and to understand the ways in which literature mirrors our society.

Students need opportunities to choose what they read so that they will learn what they like to read. If we choose every single text they read, even their summer reading, when do they have an opportunity to figure that out? And if they don’t like what they read in class, isn’t it logical for them to assume they don’t like reading and choose not to do it after they graduate? I think often we discourage thoughtful criticism of books students read, too. I think students should feel free not to like a book and to express those feelings. We need to teach them to articulate their reasons. “Because it sucks” doesn’t fly, but students should feel safe in expressing their opinions. I struggle with this idea sometimes, too, and my students don’t always love the books I wish they loved. It makes me sad when they don’t love those books. There are a lot of books I don’t love, however, that other people really love. I think we have to let go. In the same way we should stop dictating every reading selection, we should also stop dictating how students should feel about the reading selections. And yes, I do think how one feels about a book is important. We become lifelong readers because of how books make us feel.

I don’t have all the answers, but we should be having conversations about this issues.

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