Overheard

 

listen photo
Photo by ky_olsen

I had weekend duty at my school on Labor Day. For those of you who might teach in other settings, weekend duty is fairly common in boarding schools. When we have students living on campus, making sure their needs are taken care of takes many hands, and the faculty living on campus cannot always meet those needs on their own. We are often given choices about which types of duty we might prefer. Sometimes we are not able to have our first choice. I was lucky, however, and was able to monitor the school library during my four-hour shift. I like working in the library, as it’s quiet, and the only real travel is checking on students who might be working downstairs.

A small group of junior and senior girls came to the library and worked for most of the four hours I was there. As I prepared to close the library and they were packing up, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. One girl was finishing up their summer reading text, The Scarlet Letter. She remarked that the book was “horrible,” and that she felt like she had to “translate almost every sentence.” A senior girl remarked, “Wait until you get to Huckleberry Finn.”

I happen to love both of those books. I didn’t read either one until I was in my 20’s, and perhaps I came to them at the right time. I don’t always think we teach books when students are ready for them, when the time is right. On the other hand, I have had some success teaching both of those texts, or at least it seemed from my perspective as if students were engaged. Every single student? Honestly, no, but it’s fairly difficult to achieve 100% from any class. Enough students that I could see value in teaching the texts? Sure.

I don’t necessarily think these texts have no place in high school. I also don’t think we should do entirely away with teaching the whole-class text in favor of all student-selected books. There are a lot of reasons to read, and the whole-class text can be taught successfully. I am curious about the approaches to these two novels, The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, in the girls’ classes. These are both hard-working, bright girls who are invested in their education, so I don’t think it’s the girls here. I’m sure if you polled more of our students, mine included, they might have similar stories.

I do independent reading in my classes because students need to make time to read, and they need choices about what they read. They need to learn what they actually like to read, and like anything else, the more you read, the better you are at reading. Having said that, I remain convinced that the whole-class text study also still has a place in English classes.

So what do we do? If we see value in teaching a text, how do we engage the students? What choices do we offer about studying the text?

Stay tuned. I feel a blog series manifesto coming on.

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FAQ: Teaching American Literature Thematically

american books photo
Photo by Curtis Gregory Perry

Over two years ago, I wrote a post about my approach to teaching American literature thematically. I close comments on posts once they are a year old, but this post continues to generate some questions, so I thought I would post an update in answer to the questions people most frequently ask me about teaching American literature thematically.

Can I use your essential questions for my own unit?

Feel free. I hope they are useful. If you are using them somewhere online, however, I request that you give me credit. If you want to learn more about creating essential questions, I can recommend no source more highly than Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design. They also have one focused just on essential questions called Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding.

Are you still teaching thematically?

Yes, right up through the school year that just ended. I would continue to do it next year, too, if I were going to be teaching the course, but my schedule does not allow for me to teach it next year. I would never go back to approaching any literature class I teach chronologically anymore.  The only way I could see teaching chronologically is if the chronology was an important underpinning of a course, such as the development of a particular genre or theme over the course of a given period of time. Even our American history teachers have begun to take a thematic approach to teaching American history. One unit, for instance, covered the black experience from the abolition of slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But what about understanding the literary movements?

When I taught American literature (and for that matter, British literature) chronologically, I thought this point was important, too. Seeing how writers collectively influence movements and how movements influence and push back against one another is important… to English majors mostly. To most of our students who are critically in danger of not developing the reading and writing skills or engaging with literature, chronology can sometimes kill their interest by putting the material they are least likely to enjoy reading—in the case of American literature, it’s Puritan writers—at the beginning of the year when we are trying to “hook” the kids.*

Early British literature has the advantage of being a bit more exciting, but nonetheless, it is interesting see how writers across eras are in discussion, too. For instance, if I were teaching chronologically, I might teach “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman around the time I am teaching Romanticism or perhaps a transition to Realism. Then I would teach Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” during the Harlem Renaissance/Modernism. Why? Hughes’s poem is directly talking back to Whitman’s. They should go together. Likewise “Civil Disobedience” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Likewise Crèvecoeur’s discussion of “What is the American?” and voices of immigrants from the 20th and 21st centuries. I care that students make connections and see the relevance of what they read far more than that they grasp that literature periodically shifts around into what we call movements. Controversial, maybe, but I stand by it. I think movements are mostly constructs anyway. No one was looking around and saying, “Well, enough of this Romanticism. Let’s start Realism now.” We can’t agree on whether we’re still in Postmodernism right now or not, and there are plenty of writers who are still writing what we define as Postmodern literature and probably even more who are not. Movements are convenient for organizing literature later, and I would not disagree with people who think English majors should know literary movements, but I disagree that everyone needs to know them (or even cares about them). Writers don’t even necessarily find themselves influenced by what is happening around them. They might hearken back to an earlier writer for inspiration. Or they might be so radically different from everyone else writing around them that it’s difficult to classify them (which is why Whitman and Dickinson are often thrown into a unit unto themselves in literature textbooks).

Can students really get a complete overview of American literature if we don’t teach it chronologically?

That’s sort of up to you. One might accuse thematic teachers of picking and choosing, but chronological teachers do the same thing, only they do it in chronological order. What I have seen typically happen when teachers approach literature chronologically is that students don’t study anything remotely contemporary until the end of the year… if then. I know when I taught chronologically, I often finished the year some time in the 1940’s, if I got fairly far. That’s completely cutting out a good chunk of some of the best American literature there is. If you are building a thematic curriculum, you should choose wisely. I tweak each year when I realize something I really liked doesn’t fit very well and takes up time from other works that will be both engaging and more representative. One freeing aspect of teaching where I do is that we don’t have a textbook. We have novels the students purchase, but we don’t have an anthology because they are expensive, and we found we didn’t make good enough use of them to justify their expense. If you have an anthology, you can still use this approach. You will just need to survey your book and determine what themes jump out to you as important. Then you can move around the book. In fact, you might find you do a better job with the overview if you approach teaching the literature thematically than you would have if you stuck to a strict chronology.

Can you give me your syllabus?

I actually think it’s much better for you to create your own syllabus (and essential questions). You know your students. You know your school. You may have required texts that must somehow fit into the framework. You would know best which contemporary poems and short stories might pair with longer texts. I realize it’s a lot of work to create a syllabus from scratch, having done it, but I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t because I created my own syllabus and tweaked it each year. Taking someone else’s syllabus and using it like some kind of script won’t work for you. I’m not trying to be stingy. In my way, I’m trying to be helpful. Handing you a syllabus that reflects what works for me might result in failure for you.

What questions do you have that I missed? Leave them in the comments, and I will update this post with answers.

*I had a student tell me in a course evaluation this year that he/she learned so much about him/herself this year. I was really proud my course enabled that student to learn more about him/herself. Do students see themselves in predominantly white, male writers of European extraction? I’m not saying they can’t relate to those writers. I’m saying if we approach literature chronologically, that’s pretty much all they will read for the first few months. I don’t think that’s right in our diverse society.

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Breaking the Silence

silence photo
Photo by jsdilag

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.—Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am breaking a long silence on this blog to write about something really important to me. I did not consciously step away from blogging here, and I had ideas about things I wanted to write, but it’s been a process for me the last two months as I grieved the loss of my grandmother and coped with the normal business of school and teaching. Time is always a factor with blogging, too, and I need to make the the time for things I think are important. This is important.

I do not write about politics much here mainly because I know I have readers who don’t share my politics, and we have other areas in common. I didn’t want to unnecessarily drive them away. However, what I have to say is too important to worry about what some of my readers think, and if people decide to stop reading my blog or don’t want to follow me on Twitter anymore, that’s their choice. I have the freedom to speak, and they have the freedom not to listen. But I can’t be silent about it.

I start my American literature course with a reading of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” which is famously attached to the Statue of Liberty, about whom the poem is written. I want my students to examine this poem and think about whether America fulfills the promise of the following lines:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

The President’s recent executive order banning “nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries” flies in the face of what we seek to represent in America. This is personal for me because my school has Somali students and alumni who are studying in the United States. I personally taught one of these students in my American Studies in Literature class in the 2014-2015 school year. He is currently in college in Texas. I don’t know what this means for him. Will he be able to visit his family without risking being unable to return to school? This student is one I will always remember because he was so incredibly kind, thoughtful, hardworking, and polite. He is quite religious, and yes, he is Muslim. The idea that anyone could consider him a threat is repugnant and ignorant. As you might imagine, I have been thinking about him a lot these days. In frustration, I tweeted the following yesterday:

I was thinking about how the fact that the President appears to lack empathy, and I trace it to his lack of reading. There are so many recommendations I have, but one place he might start is that old standby, Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol.

The Ghost of Christmas Present has always seemed to me to be the spirit who most effects Ebenezer Scrooge’s change of heart. Yes, the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come clinches it, but two moments in particular stand out for me in Scrooge’s conversation with the Ghost of Christmas Present. The first is when Scrooge begins to feel some empathy for Tim Cratchit and wonders if the boy will live.

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge seems at first shocked by the spirit’s heartlessness, and is “overcome with penitence and grief.” The spirit adds:

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”

I find it impossible to believe that the President has not heard these lines, even if he doesn’t read. How can he have escaped one of the many movie versions of this classic text? And yet, it seems not have left an impression, for his executive order will not root out terrorism, but it will separate families. It will hurt students who study in the US, like my student. I do not feel safer because of this recent effort to keep my former student out of the country. Seeing Tiny Tim, meeting him and having a glimmer of understand about how hard his life must be changed Scrooge’s heart. He no longer saw the poor as a mass of people who didn’t take care of themselves and their children or didn’t work hard enough. Their plight became real to him because he met an individual child.

Later in the story, the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces Scrooge to Ignorance and Want:

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The spirit especially warns Scrooge to beware Ignorance, which will spell our Doom. Scrooge goes with the third spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, having already committed to changing his ways, as he says, “I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear your company, and do it with a thankful heart,” before telling the spirit “The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know.”

Though the first spirit attempts to move Scrooge by showing him his past so he might compare it to what he has become, he remains mostly unmoved until the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge others and helps him understand his responsibility to his fellow man. And this is what literature can do. It can show us the experiences of others. It translates our own experiences to us. It offers us a way to understand and even a chance to repent and change.

We cannot let Ignorance become our Doom. It’s our responsibility not to allow another witch hunt. We must fight back in whatever way we can against policies that do not align with our ideals as Americans and which will harm our fellow human beings. We are better than this. After the Holocaust, we said “Never Again.” I am deeply frightened by the direction my country is heading, and I stand against these policies.

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Teaching with This American Life

This American Life
Image via WVTF

For the past two years that I have been teaching American Literature, I have integrated This American Life into my students’ learning. I have previously used episodes, particularly “Act V,” which tells the story of Prison Performing Arts and Shakespeare in prison. It remains my favorite episode of This American Life to this day.

The essential questions I use in this course are as follows:

  • What is an American?
  • What is the American dream and how has it influenced America?
  • How does American literature reflect America and Americans? What makes it uniquely “American”?
  • What makes an effective writer?

There is a storytelling component as well; the culminating assignment is a digital story. Perhaps not everyone would immediately think of This American Life as American literature, but it is. It is one of the finest collections of stories by and about Americans.

I ask my students to select an episode, any episode, and listen to it.  We do this assignment once a month. This American Life is an hour long, and many of my students are English language learners; I am aware that asking them to listen to more than one episode a month would be difficult for many of my students, both in terms of time and in terms of challenge. After they listen, they can select one of the following prompts and write:

  • Why do you think the producers of This American Life have chosen to follow a particular theme at the point in time when the episode aired? What might have been happening contextually (at the time the show was produced) that gave rise to the selection of that particular topic? Furthermore, were such subjects relevant in the past? If so, how?
  • How has the particular production value (tone, music, interview editing, etc.) contributed to the success or failure of the show? Specifically, what aspects of the sound design affected the way a listener might respond?
  • Connect the episode to something we have learned about and/or discussed in class. Thoroughly explain the connection. In what ways is the episode similar to what we’ve learned? What made you think of topic? Did you seek the episode because you thought there might be a connection to class?

If students want to write on something else, they need to clear it with me first. The first prompt asks students to consider what is going on in the country and world around them. The second asks students to think about these aspects of production, which will help them when it comes time to create their digital stories. The third asks them to connect the episode to what we are learning in class.

I always enjoy reading the students’ writing about This American Life. At first, many students are not sure they will like this assignment, but at the end of last year, several students reported liking it very much. One student remarked in his writing that he thought all his classmates should listen to an episode he had chosen, even if they didn’t do it for credit. That particular student was not the most engaged or hardest working student, either, so I think he genuinely meant it. A comment like that is how I knew I was doing the right thing. Often last year, students would come into class the day a This American Life assignment was due talking animatedly about the episode they had listened to.

I think my students derive many benefits from listening to the stories. On one level, they get a feel for pacing of stories and how ordinary stories can grab us (as well as a sense that all of us have stories). On another level, I think they make many connections and enhance their understanding of America and America’s stories in a way that would be hard to do otherwise. It’s also another mode of reading, and listening is a valuable skill for students to practice.

 

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Slice of Life #12: The N-Word

Slice of LifeI started The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my juniors today, and I always like to begin study of this novel with a frank discussion of the repeated use of the n-word. In a book that uses the word over 200 times, students will be confronted with it often. I wrote the word on the board followed by some quickwrite questions, and as the students settled in their seats and looked up, there were quite a few exclamations and audible gasps. They confessed they thought I’d lost my mind for a minute.

I learned some really interesting things from my students today. The first is that one student has heard the n-word used as a verb that means something like “played a dirty trick,” as in “He really n-d that guy.” I have never heard that use before. Other students shared (and I admit students share this idea often when I teach the book) that the connotation seems different to them when the word is spelled out “n-er” versus “n-a.” I try to wrap my head around that idea, but I admit I don’t have a lot of luck.

We read an essay by Gloria Naylor about a time when a little boy called her the n-word when she was in third grade, and we read Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” which seems simple on the surface, but packs a punch. We also watched part of a segment from the program 60 Minutes on the NewSouth books publication that expurgated the n-word from the novel and substituted it with “slave.” The discussion is a powerful and important one to have prior to reading this novel, I think, but I have two observations:

  1. My students don’t know enough about what is going on in the news and the #blacklivesmatter movement. At all. We are going to talk about it, and if I need to, I’ll bring in the news articles. But I admit to wondering why they don’t know what is happening.
  2. The controversy surrounding this book, 130 years from its publication, which has been a part of the book’s history for the entirety of its existence, still manages to provoke thought and debate. It might be one of the most consistently relevant books written.

I close with a great quote from the preface of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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Digital Storytelling Final Projects

I struggled with whether to write this post or not because digital stories are personal, or they can be personal, but I really believe my students have done good work that is worthy of the world, so I am plunging in.

As I have mentioned before, I went to a digital storytelling workshop last summer. It was life-changing. I decided I had to do a digital storytelling project with my students, but the concept of narrative needed to be woven through the year in order to make the project work. I asked my students to listen to podcast episodes of This American Life to learn more about storytelling in general. Students chose to examine the stories or the production values or related the stories to a story of  their own in a written reflection each month. Students really came to enjoy these assignments. Often after a due date, they came to class talking about the episode they chose to listen to and recommending it to others. I still recall one student writing in his reflection that he thought all his classmates should listen to the episode he chose, even if it was not for an assignment (that’s how I knew the kids were really getting the point). I also wove narrative writing into the curriculum, particularly in the second semester. We wrote narrative essays and discussed elements of storytelling. Next year, I want to do a better job with shorter narratives that will help my students learn to show more instead of tell.

When the time came to begin the project, I started with some good digital story models. We brainstormed ideas for topics and had a topics workshop that the students really liked. We shared ideas for stories and gave each other feedback on the ideas as well as thoughts about how to proceed with the stories. This stage of the process was absolutely critical, and the students agreed that it needed to remain a part of the project next year. I myself found this part of the process to be the most valuable when I went through the workshop.

Next, we wrote drafts of the digital story scripts. And we workshopped the drafts. And we wrote second drafts. And we workshopped second drafts. I limited students to 300 words, but I think I will raise the ceiling next year to 400-500 words. I am worried that in doing so that the videos will get too long, but I think students will find it easier to cut than add details. One important thing I learned in my own workshop is that five minutes is really a good upper limit. Longer, and the viewer loses interest. Three minutes seems to be a sweet spot.

After that, I gave students a tutorial in using iMovie and GarageBand to put together their movies and record voiceovers. One issue I noticed is that students recorded their voiceovers in one single chunk. Next year, I will give them more guidance on pacing and cutting up their voiceovers into segments so there is judicious use of silence when viewers can take in the images and music. One student commented that more of a tutorial would be helpful, but the best way to really learn how to use the software is to use it. I think we can show people how to use technology, but until they actually use it, it’s hard to learn. Another student suggested I could collect a playlist of helpful tutorial videos for iMovie and GarageBand, which was a helpful (and obvious) suggestion that I will will definitely implement next year.

Students felt they did have enough time to complete the project. Keeping in mind we did a process of revision and were also doing other things in class, such as reading literature, writing, etc., we spent about a month on the project from start to finish. That is not a month of working on it every day, but we did have class time to work on it, particularly with scripts and with iMovie drafts. I checked with students at various stages of project completion.

About a week and half ago, I was really worried about the projects. Right before a performance or a game, practices look terrible, and teachers and coaches often despair of students pulling out a performance at the concert, play, or game. Learning is messy, and it never looks messier than with a project that both the teacher and the students are trying for the first time. In the end, I think the students made some quality videos. I am proud of what they did. You can view their work here, and cycle through the videos using the fast-forward and reverse buttons if you want to skip around.

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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.”

Update: Comments are closed on this post, but it continues to generate traffic and the occasional question. I have a new post with an FAQ that answers many of the questions I’ve received and offers an invitation to ask your own.

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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.

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:

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:

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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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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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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