Teaching Literature

remember to thank all the books you haven't read over the past three years

I love teaching literature. I’m not second-guessing my decision to move into technology. I really love working with technology, and I am excited that I’ll be able to do more of it. I’m also excited to be able to help my colleagues integrate technology or learn about technology. I will also still be teaching a British literature course and a writing course. However, as I teach British Romanticism, I have been thinking about how much I enjoy the material, and one thing I fear is that down the road, my school will decide not to let me teach it anymore. Frankly, I’m not sure I could let it go. I’m certainly not ready to let it go yet. I think it would be good for me to remain in the classroom, even in a diminished capacity, because it will keep me fresh for some of the ideas I want to help my colleagues implement. I am also happy at my school. I know that I can possibly team-teach some material with English teachers, but I must admit that if they remove me entirely from the English classroom, I will not know what to do with myself. At my core, I am a British literature teacher. It feeds my soul. Time will tell how it will work out, but I know I am not done teaching English.
Creative Commons License photo credit: ailatan

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Teaching “A Modest Proposal”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons License photo credit: Charlie & Kasie Bennett

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Pretty British Literature Handouts

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

What a pretty way to share handouts!

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Teaching Schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons License photo credit: sergis blog

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Planning for Next Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major works either planned or under consideration:

Major authors by unit:

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

Again, just a skeleton.

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

Unit 1

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

Unit 2

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

Unit 3

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

Unit 4

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

Unit 5

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

Unit 6

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

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

Prospective Composition Assignments

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons License photo credit: R P Marks

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Frankenstein

One thing I share with my department chair is a geeky love of planning assignments. I should probably have been grading papers today, but instead I finished my Frankenstein unit and created a performance task based on an out-of-date (and apparently no longer used/updated) WebQuest. I did think the ideas were sound, but I also thought that some of the websites in the WebQuest were somewhat biased, and I wanted to present a bit more of a neutral view. I think it’s a solid assignment, however, and I just wanted to tweak it.

You can view my UbD unit for Frankenstein here. The WebQuest, with some major overhaul, is located here.

Update, 12/29/09: I have created a Google Earth tour based on the travels of Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein that you can download. I am submitting it to Google Lit. Trips and will let you know if they decide to publish it as well.

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Brave New World

My 11th grade British literature classes read three books as part of a summer reading assignment: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester.

The way we typically assess summer reading is to have students complete a test, writing assignment, or project on two of the books without any discussion of the novel.  We discuss the third as the first unit of the year.  I actually like Dorian Gray the best of the three, but I think Brave New World has meatier discussion material, so I am starting the school year with that text.  I have already begun discussions with one class, and so far, I am really intrigued.  The way I figure it, I have one of the best jobs in the world because I get paid to discuss literature with smart kids.

I hate to recycle, but we just started back to school, and until I get my rhythm, posting will be light.  However, some of you might be interested in checking out the unit plan I wrote for Brave New World, including the final assessment.  I had fun with this assignment last year, and I had some students who produced some impressive work.

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Teaching “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning

As I mentioned over the weekend, on Friday, a colleague allowed me to teach her British literature class. I taught Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover.” This poem is anthologized in some literature texts and not in others; therefore, if you do not have it in your book, you can download it here: “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning.

First, I gave students some background on Robert Browning, dramatic monologue, and the poem itself. See this Power Point presentation:

I didn’t show students the final slide until after we read the poem. You could, if you like, change that slide so that it reveals some of the information provided. Feel free to download it and mix it up. In order to present the material, you will want access to information about the poem and the disease Porphyria. In addition to our textbook (citation at the end of the post), I used the following links in preparing for the poem:

The meat of the lesson is the debate. If Porphyria’s lover were tried in a courtroom for murder, would the evidence, as presented in the poem, show that he is guilty of murder — that he knowingly took Porphyria’s life, that he was entirely self-aware — or not guilty by reason of insanity — that he was not aware of what he was doing and acted out of madness. Evidence for either argument exists in the poem, and students can argue both sides successfully. They should be going back into the text for support of their argument. This assignment can even be extended into an argumentative or persuasive essay. I chose to make it a class discussion.

Work Consulted:

Pearson Education, Inc. Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.

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