Tag Archives: lessons

Dickinson and Diction

Emily Dickinson House

Last weekend, I presented at a digital storytelling conference in the Northampton/Amherst area, so I took the opportunity to visit Emily Dickinson’s house, now a museum.

Photographs are not allowed inside the house, so I can’t give you a tour, but I would really encourage you to visit if you find yourself in western Massachusetts. I took a docent-led tour of Dickinson’s house, but you can also take a longer tour that includes her brother’s home next door as well. My favorite part of the tour was upstairs. On the stairs’ landing is a replica of Emily Dickinson’s dress. The light shines through the window just right, and it looks almost ethereal. In Dickinson’s bedroom, the docent told us that the room had recently been renovated to include several items that were not previously there and new wallpaper that is a reproduction of the actual paper Dickinson had in the room. Her own sleigh bed is there. I was fascinated to learn Dickinson had pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning hanging in her room. Whether those pictures currently hanging in the room are the same ones or not, I don’t know, but Dickinson’s niece attested to the fact that she had pictures of these two women writers hanging in her room.

Across from Dickinson’s bedroom is an empty room with two poetry installations. One examines many ways in which Dickinson’s poetry stands apart from other poetry—slant rhyme, ballad meter, and diction. The other examines a poem with alternative word choices. The poem is Fr 1469 “A Chilly Peace infests the Grass.” (Fr is the R. W. Franklin number for the poem, and along with Johnson’s edition, is considered a restored, authoritative edition.) In the installation, there are sliders installed so that you can examine the alternative word choices Dickinson was thinking of for some of the words. For “Chilly,” she also considered “lonesome—” and “warning—.” I kind of like the effect of “warning—” myself. There is no final copy of this poem, and it wasn’t published (as many were not), so we don’t know what Dickinson ultimately decided for the poem. Of course, it gave me a great idea for a lesson. I was extremely sad not to be able to take pictures in the museum at that moment, but in speaking with the docent, and taking notes, I did walk away with a good lesson plan, and I was later able to find enough information online to create a good lesson plan.

Caveat: The Franklin edition poems are copyrighted, as are the Johnson editions, so I can’t post what I created, but the limited preview edition of the three-volume Variorum Edition edited by Franklin does include this poem. Be mindful of the copyright. It is probably fair use to use it in your classroom, but it wouldn’t be fair use to distribute the poem online, I don’t think.

Anyway, I re-created the diction variations for this poem using Smart Notebook software so students can interact with the different word choices like I could when I visited the museum. Later, I found this lesson by Cynthia Storrs on the museum website that is extremely similar to my own idea (only much more fleshed out in that Storrs considers other poems as well). After reading Storrs’s lesson, I added the poem Fr 124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—,” which Dickinson appears to have edited extensively. It’s been suggested that she was never really quite happy with it. You can read two substantially different versions on Poets.org’s site. Incidentally, this poem is one of the few published in Dickinson’s lifetime, and she still continued to edit it after publication, so even publication cannot be considered the final word on word choice. I also added Fr 598 “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” as an introductory piece in the lesson, as it had only two alternative word choices. I had forgotten how much I loved that poem. I hadn’t read it in many years.

I don’t believe I’ll execute my lesson in exactly the same way as Storrs has written it. I plan to begin by asking students to journal about the question “How much does word choice really matter?” I did rather like Storrs’s essential questions, so I will borrow those. After a review of what “diction” is, I plan to display Fr 598 and allow students to examine the effect of the two alternate word choices. What is the effect? Which do they like better and why? Next will be the interactive version of Fr 1469. Students will be able to manipulate the word choices. I emailed our math chair to help me with the math, and he walked me through the reasoning (it’s been a long time since I did this). Considering all the word choices Emily Dickinson considered for this poem, there are potentially 120 different versions of that poem. Finally, I will have students examine Fr 124 in some detail, and perhaps with a partner or small group, much as Storrs describes in her lesson.

Prior to this lesson, I will ask students to write poetry of their own (this part is not fully formed in my head yet). They will think about alternative word choices in their own poems and workshop the poems with these alternate word choices.

I wish I’d been able to be in Amherst this weekend, as it was a Poetry Festival. I was definitely inspired by my visit. I’m lucky to live in what is essentially the cradle of American literature, and visiting Dickinson’s house made me realize there are probably similar lesson ideas an opportunities waiting out there for every other New England writer I could think of. I have some work to do. I ran right out and bought the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson and White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple.

A few more pictures before I go.

"Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus)

This gorgeous flower was in Dickinson’s garden. The label says, “Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus). I immediately thought of Shug saying that it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple and don’t notice it.

Emily Dickinson's Grave

Emily Dickinson’s grave is only a short walk from her house, so of course, I had to stop by and pay my respects. I placed one of those stones there. I had to wonder how often the caretakers remove these items.

Dickinson Graves

The Dickinson family plot is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. This plaque is on the gate. There is a tree growing in the plot. I am no botanist for sure, but I suspect it’s a yew tree. Can anyone confirm?

Dickinson family plot

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Back to School 2015

school photoI forgot to post yesterday for Slice of Life Tuesday. I was tired when I returned home from school and wound up taking a nap. While Monday was our first day of school, it was mostly taken up with orientation activities, so Tuesday was the first day we met with our students. We had shortened classes.

This year I am teaching American Studies in Literature and AP English Literature and Composition. American Lit is familiar territory. I have been teaching it for most of my career—and this will be my eighteenth year. It doesn’t seem that long in a lot of ways. AP Lit, on the other hand, is new for me, so I have been doing a lot of work to prepare for that course.

I began the year in my AP class with a chalk talk: “What are your goals for AP Lit this year?” on one poster, and “What challenges do you foresee in this class?” on the other. Students wrote responses silently for ten minutes, stepped back to read what others wrote, and added comments or agreed with peers’ comments by starring, checking or adding some other mark. They liked it, and they discovered they really have similar hopes and fears. I am going to like this class very much. They put me on the spot right away and asked me what my goals are for the class. And as it turns out, we have pretty much the same goals: 1) I want students who are taking the AP exam to go into the test feeling like they are well prepared, 2) I want students to feel well prepared for their college English classes, and 3) I want to have fun while we learn. Today in AP, we examined the rubric. I was proud of them for pointing out its vagueness (I think it could be clearer in the top end as well), and we tried our hand at reading a student’s AP timed writing and determining 1) what prompt the student was attempting to answer, 2) writing the prompt in our own words, 3) evaluating the essay (two students nailed the exact grade the student received, and the rest lowballed the student, which gives me hope that if anything, they will be harsher graders (which is potentially better than grading too high), and 4) talking about thesis statements. They are great, engaged class.

My American Lit students began the year with some discussion of essential questions:

  • What is the American Dream?
  • Is the American Dream accessible to all? Why/why not?
  • What makes a person American?
  • How is America different from/similar to other countries?
  • Why do people come to America to live?

I asked students to take sticky notes and pick at least two questions to reflect on and write answers to. Then they put one of the sticky notes on chart paper and made connections between notes: two ideas were similar, two ideas were opposites, two ideas were connected in some other way. Then I asked them to take another sticky note and put it on the appropriate chart and connect a negative with a positive or make a connection between a note and something they heard in the news. It won’t really surprise most folks (and didn’t surprise me) to learn they didn’t follow the news much, though one student commented he’d heard candidates talking about “anchor babies.” We talked about what that was. I told the students we would put the charts away and take them out at the end of the year and look at them again. We would reflect on what we had learned. Are our answers the same? Are they nuanced in some way? What do we know now that we didn’t know in the beginning?

I think these classes will be interesting in particular because I have many international students. I have students from China, Vietnam, Russia, Sweden, Thailand, Nigeria, and South Korea, as well as students from Massachusetts and the rest of New England. It looks like a really diverse group, and I think they will bring some very interesting perspectives to our discussions about American literature. Of course, they are likely to need support as non-native speakers of English. I always think my international students are brave for traveling so far away to study in a second (or perhaps third or fourth) language. I wouldn’t have been able to do that when I was in high school.

We are plunging into the deep end of the pool without water wings tomorrow as we have a Socratic seminar on Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus.” I like to frame the year with this poem because I like students to ask questions about why this poem is on the Statue of Liberty and whether we believe the idea expressed in the poem (or, indeed, if we ever have believed it). I was proud that one of my former students who is in my class again approached me to check because he remembers our 70-minute Socratic seminars from last year, and he was concerned we weren’t ready as a class to do that yet. He’s right, so I was able to reassure him by letting him know they will have time to prepare for their seminar in class (half the class, in fact), and the seminar would likely be more like 30 minutes. The reason I was glad he approached me is that he 1) advocated for himself, but really 2) advocated for his peers and showed concern for them.

I have written in the past about how I reworked my curriculum so it’s thematic, and it worked well last year. I did the same opening activity last year, and you should have seen my students’ faces when I pulled out their chart paper from the beginning of the year, and they could actually see how their understanding and thinking about the questions had evolved, even if they still basically agreed with the sentiments expressed—they had evidence to back up those sentiments by the end of the year. I am hoping this year’s class walks away feeling the same way: proud of how much they had learned.

My advisory students are now seniors, and I have been with some of them all four years of high school. They are a great group—very conscientious and hardworking. I am looking forward to seeing them through their last year as they work through the college application process and prepare senior projects. I really look forward to seeing them walk across the stage at graduation at the end of the year. I am so excited to see what they will do.

I had a great start to the year. Last year was my best teaching year yet, and I’m hoping to top that one, even. I am really in a happy place right now.

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What I’ve “Drawn” Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons License photo credit: Mark van Laere

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The Crucible

Salem Massachusetts 011-300As I prepare to visit Salem, Massachusetts for the first time early next week, I thought it would be fitting to share some of my lessons for The Crucible in case you haven’t seen them before.

In Witch Hunt: A Web Scavenger Hunt for The Crucible by Arthur Miller, your students will learn about the inspiration for Arthur Miller’s play, including the Salem Witch Trials, McCarthyism, and possible scientific explanations for the hysteria.

In Crucible, Act Two, Scene Two assignment (RTF,  PDF) your students must consider whether Act Two, Scene Two, added by Miller later on, is materially necessary to the play. Some argue that it changes Abigail’s motives from desire for John Proctor to madness.

In “Half-Hanged Mary” by Margaret Atwood (RTF,  PDF—credit Jana Edwards) students read a poem based on the true story of Mary Webster, accused of witchcraft in the 1680’s. It would make a good introduction or companion to The Crucible.

I most likely will not be posting next week while I am on vacation.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Paul-W

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Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the ShrewI found a wonderful unit plan for William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which I begin teaching one of my British Literature and Composition Classes tomorrow.  I adapted it, adding in some ideas from the Folger Shakespeare Library (whose lesson plan section on this play is kind of skimpy) and some ideas from the Penguin-Putnam Teacher’s Guide (pdf) for the play.

You can view my UbD plan uniting these ideas and comprising NCTE and Georgia Standards addressed in the unit plan at the UbD wiki.

I wasn’t too sure about this play at first.  It’s been a while since I had taught it, and I was not sure if I really wanted to teach it, and I certainly didn’t want to sit down and plan it.  Now I’m really excited about it, and I can’t wait to work with this class.  I kept visualizing them completing the activities as I read over the lesson ideas and began incorporating them into the UbD framework.

Teaching Shakespeare can be daunting, but it can be so much fun.  Kudos and thanks to everyone who so willingly shares his or her ideas online for the rest of us.  What I wouldn’t have given for the large community of English teachers on the Internet now when I was a new teacher!  Now I’m off to share this resource with even more teachers who otherwise might not read my blog or see it at the English Companion Ning.  If you’re not already there, consider yourself invited.

Photo Credits: North Carolina Shakespeare Festival production of Taming of the Shrew
Photographer: NyghtFalcon
Actor(s):Monica Bell and Dan Murray

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My SMARTBoard is Currently Misused as a Glorifed Whiteboard


I just realized how much I don’t know about using my SMARTBoard.  I essentially use it as the title indicates — a glorified whiteboard.  Oh, it’s great.  I save notes.  I can use them to help students supplement their own notes or download notes if they’re absent.  But I’m certainly not using it to its capacity.  I have to admit the reason is that I don’t know how.

I downloaded a SMARTBoard lesson from the SMARTBoard Lessons Podcast, and it was amazing — I think I can even use it as is in one of my classes.  But I couldn’t have figured out how to create what Ben and Joan created.  I feel frustrated by my lack of knowledge, but I’m going to try to rectify it.  One thing I did was download the SMARTBoard notebook software on my Mac, so I can play with it at home.  I also searched for tutorials, but the ones I found were fairly basic — I already know how to save notes, change my handwriting into text, and pull pictures into the notebook using the gallery or copy/paste.  I had tried to use the recorder without much success in the past, but I found this video that explains the process really well:

YouTube Preview Image

Does anyone know of any other sources for SMARTBoard tutorials?  I am looking to learn how to use this tool to its fullest capacity.

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