Literary Mixtapes

An old love song!The pop culture blog Flavorwire regularly creates mixtapes for literary characters. Their latest offering is Dorian Gray. Creating mixtapes can be an interesting way for students to think about characters and themes in the literature they read, especially if, like Flavorwire does, they need to justify their choices. Such an assignment could address the following NCTE standards:

  • NCTE/IRA Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • NCTE/IRA Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Creating a literary mixtape would require students to think about the character and his/her conflicts and development as well as the plot and theme of the work in which the character appears. The mixtape could be a fun strategy for helping students comprehend, interpret, and evaluate texts and enables them to draw on their prior experience with music to make meaning of the texts they read.

Instructions

  1. Students should either pick or be assigned a character or work of literature.
  2. Students pick ten songs that somehow illustrate the work’s theme or define that character. Students can also pick songs that would appeal to their character.
  3. Students write a two-three sentence justification for their song selections. Their justification should explain why the song fits the character or work.
  4. Optional: students can present their mixtapes.
  5. Optional: students can design a cover for their mixtape.

Examples

Take a look at these other Flavorwire mixtapes.

At an NCTE conference in 1997, I went to a session that shared a strategy similar to this, and the teachers in that session shared that students had paired “Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette with The Great Gatsby and “Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails with Heart of Darkness. I thought those examples were good, as the speaker in “Univited” is addressing a suitor she isn’t interested in and explores the uneven nature of their feelings for each other, while the speaker in “Head Like a Hole” repeats the refrain, “Bow down before the one you serve. You’re going to get what you deserve.” The last line of the song, “You know what you are,” echoes the end of Heart of Darkness: “The horror”—Kurtz’s last words as he realizes who he is.

Cautions

Be mindful of copyright. Do not ask students to assemble actual tapes or CD’s. Students might be able to find officially released videos on YouTube or the artists’ websites, but they should not try to circumvent copyright laws in order to share the music they assemble. Several online services allow users to stream selected songs and create playlists (Spotify, for example).

This assignment could also work for historical figures or biblical characters.

Update, 1/10/12, 8:45 A.M.: Check out Leslie Healey’s post about creating a mixtape for King Lear. Note: she shares Playlist.com as a way to create mixtapes.

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Better Living Through Beowulf

Better Living Through BeowulfScott McLeod sometimes shares blogs that “deserve a bigger audience.” I don’t presume to know how many people read Robin Bates’s blog Better Living Through Beowulf, but I find it consistently makes me think about the connections between everyday life and literature. Robin is an English professor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. He regularly shares his insights regarding literature’s and film’s connections to such wide-ranging topics as current events, sports, and spiritual matters. I often save his posts for last when I’m catching up on RSS feeds in my feed reader because I know I will want to read them slowly and think them over. There’s nothing I don’t love about his blog, from his interesting connections and engaging commentary all the way down to his layout. I think even if you don’t teach English, you can learn something from Professor Bates’s blog.

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TPCASTT: A Method for Analyzing Poetry

magnetic poetryOne of the difficulties students tend to have with analyzing poetry is figuring out how to start. One method I’ve adopted after seeing it on Lisa Huff’s blog is TPCASTT.

TPCASTT is an acronym standing for title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude, shift, title (again), and theme.

Students begin by looking at the title of the poem to determine what they think it might be about and what it might literally mean.

Next, they read the poem and paraphrase it. What is the “story” of the poem in their own words? They should also define words they don’t know at this stage.

Examining the connotations means looking at words that might have multiple meanings and trying to determine if there is a meaning beyond the literal that lies beneath the surface of the poem. At this stage, students are truly analyzing the text.

Attitude involves determining the tone and emotions associated with the subject. What sort of attitude does the speaker take toward the subject?

Many poems involve a shift in tone. Next, students examine the poem to see if they can detect a shift, and if so, where it occurs, what kind of shift it is, and how it changes the direction and meaning of the poem.

After examining the poem, students return to the title again. Are there any new insights about the title after they have read the poem?

The final step is determining the theme. What greater message did the poet hope to convey? Why did he/she pick up the pen?

One advantage of this method is that it provides students a framework and process for analyzing poetry. Students examine subject, purpose, and audience through this analysis.

My experience has been that students enjoy this organized method of analyzing poetry, and they tend to do well with this sort of guidance. They can learn the acronym and apply it to other poems that they read. I know many AP Literature teachers use this method to teach their students poetry analysis, but I find it works with students of all levels, and particularly with lower level students who have difficulty determining what is important or how to tease out meaning and analysis in a poem. Lisa provides handouts for this method on her blog, too.

I used this method successfully today as my British literature students analyzed Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us” and my American literature students analyzed “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” It was new to my American literature students, but my British literature students were familiar with the method. It was nice to hear students saying they enjoyed the poetry we read, and I think they enjoyed it mainly because they uncovered a deeper meaning and connection to the poetry through their analysis.

I’ll try to post more poetry ideas as the month progresses. Happy National Poetry Month!

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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.
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Book Blogging

Tome Reader

First things first, a few questions. How many books do you estimate you read in a year? How do you know how many you read (do you have a system for keeping track, if so, what)? What kind of books do you like to read?

Do you blog about your reading?

Some years ago, I started a blog. It’s a bit older than this one, but it didn’t find a real focus until after this blog had already been established. The focus became books. At my book blog, I write about books and reading, I review every book I read, and I participate in reading challenges and memes. It has revolutionized the way I read.

First, I know that my blog has an audience, however small and perhaps irregular it might be, and I feel some compulsion to update with new material. I am reading more now than I ever have. The first year I blogged regularly about books, I think I read only 12 or 14 books that year. Last year, for the first time, I read 40. It might not seem like a lot to those of you who read 100+ or regularly devour over 50 books a year, but it was a milestone for me. I don’t mean to imply that it’s all about quantity instead of quality (if it were, I would read only skinny books instead of some of gigantic ones I’ve picked up over the last couple of months). However, I find that the more I read, the more quickly and more deeply I seem to read.

Reviewing each of my books gives me a record of what I read and what I thought about it right after I finished it. I can turn back and read my initial impressions on finishing each book I’ve read over the last three years or so. I am enjoying this record of my reading life.

I have also begun trying different ways to read. I have a Kindle, and began subscribing to DailyLit books some years ago (first read was Moby Dick, and I’m not sure I’d have read it otherwise, but I truly enjoyed it; my review is here). One thing I decided to try after some serious book blogging is audio books. Now I often have a book going in the car on my commutes, one in DailyLit, one paper book, and one e-book. I never used to juggle more than one book at a time, but I find that I can do so much more easily now than I used to be able to.

Another fun part of book blogging for me is the reading challenges. They vary in subject and theme. I decided to host my first reading challenge this year, and I am participating in many others. I find that they honestly remind me to try reading different things (although at the moment I’m on a huge historical fiction kick—always a favorite with me).

If Goodreads or Shelfari had existed when I started my book blog, would I have started one at all, or would I have used those networks to share reviews? I don’t know. I do have more freedom to completely customize my blog in ways that I can’t customize Shelfari or Goodreads, though I use both networks.

Ultimately, as this blog has made me more reflective of my teaching practices, my book blog has made me more reflective of my reading, which can only be a good thing—at least in my book (sorry; couldn’t resist).
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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).

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Evaluating Materials

49/365 - summer reading.I have been lying in bed all weekend, trying to get over a bout of the flu. I decided to preview a video I asked our media specialist to buy for our library: Great Books: Wuthering Heights. If you are unfamiliar with the Great Books series, they are actually fairly good documentaries about books produced by Discovery Schools. Back in the day when TLC used to be an acronym for “The Learning Channel,” and as such, actually produced educational content, the Great Books series could sometimes be caught on broadcast on that channel.

I disagree with a few conclusions drawn in the Great Books episode on Wuthering Heights. Emily Brontë is known to have been an intensely private person. She was furious when her sister Charlotte read poetry Emily had written. When Anne and Charlotte went to London to reveal their identities to their publishers, Emily refused to go and insisted upon remaining anonymous. She was again angry with Charlotte when Charlotte revealed that “Ellis Bell” was her sister. However, the DVD conflates this desire for privacy or perhaps even shyness (although I admit I don’t know enough about Emily to determine if she was shy) with “madness.” At one point, the video points out, rather boldly and without explanation or foundation, that because Emily enjoyed writing about her fantasy world of Gondal, she was “in danger of losing her mind.” Later, the video concludes that she based her character Heathcliff on herself, again without presenting evidence or explanation.

My first thought was that if I were a student watching this video, which seemed authoritative and informative, I might take these statements at face value rather than question them. After all, they are produced by Discovery School, so one can infer they are accurate, reliable, and educationally sound. I suppose if I’m going anywhere with this thinking-aloud exercise, it is here: it’s critical for teachers to evaluate materials they are thinking of presenting to their students, but more importantly, it’s critical to do your own research as well. If I had seen this video ten years ago as a relatively new teacher, I might not have questioned some of the conclusions drawn by the video’s producers because I myself didn’t have the slightest knowledge about Emily Brontë’s life, and while I’m far from an expert now, I have at least learned enough both in content and as a critical thinker to discern the accuracy of materials I’m previewing. Instead, I came away from the video feeling that the producers had not given Emily Brontë much credit for possessing an imagination that allowed her to write fantasy stories without necessarily living in a fantasy world or to create a character purely out of a talented gift as a writer. Of course, not wanting to give Emily Brontë much credit for her imagination is not new, but one would hope educational materials produced in 2005 would be more enlightened in their view. If I were to use this video with my students, I would challenge them to locate evidence regarding the conclusions drawn in the video. It might be a good critical thinking exercise for them. However, my instinct says not to show it. With no abundance of time and no shortage of materials, it is not the best course of action, in my mind, to use class time for materials I find misleading at best, erroneous at worst.

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Beowulf: Lost in Translation

A lot of folks do a translation exercise with Beowulf.  If I remember correctly, the old Scott, Foresman books I used in high school had one.  This ReadWriteThink lesson plan looks like a good one.  I created one for my own students, and I thought I’d share it here.

This translation exercise examines one of my favorite parts of the poem: the scene when Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off.  I took four translations done by Michael Alexander, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and Constance Hieatt.  The last is a prose translation.  I found all of these translations at BeowulfTranslations.net.

After examining the translations, students will answer the questions on the second page (I refer on the handout to pages on the reverse because I always make double-sided copies when I can).  The excerpts in our particular texbook, Prentice Hall’s Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition (also true of their new Penguin edition, though pages differ) are from the Burton Raffel translation.  This is most likely because the Raffel translation is published by Signet, who is owned by Penguin-Putnam.  I’m not sure of the exact relationship between Penguin and Prentice Hall, but there appears to be some sort of understanding.  If readers know, feel free to chime in.

These are the questions:

  1. Compare the translations. What are the major differences that you see? The major similarities?
  2. Burton Raffel translated the version in your textbook (p. 48, lines 381-393) in 1963. Compare this version with the others on the reverse.
  3. Which translation do you think is most interesting/exciting/easy to understand/appealing?
  4. What Anglo-Saxon literary devices that we’ve studied (kennings, caesuras, alliteration) appear? In which versions are these devices preserved?
  5. Which Anglo-Saxon literary devices don’t seem to translate well—in other words, they don’t appear to be easy for translators to work into their versions of Beowulf? Speculate: why do you think this might be?
  6. I included one prose translation of Beowulf, though many more exist.  How do you think a prose translation differs from a poetic one? What qualities might be compromised in a prose translation?
  7. What conclusions can you draw about the process of translation?
  8. What would your advice be to translators (consider the following:  What do they need to think about in order to produce a readable translation that is still faithful to the spirit of the poem? What should they avoid doing?)

I freely admit an affinity for the Heaney translation, but I think others make a more poetic statement with this particular passage.  I am not a huge fan of Raffel’s translation, despite having written a teacher’s guide for this version.  What I hope students gain from this exercise is an understanding that translation is somewhat subjective.  They may not be getting the most accurate, word-for-word version in modern English, and different translators focus on different elements.  Like the ReadWriteThink lesson states, I want them to understand translations are rarely the literary works themselves so much as they are an “imaginative reconstruction” of these works.  I also want them to think about the number of decisions translators must face.

You can download the handouts here:

They are also available on the Handouts page.

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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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Choosing Books for Students

Reading SiddharthaHow do you decide what your students read?

For many of us, which books we have available in the book room or which books are approved by the school system’s list may limit our choices.

I had a conversation the other day with an English student teacher I know, and she was telling me of her frustrations that her college is pushing her to integrate YA lit into her lesson plans, while the school where she is student teaching is advising her to limit her selections to the book room.  I remember taking a course in YA lit in college, and while I loved my professor, the venerable Dr. Agee, who has since retired from UGA, I was never able to use much of what I learned in the class in my high school teaching experience.  NCTE also pushes YA lit, to the point of recommending (or they did when I was in college, anyway) books like From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges Between Young Adult Literature and the Classics by Sarah K. Herz and Donald R. Gallo — a book whose purpose is to help teachers learn which YA books might be paired with classics already in the classroom.

I actually really like YA lit.  I am reading New Moon, the second book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga.  I am a total Harry Potter nut.  For my money, The Giver is one of the best dystopian novels I’ve ever read (I love dystopian novels, too), and the only part of teaching middle school that I really enjoyed was teaching The Giver.  I don’t mean to discourage YA lit.  I think the agenda of our education schools and NCTE is clear — let’s present our students with age-appropriate literature that will grab them.  I agree that students should be encouraged to read YA lit, but I’m not sure that I agree we need to let it take over the high school curriculum, and I don’t agree with Teri Lesesne (in the article “Question for the Ages” below), who says that The Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, and Beowulf are more appropriate in college.  I have successfully taught all three books in high school, and I would even argue that Catcher is best suited for high school — the symbolism is easy, making it a great introduction to symbolism, and students around Holden’s age relate to him.

Some more reading on the subject:

If you have more research or articles on the use of YA lit in the high school classroom and/or selecting age-appropriate books for students, feel free to share in the comments.

Image credit: Nick Today.

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