Category Archives: Teaching Literature

Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: First Chapters

Homegoing

I mentioned that I love teaching Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing so much that I tend to over-teach it in my previous post. This year, I’m trying to scale back what I do with students to the essentials. I’m hoping it will increase students’ enjoyment of the novel.

When I first started teaching this book a few years ago, there were not many online teaching resources. As I read the book, I made notes of questions and issues for discussion and captured all of these ideas in a Google Doc. I can’t recommend this process highly enough. I think it’s fairly obvious, but I also think many of us don’t do it because we don’t have a lot of planning time. I think it’s a worthwhile activity because if it interests you enough to take note of, chances are your students will also find it interesting. I have mentioned before that early in my career, I relied on canned curriculum. Those curriculum folders usually came with questions I could use for discussion, but I didn’t always find them all that useful or even all that deep. They could often be surface-level questions. I will not share great long lists of discussion questions in these posts because I think it’s worthwhile to create your questions. Better yet, have your students develop the questions; they’ll be the best questions. Instead, this post and subsequent posts will share some teaching tools I’ve used to teach this novel.

The first chapter of Homegoing centers on Effia. I explain the Akan custom of naming children after the day of the week they’re born. Effia’s name means she was born on Friday. One of the novel’s main symbols, fire, is introduced in this chapter, and I make sure students notice it and discuss it. Effia receives a stone necklace in this chapter that also becomes an important symbol in the novel. We discuss the fact that Effia is born of an enslaved woman in a Fante village. Later, it becomes clear her village is heavily involved in the slave trade. I found this clip of Trevor Noah interviewing Yaa Gyasi for The Daily Show enlightening and helpful for students to watch. Trevor Noah asks Gyasi about Africans’ involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Esi’s chapter begins in medias res, making for a good discussion point. She is given a stone necklace similar to her unknown half-sister Effia’s, but she loses it in the depths of the dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle as she is being taken to a slave ship. I usually ask students to track the stone necklace through Effia’s line. Students will want to compare and contrast the characters of Effia and Esi, and several of the scenes in the chapters would make for good scene studies. Effia and Esi establish the novel’s two family histories and introduce students to the abrupt shifts in fortunes that characters will experience, demonstrating how political events, history, and fate will impact the characters in the rest of the novel.

Esi’s friend Tansi tells an Anansi story, and I like to show this clip for students who may not be as familiar with Anansi stories (true story; I remember this video from when I was in school!):

This video is long, but some excerpts might prove helpful for students in learning more about the Asante Kingdom and its people:

The History Channel’s new production of Roots included some informational videos that I also use in teaching the early chapters of Homegoing. I generally show this video, which depicts the Middle Passage, a part of Esi’s story that we do not necessarily see; however, some of her experiences in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle echo Kunta Kinte’s in this film. What I like about this video is the incorporation of historians’ voices. The video also quickly fills in any gaps students might have in their background information on the Middle Passage.

Crash Course’s new series on Black history (featuring Clint Smith!) also has some great resources, including this video about the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Students generally find this animation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade compelling as well. When I show it, I try to point out the large numbers of ships at the time when Esi would have been transported (the 1770s). 

Quey’s chapter offers opportunities to discuss issues such as masculinity, sexuality, and familial expectations. Quey makes a decision to do what his family wants him to do, to bury his dreams. His son James will make the opposite choice. Discussion of their choices and the repercussions they have on their families is always interesting. 

Ness’s chapter opens with an allusion to the spiritual “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which you might want to play for students. I found this version by Eric Bibb last year and shared it with my students.

Interestingly, like Esi’s, Ness’s chapter begins in medias res. Students might find it interesting to draw structural parallels between Esi’s chapter and Ness’s. Just as comparing and contrasting Effia and Esi’s stories are interesting, students may also find comparing and contrasting Quey and Ness compelling.

Esi and Ness’s chapters are tough to read due to the brutality of their treatment. It’s a good idea to prepare students and to hold space for them to process the impact of the reading. Teachers must teach this novel with sensitivity and awareness of its impact on students. Many of them will learn things they didn’t know about history, which may provoke some cognitive dissonance. I urge you to engage in identity work and antibias/antiracist work before teaching a novel like this so that you do not cause harm. I honestly could not have taught this book about ten years ago because I wasn’t ready, and there was too much learning I needed to do.

Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: Introduction

Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 novel Homegoing is one of my favorite books to teach. Not only is it well written and engaging, but it covers so many aspects of African-American and Ghanaian history that reading it is a historical education that’s hard to beat. The novel has also appeared as a suggestion for Question 3 on the AP Lit exam (2018, 2021), only one of many reasons it’s a good choice for AP English Literature.

I have been teaching Homegoing for the last three years—this year will be my fourth. I contend that you have to teach something at least twice before you hit your stride, and my experience with this book has been the same. I love this book so much that I have tended to over-teach it (in a recent post I described developing a vision board to help me target what’s critical). The students are generally with me until about the last 1/4 to 1/3 of the book, and after that point, I’ve made them tired. This year, I am making a more concerted effort to assign it in chunks. I’ll report on the results.

To introduce my students to this novel, I begin with a pedagogical tool I use frequently (at least once a week or more): journaling. I ask students to journal on the following question: What do you know about the Slave Trade/Triangle Trade? I give students a few minutes to think and write, and then we share out. Students have usually learned a good deal in their history classes. Next, I show them this clip of President Obama and Anderson Cooper touring the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.

We discuss the video; specifically, I like to ask:

  • What resonated most for you?
  • What did you know about castles like this before?
  • What are you curious about? (I list student questions and remind them to write them down.)

Students may have learned a great deal about the Slave Trade or Triangle Trade, but they have rarely ever heard of the slave castles, like the Cape Coast Castle. They tend to be quite surprised they exist. Following our discussion of the Cape Coast Castle, I like to read this article from The Atlantic about inherited trauma. Most of my students have learned about genetics in biology, and many of them have taken or take advanced biology classes (such as AP Biology) concurrently with my class, so they usually have a lot to say about this article. My experience has been that students tend to think it’s interesting but do not completely buy the argument that trauma can be inherited. I engage them in a discussion of the article by asking questions such as the following:

  • What is your reaction to this article?
  • Do you want to argue with any of the conclusions?
  • What are you curious about?

After discussing the article we watch this clip of Yaa Gyasi reading from Homegoing:

I explain to students that in a very real way, the experience of reading this book will be like Marcus’s experience. One of the characters in the book will say, “[T]he one who has the power… Gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you figure that out, you must find that story, too” (226-227).

After that, I usually point out the family tree at the beginning of the book and explain that we will be following the history of a family ripped in half by history. One branch of the family will remain in what is known today as Ghana and experience many of that country’s historical events, while the other branch will be enslaved and taken to the United States and experience many of that country’s historical events. Each chapter is devoted to a different character in the family. 

I am using digital notebooks for the first time this year, and I will most likely introduce students to their notebooks. They previously kept a notebook for Song of Solomon, so it shouldn’t take too long to explain each section and how students might use it. Digital notebooks should be a post all by themselves, but essentially I use this template from Slides Mania with 7 tabs labeled as follows: 

  • Response Log: for in-class journals.
  • Favorite Quotes: students can annotate their books, too, but copying the quotes out into their notes means less flipping when they’re looking for quotes later.
  • Characters: Notes on characters’ descriptions, growth, connections to others, etc.
  • Scene Studies: a close analysis of a scene.
  • MOWAW: Meaning of the work as a whole; they typically need a lot of guidance with the section, but essentially, this is where they analyze thematic elements.
  • Supporting materials: mostly embedded videos that will enhance students’ understanding of the novel.
  • Writing: a place for students to capture their writing ideas.

This notebook structure was taken from Roy Smith’s presentation at last summer’s Mosaic conference. I used it with great success when I taught Song of Solomon this year. With that notebook, I had two categories for characters: major characters and minor characters. The response log and favorite quotes were in the same section. Students suggested they be separated in future notebooks (they also requested digital notebooks for the other books we study this year).

Sometimes, when time allows, I like to start reading a novel together as a way to end the class, but this introduction typically takes a class period for me (my classes are 70 minutes).

I find this introduction helps prepare students for the novel’s setting and gives them a feel for what they will read. The article on inherited trauma primes them to think about how the intergenerational trauma of racism, colonialism, and slavery impacts this family, and it gives us an argument we can return to as the characters’ stories unfold, particularly as many characters will be cut off from their family history, either because of slavery or the characters’ choices. 

I warn students that this novel will be hard in the beginning. I don’t mean that the writing is difficult to parse but that it will discuss traumatic events unflinchingly. They might be tempted to stop. But the ending is joyous and redemptive, and if they stick with it, they will find the experience of reading it rewarding. 

Teaching Contemporary Novels

After finishing yesterday’s review of Teach Living Poets, it occurred to me that we shouldn’t just be teaching living poets. We should be teaching living authors, period, and for all the same reasons. As Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith argue in Teach Living Poets, one reason for teaching living poets is that students can begin to see themselves as poets and understand that poetry can discuss contemporary issues that they care about. All of this applies to novels as well.

Another great reason for teaching contemporary novels is that you can incorporate more voices into your curriculum. While it’s entirely possible to teach classics by authors of color or women, for example, it’s also true that these voices were much more marginalized in the past, and the bulk of classics are written by White men. 

I recognize that many schools have a book room, and teachers are confined to what’s in the book room—I certainly experienced that barrier early in my career. I will be upfront that I do not currently have have that challenge, as I work in a private school that expects students to purchase their books, so I do not need to constantly update an outdated book room. I can change books each year, if I like. If you are working in a school where you are limited, you might try DonorsChoose or educational grants. A friend of mine recently shared her Amazon Wish List on Twitter in order to procure a contempary novel for her class, and she was able to obtain a full class set in this way. I recognize we all have different levels of comfort in asking for help in this way and also that some of us may need to go through department chairs or curriculum directors, too, but I promise that making the effort can pay off.

One of the barriers to teaching contemporary novels, similar to teaching contemporary poets, is not having the canned content and premade lesson plans. Let me tell you a secret. When I was an early-career teacher, I relied on that canned content, and it was terrible for my students. I didn’t feel prepared enough or creative enough to come up with my own approaches to teaching books. I found a bunch of these novel guides in my classroom, and I used all the study questions, tests (ick), and essay prompts—you name it. While using these tools might save you time, ultimately, they’re not that engaging. Even the free novel guides you find online are not really lesson plans (though I admit to reading them when I’m thinking about big ideas and discussion questions).

A few years before I started teaching living poets, I began incorporating more contemporary novels in my curriculum as well. Of course, that also meant I had to create lessons around these novels, and often there wasn’t much I could find online from other teachers. This turned out to be a great experience for me as an educator because I completely tailored my lessons to the students in my classes. All of this may seem glaringly obvious to you, and if so, that’s great, but if you think a little help might be good, stay tuned. I am planning to share my approaches to teaching several contemporary novels here on this blog. For our purposes, I’m defining “contemporary” as published in the last 20 years. I plan to focus on three novels, in particular: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, There There by Tommy Orange, and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. 

I have curated a list of great contemporary novels on Bookshop.org, and I will keep adding to this list. I’m looking forward to sharing these lessons and ideas with you, and I hope they’ll be useful.

Paired Texts: Lord Byron and Rudy Francisco

Reading Teach Living Poets (affiliate link) by Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith inspired a lesson plan pairing “She Walks in Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron with “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks, Down the Street from My House on Del Mar Heights Road, I Swear to God I’m Not a Stalker” by Rudy Francisco, available in print in his book Helium (affiliate link).

Performance of “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks…”

These two poems both feature speakers who are taken immediately by seeing an attractive person and reflect on their beauty. To prepare students for the topic, I gave them the following journal prompt:

Write about a time you saw someone across the room and your heart just stopped. What was it about the person that caught your attention?

I shared a personal story of a time when I was in college and heard this guy pick up the payphone next to me and tell the operator he was looking for a number in “Athens.” That one word was all he said, but his voice was just incredible. It was deep, gorgeous. I couldn’t even turn around because I thought if his face matched his voice, I’d be in real trouble. Some teachers might not feel comfortable sharing stories like this, but I’ve established a rapport, and of course, it’s wise to consider what you feel is appropriate or not. I definitely did not and would not ask students to share. However, I invited them to share, if they felt comfortable doing so, but this topic, while a great hook for the lesson, is also very personal in nature.

Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith describe a protocol for reading poetry on pp. 20-21 for reading a poem. In a first reading, ask students to identify whether the poem is an “up” or “down” poem. This metaphor can help students tease out tone and mood. Some of my students felt “She Walks in Beauty” was an “up” poem based on the diction, but others found it kind of creepy and decided it was a “down” poem. We had an interesting discussion about how we viewed the speaker and the impact of that perception on our reading. Most students viewed Rudy Francisco’s poem as an “up” poem. Next, students look for “hotspots” in the poem. What are the moments of tension, strong imagery, and juxtaposition? Students identified the interplay of light and dark in Byron’s poem and the unexpected comparison of the woman to darkness rather than to light. This observation also gave me an opportunity to discuss the art term “chiaroscuro” with students.

After this first read of Byron’s poem, I asked students to get in small groups of 3 or 4 and read the poem again, this time using Illich and Smith’s protocol for a second (or subsequent) reading (slightly adapted for this particular text set):

  1. Consider the scene of the poem: Who is speaking? Where and when is this happening?
  2. Locate the central image(s) of the poem. What effect(s) is created by the imagery?
  3. Look up any unfamiliar words or references. Look for sentences (subjects, verbs). Locate modifiers and antecedents, which will help with difficult or fragmented syntax.
  4. Consider the effect of structure: line breaks, rhyme, meter, stanzas.

Students worked in groups for about 15 minutes, re-reading and annotating the poem with these questions in mind. One group noticed that Byron’s poem progresses from the first moment the speaker sees the woman to a final stanza in which he attaches all sorts of values and assumptions (that she must be good and that her heart is “innocent”). They noticed the imagery and described the kind of setting they imagined for the poem. They decided the central image was the first line, the woman walking and capturing the speaker’s attention. The rest of the poem, they reasoned, hinged on that one image. In Francisco’s poem, they decided it was Starbucks. As soon as the word appeared in the title, they had a picture of the entire scene—sights, smells, tastes, sounds.

We also had a chance to discuss intertextuality and the way these two works could be considered in conversation with one another.

Illich and Smith’s protocol works very well to give students an entry point into a text, and it worked particularly well with this pairing since both poems are dependent on a strong central image and depict a particular scene. They were great for thinking about setting; the AP Lit CED emphasizes the ability to explain the function of a setting, and these poems are both excellent ways to address the setting skills:

  • Identify and describe specific details that convey or reveal a setting. 2.A
  • Explain the function of setting in a narrative. 2.B
  • Describe the relationship between a character and a setting. 2.C

I created a Google Slide deck with the major components of this lesson. My institution has disabled sharing outside of our institution, but I believe that if you click this link, you can still make a copy of my slide deck. You will also need copies of “She Walks in Beauty” and “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks…” If you try this text pairing and protocol, I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

Class Discussion Strategies

My AP Lit Class
My AP Literature class in 2018 engaged in a discussion

After introducing my AP Lit students to literary analysis tools and critical theory, I teach a unit called “Identity and Culture” with Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon at the center. In the past, I have turned this unit into a bit of a slog, as I want to discuss everything that happens. As a result, the discussions have tended to be teacher-led, and we never seemed to get through everything I wanted to talk about. You see the problem, don’t you? It was about me and not the students‘ needs. I can be especially guilty of this pedagogical crime when I’m teaching a book I really love—like Song of Solomon. This year, I decided to change my approach. Obviously, I needed to do something more student-centered.

I attended the Mosaic AP Slow Conference this summer, and in one session presented by Roy Smith and Brian Sztabnik, I learned how to create a digital notebook (see link; their materials are near the top of the page as of this writing). I replicated the notebook that Roy shared in the presentation using this free template at Slidesmania. The notebook allowed students to wrestle with the novel’s characters and themes and analyze the text deeply. We could pull back a bit on the class discussion because I was asking students to do more of the work of analysis on their own. The side benefit is that doing this analysis better prepared the students for the class discussions.

The second change to my approach involved the discussions themselves. I knew I didn’t want to lead full-class discussions each day. I decided to try different discussion techniques that included a mix of small group discussions in which all students could participate and larger group discussions that engaged the class as a whole. I tried each of the following strategies successfully in the unit.

TQE: Thoughts, Questions, Epiphanies

I learned about this technique through Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy blog. Marisa Thompson developed this discussion strategy in which students discuss their thoughts, questions, and epiphanies about a text in small groups for 15 minutes. Then they identify their top two TQEs and write them on the board. The student-generated TQEs become the basis for the full-class discussion that follows. I like this strategy because it engages students in both small group discussions and full-class discussions. It gives them a focus. In Gonzalez’s blog post, you can see the stems Thompson uses to help students generate topics for discussion. As students are working in small groups, I circulate and listen. I have also tried this strategy in my Social Justice course with great results.

Small Group Scene Studies

Because the notebooks the students used as they read the text included a section for scene studies, I decided I would ask students to do a mix of independent scene studies and group scene studies. The goal of a scene study is to analyze the events in a scene. What happens? On a deeper level, what does it mean? Do you notice any symbols? How does the scene connect to larger themes in the text? How do characters develop in the scene? Scene studies are great for those pivotal moments in a text, such as when a character has an epiphany or when a major event happens, and you want students to think about the details. We had done a scene study together as a class in which we compared and contrasted Robert Smith’s leap to Henry Porter’s standoff in the first chapter of the novel, so they had a model for the process. Sometimes I asked students to select a scene and do a scene study in their notebooks for homework, but on other occasions, I asked them to work in a small group to conduct a scene study. Groups then shared out their findings about a scene with the whole class. I could easily see this working as a “jigsaw” discussion, too. In that case, each group might analyze a different scene and the sharing would take on additional import as they taught their peers about the scene.

Conversation Stations

Also known as “converstations,” this strategy engages students in small group discussions about characters, scenes, events, themes… whatever you like! I teach AP Lit with a colleague, and she identified several quotes from one of the chapters and asked one or two questions about each quote. These quotes were posted in different areas around the room where students could write responses. Students start at one quote station and move through each station, commenting on the questions and adding to their peers’ comments as well. After rotating through each station as a group, students navigate to the quote that speaks to them the most, and they unpack that station’s commentary for the whole class. They don’t have to move as a group to identify the quote they want to unpack. This method incorporates some movement, so it’s a good way to get students on their feet and thinking. The danger is that some quotes may not attract as many students. I had that happen to one station, and I decided to unpack that station’s commentary. I also did not have the whiteboard space in the classroom where I teach (as my colleague did), so I used large sticky posters.

A twist on this strategy involves creating a slide deck with a slide for each student group where they can write their responses to each station. Each station is a different slide in the deck. The stations can have quotes, questions, or some mix of both. I also borrowed this idea from my AP Lit teaching colleague. It works especially well when you have a hybrid or Zoom class, and you want to engage students in group work.

Protocols

Discussion protocols are also a great way to engage students in small group discussions. The School Reform Initiative has many discussion protocols that not only work well for professional meetings but can also be adapted for the classroom, including many text-based protocols. I tried two text-based protocols developed by SRI: Save the Last Word for ME and the Four “A”s Text Discussion. The only real changes I needed to make were adapting some of the timed portions to fit my 70-minute class periods and changing terms like “article” to “text.”

I used an adaptation of the Four “A”s Text Protocol that asks students to discuss a character’s “assumptions,” what they want to “agree with,” what they want to “argue” with, and what they want to “ask” the character. We used this protocol after we learned about Guitar’s involvement in the Seven Days, which helped the students go beneath the surface and beyond their first reaction to the Seven Days and think more critically about Guitar and his involvement in this organization. This protocol allowed students to explore the nuances and angles in the text.

We used the “Save the Last Word for ME” protocol after reading chapter 9, which rounds out First Corinthians and Magdalene called Lena’s characters and delves more deeply into their stories. This protocol is especially good for engaging every voice, as each participant must speak. Each participant shares a passage, and the other group members discuss the passage before circling back to the presenter, who then explains why they chose the passage. This protocol is also great for driving students into the text, as it is passage-based.

Notebook-Led Discussions

Notebook-led discussions might not be the best term for this strategy, but I called them notebook-led discussions because I asked students to share some detail from their notebooks as a frame for the discussion. Rather than generate questions I would ask them in a full-class discussion, asked them which scene they focused on for a scene study, and they shared what they captured in their notes. Other students added on as they generated questions or ideas about the scenes. This strategy also worked for focusing on characters. I might ask what details they captured about a character’s development in a reading. This strategy is a twist on the typical teacher-led discussion as it asks students to share the details from their notebooks that they want to focus on for discussion.

Socratic Seminar and Fishbowl Discussion

I use Socratic Seminar discussion often but decided to try a Fishbowl Discussion after Part I of the novel to allow students to discuss the text in smaller groups, practice listening and note-taking skills, and analyze the text up until that point. Fishbowl Discussions divide the class into small groups. My class sizes are just right for dividing into two groups. The inner circle discusses the text, while the outer circle takes notes. The groups swap places and repeat the procedure. Students don’t like that those conversations can be repetitive and sometimes want to address a point that came up in the other group’s discussion, but there are ways you can mitigate these problems by allowing time to debrief or creating different questions for each group. My students generate their own questions for Socratic Seminar and Fishbowl Discussions using the Question Formulation Technique from the Right Question Institute. I ask students to do a reflection that includes the following elements:

  • A summary of the discussion
  • Identify a comment made by a peer and explain why you responded to it (agree, disagree, made me think, etc.)
  • Explain how the seminar contributed to your learning
  • Connect the discussion to something else (a personal experience, learning in another class, another book, etc).
  • Assess yourself and set goals for next time

I have been using this reflection template for years. I initially discovered it through Greece Central School District’s (New York) website for their ELA programs, but they have since taken down all of these resources. You can easily create a reflection template that works for you.

If you’ve tried discussion techniques that work well for you, please feel free to share in the comments.

Envisioning Units

One of the ways I try to keep my teaching fresh is to revise units and try new things. I am not one of those teachers who can do the same thing year after year. While I understand the pandemic has been a huge challenge, some of the units I teach didn’t feel successful last year, even on top of pandemic concerns. I discovered the unit makeover challenge through Brave New Teaching. The unit I started with is my Home and Family unit with the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi at the center. I decided to revise that unit because I love that book so much that I actually over-teach it to the point that it’s a slog for the students by the end. If you know the book, it might make sense to explain that they generally stay with me up until the chapters on Akua and Willie, after which, they just can’t do it anymore. I knew I needed to freshen this unit up, and I decided this unit challenge would help. I enjoyed the first step, creating a vision board, so much that I’ve decided to tackle my other units in the same way. Here is an image of my vision board for Homegoing. I created this vision board using a Google Slide. Unfortunately, my school’s Google Drive settings no longer allow me to share outside the organization, so I cannot share the actual Google Slide.

Homegoing Vision Board
Homegoing vision board

I was not only happy with how it turned out but also was able to zero in on what I think is important in the novel. I have just started the vision board for the unit that includes Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours, and I can already tell that this unit really needs a lot of work. The essential questions I’ve been using don’t work, for one. I’m excited to tackle revising that unit along with my AP Lit teaching colleague.

I created the following vision board for the LGBTQIA+ history and literature unit in the Social Justice course I co-teach.

LGBTQIA+ History and Literature vision board

Again, I found it helped me focus and figure out what was important. The vision board concept has opened up a whole new way for me to think about units. I could also see it being a form of assessment for students following a unit. What if we asked students to create a vision board exploring their learning takeaways from the unit?

How I Start the Year

It seems strange to me that we’re talking about returning to school, but some of my friends in far-flung places are already back. 😳

I’ve seen a few tweets about ideas for starting the school year, and I thought I’d share what I’ve been doing the last couple of years to kick off the school year. I currently teach AP English Literature and Composition and an elective called What’s Goin’ On: Social Justice in Literature and History.

At the Multicultural Teaching Institute, I learned about a fun icebreaker assignment called the Top 25. The idea behind it is to list 25 facts about yourself (the more random, the more interesting). As a model, I share my own Top 25. Sometimes I learn some really interesting and important things about my students because thinking of 25 things can be hard.

  1. I am a member of the Beyhive.
  2. I am always losing my phone and my keys. Tile is a game-changer.
  3. I earned a Doctorate in Education at Northeastern University. My dissertation focused on grading and assessment.
  4. I have a black cat named Bellatrix.
  5. My favorite color is light teal (close to Tiffany blue, but a bit greener).
  6. I am notoriously bad at taking care of plants. If you know of an impossible to kill plant, I’ve probably killed it.
  7. I moved around a lot as a kid. I went to three different elementary schools, two different middle schools, and three different high schools.
  8. My all-time favorite musicians are U2, and I get really sensitive about how much people criticize them. I actually subscribed to Sirius XM Radio just for their channel.
  9. You’d think I’d be in Hufflepuff, but no, Ravenclaw.
  10. I love traveling and going to concerts, and now that the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be waning, I really want to do both more often.
  11. I do not like football, but I am a huge fan of the Red Sox, and my favorite player was Mookie Betts. I’m going to stay salty about the Sox trading him.
  12. I love Polar Seltzer, especially flavored seltzer. I swap out my favorites all the time.
  13. I love a nice cup of hot black tea, but I’m not much of a green tea fan. However, I really love coffee. I drink two cups every morning.
  14. I buy way too many books, so I’m trying to use the library more.
  15. I played flute when I was younger and have very basic guitar skills.
  16. I have a sister who currently lives in Texas.
  17. I don’t have a single favorite book. I have many favorite books. My reading interests are wide.
  18. I am not scared of spiders or most bugs, but rodents and roaches terrify me.
  19. Pumpkin spice season is my favorite.
  20. My favorite TV show is Doctor Who, but I haven’t been able to watch the most recent seasons. David Tennant is my favorite Doctor.
  21. The first time I ever visited Massachusetts was because I won a trip to Salem. My husband said we would move to Massachusetts one day, but I didn’t believe him. About two years later, we did.
  22. I love baking bread, canning and preserving, and making soap. It’s 2021.
  23. I love history and sometimes think I would like to teach it as much as I like teaching English.
  24. Please call me Dr. Huff. I worked so hard to earn it. I know it’s hard for folks who knew me as Ms. Huff.
  25. I knew all four of my great grandparents on my mom’s side, but I never even saw my grandfather or step-grandmother on my dad’s side before they died.

In my AP Lit class, students read Clint Smith’s poetry collection Counting Descent over the summer. We begin our discussions of his work by watching this video of “The Danger of Silence.”

We re-read together the poem “Something You Should Know” from Counting Descent. I ask students three questions. Students can be given time to write, or the questions can be used purely for discussion. I do a mix of both. Hint: if you’re virtual, you can do these questions with Mentimeter.

  1. What did you notice? What resonated?
  2. What connections do you see to the all-school summer read (this year it will be Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram)?
  3. What questions do you have? / What do you want to know more about?

A great activity for “Something You Should Know” is to use it as a mentor text for students to write their own poems about themselves.

The first homework assignment is to read over all the policies, course outlines, and other stuff that many teachers spend the first day of class going over. I used to do that, too, but I’ve come to realize that class time is too precious and relationship-building is too critical to spend it going over policies. Some folks might argue that the students won’t read that stuff if we don’t go over it in class.

The Social Justice class is a cross-curricular class that I team-teach with a wonderful colleague from my school’s History/Social Science Department. (He’s truly one of my favorite people.) His idea was to frame the beginning of the year around understanding what social justice is. We use some of Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Students in this class also create a Top 25. However, on the very first day, we ask students to think (do a chalk talk) on the question “What is justice?” For their first homework assignment, they read “Jorje” by Jorje Chica, and students write a reflection on the reading using the following prompt: “Why is Chica’s name so important to him? What connections does Chica make between his name and his identity?”

What sorts of activities do you recommend for the first day? Feel free to share in the comments.

Is Frankenstein Good?

Obscure Podcast Image

If you haven’t checked out Michael Ian Black’s Obscure podcast (see bottom of the post for subscription links), you really should. Michael models exactly what I try to teach my students to do when they read: he talks back to the text, he looks up information that he doesn’t know, he reads the footnotes or endnotes, and he thinks about how the book connects to other books, life, the universe, and everything else. 

My husband and I support Michael’s Obscure podcast on Patreon. As part of the deal, we participate in regular book club discussions about the  book with other folks, and I have had a lot of fun in our discussions. The book club group is funny, smart, and engaged. One thing that came up in our most recent book club discussion last night is just why Frankenstein, the book Michael is currently reading on the podcast, is considered a classic. Why do people think it’s good? Michael admits he’s struggling a bit with the book, and some of the rest of us chimed in with our thoughts about it. For example, the framing device of the letter seems confusing and unnecessary. There is a lot of build-up to something big which then happens offstage, where the reader can’t see it; the two examples that came up in discussion were actually creating the Monster and Frankenstein being jailed for suspicion of Clerval’s murder in Scotland. I don’t know why, but I didn’t notice these things when I first read the book, and I didn’t think much about them when I taught the book in the past either. 

I told Michael he’s making me wonder why we consider it a good book, too. I mean, I feel a bit sheepish admitting I didn’t think about these things before, but I think that’s one reason why discussing books with others is so great. In this case, it’s making me aware of Mary Shelley’s writing quirks in a way I hadn’t considered before. We had a bit of a lively conversation in the Zoom chat about how sometimes books are required reading when we’re not interested or ready for them (Jane Eyre came up as a summer reading book for high school). I think there are a lot of reasons why we might cling to books in the classroom, but it’s important that we consider whether they are serving the purpose we hope. When I select a text, I think about the following things:

  • How does it fit with the themes and skills I am teaching?
  • How do I think students will engage with it?
  • What sorts of things can students learn from it (writing moves, history, or human nature and character—among other things)?

Frankenstein is widely considered to be the first science fiction novel. In addition, it’s one of the earliest popular novels, written in a time when novels as we conceive of them were, well, new (hence, “novels”). Depending on what you’re teaching, Frankenstein could be a good fit. For example, if the focus is on the development of science fiction.

But I’m increasingly wondering as I listen to the podcast if it’s good. I am also recalling a class I had some years back who were struggling with the novel when I taught it, and it occurs to me that maybe they were not really into it, and I wasn’t engaging them in a way that worked. As Michael points out things that bother him in the book, I can’t help but feel he has a valid point. 

I might argue what’s really happening in the book is more of a philosophical argument: what does the creator owe their creation? Perhaps the plot itself is not why we might teach the book. Maybe not character development either. But I could see a case for the novel’s philosophical questions being a good rationale for teaching it.

That doesn’t really answer the question about whether or not it’s good. 

You might want to check out Dr. Kat’s video about Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein. She makes some really valid points about the novel’s philosophy.

Full disclosure: Michael is a friend, but I’d recommend his podcast in any case. It’s excellent.

One-Pagers

I shared some student work on Twitter, and it seemed as though some folks were interested in learning more about the concept. First of all, I didn’t come up with this concept at all. I’d seen one-pagers floating around for a while. Some time back, I tweeted asking for help with instructions, and Dianna Minor and Glenda Funk graciously shared their instructions with me. I also found Betsy Potash’s instructions via Cult of Pedagogy and these instructions at Ms. D’s English Fury helpful. I adapted my instructions from these sources. All credit goes to the fine educators who generously shared their ideas and their students’ work. I am indebted to them, and I’m sharing what I did only as a means of paying it forward in case it helps other people. 

You can use one-pagers to assess lots of things. I am an English teacher, but I imagine they could be used in just about any subject and at pretty much every grade level, with some adaptations.

What is a one-pager?

A one-pager is a kind of project in which you share your most important takeaways from a text on a single page using text and artwork. You take what you have learned from a text and put the highlights on the page accompanied by art that represents, sometimes symbolically, these highlights and themes.

Why create a one-pager?

One-pagers allow you to mix media, text, and images, which helps you remember details better. It’s brain science. According to Allan Paivio’s dual coding theory, the brain has two ways of processing: the visual and the verbal. The combination of the two leads to the most powerful results. You will remember more when you’ve mixed language and imagery. One-pagers also offer variety—another way to share your interpretation and analysis of a text. You might be surprised what you will come up with! Plus, they’re fun. [All credit to this rationale goes to Betsy Potash.]

But I am not good at art/don’t like art…

I will share some templates with you that may help, but the important thing to remember here is that you ARE good at art. You might want to draft your one-pager in light pencil before coloring it in, but you will create something pretty amazing. I feel it in my bones. Also, do not use clip art or computer art. Trust me. One-pagers look so much better when they’re your own art.

Okay, so what are the parameters?

  • A single piece of letter-size paper (or A4 if you can’t get letter where you currently are located). You may use colored paper if you have access to it and want to, but it is NOT required.
  • Work only on one side of the page in portrait or landscape mode. 
  • Include color and patterns*. Think symbolically here. Texture is fine, too.
  • Fill the entire page with your work. If you have blank space, repeat an element or fill it with one of the optional elements (see below).
  • Put your first and last name on the back.
  • Try to be neat with lettering. It helps to draft first. Definitely make sure handwriting is legible.

*I had markers and colored pencils to lend students who needed them.

What kinds of elements should I include?

The following elements are REQUIRED:

  • The title and author of the book.
  • Illustrations or symbols that represent the reading. This could be a character, a scene from the text, symbols that convey ideas expressed in the work.
  • Choose two or three notable quotes that stand out to you from the text. It could be quotes that make you think or wonder or remind you of something important from the text.  Write the quotes on your paper using different colors and/or writing styles. Include the page number and a short analysis of the quote.
  • Make a personal connection to what you read. What did it mean to you personally? (Examples: “I feel…I think…I know…I wonder…”).

The following elements are options, but pick at least 2:

  • Create a border that reflects a theme. This can include words, pictures, symbols, or even quotes.
  • Draw a word cluster around your image. Use these words you highlight the importance of your chosen image. The word cluster may also artistically symbolize the subject matter.
  • Write a poem about the book, a character, or the theme. If this is particularly challenging, you may choose to compose an acrostic poem using a one-word theme.
  • Create a hashtag that relates to the text.
  • Explain how the setting shapes a character in the text.
 

Rubric

Skill

Exemplary

Proficient

Developing

Emerging

The extent to which the one-pager demonstrates textual analysis.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers insightful interpretations and understanding of the text with analysis that goes well beyond a literal level.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers clear and explicit interpretations and understanding of the text with analysis that goes beyond a literal level.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers partially explained and/or somewhat literal interpretations and understanding of the text with some analysis.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers few or superficial interpretations and understanding of the text with little analysis.

 

The extent to which the one-pager follows the “rules.”

All the “rules” are followed: the work is on a single side of letter or A4 paper, the page is filled, color is used, first and last name are on the back, and the lettering is neat and legible.

Most of the “rules” are followed: one or two minor omissions (see exemplary column).

Some of the “rules” are followed. There are two or more omissions (see exemplary column).

Few or none of the rules are followed. There are more than three omissions (see exemplary column).

The extent to which all required elements are included.

All required elements are included and addressed in a thoughtful way that demonstrates symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and thoughtful interpretation of the text. Two or more optional elements add depth to the piece.

All of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Two optional elements add depth to the piece.

Most of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate developing symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Two optional elements are included.

Some of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate emerging symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Optional elements may be missing or incomplete.

Recommendations

Sid, who tweets @ThatTeacherSid on Twitter, posted the following tweet a few days ago:

I need to do some work on my dissertation, so I’m hoping a reply here on my blog will limber me up for writing.

Is that possibly a form of procrastination? 

Maybe, but here are my recommendations, and you might consider teaching them, or you might just enjoy them on your own.

Essays

One of my all-time favorite essays is Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s seminal work, “The Case for Reparations.”  It’s well-researched and persuasive. I particularly appreciate that Coates doesn’t become bogged down by the “how,” which is what stops many people from considering reparations for slavery. Instead, he focuses on “why,” and once the “why” is compelling enough for the majority of Americans, I think we will find the “how.” I also highly recommend Coates’s essays “My President Was Black” and “The First White President.”  “The Case for Reparations” and “My President Was Black” were both collected in his book, We Were Eight Years In Power, which I also highly recommend. In this collection, Coates discusses the writing and his process. His critical reflection on his own work is really fascinating.

A more recent essay I read in The Atlantic was “History Will Judge the Complicit” by Anne Applebaum. What I loved about this essay was the historical study of two figures in East Germany, Wolfgang Leonhard, who defected to the United States after growing disenchanted with the East German Communist Party, and Markus Wolf, who remained loyal to the party even after gaining an intimate knowledge of its worst violence. Applebaum compares the two men to Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham. I found the essay to be a fascinating discussion of party versus principles, and the comparison is a master-class in persuasive writing.

I first read James Baldwin‘s essay “A Talk to Teachers” after seeing Clint Smith mention it in a tweet. Smith mentioned that he returned to it each year while he was teaching. I’m not sure if he still re-reads it each year, but I have now read it twice, and if anything, it becomes more relevant as time passes. It’s hard to believe Baldwin didn’t pen this essay just last week. Baldwin underscores the urgency of social justice and why teachers cannot wait to make critical changes in how they teach their students of color. Baldwin opens his essay:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.

The essay was originally a speech that Baldwin delivered in 1963!

Poems and Poetry Collections

I have written previously that we’re in the midst of a poetry renaissance right now (subscription to English Journal required). I still believe that is true. This list has the potential to be extremely long, so I’m going to limit it to my current favorites.

Maggie Smith‘s “Good Bones” is a poem I turn to often. These days seem so bleak, and they feel like they only become bleaker. But Smith reminds us that this old planet does have “good bones,” and we can make something beautiful with it.

Jericho Brown invented the form “duplex,” a combination of a ghazal, a sonnet, and the blues. This poem, titled “Duplex,” is one of my favorite examples of the form. I particularly love the line, “A poem is a gesture toward home.” For a birthday gift to myself, I attended a poetry-writing masterclass taught by Brown through the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Poetry Festival programming (it was free, but the gift was giving myself the time to do it). What an amazing teacher! I loved it! His collection The Tradition won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I highly recommend it. Also, check out Brown’s pandemic poem, “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry.

Speaking of collections, a few of my favorites are Eve L. Ewing‘s 1919Clint Smith‘s Counting Descent, and Fatimah Asghar‘s If They Come for Us are three of my favorite collections.  Ewing’s book focuses on Chicago’s 1919 Race Riot, and she experiments with a variety of forms and ideas, using quotes from a report called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot. I’m telling you, really need to hear Ewing read aloud her poem “Jump / Rope,” which she reads in this interview with Terry Gross.

Clint Smith’s collection has too many favorites to count. Some poems that I particularly enjoy, however, are “Counting Descent,” “Counterfactual,” “When Maze & Frankie Beverly Come on in My House,” “Playground Elegy,” and “Ode to the Only Black Kid in Class.” I also really like Smith’s poem “History Reconsidered.”

His performance of “When They Tell You the Brontosaurus Never Existed” is another favorite.

Some favorites in Fatimah Asghar’s collection include “Microaggression Bingo” and “If They Come for Us.”

Speeches

Some of my favorite speeches in recent years are actually speeches by young people. I found Emma González‘s speech at a press conference following the Parkland Shooting particularly moving.

I also enjoy any time Bryan Stevenson speaks, but this TED Talk is a place to start.

 

I also really like this older speech by Sir Ken Robinson, whom we lost this year.

And finally, this speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my “why” for teaching English.