If you’re unfamiliar with the poetry of our extraordinarily talented West Virginia Poet Laureate, you need to add his work to your summer reading list this year. Marc Harshman is a West Virginia state treasure. An accomplished children’s book author, Harshman has also published two collections of poetry, Green-Silver and Silent and Believe What You Can. His work spans a wide range of complexities, and can be used in any ELA classroom at any level. I have had the pleasure of hosting him in my classroom several times, and I have used his poetry in my Advanced Placement Language and Composition course and in my English 11 class.
Here he is with my students below:
Harshman’s poetry sounds and feels as if Robert Frost and Walt Whitman took a hike together through the Appalachians. His poetry often explores our spiritual connection to the natural world, is rife with Appalachian themes, and filled with images of place, plants, animals, and people, his love of West Virginia evident in every turn of phrase. Often, his poems read like small celebrations of nature and beauty, highlighting the best of our people, our state, and our culture.
Take this one for example:
THERE WILL BE DANCING
A fiddle tune bearing, rough-shod,
the memory of the village:
sunlight on stucco,
leaf-plastered paths in autumn,
in moonlight and bracken,
the lilt of the market tongue,
ancient beyond telling.
A fiddle tune bearing, sweet as fruit,
a memory of timelessness:
candles on narrow sills
marching each night through Advent,
a bowl of rose petals, peach
and orange and crimson,
garlic and lamb simmering
in a black pan,
kisses long enough for tasting.
All have returned, just here.
Listen. They come round again.
There will be dancing, too.
When I started working on this blog post, I was originally going to share a lesson I have used quite successfully that pairs Harshman’s A Song for West Virginia with Whitman’s Song of Myself. A Song for West Virginia was commissioned by the Wheeling National Heritage Area to celebrate the state's sesquicentennial.
See Harshman perform the poem below:
The poem provides a brilliant "highlight-reel" version of West Virginia history—perfect for an ELA or Social Studies class, and could be used in both middle and high school grade classrooms. My lesson explores how poetry can be used to celebrate identity and individuality.
**If you’d still like some details on that lesson, shoot me an email, and I’ll send them over.
(Also, here is a copy of some guided reading questions I came up with for A Song for West Virginia)
But I’m not going to focus this post on that lesson. Instead, I came up with something brand new. As I was re-reading Harshman’s collection, Green-Silver and Silent in preparation for this blog post, I was struck with inspiration. And like we all sometimes do in our classrooms, I switched gears.
You see, because my favorite Harshman poems are his prose style poems. They're these wonderfully intense shorts, that read like flash-fiction.
Take SAVED for example:
At Bible camp, climbing a steep bank, a boy, adventurous and confident, cries out to see a hornet’s nest and so draws them to him. White butterflies linger in the field, haphazard and intentional all at once and unmindful of the thick heat. The mud is cool down by the river where friends cake handfuls of it over the fiery welts that burn across his face, down his neck and snake along his spine. It was a wet spring and the river had cut a new path, deeper. It’s hard to believe anyone was every baptized here, but buried perhaps, yes. The boy’s whimpers die away as he crosses the soybean field on the shortcut back to camp where his counselor will joke that he looks like a mud pie. A green heron stays frozen at its work in the backwash below pale willows. They would have swung on grape vines near here, great living ropes that would have soared twenty feet out over the sluggish, seductive, waters of the stream. All in all a lucky day.
It was when I re-read SAVED that this post went off the rails. I re-read it a few times, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how this piece would be excellent as a model in a mentor text activity. We have talked about using mentor texts a few times on this blog, and for more information about using mentor texts, click HERE.
Harshman gets quite a bit done in just a few lines—lines loaded with imagery and symbolism. He tells us a whole story, but still leaves us with questions, wondering.
These nine sentences manage to do all the things we want our students to do in really great writing.
Take a look at another example from Green-Silver and Silent:
IN TIME FOR SUPPER
He flinches at the sight of his mother’s bra and panties strung along the still clothesline. No wind to enliven this afternoon. A truck is grinding its’ gears up inside the green shade of the mountain. Where the lawn meets the road the grass is brown with dust. A small garden snake slithers out onto the hot asphalt. His mother sleeps in front of the TV where John Wayne charges downhill, bugles blaring, sabers slicing the heavy air into thin wafers of breeze. Ahead, white flags surrender both pride and virtue. A change in the weather? The truck will reach Cumberland in time for supper. As he digs a grave for the snake, the boy will wonder again what it takes to become a man.
Again, nine sentences that tell an incredible story. Dripping with imagery and symbolism, I clearly saw a new lesson here for my students.
I wanted to craft a mentor task activity.
So--the new plan:
I can’t wait to try this in my own classroom, but since it’s the last week of school it may have to wait until August. If you try this lesson, tweet us, Facebook us, or Email us and let us know how it goes! And share great examples of student work!
In the meantime, grab copies of Green-Silver and Silent and Believe What You Can and read some more incredible work by our very talented Poet Laureate. You can also find Harshman and many other West Virginia writers in the brand new anthology, Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods.
Happy reading, happy teaching, and happy (almost) Summer!
*All poems excerpted from Green, Silver, and Silent (2012) with the gracious permission of Marc Harshman, West Virginia Poet Laureate.
By Jeni Gearhart
Summer. It is close enough I can smell the hotdogs, chlorine, and fresh cut grass. Ok, that smell might be coming from the neighbor’s house. They aren’t teachers spending Saturday morning grading papers, but I digress.
As we are approaching the end of the 2016-2017 school year, I’m vaguely thinking about what the next school year will hold. What worked this year? What did not? What can I do now to set up the next year for success?
Now, I am not planning for August in May. I simply cannot think about starting this all over again until I’ve had at least two weeks of uninterrupted recovery time (also known as my hibernation period of summer vacation). But, I can rethink one important aspect of my year: Summer Reading.
Oh, summer reading. The kids cringe when we pass it out, I cringe when I think about the piles of work that will then wait for me on day two.
Summer reading is a hot topic. What purpose does it serve? What purpose should it serve? Is it meaningful? What does research show?
After polling our students, reading up on the summer reading discussion, conferring with administration, and working together within our department, my teacher buddy Sarah Ferry and I have redone our summer assignment. And, I’m not dreading it in August.
Summer Reading Research
Thanks to @MrsFerryHHS and her techy know-how, we surveyed about fifty honors seniors on their opinions regarding summer assignments. Surprisingly, though they wanted less work, they had pretty common opinions about why we assign them:
Of course, there were a few “The purpose is to ruin our lives” comments, but the responses were generally positive.
Their views of the assignments themselves, however, showed a different story:
Personally, I think summer reading is absolutely important, especially for those who would identify as “nonreaders”. Continuing reading keeps students’ brains engaged. On the other hand, there are justifiable arguments to the contrary. Should students be allowed to just “check out” over the summer? How much of the work are the students actually doing? Does it encourage students to read, or does it keep them from reading what they want? This series of articles from the New York Times a few years ago offered some perspective. This article from Teach Argument was also very helpful in our discussion.
Based on my reading on the topic, summer assignments tend to fall into a few categories:
So, how to we make summer reading work for the teacher and for our students? This is our idea:
You can access the entire document here.
The only assignment our students will do with their novel is to choose and analyze five quotes. No bells and whistles creative project like previous assignments we’ve used. Rather, we are going to use this independent reading in the first weeks of the school year. Students will share their book in the form of a book talk when we return. We will also use their choice book to jumpstart our discussion of important skills like archetypes, themes, and characters.
Why we like this:
Our students get to read what they are already interested in. We are providing them with a short list of interesting titles, but we want them to have choice in their reading. As we know from research a la Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, students form positive attributions towards reading more through independent reading than reading that is forced and “worksheeted” to death.
We will use this piece as our first writing assignment in the first weeks as we explore mentor texts (see Writing with Mentors by Rebecca O’Dell and Allison Marchetti) and work to revise their writing. This may also move into a longer research assignment as the year goes on.
We are providing them with a list of possible topics:
We also provide them with a list of relevant sources:
Why we like this:
Again, students will be reading things they already find interesting. They will go deep into topics, into the rabbit holes that we rarely have time to encounter during the school year. Hopefully they will find new interests through this reading. Regardless, this will encourage them to read widely and will inform them about current events. This will set them up for the skills that we will use throughout the school year, like analyzing bias and argument. Additionally, the writing they will be doing is manageable and based on real world writing.
We hope to engage our colleagues in other departments with this reading as well. Students reading up on new science research would be able to talk with their science teachers, those interested in art and culture may chat with their art teacher. We want to foster a culture of readers, and that doesn’t always mean that we are reading fiction.
I’m excited about this assignment (as is my administrator, which is icing on the cake). Summer reading has been stressful for me and for my students in my last five years of teaching, but I truly think that this one is going to work well.
It is my hope that we will encourage our students to be curious and to think deeply. Isn’t that the purpose of education?
What are your thoughts on summer reading? What ideas have worked for you? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Jeni Gearhart teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all five years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. She a not a hipster, but adamantly proclaims that she liked coloring books before they were cool. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.
By Shana Karnes
I can be a bit of a lazy reader.
I get impatient while reading, waiting for the plot to pick up, and abandon books with gusto. I leap from mystery to mystery, romance novel to short fiction, and toss in the stray nonfiction book when I’m feeling curious.
When I first began making choice reading a priority in my classroom, many of my students were lazy readers, too. They gobbled up YA fiction in droves, but balked when I booktalked a classic, or an award-winning piece of fiction, or any nonfiction. Some of them refused to move beyond their genre of choice for a whole year.
I knew, when I committed to choice reading, that it went far beyond just YA. I knew that all kids were capable of reading sophisticated texts, making complex choices about when and how and what to read, and that all readers have a hunger for a challenging, engaging read. But I wasn’t seeing my students living out those expectations, so I built in some structures to help them get there.
Reading Challenges -- I began scaffolding students up to more difficult reading choices with reading challenges. I read about these in Book Love by Penny Kittle, but wanted to put my own spin on them as far as making very specific challenges went. So, the first reading challenge involved picking a book outside your comfort zone (which required a fun day of work identifying our own reading zones); the second challenge involved reading a nonfiction book, the third involved reading an award winner, and so on.
By working as a whole class to try new books out simultaneously--me reading along with my students--everyone felt comfortable getting uncomfortable. We were all struggling along together, trying to decipher the vocabulary in a new book, or the structure of a new genre, or the style of a new kind of writer. I built in mini-lessons on these things, but I think it was most helpful that we talked about these issues in the light of being real readers--not “struggling” readers.
Authentic Writing about Reading -- When I first joined GoodReads many years ago, I realized how much my reading life was improved by just quickly taking the time to rate what I’d thought of a book. Before that, I’d start and finish books and never really think about them again. Soon, I began writing short book reviews, and then long ones, first just for myself, and then for the benefit of other readers. I began reading more book reviews to get a sense of what I might talk about other than writing and characters.
I wanted my students doing something similar, so we began studying book reviews--popular, funny ones on Goodreads and Tumblr; professional ones in the New York Times and the New Yorker; even famed reviewers like Roger Ebert, whose writing moves about film we applied to books. Students began tweeting at authors, writing reviews informally in their notebooks and formally for our school paper and "giving their own booktalks to one another.
Nurturing a Real Reading Life -- No longer were kids feeling confined to books I handed them. They began to choose books more independently, armed with information about their tastes, their peers’, and what was popular in general. I began to see more students reading books that didn’t come from my classroom library, more students talking to one another about books, and a bigger variety of books being read in general.
In my own reading life, I modeled these challenges. I read The Great Gatsby, Walden, and a few other classics for the first time in years, and truly appreciated them more during these second reads. I wrote book reviews on Goodreads, the Nerdy Book Club, and Three Teachers Talk. I tracked my reading in my notebook, on GoodReads, and on Twitter, setting goals and trying to take a moment to jot down, in quick review form, WHY I liked or didn’t like a book.
These practices not only helped me become a better reader; they helped my students grow as readers, too. Anna’s favorite book of all time became the award-winning A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, while Connor was blown away by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. These books and more were chosen, read, and evaluated independently, without the confines of assignments or the too-broad sea of “your choice” to hold them back.
WVCTE is wondering how you start your students with choice and then scaffold them up to more complex reading tasks. Leave us a comment, tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University. She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or find more of her writing about secondary readers-writers workshop at Three Teachers Talk.
On Saturday, May 6, 2017 I had the honor of delivering the keynote address at the Shepherd University Teacher Pinning Ceremony. Below is a transcript of that speech.
Good morning, and first let me say Congratulations! Years of hard work and study come to fruition today. This is an incredible and momentous event, and you should be very proud of this accomplishment. Let’s give our graduates another round of applause.
Now, let me say thank you.
Because you have chosen to enter the most rewarding and challenging profession in our country today at a time when teacher shortages are at an all-time high. Teaching is an incredible act of service. And when you enter into the service of others, you have chosen a job that ultimately is about the greater good. By becoming an educator you have decided that you want to dedicate your life to literally making the world a better place. And that is not hyperbole. Your actions and words every day will have the ability to affect the leaders of tomorrow. This responsibility is awe-inspiring. And at times a bit daunting. I have tried to articulate the enormity of this many times, but Uncle Ben said it best when he looked at a young Peter Parker in Marvel’s Spiderman and said, “Son, with great power comes great responsibility.”
Because there is no service without some sacrifice.
Being a teacher can at times be extremely polarizing. Some of your days will be very hard and very thankless. And any teacher who says, “oh yeah, this job is a breeze” isn’t doing it right or has a magic key I have not yet discovered. And unfortunately, no matter what Hollywood movies tell us, this job will not be all standing on desks and yelling “O Captain, My Captain” or wearing cool leather jackets and jeans to school while Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise plays in the background.
No- sometimes this job will get the best of you. Sometimes you will pour your heart and soul into a lesson, and no one will get it. Sometimes you will be kind to a student who no matter what you do will not like you. Sometimes you will so overwhelmed by the difficulty of this job that you spend your lunch or planning period hiding somewhere to have a good cry.
But you know what makes it worth it?
Because sometimes you will pour your heart and soul into a lesson, and fireworks will go off in every set of eyes sitting in front of you. Sometimes you will be kind to a student, who will tell you later that that kindness changed his or her life. Sometimes you will be so overwhelmed by the magic of this job that you will spend your lunch or planning period wiping away tears of joy.
Teaching is miraculous. And maddening. It is hopeful. And heart-wrenching. It will make you laugh. And it will make you cry. And there is no shame in that. I teach the novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie and in the book Junior’s basketball coach says to him. “If you love something enough, it’s going to make you cry.”
And no one goes into teaching unless you have love for something. Whether it’s math, or science, or music, or reading and writing, or working with young people, or coaching, we become teachers because something in our hearts drives us to the profession. We all know that it certainly is not the lucrative salary or low-stress work environment, but joy and love and service that brings us to education.
Today, I’d like to give you three pieces of advice. These are three things that have helped me say focused on that joy and love and service. Things that are integral to finding success in your classroom, and to staying in the profession longer than just a few years.
My first piece of advice is to always choose love.
You see because without love, this job is too hard. Without love, it does ask too much of us. And whether you realize it or not, when you chose to major in education, to become a teacher, you have already chosen love.
Now, I know some of you are mentally eye-rolling. I teach teenagers and can always sense a good mental eye-roll. And I get it. I admit, “choose love” sounds a bit hippy-dippy.
And no, I’m not saying you have love every minute of your job and all your students. That’s impossible. And truthfully, some of parts of this job and some students will be downright unlovable. Though it does make teaching them, infinitely easier if you do at least try to like them.
What I am saying is that you do always have to try love what you’re doing--what you’re teaching. And this is an active choice you can make. You’re the teacher. You’re in charge of your room and your lesson. The minute you stop loving what you’re teaching or how you’re teaching it, both your students’ lives and your life will become joyless.
So choose love.
Because by choosing love you are choosing to be the kind of teacher both the lovable and the unlovable kid would like to have in class. When you choose love you automatically start finding ways to make your students like or love what you’re teaching, and as one of my personal teacher heroes, Rita Pierson, put it, “Kids can’t learn from someone they don’t like.” And if you haven’t seen Pierson's Ted Talk called “Every Child Needs a Champion” I would recommend watching it immediately.
And while you don’t have to love the people your students may be, you do have to love them as learners. And seeing them learn will remind you why you chose this job, why you chose love and service from the start. It’s not uncommon for my husband to find me at our kitchen table, furiously re-writing a lesson, snarling at my family through gritted teeth, “everybody give me a few minutes, I’m trying to figure out how to love _______(fill in the blank with any student's name here).” Because no matter how unlovable they may be, when I see them learning, engaging in class and with literature and writing, in that instant, I love them.
So always try to choose love.
My second piece of advice is to remember that your students are human. And humans are emotional and unpredictable. And sometimes we need to respond to our students as one human to another—not as teacher to student. You must always expect the unexpected. You will encounter countless situations and experiences in this job that no teacher training class could prepare you for. For example, in my fifteen years as a high school English educator I have also functioned as an event planner, a counselor, a secretary, a clergyman, a parent, a club advisor, a social director, a nurse, a lunch lady, and an athletic coach.
I have ignored and been ignored.
I have celebrated and been celebrated
And I have loved and been loved.
All of this and still you have teach them your curriculum. You still have to think about standards and grades and achievement. You still have to do the job.
This job will demand a lot from you, sometimes more than you think you have to give. But that is what makes it incredible— the service and the sacrifice. The giving of yourself to the greater good. The choosing of love.
I would like to close with my last piece of advice: talk to your students. Ask them what they think. They want to be listened to. They want to be a part of the learning experience. And they are smart. They will make you a better person and a better teacher.
This past week, I followed my own advice; I asked my students for help. I said to each of my classes, “hey guys--I have to give a speech on Saturday to bright, shiny, new first year teachers. If you could give them advice for their career from a high school student, what would say?”
So now from the mouths of babes is some sage advice from a few of my 11th grade English students and some graduating seniors:
Dominique: “Don’t be too controlling of the students. Give them responsibilities according their age.”
Marie: “Don’t tell bad jokes and then laugh at your bad joke.”
Corbin: “If you teach until you’re over 50, please don’t nag us about how miserable and tired you are. I don’t care if you’ve taught for 30 years. If you hate kids get out now.”
Maddy: “Don’t teach us a new thing every day. Sometimes you have to let things sink in for a day or two.”
Zachary: "Some of us have many hard classes. We don't just have one hard class. Remember that your class isn’t the only one I have all day."
Chloe: “Don’t be stressed. Have fun at your job.”
Grace: “Don’t grade papers on the weekends. It will make you stressed and mean. Give yourself some non-teacher time.”
(Apparently, my students are very concerned about teacher stress levels.)
Trinity: “Don’t expect to be respected without giving respect first. Also- school isn’t our life. We have lives outside your room. Be aware of that.”
Hannah: "If you print worksheets off the Internet, make sure they are not out of date, and that they are correct. Also- we know how to Google.”
Thabiso: "We can smell your fear."
Berenice: “Always wear matching socks.”
Dayquan: “Kids are going to be annoying. Prepare for the worst. Be happy when it’s the best.”
Jake: “You know nothing Jon Snow.”
Hayley: “Whatever you do, don’t dance at prom.”
Liam: "Try not to take anything personally. Speak softly and carry a big stick. Also, snacks are always ok.”
Kaitlyn: "Be a person and make connections. Also, if you don't know an answer, admit it."
Lee: "Have a structured class. And act like you want to be there. If you want to be there, then we will want to be there. "
Eric: "If students know you put work into a lesson, then we will put work into doing it."
Kat: "Be a mentor."
Mark: "Smile. And have patience."
Autumn: "Incorporate parts of yourself into your teaching style."
Ally: "Just do your best."
Ben: “Take it easy. Try to love your job.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Congratulations graduating Educators of the Class of 2017. Thank you having me today, and for choosing this amazing life. Best of luck.
Jessica Salfia is a proud Shepherd University Alumni, the President of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English, a high school English teacher, and a writer. She lives and works in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.