BY: LIZ KEIPER
I’m a big fan of Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover.
I’ll admit—at first I was a bit skeptical. When we received word last school year that Berkeley County high schools were going to be reading The Crossover as a county One Book event, I was not immediately sold.
“So, it’s one of those poetry-novels. Teen angst and basketball…” I mean, I’ll try anything once, but I was not ready for how powerful that book was.
It’s about basketball… but it’s about so much more. The big ideas forming the story are incredible—family, sacrifice, love, acceptance, jealousy, revenge, (spoiler alert!) death. The poetry is rhetorically rich. There are motifs and symbolism galore, and also Biblical allusions… There are two brothers, one of whom is jealous of the other and wounds the other out of jealousy. (Cain and Abel, much?) Also, the two brothers happen to be named Joshua and Jordan, and at the end of the story, Joshua crosses over Jordan in a basketball move (eerily similar to Joshua crossing over the Jordan River into the Promised Land).
For many students, basketball was the hook or initial interest point, but there was so much more that they got from the text.
I remember telling a friend, “The Crossover isn’t just a popular poetry-novel; it’s LITERATURE!”
And Solo is no exception to that.
It is the newest book written co-written by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess. The story is about a boy named Blade who is the son of a formerly famous, now drug addicted, rock star. Blade goes on a journey in search of his past, and ultimately himself. He is an avid classic rock fan, so rock songs and references to them are woven throughout.
But of course, it’s about far more than just classic rock. Solo is also rife with symbolism, themes, allusions, powerful rhetoric, interesting poetic structure, and just about every archetype under the sun. However, I’m not going to give away too much more before you read it. ☺
I think that several activities that I used in my classroom with The Crossover would also work well with Solo (or any other novel told through poetry) because of the structure of the text.
During reading with The Crossover, I had my students analyze poems of their choosing from the book. Below are my instructions and here's a copy of the document.
We analyzed the first poem “Dribbling” as a class, and the rest were their free choice.
For me, this helped me not go “overkill” on the book during reading. This held the students responsible for deep thinking but also let them enjoy the flow of the story as well.
The Crossover is also a phenomenal mentor text for poetry writing. During reading, I had students write a Found poem modeled after the newspaper-story-turned-poem “Article #1 in the Daily News (December 14),” a List poem modeled after “Five Reasons I Have Locks,” and a Definition poem modeled after “ca-lam-i-ty.”
For each of these types of poems, we read and analyzed a model poem from The Crossover as a class, I showed them an example that I had written based on the model, and then I gave them the remaining time in class to write their own. They then decorated their favorite poem that they had written for display.
As an after-reading activity, I identified three main motifs that I found significant in the book: Flight/Flying, Stars, and the word Crossover. I split the students into groups and assigned each group a motif. I gave each group six different instances of that motif in the story and had them look up all those instances. Then as a group, they had to decide what the recurring symbol seemed to represent and why. Here's the motifs handout that accompanied the task.
Along with meshing well with the above-mentioned techniques, the new book Solo is also a fabulous example of the classical quest and the concept of The Hero’s Journey. Here’s a cool tie-in video for your kids to explain The Hero’s Journey and why it’s important.
In Solo, (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it!) the main character Blade has a recurring dream in which he hears a call to “wake up and face the spider.” Throughout the story, he develops many theories as to who or what the “spider” is or what this means. He then proceeds to go on a quest in which he gains much more than he expected and deciphers the nature of the “spider.” All of this is part of his Hero’s Journey.
A few years ago, I taught English 12, and after reading Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I showed my students the above Hero’s Journey Ted Ed video, and they identified the elements of the journey for both Beowulf and Sir Gawain. Then, that gave us a chance to make text-to-self connections—what is your Grendel? What is your Green Knight?
Or, in the case of Solo, what is your Spider? What is a fear or obstacle that is keeping you from your goals—your destination?
One of the deepest powers of story is how it can impact and teach. And you can definitely get to that level with your students and Solo.
So, whether you just decide to read it as a last-hurrah of summer, whether this inspires you to try to write a grant to get a classroom set, or whether you pick up a copy for your classroom library and wait for that kid with the Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin t-shirt to walk into your classroom during the first month of school and you use it to hook them on a good book… I hope that you and your students get a taste of this book.
And may you wake up and face your Spider.
WVCTE is wondering…
1) Have you read or taught The Crossover? What other engaging activities do you suggest with the text?
2) With what other quest/Hero’s Journey stories would the Ted Ed video be useful?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
by: Dustin Hixenbaugh
Once a father and mother took their son to a preacher with the hope that this man who had baptized their children with his own hands would provide a cure for their son’s unimaginable impulses—for his attraction to men. After hearing the parents out, the preacher replied that he had known the young man his entire life, that he had developed a great faith in his character, and that he could not condemn him for following his heart. In his view, it was the parents, not the son, who needed “curing,” for it was they who had allowed the fear of the unknown to come between them and one of their children.
This is a story that I read a long time ago in one of the issues of The Reader’s Digest or Guideposts that my own parents stacked in their bathroom. But I found myself retelling it a couple of weeks ago in front of a crowd of teachers in a presentation on “Supporting LGBTQIA+ Students” at the University of Houston. Of course, a lot has changed since I read the story in the late 1990s, and arguably gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are better represented today in popular culture and more accepted by family members, teachers, and peers, than they ever have been. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for teens who are, or who may be perceived as, transgender—a term that distinguishes people who claim a gender identity that does not correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans children, who are bullied at school and smeared on social media, are in desperate need of adults who will stand up for them the way the preacher stood up for that young member of his congregation.
At this point, I should clarify that my intention in this post is not to convince you that trans children exist or that you should “approve” of them. The former is a demonstrable fact—1.04% of West Virginians between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as transgender, according to a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute—and the latter, your approval, is beside the point. As far as I’m concerned, a teacher’s job is not to tell students who they are, but rather to make space for students to discover who they are and to develop the skills and mindsets they need to be their best selves. Moreover, trans students’ unique needs require that teachers do more than turn a blind eye and wish them the best. Research suggests that trans students feel unsafe in schools and earn lower GPAs than their cisgender peers unless school personnel take deliberate steps to help them feel welcome and secure.
So, what can you do to foster a welcoming environment for the trans students you will almost certainly teach? Here are five fairly easy suggestions:
1. Let students introduce themselves. It’s the first day of school and you’re gazing upon a sea of unfamiliar faces. Do you take attendance by calling names off a roster? Or do you ask students to give their names to you? For many teachers, this is a six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other decision, but for students who are transitioning between genders and who may be using names that are different from the ones printed on their official school records, it can be a source of anxiety and embarrassment. My advice? Ask students to introduce themselves to the class using the names they prefer, and if you can’t match a student’s preferred name to the one that appears on your roster, ask them about it privately. Better to screw up attendance on the first day of school than set a student up for humiliation for the entire year.
2. Embrace gender-inclusive language. On the one hand, this means avoiding phrases like “you guys” and “ladies and gentlemen,” which assume that the people you’re addressing identify with the gender(s) implied in your words. I spent ten years in Texas and have grown to appreciate “y’all” as an inclusive alternative, but you may find another phrase (“folks,” “friends,” and so forth) that you like better.
On the other hand, embracing gender-inclusive language also means accepting “plural” pronouns (they, them, their) in the place of gender-specific “singular” pronouns (he, him, his; she, her, hers). If you’re a grammar stickler, you may be loathe to allow a student to write a sentence like, “My friend Mary invited me over to their house.” But English thrives as a world language because it is constantly evolving, and, if you think about it, the sentence is entirely accurate if your friend Mary is trans or gender non-conforming.
3. Educate yourself. Make an effort to learn about the lives trans teens lead in- and outside of the schoolhouse. You can start by tuning into the TLC reality series I Am Jazz, about a young trans woman who is navigating high school and looking forward to gender reassignment surgery. You can also track legislative efforts to protect/curtail trans rights. Lately, battles over trans rights have centered around state and local “bathroom bills” that would require individuals to use public bathrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates, disregarding the damage such policies inflict upon trans people. West Virginia does not offer any statewide protections for trans people, and although some cities have passed their own protections, others, like Parkersburg, have given in to opposition from anti-trans activists.
4. Educate your students. Even if you never teach a trans student, you will teach plenty of students who will interact with trans people in college, on the job, etc., and don’t you want them to handle those interactions well? Consider integrating into your curriculum and classroom library texts that affirm the humanity of trans people and give some context to the challenges they face. My favorite book is Susan Kuklin’s Lambda award-winning Beyond Magenta, which features the personal stories of a culturally diverse group of teens as well as a stunning collection of photos. But you have many options. Alex Gino’s George and Jacqueline Woodsen’s “Trev” (anthologized in How Beautiful the Ordinary) are appropriate for middle schoolers, while Julie Anne Peters’ Luna, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish, Cris Beam’s I Am J, David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, and Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl appeal to the YA crowd.
5. Have your trans students’ backs. Someday, you might find yourself sitting down at a table with parents who oppose their child’s desire to wear different clothes or adopt different pronouns. Even if you regret these parents’ circumstances, I beg you not to join an effort to redirect a child’s gender expression. Rather, please put yourself in the position of advocate, like the preacher I described at the top of this post.
“I can see that your family is under a lot of pressure right now,” you might say to these parents. “And while I cannot tell you how to parent your child, I can assure you that kids who identify as transgender do grow up to be great human beings and productive members of society. More importantly, I know your child well, have great faith in their character, and know that they would not do anything to hurt you. I encourage you to approach your child with an open heart and mind.”
In a world where 30% of trans kids attempt suicide, words such as these, spoken with love from a teacher, have the power to save lives.
WVCTE is wondering...
How does your school or district support LGBTQ+ students? What are some ways schools and teachers in West Virginia can provide better support for trans students? How can schools help teachers to better understand the needs of LGBTQ+ students?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with on Facebook!
By Jeni Gearhart
16.1 million adults (6.7% of the population) have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
Last year, I was one of those 16.1 million.
I have gone through four distinct depressions in my life. My first year of college, my first year after graduating college, my first year of teaching, and last spring/summer. You don’t need to know my entire history to realize that it is a factor that has affected my life as an adult.
It has not, however, defined my life.
Depression has made me a better teacher. That is the story I want to tell.
Depression has made me more empathetic, more compassionate, and more passionate about my calling as a teacher. Truthfully, though I absolutely hate those periods of my life when I experience depression, those “lows” make me far more appreciative of the joy felt outside of it.
Being prone to depression can make teaching difficult. When you barely feel able to get out of bed, the idea of being “on” for 8+ hours, let alone energetic and happy in front of 30 teenagers can feel insurmountable. Planning an engaging, thoughtful lesson can be incredibly difficult when simply making decisions on what to pack for lunch is nearly impossible.
And yet, teaching keeps me afloat when I feel at my worst. My students give me joy. Pretending to be happy for them makes me feel just a little bit happier for myself. Teaching gives me purpose. My students get me out of bed on those days.
Last summer, when I experienced my worst depression in ten years, teaching pulled me out of it. Well, teaching, a support system of caring confidants, and antidepressants.
I cannot oversimplify this story. This depression is the one that changed my narrative. At the encouragement of close friends, I sought medical help and was prescribed antidepressants for the first time. I was afraid to take them. The stigma of depression made me fear what it meant to be “medicated”. In my depressed state, I feared that I would be judged. I judged myself, even. Why couldn’t I beat this on my own? I chose to take the medication, and it was one of the best decisions for my overall health and wellbeing.
As of August 1 of this year, I have been on antidepressants for one full year. I’m so glad that I forced past both the stigma and my personal fear and made this decision.
As I mentioned before, this depression changed my narrative. I’ve experienced depression in the past, but not until this year have I recognized how essential it is that we normalize the conversation about mental health. Mental health is as important as physical health.
As teachers, we need to be reminded of this fact. We already don’t take care of ourselves. By default, most of us are overinvolved. We have our school responsibilities, extracurriculars, and community commitments. There is more paperwork every year, and less time to do it. The needs of our students (physical, emotional, intellectual) are overwhelming. We feel underprepared and unable to take care of all their needs.
And, I would surmise that most of us got into this field because we have a big heart, and we feel deeply for our students. I would take a guess that the percentage of teachers who struggle with anxiety and depression is probably above the average for the general population (Health.com ranks us at #7 in their top 12 careers with high rates of depression).
We need to talk about our mental health. It is very easy as teachers to put on a show and hide what is going on beneath the surface. The expectation is that teachers are super humans. We have no first name, no opinions, and no personal life struggles.
Now, that does not mean that I should ever let my personal struggle interfere with my ability to do my job well. My students are not my counselors, nor do they need to know the specifics of my struggles. But, I do think that it is perfectly appropriate to tell students that I have dealt with depression and anxiety in the past. Does this matter for all of my students? No. But it starts to normalize the issue. It makes it OK for them to talk to their friends, me, a guidance counselor, or other trusted adults.
I am thankful to be a teacher who has experienced depression. When a student is struggling with depression, I get it. I recognize it, and I have a different level of compassion for them. Do I lower my expectations for them in my class? No. But, I give them grace and point them in the direction of those who can offer more help. I remind them that they are strong. They are capable. They are worthy. They are loved.
We talk about mental health in my English classroom. When we discuss characters who we would otherwise label “insane” (AKA: Lady Macbeth), I make it known that we are labeling their actions for a thematic purpose, but that there is far more beneath the surface that we are not told. When we discuss Hamlet, we also discuss Hamlet’s depression. And, of course, YA lit is full of these struggles.
A few years back, I got a sweet note from a student. A student who never talked to me specifically about her experience with depression. She thanked me for how I discussed mental health (offhandedly, I don’t think it was the purpose of my lesson). She said “Thank you for treating depression like it is something ‘real’, not something that just happens to ‘those other people’. You made my experience real. You made me ok.”
Teaching is hard. Life is hard. Both are so beautiful.
I’m so thankful to be a teacher who has experienced depression.
WVCTE is wondering...
As teachers, what conversations about mental illness should we be having? How do we maintain our mental health in an emotionally demanding profession?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
By Shana Karnes
I love to spend big chunks of my summer planning ways to revise and improve my practice. The season is always so full of hope, with opportunities to reframe my thinking and help my students be more successful.
But when the school year actually begins, it can be overwhelming to attempt anything from a major overhaul of your teaching to a few key shifts in practice. Every year, I read books, take classes, and obsessively jot ideas that never see the light of day when I’m faced with the reality of a fall full of fresh faces, administrative initiatives, and new courses to teach.
This summer, though, I’m working with a group of amazing teachers in Pipestem, WV during a National Writing Project summer institute. As we read and write and think and plan about argument writing, we’ve come across two key changes we can make that will withstand the crush of the reality of our profession.
Embrace the Wobble
One of our central texts for the institute is Pose, Wobble, Flow by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. This text makes lots of wonderful arguments for teachers to inhabit “poses” as more thoughtful, authentic practitioners through the metaphor of yoga. The idea is that when we try new things as teachers, we are trying to get into a pose. We inevitably wobble as we try to master this new stance, but eventually attain the flow characterized by doing this pose without thinking.
GODA (as one of our teachers refers to Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen)’s key argument is that the wobble part of this process is not only a necessary part of becoming a better teacher, but a desirable one--we must live in the gray area, a zone of proximal development, disequilibrium, or whatever else we might call it. “The P/W/F model is not about an endpoint,” GODA vehemently asserts; “it is a framework to help acknowledge how one’s practice changes over time and requires constant adaptation” (4). It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.
What this looks like in terms of our current theme of teaching argument writing is revising the way we think about the writing process to start from an inquiry-based place of research, then claim development, then argument articulation. This new mindset is requiring all of us to “wobble” as we try to conceive of it, and we’re wobbling in even our understandings of its many moving parts--what revision is, or what an argument can look like, or how we can use argument as a genre for developing our opinionated writing voices. As we’re flooded with unconventional ideas, mentor texts, thought processes, and assessment measures, we’re all wobbling with the confidence we’ll eventually reach flow.
But once we do--some time during the school year when things are going smoothly and planning and teaching are underway--we’ll need to yank ourselves out of our newly-found comfort zones and get back into a new pose, embracing the wobble of new learning once more.
This constant revision of our teaching is a simple way we can always strive to be better teachers--just embrace the wobble of continuous improvement.
Become a Writer
The second simple way we’ve discovered to guarantee an improvement in our teaching is to help shift our identities from mere teachers to that of teacher-writers. GODA strongly advocate for the many student-centered benefits of writing beside our learners, but there are so many benefits beyond the classroom that become possible when we simply write.
Outside the classroom, GODA suggest that teachers might become more engaged in improvement by:
Taking one or more of these eminently doable steps can help teachers “enact agency and make an impact on the profession” (27). I highly encourage anyone reading this to write for WVCTE, join us for a region-specific #wvedchat on Twitter, comment on this or other blogs, or join us for local workshops like our state conference in April. These simple activities will not only expose you to ideas to keep you in the “wobble,” but they’ll let you meet and engage with like-minded colleagues as interested in improvement as you.
Within your classroom, becoming a writer is equally valuable. If you read nothing else of Pose Wobble Flow, I encourage you to read the chapter on “Embracing Your Inner Writer: What It Means to Teach as a Writer.” These pages are chock full of suggestions for not only reasons to write, but ways to do it. From a survey designed to help you find your identity as a writer, to practical methods for joining writing communities on Twitter, Facebook, and even NaNoWriMo, to the ways the act of writing beside our students changes our teaching, this chapter is awesome.
Because “the changes that come about within our classrooms and with our students start with ourselves,” (80), writing is a necessary first step to becoming a better teacher. I hope, like me, you’ll begin keeping a writer’s notebook, blogging regularly, and writing beside your students every time you see them in class. Beginning to inhabit the pose of a writer--although I experience wobble within this identity almost daily--is doubtless the most helpful thing I’ve done to improve my practice as a teacher.
Whether you start with wobbling or writing this school year, I wish you a wonderful end of the summer and all the joy and optimism the fall always brings as we work to become better teachers every day!
What simple ways have you improved your teaching? Please share with us in the comments, on our Facebook page, or via Twitter!
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.
by MK Jarvis
I don’t know about you, but I am experiencing the midsummer doldrums. The lawn-mowing is in hand, flower beds planted, tomatoes growing, windows washed, and curtains laundered. My mind is shifting into planning mode and I can feel the growing anticipation and anxiety of a new year. I’ve only been teaching a short while, so I’m still anxious about what the year will bring and how I will perform not only as a teacher, but as a class manager. Keeping control of my classroom while providing a safe and comfortable place for the students to learn is still a new skill for me. Maybe for some of you, too.
In the last two years I have read a lot about classroom management and discipline, and sought much advice from master educators. I have also found tons of help from teachers who have put themselves out there on the web creating websites, videos, and webinars about classroom management and discipline strategies along with stress management and relaxation tips for teachers. Let me introduce you to three tremendous individuals who have simply saved my life in the last two years.
Hailing from the UK, Rob Plevin has put together wonderfully helpful resources for new and experienced teachers alike. While a lot of Plevin’s Need-focused Teaching website deals with teacher-student relationships, one of his resources is a series of videos on how to handle and settle a noisy class.
I found Plevin when I was searching for advice on handling my rude, crude, and socially unacceptable 7th grade homebase my first year of teaching. This group of students was not only driving me crazy, but making life generally miserable for everyone. I was desperate and dreaded facing them every morning. Plevin’s videos about classroom management were a godsend. His advice was simple: keep the class out of the room, making non-confrontational conversation in the hallway, pointing out positive behaviors, until the students settled. Surely, that would never work. The next day of school I tried it and, lo and behold, it worked. After that, I devoured anything I could find of Plevin’s and have purchased a few of his books. His advice is solid.
Additionally, Plevin has another website called The Life Raft where he concentrates on helping folks “overcome life’s challenges” and live a more stress free and meaningful life using meditation and mindfulness. Not surprisingly, he focuses on educators. It’s worth checking out.
In my endless search for how to be a better teacher, I found a YouTube video of Jennifer Gonzales, creator of Cult of Pedagogy, going over her tried and true advice for teachers using a mini chalk board and a lot of good humor and honesty. Gonzales, a middle to higher ed teacher, has gathered a group of teacher nerds together to host a comprehensive website for educators. In this video she gives the invite to Cult of Pedagogy, and hints at all you might find there. Her site is not just for new teachers, though. She has book reviews and summer book studies, interviews with educators and authors and a podcast. One of my favorite posts is Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers. The title might say it’s for new teachers, but I’ll bet there are some mid-career and veteran teachers who could find wisdom there. She also has some products for purchase ranging from first days of school activities to technology lessons. She even has merch available--cool t-shirts and mugs. The site is well designed and attractive. My academic coach, who has been an educator for forever, was even impressed with Gonzales’s site and shared it with the other new English teachers in our county. Plus, it’s such a cool name for a gathering place for educators cuckoo for education, don’t you think?
Gonzales’ website is one that once you find yourself there, you must devour the entire site. There is so much good information from a teacher with experience in secondary and higher ed. Gonzales also has Pinterest boards for those of us who love being totally overwhelmed with information. Definitely make some time to become a part of the Cult before returning to school.
Michael Linsin of Smart Classroom Management is brilliant. He has taught elementary through high school for over 26 years and lived to tell about it. His specialty is, of course, classroom management and he has become that still, small voice (coming to me in an email every few days) over the last couple of years.
The philosophy behind Smart Classroom Management is pretty simple:
“Here at SCM, we believe in two principles thought by many to be on contradictory ends of the classroom management spectrum. On one side we believe in faithfully following a classroom management plan . . . On the other side we believe in creating a classroom that students love being part of, that they’re excited to come to every day” (Linsin).
Adhering to a management plan “holds students accountable” and should be executed without yelling, scolding or lecturing. Linsin believes if the classroom is not a hostile place, but somewhere the students feel safe and cared for, they will want to come to class and will be on their best behavior.
Linsin’s July 15th blog post 3 Promises for the First Day of School really sums up the SCM philosophy very well. Teachers make a promise to respect students, listen to them and help them, and follow the classroom management plan to the letter. Sounds simple, but even the best of intentions are often cast by the wayside. We want to be firm, fair, and consistent, yet it is very difficult sometimes, especially for those of us who are new at the teaching gig. Linsin guarantees that his advice works and I’m sure some of you veteran teachers know the method is ironclad. There are more than 400 articles on his site with more great advice about classroom management, dealing with behavior, and helping students succeed.
I am currently reading The Happy Teacher: 11 Habits of the Happiest, Most Effective Teachers on Earth by Michael Linsin. I just started reading it, but not surprising the first habit is saying no to any extra work that takes you away from the classroom. Any teacher would like to make that a habit.
It’s such a comfort to find help and advice that works.
WVCTE is wondering do you have advice that might save a teacher’s life? Is there a website or blog (besides this one!) you love and regularly go to for encouragement? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
By Karla Hilliard
Summer is great, isn’t it? You know that feeling? The read by the pool, lose track of days, backyard hangout kind of feeling? Isn’t it great when you can have unadulterated time with your favorite writers (or wines) without grading guilt? Don't you love when you can go to a Body Combat class at the gym and punch into wild oblivion just for the fun of it? Or what about how fantastic summer salads are? I mean seriously, have you tried the watermelon-and-feta orzo salad? You haven’t? Well what are you waiting for?!
You know this whole chill-vibe thing will end, right? You know it’s going to run out of gas pretty soon?
Because, you know that small pit of dread and little twinge of excitement upon seeing the first school supplies lining the shelves of Target? Are you, like me, like, “I should totally buy that adorable sign that says SLAY THE DAY for my classroom, but it’s only July and I’m not thinking about school until August!”? Or are you more, “WOW 50 cent composition books, SCORE!”?
Or are you a parent who’s all, “Why have I cleaned up this kitchen 15 times today? Why do we have only one lonely slice of bread when we just bought this loaf this morning? This morning! Why is my child pausing the song on this laptop with her actual butt? Why would she think that’s a good idea? Why, oh, why isn’t it time for school yet, oh em gee?”?
Ever felt this way?
And why am I asking you this? Why am I asking me this?
Because I’m thinking a lot about…What do I want to do with School Year 2017-2018?
How will I build a community of learners who feel safe, valued, and heard? How will I show my students that without them, there is only a shelf full of books and a few ideas, that there is no “me” in my classroom -- there’s only been and will forever be “we”? How will I impress upon them that I am not the keeper of the literary gate nor am I the only one responsible for their learning? How will we traverse the land of great literature this year and explore it together — explore the masterfully written novel, essay, poem, short story because it is the work of the course and of the heart?
How will I connect my students to their communities and inspire more ownership in them? How will I help students challenge their opinions, deepen their curiosities, and expand their worldview? Why should it matter that they do all of this — that they develop empathy, that they problem solve and innovate, that they discover knowledge, that they consider their responsibility to one another? Will I help my students become better people?
And how will I bring balance and focus to my classroom and life next year? How will I continue to explore the essential and the “definite yeses” of teaching and parenting and just being a person in general? How will I make it to the gym? How will I get my kids to dance on Wednesday at 4:00? How can I find my grading Zen?
And what’s my bigger responsibility? How do I advocate for kids? How do I stand up to the face of injustice, bigotry, prejudice, and hate? How do I teach my students and my own children there’s more than one way of being a human? How do we love those who are toughest to love? How do I fight for all students?
So, why am I asking?
To borrow a line from one of my favorite novels to teach, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” By the end of School Year 2017-2018, I hope along the way to discover a few new answers.
WVCTE is wondering...
What questions are you asking this summer as you consider a fresh school year? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
I'd love to hear from you! -- Karla
By Toni Poling
Most teachers are aware of the existence of the summer slide: the learning our students can lose over the summer without regular interventions, like reading. But, not all teachers realize that we, too, can suffer from the summer slide! The cure? Professional Development! Research tells us that teachers have the largest school-based impact on student achievement; if we aren’t current in our professional knowledge, how can we expect our students to continue to improve?
When I speak with new teachers about professional development, they sometimes are at a loss on where to go to find quality professional development. Below are just a few options that I can personally endorse that have enhanced my own professional practice.
West Virginia Center for Professional Development
We are fortunate to live in a state where we have been provided opportunities for excellent professional development through the West Virginia Center for Professional Development. Long before I was an AP teacher, I was attending AP trainings during the fall and summer that were provided by the WVCPD and the College Board. In the 13 years I have been a public school educator, I have attended 12 AP trainings by the WVCPD. Each and every session provided me with a wealth of materials that were adaptable to meet the needs of all my students, including those who were struggling below grade level. A wise mentor of mine once told me that if I set the bar high in my classroom in terms of expectations that all my students would strive to reach it and that has been my experience. The professional development I received through WVCPD helped me to do that!
National Board Certification
By far the most challenging and rewarding professional development I have completed, achieving my National Board Certification by and away had the most direct impact on my own instructional practices. The National Board Certification process forces a classroom teacher to become more reflective, data-driven, and thoughtful. There are reflective practices that I learned during my certification process that I have incorporated as organic pieces of my instruction. I truly believe I am a better teacher simply for having gone through this process. Through achieving National Board Certification, I developed my teacher autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
I cannot say enough about a good book study! Ideally, book studies work best when they are done in small groups or Professional Learning Communities where ideas can be shared and can grow through the input of fellow educators, but in the summer that can sometimes be difficult. I, personally, love to learn through reading (what English teacher doesn’t?!) and engaging in professional reading over the summer is both relaxing and stimulating to me! Below are a few professional texts I can personally endorse that changed my professional practice!
I was a little late to the party on the last two, but I’m so glad I added them to my summer reading list! I can’t stop jotting down ideas from those two books!
When I need a new professional title and I’ve exhausted my teacher-friend resources, I often peruse the books available from ASCD. ASCD’s motto is centered around learning, teaching, and leading and their professional publications are outstanding (i.e. Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind). Along with NCTE, ASCD is a go to source for me.
As teachers, we know our instructional strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else. Regardless of what professional development you choose to seek out to address your personal needs, your students will benefit! In the end, our learning leads to their learning.
WVCTE is wondering what your favorite professional development opportunities are? If you like book studies, what professional texts do you feel are musts in any teacher library?
BY: LIZ KEIPER
Raise your hand if you’ve ever struggled to teach your students about symbolism.
*Hand raise* I have.
And by teach, I mean teaching them to recognize, pull out, analyze, and meaningfully connect symbols in a text on their own. To recognize that an author is implying that something in a story is signifying a larger concept because that is really the author’s intent and not just because you, the teacher, magically says that it is.
I mean, teaching symbolism without telling them what symbolizes what in a story.
It’s hard. Moving young teens from the concrete, plot-based schema of their earlier language arts instruction to an analytical-thematic literature-based instruction is no small task, and I think that in some ways, it’s especially hard for me because I’m naturally inclined to analysis. “Don’t you see the symbolic significance of everything on this page??” I sometimes inwardly yell.
However, I had a lot of success this year teaching motif analysis through Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 film version of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
Now, I know that not every English teacher is a fan of this interpretation of The Bard’s tragic romance. However, this film is near and dear to my heart because for me, it represents a shift in my analytical abilities as a reader. I wasn’t always a fan of it—in fact, when we watched it my freshman year of high school, my teacher told us, “It has drugs, guns, and a cross-dresser! You’ll love it!”
But I far from ‘loved it’… I came away thinking it was one of the most absurd movies I had ever been subjected to watching. How could they say, “Give me my sword!” and pull out a gun? A gun is not a sword. Were the movie producers that insipid that they didn’t know the difference in time period weaponry? Oh, also, they didn’t drive cars in Shakespeare’s day. Major anachronism there.
Then, I took a Shakespeare class in college in which we read a Shakespeare play every week, analyzed it in class, then watched a film version of the play and wrote an analysis of the story’s portrayal in visual form. And when we got to Romeo and Juliet, my professor chose… the 1997 version. Joy. I got to watch the worst movie I had ever seen twice.
But as I watched the film as a senior English major with almost four years of literature analysis under my belt, my opinions on this film began to change.
I started noticing that there were a whole lot of uses of water in the movie. In the beginning of the film, Juliet is submerged in bath water before the party, and at the party, that shot is replicated as Romeo submerges his head in a sink. Then, when they see each other for the first time, it is through a fish tank filled with… water. During the balcony scene, they fall into a pool filled with… water. Mercutio is killed at the beach which contains a lot of… water. When Tybalt is shot, he falls backwards into a pool of… water. Oh yeah, and it’s raining. Water.
So, I wrote my analysis for that play on the use of the visual motif of water in the film and how it was used as a medium of transformation or baptism of the characters in the story. I was astounded that there was so much significance that I had missed in the film as a high school student.
As I began to teach Romeo and Juliet to my students and also show the 1997 version of the film in conjunction with the unit, I encountered some students who had the same reaction that I had in high school. “They shoot guns and drive cars. It’s dumb. It makes no sense.”
I wanted to take them further and challenge them to see the depth of what the movie producers were saying through the film as I had. So, this school year before I showed the film, I started off with a mini-lesson on the word “motif.”
I gave my students the definition of “motif,” which is “a reoccurring symbol.” Then, we discussed the motif of birds/flight in the movie and book Divergent. I asked them first to list the instances in which birds or flight were important in the book or film Divergent.
“Tris gets a bird tattoo,” says one student. “Birds attack her in her fear landscape,” says another. “She’s the first to jump into the Dauntless training center, which is kind of like flying,” says one. “And she rides on that zip line thing, which is definitely like flying!” chimes in another. “Ummm, well, I haven’t seen the movie, but there are birds in the background of the movie cover,” says another timidly.
And there are.
In fact, birds and the concept of flying are woven throughout the film and the text. If it occurred once or twice, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but since it occurs over and over again, that’s a hint that it might be a motif and that, at least, it is significant.
“So, what could birds represent in Divergent?” I next ask my class.
“Well, they could symbolize freedom, since birds can fly wherever they want,” says one student. “Yeah, and joining Dauntless and riding on the zip line were major steps for Tris in finding her freedom!” says another. “Why were there birds in her fear landscape, then?” I ask, playing devil’s advocate. “Maybe because she wanted freedom but also feared it,” a student remarks. Yes, child, yes. Now we’re getting somewhere. Never knew there was so much depth to some bird tattoos, did you?
I then explained to my students that we were going to use a similar model of analysis while watching the film Romeo and Juliet. I gave them a sheet of paper that had four major motifs in the film listed:
While watching the film, students had to write down at least three times when they noticed a use of those motifs.
The day after we finished the film, I broke the students up into groups of four or five. I gave each group a motif to focus on. Their first task as a group was to pool all their examples for that motif and make one long list of all the occurrences of that motif in the film.
Once they had all shared their examples for their assigned motif and had written them down, as a group they had to start discussing what they thought that motif could symbolize and why.
The most beautiful English class conversations then ensued. Some groups determined that water represented a transformation or new life, or that it represented both love and death (like the symbolism of the plant rosemary mentioned by the nurse to Romeo).
Groups talked about fire and light representing the violence and destruction of the family feud, or representing passion—both of anger and of love.
Clothing was determined to portray aspects of a character’s personality. (I mean, is it a coincidence that Juliet is dressed as an angel, Romeo as a knight in shining armor, Tybalt as a devil, or Lord Capulet as a Roman emperor? I think not.)
Some groups determined that the ever present religious figures presiding over almost every scene showed religion as a force of unstoppable fate in the story. Others saw the devotion to religion as a mirror of the devotion of Romeo and Juliet for each other.
Each group shared their motif with the class, and the class took notes on the motifs of each presenter so that at the end, they had a full list of film motifs and their analyses.
This method of film analysis definitely strengthened my students’ understanding both of how motifs work and also how Shakespeare uses motifs in Romeo and Juliet as well. One of my students wrote in her final essay about fire and light in the film, “The first time Romeo sees Juliet, he remarks about her beauty, ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’ (1.5.42) This is interesting because in the movie when they actually meet, they are in a dimmer area before hopping into a bright, gold elevator. This is representative of the strong emotions between the two teens.”
I would highly recommend using this activity with any visually significant film adaptation of a story. I think that this activity would work well with another Baz Luhrmann film, The Great Gatsby, Rupert Goold’s 2010 interpretation of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart, or Sean Penn’s 2007 version of Into the Wild to name a few. Regardless of the film you use, young teens struggle at times to connect symbolic significance to motifs structured in a text, and it is easier for them to connect this way with visual motifs. Analyzing visual symbols in a film can be the scaffolding that they need to understand how symbols work in a text.
Recognizing how an author is using symbolism in a text exponentially increases the message of the themes that he or she is trying to portray. Let’s help our students get more out of what they read… and what they watch.
How do you include film analysis in your English Language Arts classroom? What other skills might film analysis introduce or reinforce?
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