By Dr. Renee Peterson
The blank page, the blinking cursor, the brand-new plan book, the new school year - these are things that haunt us: the writers, the teachers, and worse, the teachers of writing. I spent twenty years teaching young people the craft of writing well, and for quite some time I approached each new school year wondering how to capture their attention and help them to find a reason to write and a desire to write well.
I believed that becoming a good writer needed to start with two pre-writing requirements: reading good writing and thinking interesting thoughts. One who writes must know what good writing looks like and must have something to say about something. As you teach, you collect those gems that you consider your “go to” passages, lessons, activities that always seem to resonate with the students. Years ago, I found an interesting piece by Paul Auster entitled “Why Write?” This selection is brief and interesting, and it can lead to many first discussions or assignments as you begin to discover your students. No matter what objective I wanted my students to accomplish, this little essay did its job. “Why Write?” became a gem of mine.
The following is section 5 from Auster’s essay printed in The New Yorker’s final edition of 1995.
Before beginning a discussion of text, have your students number the paragraphs if that task hasn’t already been completed. Then during the discussion, the speaker has a way to refer to the mentioned passage.
In your preparation for the lesson, choose the skills or ideas that you want your students to learn and have a plan to get them there. Although a discussion of a text can rabbit-trail in many directions, as the instructor/facilitator, you need to be ready to lead them with a purpose. The following are examples of ideas I wanted my students to take away from this passage, you may think of so many more!
To understand a writer, the reader should make a connection with him/her, however, students tend to focus on those things that are foreign to them. To help my students to grasp this concept, I told them to circle any word/phrase/idea that was unfamiliar. They typically began with names, the players listed in the first paragraph, anything having to do with baseball, then unfamiliar vocabulary such as brusque in paragraph 5. They may use this as their argument for why they cannot find common ground with this writer or make any connection to the text. Move the discussion to the things that they like, music, sports, film – anything with celebrities to idolize. They will soon realize that there is a familiar concept here: the excitement of meeting a celebrity that you idolize. Huzzah! Connection made. This connection may grow into empathy for 8-year-old Auster lamenting the autograph he could have had… if only. Conversely, when it is time for your students to write, encourage them to think of placing the details of a new event or idea within a familiar frame. Good writers never need to say, “you had to be there”; a good writer takes you there.
Writing prompt: Using the familiar frame of a journey, describe a journey you have recently experienced – remember it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end!
One text can have various levels of meaning. I approach this concept in different ways depending upon the current ability of the students. For my AP students, we may discuss this concept as the supposed thesis and the actual thesis. For my freshmen, we may discuss “what the piece is about” and “what the piece is REALLY about.” Other times we may simply discuss the thing and the other thing. In Auster’s text, what is the thing, the supposed thesis, what the piece is about? If the students have been conditioned to find the thesis in the position of the final sentence in the opening paragraph, then they will quickly find the thing: the hero-worship of ball-player-celebrity Willie Mays. But is that what the text is really about? As you encourage the discussion as a class or in partners or in groups, you will find some of them heading to the idea that Auster is sharing his story of how he became a writer (par. 10) or why he is always prepared.
Writing prompt: Tell a story about something that happened to you with a lesson that could apply to anyone.
Repetition with a purpose is a powerful rhetorical tool. Auster’s text opens with the statement, “I was eight years old.” Very declarative, matter-of-fact, attention given to the audience in the fact that we all can relate to being eight years old. He immediately takes us back to a time in which the immediate is paramount, and one simple event can send us into convulsions of anguish. We get it. We understand the childish idolatry of a celebrity. Age teaches us that celebrities are merely human beings, just like us. In paragraph 8 Auster repeats the clause, “I was eight years old,” but it’s different this time. The first time, we understand that he is differentiating himself from adults, he was only eight. Later when struggling to fight the tears of frustration and loss, he is desperate to differentiate himself from babies: he was a “big kid” and should not cry over such silly, childish things! They may have been the identical words, but the meaning is very different.
Writing challenge with an open prompt: write a simple clause. Use that clause as the first sentence in your essay, then again later in an essay with a very different meaning.
Failure can be a more powerful, life-altering experience than success. Depending upon your group of students, this may be the only lesson needed from this text. Too often our students see failure as something that is horrible instead of viewing it as a springboard to something new. Even the most literal students seem to be able to make the inference that Auster’s failure to get the Mays autograph led to his carrying a pencil always, which in turn, helped him on his way to becoming a writer. Journal entry or quick write: share a failure you experienced and explain what you learned from it.
Titles have significance…usually. From time to time an editor will throw a title on a text simply from the necessity of having one, but when a writer chooses a title for a text that he has written, he has a reason for it. Why is the title “Why Write?” rather than “Why I Write?” What is the difference in meaning? If you have been discussing several aspects of this text, the students should be running away with ideas here, if not, you may lead them with yours. With advanced students, I have paired this text with two essays entitled, “Why I Write?” by George Orwell and Joan Didion. Adding paired texts gives more opportunity for making connections, drawing conclusions, and having thoughts that prompt writing. Writing prompt 1: Explain the significance of the title of the essay. Writing prompt 2: Compare/contrast Auster’s essay to either Didion’s or Orwell’s essay. Be sure to address the similarities/differences in the titles and the significance of such.
Be prepared! Recently I was reading Twyla Tharp’s 2003 book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, and in chapter 2, “Rituals of Preparation” she mentions this very essay by Paul Auster. She uses it to encourage her readers to be ready to be creative: “What is your pencil” she writes, “What is the one tool that feeds your creativity and is so essential that without it you feel naked and unprepared?... Pick your ‘pencil’ and don’t leave home without it” (Tharp, 2003, 30). What a wonderful way to begin the school year – encouraging your students to be prepared to learn, to read, to write, to think every day. Quick write or journal entry: Choose your “pencil.” What is the tool you need every day to be ready to be an excellent, productive learner?
READ, THINK, WRITE… then we talk. If I had a nickel for every time I have given this instruction to my students in the past twenty-some years, I could retire already. Get them reading, thinking, writing, and discussing… our little gems can get that started!
WVCTE is wondering....
How do you get students reading, thinking, writing, and discussing?
Auster, Paul. (1995) Why Write? The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/12/25/why-write.
Tharp, Twila. (2003) The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Dr. Renee Peterson is the theatre instructor, the International Thespian Society Troupe 8066 director, the Cardinal Players director, and the Drama Club advisor for Spring Mills HS in Martinsburg, WV. Renee spent 21 years as a teacher of English in public and private schools, for grades 7-12, with students of all levels in three states before changing her role to theatre director. She reared two wonderful children to adulthood while earning two master's degrees and a doctorate. Second only to teaching her own students, Renee finds joy in encouraging young teachers because "They are the future of our profession, and our students need them to be awesome teachers!" she says. Renee and her husband Tom enjoy their empty nest that is perched on 50 acres on the top of a ridge in Southern Berkeley County, West Virginia. To read her musings and missives, follow her blog at www.thelearningdoctor.me and her Twitter posts @renpetwv. To keep posted on the shows and activities of The Cardinal Players, follow them on Facebook or Twitter @smhsplayers.
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: 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?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
By Kate Harpel
New school year. New schedule. What’s not new is my yearly need to scrap almost everything I did previously and try something new. It’s a vicious cycle and one not made any easier by the addition of an infant. As a teacher who delights in making teen slang uncool and engaging learners with unexpected connections to the things they love (like the Fallout: New Vegas easter egg *cough*allusion*cough* depicting Indiana Jones’s skeleton in a refrigerator), I found it hard to keep up with popular culture while measuring my life in late night feedings and dirty diapers. One pop culture phenomenon, however, rose up and revolutionized Broadway--Hamilton: An American Musical.
I gave Hamilton a shot with my on-track sophomores, and believe me it was not an easy sell when I announced that we would be studying a musical. We also had to have “the talk” about why writers use strong language and why this particular language was critical for the authenticity of this reimagining of the Founding Fathers; needless to say, my students didn’t mind the language. While the experience was nowhere near perfect, I found by the conclusion of the unit that my students and I had learned more than we had bargained for. At the end of the school year, I caught a few of my sophomore boys making Hamilton references, and a few remembered the rap battles fondly despite hating them during the unit. If you are willing to give it a shot...
Here are a few ideas inspired by and adapted from a curriculum I purchased from TPT seller, Barraug Books and Curriculum authored by Deborah Aughey as jumping off points:
There is so much that you can do with Hamilton: An American Musical. Feel like doing character analysis? Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are perfect foils. Want to dive into historical documents? The Federalist Papers would be excellent fodder for close-reading protocols, and The Declaration of Independence would be a great talking point for analyzing “The Schuyler Sisters” or vice versa! Want to prank your students? A strategically placed, handwritten love letter would be great for you to secretly share with the students. Take one of Hamilton’s love letters to his wife and paraphrase it so that it sounds like something the students would write; they will go ham (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself) over Hamilton affectionately calling his wife a nut-brown maid or as I called her, a Cocoa Puff.
Whether you choose to give Hamilton a shot or not, consider trying something new this school year. My students much preferred analyzing lyrics and videos as opposed to classic literature, and while we still do the latter it was fun to make those text-to-text references in the year. This fall, I may not do a full Hamilton unit (unfortunately many of my sophomores have me as juniors in American literature next year), but I will certainly incorporate more media analysis in an attempt to further engage and challenge my students. Somehow we’ll make it, in the words of the Schuyler sisters:
What will you be giving a shot this year? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
And for the complete Hamilton curriculum that inspired this post, be sure to check out Barraug Books and Curriculum.
Kate Harpel teaches English and Mythology at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. She is a West Virginia native, a graduate of the Benedum Collaborative 5-Year Teacher Education Program at West Virginia University, and has been teaching for the past four years. A full time mother to a one-year-old, a full-time wife, and a full-time teacher, Kate spends her elusive free-time in the company of mochas, YA literature, and Netflix.
by Jeni Gearhart
“I am not a teacher, but an awakener”—Robert Frost
What a beautiful description of the art of teaching. Teaching is the act of awakening our students to a new way of understanding their world. By sharing texts with our students and by teaching them how to analyze the world around them, we open their eyes to a deeper understanding of life.
Of course, that awakening isn’t easy. Sometimes the act of teaching feels more like shaking someone in a coma. Or, perhaps we are that angry buzzing alarm clock. Either way, the act of being an awakener is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly difficult.
In a college humanities class, I was introduced to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I’ll give a brief summary for readers whose memory of Plato is a bit rusty. There is a man who has been imprisoned in a cave for his entire life. Behind him is a fire, so he has seen the shadows of objects such as “man” or “horse” on the wall. One day, the man is released from the cave by another man. He is taken outside where he is blinded by the sunlight. When his eyes adjust, he sees real men, real flowers, and real animals. He sees the world as it truly is, as opposed to his former (incomplete) knowledge when he was in the cave.
Do you see some connections to education? Does this make you think of any books or stories? Hopefully it does, because this archetype of awakening, or enlightenment, is everywhere.
A few years ago, I decided to share Plato’s story with my AP Language students when we read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Like most dystopias, Bradbury’s novel is an “awakening story”. Through his awakening, Guy Montag comes to a different (better) understanding of the world and makes the choice to leave the figurative cave of ignorance permanently.
After reading and discussing Fahrenheit 451, my students read a version of Plato’s allegory. I often give them a print text, but I also show them this video that visualizes the story (fair warning, it is badly animated, but it tells the story well). TED-ed also visualizes Plato’s allegory in this video, but it is not as thorough. As we read the text and watch the video, we discuss the following:
After the students feel comfortable with the allegory, we discuss how Plato’s allegory relates to Bradbury’s novel. Montag, too, is unknowingly imprisoned by his ignorance. He is awakened when he reads the banned texts that he is hired to burn. He is then given a “choice”, to return to his ignorance by continuing his work as a fireman, or to become a rebel. Characters such as Faber and Clarisse also help his awakening, functioning as his guides to a new reality.
After discussing these connections, I ask my students to recall other stories that follow this pattern. I often share a clip from The Matrix since this shows a fairly obvious retelling of the allegory. To solidify the connection, I ask them to identify the following in their allegory connections:
All of this generally takes 1.5-2 periods. Then, the fun part. Creative writing.
I do not often give my AP students time to write creatively, but this assignment is worth it:
Plato’s parable, “The Allegory of the Cave”, is a very well-known story in Western Culture. Is the story still transferable to the ideas of today’s society? How would Plato tell “The Allegory of the Cave” today?
Your task is to retell Plato’s story in a different context. Be creative in how you tell this story. You may make any changes that you choose, but you must make sure to include the following elements:
The stories that my students turn in for this assignment are phenomenal. Several have placed the allegory on other planets. Others have told stories of literally imprisoned characters coming to terms with their previous choices. Several have told stories of drug addicts becoming clean, or of people removing themselves from toxic relationships. One student wrote a story about a little girl who was abused as a child and thought it was “normal” until she met another family that showed her what real love was.
Many students told me later that this was one of their favorite assignments of the year, not only because they got to be creative, but also because it opened their eyes to this archetype that is present in so many stories.
Our goal in our classrooms should be to expand our students’ understanding of the world. We should challenge their understanding and help them to grow through the difficult process of authentic learning.
In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo, “All I’m offering is the truth, nothing more . . . I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.” As teachers, we do the same. We provide students with truth in the literature that we hand to them. It may be fiction, but it offers truth nonetheless.
We are awakeners.
What stories or experiences “woke you up”? Do you teach stories with this archetype? 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.
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 Toni Poling
I like routine, both in and out of the classroom. I believe that structure and routine provide stability and consistency for students. I believe that when students know exactly what is expected of them they are more likely to meet (or exceed) those expectations.
With that said, I also believe that making a change can have positive implications in the classroom! All of us can be lulled into a sense of complacency when we only do what we've always done. Typically, when teaching a novel, my students are given discussion questions to answer as they read and their responses are used to fuel our discussions in class. While I do feel that this is a very effective method of providing guidance for independent reading, students can sometimes become uninspired in their answering of these questions.
Over winter break, I began sketching out plans for the spring semester, I wanted to take a different approach to the novels we would be studying. A few years ago, our English PLC had completed a book study on Kelly Gallagher's Readicide. I got the book back out and read it over break. In his book, Gallagher discusses the "overteaching" that can occur that can sometimes kill a student's love of reading. Instead, he proposed a more focused approach, encouraging close reading and focused study of the work's theme(s). I decided to adapt some of his methods to my AP Literature's study of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Upon returning from break, I distributed to my students a copy of "Good Readers and Good Writers" by Vladimir Nabokov. This is an essay with which my students have some familiarity given that we've read it at least two times before. In his essay, Nabokov expresses his thoughts on what makes a good reader and a good writer. Though my students have read the essay before, I felt it was important for us to be reminded of the purpose of this course and the objectives we are all setting out to accomplish. After closely reading the essay, my students worked in collaborative groups to create a list of characteristics shared by good readers. Below is a sampling of what they came up with:
Every group listed re-reading as a characteristic of a good reader, yet when asked if they re-read almost every student responded in the negative!
The next day, armed with some notes on the social, historical, and biographical context for the novella, we started The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As it has been one of my goals this year to read aloud to my students, I began my introduction by reading the first chapter aloud, modeling for my students how I decode vocabulary through context clues and how I make note of important details. I sent the students home that day with a copy of the text and a reading calendar, but with no study guide or discussion questions.
At the start of the next class period, I provided my students with their final essay question: Discuss Stevenson's use of duality in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and apply this idea of duality to an aspect of the modern world. Students copied down the question in their notebooks. I explained that our discussion of the text would center primarily around this idea of duality. In the spirit of Gallagher's Readicide, I structured our first close reading exercise just as he had laid out in his book. I provided my students a copy of the first paragraph of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They were instructed to work in cooperative groups to identify, through close reading, at least nine instances of opposites in the first paragraph.
After doing so, I asked the groups to answer the following questions: (1) What is duality? and (2) What is the duality of man?
After finishing the task, we reviewed the nine instances of opposites in the first chapter and discussed student responses to the questions. At first, this was challenging for students. They were struggling with working only with one small passage of the text instead of the entire chapter, but they were amazed at how much they could find in only one paragraph.
The following day I again provided students with passages for close reading and focus questions. The previous day, the students defined the term duality and the began a simplistic discussion of the duality of man; now the focus is on "good" and "evil" and Stevenson's portrayal of that duality.
In an AP course, I'm used to having sophisticated discussions with my students, but the discussion that stemmed from this close reading passage and the focus questions was, beyond a doubt, the best discussion we've had all year! My students were raising questions and making salient points that far exceeded my expectations. When I walked over to refocus one group having a side conversation, I found they were passionately discussing one of the focus questions. Students who aren't in my class stopped me in the hallway on their way to lunch to tell me their thoughts on duality and "good" and "evil" because they're friends with one of my students and had found the topic interesting. Isn't that a teacher's dream?
We are still working through this method to finish the novella (we should finish next week) and I can't wait to formally assess their learning; I'm anticipating some of the best essays I've read all year!
Though I can't say that I would use this method for every novel I teach, there is a lot to be said for the students' enthusiasm and the depth and quality of the discussions taking place. I think some of my students will likely pinpoint this novella as their favorite text thus far, but in all honesty that's not the purpose. My purpose has been to get them reading and thinking; so far, so good.
WVCTE is wondering...
How do you foster a love of reading with your students while maintaining the integrity of the curriculum?
Toni M. Poling is a National Board Certified Teacher at Fairmont Senior High School in Marion County where she teaches AP English Language and AP English Literature to juniors and seniors. Toni is currently serving as the 2017 WV Teacher of the Year.
Gallagher, Kelly, and Richard L. Allington. "Remember the Value Found in Second-Draft (and Third-Draft) Reading." Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2009. N. pag. Print.
It seems like some of my best lessons and most successful classroom activties strike at times when I'm less concerned about a perfect and tidy plan and more focused on student needs and engagement. It seems simple and obvious enough, but adjusting my "work barometer" is something I'm always trying to finetune.
Last week my AP Literature students worked hard at reading, interpreting, and analyzing poetry. It was the kind of week that felt like a great workout -- challenging and a little uncomfortable, but valuable and motivating because you're getting leaner and stronger.
Each day, we took on a new poem. To kick of the new year, we studied a beautiful poem called "At the New Year" by Kennth Patchen. We then went "down the vista of [our own] years" with D.H. Lawrence's "The Piano." And after several student requests for "animal poems" (they're cool kids, what can I say?) we took a look at the wonderful and Zen "Golden Retrievals" by Mark Doty and the fiercely self-aware hawk of "Hawk Roosting" by Ted Hughes.
By the end of the week, students' increasing confidence in poetry analysis was palpable. So on a welcome 2-hour delay Friday morning, I thought it best we hit the brakes and play for a day.
Here's what we did.
I asked students to create a structure or sculpture that extended, supported, or highlighted an INSIGHT they had about ONE of the poems they studied during the week.
The goal was for students to revisit, re-read, and deepen their understanding of one of the poems from class and to use manipulaitves and play as "a way in" to their insights, interpretations, and analysis.
After that, we broke out the hand sanitizer and a big bucket of toys and got to work.
Here are some highlights of student work:
After time was up and all students had completed the task, I asked students to complete a Quickwrite Journal explaining and unpacking their thinking and choices in creating their structures or sculptures. Some questions I asked:
Besides the excited and bubbling "This is so fun!" from students, the best part of this purposeful play: Students were invested in learning and discovering more about the texts -- I heard thoughtful conversations and read thoughtful commentary about the poetry we studied. So...
WVCTE is wondering...
What does purposeful play look like in your classrooms? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Karla Hilliard teaches STEAM Academy Honors English 10 and AP Literature and Composition at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, WV. She's a contributing writer on www.movingwriters.org and a teaching fellow with Collaborative for Student Success. When Karla isn't teaching, you can find her hanging with her husband and two little girls.
Karla serves as Executive Vice President and Head of of Secondary Affairs for WVCTE. See what's happening in her classroom at www.hilliardsclass.com or connect with her on Twitter @karlahilliard.
By Jennifer Unger
Confucius stated, "Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without." Who am I to argue with this great philosopher? As a teacher of English, I have always used music when I teach poetry. I always start the unit by asking, "Who likes poetry?" There are always a few hands in the air (mostly girls who compose their own love poetry to their current crush). I then ask, "Who likes music?" Amazingly, almost all hands are voraciously waving and wanting to share their favorite artists and titles. Then I hit them with the realization that music is indeed poetry, so those who love music, love poetry. I go over the poetry devices and show them a slide show of examples in songs. As a first assignment, I ask them to bring in the lyrics to one of their favorite songs (school appropriate, of course). In pairs they are given a list of poetry terms and definitions. They are then to annotate the song identifying at least five devices in their pieces. We continue to use music as we work through the poetry unit. They will look at a narrative poem and a narrative song (such as Hazard by Richard Marx- I try to use songs from my heyday) in order to find voice and other commonalities. They also find a poem and a song that share the same theme (e.g. Finding strength from within) and create a digital project explaining how both works support the theme using text evidence and images.
Poetry lessons are perfect connections with music, but after spending most of my hall duty saying, "Take your headphones off, please," I recognized that students spend so much time listening to music, and I hate to quash the things they are passionate about, so I have been using it more and more in my other units. Some of the examples in which I have used music are:
These are just some of the ways I have taken their love of one form of art and connected it to another form. I have had such luck and love with these assignments. Students take great care in their work and the other students enjoy listening. It doesn't seem all that amazing that these lessons work. People from the beginning of time have turned to music as a way to celebrate, teach, relax, and praise.
"Where words fail, music speaks."- Hans Christian Anderson.
WVCTE is wondering...
Is music part of your class? What creative ways do you connect students' love of music with literature? Would these activities work with your classes? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Jennifer C. Unger teaches English 10 inclusion, English 10 Honors, Speech and Broadcast Journalism at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County, WV. This is her 17th year of teaching. She values being able to teach her students new ideas and introduce works of literature for them to dissect. Her favorite part of the job, though, is learning new things from her students. Her favorite parts of life are her daughters, Kylie and Katie. She is treasurer of the newly formed WVCTE.
By Tina M. Rantanen
At the end of each unit I like to explore what the students learned by letting them to use their artistic sides. This gives them another way to express what they have learned in addition to the discussing and writing we have done throughout the unit. I realize that some students are like myself and can’t draw very well, so I try to give them alternative ways to be creative and expressive. Over the years I have used two of the following examples.
Figurative Language Illustration
I love teaching Night every year with my freshmen. The book is poignant and short. Most of the students find it interesting and very different from Anne Frank that many were exposed to during eighth grade. When we have finished reading, we go back through the book and find examples of figures of speech. We specifically look for hyperbole, irony, metaphors, metonymy, paradox, personification, and similes. Then I ask them to pick one to illustrate on a large sheet of paper or poster board. I tell them the more creative they are the better! Over the years I have received some amazing projects. If possible, I take pictures of the projects and then post them to the school’s website. Students are then able to share their projects with family and friends. I have used this with other books like The Things They Carried. The projects turned out just as creative and interesting.
Not Your Typical Character Sketch
Of Mice and Men is another favorite of mine and the students usually enjoy it as well. After we have finished reading, I put them into random groups. I like groups of four the best, but 3 or 5 work also. I have each group pick a card that has the name of one of the characters on it. I use 8 characters, but I take out some of them for smaller classes. Each student receives a piece of copy paper where they have to draw what they think their character looks like. Next, as a group they pick who draws the best features to put on the final copy. They also choose a quote that they think embodies their character the best. Then, they are given a large sheet of paper. Each person in the group must draw some aspect of the character. They have to color it, and include the quote. Finally, as a group they share their project with the class explaining what each person contributed, and why they chose the quote. These are displayed in the classroom for all to enjoy.
Whose Phone Is This?
I have tried several final projects with Romeo and Juliet. My current favorite is one that I tried for the first time last year. A colleague shared it with me. It is called “Whose Phone Is This?” Each student is given a sheet with the opening screen of a cell phone on it. They are asked to sketch the wallpaper of the character that they chose and color it. They have to explain why the image would appeal to their character. Next, they have to write two emails that the character would have received from other characters in the story. Finally, they have to write three song titles with artists’ names that would likely be on the character’s song list. They also have to explain why they choose those particular songs. (I admit that I only knew about half of the songs.) However, if the explanations were sufficient, I didn’t have to be familiar with the song. The reasons that the students used were the best part of the assignment. In most cases it really showed their upper level thinking skills. I will use this activity again, and it can be used with many different stories.
So WVCTE is wondering…
What types of final projects do you use in your classroom? And how can you use and adapt this lesson for your own classroom? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Tina M. Rantanen teaches English 9H, 12H and English 12 at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County, WV. This is her twentieth year of teaching and she loves the difference between her freshmen and seniors each year. She is a member of the newly formed WVCTE and is the English Department Chair at Spring Mills High School.