So much crowd-fund sourcing. So many voices, hands, reaching out, asking for support. Well, remember when I said I don’t have novels for my content area? (Okay, I said it indirectly, but now I’m saying it outright. We have no new historical fiction books that are diverse, and support all voices.) Please consider buying a book or two for my students with my DonorsChoose project.
There are veteran English teachers shuddering ‘tsk tsk’ at the title of this post, as if to suggest it’s a simple process, and doesn’t take years of practice, studying, and scholarly pursuits. And reading. A lot of reading. (And if you’re a middle school teacher, some dislike that age group of literature: I find it to be some of the most honest and terrifying. Really think about The Giver? Nightmare fuel.)
About two weeks ago, one of my colleagues, who ventured on a long time ago to do great things, asked me if I was still teaching the “Journey of the Hero” unit which I played an integral part in developing. When we worked together, he even gave me a gift that belonged to his grandfather, a copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I sighed and said no, that I had asked if I could update it to embed CCSS, since the Common Core seemed perfectly aligned to something as accessible as the journey of the hero –it is a unit that lends itself so beautifully to showing patterns of thought to develop thematic concepts. But, no matter. It’s not the only thematic game in town.
Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.
But the move in our district seems to be choosing more stand-alone novels, without context or connection to other content areas, and that’s fine. It’s fine because it helps teachers focus on specific close reading skills, and not worry about how does it support other content areas. That may be a traditional approach to English/Language Arts, the ‘whole class novel’ as opposed to novel or text sets that are thematic and tied to multiple concepts and curriculum. I’m not really sure. It’s one of those tidbits I packed from reading Kelly Gallagher: things change, and change back, and be a critical thinker of what to keep, and what to throw away.
This is a long excerpt from How To Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. If you want “How to be an English Teacher” this is it. Fortunately, not only do I have engaging authors like Foster when I want to brush up on my subtext and genre themes, but I have my husband and sons, who love to talk about the big ideas, no English degree necessary.
OKAY, SO HERE’S THE DEAL: let’s say, purely hypothetically, you’re reading a book about an average sixteen-year-old kid in the summer of 1968. The kid— let’s call him Kip— who hopes his acne clears up before he gets drafted, is on his way to the A& P. His bike is a one-speed with a coaster brake and therefore deeply humiliating, and riding it to run an errand for his mother makes it even worse. Along the way he has a couple of disturbing experiences, including a minorly unpleasant encounter with a German shepherd, topped off in the supermarket parking lot where he sees the girl of his dreams, Karen, laughing and horsing around in Tony Vauxhall’s brand-new Barracuda. Now Kip hates Tony already because he has a name like Vauxhall and not like Smith, which Kip thinks is pretty lame as a name to follow Kip, and because the ’Cuda is bright green and goes approximately the speed of light, and also because Tony has never had to work a day in his life. So Karen, who is laughing and having a great time, turns and sees Kip, who has recently asked her out, and she keeps laughing. (She could stop laughing and it wouldn’t matter to us, since we’re considering this structurally. In the story we’re inventing here, though, she keeps laughing.) Kip goes on into the store to buy the loaf of Wonder Bread that his mother told him to pick up, and as he reaches for the bread, he decides right then and there to lie about his age to the Marine recruiter even though it means going to Vietnam, because nothing will ever happen for him in this one-horse burg where the only thing that matters is how much money your old man has. Either that or Kip has a vision of St. Abillard (any saint will do, but our imaginary author picked a comparatively obscure one), whose face appears on one of the red, yellow, or blue balloons. For our purposes, the nature of the decision doesn’t matter any more than whether Karen keeps laughing or which color balloon manifests the saint. What just happened here?
If you were an English professor, and not even a particularly weird English professor, you’d know that you’d just watched a knight have a not very suitable encounter with his nemesis.In other words, a quest just happened.But it just looked like a trip to the store for some white bread. True. But consider the quest. Of what does it consist? A knight, a dangerous road, a Holy Grail (whatever one of those may be), at least one dragon, one evil knight, one princess. Sound about right? That’s a list I can live with: a knight (named Kip), a dangerous road (nasty German shepherds), a Holy Grail (one form of which is a loaf of Wonder Bread), at least one dragon (trust me, a ’68 ’Cuda could definitely breathe fire), one evil knight (Tony), one princess (who can either keep laughing or stop). Seems like a bit of a stretch. On the surface, sure. But let’s think structurally. The quest consists of five things: (a) a quester, (b) a place to go, (c) a stated reason to go there, (d) challenges and trials en route, and (e) a real reason to go there. Item (a) is easy; a quester is just a person who goes on a quest, whether or not he knows it’s a quest. In fact, usually he doesn’t know. Items (b) and (c) should be considered together: someone tells our protagonist, our hero, who need not look very heroic, to go somewhere and do something. Go in search of the Holy Grail. Go to the store for bread. Go to Vegas and whack a guy. Tasks of varying nobility, to be sure, but structurally all the same. Go there, do that. Note that I said the stated reason for the quest. That’s because of item (e). The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task. So why do they go and why do we care? They go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves. The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge. That’s why questers are so often young, inexperienced, immature, sheltered. Forty-five-year-old men either have self-knowledge or they’re never going to get it, while your average sixteen-to-seventeen-year-old kid is likely to have a long way to go in the self-knowledge department.
Foster, Thomas C. (2014-02-25). How to Read Literature Like a Professor Revised: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines (pp. 2-3). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The TL:DR version is there are patterns in genres. Don’t be fooled by surface topics. Dig deeper. Talk. Think.
Ultimately I tell students trust their instincts–take a risk. What do they think is going on? Spit-ball some ideas, and see what sticks. Metaphorical spit-balls, that is. Please. For teachers wanting to know more about how to teach a novel, I would say the same: trust your instincts, be willing to talk, and open to new ideas about the book. It’s acceptable and encouraged to see another’s view point, and not necessarily accept it as your own. I wouldn’t know half as much if I read in isolation and never talked about movies or books I watched–not that that has to happen all the time. Balance and connection – and willingness to learn something new.
Pattern of plot/story
Literary devices: what is the writer doing well, or what seems awkward?
Author’s voice: word choices are not arbitrary
Text Sets: Informational connections to literary texts
As I said in a previous post, Gluing the Wings Back On, all this analysis has somewhat disrupted my own reading life. For fun, I’m reading The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston. It’s a romance. Know how I know? The heroine conveniently can’t/won’t speak, and forces her new husband to communicate with gestures, glances, and inferences. Talk about forcing your partner to truly listen. Every paragraph is a volley of “does he love me, does he not?” and for some reason she can’t write him a note. Her lack of writing literacy hasn’t been addressed yet, and I’m not sure it will be. Sometimes I wish I could read this sort of stuff as a 12-year-old. Unlike The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber, which is truly a magical book–a retelling of a classic fairy tale with grit, and takes the patterns and practice of fairy tale into a realm of authenticity and surprise. (It takes a lot to surprise me about a fairy tale, and someday perhaps a romance will surprise me again, too. So far only The Princess Bride and just about anything by John Irving have taught me new narratives about romance. Okay…Jane Austen, too. And The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.) But I digress – perhaps this is a post for another time: what authors speak to our life’s themes?
You know those Facebook click-bait headlines that describe a phenomenon that happened 10, 15, or more years ago? They make even a 19-old-year feel nostalgic for when they were in high school, or even nostalgic for last week. I am always heartened by Monty Pythons references–those were my ‘memes’ back in 1978–I recognized fellow nerds by our signal of knowing movie lines from Monty Python movies, specifically Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is a scene where the villagers collect a witch, and proceed to adjudicate her fate, based on the logic if both a duck and wood float, and if she weighs less than a duck, ergo ipso facto she’s a witch!
(Hold that thought.)
Today I started a unit on the Salem Witch Trials, but not satisfied with merely doing a ‘word-search-coloring-book’ unit, I complete a full scholarly search, watch videos, remember my high school reading of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, etc. I want my students to have a rich and savory understanding of all things 1600s – from what was happening in Europe (what did they take with them) to the New World (what did they leave behind?). The framing of the unit is from the standpoint of the roles of women and children in the 17th century, and who has power, and who does not, and how does the term ‘witch hunt’ still haunt us today, and how is it embedded in our culture?
As the concepts and questions are being introduced, and we discussed an article they were assigned to read and annotate (as much as they could) The Witches of Salem based on a book by Stacy Schiff, many of my students did, and some didn’t, get through it. What surprised me was who did manage to read this lengthy article–one girl completely surprised and amazed me, and added annotations all over Cotton Mather’s face! (Another testament to choice, metacognition, and process!)
In 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. The sorcery materialized in January. The first hanging took place in June, the last in September; a stark, stunned silence followed. Although we will never know the exact number of those formally charged with having “wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously” engaged in sorcery, somewhere between a hundred and forty-four and a hundred and eighty-five witches and wizards were named in twenty-five villages and towns. The youngest was five; the eldest nearly eighty. Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; daughters their mothers; siblings each other. One minister discovered that he was related to no fewer than twenty witches.
In that paragraph, what did most students say surprised them? The dogs, of course. How could you convince a dog of witchcraft?! No one seemed too concerned with the five year old.
The other things they noticed or questions they raised were mostly about why didn’t the women simply do some magic and get out of this predicament?
Ah, those teachable moments.
Most witches are not the Hollywood/fairy tale sort, mostly benign, and kids: magic isn’t real. (You just ruined my childhood, Mrs. Love!)
When I explain that to the Puritans, who carried over very real beliefs of devils and sinners, and manifestations around every corner of evil, and came from the legions of those executed in Europe from the 1300s to their present times of the 1600s, the witchcraft scourge was still very much in their waking conscious.
The other questions we asked included just how does one determine if a person is practicing witchcraft? And one student, so sweetly, shared about how you can weigh a duck versus a suspected witch, and that’s how you tell.
And that, dear readers, is how history works.
Postscript: I gently corrected her and said that was from a comedy movie, and it was just in fun. She seemed somewhat disappointed. And you know what? I am now, too.
There were two scuffles in Minecraft Club on Friday.
This is unprecedented. Minecraft/Anime Club has never known any level of violence, unless that time when “CHEEZEWHIZZZZZLENOOOOOOO!” from a PVP round that ended poorly counts.
Minecraft Club happens on Fridays. This year, though we are not ASB sponsored (because I just don’t want to fill out the paperwork, mmkay?) I made sure every student filled out a parent permission slip with a workable phone number. I try to have the kids sign in, too, but usually it’s the same crowd. There is a new young man, and something…not sure what…was said between him and another, some prank gone wrong, some injustice delivered, and next thing I notice the posturing and the static in the air, and though they both ignored repeated orders from me to “step off/away/back up” eventually they moved away, and one (I believe who instigated the conflict) apologized to the other. It was not accepted. The shoulder was cold, and the handshake left unclasped. Chivalry and humility was met with coldness and a glaring shrug.
And then at the end of club, after most kids had gone and I’m left picking up broken pencil halves, wads of paper, and the odd candy wrapper, a child hands me a cell phone and says “My mother wants to talk to you.” Janitor is vacuuming, it’s noisy, and immediately I can tell the mom is not happy. Basically, some kid ripped the zipper on her son’s backpack and “what am I going to do about it?” I’m going to replace the backpack and make sure I find out who did it. Does it matter that the backpack in question is already ripped and old? Nope–because it did have a working zipper ten minutes ago. The mom seemed satisfied with my answer, and I asked the student if he knew who it was, and no, no details except for clothes, glasses, and race. I’ll find the zipper-ripper, have no doubt, but in the meantime and not too thrilled with my Minecrafters at the moment.
But these acrimonious assaults on zippers and punky pranksters, on the last day of this week seems to sum up an overarching trend…an amalgamation of acts of tattling, treason, and trickery. As the journey progresses through this year, one thing I’ve noticed about the seventh grade students versus the eighth grade is their sheer, unadulterated willingness to tattle. This is something eighth grade students will not do, sometimes to their detriment (they don’t tell when they are being harassed, intimidated, or destroyed emotionally. Snitch culture bites hard with this crowd, and their relationships with one another rule their playground politics.). In our district sixth grade is still kept in elementary school (though there are plans to change this). What this means is kids, fresh from the cultural ties of innocently defending their rights and the rights of their friends will openly speak up and inform on one another in the name of justice. It can be both refreshing and irksome, as I personally waiver between their rights to a safe environment, and learning how to negotiate personal relationships/conflicts on their own. I asked the victim of the great backpack ripper caper just why he didn’t tell me right away, but he didn’t really know. I was there, present, but talking with a teacher, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. When the mom asked to speak to me I thought she was going to tell me “Thanks for having this club! I’m running a few minutes late, would you mind waiting a few minutes more?” Oh well. I don’t blame her one bit: backpacks and supplies are expensive and time-consuming to acquire. I’m right there, too. Put on my best customer service voice and proceeded.
The kids in Minecraft often get over excited–and to my credit I did notice the sea change when the first two boys started posturing, just not a zipper being torn. Kids fiddle and break stuff constantly. They snap pencils, shred paper, leave tops off of markers and glue sticks, etc. They’re stressed and fidgety. And if another child’s ‘stresses and fidgets’ encroaches in their space, sparks and static fly. And often a tattle follows:
Don’t think teachers do the same things? They sure do. I have been tattled on and have tattled, at least I think I have. No, of course I have. There are greater or lesser degrees of this –one year when Secret Santas came around I spoke up on behalf of a friend who was getting treated shabbily, and I asked if we could reset the norms and expectations for one and all. Most of the times we grown-ups step on toes, get misunderstood, or hurt someone’s feelings, we have the maturity to talk it through. We know that everyone has stuff, and I believe we try to look at others points of view, or try to be empathetic, even if we don’t see a direct cause for insult or injury. Is this naive of me? Yes, perhaps it is. If I have given it my best and every effort to talk to someone about an issue I am aware of explicitly/directly, or even if my spidey-senses are tingling and it’s just a “hunch” that something is wrong, then I can sleep at night. Advocacy is the best frontline resolution, for both tattled and tattler.
If this sounds silly or trivial, it’s not. These feelings of miscarried justice begin to fester, and can cause serious community issues in a classroom. It’s important that those who are trying to do the right thing maintain anonymity, because once it’s no longer tattling but something dangerous, out of place, or potentially harmful long term, that ventures into harassment and bullying territory. The person who feels wronged has their personal truth, which may become increasingly distorted the more isolated they feel. However, it’s important that that all of us consider if the hill we’re fighting for is the right one in the first place, and then advocate for ourselves, and then others. Maybe I’m just in too deep with my unit I’m creating on the Salem Witch Trials, but dang that mass hysteria is kind of a bummer. In the meantime, I’ve got backpacks to remember and pencils to gather, and see what I can salvage for this next week. It’s October, and apparently that’s ‘cry in your car month’ for teachers.
(Note to self: ask Cult of Pedagogy if she makes any cash from her links to Amazon.)
This “Wish I Had Written That” is stretching a bit here — this novel is meant for grown-ups. This is not a recommendation for secondary students, although if seniors in high school, or even my own children, wanted to read this novel or anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I’d be proud. (As it is, my older son is trying to get me to read Goncharov and my younger one understand the mastery of Dungeons & Dragons, and geological surveys–good luck with that, kids.) But it does need a little life experience under one’s belt. A little bit of context. And full disclosure: I couldn’t have written this. The protagonist has her own story, and for me to make even presumptions or connections about race, love, family, or hair would be disingenuous. (The protagonist is a blogger, but makes a living from it. I’m also not quite there yet!)
But I still think it should be required reading. Wait–scratch that. Read if you want to know about race, love, family, and hair. And surviving yourself through your twenties, and finding your way. Or, if you’re beyond your twenties, how you found your way, which you surely did.
Tomorrow night is night I look forward to–it’s Book Club night. This month’s selection was my choice–I chickened out and gave the ladies a choice, between this book and J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. When the book club members overwhelmingly chose Rowling’s book, at first I was a little disappointed because I really want to read Americanah. (That’s what I get for my chicken-ness.) However, I was not disappointed after reading Rowling’s first ‘grown up’ book. I loved it. She is a master of characters, connections, and layers of plots that are never ‘sub’ to anything, but partner plots that hold the whole story together. The only thing I may regret is that I will not have another grown-up to talk about Americanah with.
And what a concept: that I’m truly sorry I have no one in real time to discuss a great book and author. And that–that is what I want to ignite in my classroom. Not just “read it” –but read it so you can talk about it. A book shared is a gift from our inner lives, our inner thoughts: what others come to believe or interpret about literature is sublime and…it’s love.
Last night I was out to dinner with my husband, and telling him about my Renaissance with ‘The Raven‘ by Edgar Allan Poe and 7th grade students. I am not the same teacher I was so many years ago, and have learned over the past four to five years to let the students do most of the heavy mental lifting. Being in on their discussions as they grapple with stanzas and translate early 19th century gothic poetry is so fun. My husband brought up that Poe was not a favorite of his until he heard ‘Annabel Lee.’ Being the modern woman I am, found the poem on my phone, and he looked it over again, and offered new insight to the beauty of some of its lines…how beautiful a concept that angels, who are supposed to be so beatific and perfect, could be jealous of humans’ love…
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
By talking about a poem, I learned something new about my husband, even after 23 years.
Now I’m not sure how to tell students what this all means, how to show them what’s in front of them, and what beauty is around the corner for them, too. I’ll try to figure out a way though–look through my old scrolls and tomes of quaint and curious lore, of long forgotten lesson plans of book talks and sharing of tales, and see what they create. These experiences, too, add to their own stories.
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" (Mary Oliver)