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Saving Summer: More Good Things

Literary Analysis, Themes, and Essay Writing, Oh my!!

How did I not know about this? (probably because of PG-13 language: I’ll get permission slips, promise!)

ThugNotes is narrated by Sparky Sweets, Ph.D., and yes there is some language, but the plot summaries and analysis are epic. For a secondary audience, this modern version of CliffsNotes is helpful and entertaining. Since I’m teaching a unit on Lord of the Flies next year I am thankful for his analysis and insight.

Next: thinking about essays and writing structures differently:

An Essay Primer for Adults: Six Essay Types You Should Know by Lorraine Berry

An Essay Primer for Adults: 6 Essay Types You Should Know

Here they are to preserve and keep:

The linear narrative essay: This essay structure is self-explanatory. The story is told in a straightforward narrative, and is usually told in chronological order. Sometimes, there are flashbacks contained in the essay, but that doesn’t disrupt the forward motion of the narrative. One essay that may be of interest in the coming weeks as we approach the August 21 “Great American Eclipse” is Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” which is published in her collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk.

The triptych essay: Just as a triptych painting features three panels, so too does a triptych essay feature three separate sections that are not continuous with each other, but that may shed light on the other two parts. See “Triptych” by Samina Najmi, which was published in World Literature Today.

The collage essay: This type of essay features bits and pieces – vignettes – of prose that are collected together to form an essay. They often resemble poetry as the writing for a collage essay tends to be lyrical. One of my favorite collage essays is Sherman Alexie’s “Captivity,” which appeared in First Indian on the Moon.

The experimental essay: These essays seem to buck all known structures. One of the most unusual of these essays is “The Body” by Jenny Boully. The pages of the essay are blank – except for the footnotes, which are extensive. It turns out that the footnotes are the entire essay. “The Body” is characterized as a lyrical essay

The last two forms of essay that I wish to discuss are the “hermit crab” essay and the “braided” essay, and here I’d like to offer more exploration of two particular essays that are examples of them.

The hermit crab essay: In 1972, John McPhee wrote “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” and it was published in the New Yorker. He used the original game of “Monopoly” – the original American version that was based on the streets of Atlantic City, New Jersey – and he uses going around the board as the frame for the essay, making this a perfect example of a “hermit crab” essay.

In the essay, McPhee is playing a game of Monopoly but he is also recounting walking the streets of Atlantic City. The game is taking place at an international singles championship of Monopoly play, where it is possible for two skilled players to play an entire game in fewer than fifteen minutes.

McPhee intersperses the history of America in the details, but also how Atlantic City was the planned “invention” as a railroad terminus that would be a “bathing village.” In preliminary sketches, the village was labeled as an “Atlantic city,” and the name stuck. In the early 1930s, Charles B. Darrow took those early sketches of the city and based a game board on it.

So, as McPhee lands on each property or group of properties, he tells the story of each part of town. When McPhee’s piece lands him in jail, he uses it as an opportunity to visit the city jail, which in 1972 seemed to be chock-full of drug offenders. He also documents the “facade” aspect shared by resort towns. Once you travel off the beach-side main drag, you are in “the bulk of the city, and it looks like Metz in 1919, Cologne in 1944. Nothing has actually exploded. It is not bomb damage. It is deep and complex decay. Roofs are off. Bricks are scattered in the street.”

He walks these streets and sees long lines of people standing in line at the unemployment office. Newspapers in 2017 tell us that we have an “opioid crisis,” but a multiplicity of signs urging addicts to get help are present in Atlantic City in 1973 (perhaps another reminder that something doesn’t become a crisis until middle class white kids in the suburbs are dying).

McPhee walks through these neighborhoods looking for the one Monopoly property he can’t find: Marvin Gardens. No one with whom he speaks, those living in their bombed-out neighborhoods, has heard of it. It turns out that Marvin Gardens, “the ultimate out wash of Monopoly, is a citadel and sanctuary of the middle class.” It is a suburb within a suburb, what we might now refer to as a “gated community,” separated from the rest of Atlantic City and patrolled with a heavy police presence to keep the rest of the city out.

If you’ve been paying attention while reading, you realize that McPhee has used his hermit crab essay to write a critique of capitalism.

The braided essay: “The Fourth State of Matter,” by Jo Ann Beard is, I must confess, my favorite essay. It, too, was originally published in the New Yorker in 1996. Beard offers a braided essay – in which she is telling a number of stories that are all related to the time she spent on the editorial staff of a physics journal at the University of Iowa. Over the course of the essay, which begins with Beard’s poignant description of the daily routine she experiences as she cares for her aged, incontinent dog, the reader is braced in anticipation that the dog will die.


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Absolutely True Attempt at Journey of the Hero

Illustration by Ellen Forney Students decided she was one part of supernatural aid on advice.

Ah, the never-ending struggle, challenge, and balance with what has proven to work with what’s new.

Teaching Joseph Campbell’s Journey of the Hero structural pattern works — it works because students understand truly what plot is, they can apply it to multiple mediums, stories, and their own lives, and wait…no more needs to be said. They can apply it to their own lives.

Having to let go of my curriculum baby — you know that baby–the one you work on for months, craft, shape, support with standards and engaging lessons, scope-it, and sequence-it and tie it all up with a bow, and share it with the world, only to have the world think it’s slightly funny looking or outdated. Well, I still think this baby, the Journey of the Hero unit, has merit and value, so thought I would try something different a few years ago and ‘chunk the Hobbit.’ No, that’s not some new Lord of the Rings drinking game, but I broke down the Hobbit into bite-sized pieces for groups of three chapters each. It kind of worked, but kind of didn’t. (Recently, though, I had a sibling of one of my former students ask me on behalf of her sister if I was still teaching that — she loved it.)

We have a full class set of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, so this month I’ve devoted time to reading this extraordinary novel through the idea of the monomyth.


So far…it’s kind of working. I say kind of because there have been some obstacles, our own Road of Trials:

  • Too quick of an introduction of what JOTH is and entails
  • Jumped right into reading, and students not getting the message they need their books with them every day, to class and to home. They are allowed backpacks in my room so the carrying of a $15 paperback may be too much…but they have all gotten the message again.
  • We had two mornings of ice delays, so that threw off our schedule a bit.
  • Students are still not looking to Canvas for work, or at least the majority are not.
  • Students are still expressing too much “learned helplessness” (and it’s making me a little crazy). In fact, I gave students their first quote as scaffolding and one student stopped dead in her thinking tracks and said “I don’t get it” and then kept talking over me when I said let’s work this out. So now I need to go back and teach a lesson on what ‘central idea’ is. Never again will I not have multiple lessons on the basics at the beginning of the year. 

Here is what is starting to work:

We walked through the first three sections together, scaffolded and intentional:

Smartnotebook file (which I can’t embed here, but if you need it email me or contact me in the comments)

JOTH Reader Response Tracker

After we worked on it by hand, this weekend I’ve given them a scaffolded digital version that displays the work they’ve come up with : JOTH Part Time Indian Support

Laura Randazzo’s Prezi:

So we’ll see. We’re on our own journey through the novel, trying my best to allow them to discover what they think and find. I’ll keep you posted.


PS It’s not an accident that Penelope is named Penelope. Think about it.

Google Docs Links:

Journey of the Hero Support Doc

Journey of the Hero PowerPoint

Archetypes PowerPoint




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Literacy Dance Party!

Hey, Summer!! Going by too fast, time to dance! Clean out the garage and DANCE!

Oh, okay, I’ll do a little writing first.

Don’t believe me, just watch!

Lisa wrote on the N&N site (and thank you!)

“Thank you for the blog post in which you explain your alliterative days of the week. (I use a similar idea in my history classes.) I now have some drill down questions: Do you read whole class novels? If you have the students write each day, how do you structure the writing? Do you fit in grammar? How do you work with such discrete topics? I find that I like a reading piece to be at the hub of class and then the spokes are the writing assignment, grammar, oral presentation, etc. What do you think?”

These questions made me realize I never stop thinking about this stuff. 


Whole Class Novels:

It Depends.

Usually, no. Unless you count that time I ‘jigsawed’ The Hobbit. And I will do Absolutely True Diary. I prefer to do units that serve both the Social Studies and ELA content areas, and provide multiple texts and genres to serve the unit’s demands. Rarely have I ‘taught’ a whole class novel, and I’m not sure I’ll start now.

Structure Writing:

In 2015 I participated in my second Puget Sound Writing Project invitational, which includes teacher research or action. My contribution included a question I’m still not sure how to answer, and that is, ‘if there’s close reading, can there be close writing?’ given mentor texts, etc. The Writing Thief inspired me.

Also, my writing philosophy is closely tied with my fine arts’ days — throw something down on the canvas, make a mark, and then develop. Direct instruction for writing develops from common things all middle school writers do, and then the feedback/conferencing speaks to the individual writer. I use a lot of portfolios, writing goals, genre exploration, etc. In December for the past several years we’ve done a Drabble-A-Day using a lot of image prompts, RAFTS, etc. WriteAbout is a great resource, too.

Writing Closely Prezi


Sometimes grammar is placed in a mini-lesson, based on things I’m noticing students doing, or not doing. This is when some stations or small group work comes in handy, or information based on exit tickets, quick quizzes, or surveys. Students will always need to know some basics:

  • Parts of speech
  • Sentence structures
  • Active v. Passive
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Site words
  • ….feel like I’m missing, oh, say, about a hundred other things…

Grammar and writers’ craft are so closely connected, this is rich for close reading with a mentor text and discussion.

I have some book suggestions, etc. I’ll post later. I’ve been enjoying using Grammarly, too, as a way to get instant feedback that’s more precise than any Microsoft Word function.

Discrete Topics:

This is a tough one. Our ELA/SS district’s vision is all about skills. (Spontaneously starts singing Meghan Trainor’s All About The Bass in my head.) On the other hand, they’ve done a great job of providing single title novels, so if a teacher wants to teach a whole class novel she/he can. Over the years, I’ve noticed I usually don’t do a whole class novel, maybe one. Mostly I use short stories, excerpts, poetry, etc. and am heavy on the writing.

This may be the toughest to answer. In most cases, I created a unit based on Understanding by Design. This is my palette, and where my teaching creativity resides. There are enduring understandings and then essential questions that are flexible and ambiguous enough to provide multiple access points for students to construct their notions of themes and ideas. We’ve done thematic units such as Journey of the Hero, Voice, Coming of Age, etc. These units include a variety of novels for choice and instructional needs. I always go back to Lucy Calkin’s ‘Black Diamond Ski’ analogy. Read what you want, try to find a ‘just right’ book, but don’t be afraid to stretch.

These thematic units come first, and then the discrete topics help fill in the knowledge to support the big idea, so it really doesn’t matter. Or rather, that’s all that matters.

Note: this is really tough for eighth grade students. Heck, it’s tough for adults. Many of us just want the Q&A, the answer, and the points. And there is some legitimacy to this. If everything was close, deep reading and thinking and we never gave our brains a chance to be bored, or alternate in activities, well, we all know how that turned out.

Not sure if this was helpful, but gave me a great place to start. Sometimes just throwing ideas out there, asking the questions, and hearing others approaches help me the most. Any ideas you think of and want to add please go for it!

PS And now to go find book titles….

And keep dancing!

Older posts that might help:

Gluing the wings back on

National Writing Project

Stitching Together Themes

Memoir Writing Presentation:

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