Posted on

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.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on


Love this idea from Cult (and am jealous of her cute little hair flippy-do)! To my ELA local peeps–if you have ideas about books we can share with a middle level/YA book club, I think we should do some home-grown discussions. One of our issues is the…


So…how about we take some time, meet over appetizers and beverages, and figure out just what do we have, what digital resources we have, how to get audio books, etc. for our students? Our best brains work better together, and mapping out what our students need and want (even if they don’t know it yet) would be invaluable. Consider yourself tagged!


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on

Lay of the land…

Somewhere West of Here lies East of Awesome…


Update 7/21/15: Edutopia put together a comprehensive guide, too.

Over they years multiple “big projects” have been my honor to lead, collaborate, and work on: novel units, curriculum maps, and curriculum adoption to name a few. In an effort to help clarify the sometimes subtle differences between the terms, I’ve endeavored to set sail and navigate some of these stormy seas. This may be one pivotal reason why I continue to appreciate the culture of my district, because by and large it appreciates and, outwardly at least, respects qualified teachers to make flexible instructional decisions without being in a lock-step or canned curriculum. This flexibility and agency to steer instruction as needed is not without some peril, and requires a great deal of preparation and reflection. It’s work I love to do, and is my passion, and whether I’m the ‘captain’ or a dinghy rower, it’s all part of a greater armada.

Okay, enough with the sea metaphor. Onward!

So to help clarify some terms, and get us out of the rock and hard place discussion, here is the best guidance I can offer:

Curriculum Maps

They’re not called maps by mistake. Think of any great map: it doesn’t necessarily tell you where or why to go, but how to get there, and what you may encounter along the way. Consider the range or scope of maps, too: universal, global, to the smallest micro-view of any terrain. Maps have keys, legends, scales of time and distance, too. So do strong curriculum maps. My district is in the process of creating a new curriculum map/units of study guide. I conflate the two because they are using the term ‘units’ to contain a set of related standards and suggested texts.

If you are working in a group, here is a guideline of steps/phases.

Most curriculum maps are ‘larger views’ of units of study: create a curriculum map with the goal of taking each unit and then, like Russian nesting dolls, creating sub-maps of each unit. Curriculum maps that include: Title, Suggested Time, Big Idea, Essential Questions, Assessment/Performance Task, and Suggest Texts serve us well.

Note: I might include place for related media, too: short films, photographs or paintings, etc. This would carry these standards:

Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.

Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.

When using your curriculum cartographical skills, my advice includes a hefty dose of flexibility and assessment strategies, and an intentional place/space for data collection. Strong curriculum maps include a variety of CCSS, hitting the big targets.


Novel Units

Novel Units may focus on one novel, but that one novel may be part of a larger text comparison unit, or an even larger Unit of Study (Journey of the Hero with leveled/varying interests texts, etc.) The novel unit may focus on one thematic enduring understanding, or again, take part in a larger scope. There is really only one unbreakable rule when teaching a novel unit, and that is to read the novel first. Creating anticipatory guides, pre and post assessments, create a space for literature response groups (small group instruction, Socratic seminars, book projects, individual and group work, potential vocabulary lessons, character development, literary terms, etc. all play a crucial role in novel unit creation. But most importantly: what are students going to walk away with from their time spent on this novel?

Caution: when you read novels with the purpose of teaching novels, it’s hard to put those wings back on the butterfly:

Professors also read, and think, symbolically. Everything is a symbol of something, it seems, until proven otherwise. We ask, Is this a metaphor? Is that an analogy? What does the thing over there signify? The kind of mind that works its way through undergraduate and then graduate classes in literature and criticism has a predisposition to see things as existing in themselves while simultaneously also representing something else. Grendel, the monster in the medieval epic Beowulf (eighth century a.d.), is an actual monster, but he can also symbolize (a) the hostility of the universe to human existence (a hostility that medieval Anglo-Saxons would have felt acutely) and (b) a darkness in human nature that only some higher aspect of ourselves (as symbolized by the title hero) can conquer. This predisposition to understand the world in symbolic terms is reinforced, of course, by years of training that encourages and rewards the symbolic imagination.

Foster, Thomas C. (2014-02-25). How to Read Literature Like a Professor Revised: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Units of Study

Though I am certain there are a legion of approaches to Units of Study design, please first consider McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design approach. They are to curriculum planning what Franklin, Watson and Crick are to our understanding of DNA. Units of Study can be defined in a few ways, but there are key characteristics: several dove-tailed lesson plans that serve the greater or essential question/enduring understanding, authentic and meaningful assessments, and resources. Whereas a novel unit is based on a lens of literature, and curriculum maps serve all content areas, units of study also can be modified for all content areas. The difference may be units of study do not necessarily constrict to a time frame. 

Problem Based Learning and Project Based Learning

There are multiple sources for PBL and PBL, and Maker-Space Learning. Project-Based Learning can include Problem based, but Problem-based is specifically a ‘real world’ issue with an applicable outcome. Maker-spaces allow us all to find flexibility and creativity within a physical dimension.

Project Based Learning Links:

NAE Grand Challenges

Problem Based Learning


89cf89a06f760f1ca7f2aa1fcfc4361aAn expert inthis conversation is John Spencer. I admit I was doing ‘maker spaces’ long before this term was coined, but I just called it blending art and literacy. (Learning how to make Japanese folded books is one of my favorites.) If you have a principal who is not fond of messes, this can be problematic, but I am grateful that the term “maker space” is in place now so those who don’t like to see chaos and mess can now be told it’s ‘research based.’ (Nothing like getting validation for the best practices you were doing anyway!)


Constructive and Deconstructive Approaches

Now underlying all of this is a soup of making meaning, engagement, and critical thinking skills.  I encourage during the process of creating any unit or map to consider constructivism, and deconstructivsim. During the assessment data analysis, if you see students are in the ‘I don’t get it’ spot still, have them pull the lesson apart. That’s when it is clearly time for the ‘teacher talk’ to cease, and approach the learning from a different view point.

Any other thoughts about the essential pieces of curriculum planning? Oh yes – my mentor’s superlative pearl of wisdom: ask how can things go wrong: try to anticipate those scenarios, and it should be relatively smooth sailing. And then be prepared for those teachable moments!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email