Archives For Books

17 minutesI was researching websites for the Film and Literature class when I first heard about the “17 Minute Rule;” a rule that suggests the real plot is revealed to the audience 17 minutes into any film.  Todd Pack’s Messy Desk Blog uses a number of examples to illustrate  The 17 Minute Rule:

George Bailey tells his father he couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of his life in a shabby little office at his father’s building and loan 17 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life.

The rest of the movie is about everything that happens that stops him from leaving Bedford Falls and drives him to consider jumping off that bridge on Christmas Eve.

  • Luke’s uncle buys the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
  • Buddy leaves the North Pole to find his real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
  • The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes intoJaws. It’s the second attack that forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
  • The Iowa farmer is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.

This 17 minute phenomenon was corroborated on other blogs as well.  Writer and Director Nathan Marshall posted Screenplay Structure: Three Acts & Five Points Script Frenzy! blog where he also called attention to minute 17:

3) Page 17. Next time you watch a DVD, pause it 17 minutes into the film. Trust me—any film. What’s happening at that point in the story? Most likely, the essential character conflict has just been laid out. A teenage Indiana Jones runs to his father for help, but is shushed instead. Shaun convinces his girlfriend to trust him in Shaun of the Dead. Captain Renault asks Rick why he came to Casablanca. On page 17, your audience should realize what the film is really about. It’s not about finding the Holy Grail, Indy—it’s about learning to forgive dad!

The same was outlined on the  All About Screenwriting blog. In addition to explaining the rule, this post made the claim that the ratio of screenplay to minute of film is 1:1; and page 17 will be the 17th minute of a film. The site provides a basic outline for a screenplay of the average movie made today:

FADE IN: 

  • Between pages 1-5: The HOOK, something that grabs our attention and pulls us in.
  • Page 10: At this point in your script you should have the “MINI CRISIS”. The “MINI CRISIS” should lead us into…
  • Page 17: …The DILEMMA. Creation of the team and what the movie is about.
  • Page 30: The REACTION to the dilemma or situation.
  • Page 45: First “REVERSAL” of the 17 minute point. This point furthers the characters and pushes them deeper into the situation or the dilemma.
  • Page 60: The “TENT POLE” of the movie. Where the passive characters become active or vice versa.
  • Page 75: Second “REVERSAL” to the 17 minute point. To reaffirm what the story is about.
  • Page 90: The LOW POINT of action. The place from which our main character has to rise up from.

FADE OUT.

So when I noticed students picking up books for independent reading and discarding them after the first few pages, I wondered if they were giving the book a real chance. Could a 17 page rule apply to books student might choose to read? And, if the rule applied, would a student become more engaged once he or she reached page 17?

In a short experiment, I grabbed three books off the top of the book cart, and noted the following:

The Hobbit (The Dwarves and Gandalf invade Bilbo’s home)

“The poor little hobbit sat down in the hall and put his head in his hands, and wondered what had happened, and what was going to happen, and whether they would all stay to supper. Then the bell rang again louder than ever, and he had to run to the door.”

Little Women -Marmee gives  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy their Christmas gifts with her words of encouragement to survive the difficulties of life.

‘We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another.Out burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.’”

Lord of the Flies-The boys Ralph and Piggy discover they are on their own in a hostile environment:

“They’re all dead,” said Piggy, “an’ this is an island. Nobody don’t know we’re here. Your dad don’t know, nobody don’t know—”
His lips quivered and the spectacles were dimmed with mist.
“We may stay here till we die.”
With that word the heat seemed to increase till it became a threatening weight and the lagoon attacked them with a blinding effulgence.”

Yes, the rule was working for books from the canon. Later that same afternoon, I was working with a “reluctant reader” who had selected James and the Giant Peach as a guided reading text. I glanced at page 17 and noticed the wonderful passage where James finds the entrance to the giant peach.

James and the Giant Peach 

“Almost without knowing what he was doing, as though drawn by some powerful magnet, James Henry Trotter started walking slowly toward the giant peach. He climbed over the fence that surrounded it, and stood directly beneath it, staring up at its great bulging sides. He put out a hand and touched it gently with the tip of one finger. It felt soft and warm and slightly furry, like the skin of a baby mouse. He moved a step closer and rubbed his cheek lightly against the soft skin. And then suddenly, while he was doing this, he happened to notice that right beside him and below him, close to the ground, there was a hole in the side of the peach.”

Not every text has a page 17 moment…sometimes the dilemma is posed on page 16 or page 18 or 19. I suspect the rule holds up because the 17 minute rule/page 17 is part of a pattern in storytelling, and stories always follow a pattern.  Sharing this rule with students gives me another “tool” in my teaching toolbox, so when I see a student toss a book aside after reading only a few pages, I casually remark, “Did you get to page 17 yet? There’s a rule about page 17…. on page 17, something important always happens.”
I may get a quizzical look, but several minutes later, I have seen that same student engrossed in the text.
“The book got better,” says the student.
“Well, you got past page 17,” I respond.

Shakepeare winkingPlanning on teaching literature in high school? I suggest a brush up on literary pitfalls….and work on developing a sense of humor because sooner or later, a student, (usually a boy) will come upon one of the following words in some great work of literature:

Screw.
Bang
Bosom.
Laid.
Nuts.

In context, these words have been carefully chosen by an author to express some lofty ideal.  Yet, to that student who is looking for any way to make the class more entertaining, these words can mean something else entirely.

No author has been more successful in creating linguistic traps than Shakespeare. There are the overt references, such as Lady Macbeth’s startling announcement to “Unsex me here..!” (I.5) in preparation to assassinate the visiting King Duncan.  There are the more subtle problems with the “hoary-headed frosts” in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Romeo and Juliet offers the most opportunity for student sniggering.

From the opening scuffle where, “My naked weapon is out”, a teacher must negotiate students through Lord Capulet’s Give me my long sword, ho“,  Mercutio’s  teasing  “Prick love for pricking,” or the Nurse’s explanation that Juliet “shall bear the burden soon at night.

“Is Shakespeare always this dirty?” I see the quizzical looks on their faces.
“Your parents are okay with this,” I reassure them, “Besides, this is required reading.”

The Bard does not have a monopoly on creating awkward moments with language in class. Students are capable of creating discomfort, intentionally or not.

Years ago, I taught an Animal Farm unit and delivered a lesson on George Orwell’s characters and their historical counterparts. I explained that Napoleon was Stalin, the dogs were his secret police, and Snowball was Trotsky. I mentioned in passing that Trotsky was considered an insurrectionist, and I paused to let the information sink in. Instead I heard the distinct sound of giggling from several of the boys in the back of the room.

“What is so funny?”I demanded.
“Nothing,” they stammered.
I should have stopped there, but I moved in to clarify.
“What do you think I said? Do you know what an insurrectionist is?”

There was a pause…
“When… it… goes down?” blurted out one of the offenders.

“No,” I was indignant…not to be stopped. “No, I said’ insurrection’…what did you think I …..”
Then it hit me.
Erection.
I doubled back.
“It’s someone who is trying to start an uprising…..”
That explanation was drowned out with guffaws.
Did I mention that a very good sense of humor is needed in with sophomores?

This past fall, I had posted charts around the rooms with questions associated with Oliver Twist.
As the students moved around the room I noticed students giggling when they got to one of the charts.
“Why would someone lie?” was the heading on the chart.
“To get laid,” was scribbled in small print.
I recognized that print.
That print belonged to Mitch. Mitch who stood all of 4’2″ and was 90 lbs, soaking wet.

Everyone had seen it, so I needed to address the problem quickly.
“Mitch,” I demanded, “is that an appropriate thing to write?”

“Sure, Ms. B,” he replied casually,”I could lie and say I’m dying…Like in the movie 50/50.
I had to admit he was using logic…to say nothing of his confidence.
He still erased the comment.

Next week, I plan to use an Advanced Placement Literature multiple choice prompt from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as practice for the upcoming AP exam.  I was rereading the passage to check its length and the matching questions when I came upon the line, “She began to curl her hair and long for balls.”

Oh, Jane. That’s going to definitely cause a stir!

There is no surprise in reading the word “precision” in the language of the Common Core’s Mathematical Practice Standards. Mathematics requires precision:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP6 Attend to precision.

Mathematically proficient students try to communicate precisely to others. They try to use clear definitions in discussion with others and in their own reasoning.

Writing requires precision as well. Proficient writers in every genre communicate precisely to others. Yet, one of the most difficult concepts to teach to students in recognizing the precision in an author’s craft. Word choice and punctuation are committed with intent by an author, yet, there are students who doubt these steps of precision made by an author. They believe that any text has stepped, as if full-formed or Athena-like, from the mind of an author. They think that novels pop into existence…unless, they are reading Toni Morrison.

Screenshot 2014-02-27 21.57.19

A “Wordsift” of precise language in Chapter 3 of “Beloved”; Denver and Sethe dominate as does the simile generator “like”.

My Advanced Placement English Literature students are currently reading Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved. This story confronts the horrors of slavery by fictionalizing the true story of Margaret Garner who, in a failed bid for freedom, killed her baby daughter rather than have her returned to slavery.

A look at the opening two lines to Toni Morrison novel Beloved demonstrate her power as a storyteller and highlight her precision with language:

“124 was spiteful. Full of baby venom.”

An quick analysis of the specificity of language in these two short statements reveals:

  • 124 is the address (setting) where Paul D arrives looking for the run-away slave, Sethe.
  • 124 is also a combination of 1and 2 and 4…the first-born, the second-born, and the fourth-born children of Sethe. The third-born child (3), the child named Beloved, is missing numerically. That child chooses to make her presence known in more ghostly ways.
  • Morrison is exacting in her selection of word choice from her opening personification of the house as spiteful (“having or showing a desire to harm, anger, or defeat someone; malicious”) to the incongruous pairing of the words “baby” and “venom”.

So, when I asked students to write about the precision in word choice Morrison uses to craft imagery in the novel in the first 100 pages, they had much to choose from:

“In describing the choke cherry tree of scars on Sethe’s back, Morrison writes, ‘See, here’s the trunk it’s red and split wide open, full of sap and here’s the parting for the branches’(79). A history textbooks do not give details of slave wounds like that.”

“Sethe and Denver even accept ‘the lively spite the house felt for them’(3) …. Morrison utilizes this personification to show how objects took on the role of companionship when Sethe and Denver were ignored by their community.

“Sethe describes seeing the sunrise as menacing with ‘red baby blood’ with ‘pink gravestone chips’(34)  instead of seeing the colors as warm and inviting.”

In making these and other observations, students called attention to Morrison’s specific use of dialect, alliteration, hyperbole, synecdoche, repetition, smilies, symbols as well as the differences in syntax to serve her purpose in making the reader confront the irreparable harm of slavery. The closer the students read, and they were “close reading”, the more appreciative they became of Morrison’s style. They became more appreciative of her power to select specific words in creating a particular image. They had no idea they could have just as easily be applying a mathematical practice standard (“attend to precision”) in their literary analysis.

Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 in for her body of work that included the novel Beloved. In her acceptance speech, she addressed how precise language is used to describe; to depict [as if] by painting or drawing:

The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. … When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,” his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing to monumentalize, disdaining the “final word”, the precise “summing up”, acknowledging their “poor power to add or detract”, his words signal deference to the uncapturability of the life it mourns.

Morrison’s admiration for Lincoln’s precise language in the Gettysburg Address is a shared admiration. The speech is a suggested 9th/10th grade text for the Common Core Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies. Moreover, educators should note the literary connection between the president who led the nation to abolish slavery with authors like Morrison who use their craft in pressing the reader to face the horrors of slavery.

Finally, the Mathematical Practice Standard #6 states that by high school, students will “have learned to examine claims and make explicit use of definitions.” There could be no better claim on the damage inflicted on humans in bondage than Morrison’s story of Sethe and her Beloved.  The last lines of the novel, “This is not a story to pass on” communicates “You [reader] may not pass [or avoid] this story.” She explicitly defines the experiences of those “60 million or more” and captures their love and their longing for familial bonds by writing precisely what they could not.

Cat in the HatMarch 2nd is Theodor Geisel’s (aka Dr. Seuss’s) birthday.

March 2nd is Read Across America Day as well, and Read Across America is an annual nationwide reading celebration sponsored by the National Education Association (NEA).

The impact of Dr. Seuss’s texts on young readers is enormous, but the impact does not stop there. Even at the high school level, I have made extensive use of Dr. Seuss’s classic The Cat in the Hat. I have posted about using this text to introduce Freudian psychology in I Wish I Had Thought of Id, Ego, and the Superego in Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat”.

At the end of that lesson, my students have a clear understanding about the differences between the Id, represented by the wild Thing 1 and Thing 2, and the Superego, represented by the dutiful Fish. The also have one lingering question:

“Does the Cat want the kids to lie to their Mom?”

Their question encouraged me to look more closely at the text as a possible means to introduce other literary concepts. But I am not the only one who thought there were other lessons to be gained from this text. I recently found a series of philosophical topics and questions for The Cat in the Hat on The Teaching Children Philosophy Wiki

The home page states:

This website is dedicated to helping adults conduct philosophical discussion with and among elementary school children.Contrary to what many people think, young children are both interested in and good at discussing philosophical questions. Picture books are a great way to initiate a philosophical discussion with young children and this site will help you get started.

Along with a long list of picture books, there are a number of Dr. Seuss texts represented on this wiki including Green Eggs and Ham for educators to teach a lesson on arguing reason vs. experience by Taiba Akhtar or The Sneetches for lessons on defining differences and noting prejudice by Lena Harwood.

The lesson for The Cat in the Hat was posted by Joey Shaughnessy and includes five topics and related follow-up questions, some of which include:

Trust

The Cat reassures the children that what he is doing is okay and that their mother won’t mind…

  • Would have you trusted the cat?
  • When can you trust strangers? What if they’re a teacher, or a policeman?
  • How do you know that you can trust your friends?
  • What is trust?

Responsibility

The Cat, with all of his games, made quite a mess in Sally and Sam’s house…

  • Is it okay that the Cat made a mess?
  • Since the Cat cleaned up his mess, was it more okay that he made it?
  • When is it okay to make a mess?

Wrongness

In the story, Sally and Sam had a very different view on what is right and wrong than the Cat did…

  • Is it okay if the children were entertained by the Cat, even though what he was doing was dangerous?
  • Is it okay to do things that are wrong to try and impress people?
  • Is it more okay to do something wrong if it’s fun? Why or why not?

Social Expectations

In the story, the Cat invited himself in, and started taking action…

  • Was what the Cat did an okay way to act?
  • What are inappropriate things to do in a friend’s home?
  • What makes them inappropriate?

Lying

At the end of the story, the reader is left to wonder if they would tell their mom what had happened…

  • Would have you told your mother what happened? Why?
  • Is it okay to lie to hide something that you’ve done wrong?
  • If we lie and get away with it, can people still be hurt by what we’ve done?
  • Should we tell the truth, even if no one would believe us?
  • If you tell someone only part of what happened, is this lying?

Screenshot 2014-03-02 19.37.23The last question (If you tell someone only part of what happened, is this lying?) was easy to discuss. My students agreed telling someone only part of what happened was lying.

They also mentioned something about speaking from experience.

Book Choice Questions

March 1, 2014 — 1 Comment

book loveIndependent reading in our school grades 7-12 means students read books of their own choosing, make recommendations, and keep records of what they read. Recently, however, one of the English teachers in my department suffered a concussion and while the substitutes delivered the curriculum (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak), student independent reading had fallen out of regular practice.

Our latest substitute (Natalie) is an enthusiastic graduate of our high school school who has a BS degree in Creative Writing. She has been serious in tackling her lack of experience in the classroom through her best characteristic…she asks questions. She asks a lot of questions.

One of the latest questions she asked was about independent reading. When I expressed my concerns about having the practice reestablished, she seemed doubtful. I suggested that she have students use books they read independently to make connections with the most recent whole class novels.

“You can ask them if they can make a generic ‘coming of age’ connection between Speak and a book of their choosing,” I suggested.

“But what if they choose a book that doesn’t have that connection? What if they choose a book that is too young for them?” she continued, “or a book that they already read? How do I know what they should be reading?”

I recognized her questions; I had those same questions myself several years ago.

So, I sat her down and showed her the following Penny Kittle video that is available through Heinemann Publishers on YouTube under the title “Why Students Don’t Read What is Assigned in Class”:

She had the same reaction I did when I first saw that video.

“Wow,” she said, “I get it. They should read what they want.”

Question answered.

My department is just noticing the benefits after a few years of implementing book choice. We are lucky to have an 80 minute block schedule with the luxury of offering 15-30 minutes a class for Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) independent choice books. We have large classroom libraries with high interest titles and a wonderful school library (with Overdrive e-books available)  to offer students choice in what they read. When we tell students to pull out their SSR book, they are prepared and settle in to read.

Some classes suggest that a book be in a particular genre. Our English IV-Memoir class reads memoirs or biographies. The English II class is based on World Literature, and students read at least one book during the year by an author who is not American. The critical requirement is that each student chooses a book. There is no leveled reading; students can choose a book below their reading ability or they can attempt a book above their lexile level. They learn what to choose to read because they have control of what they want to read.

Penny Kittle, an English teacher and literacy coach at Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire, wrote a guide to helping students read independently titled Book Love. In this text, Kittle offers strategies to help teachers increase the volume of what students read and to deepen student thinking about what they read.

One of the strategies several of our teachers use is to have students respond to reading through the software Shelfairi (Amazon) where they record what they are reading and make connections to other books. I can organize each class in virtual groups and pose general questions for responses. These short responses prepare me for conferences or allow me to respond directly on the software with links or information or suggestions. For example, the English IV Mythology/Fantasy class reads mythologies or fantasies, and I posed a simple question last week and left quick responses for a conference:

How are you doing with your book? What are the connections to myth/fantasy that can you make?

STUDENT: Eragon: So far I am doing well with this book. My book connects with mythology because it is about Eragon who finds a stone which ends up being a dragon egg, and he bonds with the dragon over time. He and Saphira (the dragon) learn to communicate with one another and have a good connection. Saphira and Eragon create a good relationship with one another.

My response: This is a great fantasy…and a series. This novel has elements of the hero’s journey: http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero’s_journey.htm

STUDENT: Ranger’s Apprentice-The Royal Ranger: Good. I have 10 pages left until its over. Its the final book in the series. There is a giant myth that rangers have special and mystical powers. But that is just false. They are just super stealthy which gives them the appearance of just appearing out of no where.

My response: Now what will you read? Another series?

STUDENT: The Alchemist: The Alchemist is a good book. It has to do more with fantasy than mythology, but there is a myth about a treasure in the pyramids.

My response: And the “stones” have a story behind them as well. Did you know this book is on the NY Times Bestseller list for 291 weeks?

While there are multiple software platforms for sharing book choices, I also find that the features on Shelfari are helpful in having students “shop” for books (without purchasing) and/or write responses using evidence. There are tabs for a book’s Description, a Ridiculously Simplified Synopsis, Characters/People, Quotes, and First sentence. There are recommendations and reviews by other readers for each title as well. The student responses can agree or refute other reviews; they can add information to a book’s page as well.

Regardless of platform, sharing what students choose to read is critical to helping them develop a love of reading. The advertisement for Kittle’s Book Love states,

“Books matter.  Stories heal.  The right book in the hands of a kid can change a life forever.  We can’t wait for anyone else to teach our students a love of books—it’s up to us and the time is now.  If not you, who?”

And that is a very good question.

There are waves from England that reach America’s shores.

There are literary waves.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm was published in America in 1946.

There are musical waves.
The Beatles came to America in 1964.

George Orwell used satire as a commentary on Communism in the USSR and the rise of Stalin in his allegory Animal Farm.

John Lennon used the lyrics in the song Revolution as a response to the increase of protests against the Vietnam War, specifically student riots in Paris in May of 1968.

Satire, politics, protests….so many connections. Why not share them in class?
Why not share the Beatles’ song Revolution while students read Orwell’s Animal Farm?

“Revolution”

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know you can count me out

Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright
Alright, alright

You say you got a real solution
Well you know
We don’t love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well you know
We’re doing what we can
But if you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell you is brother you have to wait (Revolution lyrics continued…)

After we read first chapter of Animal Farm aloud in class, I played the video of the Beatles performing the song Revolution. For some, this was the first time they had ever heard the song; for some, this was the first time they had seen the Beatles perform.

After watching the video, I posted an assignment to use the power of music – “to write a song for your cause.” The directions given to the students were:

You say you want a Revolution….?
Well, you have to write your song!! (for extra credit)

Step 1: Identify your cause. What makes you angry? What do you see as a problem in society? What is your Pet Peeve? What would you like to change about your world? This can be something big or little.

Step 2: The power of music! To persuade people to join your revolution, (like Major’s Beasts of England) you have to write a song.

Step 3: Share your lyrics, and we will join you in song (karaoke tunes preferred)

Their protest songs came in. In their songs the students protested: homework, English class (*sigh*), the school parking lot ban on underclassmen, bad weather, cafeteria food, Twilight movies, dirt clods in the hallways from steel-toed boots, the ban on cupcakes in class, and (and there were several of these), Justin Bieber.

While their songs were unlikely to inspire a revolution, they did appreciate the power of music in communicating a message. Their reactions to their own songs of protest were positive, but they admitted that their songs did not have the same power as the Beatle’s Revolution. They recognized Orwell’s statement on the power of song in Animal Farm “The Beasts of England” sung at the end of Chapter One. That song (sung to the tune of My Darling Clementine) was a take-off on the famous socialist anthem, The Internationale:

Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland,
Beasts of every land and clime,
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of the Golden future time.

Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant Man shall be o’erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of England
Shall be trod by beasts alone…….(continued )

 “…The singing of this song threw the animals into the wildest excitement…. And then, after a few preliminary tries, the whole farm burst out into Beasts of England in tremendous unison….” (Ch1:Orwell)

Orwell was demonstrating how the lyrics in a song could motivate. The student protest songs, however, were more entertaining than motivating. The Beatle’s song Revolution is both entertaining and motivating, a song written four years after their momentous arrival in America.

From the moment the Beatles disembarked from Pan-Am flight 101 on February 7, 1964, they were a force in American music. Yet, according to TIME magazine’s story, Beatlemania Begins: The Beatles First U.S. Visit to Play Ed Sullivan, the Beatles were surprised by how their music had made thousands of frenetic fans:

Just before 1:30 p.m., Flight 101 taxied to a stop outside the terminal and the aircraft door popped open. An explosion of cheers and screams rang out as the crowd stormed forward….

“We heard that our records were selling well in America,” George [Harrison] noted, “but it wasn’t until we stepped off the plane … that we understood what was going on. Seeing thousands of kids there to meet us made us realize just how popular we were there.”

Their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (February 9) featured a set list that set fans shrieking:

  • All My Loving 
  • Till There Was You (Sue Raney cover)
  • She Loves You 
  • I Saw Her Standing There 
  • I Want to Hold Your Hand

Those five songs began the domination of pop music charts, coined the term “Beatlemania”, and changed the culture of a generation. The Beatles proved the power of music, so our protest song assignment capitalized on student awareness of this power. The students shared what they would protest if given the opportunity. They had a chance to make connections between two genres, between a set of music lyrics and a set of lyrics from a novel-both of which were penned by Englishmen.

This was also an opportunity for me to highlight the Beatles. Students watched and listened to a recording of the “Fab Four” who created a revolution in music here in America; they saw those “lads from Liverpool” who invaded America from England many Yesterday’s ago.

In the spirit of all end of the year reviews, I have condensed the year 2013 by offering month by month posts from this blog that illustrated the best student (and subsequently, teacher) learning:

January 2013: A Freshman’s Modern Odyssey in the Style of Homer

"Dawn spread her rosy fingers..."

“Dawn spread her rosy fingers…”

The Freshmen final project after reading The Odyssey is a narrative that students complete called “The Wamogossey: A Day in the Life of a Freshman at Wamogo High School.” Writing narratives are once again favored in  Common Core State Standards, and this post explained how students made their own attempt at an epic adventure.

February 2013:  Spilling Over the Corners of a Six Word Text

Short Story in 6 words

Short Story in 6 words

This exercise proves that keeping students “within the four corners of the text” is impossible, even when the text, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is only six words long. This post also serves as evidence that that admonitions on best practices should be limited to those with actual classroom experience, not to the “architects of the Common Core.”

March 2013 If You Want to Watch the Cow Give Birth

Watching the arrival of our latest calf

Watching the arrival of our latest calf

Yes, “If you want to watch the cow give birth, turn on U-stream now!” was an announcement over the PA system. Normally, I am irritated by interruptions to class time, but this announcement cued students about opportunity watch the birth of a calf in the Agricultural Science wing of our high school. The combination of technology in broadcasting and recording the birth of the newest member of the agricultural program with old-fashioned “hands on” physical labor illustrates 21st Century authentic learning.

April 2013 You Never Forget Your First Hamlet

Members of the senior class were fortunate enough to see Paul Giamatti’s “Hamlet” at Yale Repertory Theatre. I’ll let their words speak for the experience:

The performance was a wonderful experience, especially since it was my first time to see Shakespeare.

I wouldn’t mind going to another because it was so enjoyable that I didn’t even realize the 4 hours passing by.

I like the way that a play has a certain kind of vibe. It’s like a live concert, where there’s a certain kind of energy.

It was like seeing a live performance of a film. I would especially like to see another Shakespeare because it is the way that he intended his works to be portrayed.

After seeing Hamlet so well done, it would definitely be worth going to see another one whether it be Shakespeare or a different kind of performance.

May 2013 Kinesthetic Greek and Latin Roots

Spelling "exo"=outside

Spelling “exo”=outside

Understanding Greek and Latin roots is critical to decoding vocabulary, so when the freshman had a long list of roots to memorize, we tried a kinesthetic approach. The students used their fingers to spell out Greek roots: ant (against), tech (skill), exo (outside).  They twisted their bodies into letters and spread out against the wall spelling out xen (foreign), phob (fear). They also scored very well on the quizzes as a result!

June 2013 Superteachers!

Superteacher!

Superteacher!

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, teachers rose to a “friendship and respect” challenge to make a video. With a little help from a green screen, 27 members of the faculty representing a wide variety of disciplines jumped into the nearby closet wearing the big “W” (for Wamogo). Students in the video production class watched and filmed in amazement as, bearing some artifact from a particular subject area, each teacher donned a flowing red cape.

July 2013 Library Book Sales: Three Bags Full!

The original purpose of this blog was to show how I filled classroom libraries with gently used books. The Friends of the C.H. Booth Library Book Sale in Newtown, Connecticut, is one of the premier books sales in the state: well-organized tables filled with excellent quality used books, lots of attentive check-out staff, and great prices. This year, I added three large bags of books to our classroom libraries for $152.00, a discount of 90% off retail!

August 2013 Picture Books Are not for Kindergarten Any More!Cat in Hat book cover

At used book sales, I am always looking for picture books I can use in high school classrooms. For example, I use The Cat in the Hat to explain Freud’s theory of the Id, Ego and Superego . Thing #1 and Thing #2 represent Id, and that righteous fish? The Superego. Yes, Dr. Seuss is great for psychological literary criticism, but he is not the only picture book in my repertoire of children’s literature used in high school. This post features a few of my favorite picture books to use and why.

September 2013 Close Reading with Saki and the Sophomores

Saki’s short stories open our World Literature course in which our students will be reading complex texts required by the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS). After a “close reading” the conversations in the room showed the text’s complexity. Saki’s The Interlopers has all the elements suggested by the CCSS:  figurative language, the ironic wish, and multiple meaning in the revenge sought by man versus the revenge exacted by Nature. Our close reading should have been “textbook”. The evidence proved the characters’ demise…or did it? The ensuing discussion forced the class to consider other positions.

October 2013 Close Reading Art

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire

After “close reading” short stories, the sophomores were asked to use the same skills to “close read” several paintings that thematically connected to the Industrial Revolution. They studied a Constable pastoral painting, before J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire. While some called attention to the the dirty smoke stack, others saw the energetic paddling as a sign of progress. They noticed the ghost-like ship hovering in the background, the light created by the sunset which gave the painting “warmth”or “light extinguishing”. When they were asked to use these elements as evidence to determine the artist’s message, there were some succinct responses to the painting’s “text.”

November 2013 Thanks for the NCTE Conference

Five members of the English Department attended the conference and selected from over 700 sessions at the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on English Leadership.  District support for such great professional development is truly appreciated. We are also grateful that four of our proposals were chosen to share as presentations for other educators. The explanations of our presentations with links to these presentations are included in this post.

December 2013 Drama Class Holiday Miracle

Cast photo!

Cast photo!

An ice storm two weeks before performance caused a car pile-up, and the drama club teacher was left with a concussion. She could not be in school; the students were on their own, and I was left to supervise their performances of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at three local elementary schools.

Their “dress rehearsal” was a disaster, but, as the adage says, “The show must go on!” and once they arrived at the elementary schools, the students were anxious to do well. They naturally changed their staging moving from gym floor to library floor, the Evil Queen tossed her hair with anger, and the Prince strode onto the stage with more confidence. The dwarves were a source of comic relief, intentionally or not. I watched the holiday miracle of 2013 repeated three times that day. The students in drama class at each school were applauded, with congratulatory e-mails from the principals that offered praise.

End of the year note:

I am grateful to be an educator and to have the privilege to work with students that I learn from everyday. In this retrospective, I can state unequivocally that 2013 was a memorable year… as you can see from many of the reasons listed above.

Welcome to 2014! May this coming year be even more productive!

No sooner are essays on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein handed in, then the copies of Paradise Lost are handed out to the Advanced Placement English Literature Students. Yes, there are over 10,000 lines of blank verse in the poem, but don’t shudder for them…they will be fine. This epic poem is a trip to the “dark side” like no other in literature. All it takes is a reading of Book One; a reading that says “Welcome to Hell”!

The connection is obvious. In her novel, Shelley has Frankenstein’s Monster explain how he gained his knowledge, not with the help of his “father”, but instead by reading several books while he hid from humanity. One of the books in his possession was the epic poem Paradise Lost. When the Monster finally confronts his creator, Victor Frankenstein, on a mountain glacier on Mount Montanvert, the Monster dramatically intones:

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”

Originally published as 10 books, Milton expanded the epic poem to 12 books in later printings.

Originally published as 10 books, Milton expanded the epic poem to 12 books in later printings.

The “fallen angel” the Monster references is a hero/anti-hero of Paradise Lost: Satan, aka Lucifer, aka the  “infernal serpent”, aka the ‘Arch-fiend’ (and a myriad of other Miltonic epithets).

Students in previous classes have always found Satan the most memorable character in this epic poem since he is given the most memorable lines. They have been particularly intrigued that John Milton’s purpose in writing the poem, “to justify the ways of God to man,” is soon drowned out by the creation of Pandemonium (Hell’s Seat).  From the moment in Book One of Paradise Lost when Satan frees himself from the adamantine chains that bind him to a burning lake, students are taken with his attitude and his defiance as read in his great challenge:

Here at least
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven. (PL 1 258-263)

No matter that in Book Six’s battle scenes in heaven are an exercise in futility, known as  the “great pie fight in the sky”, students root for the former archangel. They understand the sentiment in his statement,

‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…” (PL 211-214).

Paradise Lost was only one of Milton’s great contributions to literature. He was not only a brilliant poet, but he was also a powerful statesman and a Puritan. He became associated with the Puritan partisanship in Parliament, which was credited with banning Christmas in England in 1644. This would seem to be a contradiction since he was already known for the beautiful Christmas Ode, “On the Morning of Christs Nativity Compos’d 1629″. Perhaps it was the general Puritan aversion to Christmas carols that could be blamed for such a heinous act!.

His political career experienced the extreme highs of an appointment as Secretary for Foreign Tongues (1648) and his association with Oliver Cromwell in the execution of Charles I (1649). In contrast there were the lows of an imposed exile upon the return of Charles II and the arrival of the Restoration in 1660. One of the reasons he was not executed for his implicit participation in Charles I’s regicide was that he was struck blind in 1654, and there were many who argued that this blindness was punishment enough. Milton was used to pain and suffering as the deaths of his first and second wives and several children were tragic interludes throughout his life.

Like another blind poet, Homer, Milton achieved greatness with an “inner sight”. Critics generally agree that his best poetry came after he became blind and dictated all the lines of verse to his remaining daughters. A painting by Mihály Munkácsy (1877) hangs in the New York Public Library (NYPL) and depicts a scene of a head-bowed Milton reciting to one daughter who is scribing lines into a book.

Milton & daughtersThe picture is an apt illustration for his opening thesis in Paradise Lost:

What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men. (PL I:18-22)

In 2008, the NYPL held an exhibition, “John Milton at 400: ‘A Life Beyond Life’” which featured illustrated etchings by Gustave Doré for Paradise Lost. One illustration was of Satan on his flight to the Garden of Eden. As he travels, Satan pauses to tell the Sun how conflicted he is over his fallen state:

O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav’n against Heav’ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard. (PL IV:37-41)

Speaking these lines is a tragic Satan, fully aware that he has brought himself to ruin, as told by a poet, who had also come to political ruin. The reader can sympathize with such a character, and isn’t that the role of great literature? To draw on the reader’s empathy?

By the end of the poem, however, Milton restores the balance of sympathy towards Adam and Eve. They walk bravely, hand-in-hand, out of the Garden, into the sunset, ready to begin “his-story”.  In contrast, the character of Satan is reduced to a hollow hero, receiving accolades from a hissing mob of demi-devils. He is cursed, and like the Monster in Frankenstein, he is unreconciled with his creator.

So happy Birthday, John Milton, (December 9th), but let us not forget, that while your character Satan may dwell in evil, it was you who helped to cancel Christmas!

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 12.50.41 PMThe National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Council on English Leadership (CEL) met for a convention last week (11/21-26/13) at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, Massachusetts. Thousands of English teachers and educators (happily) put aside their piles of essays and their red pens in order to attend to participate in a nationwide conversation on teaching English/Language Arts at all grade levels. This annual conference runs the weekend before the Thanksgiving holiday, and this year there were many reasons to be thankful that such a great opportunity exists. Here are our specific thanks to all of those who made this conference amazing.

Thanks to our Regional School District #6 in Connecticut for allowing us to attend:

Our first and most important thanks is to the administration, Board of Education, and staff from Regional School District #6 that allowed five members of the English Department at Wamogo Middle/High School to attend the conference and select from over 700 sessions offered from Thursday night-Sunday afternoon.  District support for such great professional development is truly appreciated!

Thanks to the program chairs who selected our proposals:

Members of Wamogo Middle/High School English/Language Arts department submitted a variety of proposals last year to demonstrate how we use technology in our classrooms. We are grateful that four of our proposals were chosen to share as presentations for other educators. The explanations of our presentations with links to these presentations are included below:

The Blog’s the Thing! (NCTE) roundtable discussion

This presentation demonstrated the use of the blog platform for students to engage in thoughtful discussion on characters and themes from Hamlet by having students “stop the action” of the play to offer advice to characters during different scenes.

Reinventing the Writing Workshop with Digital Literacy to Improve Student Engagement (NCTE)

Technology has reinvented the Writing Workshop in meeting the needs of 21st Century learners with the addition of digital literacies. This presentation features open source software platforms appropriate to the different tasks, purposes and audiences for writing instruction along with examples of student work and grading criteria.

How We Mooo-ved Our District from Cows to Computer (CEL)

This presentation illustrated how professional development in our district was organized on the ED Camp model to allow any teacher who would like to share their expertise or simply discuss a problem with fellow staff or faculty members.These technology initiatives have allowed members of the English Department to help teachers assess, organize, deliver context materials and related readings (fiction and non-fiction) that improve students’ digital literacy as well as foster independence in each student’s growth in reading.

Digital Writing with Collaboration (CEL)

This presentation showed how preparing students to write for the real world  (21st Century skills) must include the collaborative experience, from the initial creation to the final product. The use of digital platforms allows students to be college and career ready through the production and distribution of collaborative writing.

Thanks to the many teachers and educators who presented:

We are also thankful that so many other classroom teachers and educators from all over the USA shared their best classrooms practices. Our collective regret is that we could not attend every session that appealed to us; the jam-packed schedule defied our best attempts at strategic selection. We agreed, however, that quality of the presentations we did get to attend was amazing and relevant to what we do every day. The conference reinforced the importance of teacher-to-teacher professional development.

Thanks to the book publishers who made books available for classroom libraries:

The NCTE Convention offers book publishers opportunity to put advanced reader copies of fiction and non-fiction into the hands of teachers at every grade level. While publishers hope to catch the attention of teachers who will recommend the book to students, teachers look for books to add to their classroom library collection. Many publishers also make books available at a reduced cost  for the same reason. For example, I picked up several copies of books in the “After the Dust Settled” series (apocalyptic young adult literature) by Jonathan Mary-Todd for $2/copy, a purchase made necessary because these books keep disappearing off our classroom library shelves.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 12.51.29 PM

Our “haul” from the NCTE Convention from book publishers and authors…headed for our classroom libraries.

 

Thanks to the authors who gave away signed copies of their books:

The tote bags distributed free to all registrants bore popular author Nicholas Spark’s imprimatur, a visual testament to the celebrity draw of authors at this convention. Authors are the rock stars at this convention: the children’s book authors rock, the young adult authors rock, and the educator trade book authors rock. Attendees stood in lines snaking around booths on the convention floor waiting to meet authors and have books signed. In the past, my request to an author is to have the book signed with the phrase “READ ME!” on the inside cover. I had the same done this year, so when a student asks what to read, I will point that the author has already made a suggestion to read the book.

There were also a number of authors representing a variety of genres who served as keynote speakers including: Neal ShustermanTeri Lesesne, Laurie Halse AndersonKelly Gallagher, Walter Dean MyersIshmael Beah, and Robert Pinsky. 

We are so thankful to have the opportunity to personally meet and mingle with the rock stars of the convention!

Thanks for the Tweeters:

Finally, the fingers of dedicated Tweeters attending the convention kept us abreast of all the events at the conference. There was a steady stream of information from sessions we could not attend, summaries of keynotes addresses, and updates as to upcoming book signings. The hashtags #NCTE13 and #CEL13 were invaluable sources for notes and quotes during the convention and for well after we left Boston.  For example, some Friday session tweets were archived onto the Storify platform for later use.

Next year, the NCTE Convention is scheduled for Washington, D.C., which gives me one more reason to be thankful…the convention is within driving distance!

red tentMany of my students do not know Old Testament stories other than “Noah’s Ark” and “Adam and Eve”. There is the occasional biblical teen scholar who may be able to recount the origin a pillar of salt (Lot’s wife) or maybe there will be a student who saw the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and make a patriarchal connection. For the most part, students are not up to date on Methuselah or even which of the brothers killed the other (Cain or Abel). They are far more likely to ask, “So, where did all the other people come from if Eve was the only woman?”

Fortunately, The Red Tent, a novel by Anita Diamant (1997) does address other women of the Old Testament. Her fictionalized version of the story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, is based on in a brief but particularly violent and gruesome incident in the Book of Genesis. In the King James Version of the Bible, Dinah is known as the daughter who is “defiled” by Shechem, a prince, who then wanted to marry her (Genesis 34: 1-3):

1 And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.

2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.

3 And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel.

Dinah’s brothers, sought vengeance for the attack on their sister. They tricked Shechem and his family, claiming to come in peace, and exacted their punishment by killing the royal family and all males in the city:

26 And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went out.

27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister.

This horrific incident is explained very differently in the Diamant’s fictional retelling, as are many other familial incidents, from Dinah’s point of view. The rivalry between Rachel and Leah, the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and the rivalry between the sons of Joseph, Dinah’s younger brother, are rich with detail and dialogue. The sparse accounts given in the Old Testament are fleshed out in this compelling narrative, with the women center stage, a striking contrast to the male-dominated biblical text.

Several of my female students in Advanced Placement English Literature choose to read The Red Tent as an independent choice, and their response is not unlike other female student responses chronicled in the article “The Wandering Womb at Home in The Red Tent: An Adolescent Bildungsroman in a Different Voice” by Holly Blackford. In this review, Blackford writes about the female students’ enthusiasm for the book:

So emotional about the story of The Red Tent that they can barely speak, and indeed continually interrupt one another, they cite the way in which the contemporary novel revises the patriarchal story of Jacob; represents the concerns of girls in terms of emotion and relationship; and details the entire lifecycle of girl-to-woman through engaging first-person narration:
  Carol: There are certain books I just can’t put down.
      Laticia: Seriously, I’ll read until like three in the morning . . .
      Interviewer: Like what?
      Carol: Like The Red Tent!

Blackford also points out that this revision of an ancient text  comes at a time when girls are, “hungering for an exploration of female-centered myths, deities, worlds, and power-structures.” Her claim in The Alan Review (March, 2005) is that books like The Red Tent:

“… appeal to adolescent women and grow their appreciation for contemporary women’s literature that speaks “in a different voice” (Gilligan) from the more masculine canon they expect in their school curriculum.”

There are about 20 copies of The Red Tent on the class independent book cart, all purchased at book sales for $1.00 each. Picador USA publishers produced an oversized text, about 2″ taller than a standard trade paperback; on the AP English Lit book cart’s top shelf, these copies stick out. The cover art, designed and illustrated by Honi Werner, is also eye-catching. Students always pick up the book with interest.

“What’s this about?” one asks.
“Read the back,” I reply.
“‘...told in Dinah’s voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoil of ancient womanhood-the world of the red tent,’ (*pause suspiciously*)…is this a ‘chick book’?”
“Yes,” I chuckle, “this is most definitely a chick book….probably the ultimate chick book, of ALL chick books.”

How else to describe a story that centers on celebrating the onset of womanhood?

After they read any independent book, the AP students are required to write an essay. The essay prompt this quarter for any book they choose is taken from the AP released exam list of questions:

In retrospect, the reader often discovers that the first chapter of a novel or the opening scene of a drama introduces some of the major themes of the work. Write an essay about the opening of the first chapter of a novel in which you explain how it functions in this way. *hint: the lens you use is the lens from the conclusion of the novel*

Students who choose to read Diamant’s The Red Tent will certainly want to return to the beginning to explain how Dinah’s life story begins and ends with the women who loved and supported her.  They will also have had a “crash course” on the Book of Genesis, which is the source of many other literary allusions. While The Red Tent is not great literature, this novel sets many female students looking for equally compelling contemporary novels about women, with or without that “chick book” label.