Archives For 8th Grade

Books read in Grade 8; generally young adult literature

I’m moving.moving_van

This blog is moving with me.

This Used Books in Class blog will now be headquartered in West Haven, Connecticut, as I have taken a position as the Language Arts, Social Studies, Library Media and Testing Coordinator for their public school system. West Haven is a shoreline community with six elementary schools, one intermediate school, one middle school, and a high school that houses a student population four times my previous school.

I am very excited about this opportunity.

One of my first responsibilities will be helping teachers at the middle school (grades 7 & 8)  develop an independent reading program for their extended English/Language Arts period. To make the reading program a success, the teachers plan to offer student choice in reading and that means the classroom libraries need to be expanded.

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Six bags full for $180 !

Building or expanding a classroom library can be expensive, but by seeking out gently used books, the expense can be minimized to as little as $.50/book. One simply needs to know where to look….and the best place to look for gently used quality books for any age is at the Grandmother of all Connecticut Book Sales, the Labor Day Book Sale that benefits the Mark Twain Public Library in Redding, Connecticut.

photo 1Some library book sales in Connecticut have a few tables or sections of a room devoted to books for children or teen readers. In contrast, the Mark Twain Library Book Fair has an entire room with literary treasures galore for young readers. I had hardly scanned the first tables when the neatly arranged copies of Rick Riordan books caught my eye. All three copies of the Red Pyramid filled the bottom of my bag, followed by novels from his Percy Jackson series, including the elusive The Last Olympian. I turned around to find a variety of titles from John A. Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, selections from Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, selections from Margaret Peterson’s Haddix series as well as copies from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.

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Boxes of Young Adult (YA) novels & non-fiction from the Mark Twain Library Book Sale; $.50-3.50 each!

Once I collected books from YA series, I looked for individual titles by writers who are always popular: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Brian’s Winter, Mike Lupica’s Heat and Travel Team; Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Mcgee, Milkweed, Stargirl; and a plethora of princess stories from Meg Cabot. If there was a book that was a hit with middle school readers, this book sale had it…in triplicate. Finding multiple copies was helpful, since multiple classrooms will be accessing these books during the same independent reading periods. For this reason, I had no problem justifying the purchase of seven copies of Louis Sacher’s Holes or Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped.

There were several student volunteers tabulating my haul, and I would ask them every now and then, “Did you ever read that book?” or “Do you think a student would like to read this book?” They would nod enthusiastically. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul got a soulful look from one of the tabulators, who explained, “Some stories in this are just so…sad. I felt better reading them.” They approved of my selections.

I was soon packed up with six bags full of young adult novels and non-fiction for $180, and I was helped to my car by a boy scout (literally…he was in uniform!).

Tomorrow, I plan deliver this first load of books to the teachers, creating the “book flood” in their classrooms. The Mark Twain Library Book volunteers who so capably load the tables, organize the donations, and make the whole experience a “destination” for readers of all ages must be credited with helping more than their own library. Their hard work has made an expansion of classroom libraries possible. A wonderful effort from a library named for the American writer who once said that, “out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.”

Now, let us see how these expanded classroom libraries help grow the students of West Haven!

Yesterday, Scott, the social studies teacher, brought an eighth grader into my office to recite a poem. He had arrived unannounced, and the young girl looked uncomfortable standing in front of teachers and 12th grade students. But, she had Scott by her side, and he encouraged her with small nudge. She took a breath, and holding a copy of the poem before her, she began to recite:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

No one said anything after she muffled the last line, and there was an awkward pause.  So, I asked her to read the last line again, and Scott pointed to the last sentence in the poem.

“Start here,” he told her, and she reread: If ye break faith with us who die /We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.

Only then did we all clap. Her relief was evident, and I noted just as they left, “That last line is the most important in the poem.”

Equally important is what Scott did when he supported this student in having her practice reciting a poem aloud to a group of people. Moreover, this Memorial Day weekend is the appropriate time to hear this particular poem read aloud.

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autographed copy from Arlington National Cemetery website

 In Flanders Field was composed by John McCrae, a poet and a physician who served in the Canadian army in World War I.

The most common account of the poem’s origin is that McCrae was sitting in the back of an ambulance after the Battle of Ypes in Belgium, when he scripted the poem on May 3, 1915, as a eulogy for his close friend Alexis Helmer, who was killed during the battle the day before.

There are other accounts that McCrae was unhappy with the poem and crumpled the paper before it was retrieved by another soldier who was so impressed that he committed it to memory. Another story is that McCrae had worked on the poem for months after the Battle of Ypes. Most stories about the poem agree, however, that McCrae was struck by how quickly poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died, and he used this striking image that dominates the poem.

So powerful was this image of a brilliant red poppy that American professor Moina Michael promoted the wearing of red poppies year-round to honor the soldiers who died in the war.

By 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) adopted the poppy as its official memorial, and when fresh poppies could not be found to sell as tributes, artificial poppies were made by veterans groups. These poppies are called “buddy poppies” and, according to the information on the VFW website, the proceeds from their sale,buddy poppy

“provides compensation to the veterans who assemble the poppies, provides financial assistance in maintaining state and national veterans’ rehabilitation and service programs and partially supports the VFW National Home for orphans and widows of our nation’s veterans.”

I appreciate Scott encouraging his student to share the poem. Hearing her read, “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep” reminded us listening to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The image of those red poppies, those blooming on Flanders Field or those buddy poppies taken from the hand of a veteran this coming Memorial Day, remind us as well.

Continue Reading…

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.

The amazing artwork in the hallways of the middle school was created by….(wait for it)…math classes!

Last week, Ms. Nihan, the 8th math teacher posted drawings created by students who were studying a geometrical pattern based on the work of a 5th Century Greek mathematician, Theodorous of Cyrene. He developed a pattern called the Spiral of Theodorous, a square root spiral composed of contiguous right triangles.

The artwork on the walls represents a Common Core Mathematical Standard:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP7 Look for and make use of structure.

“Mathematically proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure.” This standard can also represent poetry patterns. Rhythm, rhyme scheme, repetition are all part of poetic patterns and structure that proficient students in English should use in close reading.

Therefore, a tribute to a few of student drawings is in order; each is matched with a poem with a distinct pattern.

First up, a “lullaby” with a rhyme scheme and refrain pattern  (a-a-a-refrain-b-b-b-refrain).  Like “Rock a Bye Baby”, this poem is more frightening than comforting, as the narrator clearly plans to place the child in a hazardous area!

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Lullaby

Samuel Hoffenstein (1890-1947)

Yes, I’ll take you to the zoo,
To see the yak, the bear, the gnu,
And that’s the place where I’ll leave you–
Sleep, little baby!
You’ll see the lion in a rage,
The rhino, none the worse for age;
You’ll see the inside of a cage–
Sleep, little baby!

Next up, a quick tribute to the flamingo. This is an offering with the pattern of iambic tetrameter and a single rhyme (glum/gum).

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The Flamingo Poem

Richard Medrington

Flamingos dress in fetching pink
can be rather glum, 

Their legs being made of plastic tubes
And bits of chewing gum.

from An Absird Book of Burds (Edinburgh: Puppet State, 2003)

The next poem is a humorous offering titled “X-ray” with two quatrains, each containing one rhyme (Jones/bones; sight/night):

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X-Ray

by Joan Horton

“This is your x-ray,”

Said young Doctor Jones.

As he held up a picture

And showed me my bones.

(continued here)

In making these extraordinary drawings, students had to follow a specific pattern for the Spiral of Theodorus:

The spiral is started with an isosceles right triangle, with each leg having unit length. Another right triangle is formed, an automedian right triangle with one leg being the hypotenuse of the prior (with length √2) and the other leg having length of 1; the length of the hypotenuse of this second triangle is √3. The process then repeats; the ith triangle in the sequence is a right triangle with side lengths √i and 1, and with hypotenuse √i + 1.

Screenshot 2014-02-05 09.23.35 (wikipedia)

The original rendering by Theodorus is remarkably like a seashell, so here is an Amy Lowell poem matched with a seashell and its inhabitant, a small hermit crab. This poem has similarities to a Sonnetina Due-a 10 line poem with rhyming couplets. The poem also has a repeated “sing-song” line “Sea Shell, Sea Shell“:

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Sea Shell

Amy Lowell

Sea Shell, Sea Shell,
Sing me a song, O Please!
A song of ships, and sailor men,
And parrots, and tropical trees,
Of islands lost in the Spanish Main
Which no man ever may find again,
Of fishes and corals under the waves,
And seahorses stabled in great green caves.
Sea Shell, Sea Shell,
Sing of the things you know so well. 

Some of the other drawings are seen here:

Patterns in math meet patterns in poetry, and I am happy to report that no square roots were harmed in this enterprise…Thanks to Ms. Nihan and the 8th grade practitioners of patterns!

Continue Reading…

Of course, I received multiple links to the NY TimesMacbeth Mashup“from fellow English teachers, and yes, I thought that Claire Needell Hollander wrote a very funny piece. Yes, I believe students should be exposed to Shakespeare regularly, with or without the recommendations of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). But, Macbeth for seventh and eighth graders? No!  That is just wrong. Wrong on theme, wrong for content, and very wrong for 11 and 12 year olds.

Hollander began her feature article making a great point about classroom dynamics:

“We say the classroom, as if an ideal classroom exists that somehow resembles every other classroom in America. In reality, every classroom has its own dynamic, and every class I’ve ever taught looks different from every other class. Perhaps more important, they also sound different.”

She is right. A chemistry of personalities creates a different dynamic in every classroom. The age of those personalities is also a factor. As I read the piece, however, I grew more and more frustrated. Macbeth features witches, warfare, murder, and, like most Shakespeare plays, sexual language. The word “blood” is repeated 41 times over the course of the play. Even the play itself is cursed; actors will not say the name of the play in the theatre. Many critics consider this Shakespeare’s “darkest play”.

Hollander herself questioned the appropriateness of this play for middle school students. She writes:

Lady Macbeth

John Henry Fuseli/ Johann Heinrich Füssli, Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking. Musée du Louvre, Paris Date: 1784. Creative Commons. Lady Macbeth driven to madness and suicide because her guilt in participating in the murder of King Duncan which leads to the murder of the guards, Macduff’s family, Banquo, and others…the stuff that nightmares are made upon.

“The kids have copies of the play with a modern English version on one side, but this isn’t easy either.”

“Tears of hilarity. Maybe middle school is too young for “Macbeth.”

Maybe? Definitely! So, why choose Macbeth?

Apparently, Hollander was attempting to satisfy a recommendation for archaic language for the secondary level in the English Language Arts Common Core. This is explained in Appendix A Language Conventionality and Clarity:

Texts that rely on literal, clear, contemporary, and conversational language tend to be easier to read than texts that rely on figurative, ironic, ambiguous, purposefully misleading, archaic, or otherwise unfamiliar language (such as general academic and domain-specific vocabulary).

In other words, the CCSS state that students should be exposed to complex diction, and the CCSS has made specific recommendations for grade 8 including:

  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1869)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyerby Mark Twain (1876)
  • “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1915)

Hollander could consider the how the wording in CCSS Reading Standard 8  should guide her in selecting material for her combined seventh and eighth graders:

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.

So many students come to high school without the necessary content to understand many of Shakespeare’s allusions. Perhaps the students know little about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; why not Malory’s Morte d’Arthur? Or understanding the Pantheon of Greek Gods and Goddesses would be helpful; why not Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology?  Beowulf is usually taught in grade 10; the opening begins, “He was spawned in that slime, /Conceived by a pair of those monsters born/ Of Cain, murderous creatures banished/ By God, punished forever for the crime/ Of Abel’s death” (Raffel). Student should know this Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Students must come to high school prepared with the content needed to understand increasingly complex texts.

So why choose Macbeth? In fact, why choose Shakespeare at all? Ultimately, by not considering the recommendations of the CCSS to saturate students with the grade appropriate texts in our rich literary tradition, Hollander leaves them ill-prepared for Shakespeare at the high school level, when they are more mature to appreciate his themes.

So please, leave Macbeth, with his nihlism, his “...tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing” for older students.  Please leave Lady Macbeth with “…the smell of the blood still” where “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”, and leave Macbeth for high school. Besides, if Hollander is trying to meet the recommendations of the Common Core, she should leave Macbeth where the Common Core placed it, as a complex texts for 9th and 10th grades. The noisy mashup of Macbeth will still be crude and rowdy and demanding; but the students will be older, and these few additional years of maturity are necessary for dark tragedy in “the Scottish play”.

Today is Digital Learning Day! To mark the occasion, let me take you through a quick walkthrough of the halls of Wamogo Regional Middle/High School and give you a snapshot on how digital learning looks in the English classrooms grades 7-12. We have 1:1 computers in grades 7 & 8; in grades 9-12, we have a “bring your own digital device” policy. Here are the digital learning activities on Wednesday, February 6, 2013:

Grade 7: Students responded to a short story they read, “The Amigo Brothers”. They accessed the wiki (www.PBworks.com) in order to respond to “close reading” questions on the author’s use of figurative language. (Students are required to use evidence in their responses; digital copies of text helps student correctly add and cite evidence).

Grade 8: Students uploaded their reviews of the books (Mississippi Trial, 1955; Chains; The Greatest) they have been reading in literature circles to www.edmodo.com. These reviews are connected to the Common Core Writing Standard #6:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.

Grade 9: Students responded to a “writing on demand” journal prompt in preparation for the novel Of Mice and Men. This prompt is connected to the theme of hopes and dreams, and the students were asked:

What is your hope for life, your goal, or even your dream?  What do you think you want from the future? What would you live without, dream-wise?  What couldn’t you live without?

The students also posted their responses on a www.Edmodo.com discussion thread. Selections from responses included:

  • Something I couldn’t live with out would be my grandparents because they are like another set of parent to me, just better. They mean so much to me, that I really couldn’t see my life without them.
  • I hope to be a plant geneticist in the future, that is my hope but no matter what happens I would like to have a career involving plants and even if I can’t get a career in genetics I know it will always be a hobby of mine.
  • My house will be by the ocean, so close I can see it out of my kitchen window. I will grow old and drink coffee on my porch, while I read the paper and wave to my neighbors who walk by!
  • I could live without being famous around the world but I would like to be known town wise. I cannot live without family and their support in my decisions. They help me to stay confident and get through whatever I want to accomplish in life.
  • I think I could live without wanting a huge house or a huge boat “dream-wise”, but that still doesn’t mean I don’t want those things. I couldn’t live without music or my family.
  • My biggest hope and dream is to have a really big plot of land and have the world’s biggest tractor and a bunch of snowmobiles and ATV’s.
  • I want to be able to adopt kids from Uganda but also have my own, and I want to live in a nice house with a big yard. I want to work with little kids as a job.

10th grade Honors English students are reading Great Expectations. They took a quiz on www.quia.com, a software platform for timed quizzes. The College Prep English classes are reading Animal Farm. Today, they had to access “The International” MP3 and the www.youtube.video of the Beatle’s song “Revolution.

For homework tonight, students will write their own “protest” song.

Grade 11: Students can access the vocabulary list from the film The Great Debaters through the class wiki (www.pbworks.com) while the Advanced Placement English Language students watched a YouTube video of a Langston Hughes poem “I, Too, Sing America” read by Denzel Washington:

They prepared responses to the following questions which were posted on the class wiki:

  1.  To whom is the poet writing?  How do you know?
  2.  Choose one stanza and discuss what you feel is the key word in this stanza and explain why you chose this word?
  3.  What feelings does the poem create?  Which words create this feeling?

Grade 12: Students in the Grade 12 Mythology class accessed the following Google Doc Template and filled in the chart with their own research about the mythologies of different cultures. This activity meets the CCSS writing:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject

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The Film and Literature class “flips” the content by having students watch films for homework in order to discuss them during class. Tonight’s assignment? Watch the following YouTube clip and be ready for an open note quiz:

Students in the Advanced Placement English Literature class read the short story “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner that was embedded with a quiz on www.quia.com. They then created a list of four themes from the short story on a Google Doc. Each student selected a theme and placed his/her responses in the Google Drive folder to share with other members of the class. Examples included:

  • Actions we take with the grotesque: Shun? Avoid?

This story embodies an ultimate grotesque atmosphere. Even Colonel Satorius Snopes’ sisters are described as, “hulking sisters in their Sunday dresses” (2). These sisters are emulated throughout the story as disgusting, rotund, lethargic, and hog-like beings. This grotesque physical trait emulates the family’s condition in society. Satorius’ clothes are described as, “patched and faded jeans even too small for him.” (1).

  • Family over law or law over family

For the boy to go against his family in the end further proves his actions of courage and strength, and portrays the theme of law over family. “Then he began to struggle. His mother caught him in both arms, he jerking and wrenching at them. He would be stronger in the end, he knew that. But he had no time to wait for it” (10). His whole family is holding him back, but he chooses to go against all of them and do what is right.

This quick walkthrough demonstrating the use of technology in the English classrooms on one day demonstrates that for the teachers and students at Wamogo, everyday is a Digital Learning Day!

tragedy“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

That is the opening sentence from Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A monk who witnesses the fall of those travelers searches for answers as to whether the accident was simply chance or an act of the Divine. In writing The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder was addressing the genre of tragedy which was defined by Aristotle in his Poetics as “an imitation of a serious act” in literature. The purpose of tragedy is to provide the reader, or viewer in the case of drama, an experience of loss without having to suffer what a fictional character suffers. Through his literature, Wilder, like the authors and playwrights before him, provided the experience and language to us to respond when there is a tragedy. Great literature does this well which may be why the literature taught in high school classrooms is, more often than not, tragedy.

Of course, tragedy is not always a popular curriculum choice. I am always being confronted by students,  “Why do we have to read such depressing books?” or “Why does every book we read in English have to be so sad?” Predictably, when I hand out a book for a whole class read, student will examine the cover, the length of the text, and ask, “So, who dies?” Through literature, students learn a number of different approaches or definitions of  tragedy. In grades 9-12, students are taught about Greek tragedy (Oedipus, Antigone, Medea) where fate or Nemesis cannot be avoided. They learn about catharsis, the purging of pity and fear, and pathos, the empathy one has for the tragic hero. Students are taught about how the Shakespearean tragedy (King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III) centers on the willful downfall of a character who brings about the destruction of others. We have also included a modern interpretation of tragedy by Otto Reinherdt as students read contemporary works of literature (Death of a Salesman, The Road):

“Tragic Man demands that an imperfect world conform to his notions of right and good, and he is defeated because discord, injustice, pain, and moral evil are the world’s warp and woof. The final paradox is man in his tragic vision saying, ‘I do not believe in the invincibility of evil but in the inevitability of defeat’.. . . But in the absoluteness of his commitment, the tragic hero triumphs in the very inevitability of his defeat.”

The indoctrination to tragedy as a “serious action imitated” begins early in the student’s educational career. In grade 5, whole class reads can be The Giver, a dystopian novel that features the euthanasia of a small child. In grade 6, students may read The Devil’s Arithmetic, a book that brings students closer to an authentic understanding of the Holocaust and the deaths of six million Jews. In young adult (YA) literature, there are so many stories about the deaths of pet dogs  (Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Love that Dog) that author Gordon Korman fought back against that literary trope with his  YA novel, No More Dead Dogs. Our 7th grade reads that book as an opening bonding experience in September, but they also read Pearl Buck’s short story “The Big Wave” about a tsunami that wipes out a small coastal village in Japan. The recent tsunami in Japan gave our young readers a new appreciation for the tragedy caused by nature.

In high school curriculums everywhere, students decry the death of a character, “Why does the author make us like him and then kill him?” They rail against the death of Johnny in The Outsiders (grade 8); the death of Lenny in Of Mice and Men (grade 9); the death of Kat in All Quiet on the Western Front (Grade 10); the death of John Proctor in The Crucible  (Grade 11); and the death of Hamlet (Grade 12). They claim to want a happy ending.

But do English teachers force an unwanted genre on students? Do students hate tragedy? Not really. Look at the two most popular series of books students chose to read independently. The Harry Potter series began with two deaths, the sacrifice of Lily and James Potter for their infant son, Harry. Seven books later,  JR Rowling had bumped off over 50 characters, and one beloved owl Hedwig (although, admittedly the death of Bellatrix Lestrange was satisfying). Student loved these novels. In Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games trilogy, killing and death is a form of entertainment, an entertainment made even more horrific when teenagers are the assassins. In the first book, eleven “tributes” are killed on the first day of the games. The protagonist Katniss kills four tributes herself before she “wins” this round of games with Peeta; the deaths pile up as the series continues with Collins disposing of major characters at a furious clip. I cannot keep these books on my classroom shelf.

Ultimately, tragedy in literature prepares a reader for the experience of tragedy in life. My own first experience with death was from Louisa May Alcott in Little Women when the sickly Beth March finally succumbed to illness:

“As Beth had hoped, the `tide went out easily’, and in the dark hour before dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh.”

I remember reading and re-reading that passage over and over and thinking: “Had I read correctly? Were there only three March sisters left? How could Alcott do this to me?” Well, she did this to me and millions of other readers because in real life people die. Nice people. Good people. Young people. Beth’s death was not a tragedy in the literary sense, but the hole left by her death for the fictional family was “a serious act imitated in literature” like the many real deaths that leave holes in the lives of real families.

Our society confronts news that is tragic everyday.  The recent death of 20 schoolchildren and six teachers in a school shooting not far from where I teach just before the Christmas holiday season is a tragedy so horrific that many have been left speechless; I hear, “There are no words.” But there are words, words in great literature written to prepare us, from a young age through high school and beyond, for exactly this experience. Thornton Wilder’s fictional story of The Bridge of San Luis Rey concludes with a paragraph that offers his response to a tragedy. Through literature, Wilder provides a language for readers to respond to a tragedy such as the one in Newtown, Connecticut, and other heartbreaking events:

“We ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

A series of links took me to a lesson plan  on the Edsitement! The Best of the Humanities on the Web site that is associated with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) . The lesson “Vengeful Verbs in Shakespeare’s Hamlet”  is entirely too disturbing. The opening lines of the lesson plan begin, “Shakespeare’s Hamlet  is an excellent source of instruction for students at the middle school level.”

My thoughts? Sorry. Middle school students, grades 6-8, should not read Hamlet. Teachers, leave that play for high school. Middle schools students need to read. They need to read many, many books.  They need young adult literature. They need to read for pleasure to build up their literary skills.

The lesson plan continues:

It [Hamlet] is a tale full of mystery and suspense and peppered with elements of the supernatural. Everyone loves a good ghost story! The popularity of the ghosts in the Harry Potter series and in The Graveyard Book attests to the appeal of the paranormal for this age group. These ghosts manifest as translucent spirits, yet they impact the physical world and certainly add life to the story line. Figments such as Rowling’s histrionic Moaning Myrtle and Gaiman’s mysterious Silas provide guidance for the young adults in their time of need.

My thoughts? Yes, these are the books they SHOULD be reading! Add the ghost stories Hereafter and Anna Dressed In Blood to the list of well written young adult novels. And yes, Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book are stories that will guide young adults in their time of need. But Hamlet?

Back to the lesson plan:

What better way to expose middle school students to a first taste of Shakespeare than from the angle of the ghost story? The first time Hamlet sees his father’s ghost (Hamlet, act 1, scene 5, lines 13–31) is one of the most dramatic moments in theatre and a prime opportunity to teach the often dry and boring subject of verbs.

My thoughts: Whaa…??? This lesson is turning a critical moment of drama into a lesson on verbs? This idea is dry and boring regardless of the content!

Finishing the description of the lesson plan:

Through the ghost of Hamlet’s father, students receive an introduction to the language of Shakespeare in a context they can understand. In this lesson, they will learn to distinguish generic verbs from vivid verbs by working with selected lines in Hamlet’s Ghost scene. Students will then test their knowledge of verbs through a crossword interactive puzzle.

My thoughts: A crossword puzzle. Yup. That will help them appreciate the play. I can hear the rattling from Stratford on Avon; Shakespeare’s bones are disturbed.

The objectives of the lesson are:

  • Students will be able to identify and define the verbs Shakespeare uses to convey the meaning of the scene
  • Students will exchange the verbs from the scene and replace with more vivid and more generic ones to see how that changes intention of the scene
  • Student will be assess their ability to define vivid and generic verbs used by Shakespeare by solving a crossword puzzle

Yes, readers, in this lesson students will replace Shakespeare’s language with bland or generic verbs using a worksheet.

WHY?

There is little consideration as to how all the language in this scene defines each character. No consideration of motive. No moral or ethical discussion about what the Ghost is asking Hamlet do.   The Harvard scholar Steven Greenblatt wrote an entire book, Hamlet in Purgatory,  wrestling with the central question offered in this scene, is the Ghost from Hell or Purgatory? But no, this lesson is on verbs.

Here are the lines: (Act I.V.13-31)

Father’s Ghost. I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love-
Hamlet. O God!
Father’s Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther.
Hamlet. Murther?
Father’s Ghost. Murther most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.

In this passage, the Ghost is very cagey about where he is coming from literally and figuratively. The Ghost plays the ultimate guilt card “If thou didst ever thy dear father love-” Hamlet anticipates the request and interjects a prayer “O God”. The Ghost then, you choose: a. asks, b. demands, c. commands the Prince, Hamlet, to revenge.

Another consideration as to the appropriateness of the use of Hamlet is the berating of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude sixteen lines later:

Father’s Ghost. Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts-
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!- won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there,
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be mov’d,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.

There are accusations of incest (a thought of Hamlet’s given voice by the Ghost), witchcraft, and adultery for Claudius. Gertrude acts with “lewdness” and “sates” herself in Claudius’s bed of figurative garbage. The Ghost cannot contain his fury at being replaced by Claudius; he has lost kingdom and queen and his fury spills over and exploits Hamlet’s depression. There is much here to discuss.

But for grades 6-8?  To replace the language of Shakespeare and make it “bland” to prove a distinction about verbs in Elizabethan English and today’s English? To measure the student understanding of the language with a crossword puzzle? Is it any wonder that with lessons like this one, many students come to a high school classroom “hating” Shakespeare? I have to work very hard to convince them otherwise.

There is something rotten on the Edsitement! site, and NCTE should be ashamed for endorsing this lesson. This lesson about verbs, not motivation or ethical dilemmas, disregards the dramatic tension of the scene and is wrong at any grade level!

What next? A lesson on the comma during Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger I see before me? /Come, let me clutch thee”?

There are  better lessons on heaven and earth for students in this age group then are dreamt of in this lesson plan!

NCTE must be aware that we have a nation of students who are not reading in part because many teachers kill the pleasure of a book. Hamlet is not the material that will bring middle school students a love of reading, and the literary analysis skills for these students in grades 6-8 are not sophisticated enough to bring them to an understanding of The Ghost’s manipulations. A grammar lesson plucked from a dramatic moment with a brilliant seduction by a spirit from beyond the grave is just so wrong.

This lesson is out of joint. O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right!

The impending arrival of Hurricane Irene made many of the good people of Fairfield County a little insane. I have watched Connecticut, the “land of steady habits”, develop a paranoid streak since the advent of 24/7 weather coverage. Media hyped hysteria ensues whenever a storm-summer or winter- approaches. So, there was no surprise in witnessing gridlock for the gas stations and deteriorating conditions in grocery aisles this weekend.

Instead of confronting the hysteria, I traveled to the Friends of the Bethel Public Library’s annual summer sale (August 27-29, 2011) where I found calm and order among the patrons quietly shopping for books, videos, records, DVDs and other media.

This sale was held in a large room in the municipal center across the street from the Bethel Public Library. I know the room as the “GP” room (general purpose) since I attended grades 7 & 8 in this building; I even performed on the stage which housed the young adult collection of books for sale!

The books were organized on tables by genres, and there were signs on each table that indicated genre. There were very few “misplaced” books; obviously the organizers know their titles.  The fiction tables were a mix of hardcover and trade copies, and they were not in any particular order. I was an early attendee of the sale, and there were several boxes of fiction trade books under the tables. I imagine the volunteers planned on filling in the tables with these books as the sale went on, and there were many volunteers already busy at work. These volunteers demonstrated a remarkable resistance to apocalyptic predictions of  weathermen; one even was quite confident that the sale would go on as scheduled on Sunday despite the predictions of tropical storm winds and steady rain.

Books for the Wamogo classroom libraries from the Bethel Library Book Sale

There were many good books at the sale that I can add to the classroom libraries. There were three new copies of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, a copy of Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, and a copy of Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant for independent reading by juniors. There were also copies of books that we teach including:

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Kite Runner by Khaled Houssani
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Our Town by Thornton Wilder

There were also five copies of classic story The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter which we use in our Native American unit in Grade 8. The coming of age story was published in 1953, and combines historical places and incidents centered in Northeastern Ohio in the 1750s. The book has been in continued use in middle school curriculum largely due to Richter’s ability to  portray the consequences of hostilities between the Native Americans and early European settlers of the American Midwest.

In little under 30 minutes, I picked up 72 books for $105.00; prices ranged from .50 -$2.00. The retail price at Amazon for the 15 books in the picture above would have been $158.38. My cost for these 15 books PLUS  57 other books was $105.00.

Community book sales provide an opportunity for a buyer to do a little cultural study on the reading habits of its residents. Obviously, Bethel residents enjoy fiction and the number of cookbooks was greater than the number of military history books. However, the biggest surprise was the number of tables dedicated to the genre of romance novels. I grew up in Bethel (on Grand Street from 1972-1980), and I would never have suspected that the town has developed such “passionate” interests!

I received a postcard to remind me of the upcoming sale, but I had already planned to attend since the sale was also listed on BookSaleFinder.com . Even Hurricane Irene could not stop the calm and dedicated volunteers of the Friends of the Bethel Public Library from succeeding in putting on a great sale with donated books.

If you happen to find yourself in Boise, Idaho, as I frequently do, and you need a used book, check out Rainbow Books at 1310 West State Street. My family lives in Boise, and I have driven past Rainbow Books for about 20 years. I am sorry it took so long for me to discover this little  book store.

Rainbow Book Store in Boise, Idaho....in case you are ever in Boise!

According to its website, “Rainbow Books was moved to its current location at 1310 West State Street in 1993 and continues to add more shelves for more books all the time. Rainbow Books was chosen ‘Best of Treasure Valley’ in 2003 not only for its incredible selection, but also because of the staff’s unbelievable knowledge of its stock.”

On this very hot afternoon, the store had several “browsers” including a young couple canoodling in the air-conditioned book stacks. They were quite preoccupied and paid little attention to me as I crawled along the expansive classic section. The store is a reconverted house, and there are many different rooms to explore; all are well lit, and there is no musty odor one sometimes associates with used books.

I found the shelves very well organized by genre. The children’s literature was appropriately divided into sections: picture books, chapter books and YA literature; and there were many “finds” for my classroom. The military section was small, but there was an entire room shelving unit devoted to Westerns. Should I discover that my students would like to read Westerns, I will certainly be in touch with Rainbow Books! The biography and memoir section also had a wide range of titles. I did ask if they had a copy of October Sky by Homer Hickam, but I was informed that if there was a copy available, it would be shelved under a section called “Men’s Books”; apparently, most people do not look for this title as a memoir, so the staff adopted a genre change!

There were nearly all of the trade books I pick up at used book sales (The Bean Trees, The Road, The Kite Runner), but since I am traveling, all  purchases will be mailed to the school, so I was careful to select books that were both “hard to find” and in excellent condition.

What books go into the used book classroom? I found a copy of Feed by M.T. Anderson (9th grade), Nothing but the Truth by Avi (8th grade), and Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo (summer reading). All these titles are hard to find.

Books purchased at Rainbow Books for $44.30

The best discovery was locating four copies of the newest edition of  Night by Elie Wiesel which is a required reading text in grade 10. I also picked up three copies of Fat Girl: A True Story by Judith Moore to add to the independent reading selections for the 12th grade memoir class.

These 10 books cost $44.30 with a 10% teacher’s discount, or a little under $5.00 per book. I will have to spend $7.99 in postage (USPO media mail), bringing total expenses to $52.29. What did I save by shopping at Boise’s oldest, friendliest, and most generous used bookstore? Well, the retail price for these texts $108.60; so, including the postage, my total savings $56.31.

There are buying, trading, and selling policies listed on the Rainbow Books website; a sign at the register also indicated they sell through Amazon as well.  However, shopping online means you miss a great opportunity to shop in this pleasant used book store….or buy doughnuts next door….or ice cream up the street!