Archives For American Literature

The best holiday scenes in novels are sometimes unexpected. While some of these scenes may seem incidental, the Christmas tree scene in Betty Smith’A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) is anything but ancillary. Smith uses the sentimentality of Christmas to highlight the novel’s theme of tenacity.

Smith’s protagonist is the 10-year-old Mary Frances “Francie” Nolan, who is determined to rise above challenging circumstances of poverty, social class, and her father’s alcoholism. Coming of age novels like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are good choices to use with students, but educators may be dissuaded from assigning the novel as a whole class read because of its length (443 pages). The reading level (Lexile), however, is 810, a reading level appropriate for readers grade 5 and up, although some of situations and language are more suited for grades 8 and up.

With all the attention to the practice of “close reading” to improve comprehension, it is possible to have students read a single chapter, such as this Christmas chapter (Ch. 27), independent of the novel. Sharing this chapter can help students appreciate Smith’s storytelling.

For purposes of brevity, the text has been truncated into sequential sections below along with four questions that educators can use.

  1. So what does Smith “say” in the opening of the chapter?

“Christmas was a charmed time in Brooklyn…You have to be a child to know how wonderful is a store window filled with dolls and sleds and other toys. And this wonder came free to Francie. It was nearly as good as actually having the toys to be permitted to look at them through the glass window. Oh, what a thrill there was for Francie when she turned a street corner and saw another store all fixed up for Christmas!…”

Possible responses:

  • The setting is in borough of Brooklyn; city streets
  • Toys (dolls and sleds) for Christmas were in the store windows
  • Francie did not have the money to pay for the toys she saw

2. What interesting or unusual words does Smith use is explaining Francie’s challenge ?

“There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood. It was about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree; that “they’d chuck ’em at you.” This was literally true. At midnight on the Eve of our dear Saviour’s birth, the kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest….If a boy didn’t fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree.”

Possible responses:

  • “Cruel custom” taking place on the “Eve of our dear Saviour’s birth”
  • “they’d chuck ‘em at you”
  • Forfeit; impact

3. How does the Smith play with language in the following section?

“Francie stepped forward. ‘Me, Mister.’

A spurt of derisive laughter came from the tree man. The kids snickered. A few adults who had gathered to watch the fun, guffawed.

‘Aw g’wan. You’re too little,’ the tree man objected.

‘Me and my brother-we’re not too little together.’ She pulled Neeley forward. The man looked at them a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round.

‘Two ain’t fair,’ yelped Punky.

‘Shut your lousy trap,’ advised the man who held all power in that hour. ‘These here kids is got nerve.’

The others made a wavering lane… a human funnel with Francie and her brother making the small end of it. The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked at the end of the short lane.

Possible responses:

  • “Aw g’wan” captures the dialect of the tree vendor; the man who held all power in that hour
  • “it was a human funnel”-metaphor
  • “a girl with with starveling hollows in her cheeks”-descriptive imagery

4. So, what does Smith want the reader to understand?

For the split part of a moment, the tree thrower went through a kind of Gethsemane. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ’em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ’em go? …..”But then,” he rationalized, “if I did that, all the others would expect to get ’em handed to ’em. They’d all wait to get ’em handed to ’em on a silver plate…I ain’t big enough to do a thing like that. I gotta think of myself and my own kids.” He finally came to his conclusion….”Them two kids is gotta live in this world. They got to learn to give and to take punishment….”

At this point in the text, Chapter 27 is not an incidental Christmas event; instead, it stands as representing the novel writ large. Smith choses to use the internal monologue of a man heaving the last of unsold trees at two small children in a perverse act of charity on Christmas Eve to represent all the challenges Francie faces in the novel:

“As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, ‘It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!’

But Francie does not buckle:

“Francie saw the tree leave his hands. There was a split bit of being when time and space had no meaning. The whole world stood still as something dark and monstrous came through the air. The tree came towards her blotting out all memory of her ever having lived. There was nothing-nothing but pungent darkness and something that grew and grew as it rushed at her. She staggered as the tree hit them. Neeley went to his knees but she pulled him up fiercely before he could go down. There was a mighty swishing sound as the tree settled. Everything was dark, green and prickly. Then she felt a sharp pain at the side of her head where the trunk of the tree had hit her. She felt Neeley trembling. When some of the older boys pulled the tree away, they found Francie and her brother standing upright, hand in hand.”

Students cannot help but admire Francie’s tenacity in confronting the physical force of the tree. Her determination is so powerful that she stands for two, “pulling him [Neeley] up fiercely” and standing “hand in hand”.

Film still from the Christmas tree scene from the film "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"

Film still from the Christmas tree scene from the film “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945)

Francie wins the great tree and as she drags the enormous prize home with Neeley, they are cheered on by well-wishers from the neighborhood.

Smith closes the chapter by reminding the readers that this victory for Francie’s will be short-lived; the challenges of poverty will still be with her:

“There was no money to buy tree decorations or lights. But the great tree standing there was enough. The room was cold. It was a poor year, that one-too poor for them to buy the extra coal for the front room stove. The room smelled cold and clean and aromatic. ….. she sat there and enjoyed the smell and the dark greenness of it.”

True to type, Chapter 27 shares what all Christmas stories share, a miracle…with its element of mystery:

“Oh, the mystery of a great tree, a prisoner in a tin wash bucket in a tenement front room!”

In reading this chapter, students may want to continue to read about Francie, who will, unlike the great tree, not be a prisoner of the tenement…her determination stands.

In a well organized essay, explain how the author conveys his meaning. Be sure to consider structure, diction, setting, and point of view.

Popular MechanicsAbove is the prompt I used when I taught Advanced Placement English Literature (APLit) for all kinds of literature. This was before the Common Core’s “close reading” dictums; APLit students read and looked for author style and purpose because that was the focus of the course.

Tonight (2/22) there is a Twitter Chat #aplitchat on Raymond Carver’s short story “Popular Mechanics”; across the nation, APLit teachers will contribute their ideas on how to guide students through this particular dark story. I am trapped here in CT under another 7″ of snow, and while I wait to be dug out, here is an explanation of how my students wrote about this story.

When I passed out the copies,my students were, at first, delighted to see its brevity; the entire story is under 500 words. I would watch my students as they silently read. As they would finish in unison, their heads would snap up in shock.

Some of my students saw the story as deeply disturbing; others saw the story as dark humor. They wanted to talk plot, so I would allow several minutes of “What just happened?” and “They killed the baby??” and “Those people are sick!”
No surprise that Carver’s story generated strong responses by all of my students.

My next step in pre-writing would be to share some supporting information.  One year I gave the students the Biblical story of King Solomon to contrast the behavior of the mothers in each. Every year, I provided the definition of the word issue, the key linking the concluding sentence and the title. Here are some of the possible means of issue with connections to the story.

  •  something that is printed or published and distributed, esp. a given number of a periodical: 
  • a point in question or a matter that is in dispute, as between contending parties in an action at law; 
  • offspring; progeny:
  • a discharge of blood, pus, or the like;
  •  to go, pass, or flow out; come forth; emerge.

My students would reread the story, take notes, and spend several minutes of peer-to-peer discussions in groups. They would share how Carver’s structure, diction, setting, and point of view contributed to their understanding. After the discussions, I would ask them to draft a response using the standard prompt above.

My contribution to the #APLitchat tonight is a folder with three student exemplars that were created one year as a result. These drafts represent some interesting ideas as seen in some of these excerpts:

Student #1

Finally Carver uses these simple but revealing details about his characters to keep his story interesting and detailed but also very concise. The story starts in a bedroom, a place they probably consecrated their marriage but he is now tearing apart by leaving. We then switch to the doorway of the kitchen, paralleling her change in emotion. The kitchen is typically a place of family and love.

Student #2

Carver uses words and phrases such as “Bring that back” and “I want the baby” (Carver). The use of very simple, short words provides a more aggressive, hard-hitting tone. Carver’s sentence construction is very mechanical and rhythmic, which furthers Carver’s theory that the inner workings of a marriage and a family can be broken down into a mechanized object where basic laws of physics can be applied.

Student #3 

Carver brings in this contrast of light and dark in his first paragraph that states “it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.” There is still light in their life before the argument, but as he packs, it begins to fade. By the time the couple is in a shady corner and the baby is torn apart, the house is darkened. It creates good imagery for the reader to illustrate the family “issues.”

As these excerpts from essay illustrate, Carver’s terse dialogue and minimal details helped my students appreciate the link between an author’s style and his or her purpose. Students enjoyed “Popular Mechanics” and at the end of the school year, they would always mark it a story that made them think about an author’s choices in writing a story.

I was fortunate to have 90 minute block periods to do this lesson in one sitting, but the lesson can be spread over two sessions or truncated to fit into a 45 minute block organized as 15 minutes of reading and discussion and 30 minutes of writing.

Good luck, #APLitchat on your discussion, and may all issues on responses to this story be resolved!

Across the pond, British students studying for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) will no longer experience a narrative on growing up in the Jim Crowe South or reenact the witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts, or be immersed in stories of The Great Depression’s impact on itinerant laborers. A recent decision by the United Kingdom’s Department for Education means that British students will no longer be reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  The Education Secretary of the United Kingdom, Michael Gove, has recommended a syllabus that favors British texts exclusively for students to “swot up” for their exam boards. In order to make more room for the strictly British diet of Eliot, Dickens, at least one of the Bronte Sisters, these 20th Century American classics are being dropped in favor of British texts. According to The Guardian, when Gove took office he told his party’s conference:,

 “The great tradition of our literature – Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy – should be at the heart of school life.”

A number of responders have noted Gove’s concern that the American texts come with “ideological baggage” that is not relevant to British students. The controversy was sparked when the new syllabus for OCR, one of the biggest UK exam boards, was released. A statement by UK’s Department for Education noted that in the revised syllabus, specific (American) books are not banned, but rather:

In the past, English literature GCSEs were not rigorous enough and their content was often far too narrow. We published the new subject content for English literature in December. It doesn’t ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th-century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles. (“To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove orders more Brit lit” Guardian)

Michael Gove, Britain’s Education Secretary, recommends removing American texts

Michael Gove, Britain’s Education Secretary, recommends removing 20th C American texts by Steinbeck, Miller, and Lee.

The news is not all bad, however. Instead of considering the removal as a literary slight to the multitude of authors who write in English -but who do not serve the Crown- perhaps Americans should be grateful that those discomforting moments of U.S. History are being hidden or systematically expunged from the prying eyes of young British readers. Students do not need to be exposed to the effects of prejudice, intolerance, and poverty through the lens of an American culture when British culture already has a plethora of masterworks that focus on their own brand of bigotry, bias, and destitution. Why would British students need a global perspective as they enter the 21st Century workforce?

Consider how wonderful for Americans that Gove has eliminated the need to explain the real inditement of our judicial system through the fictional violation of Tom Robinson’s civil rights despite the dramatic evidence provided by his defense attorney, Atticus Finch. How brilliant that British students will never have the opportunity to connect the fictional fraud in the trial of John Proctor to the real terror of the McCarthy Hearings and Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. How fabulous that readers in the United Kingdom will not be forced to read how the myth of the American Dream is often unattainable, especially when a scientifically confirmed climate change associated with the Dust Bowl contributed to harsh economic realities.

So, thank you, Secretary Gove, for keeping America’s literary exposés on dirty secrets hidden. Now, a schoolchild’s positive image of an American 20th Century will not be tarnished by the likes of those upstarts Lee, Miller, and Steinbeck.

Yes, Mr. Secretary, for British students everywhere, ignorance will be bliss!

Continue Reading…

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.

The English I Honors teacher in my department recently suffered a serious concussion; no reading or writing for several weeks. Her classes must go on, however, and the new unit on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is next in the curriculum.  A long term substitute is scheduled for next week, and the students could easily read the novel before her arrival.

Moreover, there is a packet of information and worksheets in the file cabinet with background information on the 1930s and the author, John Steinbeck. The practice of providing such a lengthy introduction, however, is associated with “over-teaching”, a practice now discouraged in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. In statewide tests students will have to meet the standards of the Common Core, and they will encounter texts from many different sources. The recommendation is that students should practice “close reading” where they can independently mine the language of the text for meaning:

“Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally” (ELA Common Core)

The 9th graders could be staggering indeed; they have just completed a unit on Greek tragedy using Oedipus the King. Some students might suffer whiplash in the jump from 5th Century BCE Ancient Greece to 20th Century California in the Salinas Valley. There needed to be a powerful “bridge” to prepare students for this leap in time and ensuing debate between free will and fate.  What could be accomplished without the teacher directed lecture, especially if the teacher is not available? What format could saturate students in an environment of the 1930s?

A few minutes of research on YouTube provided an answer; I could have a substitute show students several versions of the Bing Crosby’s song recording of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s anthem for the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

The historical accuracy of some of the photos in this first rendition may be questionable, but the message of an average man’s struggle to find employment in the early 1930s is made very clear. The second version below is a sing-a-long-version that is particularly good as a karaoke opportunity. After watching the first version, all students sang along, some with more gusto than others, following Crosby’s cadence in the second version:

After singing, the students reviewed the lyrics:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”

lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

These lyrics provided students an opportunity to “close read” the context of the Great Depression, particularly in the lyrics “Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell” and “Half a million boots went slogging through Hell.” While they understood that after the stock market crash there were unemployed men who had helped in the building of railroads and towers, more than one student made the connection that there are currently soldiers who have returned from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan who have not found employment either. Their brief discussion was enough to set up Steinbeck’s tale of Lennie and George, who share a dream of finding employment to be independent farmers raising rabbits.

Once the background was established, students could then read the novel independently, the way the Common Core recommends in the reading standards. Additionally, the long-term substitute can now complete the leap from classical to contemporary tragedy without having to dwell on historical context. The only downside might be getting rid of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”… a song-worm now in their brains!

Expecting allusions to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick during the National Teachers of English Conference (NCTE) is like (pardon the pun) shooting fish in a barrel. Okay, I know…the whale is a mammal, but once this white whale has been sighted, he keeps surfacing!

First Sighting: Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2011 slim book Why Read Moby-Dick?

Moby DickThe exhibitors at the NCTE conference were interested in putting books into the hands of teachers who would then put books into the hands of student readers. Once such vendor enthusiastically suggested the book based on its size; “See. you could carry this  book around the convention and hardly know it’s in your bag!”

He was right.  Philbrick’s 127 page argument as to why “this classic tale waits to be discovered anew” fit nicely in my convention bag and was perfect for reading during breaks between sessions.

The book is divided into 28 short chapters each devoted to topics such as setting, characters, or themes. Chapter titles include:

  • Nantucket
  • The View from the Masthead
  • A Mighty Messy Book
  • Queequeg
  • Pulling Dictatorship Out of a Hat

Philbrick is already familiar with the real life incident that was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s literary classic. His non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex in 2000 recounts the loss of the whaling ship Essex in the Pacific Ocean in 1820.  Heart of the Sea won the National Book Award for non-fiction that year, fleshing out the details of the whale attack on the boat, the fateful decision to avoid islands allegedly populated by cannibals, and the ironic turn to cannibalism that claimed the lives of several surviving crew members.

In Why Read Moby Dick?, Philbrick turns to the literary contributions Melville gave American literature, particularly in the creation of Captain Ahab, who in a pre-appearance had been rumored by other sea captains to have “been in colleges as well as ‘mong the cannibals.” In one chapter, “The Anatomy of a Demagogue”, Philbrick analyzes Ahab’s rhetorical craftiness in convincing the crew to hunt and kill the white whale. In discussing first mate Starbuck’s stunned realization that the Pequod is not out on a commercial venture, but rather a mission to settle the score of Ahab’s lost limb, Philbrick engages in a cross-culture reference that is both humorous and insightful:

Starbuck responds by asking what Ahab’s vengence will get ‘in our Nantucket market?’ It’s then, to borrow from the film This is Spinal Tap, that Ahab dials his charisma to eleven. ‘But come closer, Starbuck,’ he says, ‘thou requirest a little lower layer?’ It’s not about the money, he explains; this is personal. Thumping his chest he cries out. ‘My vengeance will fetch a great premium here!’ “(40)

Philbrick also aligns the story as a metaphor for the political turmoil of the United States. In discussing the chapter where Stubbs, the second mate, raises a shiver of sharks by cutting into a whale for a steak, Philbrick writes,

“The job of government, of civilization, is to keep the shark at bay….Here lies the source of the Founding Fathers’ ultimately unforgivable ommission. They refused to contain the great, ravaging shark of slavery, and more than two generations later, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren were about to suffer the consequences.” (78)

Philbrick moves between cultures, between ideologies, between philosophies, and theories in order to encourage more people to actually read Melville’s great American novel. A encouragement that may be necessary, because soon after I received the book, I had whale sighting #2.

Whale sighting #2:  A statement during a key note address at the Conference for English Leadership (CEL):

“We all know the opening line of Moby Dick, but how many of us have actually read the book?” posed speaker Donalyn Miller to the crowd of English teachers. There was a murmur of agreement, and more than a few guilty looks. Miller was discussing her passion and the topic of her two books: how to get students to read for school and independently.

20-minMost notably, Miller is known as the author of The Book Whisperer and the recently released Reading in the Wild. Her keynote address was to encourage students to become the independent readers that could-on their own- pick up a tome like Moby Dick. She discussed the characteristics of “wild readers” and pushed teachers to engage students in examining their reading lives. She advocated for literacy rich environments for students to develop the habits to make them life-long readers. Miller’s assertion that preparing students to read independently is the best guarantor of standardized test success was supported with the graphic she presented. (see left: Nagy & Herman study).

Her point about Moby Dick was that most people know the first line, “Call me Ishmael,” but only those who live literate lives know why the book is so critical to understanding American literature. Students who have not developed the reading endurance necessary for the book may be turned off by both the intimidating size and the 19th Century styled language of the text. Considering that most high schools shy away from teaching Moby Dick to anyone but their best students means that the novel will most likely be an independent choice book for a student who develops into a life-long reader. Miller wants them to be prepared so they can will have the pleasure of sitting back in a comfy chair, perhaps with a cup of coffee, to read.

Whale sighting #3: Coffee at Starbucks.
starbucks

Named for the First Mate of the “Pequod”

Speaking of coffee, I am not sure why I never realized this before, but this coffee company is named for the first mate of the Pequod, Starbuck. I Googled this fact while waiting in the long line of English teachers eager to fuel up before attending the day of sessions at NCTE. According to the company’s website, “The name, inspired by Moby Dick, evoked the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders.” How did I not put this together?

Whale sightings, continued…….

Once I returned home from NCTE and CEL, the white whale sightings did not stop. A blog post on To Make a Prairie by Edblog award nominee Vicky Vinton summarized a session she had attended at NCTE called “Reading the Visual and Visualizing the Reading” chaired by Tom Newkirk and presented by Louise Wrobleski, Tomasen Carey, and Terry Mohera. Vinton explains the ideas based their mentor text, Moby-Dick in Pictures by the self-taught artist Matt Kish were “too inspiring not to spread around.” Their presentation highlighted the amazing results in student work when students chose one quote from each chapter of the The Scarlet Letter and create an image for it. Vinton notes that, “Mohera was surprised by the depth of the students’ thinking and how, once she’d gotten them started, they took full ownership of the book, the assignments and the whole process.”  The richness of their illustrations shows how literature can inspire new creations, just as Kish’s illustrations were inspired by Melville.

As if on cue, as in the final pages of Melville’s drama, the white whale surfaced dramatically again this morning when I came across another artist who is under Melville’s spell. While perusing the December 16th issue of The New Yorker, there was Mick Stevens’s cartoon of the whale himself (p56), a cross expression behind his spectacles, with his front fins holding a copy of Moby Dick. The caption underneath read, “Oh, C’mon, I wasn’t that terrible!”

Coincidence? I think not. Melville’s white whale is everywhere, but to appreciate him? You have to read the book.