Archives For 9th grade

The cover is not at all frightening, but the contents are. I had found two copies of Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars at summer book sales ($1.00 each) and placed them on the 9th grade independent reading book carts.  There was not much interest; the paperback measures a hefty 342 pages. But lately, the book is gaining some tractions with some of the freshmen boys.

“It’s about these interviews with survivors of the Zombie apocalypse ” explained Paul to the class yesterday when he volunteered to share what he was reading, “and it is really realistic. You hear how the zombie plague started and how the governments are corrupt.”

When a classmate endorses a book, the other students listen; first person testimonials are very powerful in our independent reading program. I had touted the book early in September to students when they were first perusing the book carts  The storyline was compelling enough for me, a squeamish reader, to appreciate how Brooks made a zombie war a study in political science. How would governments react to an epidemiological disaster? What would our military do to contain a potent virus? What rules would govern the survivors? I found the book to be a heart pounding read, and I read a few paragraphs to the class who listened with interest.

World War Z is told through a series of eye-witness accounts that occasionally connect characters and events. For example, there is the testimony of the fictional Dr. Kwang Jingshu, Greater Chongqing, United Federation of China:

“I found ‘Patient Zero’ behind the locked door of an abandoned apartment across town. . . . His wrists and feet were bound with plastic packing twine. Although he’d rubbed off the skin around his bonds, there was no blood. There was also no blood on his other wounds. . . . He was writhing like an animal; a gag muffled his growls. At first the villagers tried to hold me back. They warned me not to touch him, that he was ‘cursed.’ I shrugged them off and reached for my mask and gloves. The boy’s skin was . . . cold and gray . . . I could find neither his heartbeat nor his pulse.”

There is also very realistic testimony from the fictional General Travis D’Ambrosia, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe:

“Two hundred million zombies. Who can even visualize that type of number, let alone combat it? . . . For the first time in history, we faced an enemy that was actively waging total war. They had no limits of endurance. They would never negotiate, never surrender. They would fight until the very end because, unlike us, every single one of them, every second of every day, was devoted to consuming all life on Earth.”

What was most frightening as I read was my increasing doubt that the hundreds of characters interviewed in this story were fictional at all. Brooks has written post-zombie war interviews of doctors, generals, mayors, and newspaper reporters with remarkable authenticity.

But World War Z is not the only post-apocolyptic zombie book making the rounds in class. Another popular book making the rounds is Jonathan Mayberry’s Rot and Ruin (Benny Imura) the first novel in a series. I often see the rather grotesque cover art sitting on a desk, one eyeball staring up at the ceiling.

A review of Rot and Ruin on Amazon states:
In the zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic America where Benny Imura lives, every teenager must find a job by the time they turn fifteen or get their rations cut in half. Benny doesn’t want to apprentice as a zombie hunter with his boring older brother Tom, but he has no choice. He expects a tedious job whacking zoms for cash, but what he gets is a vocation that will teach him what it means to be human.
Zombie literature seems to cross our class’s gender lines, although Rot and Ruin seems to be more popular with the girls in the class. At present, there are only a few copies available through our school library, so I will be looking out for it at book sales. In addition to these titles, we also have several copies of James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, a series also loosely connected to the zombie phenomenon.
I am not entirely sure what my students’ fascination with zombies means. There are always trends or fads in literature; several years ago handsome vampires were all the rage, and several year before that, wizards ruled the reading lists. So I am aware that this infatuation with all things zombie will eventually fade, but maybe I can convince them to use their own brains as “food” for thought.

David Weisner’s Tuesday is one of the funniest picture books ever. Really. Watch the video. The funniest pictures, ever, hands down.  The few words in this picture book are only for context when an invasion of frogs floating on lily pads invade a small town on a Tuesday night.

I was so happy when I found a copy for $.25 at the New Milford Public Library book sale this summer. I have a well-worn hardcover of my own that I do not want to lose; this paperback will be perfect to share in class. Wiesner’s picture book is ideal to start the 9th grade mythology unit which leads up to students reading Homer’s Odyssey (Fitzgerald translation).

Our 9th grade curriculum centers on the idea that stories make us human, so our freshmen will spend the year studying the elements of stories and archetypes. For example, in each story they read, they will be able to identify the “call to action” and the moment the protagonist or hero “crosses the threshold”. They will recognize the “challenges” for the hero as being a repeated pattern, especially when the hero is confronted with “temptations”. The students will be familiar with the ideas of “redemption” and “atonement” as the hero travels on the journey from the comfort of the known world to the trials of the unknown world. They will develop an appreciation for the wisdom of the hero’s mentor and the importance of the “elixir” that helps the hero succeed.  They will look for these patterns in the stories they will read throughout high school.  They will review myths as traditional stories that are accepted as history which serve to explain a phenomenon. The flying frogs in Tuesday are most certainly a phenomenon.

We want the students to appreciate the “call to adventure” as demonstrated in the lily pads which lift the frogs from their “known” locale, the swamps and ponds outside the town to the “unknown” territories of living rooms. We want students to predict consequences as the  lilypads float the enthusiastic frogs literally “cross the threshold” of many of the homes.

We also want them to enjoy how Wiesner’s frogs cheerfully wave at disbelieving occupants or cavort using the lily pads as F-16s performing barrel rolls in backyard airspace, while other frogs sit comfortably and devise methods for changing channels in order to watch late night TV. We want them to note how all the frogs are “transformed” from their natural swampy state into comical caricatures.

The flight of the frogs is “challenged” by sheets hung on laundry lines or more directly by a slobbering guard dog. The frogs’ inexplicable journey is cut short when the “elixir” that made this incident possible mysteriously ends the spell. The frogs return to their “known” habitat. The mystery of the remaining lily pads scattered on the concrete roads and sidewalks all over town is wonderfully illustrated in the perplexed look on a detective’s face. Weisner uses a Orsen Welles look-alike in a rumpled raincoat who puzzles holding a dripping wet lily pad, a cadre of police officers and bloodhounds behind him ready to track down the invaders.

Tuesday, by David Wiesner (New York: Clarion, 1991)

Tuesday will provide the students an opportunity to “write  the myth” of what made the frogs fly. The student will need to reference the illustrations in the text as evidence in creating their own personal myth about the flying frogs. We are interested in the explanations the students will need to develop for why the lily pads floated so effortlessly from the pond.  How will the detective explain the limp lilypads strewn around the streets and sidewalks? What predictions do they have for the next possible phenomenon? Some early suggestions started in class are:

  • A new species of lilly pads grew legs and carried the frogs all over the town
  • The lily pads are lunar charged when the moon comes up, then when the sun comes up, the power wears off.
  • Lily pads were made radioactive when a battery fell off the space shuttle into their pond

David Wiesner’s picture book Tuesday provides my students an opportunity to identify universal story elements and create their own myths for the phenomenon of the hilarious frog invasion. This year is the year when they will recognize the elements of this story are the elements in all of literature.  Thus, the picture book Tuesday prepares students for the epic poem The Odyssey, where the equally magic flights and fantastic adventures of the hero Odysseus await their explanations.

But before we start out for Ithaca, we had to spend Tuesday with some frogs.

While my freshmen students knew Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, the details on the relationship of the “star-crossed lovers” were a little fuzzy.  Romeo and Juliet is often a student’s first introduction to Shakespeare for not so surprising reasons. The characters Romeo and Juliet  are young-she is 13 years old. They are in love. Their families stand in the way of their love. They must meet in secret. They defy the authority of their parents. Many of these elements appealed to my 9th grade students. But there were surprises everyday when we performed scenes from the play in class.

The biggest surprise for me was the willingness of my students to take on the difficult meter and vocabulary of Shakespeare in order to play one of the parts in the play. Hands would go up, “I want to be Mercutio!” or “Can I be the Messenger?” and “Can’t a guy play the Nurse?”

Of course, they were almost always terrible. Shakespeare’s verse is difficult to read “cold”.

Billy stumbled but persisted in his reading Benvolio’s  lines while we patiently waited:

The fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepared,
Which, as he breathed defiance to my ears,
He swung about his head and cut the winds,
Who nothing hurt withal hiss’d him in scorn.

Each of the students stumbled over the strange vocabulary: prolixity, holp, God gi’ god-den, tetchy, sirrah, obsequy. Matthew wondered aloud why Capulet is always saying, “What? ho!” Michael regularly referred to the language of the play as Old English; he would not be convinced otherwise.

When we turned the page to Act Two, scene 3,  I saw Logan take big breath, visibly steeling himself to read Friar Lawrence’s lengthy speech. In Act Three Scene 5,  completely unaware of pace and more interested in finishing the scene before the bell rang, Malia raced through the Nurse’s teasing of Juliet. Not one of them (thankfully) really understood the allusions in Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech in Act One scene 5. Yet, everyday they entered the classroom asking, “Are we acting out the play today?”

We played the balcony scene three times in the large hallway on the stairs to the auditorium’s upper level seating. Students paired up to read a reduced script, so several Juliets had the chance to meet their Romeos that class period. Back in the classroom, I played the soundtrack to the Zefferelli film (“A Time for Us”) during Act Three scene 5 as Alexa asked her Romeo:

Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

They memorized the Prologue; they wrote haikus to summarize each act to review the action of the play:

Act I:
Annoying Prologue
Romeo met Juliet,
Romeo loves her

Act II:
Balcony kisses,
They are married secretly,
The nurse keeps it quiet

Act III:
Tybalt is now dead,
Romeo must run away,
Juliet is scared

Act IV:
Juliet fakes death
Capulets are deeply hurt
Marriage is off

Act Five began last week, and the students were following the complicated plans of  Friar Lawrence and making predictions as to the plan’s success. There was a brief discussion about what an apothecary was in Shakespeare’s time, and the actual distance from Verona to Mantua, Italy. It was obvious, they all wanted the plan to work.

Then, Nick as Romeo entered Juliet’s “tomb” and  several lines later, he stepped over Chase who lay on the floor, slain as Paris.  Nick began his soliloquy with great seriousness. Holding the  dry erase marker, our stage prop for the vial, high in one hand, he read the verse aloud, “Here’s to my love! O true apothecary!/Thy drugs are quick.” He dramatically uncorked the marker, and then “drank”.  He gasped, ” Thus, with a kiss,” he leaned down to the sleeping Juliet, and quietly said,” I die.” Staggering, he fell to the ground.

Several students following along in the text, started and then sat in a palpable stunned realization.“He dies?”

“But Juliet’s still alive!”started as a murmur.

The chorus of voices grew louder. “He’s dead!” “She doesn’t know!”

There was a collective pause, followed by an audible, “This sucks.”

I was surprised. I thought they knew.

The final speech of the play begins, “A glooming peace this morning with it brings”; that speech captured the mood of my students. Of course they understood at some literal level that the play was a tragedy; this fact was clearly stated on the back cover of their text: This is the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. However, until that moment of Romeo’s willful self-destruction, followed by Juliet’s suicide, my students did not appreciate the  play’s heartbreaking conclusion.

I was surprised by the level of their reaction. Ours was not a polished performance, the staging was clumsy and the actors read the lines without understanding much of what was being said. However, they did feel for the characters, always willing to summarize what had just happened or wanting to give advice. Despite our failures to interpret the language, the result was that the play made them grow up a little.

No one should ever be surprised at the ability of this Shakespeare play-however rudimentary in performance- to engage an audience.

Our English classrooms have been provided net books to use in class this year, making each classroom  a 1:1 classroom. Teachers have been using these net books for student blogs with seniors, or in responses to literature. The Freshman class was blogging about Of Mice and Men using Google’s Blogger software. The combination of reading with authentic writing was the incentive for one of my New Year’s resolutions in 2012, to improve student blogging beyond the “I like your post” response.

Our 9th grade team blogs are organized across the grade; students from different class periods or with different teachers collaborate as a team on the blog. For this assignment, we developed four journal questions in order to engage the students in discussions related to the universal themes of  Steinbeck’s novel; questions were centered on the ideas of goals, dreams, loneliness, privacy, and companionship. These journals were posted two or three days apart as students read the novel in class during silent sustained reading (SSR) or at home. An audio tape of the book was also available for some students who needed support with reading independently.

In order to begin the discussions, students first needed to post a response to each journal question, then they need to respond to another teammate’s post. Since the goal was to improve student responses to another student’s post, a set of criteria was suggested to help student in their response:

Good Student Response to another student on a blog will be:

  • thoughtful
  • consistently positive
  • respectful

Good Student Response to another student on a blog will also:

  • clearly add to the original discussion (compare, contrast, contribute, ask questions)
  • take advantage of the medium (linking, video, audio)
  • follow the standards of good writing

There were four journal prompts to Of Mice and Men; student responses to another student’s post are below each journal prompt:

Journal One:  What is your hope for life, goal, or even dream?  What do you think you want from the future?  Not the fairytale, but the reality?   What could you live without, dream-wise?  What couldn’t you live without? What matters, what are your priorities?

Patrick, I think your blog is good! It shows that you really want to be stable with your life. That you don’t need big things but you just need the things that make you happy and not stressful. We both don’t want to be stressed out and that’s something that a lot of people don’t want I think!

Sean, I think that my house would be similar to yours. I too would like to live in the woods away from big cities and government. I think it would be great to live in a log cabin style house with a large woodstove too. It would really give off that self dependent feeling, were you would have to chop your own wood, and produce many of your necessities.

Sara, It seems to me that you seem to know what you want to do when you grow up. Well, I have no idea really, so I envy you. I am disappointed to see you would move away from here, I love it here. good luck with all your plans!

Journal Two:  Do you have a pet? a younger sibling or cousin?  If so, describe your feelings and relationship with them.  If not, what do you think it would be like to have them?  How do/would you feel as the one on whom they depend?  How important do you think it is to care for or nuture others?  Do you want to be a mother/father?  Why?  What do you think about the role of parents, brothers, sisters, and family?

Johnny, I think you need to appreciate your sisters a little bit more!! Even though they can be a pain, they’re still always there for you and won’t leave your side.

I am commenting on Regan’s post: She did a very good job, she went into detail about each question such as when she explains how it makes her feel “It makes me feel good when he looks up to me and tries to do stuff that I do because It lets me know that I do have an effect on his life and when he does.” It is simular to mine because our brothers act the same way, she gets along with her brother too and we both have younger brothers.

 I’m commenting on Sara’s…I can definitely relate to when people say they want a sibling and you’re thinking ‘NO WAYYY….’ because they haven’t lived with one their whole life! But I’m also the same way with how I realize that I do have an effect on my little brother’s life and choices… it just wakes you up and helps you make good decisions.
Journal Three:    How important is privacy and space to you?  Can having privacy get too much like being lonely?  What about being with people all the time?  Which is worse, being always with or always without others?  How much alone vs. social time do YOU need?  Why?  When do you most need each (alone/social)?

I agree with you, Zach. Like when I was around mt best friend. We did EVERYTHING together. At first, it didn’t really bother either one of us. We where content always being in each others business. We knew EVERYTHING about each other. And by accident one of us (not saying who), spilled a big secret. That’s why it’s not a good idea to be around the same person ALL the time!

Riley I think your take on privacy is very good. I agree with you about how there are times that you dont want to be around people and if you are it can be annoying and distracting at a time where you’re trying to do your homework. What are some times that you do like being around people? Would you rather be alone or with someone else? Overall, you did a good job, those are just some things you could have included.
Journal Four:  What would you do to avoid losing your dream?  Are dreams easy to replace?  What would life be like if you didn’t have a goal, dream, or hope?  Can others take away your dream or not?
I am responding to Taylor’s blog. I have similar dreams to Taylor’s, how I dream of what I like to do. I dream a lot about going to the beach with my friends. Also I agree with Taylor’s thought of dreams being “easily replaceable”. I think that some dreams are hard to replace if they mean a great deal to you. Other than that dreams come and go very often. I also agree with Taylor that life without goals will not be very boring and you would not have anything to achieve!
 Agreed, Emily. I haven’t really thought about it that way, but after hearing your opinion, I have to say, I agree. If your dream doesn’t come true, it means that your destiny lies somewhere else. Unfortunately, destiny rules over dreams. Just like with Lennie, it wasn’t his destiny to “tend to the rabbits”, he was too strong and dumb to do that.
Ultimately, there has been some improvement in student responses on the blog. Many students wrote thoughtful responses which indicates that they understood that simply praising another writer’s blog was not sufficient. Students did like reading the post responses, however, I was actually surprised how empowered some of the students became and did not anticipate how seriously they would enforce the criteria in the original posts.
The only problem I see here is that you did not describe how you look up to your family… Everything else is very well done. I see no errors in spelling and no errors with how you described the way they acts, but remember to try and stay on topic” 
Your blog was good but it was not 200 words and it needs more detail so you should answer more questions in your blog to make it flow and so you make it longer and to answer the question more clearly.”
One month into the New Year 2012, and the 9th grade students are improving their ability to respond on a blog with something other than “good work!”
I’d say that is “great work”…but I obviously need to improve on my response!