Archives For literature

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Author H.H. Munro also known as Saki

H.H. Munro was the NYTimes crossword across clue last week, and as it so often happens, I just happened to be talking about H.H. Munro to the sophomore English class these first days of school. Just name dropping Saki, his pseudonym, caught their attention.
“What kind of a name is that?” they asked.
When I told them he might have been referring to the Saki monkey, a small South American primate, they concurred that he had chosen a cool pen name. 

Saki’s short stories open our World Literature course which complements the Modern World History course offered the same year. Our students will be reading complex texts required by the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and  complex texts are those that meet four criteria:

1) Meaning: Multiple levels of meaning (such as satires, in which the author’s literal message is intentionally at odds with his or her underlying message).
(2)  Structure: Complex, implicit, and (particularly in literary texts) unconventional structures.
(3) Language: Figurative, ironic, ambiguous, purposefully misleading, archaic or otherwise unfamiliar language
(4) Knowledge Demands: Everyday knowledge and familiarity with genre conventions required; cultural and literary knowledge useful.

Saki’s work meets the CCSS criteria above, but I have learned that the practice of close reading never follows the lengthy tortuous path suggested by Common Core developers who have no classroom experience. My students stray.

The text selected was “The Interlopers”. (SPOILER ALERT For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story and want to read it before I reveal the plot twist, link to the text. There is also an audio-text.)

To prepare students, but careful not to “overteach” before reading, I gave students slips of paper with 25 words from the story. The slips including some of the more difficult vocabulary (languor, succor, marauder) and some plot details (woodland, feud, detest). Some of the students sorted the words alphabetically, but others grouped words that shared some commonality. After a few minutes of discussion, we joined together to predict what the story would be about using the grouped words; there would be a dispute in the forest that was linked to some feud, just like the feud in Romeo and Juliet.
Then we read the story.

Thirteen minutes later, some heads shot up. They had reached Saki’s iconic last word…”wolves!”

“Wolves!” one student questioned, “does that mean they die?”
There was much stirring. Some seemed surprised; others seemed confused.
In contrast, I thought the ending was obvious. Two men, trapped under a tree, end a bitter feud over forest land only to eaten by wolves.

Several, but not all, of my students thought differently.

“They weren’t rescued?” asked Kailey, “but one of them said he had men that would be there to rescue them in the forest.”
“He was bluffing,” responded Logan. “He was trying to scare the other guy when they first met.”
“But there was a gun,” pointed out Stephan, “one could have used the gun.”
“They had their arms ‘pinioned’,” I responded, trying to slip in another vocabulary word, “pinioned means to tie up the arms of…”
“They could have wriggled out when they saw the wolves,” insisted Stephan, “the rush of adrenaline would make them so strong, they could un-pinion their arms.”
“But there is no evidence to show that,” I responded. “The last word is their last word because the wolves come upon them.”

I had thought the story was straightforward. There were no flashbacks, and no change in setting. This was, according to Aristotle, a story that demonstrated unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action.

Yet the conversations in the room showed the text’s complexity. Saki’s The Interlopers has all the elements suggested by the CCSS. There is the figurative language in the character Ulrich’s statement, “We have quarrelled like devils all our lives over this stupid strip of forest, where the trees can’t even stand upright in a breath of wind.” There is the ironic wish, “If only on this wild night, in this dark, lone spot, he might come across Georg Znaeym, man to man, with none to witness – that was the wish that was uppermost in his thoughts.” There is also the multiple meaning in the revenge sought by man and the revenge exacted by Nature. Our close reading should have been “textbook”. The evidence proved the characters’ demise…or did it? I began to consider the renegade students’ position.

“See,” insisted Kailey, “look at the text, Georg says he has seven men out with him before the tree fell. These seven men would hear their screaming.”
“Yes, there would be screaming. Their last words were, ‘AHHH!!! OUCH!!! THAT HURTS!!'”Jay yelled.
“But that does not mean they were definitely eaten,” corrected Kai, “this guy Saki wants you to make up your mind.”

Which is true. Saki does not end the story with screams of pain or with tales of rescue. He trusts the reader to use evidence to make up his or her own mind. Several of my students did not want to see Ulrich and Georg meet their demise, especially when they had settled their long standing feud.

The class discussion continued with each piece of evidence for the “eaten by wolves” side being countered by evidence from the “escaped with their lives” side. The students were definitely close reading, but they were exploiting Saki’s ambiguity to defend their differing positions. A case could be made for both.

Yes, they understood the importance of irony in the story, and yes, they were familiar with plot twists, but they still held out hope. Saki had made them care for these characters in the 2100 words of this short story. He had given just the right amount of contradictory information to leave room for just a sliver of hope. A 99 and 44/100’s sort of hope.

Did they hold out hope because of their youth? Aristotle suggests that, “Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.” Yet, Aristotle is also credited with saying, “Hope is the dream of a waking man.” 

In retrospect, Saki himself would probably have enjoyed their commentary. I discovered too late for the discussion that Saki has been quoted as saying, “A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.”

Continue Reading…


Jane Eyre audio offered by SYNC YA

This summer I have been visiting the family estate at Gateshead, the harsh boarding school Lowood, and the Gothic mansion called Thornfield Hall through the audio download of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre courtesy of SYNC YA. This free audiobook uses Overdrive software which is on both my computer and my mobile phone. As the recording of Jane Eyre is about eight hours long, the ability to move from device to device has proved most helpful in finishing the book.

This is not my first experience with this novel. I read the book when I was a teenager, and, like Jane, I fell in love with Mr. Rochester. Years later, I taught the book later to Advanced Placement students and marveled at Jane’s independence, her morality, and her ability to emphatically say “No” to the persistently persuasive Rochester.  Now, I am struck by Jane’s role as a governess and how Bronte characterizes attitudes towards that profession in Victorian England.

At one of Rochester’s soirees, Bronte has the spoiled but beautiful Blanche Ingram recount how she and her brother and sister, tormented their governesses and tutors as as they grew up. The incident begins when Blanche’s mother, Mrs. Ingram, calls the guests’ attention to Jane, isolated in a corner of the room. “I have just one word to say of the whole tribe,” whispers Blanche’s mother loud enough for Jane to hear, “they are a nuisance.”

Blanche cheerfully counters:

Not that I ever suffered much from them; I took care to turn the tables. What tricks Theodore and I used to play on our Miss Wilsons, and Mrs. Greys, and Madame Jouberts! Mary was always too sleepy to join in a plot with spirit. The best fun was with Madame Joubert: Miss Wilson was a poor sickly thing, lachrymose and low-spirited, not worth the trouble of vanquishing, in short; and Mrs. Grey was coarse and insensible; no blow took effect on her.

Not satisfied with those affronts to those poor teachers, Bronte has Blanche continue the list the indignities inflicted on one particular governess who was subjected to especially bad behavior from the Ingram children:

But poor Madame Joubert! I see her yet in her raging passions, when we had driven her to extremities–spilt our tea, crumbled our bread and butter, tossed our books up to the ceiling, and played a charivari with the ruler and desk, the fender and fire-irons. Theodore, do you remember those merry days?”

Blanche’s condemnation of those who tried to educate her backfires; Bronte’s desire to have the reader dislike this rival for Rochester’s affection is deliberate. Jane’s quiet moral intelligence wins out in the end.

Listening to the story, I considered that Bronte was making a case for the importance of education as a means to rise out of poverty. Jane’s education at the Lowood Institute, a boarding school, was hazardous and purchased at a terrible price. Her classmate, Helen, dies because of the stark conditions at Lowood, mirroring the real-life death of Bronte’s sister, Maria, who died from tuberculosis contracted because of hunger, cold, and privation at Cowan Bridge School. Despite the treacherous conditions, however, Bronte revisits the theme of education’s importance as it provided the character Jane with an independent profession. She is hired to teach Rochester’s ward Adele, and she proves to be a successful governess.

The conflict between Bronte’s belief that education was one way for a young woman to earn a small income, to have a marketable profession, clashes with the upper classes’s view of the teaching profession in 1847. Therefore, how disappointing to read polls (2009-2012) about contemporary economics of the teaching profession that demonstrate that a century and a half later, not much has changed. According to The Economix blog on the NYTimes, “Does it Pay to Become a Teacher?”, salary  may reduce attracting high quality graduates to the teaching profession:

The average primary-school teacher in the United States earns about 67 percent of the salary of a average college-educated worker in the United States. The comparable figure is 82 percent across the overall Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.). For teachers in lower secondary school (roughly the years Americans would call middle school), the ratio in the United States is 69 percent, compared to 85 percent across the O.E.C.D. The average upper secondary teacher earns 72 percent of the salary for the average college-educated worker in the United States, compared to 90 percent for the overall O.E.C.D.

The findings also point out that teachers in the USA teach over 1000 hours annually, an amount well over the hours of their international peers. That number does not include time for preparation, training, or assessing. The article concludes:

Given the opportunity costs of becoming a teacher instead of using your college degree to enter another, more remunerative field, are the psychic rewards of teaching great enough to convince America’s best and brightest to become educators?

Bronte was one of England’s best and brightest who advocated education, but Bronte knew that teaching was not an economically successful profession. Jane Eyre only becomes financially independent when a relative leaves her a fortune; she only becomes wealthy when she confesses, “Reader, I married him.”

Over 150 years after Charlotte Bronte’s novel, the teaching profession still has its critics; there are real life Mrs. Ingrams and Blanches who hold the profession in contempt. There are also economic drawbacks to choosing the profession, as demonstrated in the O.E.C.D poll.

In the 21st Century, the teaching profession should be desirable to those who aspire to teach, but who, like Jane, want to be financially independent. Teachers should not have to wait for a Mr. Rochester in order to prosper.

There has been a heat wave in Connecticut this week, temperatures in the high 90s with muggy, sultry, humid weather, so it was no surprise that the bargains were “hot, hot, hot” under the tent at the Westport Public Library Book Sale.  So hot, in fact, that organizers had large fans set up in some of the outdoor tents! The sale is held in Westport, Connecticut:

Tents on Jesup Green and inside the Library
July 20-23, 2013
(Monday—Everything half-price)
Tuesday: 9 am-1 pm (Free day, donations appreciated)

The Westport Public Library Book Sale is a premiere event in the state for several reasons:

  • The tents are huge with tables laden with books;
  • Prices are good (Hardcovers are $3/trades $1/paperbacks and children’s books $.50);
  • Books are of exceptionally high quality.

The main tent offered a spectacular number of books with wide aisles. This is where the non-fiction texts/literature/reference texts are usually laid out.

Informational texts for science classes!

Informational texts for science classes!

For some perplexing reason, however, the teen/YA section was also in the main tent, while the sports/nature books were in the children’s tent. This led to some mistaken shelving; there was a copy of fairy tales and Miss Nelson is Missing in between golf books and some travel guides. The magnitude of the collection of donated books meant some challenges for those  keeping book sorters on message; sometimes the same text appeared on tables for different genres. For example, copies of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation were in biography, history, politics, and for some inexplicable reason, Judaica.

The children’s book section was extensive enticing shoppers of all ages; shoppers should be wary of smaller patrons underfoot.

My target area for filling the classroom shelves was the tent for fiction, which was overflowing with hardcovers and paperbacks. There were so many hardcover fiction books, that I later discovered an adjunct aisle of hardcover fiction that spilled into the classic literature section in the main tent. I am sure that The Girl Who Played with Fire was enjoying spending time with her more mature cousins Ethan Frome and The Red Badge of Courage.

Unfortunately, the aisles in the smaller fiction tent here were not as wide as in the main tent, and there were boxes loaded with trade paperback fiction below the tables. Stooping to browse through these lower levels slows down buyers and makes for some awkward moments in passing. To make passing smoother, though, there was a volunteer dutifully loading up the tables once people made their selections.


One stack of The Help for English III

I was looking for specific titles and soon was rewarded with a dozen copies of Katheryn Stockett’s The Help. This book retails for $12.92 on Amazon; 12 copies would have cost $155.04. Instead, I spent $73.50 in total for these books plus three and a half bags full of other titles, many also beginning with word “the”: The Things They Carried, The Road, The Giver, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and The Book Thief. 

Because the trademark of Westport readers is their ability to take exceptionally good care of their books, these copies are in pristine condition. I suspect there must be some town ordinance about bending pages or preserving book covers on reading material in town.

A further study of the town, based on donated books, would be that Westport residents:

  • Believe in parenting book (five tables full);
  • Do not donate small paperback copies (only three tables full);
  • Do not read the genre “romance” (no tables full);
  • Travel extensively (based on travel guides);

The book sale has dedicated volunteers who will tally books on the side lawns of the main tent if you are purchasing more than an armful; there are boxes available for ambitious shoppers and checkout is a breeze.

The Westport book sale is a bibliophile’s delight with red hot bargains for all ages. Now, if only they could do something about this heat wave!

2013-06-09 18.00.17

The contents of the $7/box

There is no official “start” to the summer book sale season, but one great place to whet an appetite is at the Friends of the Byram Shubert Library in Greenwich, Connecticut.

This sale is usually held the 2nd weekend in June at the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church across the street. Book Sale Finder advertises the sale as “Exceptional”, “Well worth the trip!” and “Great Prices!”

Suffice to say, the sale was as advertised.

The Friday Preview night sells hardcovers $3, softcovers $2, small paperbacks .50 or 3/$1. On Saturday, prices are reduced to hardcovers $2, softcovers $1, small paperbacks 5/$1, children’s .25-.50. But it is on Sunday, a Bargain hunter’s delight, that there is a  “bag and box” sale $5/bag, $7/box or 2 boxes/$10.

I went in the last few hours on Sunday, and the tables were still tidy. The fiction was plentiful, but the non-fiction and young adult choices very picked over.  Nevertheless, in 20 minutes, I selected 34 great titles that I placed in a box provided by the Friends of the Library.

13 copies of books outlined in our curriculum mapping

13 copies of books outlined in our curriculum mapping

On the tables I grabbed titles we offer in our Grade 11 Vietnam War literature unit: 3 copies of In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason and and 2 copies of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.  There were also books assigned in our curriculum for Grade 10 World Literature: Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Finally, two clean copies of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None will be placed in our grade 8 mystery unit. Summer reading for the Advanced Placement English Language is Kim Edward’s The Memory Keeper’s Daughter while Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is one of the choices offered to these students during the school year.

The 13 books I found outlined in our curriculum mapping would normally retail for $139.00 if purchased new. The additional 21 books in the box will be added as independent reads in classroom libraries or suggested as “satellite reads” to complement a whole class novel.

34 books for $7.00? That is an amazing bargain. The 2013 summer used book sale season is off to a great start!

Catcher-in-the-rye-red-cover“I heard about this book called ‘Catcher in the Rye,” said Peyton. She was lining up a “book buddy” extra credit assignment to read with Madison.
I reached for two dog-eared copies with the familiar brick red cover, “Meet Holden Caufield,” I said.

Requests for Catcher in the Rye happen every year. Since we do not teach the novel as a whole class read, I am always happy to see the many copies we have circulating for independent reading. J.D. Salinger passed away in 2010, almost sixty years after his bildungsroman, (coming of age story) of a young man’s wanderings one day in New York City captured the angst of late adolescence for an audience familiar with that angst. Houlden Caufield’s voice was unlike any other, and readers adopted the book with a fervor that bordered on fanaticism. As evidence, there are well-worn copies at every used book sale.

In most high schools today, Catcher in the Rye has a reputation, a cult status. Its “banned book” pedigree  interests both conformist and non-conformists. According to

Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. In 1981, it was both the most censored book and the second most taught book in public schools in the United States.

Many of my students know about the book’s banning history from the South Park episode from Season 14: The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs.  In this episode, the students at South Park Elementary are given copies of Catcher in the Rye and learn that the book is “filthy, is inappropriate, and made a guy shoot the king of hippies.”
“Can we PLEASE read this book now?” Cartman pleads.
(View at: )
Very quickly, however, the South Park students learn that 60 years after its publication, the language and themes in the story of Holden Caufield’s day are tame by today’s standards; they are dumbfounded and more than a little annoyed that anyone would consider the book inappropriate. My students have expressed the same puzzlement.

With only one major book to his credit, Salinger still commands the media’s attention. A tweet last week by OpenCulture linked the video below of the reclusive 91-year-old Salinger out for a stroll in Windsor, Vermont (2010):

Under the video, Open Culture also posted a series of anecdotes about Salinger, for example, a story about Nicholas Carr (Is Google Making Us Stupid?)

Nicholas Carr, who was working behind the circulation desk at the college library one summer when “a tall, slender, slightly stooped man” walked in. He remembers his boss whispering, “That’s J.D. Salinger”:

Holy crap, I thought. I just saw J.D. Salinger.

About ten minutes later Salinger suddenly reappeared at the desk, holding a dollar bill. I went over to him, and he said he needed change for the Xerox machine. I took his dollar and gave him four quarters.

That’s my claim to fame: I gave J.D. Salinger change for a buck.

Another recent news item on Salinger was published in the New York Times April 23, 2013, “The Young Salinger, Mordant Yet Hopeful” by Dave Itzkoff. The article described that a recent discovery of nine letters by a 22-year-old Salinger “revealed himself to be as playful, passionate and caustic as Holden Caulfield, the self-questioning adolescent who would become his most enduring creation.” The letters refer to other stories “unpublished and presumably lost works from this period”, tantalizing clues that will set Salinger fans hoping for yet unpublished materials to surface.

Salinger’s reclusiveness fascinates my students. In this day and age, his deliberate choice for isolation starkly contrasts from their uber-connected world of social media. Ironically, social media is a place where Holden thrives today. There are several facebook pages devoted to him. A Google map of his adventures complete with quotes details each step of his journey from the Wicker Bar at the Seton Hotel through the Central Park Zoo and into the Museum of Natural History. He would probably appreciate the myriad of Sparknotes, or Schmoop Notes, that help students who fail to complete assigned reading, or fail to listen to the audio book as available on YouTube. Holden has a Twitter account, @holdencaulfield, and a Tumblr account.  A  blog post on Flavorwire in July 2012 lists 10 Things Holden Caulfield Hates About Everyone including phonies:

“You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were.”

Predictable, we know. But no Holden Caulfield hate list would be complete without it.

Holden is out there mingling with audiences of this connected age, and now he is mingling with two more. Heads down, they are engrossed with his misadventures during our 20 minute silent sustained reading period.
“How’s Holden?” I ask quietly.
“Good,” they chorus without looking up. They have been caught by Salinger, caught by The Catcher in the Rye.

Spoiler alertEnter the spoiler alert. Because the number of ways people hear about stories is increasing, spoiler alerts for books and films are offered as a “heads-up”, a means to prevent plot details from becoming public.  Knowing the end of a story might mean that the strategy of “predicting” a story has been compromised, however, there are genres of stories that absolutely count on predictability, for example, Nancy Drew will always solve a mystery with her best friend, Bess and George, while on TV, predictability has a time limit; the shipwrecked crew will never leave Gilligan’s Island (30 mins) and House will solve a medical mystery (60 mins).

Predictability means to state, tell about, or make known in advance, especially on the basis of special knowledge, and students are taught at an early age that making predictions can help them to determine what will happen in a story.

I noticed how predictions are important even if the end has already been decided when my six-year-old niece was watching the Disney film Running Brave. This was her favorite film, and she watched the VHS tape every afternoon. On one such afternoon, I noticed she was drifting asleep, so I made a move to turn off the video.

“Wait,” she cried out, “I think….I think he’s going to win again.”

From her perspective, the outcome of the race was still in doubt. The cinematic elements, the tight editing of shots , and a triumphant soundtrack created suspense where the viewer might doubt the inevitable. Krista had seen the movie hundreds of times, but she still was “testing” her prediction.

I admit that I have felt the same way watching Miracle, holding my breath for the final seconds wondering if the US ice hockey team would still win the Olympic medal. Krista’s experience is also mirrored in the classes where students often choose books based on a movie that they have seen.

In the independent reading allowed in our curriculum, the 9th graders can choose contemporary fiction or non-fiction, and many of the titles have movies in circulation, for example:

Some students purposefully choose these books because they know the endings, and in knowing how the book ends allows the reader to pay more attention to the craft of the author in bringing all the plot points together in a conclusion. Take for example, the Harry Potter series. Most readers predicted with certainty that Harry Potter would finally face his nemesis, Voldemort. The how and when, however, were still very much in the air, and J.K.Rowling’s crafting of the series’s magical settings and character development kept readers in a willing suspension of disbelief for the length of seven volumes. The final conclusion was satisfying to her fans who knew all along that Harry would prevail, after all, Good’s triumph over Evil is a predictable plot. Readers and filmgoers were not disappointed in following the story of a boy with the scar on his forehead because in each volume and subsequent film release, they correctly predicted that “I think…I think he will win again.”

So when I teach a whole class novel, I know there are some students who already know the ending. They may have reached the conclusion before others, or been informed by older students who notoriously share their opinions and critical information with younger students. In this case, my role is to impress on students that knowing the outcome will not destroy a well-told story, and to focus their attention on the other elements. This was the case with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

“I heard this is a sad book,” one student said when I assigned the first chapter, “One guy kills another guy.”
Other students looked up for my confirmation.
“Yes, this is a sad book, but the reason for the sadness is really about caring. We will grow to care for these characters.”
“I already don’t care if I already know what happens,” was his reply.
Four weeks later, this student refused to watch the final scene in the film version.
“I know what happens, and I cannot watch,” he said sadly as he walked out into the hall.

The same sentiments are expressed at the beginning of our study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“Guess what? They die,” said a student as I passed out the books.
“Yes, they die,” I kept passing out the copies.
“So why are reading this?” another asked.
“Because this is a great story,” I responded, “and the story’s ending will mean more after we finish because we will have read how Shakespeare writes about these ‘star-cross’d lovers’.”
“But we already know how it ends!” they whined.

Now that we are in Act III, no one cares that they know the end, instead, they are recognizing how Shakespeare creates the tragedy. They notice the “hints”: Juliet seeing Romeo “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb”, Friar Lawrence’s herbs of “Violent delights”, and “Love devouring death”.

This discovery of an author’s details makes students more appreciative of the craft in writing as they still try to predict. They notice Shakespeare’s allusions: “Such a wagoner/As Phaeton would whip you to the west/And bring in cloudy night immediately” (3.2.2-4), because we had studied the Phaeton myth earlier in the year.

“Uh-oh. That’s not good,” I heard one say, “Romeo’s gonna crash and burn like Phaeton.”

That kind of analysis is exactly what the English Language Arts Common Core would like to see in a close reading of a text. How interesting that students who already know “what happens” may be better at picking up on an author’s craft that a close reading generates.

Spoiler alerts do warn those readers or viewers who want to be surprised, but knowing the ending does not necessarily ruin the reading or viewing experience. Want to experiment? Here are 50 plot spoilers for 50 novels. I predict that each novel will not disappoint, even if you already know the ending.

muckRight about now, the last week of April, my Advanced Placement English Literature students are noticing a frantic tone creeping into my voice.

“No, finish this multiple choice practice FIRST, then complete the essay prompts. Any questions? No? Let’s go, now. Hurry….hurry….HURRY!!”
“Geez, you are so crabby lately,” notes one.

I am crabby; I understand the pressure they will be under during the AP exam in May, and I want them prepared. In contrast, they just want to be fourth quarter seniors.

These weeks are the “boot camp” weeks before the exam, and I am trying to improve their ability to respond quickly and decisively to a prompt. They will be writing three separate essays; each read by an audience of one, a reader who will grade hundreds of essays a day. They need to make a clear argument.

For practice, I offered a choice of four prompts to students. We just finished reading Eugene O’Neil’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night, and each prompt touched on one aspect of the play: the text, the characters, the theme. Rather than have them write a full essay response to a specific prompt, I had them write two separate opening and concluding paragraphs for their two chosen prompts. I gave them forty minutes to do both. The whining began immediately:

“I have a hard time just writing a beginning and an opening.”
“I always start in one place and end in another.”
“I need to write the middle or I can’t write the end!”

“That’s because you write to find out what you think,” I respond, “and that should show up in the introduction or the conclusion.”

Since the AP exam is a timed test, 120 minutes for three prompt analysis and response questions, timed practices are helpful. These truncated practice essays are incomplete and rough, but they do help students practice how to reconcile an introduction with a conclusion in a short time. In these hastily written drafts of beginnings and endings, I can help them distinguish their good ideas from linguistic clutter so an AP reader will better appreciate their argument. I do not want my students to make a thesis so hidden that the AP Reader is hunting for the “manifesto in the muck”.

What “muck” you ask? Essays cluttered with empty words:  a lot, kind of, sort of, actually, stuff, thing, very, really, quite

Essays cluttered with the muck of empty phrases:

  • Because of the fact of
  • The reason…is because

Essays cluttered with the muck of statements of the obvious:

  • The author uses diction and syntax to communicate his meaning.
  • The theme is the message the author is trying to communicate.
  • Words have meaning.

In one block period, the students wrote the truncated essays of introductions and conclusions in response to O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play,  A Long Day’s Journey into Night.  We reviewed each draft to find the one powerful statement that publicly declared that student’s view, a statement that could get an AP reader’s attention. The prompts are in bold; student’s statements below each prompt:

PROMPT #1: Select a line you find especially memorable; analyze the reasons for its effectiveness.

  • When I read about this family, it reminded me of the advice, “only the strong survive’; the Tyrone family lives like a pack of animals, not a family.
  • If the characters in the play had the ability to leave behind their past, forget the things that made them lesser, they would be better off.

PROMPT #2: Describe how the author manages to give internal awakenings, discoveries, changes in consciousness the sense of excitement, suspense, and climax usually associated with external action.

  • James is struck with the conflict of having someone say his greatest fear is being in a class he does not think he belongs. 
  • The choice presented to each character is which moral or ethical barrier to shatter in order to overcome the cycle of insanity.
  •  Literature is an extension of human understanding and comes from our musings, our curiosities, and our imaginations.

PROMPT #3: Discuss the contribution scenes of social occasions reveal about the values of the characters and the society in which they live.

  • Whether these experiences dealt with alcohol abuse, substance abuse, or general unhappiness in life, all topics were acted out to be ignored or forgotten about, yet these [experiences] remained the most memorable. O’Neill wanted the conflicts to be pushed aside, which then caused the audience to latch on and never forget.
  • We seek out the approval and forgiveness of others when our own soul’s condition is purely of our own pilot.

PROMPT #4: Explain how the tragic figure functions as an instrument of the suffering of others and that the suffering brought upon others by that figure contributes to the tragic vision of the work.

  • In this way, each individual’s poisoned action spreads like a virus and affects all those in its proximity devouring them to the point of self destruction.
  • Edmund’s sickness is not just  source of unwanted strains on the family; it is an object to represent the family relationship.

When I come upon one of the above statements, in the beginning or the end of the draft, I can almost hear the “clink” that went on in the student’s head (and hand) as he or she drafted the essay.  At a point in the writing conferences that followed, a student will agree, “Yeah, that was when I figured out what I was writing about.” My experience is that students write their way into a thesis, and it is important for the student to recognize that statement, so he or she can parse away the clutter, removing the muck so that the AP Reader can find that statement too.

During this last week of AP English Literature practice, students will work at drafting responses to prose and poetry prompts. They will be writing their responses quickly, and I will still be crabby. But because of the practice, there will be less muck that covers a student’s manifesto in an AP literature essay response. After that, they can go back to being 4th quarter seniors.

sols_6Why do I stay? This question is circulating on blogs and in videos by teachers from across the country. My friend Catherine, a teacher and literacy specialist, brought this question to my attention in her post this week. She was participating in a challenge organized by Two Writing Teachers called  The Slice of Life. The instructions for participating are on a link that goes first to a definition (“Slice of life is a phrase describing the use of mundane realism depicting everyday experiences in art and entertainment“) while other links provide procedures:

WRITE your slice. SHARE your link. GIVE some comments to (at least three) other slicers.

On one post she linked her Slice of Life post to blogger Beth Shaum’s video “Why I Stay”.  Catherine listed her reasons for staying and noted that other teachers have written about their reasons for remaining in the classroom, “despite changes in curriculum because of Common Core State Standards, new testing, and new evaluations that are being imposed on educators.” The video on Shaum’s blog addresses startling statistics about the teaching and the education profession:

More than 30% of new educators quit teaching after three years, and nearly 50% leave before hitting the five-year mark. (

Shaum’s video showed dozens of teachers from around the country sharing their reasons for staying in education.

I have not written to The Slice of Life challenge, but I did think the idea of recording my personal reasons as to why I have stayed and taught for 22 years in grades 6-12 would be an exercise that could both help me frame my own thinking and possibly encourage younger teachers who are often overwhelmed.

My reason for “why I stay” is purely selfish.…I want to share the stories.

I want to share with children, teens, and adults the stories they have read, seen, or heard.

I want to share the stories in picture books.
I want to share the stories in chapter books.
I want to share the stories in the canon.

So, I teach students to read stories so that we can talk and share the stories that make us human..

I want to share books.

I want to share books at every grade level.

hungry Whales Go_Dog_Go

I want to share books:

  • Go, Dog, Go
  • Hungry Hungry Sharks
  • The Whales Go By

I want to share more books:

  • Nancy Drew’s The Password to Larkspur Lane
  • The Twenty-One Balloons
  • A Wrinkle in Time

Larkspur wrinkle 21 balloons

I want to share novels:

  • Of Mice and Men
  • The Road
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I want to share stories written as dramas. I want to talk about:

  • Hamlet
  • Medea
  • The Importance of Being Ernest

I want to share stories made into film. I want to talk about:

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • The Shawshank Redemption

I want to share stories in poems. I want to talk about:

  • The Odyssey
  • Paradise Lost
  • The Cremation of Sam McGee

Guernica Fall of Icarus

GW Delaware

I want to share the stories in paintings. I want to talk about:

  • Guernica
  • The Fall of Icarus
  • George Washington Crossing the Delaware

I want to share the stories that were responsible for essays and speeches. I want to talk about:

  • The Gettysburg Address
  • A Modest Proposal
  • Self-Reliance

I want to share the stories of people’s lives, stories about nature, and stories that mark cultural trends. I want to share:

  • Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?
  • Silent Spring
  • The Tipping Point

From the ancient lights of the campfires to the soft glow from a Kindle, our stories record our humanity.I stayed 22 years in teaching because I want students to understand that record of humanity. I stayed 22 years in teaching because I want students to respond to stories through writing and through speaking. And I stayed because I wanted to encourage students to record their own stories. I want to read and hear and see their stories.

In this great cultural experiment of public education for ALL, I stay to share the stories.