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Today marks the 200th birthday of American writer (poet, essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist) Henry David Thoreau. I remember my first encounters with Thoreau were traditional, his essays read in my high school English class. Soon after, my choice of for a quote under my yearbook photo (a serious decision made after much deliberation) was his:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

“That’s a rather depressing sentiment,” my Aunt Rita had commented.
“It’s what I believe,” I had replied.

Therefore, I was surprised to discover that although I have taught his essays and discussed his literary impact on American Literature,  I have not yet written on this blog about Henry David Thoreau.  This post will correct my oversight.

In 2013, I created a Livebinder for my seniors who were reading the Bill Bryson book A Walk in the Woods. A Livebinder is a digital file cabinet where anyone can upload or link materials for others to use. The about page explains their purpose:

“We created LiveBinders so that you could do with digital information what you do with the piles of papers on your desk – organize them into nice presentable containers – like 3-ring binders on your shelf. With our online binders you can combine all of your cloud documents, website links and upload your desktop documents – to then easily access, share, and update your binders from anywhere.”

The materials on Livebinders can be accessed on all digital platforms, so that students could access it on their own devices. My Walk in the Woods Livebinder allowed me to place the link Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” explained in its republication in The Atlantic magazine

“In May 1862, the magazine published ‘Walking,’ one of his [Thoreau] most famous essays, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness.”

I still remember the opening phrase from the essay, “I wish to speak a word for Nature…”.
A student had grumbled, “There’s a lot more than one word here…”
His was an understatement. This particular Thoreau essay runs about 20 pages; a total of 12,188 words.

I did not require my students to read the entire essay, although I encouraged them to try. Instead I had them peruse the text until they found a passage that seemed interesting. They had to choose a quote, much like I had for my yearbook photo, that they found particularly profound and then write an explanation on why this quote was interesting or meaningful. . I still remember some of their choices, and their reflections on why they chose a particular passage such as:

  • Which is the best man to deal with—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?
  • In short, all good things are wild and free. 
  • When we should still be growing children, we are already little men

I learned that Thoreau’s sentiments spoke to their frustrations of growing up, or being talked at by know-it-all adults. Many of my students were vocational agriculture students who wholeheartedly agreed with Thoreau’s attitude towards ditching the classroom and getting outside:

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.of having to spend time indoors.”

Using Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” was my attempt to complement Bill Bryson’s memoir of his hiking on the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. Bryson’s writing was more accessible to the students than Thoreau’s 19th Century prose which is stuffed with allusions of all types. Unlike Thoreau, Bryson makes background instruction unnecessary.

Another accessible text for students was the picture book I placed on the Livebinder, the charming  Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B.Johnson.

Thoreau reimagined as a bear, enjoying Nature!

In this tribute to Transcendentalist philosophy, Johnson cast the naturalist Thoreau as a bear who hikes his way on a route (actually taken by the author), stopping to engage with several of his famous American neighbors (Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson) also as bears. Henry’s bear companion chooses to work in order to take the train, setting up a story that implies money cannot buy the experience of nature. Students found the message profound, and unanimously agreed that a bear was the perfect choice for Thoreau.

I also placed links to a number of other essays by famous (British) writers on walking:

…and some (American) song lyrics on walking:

I asked students to find their own walking songs to share in class.

There was also an audio essay from the series “Engines of Our Ingenuity” based on an invention (using clay) that Thoreau used to make better pencil out of inferior graphite. Who could have been more inspired to make a better pencil than a writer who used pencils in his writing?

I had hoped that students would be equally inspired to see the connections that Henry David Thoreau had to their lives, to see how he had inspired Bill Bryson and others to take walks in nature. How he promoted Nature as a way for students to gain knowledge about themselves and the world around them…. To encourage others to spend time in the kind of thought that “transcends” or goes beyond what they may see, hear, taste, touch or feel.

My hope was that my students could have Thoreau explain the importance of self-knowledge, “… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

40 years after choosing that yearbook quote, I have not shifted in that belief.

The Wamogo classroom libraries have many new titles, so perhaps an explanation as to how these titles are allowed into the classrooms at Wamogo for independent reading is in order.  Most of the books in the classroom libraries are books already available in the school library’s main collection. Unfortunately, like most schools, there have been, on occasion, challenges to titles taught or made available in classrooms in grades 7-12. Book challenges are made when a parent or guardian objects to content in a book, and there are some titles that receive challenges more frequently than others.

There are two steps that our English Department members employ in order to meet the requirements of a reading curriculum with the requests of parents or guardians. The first step is to offer students a choice in selecting independent reading or to offer an alternate core text. Because of our extensive used book collection, (see our book flood!), our English teachers are often able to offer another title instead.

The second step employed is the focus on lessons that develop skills rather then then lessons that dwell on content. Our curriculum incorporates activities and prompts that address similar themes or topics, so that the difference in titles does not impact a lesson. Prompts such as, “What is the role of the main character in his or her family? Does that role change?” are designed so that students do not always need to be reading the same text in order to participate.  For example, the Contemporary Native American unit in Grade 11 is centered on Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees as the core text. Titles offered as alternates or for independent reading include Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or  Reservation Blues, Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee, and Codetalkers by Joseph Bruchac. Students can choose a different book in this unit and still answer the prompts and participate in activities individually or in literature circle groups. One topic that connects these titles is how Native Americans view others and how they are viewed by others in society.

Unfortunately, book challenges are often in schools made against many of the books that are in the classical canon of literature.

A YouTube compilation quickly lists the top 100 banned books:

In fact, it would be impossible to teach a survey of American literature without incorporating at least one challenged title; most are on the Advanced Placement Literature recommendation’s list. The American Library Association (ALA) keeps a record of book challenges throughout the United States.  There are lists of books that have been banned; one such  web page  is titled The Top Ten Banned or Challenged Classics.

The reasons for challenging a book are as varied as the books themselves. The entire Harry Potter series has been challenged for a number of reasons dealing with witchcraft; one challenge called the series “evil” attempt to indoctrinate children in the Wicca religion. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has been repeatedly challenged for containing profanity. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn was recently challenged in Connecticut for the repeated use of a derogatory term. These challengesdiffer from the specific objections leveled against Nabokov’s Lolita which has been banned for the obsessive relationship of the middle-aged Humbert Humbert’s with the 12 year old “Lolita”. These examples illustrate the breadth of topics than can result in book challenges or having the book banned entirely.

As a result, most teachers “self-censor”, choosing materials that they consider not objectionable, harmful, or insensitive for students.  However, there are instances where a teacher may not anticipate a challenge; what one group of parents deems inappropriate may not concern another group of parents.

Our solution is to offer a student choice in reading materials which necessitates that more titles representing a wide variety of reading levels are made available to students. Book choices for students are often advertised on websites such as Livebinders  or on a class wiki which is public.  Concerns about the merits of a book should be weighed by all stakeholders- parents, students and teachers- if there should be a question about a student selecting a text. Having a title available may not be enough of a reason to incorporate the book into a lesson plan or unit. Confronting concerns immediately in the teaching of any text is a priority.

In order to draw attention to book challenges in schools and public libraries, the American Library Association publicizes a Banned Books Week. This year, banned book week will run from September 24- October 1, 2011.They organize activities and materials in order “to highlight the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings.” Educators are often the first to encounter challenges for book removal. Offering choice may be the most successful way to accommodate the parent and still engage the reader.