Sunday, June 29, 2008

How do we challenge readers?

I have been thinking quite a bit about this question ever since the 8th grade English teacher and I started trying to figure out why the texts we had been teaching for quite a bit of time seemed "too hard" for our current 8th graders. Had the students really changed, and if so, how could they have changed so quickly?

I started my thinking by charting the reading and interest levels of all of the texts we teach from 5th grade to 12th. I used Follet's Titlewave site, which gives both their own ratings as well as Accelerated Reader's ratings. I had talked with our librarian, so I knew to take it all with a grain of salt. But she said that if the ratings came close, we could count on them being pretty true to the reading skills and interests of a certain grade.

So what did I find? Our 8th grade problem was actually a 7th grade problem. The 7th grade curriculum has been in flux as we try to pin down what we really want it to be, and what has happened in this is that we unknowingly retained only the "easiest" reads. Our students are jumping from 5th/6th grade reading levels to 8th/upper grade levels -- so I sympathize with our 8th graders now, and I am spending some of my reading time this summer looking for the magic bullet work to add to 7th grade. One that is not too mature for a 7th grader content-wise, but one that does challenge them for reading. I have read some great books -- The Trial by Jen Bryant, The Legend of the Wandering King by Laura Gallego Garcia, and Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. But I have not found the right book just yet ... any ideas to share with me?

Let me end with my own class, AP English Literature. This exercise in studying our progression of texts was great for me personally beyond the good work we did as a department. I am now working to find a way to add William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying to my course to add one work that pushes my students to their reading limits. I know some of my students will work hard and yet stay a bit perplexed by a text of this level, but I know other students will find skills beyond anything they knew they had. I know I will have to work hard to teach this novel because I am no Faulkner expert in any way, and he is a tough nut to crack even for the experts. This novel will be a great challenge, and what a gift I can give my students and myself. Let's see the heights we can reach together.

My next book on my summer reading list is Faulkner's. So, from award-winning YA to Pulitzer-Prize-winning southern literature, I am having a great time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Inspiration of Shel Silverstein

I was cleaning out my son's room the other day and came across a book that had slipped behind others: Caroline Kennedy's A Family of Poems. My daughter, ever the questioner, said, "Mommy, what is that book? We have never read that one before." And thus started what has turned into three days of poetry. We have read the book at home, at the doctor's office, in the backyard ... We moved then into Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, my all-time favorite book of poetry because of the hours I spent with it when I was younger. My kids seem interested, as interested as they are in reading any other book. They tend to love to be read to, so this is just another fun thing for them.

But for me it has been quite a few days. For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read and write poetry. This eventually became a love for teaching poetry too. But along the way of early years of lesson planning followed by years of small babies, I left poetry behind. What a wonder then for me to rediscover it now. When was the last time you sat down and read a poem just to read it? If you can say, "Oh yesterday," then lucky, lucky you. But if it has been even half as long for you as it was for me, then I wish you a moment with your Shel Silverstein, your kid-inspiring poet.

"It's Dark in Here" by Shel Silverstein

I am writing these poems
From inside a lion,
And it's rather dark in here.
So please excuse the handwriting
Which may not be too clear.
But this afternoon by the lion's cage
I'm afraid I got too near.
And I'm writing these lines
From inside a lion,
And it's rather dark in here.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Why must we think?

I think this might become my essential question for my world literature/AP English Literature class. Why is thinking so important, and how does reading literature and studying authors and examining other cultures help us to become world citizens who think? An editorial in my local newspaper this morning brought it on: "'New Atheists': Englightened guides to perdition." It is an intriguing interview that is worth reading, if only for the fact that you might disagree with Chris Hedges's book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Here is a snippet, "We've learned to speak and think in the epistemology of television, which is essentially filled with thought-terminating cliches ... There is a kind of war against self-reflection, self-criticism, and real introspection." I believe literature of all kinds, and specifically the literature and themes my seniors study, can create a culture of intellect and thought. Self-reflecting and collaborating around the world through technology is one of the main ways of showing my students how real this thinking really is. Anyone want to become my class's partner as they study Brave New World, religious texts, Siddhartha, The Alchemist, Othello, Gilgamesh, The Metamorphosis, or Things Fall Apart?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Text Rationales

This blog, as I have discovered, is really a "Part 2" to the essential questions post below. I am working with my school's English department to get on record the reasons we teach each of the works we teach. We do not have lots of questions about our choice of books, but they do crop up. What has been the bigger need for the rationales is to help teachers new to teaching a class know why they are teaching a certain text. And this brings it right back to the essential questions -- every text we teach needs to build to those overriding questions. As I wrote a sample rationale for the department to see, this connection to the essential questions was immediately evident. I felt like I was writing paragraph one of an essay on how I build my class around my essential questions. I know I can be a curriculum geek, but I really love thinking about this stuff!

In case you are curious, here is my rationale for teaching Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I look forward to any and all feedback.

Seniors open their study of world literature in AP English Literature with this British classic, a dystopian view of the world’s future. As the cornerstone of the course’s first theme, “Utopias and Dystopias,” Brave New World offers key understandings the students build upon throughout the thematic unit as well as throughout the year. First, as a work originally written in English, the novel is an excellent opening to in-depth style analysis, a core skill of the AP curriculum. Studying Huxley’s diction and mood leads students directly into understanding the thematic objectives of the work, particularly how Huxley creates a society he ultimately does not agree with. By studying the presented society through its citizens' eyes and the underlying narrative of Huxley’s own view of this society, students learn they must read with critical eyes or miss what an author is actually saying.

The novel poses two potential problems. First, the setting of the novel, future London, requires students to understand another culture. This problem is not too challenging though, as the culture is similar to the students’ own, and this is why the novel is a great entrance to the year. In later works, students are introduced to cultures that seem totally foreign, so they learn key skills for interpreting a culture through this more relatable work. The second potential problem is the sexual mores of the society Huxley creates. This is a mature book, one that is read only by seniors. These seniors must work to understand that Huxley is not promoting the values of his society; instead, he is condemning them. Through the careful reading required by the text, students can understand the mature themes in the context Huxley intends.

By studying Brave New World, our students are beginning their literary world travels by establishing two fundamental skills: careful reading and deciphering new cultures.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Essential Questions

I spent a great few hours on our last faculty workday of the year reflecting on this year and looking towards next as our division head asked us to define essential questions for each of our courses (based on Understanding by Design -- this book has landed in my life in quite a few ways this spring -- see posts below -- I guess I am meant to use it!). The most invigorating part of the afternoon for me was spending time talking about good teaching with my colleagues. That kind of conversation always seems to be the first to go when things get too busy during the school year because it seems less pressing than the upcoming deadlines of comments or grades or interims. But the irony of course is that this is THE MOST pressing part of education. Why give grades for a course that is not as well-designed for the students' learning as it can be? Why give grades for assessments that don't strive for any defined goal? What do those grades mean without the underpinning of good teaching?

I have worked mightily this year to develop my PLN with Web 2.0 tools, and I have found some great resources of teachers all over the world (follow great teachers CoolCatTeacher, Thespian70, or AngelaMaiers on Twitter or read Susan's blog on using tech well, J. Clark Evans's blog on melding teaching and tech, or Cruel Shoes about the big ideas of teaching). But talking face-to-face with the teachers in my own building cannot be replaced. To know that I am teaching with other great educators and that we are all trying to be the best we can be creates an energy that encourages me even more.

So, here are the essential questions our English department drafted for our core courses. These are all still in the working stages, so please help us revise if you have ideas.

Introduction to Genres (9th grade):
  • What do we learn from the “masters” about how to write well?
  • How can you use these tools to make your own writing “masterful”?

British Literature (10th grade):

  • How can the written word change society?
  • What is the "British literary tradition"? (first semester)
  • How do these works challenge the traditions? (second semester)

American Literature (11th grade):

  • Who am I as an American?
  • How does the literature and an understanding of its chronology and themes show how we as a people came to be who we are today?

World Literature (12th grade, including AP English Lit):

  • Who am I as a citizen of the world?
  • How does the literature and an understanding of the geography and culture from which it came expand your world view?

I look forward to hearing your ideas, combining my real-life colleagues with my virtual ones.