Friday, May 21, 2010

My NCTE Gallery of Writing Submission

Our students are beginning to submit to our Gallery of Writing: Fredericksburg Academy Writers. Here is my submission:


I've always been told I have her hands.
My grandmother's ring twirls around my pinky,
the swirl of diamonds arranged in her jaunty style,
a sweeping crescent surrounding a single stone,
nothing staid or common.

My size eight fingers,
monstrous to my teenage eyes,
earned my acceptance
because they were her large fingers.

I see her hand as I watch the ring,
pale whiteness shot through with the purple of age,
the ring glittering as if to say,
"I have life in me yet."

We believed the ring.

I watch her ring twirl, my ring now.
It is too small for my fourth finger,
the finger she wore it on.
I guess I don't have her hands
after all.

Thank you to all of the members of the EC Ning writing group who helped me to revise this poem.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why do we read?

My AP English Literature class spent today reflecting on our lives as readers. Above (click the map to see a larger image so you can actually read it!) is a map of all of their choices for books they value in their lives -- some could not choose just one, some chose books their parents read to them years and years ago, some chose books they read last year ... But in the end, this is what they all decided was the answer to, "Why do we read?"
  • Because we find ourselves in books
  • Because we escape ourselves in books
  • Because books, even when read alone, connect us to a larger community
In other words, books are both ours and everybody's, and that is their beauty. Thank you, APEs of 2010 -- I will miss you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What Is Manhood?

I have made my choice about the senior course I wrote about in the previous post: I am gearing it to works these boys will (I hope) find engaging so they find themselves reflected in an English classroom and maybe choose to read more on their own. Hence, my draft essential question as the title of this post: I am going to present this course as a study of manhood around the world with them acting as my guide. We will (I hope again!) constantly question whether what is shown as manhood is embraced or denied, positive or negative, understandable or opaque. Here is a draft outline of the course -- with VERY draft forms of questions I am considering. Much thanks to the many "boy readers" thread on the EC Ning for many of the titles I am including. I would love ideas for questions you might ask with the literature we are reading.

Summer reading: An American man takes to the world out of dissatisfaction ... Why? Do we see ourselves in him in any way?
  • Required and self-selected essays from Michael Crichton's Travels
September: Where do we begin in thinking about why the world matters to us and manhood?
  • Self-selected reading tied to an area of interest from one of Crichton's essays
October/November: The Middle East ... What is all of the conflict about?
  • Excerpts from the Koran
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
  • The Pride of Baghdad
  • Excerpts from The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation
December/January: South America ... (still working on a draft question)
  • Short Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
January/February: Africa ... How does literature reflect a country's men? Does it?
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  • A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
March: India ... Where are we now?
  • Short stories from Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies
  • White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
April: What are we left understanding? What are we left wanting to know?
  • A second choice reading

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What Is Our Goal?

I have spent some time today thinking about next year. I am teaching for the first time our non-AP senior world literature course. Our core texts are: Things Fall Apart, A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Interpreter of Maladies, and The Master of Go. A blend of new and old with an eye towards different parts of the world. This course is shifting from one semester to the full year though, so there is plenty of room to grow it.

Which brought me to my question: What is my goal? Which brought me to my larger question: What is our goal as English teachers? More specifically (because that question can be answered in myriad ways): What is our goal for non-AP seniors in a required English class?

These students are not looking to be English majors. These students do not often write for fun, although I would venture to say that at least some read for fun. These students have traveled the traditional path of an introductory course, British lit, and American lit.

What should they do now?

I see two initial directions to choose between: a study of exemplary literature from different countries (The Master of Go and Things Fall Apart route) or a study of culturally-leaning yet more modern adaptations (A Thousand Splendid Suns route). Now since my course obviously has literature from both of these routes, I know it is not one or the other. But what emphasis should I have?

Oh, and did I mention that this course will be all boys?

What would you choose as your goal?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Exploring Genres

I have been looking forward to this day with my freshmen for a week now: today is when we started our final unit in Introduction to Genres. In the past, I have ended the year with a free choice reading where I suggested they read genres they enjoyed over the year, but inevitably 90% of them chose the familiar novel. This year, I shifted my guidelines to try to encourage exploration of a less-familiar genre they discovered this year. So, we began with brainstorming:

Which genre have you enjoyed reading the most this year?
A. Rank them from 1 (most enjoyed) to 5 (enjoyed but not as much!):
  • Short Stories ("The Most Dangerous Game," "To Hell with Dying," "Bluestown," "Death by Landscape," "Singing My Sister Down," "Rules of the Game," "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge")
  • Drama ("Trifles," The Importance of Being Earnest, Antigone)
  • Poetry (see our poems here)
  • Nonfiction/Autobiographies ("On Being a Cripple," Night)
  • Novels (Frankenstein)

B. For your #1 choice, how often have you read something in this genre entirely of your own choice?

C. For your #2 choice, how often have you read something in this genre entirely of your own choice?

D. Final question: Of these two, which genre have you learned you enjoy but choose to read the least?

Then, I asked them to consider reading in this genre that they found they enjoyed but really had never chosen to read on their own. And this is why I love my students: they went along with my suggestion. Out of my ten students (I had only one of my classes today), only 1 chose novel, and he chose it because he rarely reads them. I teased him that I would make him read Twilight so he could really get caught up on the novel genre! Of the other students, 2 chose short stories, 3 chose poetry, and 4 chose nonfiction.

I am using a modified literature circle for this unit where they will meet in genre-similar groups to compare what they are reading (since they will be reading different representations of the genre) and tease out a deeper understanding of their chosen genres. My final goal for them is to understand not only their genre but to understand why that genre appeals to them -- what style techniques and topics are common.

I always want to give my students choice in their reading, but I also really want to push them into new territory so they grow as readers and thinkers an discover new loves. I do not always strike a great balance between these sometimes conflicting pressures, but I think I have struck a homerun with this one.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Random Thoughts

I have been neglecting my blog lately. In fact, it has been so long since I have been here that it has become intimidating. What topic is possibly worthy of my first post in over a month? So, no topic it is. Here are some things drifting around my brain tonight:
  • Over 2 weeks off for snow was delightful -- free vacation! But it does actually have a longer term educational impact (shocker, I know). I am seeing it now with my AP English Lit class. I had to drop some assignments, and they were almost shell-shocked on Friday when they wrote a style analysis essay. Yes, evidently it had been even longer for them than the time since I have been to this blog.
  • Tied to this, spending time just talking is always good. That is what we did today when I handed back the essays. I was honest with them about three things: (1) no, these were not great essays, (2) I know they can write great essays, and (3) my goal was to help them regain their confidence not grade them. So, we talked about what they were feeling and thinking, and the result? They assigned themselves another essay on Thursday ... !! They really did.
  • Freshmen are really insightful. I love teaching freshmen -- always have -- but I had been forced to take a three year hiatus from my freshmen teaching. I am now in those halcyon days that come with 4th quarter freshmen, and I love how their minds work. If you have a minute, PLEASE read their theme posts on our class blog. There is little to nothing I need to say in class even as we are tackling Frankenstein. Very proud of them.
  • Planning using UbD is hard. Even for someone like me who really loves UbD ideas and is not even trying to complete all of those little spots in all of those planning sheets, it is hard. What is hardest for me is the doubt I have -- is this lesson worthy of UbD? Am I reaching towards an essential understanding right now, something more than this singular moment? Asking these questions has made me a better teacher absolutely, but I wonder about the sustainability of anyone going full force UbD. Or the confidence impact on a new teacher trying to go UbD. Don't have the answers in this post -- maybe you do and want to share?
  • Lynda Carter can really sing. I am a Wonder Woman girl -- she was my idol (and to be honest is still on my idol list -- who does not feel empowered by that woman??). Then I saw her in concert two nights ago, and thought to myself, "You slacker, you have only had one career. Lynda Carter has been Miss USA World, Wonder Woman, focused mom, and now international jazz sensation." Maybe UbD is easier to take than a Lynda Carter concert!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Blog Partners

I heard a great idea at this year's NCTE conference in a session on teaching the Holocaust: blog partners. I decided to adapt it for my students study of Elie Wiesel's novel Night. You can read their blogs here, and here is my assignment sheet.

I asked my students to reflect a little on this new format for our blogging, and here is what one of them wrote: "Doing what we're doing now, with the interactive posting/commenting, is also a new way of doing things and, unlike some assignments using sites like this, you have to actually think about what you're posting." Another student wrote: "It helps me improve my knowledge on the material we are learning because when I write a blog post it allows me to test myself and to see what I do or don't know about the material."

This has always been one of my favorite works to teach, and now I think I have a blogging system that is equally strong.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Millenials

I think about the state of our world and economy pretty regularly. With my own two children just starting out in school and with myself and my husband both being teachers, I find lots of reasons to ponder what the future holds for both better and worse. Therefore, this passage struck a chord with me: a snapshot of how life has truly changed for this generation dubbed "millenials." Not changed because of technology or their helicopter parents or their commitment to community service ... but changed because the world has changed in all of the ways listed at the beginning of this sentence and more.

"What are youth doing rather than working? A great number of them are participating in an academic career, prolonging their academic career or planning their academic career. Currently, the higher education system is the refuge of the Millennial generation.

"One would think that this generation would become embittered and start blaming those that preceded them for making decisions that have disrupted their progression toward their life goals. As is customary with this generation, they remain optimistic about their futures, focusing on entrepreneurial pursuits, improving their knowledge base and camping out with Mom & Dad a little longer. They're also getting an early start on raising a family, sometimes even prior to marriage. By time-shifting their desire for kids with their desire for a career, they are creating an extended-family reality that hasn't existed in American society since the depression." (from YPulse, "Portrait of Millenials")

What will our world become when these highly educated (let's hope our education system is up to the task of their extended stays) and differently committed (family coming before the career? who would have thought ...) can truly join in?

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I went to a great presentation on the power of rereading given by Tom Liam Lynch at NCTE this past fall. I am now in the midst of a rereading autobiography project with my freshmen. They and I all chose favorites to reread -- I gave them just about a month to do the rereading while we were studying poetry in class. Now they are writing their first drafts of their rereading autobiographies based on the essays in Rereadings edited by Anne Fadiman. This project has been good for a few reasons:
  • We are trying to incorporate more free choice reading in our 6-12 curriculum overall, and this is a different way to do so. We like to offer variety in the singular threads (free choice reading, portfolios) that move from 6th to 12th grades so students stay engaged.
  • The majority of the students, when I polled them after they had read their books, said they loved rereading and I should definitely have next year's freshmen reread, and some even thanked me for giving the assignment because it helped them remember why they liked to read (that is success enough alone!).
  • A very small number of students said they did not think I should do this project again because they do not like rereading. I was very intrigued by this because I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not like to reread. Yes, there are books I will never reread, but I have never disliked it period. These students, as freshmen, have a strong opinion that they just do not reread. I have asked them to explore this in their autobiographies, and I am intrigued to learn more about what is behind this.
  • A few students, who liked the idea of rereading, said that they picked books that were too recent -- they remembered everything about them so the rereading was arduous rather than fun. This is great feedback for me to help guide future classes in their choices should I do this project again
I hope their autobiographies turn out as thoughtful as I think they will be based on the brainstorming discussion we have had. That will be the true test of this whole project!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Wrapping Things Up

We have been having quite some snow for Virginia, and for a state that closes schools for a dusting, that means snow days. While I enjoy a surprise day off, it does wreak havoc on my lessons. So, last Friday, I had my poetry party with one section of freshmen, but alas, snow hit Monday and school was closed ... do I scrap the party for the other class to move on with the "real" work?

I was on the horns of a dilemma. We are reading Understanding by Design as a school, and I worried that my favorite poetry party was really not important -- that it was fun but that's it. Turns out this was a good worry for me to have because it made me think about why I love this day so much and why I was going to still have the party.

As the final day of our study of the poetry genre (I do not only study poetry in isolation by the way -- that is a topic for another post!), I bring in food and drink, and we spend the first part of class clicking through everyone's favorite original poems on our class wiki anthology. I project each student's poem, and they read it aloud. Then, as they are printing out their favorite poems for our bulletin board plus submitting poems to our school literary magazine, I play each of their recorded recitations.

The silence and attention that a group of freshmen give when their peers are reciting poetry, even when pumped with sugar from the donut holes I provided, is amazing and wonderful and every reason in the world to have this party. The reciters get practice, without me needing to call it this or grade it, on public speaking, and the class as a whole gets poetry rained down on them: poems their peers wrote, poems they themselves wrote, poems their peers love, poems they love, live readings, recorded skilled recitations. One of my students said it simply in her final reflective email: "I liked the poetry party and listening to what other people wrote."

Is my party UbD worthy? Turns out, it is. My students and I get to be with poetry in an informal and embracing way, and we end up celebrating our love of this oft-maligned genre. Another student wrote, "I learned that I really like writing poetry and will enjoy writing it in the future." My party will go on.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Not Quite Real Time Collaboration

I have started my students back on Diigo in the past week. We are working on poetry now, and I set up a wiki having learned from my last experience that Diigo gets wiggy on slower websites. Wikispaces, with its emphasis on collaboration, seems to be able to handle the extra layer of Diigo well.

However, all problems are not solved. My students can do great work when they have time outside of class to add Diigo comments and highlights. They did this for Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "We Real Cool" -- see their ideas here. Today I began class by having them read the comments on the poem, then they had to write a blog post about the poem incorporating something they learned from a classmates' comment. By the time we were ready to discuss, they had the poem pretty well dissected in their own minds. They shared the best ideas they had read, and I asked them if they felt they had a good grasp of what Brooks was trying to say. They did, so we next listened to her read her poem then read this interview with her. They were really impressed with themselves to learn that they had thought about all of the things Brooks herself had thought about. Neat.

But then things broke down. My next plan with Diigo which was to tackle another poem applying what we had learned about line breaks from Brooks. I planned to record their ideas on the poem using Diigo, and this is the wall I hit. As they were sharing ideas, my highlighter would work only half the time; comments sometimes appeared therefore and sometimes not. I ended up using markers on my dry erase board (which doubles as my projection screen) to do the highlighting just so I could stop hindering the forward flow of the discussion. Not quite what I had envisioned with using this tool.

My students were very patient with me as I struggled through this, but it ended up provoking comments from them on their experiences with Diigo. Turns out that most of them have these same problems repeatedly. They find Diigo therefore frustrating, and while they are obviously persevering and getting the out of class work done using it, it is not at all what I had thought was happening when I saw all of their homework done. I talked to them about how I love what Diigo can help us do -- how seeing each others' comments earlier in class had really informed their individual interpretations. Because they are kind people, they nodded and could see what I meant, but I am not sure the frustrations are not winning out in their minds. To be honest, they are starting to for me. An entire poetry discussion was derailed by trying to make Diigo work.

My wonderful tech resource Susan Morgan has done research for me into these issues, and what she has learned has left me feeling a little hopeless about solving them. Evidently, Diigo can be messed up by random settings on individual laptops. So, what could be stopping my highlights from always appearing is probably not the same problem that is stopping one of my students from seeing any of his comments. I am glad that Diigo seems to be a secure program, but I cannot troubleshoot individual blocks. I do not know enough, for starters, but who has the time for that?

What to do? Is this technology not the right answer for this work? Am I trying to fit a square peg into a round hole for the sake of technology here? I do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I struggle with using Diigo only as an out-of-class tool when what I really want is a real-time, immediate collaboration tool. Something I thought Diigo could be ...