Addressing Racial Injustice Through Allyship: Teaching to See by Using Poetry

Sharon Rudnicki

Introduction

    In 2016, America was treated to two excellent television series that focus on the life of O.J. Simpson, FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America. By delving into Simpson’s murder trial against the backdrop of Los Angeles’ unchecked police brutality in an honest and thoughtful manner, both shows succeed in explaining why the majority of white Americans were so shocked when Simpson was found innocent of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and why the majority of black Americans were elated when the verdict was read. While it would seem that everyone was watching the same trial and considering the same evidence, this was clearly not the case. What most white Americans, including myself, did not see was how most blacks historically saw the LAPD – as a group of powerful, government employees who had no regard whatsoever for the civil rights of black people and who were never held accountable for using excessive force or even killing black people whom they encountered on the job. Even when cameras captured every moment of police brutality, as in the case of Rodney King, the justice system failed, thus perpetuating the message that black lives didn’t matter. These television treatments of Simpson’s trial hopefully allowed many white Americans to see – and, therefore, understand – the reaction of many black Americans to the verdict. Black Americans could see – because they had seen – police plant evidence, lie on the witness stand, and abuse their powers. The issue for the purpose of this article is not whether Simpson should have been found guilty or innocent or whether the prosecution should have prepared better or whether Simpson’s “dream team” of lawyers conducted themselves ethically. Instead, the purpose is to show how English teachers can take a lead role in educating students to see the lasting effects of slavery on the African American community; reading selected poetry can prompt greater understanding and bring students who have not been affected by racism to a place of action and allyship.

American Slavery

     In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the difficulties black Americans have had protecting their bodies, both from acts committed by white people in power and by members of the poor black community who use violence to assert  a semblance of status and power. By using the form of a letter written from father to son, Coates writes,

You would be a man one day, and I could not save you from the unbridgeable distance between you and your future peers and colleagues, who might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of a distant past that need not be discussed.  And I could not save you from the police, from their flashlights, their hands, their nightsticks, their guns. Prince Jones, murdered by the men who should have been his security guards, is always with me, and I knew that soon he would be with you.” (90)

     For the 15% of the students at my all-girls’ school who identify as African American, Coates’ words are not shocking. However, for many of the remaining 85% of students at my school, it is unimaginable that a father, today, in the United States, would feel powerless to protect his child. While our school has been educating faculty and students about white privilege, it is understandable that my students have a hard time talking about race when the country as a whole struggles to do the same. It is difficult to see an issue from another person’s point of view when the majority of our schools and neighborhoods are not integrated. And while most of my white students can share experiences of how it feels to be viewed suspiciously as potential shoplifters when they go shopping, they do not experience being the subjects of the gaze because of their race. When a parent is pulled over by the police for speeding, they may fear that their parent may have a pay a hefty speeding ticket. However, I doubt it would ever cross their minds that an encounter with the police may result in bodily injury. So how can students who are not black gain a fuller understanding of Coates’ words? Is the Black Lives Matter movement only a result of the past few years of police brutality? If slavery ended so long ago, how could it possibly be relevant today? In 11th grade, students at my school study American history. Reading literature allows them to see human faces beneath the textbook and to connect with other people’s experiences on a more emotional level. In my English class, reading poetry written by black Americans not only validates these writers as artists worthy of study in a high school curriculum, but also allows all students to reach a new critical understanding of how our country’s history has shaped the experiences of the black community.

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Closing the Door on Standardized Test Preparation and Opening the Door to Next Generation Literacy

 

Vicky Giouroukakis, Ph.D., and Maureen Connolly, Ed.D.

Introduction

     “I want to facilitate learning that helps students be the best versions of themselves.”  

     “I teach to inspire a new generation of book lovers!”

     “I teach to change lives!”

     “I teach to show students how BRILLIANT they can be!”

These are the words of four graduate students who are excited about becoming English teachers as of September 2016.  Notice anything about their reasons for teaching?  No one mentions wanting to increase students’ test scores.  We believe that you would be hard-pressed to find a teacher candidate or practicing teacher who chose this profession because of a passion for test preparation, but as teachers and students are facing mandated standardized assessments like PARCC, Smarter Balanced, the new SAT and ACT, as well as local measures to determine student growth, we are growing concerned that the level of importance placed on these assessments will lead to teaching to the test in order to ensure student promotion and teacher retention.  According to Neill, “humans learn best through active thinking. ‘Learning’ while not thinking is like remembering lists of phone numbers one will never call. Memorization of facts and procedures has its place, but deep learning must engage the brain and spur thinking. Teaching to the test rarely accomplishes either” (43). This phone number analogy brings to light the importance of authentic learning experiences rather than test prep; however, many teachers may believe that they can only teach effectively if they close the classroom door to surreptitiously engage students in authentic learning experiences that don’t look like standardized test prep.  We believe that the door needs to stay open, and teachers and students alike need to make the case that learning is about more than a test score.

This seems like an obvious statement.  We know plenty of teachers, parents, and students who would agree.  Guess who else agrees? The College Board.  In 2014, The College Board issued the following statement:

We firmly believe that rates of college and career readiness and postsecondary success will not improve if teachers and students are distracted by the need to speed through impossibly broad course content and spend time on narrowly cast test preparation in an understandable but misguided effort to boost scores at the expense of mastery of critical knowledge, skills, and understandings. Further, we believe that the rates of college and career readiness and postsecondary success will improve only if our nation’s teachers are empowered to help the full range of students practice the kinds of rigorous, engaging daily work through which academic excellence can genuinely and reliably be attained. (14)

In this article, we share ways to close the door to test preparation and open the door to authentic learning that will help students succeed not only on standardized exams, but also in life beyond school. How do we determine student success when it comes to Next Generation Literacy?  As English teachers, we look to the Capacities of the Literate Individual.

Opening the Door to Developing Next Generation Literacy

     Think of the daily literacy practices of one adolescent who is typical of many of his peers. We will call him Ben. Ben wakes up in the morning and checks his cellphone for texts and emails; he responds and maybe uses social media to post something online. He scans Flipboard for the latest news. He gets ready and puts on his headphones to listen to music as he rides the bus to school. In school, Ben travels from one subject class to the next and learns content through reading, writing, and speaking as well as research and study in various ways. Both in class and at home, Ben works on varying assignments that require him to use his knowledge and experiences to understand and acquire new information as well as express his opinions verbally or in writing while using supporting evidence and logical reasoning. Technology is used to varying degrees as a means of learning and communicating content. What technology he selects to use and how he uses it in order to demonstrate his knowledge depends on the task, audience, purpose, and subject-area.

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Writing is Elemen‘tree’: A Visual, Auditory, and Tactile Framework for Navigating the Writing Process

Lyndi Maxwell, PhD

Abstract

This article describes how teachers can use manipulatives, visual aids, and poetry to help students navigate a process-approach writer’s workshop.  The workshop is presented as being analogous to how a squirrel navigates an oak tree, as the squirrel represents the writer, each part of the oak tree represents a stage of the writing process, each acorn represents an element of writing, and the harvested acorn collection represents the finished piece of writing.  A rhyming verse accompanies each stage serving as a reminder of what each stage entails.  The workshop includes the following six stages: 1) rehearse; 2) write; 3) receive; 4) revise; 5) publish; and 6) share.  Each stage is discussed individually in terms of: 1) writing activities; 2) an example of how to apply each stage to whole-class interactive writing; and 3) an example of how one student applied each stage to his own work as he transitioned from interactive to independent writing.

Introduction

     “I’m done!” “I already checked it.” “Nothing needs fixed.”  Writing time seemed to sound an alarm of restless third-graders hurriedly making these claims.  Discouragement would immediately set in, as I knew it wasn’t “done”, they hadn’t “checked it”, and a lot of things needed “fixed!”  I wondered why, even after modeling and interactively writing our way through the writing process, students consistently struggled to retain and execute it.  It was spelled out so clearly and sequentially to me: 1) pre-write, 2) write, 3) revise, 4 ) teacher conference, 5) edit, and 6) publish.  Where was the disconnect?

Eventually, the work of writing research pioneers such as Don Graves (1983), Nancy Atwell (1998), and Lucy Calkins (2003) illuminated my mistakes.  I had not made writing the predictable, recursive process that students needed.  Instead, I had expected them to take leaps and make assumptions that, without explicit instruction, guided practice, and specific feedback, are not developmentally realistic for third-graders.  Specifically, I had expected them to read their own writing, find fault within their own writing, and revise it into something that was “good enough” for me.  They had no conceptual understanding of the writing process, and I had been conflating my “teaching” writing to their actual “learning” of it.  In reality, our “writing process” looked more like this: 1) student writes something, 2) reads it to me, 3) I edit it and return it, and 4) students neatly rewrites draft, having produced a final piece that showed no noticeable growth from the original one.  It had become to feel more like my grade than theirs, and problematically, I had allowed it to become more of a transaction rather than the transformation I had envisioned.

My students needed writing instruction opposite of what I had been giving them.  They needed to write within a systematic framework to understand that writing is not a transaction, but a transformation in which they see their thoughts and ideas take shape and unfold.  They needed to understand that writing is enhanced through social interaction via peer conferences, teacher conferences, and also through individual reflection.  Most importantly, they needed to experience the sense of pride that comes with seeing how far one’s writing has progressed.

While the writing workshop I implemented is derived from the seminal work of Graves (1983), Atwell (1998), and Calkins (2003), it supplements their work in that it provides students with a predictable, comprehensive visual display of the writing process.  Moreover, it combines visual, auditory, and tactile modes of learning (See Figure 1).  For instance, students visually see each stage of the writing process, which provides a sense of comfort and understanding of where s/he has been, where s/he is currently at, and what s/he must do in order to progress to the next stage.  Students benefit from accompanying rhyming verses, which signify the writing expectations at each stage, while they also move a squirrel around an oak tree as a representation of oneself progressing through each stage of the writing process.  Please note that the intent here is to guide students in understanding the stages of the writing process, rather than an in-depth how-to guide to enhance the quality of students’ writing.

The purpose of this article is to share how in a rural Midwest, general education classroom  I implemented a process-approach writer’s workshop complete with the aforementioned visual, auditory, and tactile components to guide twenty-one third-grade students through the writing process.  A research and theory section first underscores the importance of early childhood writing and briefly describes the workshop’s theoretical framework.  This is followed by a description of the workshop’s conceptual model, and proceeded by the “Writer’s Workshop” section, in which the following six stages are discussed: 1) rehearse; 2) write; 3) receive; 4) revise; 5) publish; and 6) share.  While it is understood that the writing process is recursive rather than linear and not every student will progress through the workshop in exactly the same manner, in the interest of clarity, each stage is discussed sequentially in terms of: 1) the writing activities; 2) an example of how to apply each stage to whole-class interactive writing; and 3) an example of how one student applied each stage to his own work as he transitioned from interactive to independent writing.

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Dogmatism and Teaching Writing

Alexandra Glynn

The great writing textbooks seldom prompt aspiring writers to be certain. The ancients assumed that they would already be, so there was no need to discuss it. The moderns deride certainty. But how many times have writing teachers had to correct an “I think that the political atmosphere is…” by deleting the “I think”? And put a question mark in the margin next to “People generally believe in my opinion that we are all…” and the like? Fish states that the advice found in books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which he sums up as “write short sentences, be direct, don’t get lost in a maze of piled-up clauses, avoid the passive voice, place yourself in the background, employ figures of speech sparingly” is helpful only as it relates to a purpose (37). So people learning to write need to know what their purpose in writing is, and what their audience is. But it is also true that the problems of long sentences, indirectness, masses of vague clauses, and the like, come from writers who are not certain of what they think, or what they are trying to argue.

Wayne Booth once illustrated the need to address root causes when he wrote of a man he worked with who had taught composition many years and who was “incapable of committing any of the more obvious errors that we think of as characteristic of bad writing” but yet this gentleman “could not write a decent sentence, paragraph, or paper until his rhetorical problem was solved.” In this particular instance, the rhetorical problem was that the gentleman had to find “a definition of his audience, his argument, and his own proper tone of voice” (139). Once he was able to be sure of even a few important things, he wrote wonderfully.

Nowadays, as mentioned above, a rhetorical problem is the lack of certainty. The creeds that laud lack of commitment are found in all intellectuals from French philosophers to Samuel Beckett, and even T. S. Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time” (510). Thus the emphasis in writing studies in on exploring and being creative, not on understanding and repeating to others that which is true. Susan Sontag, writing about Roland Barthes summarizes his style as confidently asserting yet it “insists that its assertions are no more than provisional” (427). Not many people can be so unsure and still write well.

The problem of lack of sureness also comes at least partly out of the celebrated romantic ideology that “the act of composing is a kind of mysterious growth” that comes from the great well of wonderful things that is in each person (Young 132). Forsyth, in The Elements of Eloquence, notes this truth about the romantics that they celebrate the individual’s creativity above all else. He also says there is a notion out there that if “somebody learns how to phrase things beautifully, they might be able to persuade you of something that isn’t true” (4). So, I might add, the beautiful phrasing is left to the demagogues, hucksters, and charlatans who are unafraid of persuading people of that which is not true. But whether lack of sureness is from an over emphasis on celebrating the creativity that is in each of us, or if it is from a commitment to the truth that there are no truths, it seems to me it is still an issue worth discussing. I think perhaps even a student’s desire to cheat comes from being assigned a certain controversial topic about which one is not at all sure of anything.

In terms of teaching writing, when the dominating ideology is that we are never allowed to settle on an assertions and be sure of them, the teacher is to design “occasions that stimulate the creative process” (Young 133). What results, it is widely thought, is always worthwhile, good, and should be agreed to by all, even if it logically contradicts that which comes out of someone’s own well. Now, this can make for interesting compositions, all this creativity and experience-arguing, but is that the only possible way to teach writing? People are reasonable, or assumed to be, and when presented with two incompatible truths they don’t all automatically weave leis and dance around the oak tree celebrating diversity of thought. Mainly students get confused. And their confusion is reflected in how they communicate. They cannot write a thesis statement because they don’t think anything is true for sure. Alternatively, as writing teachers constantly see, they write four theses statements in one paper. Continue reading

The Formation of Thesis Statements: Beyoncé in the Secondary English Language Arts Classroom

Summer Melody Pennell

Abstract

The author shares an example from her own teaching experience (with a student population of primarily African-American and Latinx youth) that illustrates that the lyrics and video for Beyoncé’s Formation can be used to teach thesis statements. This lesson was successful because (a) the lyrics paired with the video created depth of meaning, and (b) it highlights Beyoncé’s strengths because of her blackness, not in spite of it.

Introduction

          “What is Beyoncé day?” my students asked, as they entered the classroom and saw “Beyoncé Day! Get in Formation” displayed on the overhead projector screen. I replied that we were going to use the lyrics (Williams, Brown, Hogan, & Beyoncé) and music video (Beyoncé) for Beyoncé’s Formation to learn about thesis statements. Students were cheering, dancing and singing as we watched the video, and this engagement remained as I gave a more traditional PowerPoint-accompanied lecture on how to brainstorm on themes, create thematic statements, and write a thesis statement. I have taught thesis statements to students from middle school to college, using texts ranging from magazine advertisements to Harry Potter, and this lesson resulted in more student engagement and depth of analysis than any of my previous attempts. I think this success is owed to a few key factors: other than the fact that this song was already popular with most students, (a) the lyrics and video combined to create an incredible depth of meaning, and (b) the song highlights Beyoncé’s strengths because of her African-American roots, not in spite of them, which further connected with the students.

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Infographic-Making Activity

Infographic-Making Activity

By Michael MacBride

[pdf version here: MacBride-Infographic-activity]

Objective:

To encourage the use of charts, graphs, maps, and other infographics in student writing.

Approximate Time Required: 30 minutes

Materials Needed:

  • A computer with access to the internet and access to the video “Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories” available a number of online locations, including: https://vimeo.com/53286941 or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-84vuR1f90
  • It also helps if the class has access to a computer lab, or their own laptops, but this can be done as a handwritten activity also.

Rationale:

Just as photographs can convey complex ideas efficiently, so too can graphs, charts, maps, and other infographics. Students tend towards citing statistics and cluttering their writing with attempts to regurgitate difficult source material. Though summary and paraphrase should certainly be encouraged, having students create a graph, chart, map, or other infographic is a creative way to encourage them to employ the skills of summary and paraphrase without their realizing that’s what they’re doing. In order to create a unique infographic, students need to have conducted research and have the ability to understand what they’ve read and find a pattern (or sense of organization) in the material. Not only are these infographics insightful and useful to liven up student projects, but they are also deceptively complex to create (but very rewarding when completed).

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What is a civic-minded student and how can we foster this in our classrooms?

What is a civic-minded student and how can we foster this in our classrooms?

by Heidi Burns

[pdf version here: Burns, Heidi–News Summary Activity]

(Burns also has a new book forthcoming, which contains similar activities ready to plug into your classroom. Check it out here: http://amzn.to/1U4195g)

Civic-minded students are those who are both engaged and informed about the realities that exist outside of their world as students. College composition classrooms are a great place to teach students how to engage in conversations on current events. In my own classroom, I accomplish this by using an activity called The News Summary (see below for assignment sheet). This activity incorporates a student learning management system with in-class discussions to foster civic awareness in the classroom while cultivating the skills of audience awareness, primary source evaluation, source summary, content analysis, and engaged dialogue.

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Five ways in which high-quality literacy instruction can increase student interest in our content areas

“Five ways in which high-quality literacy instruction can increase student interest in our content areas”

By: Kelly Birkett

[pdf version here: Birkett-FiveWays]

Each year, on the day after Labor Day, the invasion begins.  We stand in the hall next to our classrooms at the sound of the warning bell, and feel the adrenaline rush through our veins as we hear the sound of excited chatter of our new students.  It continues to pulse through as we go through a checklist in our heads — are the seating charts finished? Is the bulletin board bright and colorful enough? Will our students actually get something out of our classes this year?  I know on that first day I think about the successes I have had, and I also reflect back on things I’d like to change.  I would like to fix those days when I felt like I would get more response out of a jello mold than my students.  In my first sentence I referred to the arrival of the kids as an invasion, and what I meant by that was it was an invasion of student robots.  They come in each day to sit at their desks or lab tables, and proceed to meticulously take the notes that I give them, or do the lab activity that I give them, or work on a project that I give them.  Yes, it is very teacher-driven, so, what happens when they actually have to…wait for it…READ something?  If our students are only doing enough class work to just get by, the likelihood that much of what they are reading from a disciplinary text is being absorbed into their eternal long term memories is, well, not very likely.

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Building Literacy in all classrooms

Building Literacy in all classrooms

by Melissa Brandt                   

[pdf version here: Brandt-BuildlingLiteracy]                   

As new teachers embark on the challenge of the classroom, they are given a barrage of guidance: be nice to students, but not friends; care, but be firm; establish rules, but let the kids work out the procedures; incorporate high-quality literacy, but keep it interesting. It’s enough to send the faint of heart running for the hills. There are plenty of resources available to help guide teaching in appropriate rule setting, but what about the incorporation of literacy? The good news is that there are resources for literacy challenges, too. Answers that will help keep kids learning without sacrificing interest in any content areas. In fact, all of these challenges can be accomplished through a change in mindset, an understanding of disciplinary literacy, and an inclusion of literacy techniques in a classroom setting.

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The “Write” Track: Effectively Leading Your School to Incorporate Writing in Every Classroom

The “Write” Track: Effectively Leading Your School to Incorporate Writing in Every Classroom

by Dr. Jennifer Simpson

[pdf version here: Simpson-TheWriteTrack]

Currently, 42 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards (NGA).  Minnesota adopted the ELA standards, but not the math. Within the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, there are specific writing standards that have been a traditional focus for the English teacher. In addition to this, writing standards are provided for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. This shift from writing typically being an “English classroom issue” to preparing all content teachers to teach writing is an issue for administrators specifically at the high school level. Additionally, administrators and teachers must strategically plan how to give writing instruction more time and focus each school day. A high school example of writing across the curriculum, and how to implement the model are described to offer some suggestions for leaders who want to focus on writing.

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Making literacy teaching a priority in a culturally diverse classroom

Making literacy teaching a priority in a culturally diverse classroom

by Adrienne Rische

[pdf version here: Rische-LiteracyTeachingCulturallyDiverse]

Implementing culturally relevant pedagogy in the classroom has become an increasingly important priority for English teachers. In this piece, I will explore the difficulties that come with selecting culturally relevant texts and many of the misconceptions that teachers have about teaching literacy in culturally diverse classrooms. Continue reading

Technology and Critical Thinking

Technology and Critical Thinking: Effects of 21st Century Tools on the 20th Century Brain

by Jennifer Hiltner

[pdf version here: Hiltner–Technology and Critical Thinking]

In education, a tidal wave of technology is upon educators, administrators, and students. The message to teachers by students and the media is clear: get on your board; we are ready to ride. However, some conservatives, dubbed as technophobes, are hesitant to put on their flippers. There is a growing body of literature to suggest that the ubiquitous access to technology is really hurting us – young people and adults alike. The scientific research supporting either side of this argument is thin. At best, either side can cite a handful of sound scientific studies; at worst, each side has conjecture. So, what is best for students? Does American society’s constant connectedness to technology really hamper our ability to think critically, pay attention, and maintain focus? Continue reading

A Tale of an Introductory Literature Class Gone Well

A Tale of an Introductory Literature Class Gone Well (with practical ideas for use in any literature-based class!)

by Heidi Burns

[pdf version here: Burns-LiteratureClass]

Teaching introductory-level English courses has many positive and negative aspects for the instructor. The obvious positives include working with students who haven’t yet become disillusioned with the system, the ability to work from the most basic skills and then witness students turn those skills into successful mastery of the learning outcomes, and the sheer joy that one witnesses when students start to make significant connections between their coursework and their own voices. The greatest obstacle in all this is to establish with the student the value of the humanities, and to get the students to see the value of the skills learned in an introductory course. I have always taken this charge very seriously.

I recently had the opportunity to teach an introduction to literature course. Out of thirty students, only three were humanities majors. I knew I had my work cut out for me. How was I going to engage the 27 students who were sitting in the seats impatient to check off a requirement to graduate? The answer was clear: I was going to need to step outside my comfort level and try some new things. By the end of the semester I had them reading poetry to each other. Continue reading

Information is Not Enough: Facilitating Reflection and Changing Beliefs

Information is Not Enough: Facilitating Reflection and Changing Beliefs

by Susan Leigh Brooks

[pdf version here: Brooks-Facilitating Reflection and Changing Beliefs]

Preservice English teachers come into teacher education programs with strongly held beliefs about literature and reading. In some cases, they loved Great Expectations and can’t wait to read the book with their own students. In other cases, they hated Great Expectations and vow to never waste their students’ time with boring books. These beliefs most likely grow from their own experiences learning to read and interpret literature as they progressed through elementary, middle and high school.  As these preservice English teachers enter teacher education courses, teacher educators often see their role as one of exposing students like these to new methods and ideas.  As a teacher educator, I have often assumed that the preservice teachers I teach will naturally adopt newer strategies and methods as they see ways in which these new strategies and methods are effective. This study, however, challenged those assumptions. Continue reading

Two Truths and a Tall Tale: An Ice-Breaker Activity by Michael MacBride

Michael MacBride

Exposing Yourself to Students: You are a Source!

I like to start the semester with a popular ice-breaker activity—two truths and a tall tale. During my first TA orientation, the TA director (Randall McClure) used this activity to get us talking. From that activity I learned that Dr. McClure had in fact been involved in a snowball fight with the members of U2, and slept (unknowingly) next to a dead body for several hours (while camping out for U2 tickets). So I adopted it. Continue reading

Analyzing Poetry and Songs

Song Exploration Project

Scott Hall

Irondale High School

Find a song that has been recorded by several artists (at least 4) over the past 30-60 years (or re-recorded/re-mixed in a new style by the same artist). Listen to each version of the song and take notes about the style. Style includes sounds, vocal delivery, pacing, beat, structure, and lyrics. YouTube is a good place to begin your search, because their website also links related songs. Continue reading

Spring 2014 Featured Article: Comics, Dickens, and Teaching by Serial Publication by Michael MacBride

Comics, Dickens, and Teaching by Serial Publication

by Michael MacBride
Teaching the “huge” text s-l-o-w-l-y: taking your time with Dickens and Comic Books
How do you teach a 500- or 900-page Dickens’ novel—heaven forbid a 1,500-page Richardson novel? (1) How do you teach a comic book, like Detective Comics, that has been running since 1937, or a comic strip, like Katzenjammer Kids, that’s been around since 1897? These texts are culturally rich, offer a unique snapshot of a historical period, and are relatively untapped, but their sheer length can be daunting. While serialized novels (usually) offer a consistent narrative, comic books and comic strips frequently diverge into “alternative universes” and offer new tellings of old stories. Spider-Man, for example, offers several books that take the hero in different directions–The Amazing, Spectacular, Sensational, Friendly Neighborhood, Ultimate, and, most recently, Superior Spider-Man. Where do you start? How do you dig in?

My contention is that the best place to start is one issue, or one monthly, at a time. Then the class, high school or college, will spend a month with that issue or monthly–just like the original audience would have. Comic books are (mostly) published on a monthly basis, and Charles Dickens released (most of) his works on a monthly basis as well. Taking time with a smaller text has many benefits, which will be enumerated shortly. Continue reading

Opinion 1: The iPad Invasion by Cassandra Scharber

The iPad Invasion
by Cassandra Scharber

“What I hope for you … [is] that you think of technology as a verb, not a noun;
that poetry drives you, not hardware.” – Red Burns

Setting the Scene
In January 2010, the iPad was born and its birth instantaneously ignited a craze within K12 schools around the county. The iPad’s invasion of Minnesota’s classrooms continues to be heralded by schools, districts, and news outlets (1) with no signs of slowing down. In a long history of financial, pedagogical, and philosophical debates, the iPad is dominating the latest chapter about technology’s role in education.

Since the introduction of computers into schools during the mid-1970s, technological fixes for education in the form of new tools (i.e., television, interactive whiteboards, clickers) have promised to solve educational challenges and new concepts (i.e., flipped classrooms, online learning) have claimed to help students learn or teachers teach more effectively and efficiently. Tyack and Cuban refer to these fads as “fireflies” due to how they appear so frequently, shine brightly for a few moments, and then disappear again.

Similar to the technologies that have come before them, the iPads’ status as an educational fad or revolution remains to be determined. In what ways can English educators respond to and participate in this craze? How can we deal with this dumping of iPads into our English classrooms? Is the iPad the technological tool that will be the tipping point for educational institutions and educators to disrupt, re-imagine, and engage in the continuously changing definitions and expectations of reading and writing, teaching and learning (Gladwell)?

While there are certainly more questions than answers at this point in time, perhaps the best advice is shared in the Red Burn’s quote above; “let poetry drive us, not hardware.” Let us honor our expertise in the teaching and learning of English, and not be distracted by the seductive iPads that have landed in our classrooms. Continue reading

Best Practice in the Classroom 1: Exploring Whiteboard Apps In The Classroom by Emily Brisse

Exploring Whiteboard Apps in the Classroom

by Emily Brisse

Watertown-Mayer High School

Although the topic of tablets in the classroom may be considered old news, it is still just as important to examine how this technology is being used in our districts and campuses and how we can improve its effectiveness. I’ve worked in a 1-to-1 iPad high school for the past two years, and now that the shine on these fancy gadgets has worn off–at least a little–I’ve been able to focus on a few things that are working for me and my students, specifically as they relate to whiteboard applications. Below I address several ways that I’ve used apps like Educreations, ShowMe, and Explain Everything in my secondary English classroom, and explain how they have improved my practices as a teacher and deepened my students’ learning. Continue reading

Best Practices in the Classroom 2: SWOT and the Analysis of Literary Characters by John Banschbach

SWOT and the Analysis of Literary Characters

By John Banschbach

Minnesota State University-Mankato

Like many teachers, I have a collection of teaching activities that can be used in different situations and that require little preparation. Freewriting, for example, can be used as an invention activity for writing or class discussion or it can be used as a classroom assessment technique (e.g., the “muddiest point” assignment). Another activity is “choose the word in this poem that you see as most important.” This activity and subsequent discussion can demonstrate a poem’s complexity and the variety of responses a poem can invoke. This year I have added another activity to my collection.

SWOT is an acronym for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.” If you have been engaged in formal strategic planning for your school or department, it is an acronym that is familiar. It was developed in the 1960s by Albert Humphrey and others at the Stanford Research Institute as part of a study of problems in corporate planning, and, since then, it has become an essential part of strategic planning for businesses. A business first determines its objectives and then identifies its strengths and weaknesses (the internal environment) and opportunities and threats (the external environment). The business goes on to revise its objectives, making them consistent with this analysis, and then it sorts the SWOT findings into categories and prioritizes them and finally creates an action plan for achieving the new objectives (Humphrey). Continue reading

Best Practice in the Classroom 3: Book Bags–Promoting Literacy Outside the Classroom by Mitzi Watkins

Book Bags: Promoting Literacy Outside the Classroom

by Mitzi Watkins
“Ms. Watkins, my family and I took your book bag with us on our trip to Mexico, and we read the books in the car on our way there and back. Thanks for letting me take these books home!”—Esmeralda, 2nd grade student

Before my first year of teaching, I had many delusions about what my students would be like. I naively assumed all of them would come from households that had books for their children to read at home. The first time one of my second graders told me there were no books in his apartment, I questioned the truthfulness of the child. Did he really not have any books at home? Or, did he just want to get out of doing outside reading?

Soon I came to realize he was telling the truth, and many of his classmates were in the same situation. I felt bad about my students not having books to read at home. I knew how important independent reading time was for improving their reading and literacy skills. According to Clark and Rumbold (2005, p.9), “Reading amount and reading achievement are thought to be reciprocally related to each other – as reading amount increases, reading achievement increases, which in turn increases reading amount.” Continue reading

Peer Reviewed Article 1: Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom by Erin Kunz

Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom

by Erin Kunz

When developing a college composition course, content and methodology are always important considerations, but as instructors we also must consider how we can develop good practices in order to foster an intellectual environment. We try to create community for our students, but because of a number of issues—resistance, apathy, and misunderstanding, to name a few, establishing a community where we can openly discuss the human condition is a difficult endeavor. The ideological nature of feminist writing, feminist theory, and feminist politics can make it even more difficult to create community. Therefore, we must be particular about our approach when teaching ideological methods and topics. Continue reading

Peer-Reviewed Article 2: Social Injustice in Multicultural Literature in an Elementary School Setting by Jongsun Wee and Nicholas Wysocki

‘Why did he get all mad?’: Talking About Social Injustice in Multicultural Literature

by Jongsun Wee
Winona State University, Winona, MN

and Nicholas Wysocki
Winona State University, Winona, MN

Discussing issues related to social justice in multicultural literature can help our children develop an understanding of this concept. (1) These discussions provide a space where children can achieve several Language Arts and Social Studies goals, such as developing critical thinking and comprehension skills concerning social inequalities that require agency on the part of democratic citizens. These goals are important for children to achieve, but social justice issues are sensitive and difficult topics for them to understand, especially when they do not have much background knowledge of them. However, we believe both that teachers should make efforts to bring these social justice issues to their classrooms and that children are able to handle those difficult issues.

In this article, we show how third grade children talked about social injustice issues in the story, The Friendship (2) in small group literature discussions. The children who participated in this study did not have much background knowledge of inequality and maltreatment, which are part of black history in the United States. At first, some children did not notice the social injustices happening in the story, but through discussions, they were able to see the unfairness and inequality experienced due to racial difference. The findings suggest that teachers need to bring multicultural children’s literature with a social justice theme to their classrooms and to create a space and time for children to discuss them. Continue reading

Approaches to Student Writing 1: Using ‘New Genres’ to Inject Relevance into the Research Paper by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

Beyond the Research Paper: Exploring New Genres for Original, Authentic Inquiry

by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

Albert Lea High School

After sequestering myself in my home office for nearly four hours on a Saturday morning—using headphones and a closed door to counteract the distractions of domestic life—I emerge, over-caffeinated but relieved, announcing to my wife and daughters that I’ve graded 10 research papers, my quota for the day.

“How were they?” my wife asks.

“OK. One of them was really good,” I say.

Only one this time, but it really was good. The student’s research question was whether the U.S. should consider a national minimum drinking age (MDA) of 18, considering the seeming futility of enforcing the current age of 21. While dangerously close to some of the topics I refuse to allow students to write on anymore—abortion, legalizing marijuana—she made the topic her own. Her first exposure to the topic was a 60 Minutes episode she’d watched online in which a chief of police, a former college president, and the parents of a college student who had died of alcohol poisoning all (surprisingly) argued in favor of lowering the MDA. These voices, she acknowledged, had shaped her original position. But after doing her own extensive reading, an interview, and exploring her own family’s experiences with alcohol, her position shifted completely. She not only ultimately argued that the MDA remain 21 in every state, but also offered ideas regarding other cultural and educational changes that could help promote responsible alcohol consumption, that the law itself was just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Continue reading

Approaches to Student Writing 2: A Fresh Look at Peer Response by Neil Witikko

A Fresh Look at Peer Response:
Improved Writing and Talk that Hits the (Common) Core

by Neil Witikko
The College of St. Scholastica

The Students
Five minutes have passed in third hour, and the students in Composition I are hard at work in teams of three and four. Most groups are scattered around the classroom, finding what privacy they can away from the other peer groups. One team of four is working just outside the door of the classroom in the hallway. Any comments about the excitement of last night’s hockey game have faded in the first three minutes of class, and the only sounds now are comments about the papers that the students are sharing with each other.

It is a day for feedback on their cause and effect papers. Each student has had the opportunity to take their peers’ papers home, read them, and generate some ideas for response, based on a project rubric that guides the students’ writing. Now they have time to share those ideas in talk. Continue reading

Strategies for Teaching Literature 2: Making Dostoevsky Relevant by Heather Porter

Making Dostoevsky Relevant:Teaching Notes from Underground to College Freshmen

by Heather Porter

Relatively little has been said regarding how to teach Dostoevsky’s novels to students. Even less has been said about how to make his work relevant to twenty-first century American students who exist within an entirely different cultural landscape than the characters of Dostoevsky’s fiction[1]. Notes from Underground  is particularly challenging, but its difficulty is precisely what makes it such a necessary text. If handled correctly, Notes can be an effective medium for self-discovery, illuminating aspects of human behavior students may or not may not have already noticed for themselves. While it is still important to place Notes within its cultural and philosophical context in the classroom, it may be more valuable to focus students’ attention on the universal themes of human nature that figure prominently in the text. Modernizing the way students read Notes is essential for enabling them to relate to the Underground Man and see themselves reflected in his words and behavior. This can be accomplished by updating the process of reading the text to reflect how we as a culture read today. Students may be more accepting of the underlying truths of Notes if they are asked to read the text as though it were part of an online interaction. Continue reading

Strategies for Teaching Literature 3: Redefining Literacy with Graphic Novels by Becca James

Redefining Literacy with Graphic Novels

by Becca James

A line has formed, populated with people holding signs and speaking inaudibly to those that pass by. Move in closer, and it’s evident that the line is composed of high school students. Although they should be in the classroom on this mid-March Friday, they’ve taken to the streets in protest of Chicago Public School’s decision that Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis only be part of the junior and senior curriculum. In previous years, Satrapi’s depiction of growing up during the Iranian revolution was accepted curriculum for both middle and high school classes. Approximately 100 students stand in a cold drizzle of rain outside Chicago’s Lane Tech High School. Move in another step closer and their assertions are now audible. Continue reading

Collaborative Online Paper 1: Teaching ENGL 4/533–Enabling World Texts, Past and Present, to Talk to Each Other by William D. Dyer

Teaching English 4/533: Enabling World Texts, Past and Present, to Talk to Each Other

William D. Dyer

I am going to offer, as a means for providing a context for the long student-written collaborative paper that follows as well the brief discussion of how this assignment might apply to other teaching environments and students (written by the graduate student “point person” on that project and practicing high school teacher), an introduction to the actual assignment and the online course for which it was composed.  Very simply, English 4/533 is one of only two world literature courses regularly offered annually at Minnesota State University, Mankato. 

The object of this course is, at the very least, two-fold:  first, to introduce participants to some literary texts that are seminal to an understanding of what we might label “world literature”–from a traditional perspective, truly classic texts.  That is, each of these texts contributes to the development of a “window”  through which we can see the “selves” of several other very complex cultures substantially different from us.  And it is through a very special and culture-transmitting literary medium that we will begin to glean other cultural ways of seeing, being, and believing that have evolved through the centuries and, in no small part, are reflected by these works.  Continue reading

Collaborative Online Paper 3: ‘The Hobbit’ Companion Essay by Gillian Singler

The Hobbit Companion Essay: A Pedagogical Tool

by Gillian Singler

The initial topic for this research project was a culturally-based analysis of a text of our choosing. Each group was expected to examine sections of their choice that would highlight the novel’s root culture in addition to paralleling it to our own. As a group, we decided on The Hobbit because it was beloved by each of us and we each had a personal interest in British culture. We began by assigning sections based on creating a well-rounded examination of the novel. For the assignment, our introduction included a brief overview of our own cultures and our experiences with other cultures, including our ideas about the culture of the novel. Overall, I feel that our cooperative endeavor was a fruitful and mutually edifying experience, and I hope that it manages to provide a sense of engagement for those new to The Hobbit, as well as a new perspective for those that already cherish The Hobbit.

As the intended audience of this assignment is undergraduates, the staging of the paper may need to be slightly adapted, either by the instructor serving as a mediator between the students and the information presented via instruction, or by the class reading the piece, or sections of it, together while taking time for discussion.

Students working in a unit where this specific novel is being discussed would benefit most from the information presented in the research paper. For example, I teach a high school-level mythology course, open to sophomore, junior, and senior level students; this particular paper would be applicable in this course as we read and discuss chapters from The Hobbit. For this particular unit, while introducing the text, students would read the “History behind The Hobbit: The Story” section in order to gain background knowledge on the text and Tolkien’s life as well as his intentions for the novel. As a class, we would discuss how the various aspects of Tolkien’s life influenced the text and we would then apply this to other texts we have covered in class.

The following idea could be turned into an additional assignment, appropriate for any literature unit and course. In regard to the mythology course mentioned previously, the students have read the Iliad – which could be substituted for any other piece of literature – and they have background knowledge on the culture and historical events of the time. With this in mind, students could be put into groups and construct the history behind the Iliad based on speculations about Homer’s life (as not much is known about him, students would be free to be creative with their conclusions) derived from the text. Possible assumptions might include his being a Greek soldier, a slave, a carpenter, or a priest. Students could then research the author and compare their speculations to the information they find, adding these results to their final paper. As a group, students would then use this information and their speculations – citing specific examples from the text as support – to create a “History behind the Story” section of their own.

Additionally, for a college-level, AP course or adapting for students exceeding the standard, students may be asked to create a section focusing on the cultural importance behind the text, citing specific examples from it; a possible prompt for this section might look as follows:

What do we learn about the culture in which the novel was written?

How did/does this novel shape/influence its culture?

How does this text reflect your culture? Or, how doesn’t it?

Furthermore, an additional project for such students, if students are enrolled in a foreign language course or familiar with one, may regard the language section of the project and, using their background knowledge in language, attempt to create a small project – consisting of one language and a few paragraphs – that imitates Tolkien’s creation of new languages.

Another project idea stems from the section regarding the creation of The Hobbit’s geography. Students may want to review this section of the project, and then, while reading from the novel, the teacher could highlight sections from the book concerning geography. Students could then create a map for the text based on the information provided as well as what they find throughout the novel and, as a class, students would reflect on the how the author’s experiences have shaped the topography of this world – is the author from this area? If the place is fictional, how might/does it reflect the author’s real world? What experiences has the author had that played a role in the shaping the story-world? Again, this idea could be adapted for any novel in which the landscape of the story is described.

For a college-level or AP course, or for students exceeding the standard, instead of creating a map, students might write a brief essay reflecting on how the geological background is reflective of the protagonist or the character’s inner journey. In addition to this, students may read the mythological section of the document, choosing to either write an in-depth character analysis based on what they have read and information they have gained, or to write an essay making connections to a myth; for the mythology course previously mentioned, students could relate the story to numerous tales covered throughout the class. Furthermore, an additional project for such a course might allow students to create their own character for the novel (as seen in Jackson’s addition of the White Orc in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) that is reflective of an ancient mythology covered in the course.

Considering religion plays an exceptional role in influencing literature, it is also important for students to gain background knowledge in this area of the author’s life. Students may want to consider how the author’s religious beliefs are reflected in the text, or not reflected and why not, and also how these beliefs may be similar to or different from the cultural majority. As is noted in Alicia’s section on religion in The Hobbit – is the religious influence of the text subtle or blatant? Why might an author choose to do this: for personal reasons; a fear of criticism and/or alienation; to promote inclusion?

With regard to any of the above ideas, this research paper serves as an example of working collaboratively via technology. While developing this paper, Alicia, Kevin, and I worked collectively utilizing such technological tools as Google Documents, GroupMe, Vocoroo, and Prezi as we were unable to meet in person due to distance. In order for this to happen, leadership, drive, and communication were required. This type of work serves as an experience for students to develop and hone these necessary real-world skills.

In a high school environment, I suggest that the teacher provide roles (e.g. group leader: responsible for formatting, final editing, and submitting the paper; monitor: in charge of scheduling, ensuring group members keep due dates; etc.), as well as require the group to comprise a list of norms and expectations (e.g. all members’ voices will be valued, all members will peer edit, etc.), in addition to consequences for violating the group rules (e.g. required time to work with the instructor on missing sections, a reduction in individual grade, etc.). As represented in our paper, it is also beneficial for each student to select a specific section of interest to research; in this case, students could choose from a variety of the ideas presented previously in this essay. In addition to these suggestions, it might behoove a high school-level instructor to familiarize the class with various technologies available for group work and presentations. Students might also publish their work via a site like Lulu or Frodo’s Notebook.

Regardless of whether one is teaching The Hobbit or not, our project could serve as a sample of a new type of research paper – one that does not simply propose students research a topic, but that they research with a specific focus, in this case culture, while applying their own perspectives and experiences. While culture plays a significant role in literature, other aspects could be chosen, such as style, genre, or gender. Most simply, this paper might serve an instructor or class in gaining background information on The Hobbit, and how to craft a collaborative and more thoughtful research paper, but, as noted above, I see its purpose not only to inform, but also to spawn new project ideas rich in an appreciation for The Hobbit, in addition to the exploration of literature.

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*It is worth noting that the above lesson ideas, depending on how and which the teacher chooses to utilize, meet the following Minnesota State Standards for high school English language arts:

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