From Café to Class: Bringing Book Clubs Into Your Classroom

By Hayley Vetsch

It’s easy to discuss books if you like to read. Hobby reading comes easily to most of us English teachers, but I’d wager that it is one of the hardest things to teach in the classroom. In a time where longform is not the popular choice and 140-character essays reign, you can almost hear the groans from students when you plan the novels for your curriculum.

In my small public charter school of 63 students, the predominant response I get from my students is, “I don’t read.” Not I can’t, not I won’t, they just…don’t. It’s not as if I haven’t tried to get them into it. We’ve done literature circles, acting out scenes from the book, reports, projects, simulations, but with every single book I was teaching, I was met with resistance.

The idea struck me late one night after a discussion with a colleague. They had mentioned independent choice reading as something they used to do in school as a student. It hadn’t occurred to me until that point that I also had independent reading time as a student. My teachers would march us down to the library and we would peruse the shelves, make a selection, and that was our independent reading book. How could I apply that to our small school?

I realized that involving the Internet might make independent reading more appealing for my students. I turned to Goodreads. I had used Goodreads in college for a young adult fiction class. It was a meeting of book discussions and social media. Considering how much I had enjoyed it as a platform to encourage reading, I decided to integrate it into my classroom too.

After setting up Goodreads accounts and adding several titles that they had already read to their virtual shelves, the students joined a closed-group book club forum on the site. Rather than separating students by classes, I kept it open as a school-wide community to allow for integrated discussions among students who normally don’t spend class time together. Each student then added the Reading Challenge to their pages. This is a regular feature of Goodreads—charting your reading progress—so I encouraged all the students to set a goal for how many books they wanted to read in a year. For many of my students, I told them to strive for at least three. If we included the books we read in class as part of their reading challenge, they’d hit that goal before summer. Some of my more ambitious readers set a goal of 12: one book per month, no problem. Regardless of the number, setting a goal on a public forum like Goodreads made their aspirations visible. Knowing I was monitoring their progress and sweetening the deal with extra credit didn’t hurt, either.

Once the book club was created and the goals were set, the next phase was to set a standard for independent reading in the classroom. I have a wide selection of books that the students could choose from. Some brought books from home, but most borrowed novels from the classroom collection. The plan was this: every Friday, the hour would be dedicated to reading in the classroom. Students would read their novel—nothing else. There would be a weekly prompt/post on the Goodreads book club. After reading, students would post their responses in the forum.

The first few weeks were really difficult. Most students were resistant to independent reading, and many of them neglected the online forum. After a few of these uphill battles, I decided to lay down some ground rules to ensure student success with their reading. First, students could not read the books we were working on in class already. Second, they could not use the hour to catch up on missing work.

Many students felt that independent reading was optional, and viewed the hour as a study hall. I found that interesting–and very telling about the attitude they had toward reading. To shift this attitude, we prepared the classroom to be more reader-friendly. I created a bulletin board about the benefits of reading. I created book displays of titles related to topics the students expressed interest in. I brought in lamps and soft lighting to replace our harsh fluorescent buzzing lights.

With the new rules established and the classroom ready, we maintained Friday reading days over the rest of the semester. Slowly but surely, I was met with less resistance to a dedicated hour of reading. The responses in the forum shifted, too.

One of the first forum discussion prompts had been about the setting:

The setting is an important part of a story. The setting can be anything from the time period, a specific building, a season, or a place. Describe the setting in your story, and tell us how it shapes the characters and the events of the plot.

The responses were less than ideal. We set a goal for a minimum of four complete sentences for each prompt, but in that first round, almost every student fell under that goal. Here are some examples:

The setting of Fahrenheit 451 is (I believe) a dystopian future.”

the setting of the watsons go to birmingham takes place in 1963 they are in Flint Michigan and its winter time and it is super cold”

So far it’s the group that she goes to. And somewhat her school where she is at school with someone she goes to group with.”

These responses told me that it’s not that students aren’t invested in their books; it’s that they haven’t learned how to think about their books yet. But this was only the first week. The most recent forum discussion was posted on Wednesday, January 31. The prompt focused on an update of what they were reading:

Some time has passed since the beginning of the year, and I want to know what you’re reading now. Please include:

1. The title
2. The author
3. How far you are so far
4. What you like/dislike about the book so far

This time, the responses were more thoughtful and detailed. Why was this? I think that the students made it over the hurdle of resisting reading day—seeing it as a wasted study hall—and instead made it a part of their weekly routine. Now, on Fridays, they arrive to class with their books and say, “We’re reading today, right?” I’ve even spotted some of them reading their books over lunch. They have utilized Goodreads to send book recommendations to each other and comment on each other’s progress updates outside of their weekly assigned discussions.

Integrating a social media aspect to reading might make some scholars throw their hands up in frustration, but when you’re teaching a population more skilled in Snapchat than longform, meeting them halfway with a website to promote independent reading skills is absolutely worth it. I would love to see independent reading become a staple in high school classrooms—and even go beyond English classrooms to independent reading in other subjects, too. For now, I am content to see my students come to class with a book in hand every Friday.

Write Anything: How STEM Connects to the Writing Curriculum

By Amber Beattie

I must begin with a confession: I am an English person. Truly, there is little that I love more in life than a new book or fresh sheet of stationery. So when I was hired to teach writing to grades 5-8 at a STEM magnet school, I spent a long time considering what it meant to incorporate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—subjects that I feel less comfortable with—into my curriculum. This experience led me to consider another crucial fact: for some students, writing is that uncomfortable subject. My quest to include STEM in my writing curriculum could serve multiple purposes, then: it would help those students feel more comfortable, and could create a seamlessness between my class and other subjects.

The more I focused on this cross-subject incorporation, the more I realized that teaching writing is, in itself, a medium for teaching any number of things. Almost every discipline, career path, or topic that I could think of not only includes elements of writing, but can also be written about—sometimes in new and surprising ways. I once believed that disciplines like engineering or math were incompatible with a writing class, but it was easier than I thought to include these topics in my new curriculum. What’s more, I realized that expanding my curriculum to include the STEM focus that made my school special meant that I could help students to make deeper connections to the topics they care about. It also gave me the chance to open up my curriculum to outside content taught by my new colleagues—people that I truly enjoy learning with and from.

Soon, I was pestering students to discover what they had done in science or social studies on that day—to learn what they had connected with and enjoyed that I could incorporate into future assignments. I asked my fellow teachers what “big topics” students would be studying so that I could help make connections through writing. I wasn’t giving up my writing classroom to other subjects; I was growing my toolbox of teaching strategies by learning to teach different material. Even more, I was engaging a wider array of students in my lessons.

As a relatively new teacher, I rely on established routines to help me manage the chaos of a 5th-8th grade room. However, as students get used to those established routines, they also enjoy the variety that cross-curricular writing builds in. Students come in wondering what they’ll be writing about that day. Their first question is usually, “What’s the warm-up?” followed closely by, “Are we having SSW [Sustained Silent Writing] time today?” Students who once groaned when writing time was announced were now asking for even more time to work on their projects. What’s more, students started to dive into longer writing projects on their own. Now, rather than half-heartedly responding to prompts, some students were starting stories on Monday that they continued throughout the week. One-paragraph responses became two-page stories. My email inbox quickly filled up with documents to read and respond to that I hadn’t even assigned. I attribute much of this excitement to the intentional use of various subjects in my prompts. Students know that I am careful to include a variety of disciplines in our lessons, so their particular interests will be represented sooner or later.

While it can be daunting at first, there are a number of easy ways to include multiple disciplines in your writing curriculum. The reward is definitely worth it: seeing a student who excels in math class applying that same excitement to their writing project is always a welcome sight. Below are a number of ideas that have been successful in my middle school writing classroom, divided by subject.

Science: How to Blow Up a Balloon

I got the idea for this lesson from a novel, although I can’t for the life of me remember which one. I was so inspired that I decided to give it a try, and now it’s one of my favorite lessons! To begin the lesson, I ask students to write a series of instructions for “How to Blow Up a Balloon” that I, their fearless leader and fellow balloon enthusiast, will follow. Then, I ask for volunteers to read their instructions and I follow them…exactly. If a student says to “blow into the balloon,” I’ll hold the balloon about an inch from my mouth and dramatically blow with my cheeks puffed out. Kids burst out with laughter and quickly realize that their writing needs to be detailed and specific in order to achieve the goal. We refine our steps until I am able to successfully blow up and tie a balloon, and the student with the “winning set” of instructions autographs the balloon for posterity.

We discuss how and when to write with this level of extreme detail. Students brainstorm situations that require exacting prose (lab reports, instruction manuals) and situations that don’t (poems, novels). Then, students practice writing with extreme detail by creating their own “how to” guides. Students are able to pick the topic for their guide, and they never disappoint. I receive guides for “How to Binge Watch Netflix,” “How to Score the Perfect Jump Shot,” and “How to Annoy Your Siblings.” I also receive detailed instructions for folding origami, making a slingshot, and creating an “elephant toothpaste” chemical reaction. No matter what topic students choose, their detailed, scientific prose is impressive.

As an extension for those who finish writing and illustrating their guides early, students can research the most efficient way to blow up a balloon. Soon, they are modifying their original set of instructions to include straws, baking soda and Bunsen burners. I take the opportunity to remind students that the writing process relies on revision and celebrate their willingness to refine their guides with new information. Students excitedly relate their findings to their classmates and compare notes on balloon experimentation. It seems that I’ve created a league of scientists in my writing classroom.

Technology: Heroes and Villains

 There is a wide variety of helpful educational technology out there. (I particularly enjoy using Storybird in my writing classroom.) However, I have found that students are also able to engage with technology as a subject for their writing. I like to begin this lesson by having students create a comprehensive list of all of the technology they encounter in a typical school day. I know that my students’ lives are inundated with tech, so they usually come up with a lengthy list. To help guide students, I’ll occasionally add suggestions, like light bulbs and electric cars. Once we have a good list going, I know students are ready for the next step.

We discuss personification and its role in science fiction. With older students, I like to read Ray Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains”to help facilitate this discussion. Younger students might appreciate a clip or two from Brave Little Toaster as an example to work from, although the movie includes objects that wouldn’t be considered strictly technological.

Finally, I ask students to reconsider the list that they made. What technology would they consider to be “good” or “bad”? What would they choose to be a “hero” or “villain” in their life? What human traits do they associate with items on the list? (Students might answer this question by saying that a light bulb is “hopeful,” a vacuum cleaner is a “neat freak,” or, my personal favorite, a clothes dryer is “full of hot air.”)

I give students the opportunity to choose a technological character, and then we dive into writing time. The only parameters that I give students are that they must include a personified tech character, and that character must be either the hero or villain of their story. The rest is up to them.

I have had wonderful stories that, happily, resist the “technology takes over the world” trope. For example, a student once wrote about an iPhone 7 who feels self-conscious when the iPhone 8 starts to bully her for being “outdated” (don’t worry—the day is saved by a friendly Update). Another student wrote about a night light that bravely slayed the “shadow monster” while the humans slept. Without fail, my students are exceptionally creative, and I enjoy seeing kids interact with technology in a new way.

Engineering: The Impossible Paper Project

Students enter the classroom to find a curious paper creation on my stool at the front of the room. As they grab their notebooks and head to their seats, some students take the opportunity to check out the cut and folded cardstock. Curiosity grows in the room.

Without giving too many instructions, I pass out a piece of copy paper to each student and tell them that they are to recreate the object at the front of the room. They can look at the paper from any angle, but they can’t touch it. Students quickly start to fold and cut their paper, and they just as quickly get frustrated. The task seems impossible, until, inevitably, one student shouts with glee: They’ve got it!

Other students ask for help, and soon there is a team of engineers walking around, helping to explain the paper project. Once everyone has succeeded, we take a few minutes to journal about the experience. What did students feel at the beginning, middle, and end of the task? How did they feel when they saw others “getting it”? How did they feel when they finally asked for help? How does this relate to the work of real engineers? What else is impossible?

It’s this final question that sparks the best discussion. Soon, students are discussing the impossibility of everything from flying to fitting in. Then, I challenge them to find a solution that is both detailed and plausible. I ask students to create a character that overcomes impossibility. I ask students to use their own frustration to make the character real. Soon, we will have Sustained Silent Writing time for students to begin their stories.

Mathematics: Grammar Math

There are many parallels between the world of algebra and the world of grammar. When students struggle to understand complex grammar concepts, it can be helpful to simplify subjects, predicates, phrases and clauses into algebraic formulas. Students who feel comfortable in the world of math might begin to feel more comfortable when they see that sentences can be written in familiar language. For example, S + P = C (Subject + Predicate = Complete Sentence). Having students write this formula on the top of their page can be crucial to helping students remember what’s required when they write.

This concept of “grammar math” can be expanded to more complex sentence structures, as well. I use a set of manipulatives that I found on TeachersPayTeachers in order to help students experiment with different equations. Students work together to solve the question: what successfully creates a sentence, and how do they punctuate it?

Manipulative pieces include simple subjects and predicates, as well as independent and dependent clauses, participle phrases, and different types of punctuation. Students begin in partners with some time for experimentation. I encourage them to make silly sentences with the pieces and give groups the chance to share. Then, things get technical. Students are asked to make sentences using different pieces (I color-code the pieces for students who are still mastering vocabulary) and then grapple with the results. Soon, students become investigators: what happens when two dependent clauses are put together? What about a dependent clause and participle phrase? Where does the comma go when a participle phrase is added onto an independent clause? What works? What doesn’t? Why?

It works for students of virtually every level. Emerging writers can use simple subjects and predicates to explore fragments. Advanced writers can work to add participial phrases in different places. All students can create new pieces to add to the manipulative set, and they love to see their suggestions pop up in class examples.

I’ll use these manipulatives as a stand-alone lesson, but also for times when students have grammar questions. For example, a student recently asked me if there’s a comma before the word “and” in every sentence. We tried a few configurations and figured out that he didn’t need a comma in the sentence he had written, but that he needed to add one in to a series he’d written in another sentence. In the end, being able to experiment and find the answer was more valuable for that student than just getting it from me.

Environmental Studies: 100 Words About a Pebble

One of my favorite adjective lessons centers around the natural world. I begin by collecting (or having students collect) items from the world around us—pebbles, leaves, sticks, etc. Each student needs at least one item to examine, ideally small enough to hold in their hand.

Students then number their paper from 1-100. I challenge them to write 100 adjectives that describe their object. This seems impossible at first, until I remind students that synonyms can count as separate words (for example, “delicate,” “fragile,” and “breakable” could all count). This exercise really stretches kids’ vocabularies, and it is also an exercise in patience. I push them to continue as far as they can on their own, then provide dictionaries or thesauruses to help get them to the finish line.

Once students have their lists, I give each kid a blank piece of copy paper. Their first job is to sketch their object. Students who chose leaves might also choose to do a crayon rubbing. The goal is to represent their object visually as accurately as possible—this is the basis for their poem.

We discuss environmental stewardship and the ways in which their item might change or be lost without proper care. To encourage conservation in others, students write a poem using their favorite adjectives from the list. I don’t give too many strict requirements, although occasionally an example is required. If I find that kids are stuck or struggling, it’s time to break out the Romantics. After all, there is no greater celebration of nature! We listen to bird sounds and create our own music with adjectives. Kids might enjoy sharing their poems in a “nature slam” in the school forest (or another natural space) once they’re completed.

Stepping outside of my “ELA only” comfort zone has helped me to become a more confident teacher. Sometimes I make a fool of myself as I attempt to help students solve a math problem or craft an analysis of a topographic map, but I love that students are asking for my help with new topics. Plus, it’s all fuel for new lessons—watching my 8th graders grapple with those topographic maps this past week has led me to begin crafting a lesson where students write a story based on a map of a fictional world. I’m lucky enough to see students during each of their middle school years—from 5th to 8th grade. I can’t wait to see the growth that occurs for my students as each year passes, as both writers and STEM students. By the end of their four years with me, I hope that my students see that writing and STEM are, in many ways, more alike than different—and that loving one means you might also soon love the other. After all, I’m living proof that even the staunchest ELA person can become a STEM person, too.

Owning Their Stories: Teaching Memoir at an Alternative High School

By Amy Vizenor

On a sunny afternoon in May, I sat in the parking lot of Midwestern Alternative (pseudonym), a high school for “at-risk” students where I was interviewing for an English teaching job. Watching the high schoolers spill out into the parking lot to leave for lunch, I felt intimidated by their stereotypically edgy, alternative dress, style, and behavior. I also felt intrigued and motivated to teach in a unique program, as my previous teaching experiences were in traditional middle and high schools. With anticipation, I accepted the job when it was offered. When I met these same students on the first day of school in September, I realized that while their appearance might have been tough, they were just kids—kids with stories to uncover about the life experiences that propelled them from their traditional high schools to alternative education.

My teaching assignment included three courses: English 9, Composition, and Independent Reading. A significant part of the curriculum for the composition class involved teaching concepts such as the writing process, types of paragraphs, organization, style, transitions, audience, and conventions. Students plodded daily through these exercises, working diligently but remaining detached from the class and from me, despite my efforts to interest them in the content.  A couple months into the school year, I had coffee with a colleague who had created a first-semester course for college students on the topic of memoir—with great success. I decided to encourage my students to own their stories by incorporating memoir into my composition class. Doing so transformed the complexion of the class and moved students from making it through the daily grind of the course to engaging as writers with expertise and investment in their craft—writers whose personal stories were valued in the classroom space.

Alternative Education

Alternative schools and programs are designed to meet the needs of students identified as at risk of failure to graduate from high school (Carver and Lewis 1). Not all alternative settings share the same features; rather, they provide extra supports to their student population through specialized structures and personnel. Midwestern Alternative employed several structures to promote student success, including (1) an onsite, free daycare, (2) a no homework policy, (3) weekly access to a chemical dependency counselor, and (4) an informal relationship between students and staff, as evidenced by students addressing faculty by first names.

Adolescents may enroll in an alternative school by choice or by referral of their home schools. Common reasons for referral to an alternative setting include academic failure, truancy, physically or verbally disruptive behavior, chemical use, pregnancy, and mental health issues. Traditionally, the numbers of students of color and students with a low socioeconomic status enrolled in alternative schools are disproportionately high (Farrelly and Daniels 107). The student demographics at Midwestern Alternative reflected this imbalance. Currently, the percentage of students of color enrolled in the school district as a whole is 25%, compared to 39% at Midwestern Alternative (Minnesota Department of Education (MDE)). The district’s student population receiving free and reduced-price lunch is 37%, while 69% of students at Midwestern Alternative are enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program (MDE). Thus, the student population at Midwestern Alternative reflects a high number of both students of color and students living in poverty.

Though traditionally underserved students bring a strong skill set to the classroom, it is often neutralized in a traditional system. As Herrera noted, “More often than not, however, CLD [culturally and linguistically diverse] students’ assets are left untapped because the classroom does not provide a place for them to become part of the curriculum” (14). As the school year progressed, I realized that I was leaving student assets untapped by slogging through an old-school composition curriculum. I was teaching my alternative high school class in a very mainstream and, for my student population, ineffective manner. My teaching was a disservice to them and to me—despite my best intentions.

Memoir as a Genre

Born of the nonfiction narrative movement begun in the 1970s, the memoir genre evolved from autobiography and enjoys widespread popularity today (Kirby and Kirby 22-23). While the autobiography is often a birth-to-death narrative, the memoir presents a “slice of ordinary life” (Bomer 4). Memoir relies upon the author selecting one key event or a handful of events with the same theme and requires the author to grapple with all of the complexities surrounding the topic of the memoir. In writing memoir, the author uses the genre to puzzle through, answer questions, and make sense of their experiences (Kirby and Kirby 23). This notion “puzzling through” was one of the things that appealed to me about memoir. My students had had impactful experiences, but they had not taken time to sort though the layers and make sense of them.

Academically, memoir offers a rich opportunity for meeting standards in reading and writing using a medium that, in our current culture of reality television and sharing life through various social media sites, appeals to adolescents. While reading memoir, students might engage in literacy standard RI.9-10.3: “Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them” (Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Teachers could incorporate several writing standards when students are writing memoir, most of which are sub-parts of standard W.9-10.3: “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences” (CCSS). English teachers can easily justify teaching this nonfiction genre as an avenue to reaching reading or writing standards.

Memoir in the Classroom

Inspired by the advice from my colleague to utilize memoir in my composition class and ready for a change, I planned for our journey into memoir. Included in my plans were framing memoir; reading memoirs and autobiographies; analyzing constructs of memoir; generating ideas through free writing and timeline creation; engaging in the writing process; exploring avenues for publication; and celebrating our success. From start to finish, we spent almost three months reading and writing memoir.

Framing Memoir

In January, we read excerpts from Bomer’s Writing a Life, exploring the history of autobiographical writing and the concept of writing about “a slice of ordinary life” through memoir (4). We discussed public fascination with peering into the lives of others and the insights gleaned from experiencing an event through the lens of another. We also addressed controversy regarding what constitutes “truth” in memoir, citing the example of James Frey’s expulsion from Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club for misrepresenting truth in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces.That example lead to dialogue about the difference between fiction and nonfiction and the percentage of  “truth” required for nonfiction.

Reading and Analyzing Memoir

After developing a shared understanding of memoir as a genre, we prepared for a trip to a large public library not far from Midwestern Alternative. Before the library visit, we reviewed how to search the library website for memoirs, each student creating a list of potential books to check out. When we had done all of our pre-work, we walked to the library so students could see and touch the books they had identified and choose one to read. Several of my students had never been to a public library before, and seeing the shelves of books stacked floor to ceiling was a novelty to them. Some of the students had their own library cards. For those who didn’t, I checked out their books on my library card. A few students signed up for library cards during the visit. The trip to the library was a highlight for my students. They were excited by the opportunity to choose what memoir or autobiography to read. Their palpable enthusiasm for checking out their selected books made me realize how little choice students might have in the materials the read and interact with over the course of a school year. There was something important about physically going to the library, too. It was an adventure and an opportunity to leave the school building. The impact of acquiring the books would not have been the same had I checked them out myself and delivered them to school.

Because of the no-homework policy at Midwestern Alternative, we used part of each class session for reading. As students read their memoirs, they analyzed the works in light of the following questions:

  1. Is this memoir a “slice of life” that includes just a phase or experiences in a person’s life, or is it a birth-to-death, chronological autobiography? What experiences are included in the memoir?
  1. Is the memoir believable and true? Do the experiences the author shares seem like they could have happened? Does the author write in a way (with details) that makes you believe him/her?
  1. Is the memoir reflective? Does the author tell you not just what happened, but how s/he felt about what happened and how it changed him/her as a person?

Ultimately, they wrote short essays addressing these questions and the degree to which the books they read fit Bomer’s definition of memoir as we had studied it (4). This analysis of memoir primed the students to write their own stories.

Writing to Generate Ideas

In addition to spending class time reading memoirs—both the ones they had from the library and other, shorter works taken from Ehrlich’s When I Was Your Age—we also devoted time to writing in a writer’s notebook. Each day, we completed “free writing” on a topic I selected or they chose. Sample prompts included topics like my earliest memory, my greatest accomplishment, something I didn’t tell my parents, an adventure with a friend, and my something I regret. We all (including me) wrote for 7-10 minutes each day. When time was up, we sat in a circle where people who chose to do so took turns sharing their writing.  I gave the option to “pass” for students who chose not to share. Time in the sharing circle was powerful. I think everyone recognized that sharing their writing required them to be vulnerable, and students were very careful with each other. In this writing and sharing practice, I saw the students create a classroom space in which all voices were honored (Herrera 14). I say all participants because the students honored my voice as a writer, too.

The day on which the prompt was “something I regret,” I wrote about an incident that happened when I was in fourth grade that later connected to my adult life. Matt Thomas was a large boy in my class who consistently came to school wearing dirty clothes and smelling of body odor. It was not uncommon for other students to make fun of him. One morning, before Mrs. Scanlan was present, one of my classmates sneaked into the classroom and placed a piece of dog feces under Matt’s desk. When Matt arrived, he was visibly upset, his face growing hot as other students snickered. Mrs. Scanlan demanded to know who was responsible. I had seen the culprit, but I said nothing. The next year, Matt transferred to a different school, and I didn’t think about him or the incident again. Twelve years later, I was standing in a check-out line at a stationary store when I noticed Matt standing in front of me waiting to make a purchase. My intuition that it was him was confirmed when he wrote his name on his check in scrawling script: Matt Thomas. In that moment, I struggled with indecision as my feelings of guilt washed over me as if the incident had just happened. Should I speak to him? Should I ignore him? What would I say? In the end, I said nothing, and Matt walked away.

As I shared this writing with my students, I noted how much regret I felt about failing to support Matt in fourth grade. To some degree, I revisited that regret and more when I didn’t speak to him as an adult. In revealing my shortcomings to my students, I showed them my humanity, my cowardice, and my shame. I was nervous to share my regret, and I was amazed by their ability to listen, empathize, and show compassion.

Another method we used to generate ideas was timeline development. Students each established a timeline of their lives, choosing events that were noteworthy and writing about them and the circumstances in which they occurred. As they considered important incidents, they reflected in writing about the meaning of the events, jotting down notes about the significance of each event.

The free writings, timelines, and other notes and reflections the students kept in their writers’ notebooks became a source of material to choose from as they prepared to draft their own memoirs. By the time they were ready to begin writing, they had much from which to choose.

Engaging in the Writing Process

In preparation to write, I had students review a six-step writing process: brainstorm, organize, connect, draft, revise, and edit and publish. They used computer-based, memoir-specific materials from the website Writing Matters: Writing Memoir to refresh and enhance their understanding of the writing process (Teaching Matters). As noted previously, students had invested a lot of time into generating ideas in class. To select their topics, students chose their top three ideas from their writers’ notebooks and completed a chart explaining the significance of each event. They shared their top ideas with a small group of their peers, whose insights they relied on to make the final selection. Often, classmates were familiar with ideas or stories from previous conversations, and they were able to make recommendations for the best material. Part of this selection process included consideration for whether or not the authors were comfortable sharing those experiences, as they knew that others would be reading their work. To their credit, most of my students did not shy away from painful topics, which included (1) finding out I was pregnant at age 14, (2) letting my mom down because I was high when she was dying from lung cancer, (3) getting arrested for possession of illegal drugs, (4) when my mom stopped coming home, and (5) immigrating to the U.S. from Somalia and forgetting what Somalia is like.

After choosing their topics, students organized and connected their thoughts and ideas by reflecting on the following questions:

  1. What is the key event?
  2. What happened before the event that will help your reader understand the experience?
  3. What happened after the event?
  4. Throughout the experience, what were your thoughts and feelings?
  5. How did the experience change you as a person or impact you? What did you learn about yourself as a person?

When students had completed their first drafts, I taught a session on improving writing using “show don’t tell” techniques. Students brought their drafts and participated in four different strategy-specific stations in small groups: use dialogue; use sensory language; be descriptive; and be specific, not vague. This task was one of the most challenging for students—to read, analyze, and improve upon their work. As they participated in the stations, they made minimal changes to their drafts. In retrospect, I should have provided better scaffolding to complete this writing exercise. It was challenging for them to step outside their narratives and identify ways to substantively change what they had already drafted. Instead of running stations, I should have offered more direct instruction and modeling of how to use the strategies.

Exploring Outlets for Publication

As students were drafting their memoirs, we started exploring avenues for publication, the purpose of which was to build authenticity into the writing experience. In the real world, authors write for a broader audience. Initially, some students expressed concern about publishing their work. They felt intimidated. However, as they researched publications that accepted student work and read student work published on various websites, interest increased. We found that many sites or publications did not accept work with the “mature themes” addressed in many of the students’ memoirs. In the end, all students submitted their memoirs to Teen Ink, a site that publishes online and paper magazine issues devoted to teen writing and artwork (Teen Ink). Teen Ink has few restrictions on the content for the work it publishes, making it a good fit for the memoirs my students were writing.

Celebrating Our Success

Final papers were due at the end of March, and all students self-assessed their work on the rubric I was using to evaluate their memoirs (Appendix A). Across the board, students were generally more critical of their work than I was. For the next two class sessions, we celebrated their success as authors by hosting a reading of selected excerpts from the memoirs for students who chose to share. We enjoyed snacks and invited other staff and students to join us. Students’ voices and stories were heard and valued.

At the end of May, we discovered that Teen Ink was publishing three of the students’ memoirs in one of its online issues: finding out I was pregnant, immigrating from Somalia, and being arrested for possession of illegal drugs. When I shared the publication news with the class, students were simultaneously incredulous and elated. Because of our shared experience of “writing a life” together, it felt like the success of one of us was the success of all of us. By the time the news of the publications arrived, we were in the last few days of school, which felt bittersweet, as our class was no longer; our time together was over.

Memoir in an Alternative Setting

While the genre is effective with high school students in general, there are three inter-related reasons why memoir is particularly significant for alternative high school students. First, connecting with their experiences through memoir empowers students by encouraging them to overcome shame and own their stories. Second, memoir aligns with several tenets of culturally responsive teaching. Third, writing memoir puts the student in the role of expert, setting up the student for success.

Overcoming Shame and Owning Their Stories

Whether they came to the alternative site by choice or by force, many students attending alternative schools have had challenging and possibly damaging life experiences that have interfered with their potential for success in a traditional school setting. As noted by Monroe, “Schools present many opportunities for children to feel a sense of weakness or failure. When children see themselves as deficient or having failed in some way, they experience a sense of shame” (58). Many, if not all, of the adolescents at Midwestern Alternative perceived themselves as having failed in their home schools. While in reality their home schools may have failed them, the students carried a sense of school failure and, in turn, shame. In her book titled Rising Strong, researcher Brené Brown asserted, “You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness” (45). One of my goals for engaging students in writing memoirs was to help them process, reflect on, and walk inside their stories. In the pre-writing phase, students analyzed the events about which they were writing at length. Many of the events students chose were shameful to them—things most didn’t share out loud. On the rare occasion that students did talk about the circumstances that brought them to the alternative high school, they often did so with bravado, in a boastful, posturing manner in an attempt to mask the hurt that accompanied these experiences. However, when invited to engage in honest reflection about these events, many of the students revealed the pain and loss they felt. In bringing their stories out of the shadows and uncovering them for what they were, students found their worth, saw their resilience, and experienced success.

Alignment with Culturally Responsive Teaching

Asserting that meeting the needs of CLD students requires more than “good intentions,” Herrera identified several key components of culturally responsive teaching well addressed by incorporating students’ biographies into the classroom: (1) appreciating students’ and families’ “ways of being,” (2) constructing a classroom space in which all voices are honored, and (3) establishing classroom “ecologies” that demonstrate care and respect for all students’ backgrounds (13-14). As she described the importance of acknowledging CLD students’ experiences, she noted: “When educators work to move beyond the status quo, CLD students’ biographies, knowledge, and Discourse are valued and utilized beyond superficial attempts to ‘celebrate’ students’ culture and language” (14). Kirby and Kirby echoed this sentiment, explaining that inherent in memoir is a respect for difference and “transformative” opportunities related to cultural and ethnic diversity (24).

Memoir functioned as a vehicle for bringing students’ backgrounds, cultures, language, and ways of being to the forefront of the curriculum. Some of the students’ choices regarding the memoirs they checked out from the library were identity-driven; they selected works by authors whose cultural or linguistic identities aligned with their own. In doing so, they found mentors—like individuals who had navigated unique or challenging experiences, reflected on them, and learned from them. As students wrote their memoirs, they their experiences and the ways they framed those experiences became the curriculum. They each saw themselves represented in the classroom as they wrote about events in their writers’ notebooks, eventually choosing one theme or incident to unpack in their memoirs.

The Role of Expert in the Classroom

Kirby and Kirby explained, “When students write about their lives, they encounter a rare opportunity in formal education to know more about a topic than do their teachers” (24). This aspect of memoir was central for the students at Midwestern Alternative. For many of them, school was a place where they were far from expert. In their eyes, they were failures. My colleague once expressed that the students were so used to failing at school that they were almost afraid to succeed. However, one of the things they needed most to persevere through school was to be and feel successful. Gay asserted:

Success does not emerge out of failure, weakness does not generate strength, and courage does not stem from cowardice. Instead, success begets success. Mastery of tasks at one level encourages individuals to accomplish tasks of even greater complexity. To pursue [learning] with conviction, and eventual competence, requires students to have some degree of academic mastery, and personal confidence and courage. In other words, learning derives from a basis of strength and capability, not weakness and failure. (26)

In her book Pedagogy of Confidence, Jackson reiterated this idea: success breeds success, and students must have experiences in school in which they feel competent and confident in order to overcome the cycle of under-achievement (Jackson 80).

Writing memoirs enabled my students to experience success. The free writing exercises were key in building their sense of efficacy and accomplishment. They completed free writing knowing that they could not be wrong. They were the only ones with the right answers. Sometimes I shared my own free writes that were uninspiring and choppy. Though students never expressed it out loud, it seemed that me sharing my mediocre writing made them more confident in their own capabilities. I could almost see them thinking, “Huh. She’s not that good. I could do that—and better,” and they were right! When it came time to craft the memoirs, they were practiced and ready. Their incremental successes with free writing equipped them to write their memoirs.

I did not track my students’ academic journeys following participation in this composition class. I wish I had. In fact, as I was writing this manuscript, I found some of them on social media and caught up with their lives. However, I do know this: when we were engaged in memoir, students were invested. They worked (mostly) without a lot of prodding. They talked about their memoirs outside of class. They enjoyed learning. When I solicited feedback from students at the end of the year, many mentioned memoir in their comments, such as:

“The writing in general was great. I really liked writing a memoir.”

“This quarter I really enjoyed reading my memoir book so it made it easy to read.”

One of my students wrote, “What you teach sticks.” I hope that was true, but it didn’t stick because of me. It stuck because they were working with content that was meaningful to them. They were the experts.

Conclusion

Though my students at Midwestern Alternative certainly possessed ways of being, knowledge, and skill sets that they needed, most of the qualities they possessed were not valued in traditional schools. In fact, the school personnel often found these characteristics distasteful or inadequate—a detriment to school success. For my students at the alternative high school, memoir provided an avenue for promoting who they were by putting them at the center of their education. In this way, memoir facilitated their success on both academic and personal levels. Memoir facilitated my success as a teacher, too, by helping me see and appreciate each, individual student. Knowing my students changed the way I saw them and how well I could teach them. Being known changed the way students saw me, and they were willing to think, to try, and to risk. Because they were willing to write, students gained perspective and took back some of the power those perceived failures held over them. Because they were willing to write, they owned their stories.

Works Cited

Bomer, Katherine. Writing a Life: Teaching Memoir to Sharpen Insight, Shape Meaning and Triumph Over Tests. Heinemann, 2005.

Brown, Brené. Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Random House, 2015.

Carver, Priscilla Rouse, and Laurie Lewis. Alternative Schools and Programs for Public School Students At Risk of Educational Failure: 2007–08 (NCES 2010–026). U.S. Department of Education, National Center forEducation Statistics. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2010.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative. “English Language Arts Standards.” 2018, http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/. Accessed 3 May 2018.

Erlich, Amy, editor. When I Was Your Age Volume One: Original Stories about Growing Up. Candlewick Press, 2001.

Farrelly, Susan Glassett, and Erika Daniels. “Understanding Alternative Education: A Mixed Methods Examination of Student Experiences.” NCPEA Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research,vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 106–121.

Gay, Geneva. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. 2nd ed., Teachers College Press, 2010.

Jackson, Yvette. Pedagogy of Confidence: Inspiring High Intellectual Performance in Urban Schools. Teachers College Press, 2011.

Kirby, Dawn Latta, and Dan Kirby. “Contemporary Memoir: A 21st Century Genre Ideal for Teens.” English Journal, vol. 99, no. 4, 2010, pp. 22-29.

Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). “School Report Card.” http://rc.education.state.mn.us/#mySchool/p–1. Accessed 3 May 2018.

Monroe, Ann. “Shame Solutions: How Shame Impacts School-aged Children and What Teachers Can Do to Help.” The Educational Forum, vol. 73, 2009, pp. 58-66.

Teaching Matters. “Writing Matters: Writing Memoir.” https://learn.teachingmatters.org/course/view.php?id=122. Accessed 8 May 2018.

Teen Ink. “Submit to Teen Ink.” https://www.teenink.com/. Accessed 9 May 2019.

 

Appendix A

Memoir Checklist: If you’re done, complete this checklist.

_____ My memoir has a title.

_____ My memoir is double spaced.

_____ My name is on my memoir.

_____ I have spell-checked my paper.

_____ I have read my paper one last time and corrected any errors.

_____ I have followed submission guidelines for the website to which I’m submitting my work.

_____ I have submitted my memoir to one of the websites we explored (www.teenink.com).

_____ I have printed a clean and final copy of my memoir.

_____ I have scored my own paper using Amy’s scoring guide (below).

_____ I have stapled this paper to the back of my memoir.

 

Memoir Rubric: Scoring Guide (30 points)

In each category, circle the description that you think best fits your paper.

Vizenor rubric.png

Educating with Little Tree: Reshaping The Education of Little Tree’s Cultural and Pedagogical Value in English Classrooms

By Chris Drew

At a recent conference session on literary diversity in classrooms, I and other attendees were encouraged to pass around a selection of books, examine them, and discuss their possible classroom use. A school librarian next to me picked up a copy of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and we began lamenting the scarcity of American Indian literature in classrooms. Then I asked her if she knew Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree. Her smile tightened. “Oh, what a horrible book,” she replied. Her reaction did and didn’t surprise me. The book is a fixture in many schools, so I suspected she would recognize it. However, Little Tree’s broader history is still relatively unknown, so I was pleased to meet someone who knew the truth about this faux-memoir. Based on her reaction, I suspect Little Tree holds no prominence in her library, though it still does in numerous classrooms.

A 2014 episode of This American Life explored attitudes toward Carter and his book, including interviews with high school students that helped contextualize its classroom impact. A student from Massachusetts, Joseph, made the kind of connection English teachers dream of:

[Little Tree] was learning to deal with racial discrimination and prejudice and try and expand his understanding of the world and nature. And I’m trying to do that, too…. This is kind of embarrassing. But near the end, I really—I sort of found myself getting a little emotional. But I really liked it. I found that I really connected to Little Tree. I felt like he was a lot like me. Sort of I’m on the same journey that he was. We’re both trying to become better people. I’m trying to learn to be a good person, become who I am, be a man. But so was Little Tree. (“180 Degrees”)

Who wouldn’t want to teach this book? And how could Joseph be describing the same novel that horrified the librarian? As is often the case, the teacher knew a bit more than the student. Specifically, she knew that Forrest Carter was originally Asa Carter, the author of Alabama governor George Wallace’s infamous 1963 “Segregation Forever” speech. She knew that the writer whose novel inspired Joseph was a virulent racist in the 1960s. She knew that Little Tree began as a fraud, and negotiating space for it in today’s classrooms is a troublesome task.

Because of Carter’s deceptions and reprehensible past, Little Tree has garnered much critical disdain, but it is still a book beloved by readers, including many secondary teachers unaware of Carter’s past. For those educators who know its history, two concerns are central: does it still merit study in English classrooms, and if it does, what should that study look like? Continued critical engagement with the novel suggests that the first answer is yes, it still rewards thoughtful study. Addressing the second concern requires careful pedagogical consideration, but starts with acknowledging that it can no longer be approached as Carter’s mystical autobiography. Instead, it should be scrutinized as a duplicitous text by a deceptive author. Such an approach fundamentally alters its classroom use, challenging students’ preconceptions and impacting literature- and culture-based curricula. It also allows teachers to “unmask” both the book and its author in a controlled environment, plumbing its educational value while exposing the injustices its author perpetrated. More generally, new perspectives allow the dominant and sustained ignorance of the book’s true history to be exposed, transforming its classroom utility and adding necessary considerations of social justice, both textually and paratextually. Simply put, Little Tree offers more educational value today than it did before Carter’s past was revealed, and in the hands of a thoughtful teacher, it can bring unique opportunities to the secondary English classroom.

A Brief History of Little Tree

Some additional context may be useful for those unfamiliar with the book, its author, or its history. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter was published with little fanfare in 1976, presented as the true story of the author’s upbringing in the Tennessee hills with his Cherokee grandparents, who served as guides toward a pan-tribal Indian spirituality emphasizing respect for nature. Many critics found it to be the perfect book for its time, offering the “primordial wisdom” (Browder 130) of American Indians (real or imagined) that non-Indians had begun seeking as an alternative to Western philosophies. Little Tree sat on bookstore shelves throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, gaining a small but loyal following, even as the author’s first book, The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, was made into a blockbuster western starring Clint Eastwood. It didn’t enter the American consciousness, however, until the University of New Mexico Press obtained the rights and reissued it in 1986. This occasioned the book’s first serious critical attention—a foreword by Cherokee legal scholar Rennard Strickland identifying Little Tree as “one of those rare books like Huck Finn that each new generation needs to discover and which needs to be read and reread regularly” (v) and noting that upon its initial release, Little Tree was “universally acclaimed” (vi) and found audiences among young adults, librarians, secondary English teachers, and “students of Native American life” who “discovered the book to be as accurate as it was mystical and romantic” (vi). In 1991, it won the American Bookseller’s Association ABBY award as the book merchants most enjoyed hand-selling (Reuter 104), and a modest position in the modern literary canon seemed assured.  

Then the bottom fell out of the whole enterprise. In 1991, twelve years after Forrest Carter’s death, Dan T. Carter (a possible distant relative) wrote to the New York Times identifying Forrest as Asa Carter, a “Ku Klux Klan terrorist, right-wing radio announcer, home-grown American fascist and anti-Semite, rabble rousing demagogue” (A31). Though his business associates, admirers, and family resisted this information, by year’s end, Asa’s widow admitted the truth: Forrest was Asa. He had not been raised by Cherokee grandparents, and he was responsible for racist speech and activities during the Civil Rights era in the South. Immediately, the critical winds shifted. No longer was Little Tree “sold on the gift tables of Indian reservations” (Gates 15). Instead, academics vilified it as a manufactured deception, offering speculation of white supremacist agendas buried in its pages and eventually using it primarily as a referent to frame discussions of newer literary pariahs such as James Frey. Little Tree’s fall from grace reached its nadir when Oprah Winfrey removed it from her recommended book list, explaining that, while the book touched many people, the revelations regarding Carter meant that she “had to take the book off [her] shelf” (“Oprah”).

The book itself has not changed much in those forty years. Other than alterations to its cover art (removing the words “a true story”), it is the same text Freeman Owle suggested could help readers understand the Cherokee mind (Gates 15), the same text The Atlantic championed by writing, “Some of it is sad, some of it is hilarious, some of it is unbelievable, and all of it is charming,” and the same text of which the Chattanooga Times wrote, “If I could have but one book this year this would be my choice, for it is a deeply felt work which satisfies and fills” (Forrest Carter cover). Most importantly, it is the same text that continues to be taught to students like Joseph in Massachusetts by teachers who are either unaware of its history or simply desperate for a book that engages their students.

Shifting the Central Appeal

My mentor at my current institution has long asked prospective teachers to consider the “problems and possibilities” of any teaching text. I have continued using this framework, and in Little Tree’s case, it is especially suitable. The novel offers numerous teaching possibilities, but they depend on reexamining its pedagogical implementation. In the past, teachers and students valued its ability to inspire students like Joseph by teaching them something about the “Cherokee Way,” but this appeal is now valid only to the extent that it can be juxtaposed with the hard truths of its author.

Literary critics have explored this juxtaposition for decades. Daniel Heath Justice writes of his first encounter with the book as a young Cherokee boy, reading it once and then immediately reading it again, drawing parallels between Little Tree’s family and his own. He “memorized favorite passages and took to imagining [himself] as Little Tree” (20). As an adult critic, however, Justice describes Little Tree as a “fanciful story based on stereotypes and lies” (21). Viewing a text through the lens of its author’s fraud, especially when the fraud is revealed post-publication, complicates a reader’s relationship to any work, and exploring this complication helps students develop the critical faculties needed to conduct close textual analysis—a much more rewarding task than simply reading for enjoyment and inspiration. Because of this, studies of Little Tree can usefully shift to examine the book’s controversies, and in doing so, push students’ critical faculties to new heights, especially if they are also provided critical writings about the text before and after Asa Carter’s unmasking. In fact, many secondary education standards push students toward such considerations at higher grade levels. The Common Core Standards in Reading for 11th/12thgraders ask students to “Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence” (35), and the Indiana Academic Standards relevant to my own program require them to “[a]nalyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama” (Indiana n.p.). Engaging students in the challenging work sorting fact from fiction in Little Tree helps address these standards and prepare students for the kind of close, intertextual reading that is expected in college.

Such reading leads to perhaps the most interesting pedagogical “promise” of an unmasked Little Tree: the opportunity to explore the central mystery of Asa/Forrest Carter. That Asa was a racist and a practitioner of hate speech in the 1960s is unquestionable, as is his attempted reinvention as Forrest, and much of Little Tree’s critical fate rests on a revisionist reading of the text based on such information. Shari M. Huhndorf writes that “the idyllic portrait Carter paints in The Education of Little Tree in many respects actually complements the author’s earlier Klan politics” (132), and that through the pretense of Indian family life in the Tennessee hills, Carter “attempts to vindicate the South from its violent racial history and to redeem an explicitly white supremacist perspective fallen into disrepute” (132). Her first point, that Carter sought to gloss over much of the racial history of the South, is beyond dispute, as is his fondness for an idealized antebellum South and the rugged individualism he believed had been suppressed by Northern aggression—ideas clearly typified in the character of Granpa, whose distrust of politicians and “big-city men” (Forrest Carter 123) echoes Southern sentiments popular during Carter’s lifetime. However, Huhndorf’s critical shift to her second point—positioning Little Tree as a white supremacist text—is less ironclad.

In her consideration of the book’s first scene, in which Little Tree and his grandparents board a bus shortly after his parents’ death, Huhndorf writes that the back of the bus, where the family is forced to sit, is “clearly a racialized space recalling the conflict over bus segregation and the subsequent boycott in the mid-1950s. In the novel, though, the back of the bus is not an undesirable place signifying its occupants’ oppression. Rather, it is a comfortable place where Little Tree finds a sense of love and belonging” (156). Does Carter mean to suggest there is nothing inherently wrong with their being forced to the back of the bus, thereby minimizing the pain inflicted on Little Tree and his grandparents by white racists, or does Huhndorf misread the passage in support of her thesis? Can the scene in question also be viewed as a gently ironic passage that emphasizes Little Tree’s innocence in contrast to the bus passengers’ blatant racism? The latter reading conflicts with much of what we know about Carter, while Huhndorf’s reading is more at odds with the text itself. These are fascinating questions, and though students may not understand every nuance of Huhndorf’s argument, an astute teacher can elicit their own critical responses by asking whether they see troublesome subtext in the scene, based on their symbolic understanding of the back of the bus and close readings of both texts. Such discussion can also usefully connect to current events and provide context for students to understand the horrifying resurgence of white supremacist ideologies in today’s political landscape.

Such passages also illustrate the difficulty of considering Little Tree through the lens of Carter’s politics. Though he never publically repudiated his racist beliefs, the question of whether he carried such sentiments wholly unchanged into the “Forrest” period of his life is less easily answered. Anecdotal evidence exists of at least two instances after Carter assumed his new persona when he used racial epithets in public and voiced racist ideas (Rubin 79-80). In contrast, his editor at Delecorte Press, Eleanor Friede, responded to the revelation of Carter’s true identity by saying, “Oh, no. It couldn’t be the same guy. He’s such a sweet, gentle, fine man. He would never say a word about anybody because of the color of their skin. And I know he’s not anti-Semitic, because my husband and I are Jewish, and we’ve had him to dinner a number of times. And he’s always just as nice as he could be. It just couldn’t be the same man.” Additionally, Chuck Weeth, a bookstore owner who worked with Carter during Little Tree’s initial publication, said, “I guess it’s sort of that feeling that give a man a chance, he might change himself. And we felt like, well, he tried to change himself and he succeeded with us. I didn’t like Asa Carter, I’ll guarantee you. But I did like Forrest Carter” (“180 Degrees”). Clearly, something had changed about the man, but whether it was sincere or performative is unknowable. Because of this, asking students about possible repentance or ideological shift in Carter’s later life requires them to delve deeply into assigned texts, cultivating more complex literary analysis.

Such analysis might also provide teachers with an opportunity to connect a controversy that might seem distant and minor to their students with more current and well-known events. In the past several years, the idea of cultural appropriation and impersonation has found its way into news headlines on a regular basis, from the case of white former-NAACP activist Rachel Dolezal’s self-identification as an African-American woman to the current political headlines relating to senator and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s disputed family history of American Indian descent. While each of these cases (including Carter’s) should be independently considered in the classroom, aspects of their discussion might usefully overlap. For example, does Elizabeth Warren’s explicit apology separate her from Carter’s lack of clear repentance? Does Dolezal’s direct involvement with NAACP differentiate her from Carter’s more nebulous use of his assumed identity? Such conversations not only promote deeper consideration of Little Tree, but also encourage the sorts of intertextual and multimedia explorations valued in nearly all state standards.

As Gina Caison writes in her excellent reconsideration of Little Tree, “The three most common claims regarding Little Tree have been that it 1. represents Carter’s atonement for his racist past; 2. hides a sinister narrative of white supremacy beneath a hopeful exterior of ‘Cherokee’ mythology; or 3. produces such positive valuations of good morals that these contradictory possibilities and the immorality of its author become irrelevant” (575). Asking students to evaluate these claims in light of anecdotal evidence from Carter’s acquaintances and comparisons of his subterfuge to other cases of cultural appropriation gets to the heart of how teachers should be equipping them to engage with literary texts, and illustrates perhaps the most educationally useful “promise” Little Tree can make for today’s classroom.

The Caveat of Context

For teachers interested in using Little Tree to engage these teaching possibilities, it is also important to acknowledge its pedagogical problems and the resulting cautions teachers should take in their classrooms. The most important of these caveats has already been acknowledged: if Little Tree is taught, it cannot be read as it was in the past, despite students’ natural engagement with its surface appeal. Full context must be provided and processed. Because of this, it seems unlikely that the book can be effectively taught in middle schools, where students are less intellectually equipped to engage in such weighty critical considerations, and its use is probably most appropriate in high school courses designed for advanced students. The novel’s rewards are worth pursuing, but only by mature and inquisitive readers supervised by pedagogically sophisticated teachers. The prose remains appealing, but this allure should be treated not as an end, but rather as a means for deeper textual exploration. In capable hands, the book’s earnest simplicity is an excellent conduit for subtextual and paratextual considerations of the novel, whereas works with denser prose often complicate such analysis for students. In other words, because Little Tree is an easy read, students can better scrutinize subsequent challenges to their initial perceptions.

If educators should not dismiss Little Tree, but should also guard against its misinterpretation and oversimplification, what teaching methods successfully thread this needle in the classroom? Because of Carter’s political backstory, Little Tree cannot exist in a vacuum, and its teaching should be accompanied by secondary readings such as Justice’s, Huhndorf’s, and Caison’s, as well as the additional pedagogical and moral questions their inclusion elicits. Is it more effective, for example, to let the students experience Little Tree as Carter intended and then confront them with criticisms (thereby forcing them to challenge their initial assumptions), or is it more useful to provide all information up front for an informed initial reading? Any teacher using Little Tree in the classroom should have pedagogically sound answers to such questions.

Michael Marker articulates another caveat when he suggests that Little Tree should be avoided because of its reliance on American Indian stereotypes (226). While his caution is warranted, it presupposes viewing the book explicitly as American Indian literature, which is clearly no longer acceptable. However, Little Tree can provide effective object lessons if coupled with legitimate Indian writings by authors such as Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, or Louise Erdrich, as well as many of the primary Indian texts included in literature textbooks. Such works not only expose students to legitimate American Indian writers, but can also facilitate comparisons between Indian self-identification and non-Indian perceptions of Indian life. For example, how might students view the generic “Cherokee Way” of Little Tree against the specific tribal beliefs explored in many of Erdrich’s stories? Such lessons foster critical analysis and address standards such as Common Core Reading Standard 9: “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take” (35). As mentioned before, representations of American Indian culture are too often either absent in English classrooms or viewed reductively. Bringing Little Tree into conversation with legitimate Indian literature can provide useful perspectives on how and why that happens.

Such intertextual contact introduces another caveat: while Little Tree can be taught as a standalone text, it is most pedagogically valuable in multitextual units. Whether used as a comparative tool in American Indian literature lessons or interdisciplinary units on the Civil Rights movement, it can provide unique counterpoints to other writings. Caison explores this interdisciplinarity by reframing Little Tree primarily as a Southern novel, explaining that “The text’s articulation of a Confederate Lost Cause ideology further connects it to larger trends in Southern literature, as does its appeal to an affective bond of Southern identity that is highly invested in a quasi-mystical attachment to the land” (574). Imagine a Southern literature unit that assigns Little Tree alongside works by William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, illuminating perspectives on Carter’s writing and persona that are often downplayed when the book is approached as American Indian literature.

A final, critical caveat: teaching a text as contentious Little Tree requires a good deal of foresight and preparation by the teacher. Understanding the nuances of the text and its author is important, but making them clear to students is crucial. It would be unwise for teachers to bring the novel into their classrooms without first consulting administrators and contacting parents to make their intentions clear and providing the necessary context for a successful unit of study, and those interested in guidance on initiating such actions are encouraged to consult the National Council of Teachers of English position statement, “The Students’ Right to Read.

Even more critically, teachers who choose to study Little Tree in their classrooms should explore resources and engagement opportunities provided by American Indian tribes, organizations, and scholars. Non-Indian teachers, however well-intentioned, must avoid the temptation to speak in an uninformed or underinformed manner about, or on behalf of, tribal members generally and those in the Cherokee Nation specifically. Most active tribes, including the Cherokee, offer educational literature and outreach programs through their websites and governmental offices, and a number of American Indian scholars, including several listed in the Works Cited page of this essay, have written extensively on the topic of Indian representation in culture, literature, and classrooms. No educator should undertake the formidable task of teaching Little Treewithout first utilizing such resources.

Little Tree as Teachable Moment

Given these cautions, any discussion of Asa Carter and Little Tree in the 21st century classroom begs a central question: why teach this troublesome book at all when there are so many better ones? There are more answers to the question than this article provides, but two seem particularly relevant. First, Little Tree is already included in many classrooms, where it is often taught with ignorance of its author. While it is possible to simply ask teachers to remove the book from their classrooms, such a request runs contrary to the aforementioned NCTE missive, which states that “[i]n selecting books for reading by young people, English teachers consider the contribution which each work may make to the education of the reader, its aesthetic value, its honesty, its readability for a particular group of students, and its appeal to adolescents. English teachers, however, may use different works for different purposes” (National Council; emphasis added). If such freedom is leavened with an earnest sense of responsible purpose, adjusting how the book is taught offers more benefit than simply decreeing that it shouldn’t be taught. This approach will more profoundly transform the book’s use over time, both revealing the full truth of Carter and his novel in a structured environment and educating students on key historical and contemporary issues in social justice. A corollary to these methods is that, when approached thoughtfully, Little Tree provides unique teaching opportunities that are difficult to find elsewhere, helping students engage a comprehensible text in complicated literary and cultural analysis.

Ultimately, secondary teachers should explore ways to reshape their use of Little Tree, shining a light on its blemishes, controversies, and authorial shame while also asking hard questions about its content and themes. It rewards careful study in ways it could not have when published forty years ago, and it should be both criticized thoroughly and recognized as the work of a talented and immensely flawed writer. In important ways, and especially in secondary classrooms, Little Tree faintly echoes Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: both are the product of gifted but intolerant writers, offering substance, thoughtfulness, and deception. Just as the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare’s play forever bars it from being mentioned in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth, so Little Tree can never be the classic critics once suggested. Its innate contradictions and puzzles, however, alongside its engaging, lucid prose provide useful and unique pedagogical tools for English teachers. As Caison writes, “we should take the worst parts of our history out of the basement. Not because we want to celebrate them, but because we want to move forward—honestly and legitimately” (593). Few books provide this opportunity as fully as The Education of Little Tree.

 

Works Cited

“180 Degrees.” This American Life. National Public Radio, WBEZ, Chicago, 13 Jun. 2014.

Browder, Laura. Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. U of North Carolina P, 2000.

Caison, Gina. “Claiming the Unclaimable: Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree, and Land Claim in the Native South.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 3/4, 2011, pp. 573–95.

Carter, Dan T. “The Transformation of a Klansman.” New York Times, 4 October 1991, p. A31.

Carter, Forrest. The Education of Little Tree. U of New Mexico P, 1991.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “‘Authenticity,’ or the Lesson of Little Tree.” New York Times Book Review, 24 November 1991, p. 26.

Huhndorf, Shari M. Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination. Cornell UP, 2001.

Indiana Department of Education. Indiana Academic Standards. Authors, 2014.

Justice, Daniel Heath. “A Lingering Miseducation: Confronting the Legacy of Little Tree.”Studies in American Indian Literature, vol. 12, no. 1, 2000, pp. 20-36.

Marker, Michael. “The Education of Little Tree: What It Really Reveals about the Public Schools.” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 74, no. 3, 1992, p. 226.

National Council of Teachers of English. “A Students’ Right to Read.” 1981, http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/righttoreadguideline. Accessed 30 June 2017.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.Authors, 2010.

“Oprah Winfrey Spurns Racist’s Book.” New York Times on the Web, 8 November 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/08/arts/television/08arts-OPRAHWINFREY_BRF.html. Accessed 30 June 2017.

Reuter, M. “‘Education of Little Tree’ Wins Booksellers’ First ABBY Award.” Publisher’s Weekly, 10 March 1991, p. 2.

Rubin, Dana. “The Real Education of Little Tree.” Texas Monthly, February 1992, pp. 78+.

Strickland, Rennard. Foreword. The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter, U of New Mexico P, 1991, pp. v-vi.

The Same School Year: Narratives of Early- and Middle-Career Teachers in a U.S. Public School

By Lisa M. Dembouski & Kari Eloranta

At the Start of the Year

Kari:

I thought I was ready. Student teaching had been everything I’d dreamed it would be. I’d spent countless hours studying, training, and volunteering to be just the kind of teacher I had hoped to be. My teaching program prepped me with content and pedagogy and everything else I’d need. When I landed my first teaching job, I felt ready.

No one had described the butterflies I’d feel as I entered that room on day one. I’d arranged the desks in little collaborative pods and projected the seating chart on the wall. I had the Pandora Station “Pop Music” playing as the students came in.

They giggled nervously, seeing a young new teacher listening to “their music.” Many approached me right away and I started to feel good about the morning. The bell rang and I introduced myself and asked students to find their seats. I left the music on as they wandered around.

Fast forward to present day: I’m in my sixth year of teaching, and I made it to the semi-finals as 2018 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. I can honestly, unreservedly say I love my work and being a teacher. But if you had asked me two months into that first year if I liked my job, I would’ve lied and said I did. If you’d asked me halfway through it, I would’ve cried. And if you had asked again right before the end of third quarter, I would’ve told you I quit.

Lisa:

I returned to the classroom in the same school year, having spent the previous three in middle management hell as a TOSA—Teacher on Special Assignment—for my district. TOSA-ing, I’d thought, would be a delightful career move, an opportunity to apply my newly-earned Ph.D., and the chance to make a positive impact on a wider range of people. It actually just made me miserable. The TOSA role meant I spent most of my time with adults, with whom there is far less laughter and joy in one’s day-to-day. I was unprepared for the troubling and difficult challenges the grown-ups’ issues presented. And I was stuck in a position of having no power to actually effect any change, though the people I worked for believed I had such power. Only those at administrative levels above me could actually change anything, yet I was consistently expected to be someone who could. Or should.

So when I saw the opportunity to quit the TOSA position and return to the classroom, and to the same building in which I had already spent the majority of my teaching career, I seized it. This was an unexpected move that had its own negative repercussions, but I didn’t care: anything had to be better than what I’d just gone through.

“At last,” I thought with relief, “I can get back to my roots, do the work I know best, spend more time with kids, laugh again.” I felt positive and confident, eager to return to the familiar. It was going to be a great year.

Kari and Lisa:

We first met in a foundational class for teacher candidates that Lisa instructed as an adjunct for Kari’s teacher preparation program. We met again a year or so later when Kari took her first teaching job out of graduate school in the same district—and the same school—Lisa had taught in for most of her career up to that point. As it turned out, we even ended up across the hall from one another. Though we were literally just steps away, our paths rarely crossed, since we taught different students, subjects, and grade levels in that building.

Ours was a combined middle and high school in a large Minnesota city. The school district served nearly 40,000 students that year, and our building had over 1,000 of those. As urban schools go, it wasn’t that badly off. Paint and carpeting were added as our Principal could spare the funds, many of us had high-quality technology in our classrooms, and though it wasn’t perfect, it compared satisfactorily to other schools in the district and even around the state.

Nevertheless, we both left that school and district that academic year. We remained in touch in other ways, including co-authoring a book chapter about Kari’s preparation program (as yet unpublished, though the project is still in progress). In our collaboration, and as Kari shared more of her stories, Lisa recognized how instructional, emotionally engaging, and funny they were; it was refreshing to see this familiar school and district through the eyes of someone new. At the same time, it was difficult, extremely difficult, to read what Kari was enduring so silently there across the hall, to have had no idea what Kari was experiencing, and to have learned it well after the fact, after we both had left that district for other teaching ventures.

Now, Lisa finds the isolation and separation both shocking and unacceptable; she feels shame she did not recognize what Kari was going through—didn’t know she should reach out and offer support. Kari acknowledges she “felt bad” asking for anything from veteran teachers, who she could see were also swamped and struggling. At the time, immersed in the culture and chaos of the school, the fact that we rarely interacted with a known colleague teaching right across the hall didn’t seem all that strange.

We don’t often read stories of what happens to different teachers in the same school, during the same year, but during different stages of an educator’s career. We offer these glimpses into our 2013-14 academic year both to entertain and to instruct: how can we improve the quality of professional life for teachers in both their first and fifteenth years in the classroom, and what might have happened that would have kept us teaching there?

Improving Teacher Quality of Life, One Field Trip at a Time … or Not

Kari:

If there is any story I can tell that best epitomizes my first year of teaching, and embodies the reasons I left before the end of the school year, it’s this one about our all-school field trip.

Eighth graders are not what I expected; they can turn on you at any moment. Yes, they like and respect you, but they may also need to prove something to a peer or do something totally wild to gain respect. Those needs are more powerful than any relationship I had built so far. This understanding was cemented for me on an all-school field trip during the second week of school. Each grade headed somewhere different, and my eighth grade team was assigned to the zoo. As a first-year teacher, I was nervous and wondered how it would go. I didn’t know my students well enough to know how they’d act outside the school, but if my first week was any indication, it didn’t seem like it could go well. I tried to squelch my fears, trusting that this was what the building always did in the second week of school, and it would go fine. So, with my advisory class list in hand, we headed out to the bus.

We were only an hour into the field trip when zoo security asked all staff to make sure every eighth grader had an adult next to them. They were no longer allowed to walk around the zoo unattended. My group was surprised; what could their peers have done? We had been having such a great time! I walked around and found more eighth graders and welcomed them to my group. The students I started out with were helpful, pointing out other eighth graders that didn’t have an adult walking with them. I approached those students and asked them to join our posse, which was then about twenty students. Some wanted to stop and get ice cream. Some wanted to sit down. Most of them whined about the walking. I had to tell them to keep moving as one unit until we found another teacher. I found some of the kids who were in trouble for throwing food in the monkey cages. They weren’t throwing food for the monkeys to eat, but throwing food at the monkeys. The group was getting larger and more difficult to manage.

Seriously, why couldn’t I find another teacher?

I felt a tap on my shoulder.  “Ms. E., I don’t feel too good.”

“What do you mean? Are you dizzy, hungry—”

Before I could finish my question, I saw Harmony (pseudonym) start to flutter her eyes and fall backwards. I tried to stop her fall, but she had fifty pounds on me, and we both went crashing to the ground. My posse of eighth graders started to panic. I yelled to one of them to go get another adult.

I tapped her on the shoulder. “Harmony, can you hear me? Are you OK?”

Nothing.

Shit. Was I going to have to administer CPR?

“Harmony, let me know if you’re ok, otherwise I’m going to feel for your pulse.”

Maybe that will let her know, if she is just faking it, that I am very serious.

Still nothing. I started to feel for a pulse.

Thank god, I can feel it. But, what the hell do I do now? Why couldn’t I remember my CPR training? What do you do if a student collapses to the ground and has a pulse? And where was another adult?

I heard breath coming out of her lips, but she was still not answering me.

Finally, I saw the zoo First Aid Responder come running. I have never been so relieved in my life. I told him everything I knew. When he asked for her last name, I felt really dumb that I didn’t know. This was just another reason why we shouldn’t take a field trip on the ninth day of school. There were about 200 eighth graders on that trip. I saw about 170 of them in my classes. At that point, I was proud to have their first names down!

I ran over to my students and asked if any of them knew Harmony’s last name.

No one did.

Finally, another teacher showed up and I explained the situation again. He didn’t know her last name either. Thankfully, he did have important numbers in his phone like the school’s number and the teacher’s number who had Harmony in her advisory. He started making phone calls. After that day, I would buy a smartphone.

The ambulance arrived and Harmony still had not stirred.

They loaded her up on the stretcher. By then, about 100 eighth graders were watching. The only useful thing I did at that point was remind them to back up and give the EMTs some space.

The EMTs had some questions that were directed at me. I had to explain the situation again. I was so embarrassed that I tried to catch her and failed. Somehow the fact that I also fell didn’t justify that I didn’t catch her. The EMT tried to make me feel better by saying they don’t think she hit her head because her backpack was on and I helped slow her fall. Thank goodness.

The other teacher called the office and informed them that Harmony was being rushed to the hospital, and to tell her parents to meet her there. The EMTs needed to know whether we had a policy about a teacher needing to ride in the ambulance with a student. We had no idea. We called the school again. We did not have that kind of policy, so they rushed off to the hospital.

We gathered the rest of our students. There were still many kids wandering in the zoo who had no idea what was happening. A few teachers thought we should load the bus forty minutes early and head back to school after the incident of throwing food at the monkeys and now this. Almost all of our students were ready to go anyway. I rushed back into the zoo to make sure the other groups knew we were about to leave.

I started to count my students; I only had 25 of my 30. A couple other teachers were missing students as well. We even had a few teachers missing.

Another teacher ran back into the zoo. Apparently, a group of my students were playing in the elevator in the zoo lobby and got it stuck. Could the day get any worse?

Everyone was pissed. It was hot out. The zoo was “boring” and they knew they were in trouble. The ride back to school was silent.

We arrived with fifteen minutes left in the school day. My students told me that the administration would probably never let them go on a field trip again. I couldn’t disagree. The bell rang and I had never been so happy for a weekend in my life.

It was only my second week of teaching.

Lisa:

My experience of those all-school field trips is so different from Kari’s I can barely breathe. Their purpose was to highlight the school’s newer “environmental” focus. Because we served so many grades (six through twelve) and had such large classes, multiple field trips were dispatched to a variety of “environmental in some way” destinations. I didn’t really care which trip I took; I just knew how eager I was to get out of my classroom, a small one in the middle of the building with no windows and an average daily temperature of 88ºF that fall. Chewing gum melted in there, so I was looking forward to cool respite, courtesy of the environment.

Somehow I drew the long field trips straw and got to cruise a local waterway on a paddleboat with the senior class. I spent that day in breezy, seated comfort, taking multiple photos of scenic beauty, floating lazily down the river on a gorgeous autumn Friday. I was with students who by now totally knew how to do school and therefore had no conduct issues—who were, in fact, a delight to talk to as the day passed in easy fun. “They pay us to be here!” I exclaimed gleefully to my fellow educators on board. “What a wonderful day to be a teacher!”

By now I’ve read Kari’s zoo story over two dozen times, and on every reading, I see something new, something to question, problems to resolve with the comfort and ease of hindsight. Her story perfectly captures what that school culture always felt like—though it had been invisible to me, so I could never articulate as well as Kari does—and it tells me a great deal about the questions we asked earlier that frame our narratives here: what could have enhanced the professional quality of our lives on this field trip day, and what might have kept us teaching there?

Kari and Lisa:

Kari still thinks of that day with horror anytime someone says the word “zoo,” and probably will for the rest of her life. Lisa genuinely wonders whether the residual effects of traumatic teaching experiences like this could be something teachers carry with them forever. Thankfully, in her more recent years of teaching, Kari has not chaperoned a trip quite like it. She now realizes that that particular field trip was a bizarre and unusual occurrence.

We both agree that, nine days into the school year, Kari should never have been left to handle a large group of unfamiliar eighth graders on her own. Support in the form of veteran adults who knew the students should have been a given for any teacher new to the school (not just those new to teaching) that day.

Underlying this, and most everything in our stories (particularly Kari’s), is something we see all the time: teachers constantly thrown into untenable situations and expected to swim; sinking is not an option. They are given the loud and clear message that they are professional adults, entrusted with the care of children, and therefore must be responsible people—which, of course, they are. But why, particularly in the induction years, do we not also remember how much we relied on mentors in the early stages of our own careers? How we appreciated when someone understood and foresaw our challenges and provided support without our having to ask (because we didn’t yet know what would challenge us, did not realize what we didn’t already know, so therefore had no idea what to ask)? Why don’t we send them into the waters of their new profession with a co-captain and reliable ways to stay afloat?

What Ultimately Led to Our Leaving

Kari:

There were several things we didn’t cover in my teaching program—things that, as a new educator, I had to learn by living them. One such topic was a teacher’s prep hour. In my entire first year of teaching, I’m not sure I actually planned a single lesson during my prep hour. The first quarter of the year, I shared my room with the French teacher. So on my prep, I had to leave; I spent a lot of time organizing bins of papers to grade in a colleague’s room. I climbed a flight of stairs every day with those bins, praying I wouldn’t drop anything. Huge chunks of my time were spent just trying to decide which papers should go into which bins, and which I’d need for the big trek that hour.

Thankfully, by second quarter, I had my room back and could use my full prep hour, but I still didn’t manage to prep lessons. Instead, I spent more time cleaning my room after the day’s activities, or chasing down students who were so loud in the hall I couldn’t focus. Seriously, why were there so many kids in the hallway?

It seemed that the administration had bigger problems to worry about than why none of the kids were in class. And so, by week two of me asking where all these kids were supposed to be that hour, I devised a plan and informed them, “Any student left in the hallway in the next minute will be cleaning desks in my room.”

A few scattered back to their classes, but the majority wrongly thought that cleaning desks in the new teacher’s room would be fun. We got real cleaning supplies from the janitor’s closet. Every last piece of “Fuck you,” “Fuck this class,” “THOT,” and “Princess was here” was removed. The fumes were getting a little strong. Sadly, they joked about getting high. One student told me he wished he had gone to class on time, instead of this. I told him the best part: you still get to go to class.

Why was it that I, Ms. First Year Teacher, was the one who organized this plan of getting students out of the hallway? It seemed to work better than any phone call home or write-up ever did.

Once that problem was “solved,” I still managed to find something other than my lessons to work on during my prep hour. I started to use the time to connect with students who were at in-school suspension (ISS), making an affirming connection with them so they could get back on track in my class. I decided that I’d find a student who was in ISS and we’d apologize to each other for this morning when she swore at me and I kicked her out (a school policy I should’ve ignored), and then I’d make a positive call home. Great idea in theory, and I do thank my teaching program for that. I really believe it would’ve been a great moment if she had been in ISS. But, when I arrived at the room, she was not there.

I went to the office to let them know Tanya (pseudonym) was not in ISS.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I just checked.”

“Well, it says she was sent there 2nd hour.”

“Yes, I know. I was the teacher who sent her there 2nd hour.”

“Well, where is she?”

Deep breath. “That’s what I was wondering.”

I was directed to the IEP room. I’m not sure the secretary understood that the IEP room was for students on an IEP, which Tanya was not. But I went to check, and she was not there either. I reported back to the office and saw the usual ISS teacher. He had been in a meeting and there’d been a sub in ISS, which explained how Tanya disappeared.

Thankfully, he seemed to care just as much as I did that a student was gone. We joined forces and went to look for the missing Tanya.

The end of the school day quickly arrived, and I had just spent my entire prep hour looking for a student no one knew was missing. Right as the bell rang, we saw Tanya emerge with her friends. I called out her name and she turned her head back. After she saw me, she ran away. Literally ran down the hall. I looked at the ISS teacher. He only said, “Well, looks like that phone call home isn’t going to be a good one anymore.”

This moment stands out as one of the reasons I left this school. I felt like I cared too much. I don’t mean this in an “I’m good at everything, I just care too much” way. I just got so worked up about things other teachers had managed to put up blinders to. I cared so much that I’d spend a whole prep hour searching for a student who didn’t want to be found, and who knew no one else was looking for her. I think I could’ve survived the year had I kept to myself and just planned my lessons on my prep. But, as my teaching program taught me, simply planning your lessons is not what makes a good teacher. To be the kind of teacher I was trained (and wanted) to be meant connecting with students would always come before lesson planning; that’s what makes a good teacher.

Lisa:

I never used my prep hour to actually prep, either. Something more urgent always took precedence over teaching’s essential work like lesson planning. Often these related to following up on student issues or misbehaviors, as Kari describes above. There were always emails to answer, new (and, generally, reactive rather than proactive) building or district initiatives to be learned and implemented, and endless paperwork required of me as a SpEd teacher/IEP manager.

I also spent a good deal of time trying to convince my administrators that my teaching load was not making the best use of my training or experience. In an eight-period schedule, where one period was my prep, I taught a single class that actually utilized my knowledge and skills as an educator. The other six class periods were a mix of things, but the most galling was that I spent two of them commandeering the IEP room Kari mentioned above, which means I spent 90 minutes every day supervising kids with IEPs who were sent to the room because they weren’t meeting expectations in the class they were scheduled for that hour. The room was usually empty, too; in those days kids were rarely sent there. Now that I think back on it, I got more prep, grading, and paperwork done in those excruciatingly long and boring minutes every day than I ever did on my assigned prep.

As the year went on, and my pleas to actually be given classes to teach continued to be ignored, I realized that TOSA work wasn’t the only thing making me unhappy in that district. Rather, it was the impossible, demoralizing, and disempowering circumstances in which we were expected to work. Why wasn’t anyone listening to me? Why didn’t anyone care that I, an over-educated, mid-career teacher with 15 years of classroom experience, was languishing, sitting alone in an empty room for a large part of her day?

I finally acknowledged this was not what I had bargained for when I signed on as a teacher. My beloved job had been wrenched from my hands and mangled into something I no longer recognized. I also had to accept this truth: I was leaving that school and district at the end of the year. I actually had enough sick days accrued that I could have left sometime in January. I still don’t know why I didn’t just cash them in and walk away. I somehow felt a loyalty and a responsibility to my students that no one else even cared that I had. I could have saved myself so many sleepless nights, though, so many unpleasant thoughts and experiences, so many dreams of doing something—anything—except this.

When I realized that no one was going to change my situation in that building, I promised myself that, doctorate be damned, I’d rather open a tiki bar on a beach someplace than deal with this shit anymore. I was that burned out, that overcome. As comforting and restful as “tiki bar on a beach” may sound, I still knew it was not the best fit for me and my strengths, would not make a difference in this world that I so want to contribute to in positive ways.

My light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of the opportunity I am now in. By the end of that school year, somehow, all the planets aligned to bring me into my current role—teacher educator at a small liberal arts college—which I thoroughly enjoy. I do this new work in a community I love, and in systems and circumstances that more often than not include me when decisions are made about my professional work and expectations. I won’t lie to you, though: this new gig is still fraught with guilt, particularly my worry that I’m simply preparing lambs for slaughter as I train and send new teachers out into the world. I know the world I’m sending them into, because I left it the second I had the chance.

What Would Have Kept Us There

Kari:

I am so thankful now to be part of a district and building that is more able to support teachers. In my first year at my next school, I had an official mentor teacher. Her job on every Wednesday was to be available to all teachers, specifically new teachers. She was there to watch my class if I needed to run to the bathroom, make more copies when the printer was broken, and, best of all, just listen to me on my prep hour and talk through ideas I had for my students and lessons. More importantly, I also consider my principal a mentor. I know she is there for me, to support me in any way I need, which is an amazing feeling I wish all teachers could experience.

Now, I am able use my prep hour to plan lessons and grade assignments. Our building has enough staff that teachers aren’t responsible for hall monitoring, lunch duties, and any other issue that pops up. I know that my job is to teach students, and I don’t feel that I’m spread too thin.

Lisa:

Nothing. Nothing would have kept me there. It was tiki bar or bust.

I’ll admit that the (significant) pay cut moving to my new job has been a challenge, and I do miss working with younger students sometimes. However, I am so much happier and feel much more professionally rewarded now. I know I made the right decision; this move was a good one for me.

Kari and Lisa:

In the stories and comparisons above, we made several points critical to our experiences teaching in that school and juxtaposing those with what we’re doing now. We tried to illustrate what would have felt more supportive to us and our work, what might have kept us there. We parse out our key ideas more deliberately in the next sections.

What Would Have Made Things Better

The Right Kind of Mentoring

We both believe that a more consistent, responsive, and accessible mentor would have made a world of difference for Kari that year. Her official mentor was a representative in the district with whom Kari had to schedule time to meet. Kari would rather have had someone in the building who could come in to her room before, during, and after school, unannounced, and not have to arrange a time that worked with busy schedules to swing by and help with a problem that had likely turned into a different problem by the time they could meet.

Kari’s unofficial mentors were teachers she got to know and like, but if she asked them to help (and often she didn’t, because she could see it wasn’t just first-year teachers struggling), more often than not their response was the unhelpful, “You’re doing great, just keep going, it’s a tough job!” Resources, including the precious resource of trained and effective colleague and administrator time, must be a regular part of a student-centered/teacher-supportive school.

Realistic and Reliable Structures That Permit Teachers to Focus on Essential Tasks

We understand that teacher prep time, as well as the other, seemingly-infinite duties of the profession, are simply a part of one’s work, and that all jobs have these. We acknowledge the support that was there for us to do those tasks, in the form of allocated non-student-contact time built into our schedules each week.

Nevertheless, the time there for us “on paper” rarely translated to reality. Instead, that time was regularly on-contact with students—like chasing down a kid who wasn’t where she was supposed to be—and did not serve us for planning or other tasks essential to the actual pedagogical work we were there to do. The focus of teaching and learning was almost always subsumed into a much less urgent place in our daily hierarchies, and planning was usually something done on our own time, at home, on evenings, weekends, and even holidays.

We advocate that the focus of teachers’ school and work time be first and foremost on those essential teaching tasks. Relegate the extraneous, time-consuming demands that are unrelated to our work as professional pedagogues to a much lower and less important rung on our attention ladder, and let us use the school day for what we’re there to do: teach. While we’re at it, let us also devote our work day to the guts of good teaching: lesson planning and delivery, classroom management strategy development, relationship-building, providing effective feedback to students to support their learning, devising ways to better reach struggling learners, building our repertoires of inclusive teaching practices, and allowing us as educators to focus on why we’re there: to connect with students, facilitate their learning, and impart academic content to them.

Teacher Voice and Agency

We also craved a voice: the chance to see people trust our professional judgment, listen to our ideas for solutions to ongoing challenges, and utilize our strengths. It still baffles us that teaching is one of the few professions that is legislated and administered by everyone except teachers. Unquestionably, Lisa’s time was wasted supervising that IEP room, which these days is staffed by a paraprofessional—an aggravating fact given that Lisa had championed that exact change back when she was begging to be given students and classes to teach.

In the End

We could be here all day. Kari, in particular, has such vivid, descriptive memories and stories of her time in that school that she could simultaneously entertain and horrify you for hours. We imagine that this could be said for most teachers. We know what it’s like out there, day in and day out. We know the contexts in which we are expected to teach and how rarely those are determined by actual educatorsWe’ve had the joyous experiences, and the ones that pushed us beyond our limits or left us with scars that won’t ever fully heal. In the end, the outrageous challenges dominated, and we moved.

We didn’t go far, however, and we both currently find our career trajectories in education enormously fulfilling and, for the most part, positive. We feel healthy and stronger because of our trials by fire. We also know this: teachers should be allocated more time, more resources (human and otherwise), and more trust than they are given currently. We, as professionals, should be granted far more power and leadership opportunities that impact our careers and the teaching profession overall. We should be making the decisions that influence our work, because we understand the issues and have legitimate solutions that, if heard and implemented, would probably work. We need that chance, the opportunity to—at last!—be in charge of our own field, and to lead our profession into the future with the knowledge, expertise, and talents we all possess. The time is long overdue: teaching should belong to teachers.

#StayWoke: Empowering Students to Respond to Fake News

Mariah Morin and Heather Hurst

As my (Mariah’s) own social media feeds were flooded with fake news and articles about fake news, my thoughts turned to students who must also be grappling with the tricky questions of reliability and veracity in this digital landscape. In English classes, we often ask students to be critical consumers of texts and media. The Common Core State Standards require that high school students “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.8). The news has existed, for many of us, as fact-based and credible, yet these times call for us to help our students make sense of what may be false or fallacious in media we once trusted unquestioningly. We wonder how students themselves are experiencing the news writ large. And perhaps more importantly, we wonder how we can empower our students not only to critique these existing “news” sources but also to produce thoughtful and substantiated responses. Just as the Common Core standards require that students evaluate existing texts, they articulate the need for students to learn to rise above the fallacies and fake news in the texts they themselves create: “Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concern” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1.B). Fake news fails to reasonably consider counterclaims, and perhaps more importantly, counterevidence.

Discussions about our students’ ability to interpret the news media they consume aren’t new. For instance, Regina Marchi interviewed teens from 2007 to 2011 to investigate their news preferences and found that most tended not to read newspapers or watch televised news; instead, they accessed news from sites like Facebook and YouTube. She wrote that the adolescents’ friends’ lists “served as news ‘filters,’ bringing various stories to the teens’ attention and helping them understand their relevance via posted commentaries” (252). Interestingly, more than 25% of these adolescents reported consuming “fake news,” although they meant satirical news productions such as The Colbert Report, and they in fact rejected the notion that the news media should be objective. As Marchi explains, “In contrast to the disinterested observations about the political world typical of ‘boring’ professional news, the ironic and passionate remarks of blogs and humorous or acerbic current events shows ‘put things in context,’ offered ‘different opinions,’ and were ‘not afraid to tell it like it is’” (256). In the past couple of years, however, the definition of “fake news” has evolved to mean texts (including non-print media) that are not satirical but instead masquerade as objective truth. Donna Alvermann, a prominent researcher of adolescent literacies, says that we are in a “post-factual era” and suggests that adolescents operate “in a digital culture that tolerates fakeness in its various disguises” (225). She urges us, as English educators, to engage in critical inquiry with our adolescents to help them discern factual news from fake.

Heather and I met in the spring 2017 semester when I enrolled in her adolescent literacy course. Although I have a master’s degree in English education, I am not currently teaching and needed a course to update my certification. One of the learning activities in Heather’s course was to develop a writing-to-learn activity. I created my writing-to-learn activity shortly after President Trump, concerned with “fake news,” tweeted that the media are “the enemy of the American people.” Because I take inquiry stance in my own thinking, learning, and teaching, I found myself preoccupied with what Trump’s remarks might mean for our society. My assignment evolved organically from my curiosity about how students would interpret and shape the conversation about fake news and the media. I wondered: How do students navigate this complicated digital and informational web? How would students situate themselves within the conversation about fake news? How might they build knowledge collaboratively and individually, demonstrate power, and make sense of their own agency in their writing about fake news? Essentially, how do students interrogate texts, and how do they influence and create texts?

Teaching the Assignment

After I submitted my assignment, Heather encouraged me to find a classroom in which I could teach it because the questions I explored in this assignment felt pressing and tied to the current moment. The topic of fake news seemed like one that mattered, both in terms of student interest (it was accessible and engaging) and educational value (with an emphasis on digital literacy, fact-finding, and crafting meaningful responses). We found a willing English teacher and arranged for me to investigate these questions in a living, breathing classroom. We also received IRB approval to collect data (which included student artifacts and my own notes) during my lesson and collected consent and assent forms from the students and their parents. The class at a school in Western Maryland was a blend of about fifteen sophomores and juniors whom their teacher described as “good critical thinkers.” I introduced President Trump’s role in the conversation around fake news by including a screenshot of his tweet about the media being the enemy of the people with other images of relevant headlines.

Designing the Lesson

I designed my lesson to give students the space to investigate the concept of “fake news” and disseminate important information about it to real audiences. The two-day lesson took place in stages comprised of a whole class discussion about prior knowledge of fake news, a quick-write to record their initial thoughts on the topic, further discussion, and student-driven research on their questions that developed from our discussions and their own “writing to learn.” Each student received a paper “Facebook post” template (see Figure 1) and instructions to “Write a post you could imagine going viral on Facebook. What do you think people need to know about fake news?” The bulk of the second day’s activity centered on creating the “posts” and responding to each other’s work.

Facebook seemed like an appropriate literacy tool as defined by Beach et al. because it is “neither static nor detached from social situations” and provides an opportunity and a venue “to transform relationships, spaces, the focus of people’s inquiry, and identities” (14). As demonstrated in Figure 2, the authors describe a literacy tool as one that contributes to transformation with its purposes of engaging in critical inquiry, constructing spaces, establishing agency, and enacting identities, existing in a “synergistic relationship” (21). Facebook seems to fit the criteria as it is a text to be read and written; it is text and tool. Additionally, it is a medium that most students are intimately familiar with, is tied to their identities, and has a direct relationship to the topic of fake news because so much of the conversation and fake news itself finds its way onto Facebook. Paradoxically, this digital literacy lesson took place without any actual digital tools. I assumed that an offline “simulation” would translate into online skills and stances and vice versa. In designing the assignment for the offline classroom, I built in opportunities to mimic the conventions and connectivity of Facebook: I encouraged students to use hashtags and tags to situate themselves in a larger conversation, and provided the opportunity to respond to each other’s work during a gallery walk via smiley and heart stickers (“likes” and “loves”) and sticky notes (“comments”).

What Did Students Have to Say About #FakeNews?

The students and I first engaged in a whole-class discussion about fake news. Because I am not their regular teacher, I wanted to assess their prior knowledge on the topic. Immediately, Darren (all names are pseudonyms) referred to “fake news” as a term used by President Trump to discredit news that puts him in a negative light. As we unpacked this statement through questions like, “What makes the news fake or real?” and “What are our expectations of journalists and the media?” students seemed to arrive collectively at the definition of fake news as, essentially, bias. Students then had ten minutes to write about these questions: “How should the media operate in a democracy such as ours? Is it currently operating that way? How has fake news influenced society?”

Given the collaborative definition the class had developed, many students focused their responses on bias. The majority of their answers went something like Margo’s: “I think in a democracy like ours the news should give us information straight up.” Joni echoed the sentiment, writing that the media “should speak the truth and let the people decide for themselves what is right and wrong.” She added, “Fake news changes people (sic) perspectives and some sources tell you what to believe or what they believe is right. They don’t let us have our own opinions.” She addressed issues of power by positioning the bias in the media as effectively silencing or reducing citizens’ ability to form their own opinions. Many of these initial responses included various levels of mistrust of the media. For example, Hayden directly wrote, “I would say fake news makes our society worry about if the system is corrupted or begs the question ‘who can we trust?’” Students seemed to be deeply ambivalent regarding the news and its effects on individuals and society as a whole.

Jonathan gave a slightly more nuanced interpretation: “The media’s job is to report the news. They should do it in a straight, fair manner. However, opinionated news cannot be illegal; that goes against the 1st Amendment… Our job, as good citizens, is to filter the news ourselves and realize what is factual and what is an opinion.” Jonathan demonstrated an unusual sense of agency and personal responsibility. Although some students, like Joni, felt that the media constrict and constrain our ability to respond, Jonathan saw private citizens as capable of and responsible for critiquing and responding to fake news and the media.

Next Steps: Posing the Questions

After sharing some of their quick-write responses, students created questions about what they wanted to know about fake news. I introduced the next step: independent research. I asked students to find three sources that would help to illuminate their questions about fake news. To support this research (and so I could map their thought processes), I provided students with a graphic organizer (see Figure 3). I also asked them to evaluate their sources and to talk about the bias represented and the reliability (or not) of the sources they chose. To this end, I showed students a viral graphic that positions a variety of news outlets across a spectrum of liberal to conservative bias and low to high journalistic integrity (see Figure 4). (The graphic I shared has been recently updated, reflective of the dynamic metadiscussion about the role of the news media.) “Source” was a flexible term; students were free to explore things like news articles, Twitter feeds, or YouTube videos. The only real criterion was that the sources would somehow advance the conversation or their knowledge of fake news.

This phase of the lesson is where student autonomy really began to emerge. Students asked a range of probing questions based on their interest in the topic. The questions fell into six broad categories: “What is fake news?”; “Why is fake news relevant/how does it affect society?”; “When did fake news start?”; “How is it created?”; “How does it spread?”; and “How to spot fake news.” Interestingly, and again reflecting students’ apparent belief that they are acted upon rather than actors in the conversation about fake news, Ellen was the only student to directly tackle the question of “potential solutions to the use of fake news.”

Our opening activity on day two involved an interactive sticky note activity in which students chose one of their sources and positioned it along the spectrum, similar to the viral infographic we viewed the day before. In this way, students could situate their sources in a complex landscape of media bias and reliability. Supporting students in recognizing the bias in their sources was one element of empowerment. In this activity, we conceptualized writing not only as the act of putting words to the page but also the act of articulating an interpretive response to these texts. This expanded definition of writing helps us position as writers those students who contribute thoughtfully to our collective thinking through class discussions but who would not traditionally be considered writers. As they had expressed distrust in the media and even in consumers of media to identify bias, including this activity was a subtle way to reinforce their own power in confronting and analyzing the media.

Going Viral?: Students’ Posts

Whereas students’ quick-writes were generally similar in content and style, their “posts” provided a great deal of individuality and variety. For example, Darren began his post with, “Yoooooo! It’s Darren here. I’ve been feeling really weird over this whole #fakenews thing @realdonaldtrump has been trying to push on us. I think I will finally speak my mind.” Hayden took a more philosophical approach: “Take such things as a grain of sand. Let it be there only to be there, the news. Do not let the waves of the ocean, one of opinions, engulf your thoughts. Believe none but what your mind and heart tell you, not what others force upon you.” Margo used rhetorical style to discuss the impact of fake news overseas, “Macron’s presidential campaign has been financed by Saudi Arabia? Wrong! Marine Le Pen criticizing a kids (sic) show because the little girl wears a veil? Wrong again!” Bea used more colorful descriptors when introducing her thoughts: “Contrary to popular belief our zany President, Donald Trump, did NOT make up ‘fake news’.” It seems that when students are offered the opportunity to write in a non-academic genre for their own interests, they potentially produce interesting, provocative, and powerful texts.

Their posts were also more authoritative, demonstrating greater agency, than their original quick-writes. As Beach et al. write, “We define agency as having the potential or capacity to enact change in status-quo practices, beliefs, or self-perceptions… Students who view themselves as change agents believe that they can make a difference in the world. They are willing not only to voice their beliefs about the need for change but also to enact change through active participation despite difficulties” (52). Many students called on their audience to “do a little research” and to “educate the people” about fake news. Hash tags that students used to reiterate the point included ones used by multiple students (including in their comments on each other’s work)–“#stopfakenews” and “#notmynews,”–and those used by individuals “#geteducated,” “#evaluatenews,” and “#staywoke.” A few students still mentioned being a “victim” of fake news or distrust of the media, but the majority of students seemed to demonstrate their belief that they could spot fake news and help others learn to do the same.

With some students, it was easy to see how their research influenced their final posts. Jonathan synthesized a couple of sources from his research organizer: “As good citizens, we have a responsibility to become educated and filter the news ourselves. According to one study, facts can ‘combat’ fake news effectively. Fake news goes both ways (liberal and conservative) and no side is to blame. False stories have always existed (yellow journalism) and we have a duty to know what is and what isn’t.” Margo used the BBC and CrossCheck to help compose her post about the French election, and Cassie referenced The Guardian as a resource for self-education about fake news.

Most students didn’t necessarily change their opinions but strengthened them (which they themselves acknowledged in the follow-up reflection questions). Miley originally wrote in her quick-write, “Fake news has changed the way Americans interpret things. Most people believe what they see because we usually trust the internet to give us correct information about certain issues.” But in her viral post, she wrote, “Fake news is taking over the internet and we need to do something about it.” Additionally, her follow-up writing offered more of her own opinion and demonstrates the desire for people to act in response to fake news rather than passively accept it. Tommy initially wrote, “The media should be truthful and unbiased to give citizens a proper view on current events… Fake news can misinform people and change their outlook on politicians and recent events.” By the end of the lesson he advocated for individuals to take responsibility for evaluating their news: “If a story seems fake, check multiple sources to confirm or deny its legitimacy. Inform others of the issue of fake news. Then we can all make sure we receive truthful news that allows us to make proper decisions and stances on events.” While their responses weren’t wildly different from start to finish, they clearly progressed in their thinking and evolved in their vision of themselves and others as active, critical consumers of media, which they expressed, at times powerfully, through their writing.

Reflecting: Do Students See Themselves as Powerful Contributors to Current Conversations?

I suppose I was asking students to make the mental leap from completing a hypothetical, in-class, offline assignment to imagining themselves as active participants in online discussions. Their willingness to engage in an in-class activity did not necessarily translate to an inclination to insert themselves into a broader social media conversation. Despite the overall strength and tone in their Facebook posts and their clear ease in writing in the genre, most students still did not express a desire to take their opinions online. As Bea wrote, “I prefer to look at what other people are saying rather than put myself out there just because I feel as if it’s pointless to comment on social media. The only thing that will happen is an online squabble with someone who has a dissenting opinion.” Miley felt similarly, saying, “I would not want to start an argument.” Cassie said she wouldn’t post her thoughts on Facebook “because a lot of social media discussions about these topics are arguments and I don’t like that.” Darren merged a few thoughts about social media discussions, saying “they tend to become negative… the internet isn’t the best place for political discussion.” Ellen and Jonathan both said they prefer to share their opinions “in real life.” Generally, it seems like these students wanted to add their voice “locally” with familiar people and in a familiar environment. This tendency leads us to consider how our students are conceptualizing digital spaces and social media; although they often share personal and intimate details on social media, these students are clearly reluctant to engage in political discussions in these spaces. Do they see face-to-face discourse as less argumentative and, thus, more productive, or is it that they have personal relationships with those with whom they engage face-to-face, whereas they imagine engaging with combative strangers on social media?

The Media: A Malevolent Force?

During our discussions, some students talked about the ways in which we tend to seek out news that affirms our beliefs. Reinforcing their own observations, many students claimed that their opinions weren’t changed by the sources they found, but were strengthened. Bruce Pirie queries, “Once we see audience and text engaged in a meaning-making transaction, two interrelated questions arise. First, how and to what extent is the audience constructing the text? Second, how and to what extent is the text constructing its own audience?” (29). I found it interesting that though social media are interactive, students still do not see themselves as capable of significantly influencing conversations on social media. To that end, Margo wrote, “I feel like my opinions are not important in social media discussion. I think this because I believe I do not have a big enough ‘Fan base’ to get my point around.” Some of their posts, and, even more so, their reflections demonstrate a reluctance to engage with what they perceive to be a force greater than themselves, one that has almost a sinister ability to cause division, arguments, and mistrust. For instance, Miley wrote, “I do not like the fact that I cannot trust sources that might have once been reliable. Americans cannot trust anything now.” In developing and enacting agency around the topic of fake news, I hoped to encourage students to be critical and active versus fearful and passive, but for some, the distrust remained.

So What Does It Mean to Have Power and Agency in Digital Spaces?

When creating this lesson, I imagined that students, by interacting with literacy tools, would somehow be transformed, and that they themselves would transform the literacy tools (in this case, a larger “Facebook” discourse). But agency and transformation didn’t happen in exactly the ways I thought they would. I imagined students would “take up the cause” to a higher degree, envisioning themselves as major change agents. Instead, transformation and agency were subtler. Students demonstrated agency and participated in meaning-making by:

  1. Taking responsibility for determining the credibility of their sources (both in their research and in their recommendations to their audiences in their posts).
  2. Creating and using hashtags that positioned themselves firmly within the conversation as knowledge creators and “interacting with each other’s texts” (Beach et al 48).
  3. Creating their own research questions based on their interests and charting their own course for their internet search.
  4. Using their unique voices that emerged to create more powerful and interesting writing; and
  5. Using the conventions of the genre (social media posts) proficiently to increase the impact of their positions about fake news.

The Inquiry Cycle Continues: Concluding Thoughts

The assignment was designed to support students in the development of their knowledge, and ultimately, their stance regarding fake news. As Beach et al write, “Adopting a critical inquiry stance also involves engaging in dialogue with others, and collective action leading to change” (30). My goal was to see a change in students’ views of themselves as influencers as well as a change in the actual dialogue regarding fake news—that students would feel empowered to affect this change through their writing.

As the teacher/researcher, I assumed that students would have a high level of engagement with the topic because of its relevance. Furthermore, I expected that students would have a strong sense of, and interest in, their own identities as creators and disseminators of knowledge. While the writing and research process included many elements of personal agency, culminating in what I would characterize as strongly-voiced manifestos on fake news, students still did not seem to perceive themselves as powerful contributors to the online discourse. Neither did they seem to desire to participate in such change-making conversations.

We’re left wondering how, as educators, we can mediate our wish for students to participate genuinely, especially in digital spaces, with students’ agentic responses of “I don’t want to.” How can—or should—students’ social and educational, personal and political, digital and local worlds overlap? We find ourselves thinking about ways to negotiate student interests with our pedagogical interest in social change, acknowledging that we assume that creating change is valuable and desirable. We recognize the myriad ways in which students enact power throughout the writing process and affirm their agency in choosing their audience. Meanwhile, we can continue to encourage them to shift toward a more nuanced understanding of “argument,” from a “squabble” to a well-researched, well-reasoned exchange of ideas. We can challenge them to strengthen their own capacities for civil discourse both online and off, skills that in these contentious times are desperately needed.

Works Cited

Alvermann, Donna E. “Social Media Texts and Critical Inquiry in a Post-Factual Era.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, vol. 61, no. 3, 2017, pp. 335-338.

Beach, Richard, et al. Literacy Tools in the Classroom: Teaching Through Critical Inquiry, Grades 5-12. Teachers College Press, 2010.

Common Core State Standards. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010.

Marchi, Regina. “With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic ‘Objectivity.’” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 36, no. 3, 2012, pp. 246-262.

Pirie, Bruce. Reshaping High School English. National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.

@realDonaldTrump. “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Twitter, 17 Feb 2017, 1:48 p.m., twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/832708293516632065

@vlotero. “I made this chart about news sources.” Twitter, 13 Dec 2016, 7:33 a.m., twitter.com/vlotero/status/808696317174288387/photo/1

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Centering LGBTQ People of Color with Young Adult Literature in Secondary ELA

Cody Miller and Kathleen Colantonio-Yurko

As English language arts teachers, we believe young adult literature offers an avenue for voices and experiences that are largely ignored by canonical texts. LGBTQ voices are among those omitted from many English language arts textbooks. In the past, we relied heavily on young adult literature to provide our students LGBTQ texts. However, the mostly white faces on LGBTQ young adult titles did not reflect the racial diversity of LGBTQ students we taught. Finding and teaching young adult literature that focused on LGBTQ people of color became a professional missions of ours. Similarly, Durand calls for researchers to study young adult literature featuring LGBTQ people of color (83). Our paper seeks to answer Durand’s call through classroom practice by providing teachers texts and strategies to incorporate young adult literature that focuses on LGBTQ people of color into secondary English language arts curricula.

We offer texts that we have taught before in our 9th and 10th grade English language arts classes or texts we suggested to individual students. However, we want to recognize that there is no singular LGBTQ experience. There is no monolithic white LGBTQ experience, nor is there a monolithic experience for LGBTQ people of color. Furthermore, within the identifier “people of color” there exists broad cultural and racial diversity. Students and teachers must be cautious of not perpetuating singular views about LGBTQ people of color; they must recognize that race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, ability, language, gender identity, sex, class and other social identities intersect with sexuality to form an individual’s experiences of society and power. We offer texts we have taught and suggest other texts that we have read, but these lists are just a beginning; teachers, teacher educators, and students should work together to find, read, and teach more texts that center on the lives of LGBTQ people of color.

LGBTQ Young Adult Literature and Race

Recent writings on multicultural literature have been updated to include LGBTQ narratives under the umbrella of “multicultural literature” (Temple, Martinez, and Yokota). However, it is important to avoid the common tendency of treating “racial diversity” as a wholly separate and removed category from “sexuality.” Previous scholarship has found that intersectionality is typically lost when LGBTQ literature is used within secondary classrooms due to the myopic focus on characters’ sexualities, which is problematic considering “no one is solely sexual” (Blackburn and Smith 633). Furthermore, a narrow focus on the sexuality of characters for the sake of inclusion simplifies the realities and experiences of LGBTQ people and allows students to disregard sociopolitical and cultural factors that contribute to inequities and marginalization (Blackburn and Clark).

Unfortunately, too much of LGBTQ young adult literature has focused on white experiences (Garcia; Garden). White people do not hold a unique claim to LGBTQ identities, but we reproduce the idea that LGBTQ identities are white when we fail to acknowledge the role race plays while naming and teaching LGBTQ young adult literature. As Puar notes, “Any singular-axis identity analysis will reiterate the most normative versions of that identity” (93). In other words, a focus solely on sexuality will reinforce whiteness, while a focus solely on race will reinforce heteronormativity. All LGBTQ young adult literature is racialized, so we should call the majority of LGBTQ young adult literature what it is: white LGBTQ young adult literature. A failure to acknowledge the whiteness in most young adult literature will only perpetuate the message that LGBTQ identities are coupled to whiteness.

Fortunately, there is a growing number of young adult texts focusing on LGBTQ people of color. These texts can become powerful curricular material in secondary English language arts classrooms. Hermann-Wilmarth and Ryan note that texts focusing on LGBTQ people of color “help readers expand their notions of who ‘counts’ in various racial, sexual minority, and religious communities” (97). It is important to acknowledge that among the growing number of young adult literature focusing on LGTBQ people of color, the “T” is still largely underrepresented. Young adult literature publishing agencies must do more to support the work of trans writers of color and their work. Supporting trans writers of color means supporting work about trans youth of color. A report co-authored by the Trans People of Color Coalition and the Human Rights Campaign found that transgender women of color face an increased risk of violence and often feel unsafe in seeking resources due to the intersecting forces of racism, sexism, and transphobia. Our work does not remedy this problem, nor does it dismantle the political and cultural forces centering LGBTQ issues on whiteness. Nevertheless, honoring the reality of LGBTQ people of color in the classroom through literary studies is an important first step for fostering critical consciousness in students.

Instructional Strategies

We are critical of the standards movement, especially its emphasis on mandated testing and its neoliberal foundations which seek to usurp the democratic aims of education in favor of market-based approaches. Yet we also recognize that teachers and students live in a standards-based policy landscape. Thus, part of being a multicultural educator is understanding how to do social justice work while navigating oppressive school systems and mandates. Scholars like Beach, Thein, and Webb and Duncan-Andrade and Morrell have called for teachers to use the mandated standards to advance the aims of a social justice-oriented English education. We concur with their call and their assessment that critical curriculum and instruction will ensure that students exceed the demands of standardized tests. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell argue that teachers should be able to “justify” their social justice curriculum and teaching to cautious audiences, including parents and administrators. To that end, we have acknowledged how our strategies fulfill the needs of the Common Core State Standards. The standards do not drive our work. Rather, a commitment to equitable and inclusive classrooms grounds our curriculum and teaching. But being able to use mandated standards to “justify” the teaching of texts that feature LGBTQ characters of color is essential in navigating our educational reality while simultaneously working to change it.

Book Clubs   

We understand that homophobia and transphobia embedded in school systems makes teaching LGBTQ texts difficult. For many teachers across the nation, including ourselves, teaching an LGBTQ text as an entire class novel may be nearly impossible. Thus, we believe it is important to “do what you can” (Hermann-Wilmarth and Ryan) within your professional context. For us, that meant structuring “book clubs” for students and including titles that focus on LGBTQ people of color. We refer to “book clubs” as a curricular and classroom structure in which teacher select a variety of books and group them based on common themes so that students can read choice texts within a thematic unit. Incorporating LGBTQ texts through book clubs was an effective way for us to prevent parental pushback.

Clark and Blackburn have suggested that presenting LGBTQ texts as optional readings perpetuates homophobic and transphobic attitudes because students are able to opt out and thus avoid reading about LGBTQ experiences. While we find that argument defensible, we also feel it is important to acknowledge Burke and Greenfield’s suggestions that students may choose to not read LGBTQ texts because they themselves are LGBTQ or have LGBTQ family members but are not ready to share that publicly. Furthermore, sometimes the only way to incorporate LGBTQ texts into the classrooms is through choice reading due to the politics of the school. Teachers, parents, and administrators should do more to change those politics, but we want to honor the reality that many classroom teachers, especially new teachers, face. Book clubs are a seemingly small, but important, first step.

The following list outlines how we structure book club units:

  1. We provide an overview of all the available texts during a book club unit to the entire class when we begin a new unit. We note the basic premise of the plot and the major characters’ identities.
  2. We provide time for students to examine each book that seemed interesting to them in class after the introduction. Students usually take five minutes on each book they noted seemed interesting. Students are prompted to read the back of the book, the first few pages, and the synopsis.
  3. Students write down and rank their top three choices from the book club options. Students note why they want to read each book.
  4. We organize students into groups based on their book club comments. We strive to ensure that all students receive their top pick, but cannot guarantee it since the quantity of books is not limitless.
  5. Students create a plan for how they’ll complete the book given our schedule. We let students know how many reading days they’ll have in class. Students then note how many pages they need to read and if they need to plan to come in during lunch to catch up.
  6. From this point, students are given 30 minutes each day in class to read their book club. Students make annotations for the text after each reading period. Students can use these annotations for classroom discussions.
  7. Once a week, students are allotted time to discuss their book club text with their peers. These discussions can take a variety of formats as outlined further in the section below.
  8. We typically require students to complete a multi-piece project at the end of the book club units to demonstrate their understanding and meaning-making process with the texts.

Multimedia Character Analysis

Teachers should create assignments that require students to analyze topics around identity and power. Our Multimedia Character Analysis (Figure One) is an assignment to help students analyze characters in terms of identities, relationships, experiences, and changes. The cycle symbol in the center of the graphic indicates the relational nature of all four categories.

Students curate images from other texts to illustrate the four categories for a character from their book. In Figure One, we require students to select different number of images for different categories, but this can be amended. Students can create their Multimedia Character Analysis using technology tools like Piktochart, Glogster, Google Drawing or any other preferred application. We encourage students to use video or audio clips as their “images” if the platform allows permits. Finally, students should be required to write a reflection in which they explain the significance of their images to their books with textual evidence. Students should also be asked to explain how the four categories intersect within the text. This assignment can be implemented for all students during a book club unit, but we are most interested in helping students analyze LGBTQ characters of color. Students use this assignment to understand that no character (or person) is solely one identity, and the various identities characters hold shape their relationship to power.

In analyzing Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe using the multimedia character analysis, one student used the scene in which one of the titular characters is the victim of a homophobic attack point out that “men are socialized to be afraid of showing any affection for another male regardless of sexuality.” She placed this analysis in the “experience” section and used it to connect to the “identities” section. The student also used the identities section to observe that Dante’s shame of being Mexican is “related to his shame of being gay.” The student continued by adding that the “dominant racial group, white, made Dante ashamed of being Mexican. The dominant sexual group, straight, made Dante ashamed of being gay.” The student also noted how this shame impacts the character’s relationships with others for the “relationship” segment, and notes that the homophobic experiences the character faces cause a shift in the character in the “changes” segment. The student used the multimedia character analysis to connect the character’s identities, relationships, changes, and experiences throughout the course of the book.

Book Club Discussions

Book clubs usually offer small, intimate avenues for discussion that are different from whole class discussion formats such as the Socratic Seminar. The smaller setting of book clubs offers a wide range of types of discussion formats students can partake in. Figure Two provides different formats for discussions that we have used, as well as their strengths and points of concern based on our experiences. Students should be given a range of options for discussion formats and then select the one they and their group feel most comfortable with. Regardless of format, students should be given the autonomy to create their own discussion questions to pose to their groups. Teachers need to model how to write high-quality, open-ended, text-based discussion questions, and then allow students to generate questions to bring to their discussions. The content in students’ graphic organizers from the previous section can be a starting point for generating discussion questions.

Offering multiple ways to engage in discussions for the book clubs results in discussion days where some students are in a section of the room recording short videos while some students are at their desk writing blog posts, and other students are huddled together having a face-to-face conversation. Regardless of format, we provide students with 20 to 25 minutes to unpack their thinking about the books they’re reading. Face-to-face groups use this time to chat in real time while students who opt for digital responses can use this time reading and responding to their peers digitally. Students then write a brief reflection on what they discussed, what they learned, and how their thinking of the book has developed due to their discussion.

Additionally, teachers and students should collaborate to establish norms of discussion to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. At the beginning of the school year, we ask students to list what they think is necessary to have a dialogic classroom for our collective learning. From students’ responses, we establish our classroom norms. For instance, students note that it is important for us to focus on the content of classroom discussion contributions rather than the person making the contribution. Students also ask that we “call in” rather than “call out” peers when something problematic has been stated. Protocols can help ensure everyone’s voice is heard. We often use text protocols from the National School Reform Faculty to help structure our classroom discussions. Many of the protocols provided by the National School Reform Faculty are adaptable to the various types of discussion we outlined earlier in this section. It’s important to solicit student feedback when implanting a new protocol. We ask students what they believe the strengths and weaknesses of specific protocols are in order to tailor our instruction for future classroom sessions.

Teachers should also be prepared to challenge students’ thinking, especially if students are engaging in homophobic or transphobic discourse. Book discussions can be a powerful vehicle to transform students’ understanding of experiences dissimilar to theirs. However, teachers need to ensure that harmful myths and damaging misconceptions students may hold about LGBTQ individuals and communities are swiftly corrected. One way teachers can address such misconceptions is to provide an overview of important terms relating to LGBTQ topics. For instance, our students sometimes conflated sexuality with gender identity. Students would note that a character is “gay but not transgender,” thus setting up a gay or transgender binary. This observation opens up an opportunity to inform students that a character can be gay and transgender or gay and cisgender since all people have a sexuality and a gender identity. We would then provide an overview of the difference between sexuality and gender identity. It was also important for us to challenge notions of “normal” in book club discussions. Terminology plays an important role here. Students would note that one character is transgender while another character is “normal.” To disrupt this thinking, we introduced the term “cisgender” to students. Providing students with language like “cisgender” allows students to see that all people have gender identities, which decenters cisgender as the default identity. The organizations Teaching Tolerance and Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) have teacher-friendly guides to important terms and concepts relating to LGBTQ topics. We suggest that teachers first develop a robust understanding of the terms and concepts before attempting to address the terms and concepts with students.

Suggested Books

We have our list of suggested young adult literature focusing on LGBTQ people of color (Figure Three). By no means is this list exhaustive. Rather, the list is composed of books we taught in book clubs or texts we recommended to students individually. Nearly all of the texts on our list are realistic fiction. We recognize that as a limitation. The number of science fiction and fantasy young adult titles feature LGBTQ characters of color is growing, and it is important for students to understand that LGBTQ people of color belong in all genres. Incorporating young adult literature that focuses on LGBTQ characters of color in other genres, like fantasy, is an important next step for this work.

Our list also includes suggested pairings for the titles. Dodge and Crutcher suggest that pairing LGBTQ texts with canonical texts can fulfill the demands of the Common Core State Standards while promoting the aims of social justice teaching and creating inclusive classrooms for LGBTQ students. Our own high school English language arts teaching experiences bolster their argument. One way we organized our curriculum is to have the entire class read the suggested “pairs well with” text and then provide book club options that thematically relate to the whole class read. Many, but not all, of our “pairs well with” texts come from the Common Core Text Exemplars for grades 6-12. Teachers can then construct thematic essential questions to allow students to analyze across the texts. These essential questions can guides students with writing sub-questions for small group discussions. We have provided sample essential questions for the pairings in Figure Three. Of course, we encourage teachers to create their own “pairs well with” texts and essential questions for their students.

Conclusion

Despite legal wins such as the right to marry and serve openly in the military, LGBTQ students and teachers still live in a society and learn in a school system that is structured to oppress them. To say that LGBTQ students endure less safe and affirming school environments than their straight peers would be an understatement. In addition, LGBTQ students of color face more types of discrimination than their white LGBTQ peers in public schools across the nation due to their racial and ethnic identities (Diaz and Kosciw; Fondas).

Too many schools still lack LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and affirming teachers. Even teachers who see themselves as supportive of LGBTQ individuals and rights express trepidation in using LGBTQ literature in their classrooms (Thein). Malo-Juvaro’s mixed-methods study found that pre-service teachers held a variety of views about using LGBTQ YAL in their future classrooms. Some saw LGBTQ YAL as a way to reduce homophobia and support inclusion for LGBTQ students in schools, while others suggested that LGBTQ issues were unnecessary to teach and could offend other students. Greathouse and Diccio found that pre-service teachers who develop an ally stance by studying LGBTQ YAL in their teacher education programs do not implement ally work in the classroom due to fears about negative responses from parents, community members, and administrators. These findings reveal that the potential for LGBTQ literature instruction to transform classrooms and schools has yet to be met in teacher education programs or classroom practice. In short, serious obstacles still remain for creating inclusive schools for LGBTQ students.

Given this less than ideal picture, our commitment to equitable and inclusive classrooms remains crucial. Making our classrooms inclusive and equitable spaces for LGBTQ students must involve acknowledging that “LGBTQ” is not synonymous with “white.” In working to implement anti-heterosexist pedagogy, teachers must include the impact of race in their content, analysis, and instruction. Our article offers suggestions for how that work might look while still adhering to state-mandated standards. It is our hope that providing instructional tools, texts, and ways to “justify” the work to other stakeholders will open the door for more teachers to teach young adult literature titles that center on LGBTQ people of color. Our students deserve nothing less.

 

Works Cited

Beach, Richard, Amanda Haertling Thein, and Allen Webb. Teaching to Exceed the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards: A Critical Inquiry Approach for 6-12 Classrooms. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2016.

Blackburn, Mollie V., and Caroline T. Clark. “Analyzing Talk in a Long‐term Literature Discussion Group: Ways of Operating Within LGBT‐inclusive and Queer Discourses.” Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3, 2011, pp. 222-248.

Blackburn, Mollie V., and Jill M. Smith. “Moving Beyond the Inclusion of LGBT‐themed Literature in English Language Arts Classrooms: Interrogating Heteronormativity and Exploring Intersectionality.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 53, no. 8, 2010, 625-634.

Burke, Brianna R., and Kristina Greenfield. “Challenging Heteronormativity: Raising LGBTQ Awareness in a High School English Language Arts Classroom.” English Journal, vol. 105, no. 6, 2016, pp. 46-51.

Clark, Caroline T., and Mollie V. Blackburn. “Reading LGBT-themed Literature with Young People: What’s Possible?.” English Journal, vol. 98, no. 4, 2009, pp. 25-32.

Diaz, Elizabeth M., and Joseph Gregory Kosciw. Shared Differences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students of Color in Our Nation’s Schools. GLESN, 2009.

Dodge, Autumn M., and Paul A. Crutcher. “Inclusive Classrooms for LGBTQ students: Using Linked Texts Sets to Challenge the Hegemonic ‘Single Story.’” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol.  59, no. 1, 2015, pp. 95-105.

Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey Michael Reyes, and Ernest Morrell. The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. Vol. 285. Peter Lang, 2008.

Durand, Elizabeth Sybil. “At the Intersections of Identity: Race and Sexuality in LGBTQ Young Adult Literature.” Beyond Borders: Queer Eros and Ethos (Ethics) in LGBTQ Young Adult Literature, edited by Darla Linville and David Lee Carlson, Peter Lang Publishing, 2016, pp. 73-84.

Fondas, Nanette. “Schools are Failing Minority LGBTQ Students.” The Atlantic, 18 Nov. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/11/schools-are-failing-minority-lgbt-students/281600/.

Garcia, Antero. Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging genres. Vol. 4. Sense Publishers, 2013.

Garden, Nancy. “LGBTQ Young Adult Literature: How It Began, How It Grew, and Where It Is Now.” The ALAN Review, vol. 41, no. 3, 2014, pp. 79-83.

Greathouse, Paula, and Mike Diccio. “Standing but not Delivering: Preparing Pre-service Teachers to use LGBTQ Young Adult Literature in the Secondary English Classroom.” Study and Scrutiny: Research on Young Adult Literature, vol.  2, no. 1, 2016, pp.  35-52.

Hermann-Wilmarth, Jill M., and Caitlin L. Ryan. “Destabilizing the Homonormative for Young Readers: Exploring Tash’s Queerness in Woodson’s After Tupac and D Doster.” Beyond  Borders: Queer Eros and Ethos (Ethics) in LGBTQ Young Adult Literature, edited by Darla Linville and David Lee Carlson, Peter Lang Publishing, 2016, pp. 85-100.

Hermann-Wilmarth, Jill M., and Caitlin L. Ryan. “Doing What You Can: Considering Ways to Address LGBT Topics in Language Arts Curricula.” Language Arts, vol.  92, no. 6, 2015, 436-443.

Human Rights Campaign & the Trans People of Color Coalition. A Matter of Life and Death: Fatal Violence Against Transgender People in America 2016. Human Rights Campaign & Trans People of Color Coalition, 2016.   

Malo-Juvera, Victor. “A Mixed Methods Study of Pre-service Teachers’ Attitudes Toward LGBTQ Themed Literature.” Study and Scrutiny: Research on Young Adult Literature, vol.  1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-45.

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke University Press, 2007.

Temple, Charles, Miriam Martinez, and Junko Yokota. Children’s Books in Children’s Hands. 5th ed., Pearson, 2014.

Thein, Amanda Haertling. “Language Arts Teachers’ Resistance to Teaching LGBT Literature and Issues.” Language Arts, vol. 90, no. 3, 2013, pp. 169-180.

 

Literature Cited 

Alexie, Sherman, and Ellen Forney. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little, Brown, 2007.

Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Algonquin Books, 1991.

Bambara, Toni Cade. Gorilla, My Love. Reissue ed., Vintage Books, 1992.

Beam, Cris. I am J. Hachette Book Group, 2012.

Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. Vintage Books, 1992.

Davis, Tanita S. Happy Families. Random House, 2013.

Farizan, Sara. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel. Algonquin Young Readers, 2015.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Random House, 1995.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Lippincott, 1960.

Revoyr, Nina. The Necessary Hunger. Simon and Schuster, 2011.

Rice-Gonzalez, Charles. Chulito: A Novel. Magnus Books, 2011.

Rivera, Gabby. Juliet Takes a Breath. Riverdale Avenue Books, 2016.

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire.  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1951.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. No Fear Shakespeare Ed., SparkNotes, (Original work published 1602), 2003.

Woodson, Jacqueline. The House You Pass on the Way. Penguin Group, 2010.

Yee, Paul. Money Boy. Groundwood Books, 2013.

 

Organizations Cited

“Creating an LGBT-Inclusive School Climate.” Teaching Tolerance, Southern Poverty Law Center, 30 Nov. 2017, www.tolerance.org/magazine/publications/creating-an-lgbtinclusive-school-climate.

“GLSEN Terms and Definitions.” GLSEN, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, www.glsen.org/chapters/massachusetts/terms.

“NSRF Protocols and Activities … from A to Z.” Protocols A-Z | National School Reform Faculty, National School Reform Faculty, 2015, www.nsrfharmony.org/free-resources/protocols/a-z.

 

Figure One: Multimedia Character Analysis

 charanalysis.png
Common Core English Language Arts Reading Literature standards addressed:

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

Common Core English Language Arts Writing standards addressed:

Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

 

Figure Two: Small Group Discussion Formats

Discussion Format Strengths Points of concern
Small group discussion Students are probably most familiar with this format of discussion.

Students are able to receive support or challenge from their peers and teach immediately.

Students have a limited audience as they are only able to discuss with peers in their class.
Book chats on Twitter Students can have real time conversations with peers, including peers in other classes.

Students can create their own hashtags, which makes following and archiving the discussion easier.

Students learn how to cultivate a professional identity on social media.

Students need parent permission to create a Twitter account.

Some schools may block Twitter. The use of Twitter relies on school’s Internet access.

Blogging Students can set up their own blogs, post their questions and insights, and respond to peers. Responses from students will not be immediate due to nature of posting and responding.
Video Responses Students can create video responses to share with their peers and respond to their peers via video. Flipgrid is a good tool for this type of discussion.

This format supports students who are more comfortable with speaking than writing as their form of expression.

Teachers will need a learning management system to post and store the videos for students to view and post a reply.

Responses from students will not be immediate due to the nature of uploading and watching a video.

Common Core English Language Arts Speaking and Listening standards addressed:

Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.

Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

 

Figure Three: Suggested Books

Title Centers on Pairs well with Sample essential questions
Chulito: A Novel by Charles Rice-Gonzalez Protagonist is a gay Latino.  Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare How does society define and regulate “masculinity”?
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz Titular characters are Mexican-American boys who are questioning their sexuality. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie How do community expectations impact individual’s actions and choices?
Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis Protagonists have a transgender African American parent. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry What responsibilities do family members have to each other?
The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson Protagonist is a biracial (white and black) female questioning her sexuality. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee How do gender and race shape an individual’s power within a community?
I am J by Cris Beam Protagonist is a biracial (Puerto Rican and Jewish) transgender boy. “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros What signifies someone’s growth from “childhood” to “adolescence”?
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan Protagonist is a lesbian daughter of Iranian immigrants. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez What social and cultural factors impact the relationship between parents and their children?
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera Protagonist is a Puerto Rican lesbian. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger How do gender, race, and class shape “coming of ages” narratives?
Money Boy by Paul Yee Protagonist is a gay Chinese-Canadian immigrant. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri How does being situated between two cultures impact individuals?
The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr Protagonist a gay Japanese-American female. “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambara

Centering Students’ Voices in a Public Speaking Genre Study

Burke Scarbrough

Today’s students have access to stirring, powerful text in an ever widening array of forms. As we invite our students to discover the power of the carefully crafted written word, many of those students are even more strongly inclined to celebrate the power of language in oral performance. I’m referring to the genres and media in which artists breathe life into the written word through a sort of magic trick: they develop performances that make painstakingly crafted writing look and sound natural, spontaneous, or even effortless. In speeches that inspire, songs that transfix, movie moments that land, stand-up comedy that doubles us over, and spoken word poetry that sets fingers snapping, artists are hard at work behind the scenes—sweating the details, practicing to exhaustion.

English teachers can invite these oral performance genres into the classroom as the stuff of rigorous literacy learning. Whatever else they leave out, the Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of organizing opportunities for students to read and write in a range of forms, and as they do, to learn to see writers’ choices as careful design moves that authors make depending on their genre, audience and purpose. They should make different decisions depending on whether they’re trying to persuade, inform, or tell a story. They should make and defend choices about language depending on what sort of communicating they’re doing, and to whom. And, we keep telling them, they should read like a fellow writer and write with their reader in mind. Too often, though, school reading and writing assignments come with the substantial baggage of being business as usual in the classroom; some students read with the hope of enjoying a good story, but when that doesn’t work out, they read and write (or don’t) because they’re told to.

Bringing public speaking into the English classroom, and widening the definition of public speaking to include many sorts of oral performance of written text, lets students treat popular and engaging works as texts worth studying. It can empower students to crack the codes of texts that move them and put those codes to use in the arguments they want to make and the stories they need to tell.

A Workshop for Text and Performance

As a former high school English teacher turned teacher educator, I scratch my secondary school teaching itch these days by teaching at a summer academic enrichment program at a New England boarding school. I work with high school students who come from around the US and the world to challenge themselves with enrichment courses and try out a boarding experience before many of them encounter it in college. When they walk through the door on the first day of my Speechmaking class, they’re not chasing grades or transcript credits; they want the academic challenge that they associate with a prep school, but they also want to be excited and inspired in ways that justify their choice to spend the summer back in a classroom. This is a motivated and self-selected student population, and the class sizes are small, so the summer program has always been an exciting space for me to try out engaging teaching units before doing the head-scratching work of adapting them for the other school settings in which I’ve worked.

The structure of the summer Speechmaking class follows an approach to writing workshop I got to know well through an earlier study of a high school English class taking on spoken word poetry (Scarbrough and Allen). While some famous examples of reading and writing workshop involve letting students choose the sorts of texts they want to read and write (Atwell), Speechmaking is different in two ways. First, the whole class works together to study a single genre—speeches—as a strange and mysterious type of text that the class needs to hack. As Sarah Andrew-Vaughan and Cathy Fleischer ask students to do individually in their Unfamiliar Genre Project, I ask the whole class to join me in an inductive inquiry process: to “gather and analyze model examples of that genre, to identify key characteristics of that genre, [and] to write in the genre” (38). Students have quite a bit of choice in what they want to communicate and accomplish through oral performance, but as they make those decisions, we are there to help each other figure out the rules and moves that characterize powerful public speaking.

Second, the class treats both written speeches and the performances of those speeches as types of text that we are there to study, draft, and revise. As obvious as it might seem that delivery is its own set of skills in public speaking, we bring that point home by switching our focus back and forth between the moves that seem to characterize effectively-written speeches and the performance choices that seem to do the most justice to those words. Part writing workshop, part performance workshop, the class gives me the chance to fuse my experience teaching English and teaching drama—a pair of skill sets many language arts teachers bring to their jobs or are asked to develop after they arrive.

Cracking the Code of a New Genre

Doing this inductive study of a genre—poring over examples in order to derive important features and patterns together—empowers students to do the noticing and thinking that teachers and textbook authors so often do for them. That said, it is time-consuming to have our students derive the very things we could show them. The Speechmaking class takes something of a middle ground, using a book about effective speechmaking to get us started with some important features, and then using extended discussion of sample speeches to first look for the features we’d read about and then widen our view to other aspects of the speech that we found valuable.

Public speaking textbooks are pricey, but Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED is an inexpensive paperback that presents features of popular TED Talks through the same sort of inductive process the Speechmaking class was undertaking; Gallo reviewed dozens of TED Talks, determined what many of them have in common, and suggests ways we might do something similar in all sorts of public speaking situations. Each chapter focuses on a particular facet of effective public speaking, and it refers to numerous famous TED talks as illustrations. Of course, there is more to public speaking than TED Talks—in fact, such a lengthy staged lecture might bore or scare off many students, including those with a strong interest in a distinctly different form of public speaking (spoken word poetry, perhaps, or church sermons). Still, TED is a vast, free digital resource for storytelling, teaching, and persuasion, so it offers us a starting point as we develop our own language for effective speechmaking. Moreover, Gallo approaches the crucial but sometimes tired trio of classical appeals—ethos, pathos, and logos—as a modern set of speaking principles that students can see and hear in many of the TED Talks he cites. Students can study ethos through chapters that emphasize how good speakers unleash their passion and reveal themselves authentically through their speeches; they can consider pathos in chapters that examine how good speakers tell stories, make the audience smile, and deliver jaw-dropping moments; and they can approach logos by being exhorted to teach the audience something new and organize clear main points and supporting evidence around the “rule of 3s.”

Of course, there are many other public speaking textbooks and online primers available. I have found excerpts and sample speeches in Stephen Lucas’s The Art of Public Speaking to be useful. In particular, I have used (with permission) an excerpt about different ways speakers establish credibility, another about different approaches to introductions in speeches, and some model informative or persuasive speeches (of manageable length) written by college students. Crucially, though, our purpose is not to march through any public speaking textbook from start to finish; textbook readings are there to model and reinforce the sorts of patterns we might go on to notice as a class as we spend time responding to all sorts of speeches. A few days each week—and numerous homework assignments—are devoted to reading or watching a growing variety of texts: TED Talks, political speeches, spoken word poetry (see YouTube channels for All Def Poetry or Youth Speaks), personal stories (see themoth.org), speeches from movies or TV, videos by YouTube celebrities, and written speeches by former students. While I come to the unit with numerous examples, it isn’t long before students begin nominating all sorts of oral performances that they love, and as time permits, I challenge interested students to prepare a rationale for why a given speech is worth studying and, if their rationale is compelling, invite them to present their chosen speech and facilitate the class’s analysis.

One way to keep track of the traits of good speechwriting and delivery that we discover is to develop a shared Speech Feedback Form and update it every few days. This Google Doc rubric includes a growing and reshuffling set of traits that the class is ready to hold each other accountable for in our own writing and speaking. By the time we add a new trait to this rubric, the class has identified it as a key to good speechmaking, discussed it in the context of several speeches, and talked about tips for adapting that trait to other speaking situations. Students’ speech assignments then follow this growing rubric: for instance, once we discover and discuss “passion” and “credibility” as keys to good speechmaking, students draft short informative speeches that teach the class something meaningful to the speaker; once we become aware of an effective “rate of speech” and study how speakers make a main point clear and relatable through “storytelling” as well as “volume” and “tone” of voice, students draft and revise a speech that makes a point by telling a story (see Figure 1 for how the co-constructed rubric might look at this point); and as we go on to focus on “body language,” clear and engaging “introductions” and “conclusions,” and “content” that brings together evidence and storytelling around the rule of threes, students begin to research, draft and revise persuasive speeches on a topic that moves them. In other words, our rubric serves as common ground between the features we notice through reading and the writing and performances students develop.

What’s Worth Speaking About?

With structures in place for annotating sample speeches and assessing what students come up with, I want to make sure that my students have ways to generate speech ideas that matter to them. For some, this is as easy as pausing after the speeches we study to let students take note of possible speech topics in a growing notebook list. Upon hearing a spoken word poet or a storyteller on The Moth recount a personal story with deep significance, some students quickly identify life-altering incidents or deceptively significant small stories that they want to craft for an audience. Upon hearing TED Talks or political speeches or speeches by students addressing social injustices, some students identify issues that make them want to speak out. Others come to class already motivated to speak out about current events. And on a lighter note, a few have been interested in the rhetorical challenge of arguing a counterintuitive point, as I have sometimes done by inviting students to give me an “impossible” topic to address in a speech at the end of the unit. Past examples have included “Water: A Threat to Us All” and “The Many Uses of Rubber Ducks.”

As students brainstorm topics of personal interest, I challenge them to go one step further and consider—particularly in their persuasive speech, the longest speech I assign, and one that includes a research component—speech topics that occupy a “sweet spot” among three criteria: being of interest to the speaker, being of likely interest to the listener, and being something that many people don’t know or disagree about (See Figure 2). I also have students come to class with two potential speech topics, and for each one, a brief rationale and a few questions they wish they could ask their audience before preparing the speech. After writing this information at the top of blank sheets of paper (or posting it electronically), students pass papers from one classmate to the next, engaging in a “silent conversation” (Wilhelm) that lets each speaker read reactions and answers to a few audience analysis questions before committing to a topic and beginning a draft. Amid the hard work of reconciling their own interests with the varied responses of their classmates, speakers are learning to consider their responsibilities to an audience and to strategize about what it will take to persuade that audience.

Studying Performance As a Text

The classic features of a writing process workshop appear in the Speechmaking class: students spend time generating ideas, drafting and revising text, and giving and receiving feedback from peers and from me. But a key feature of studying the public speaking genre is splitting this workshop time between drafting and revising written speeches and drafting and revising performances of those written words. One of the first challenges I find in studying performance with students is helping students to see performance choices as choices. One powerful way to make that visible is to show students short scripts or transcripts from a video performance before they have the chance to see the performance. Many genres can work nicely with this, but I tend to use TV and movie scenes. Students read and mark up bits of text that range from a single line to a full dramatic monologue, and they use annotation markings to indicate where they would use pacing, pauses, pitch, or volume to bring the words to life. Hearing volunteers share different choices about the same text, and then turning to the filmed performance by a famous actor or passionate spoken word poet, students see how much decision-making there is in the move from page to stage. Once we began to play with vocal performance choices in this way—and, soon, eye contact and gestures as well—students are also more likely to refer to these features of speechmaking in each of the speeches we watch and discuss as a class.

Another challenge in performance workshop is getting students to commit to trying out strong performance choices, including some that might be more extreme than what the speaker will ultimately settle on. I explain this as a version of the goldilocks story: for choices about volume, rate of speech, variety in pitch and tone, emphasis through volume and pauses, or emphasis through facial expression and gestures, sometimes it is useful to make a choice too extreme in one direction, and then too extreme in another direction, before settling on a middle ground that is (for the particular situation) just right. Sometimes students practice delivering portions of a speech draft in each of these three ways, playing with what it would mean to go “too far” in one direction or another and, in the process, discovering the full range of performance choices they have available. Other times, I bring children’s books or short ghost stories to class for shared reading—for many, a familiar context for making dramatic choices about vocal delivery when reading. As we make these performance styles visible, we begin to discuss the sometimes subtle similarities and differences between reading, acting, and delivering a speech without quite sounding like one is reading or acting.

Above all, students need rounds of practice that let them try to bring words to life, get quick feedback, set a manageable goal, and try again. While there isn’t time for me to give every student individual coaching during each day of performance workshop, I try to create spaces for students to accumulate some “reps” making and evaluating performance choices. Sometimes, students pair up and practice delivering part or all of a draft speech for a peer; these sessions go best when each speaker identifies one aspect of performance that would be a particular focus in this round of practice. When technology allows (and, increasingly, it does), students might film or audiorecord their partners so that each speaker can spend time doing the awkward but private work of seeing oneself on screen. Other times, I organize students into an inner circle and simulate “speed dates” in which pairs would take turns delivering part of a speech, hear a moment of focused feedback from a partner, and then rotate to a new partner for another round of practice. Sometimes students would tell their partners what they were interested in working on with this round of delivery; other times, I would call out instructions for a given round of practice (“this time, try adding in one really dramatic pause,” or “this time, see what happens if you deliver the speech a little too loudly”). Students are often surprised how well-received their attempts are when they thought they were speaking too loudly, too slowly, or with too much emphasis on important words or phrases. Whatever they discover, the best way for them to develop performance choices that work is to have numerous rounds of low-stakes practice with the chance to see how choices look and sound to oneself and others.

An Adaptable Unit

For a final speech of the unit, I want students to have lots of freedom, but I also want us to be able to organize some speaking situations that were one step more authentic than sitting in our classroom pretending to be one audience or another. As a middle ground, I often have students choose one of several types of speeches, and the class then travels to a different space each day to hear the relevant speech: toasts in the cafeteria, stories or spoken word poems in the theater, and mini-TED Talks in the classroom. Grading student work isn’t a priority in my summer course, and the speeches that closely match our developing speech rubrics are already behind us, so we focus on positive feedback after each speech and only record them if the speaker wishes. Rather than a culminating assessment, this final speech is a low-stakes celebration; the students’ hard work and learning is evident in their annotations, discussions, co-constructed feedback forms, and many cycles of drafting, revising, assessing, and goal-setting for written speeches and performances.

Over nearly two decades of teaching Speechmaking in the summer, I have expanded and contracted the course to prioritize different speech assignments, different speaking traits worth working on, different ways of balancing textbook readings with analysis of real speeches, different ways of balancing reading and writing emphases, different ways of balancing writing and performance workshop time, and different outside-of-class expectations given students’ workloads and access to technology. What has stayed constant for me is the power of defining “public speaking” in a way that includes a variety of texts that many students already find powerful, treating students as capable critical analysts who can help author the speechmaking principles we study, and treating skilled writing and performance as important enough to hand over to students.

That said, the scope of the unit will change depending on how many students are in the room, how safe the classroom community is for sharing writing and taking risks with performance, and what sorts of work can be expected outside of class. This unit is useful in that the oral performances we study are short; each of them can be viewed, discussed, and even emulated within a class period. Similarly, the writing and performance workshop process can unfold largely or entirely during class time. With students who are less immersed in a discussion-driven pedagogy, as students in my summer enrichment setting are, I would be more deliberate in modeling the ways of annotating and responding to printed speeches. I would also ramp up to student-driven discussions by making explicit the sorts of moves that help people build on and politely challenge each other’s comments. And with students who are less likely to think of themselves as current or future leaders likely to speak in public, I would spend more time uncovering the interests and issues that might motivate students to speak out, making sure that analysis and workshop practice are clearly serving goals that students find relevant.

There are many other ways to adapt the broad strokes of this unit into assignments and daily lessons that match different school settings and learning goals.In addition to the perennial balancing acts I listed above, here are a few more choices and challenges that I’m excited to think about each time I prepare to teach Speechmaking:

  • How can I organize authentic audiences for my students? It’s not easy to create spaces for someone other than teachers and classmates to give the gift of their attention, and it’s even harder to organize this for many students at once. Often, my summer speechmaking students write and deliver speeches to the class with future audiences in mind—they write toasts for upcoming family events, speeches for student government campaigns, public service announcements about issues in their home towns, or speeches to motivate their sports teams. But I continue to look for ways to use the school, the community, and the virtual world as audiences my students can address and hear back from.
  • Should textbook excerpts lead or follow? In some ways, Talk Like TED presents the very sorts of insights I’d like my students to notice on their own. Students come with substantial prior knowledge about what moves them, so consider how you’d like to balance letting students work up best practices from studying speeches together vs. letting a text like Talk Like TED lead the way.
  • Is there time for play? I value bringing a real sense of play into the classroom, letting students enjoy the creative challenges of performance in a low-stakes setting. When time allows, one way to do this is to play theater games; I recommend Glyn Trefor-Jones’s book Drama Menu as a useful compendium of fun games that get students working together to make performance choices. Another way is to practice impromptu speechmaking, in which students draft speech topics they’d be excited to take on, and then they are assigned one of these at random. (There are also many lists of fun impromptu speech topics available online.)  In a first round of practice, students might have three minutes for jotting a few main points on an index card plus one minute of practice speaking to the classroom wall before turning and delivering the short speech to a partner. After a round or two like this, students might get only 30 seconds to think (no jotting) before it is time to speak. Once they are reminded that this is a nearly impossible challenge, many students are excited to give it a try.
  • How much work can I hand over to students? For classrooms with widespread technology access, consider letting students take charge of choosing and presenting analyses of speeches in class. A service like Vibby (www.vibby.com) lets users highlight and clip specific segments of YouTube videos, helping presenters move seamlessly from one highlight to another as they share their thoughts or pose questions to the class. Users can also post and respond to comments on each video highlight. A different approach to involving most students more of the time is to adapt a Toastmasters meeting format for a class (or, through a fishbowl structure, half a class at a time), distributing the work of giving prepared speeches, giving short impromptu speeches, giving oral feedback to speakers, and running the meeting itself (“Club”).
  • How can I make self-assessment and feedback quicker? Technology is making it easier to integrate cycles of practice, feedback, and self-reflection into the unit as students work on speech performances. A variety of apps can capture audio or video and, if necessary, push it to storage spaces for students and teachers to review. Consider ways to help students get quick access to recordings of their own rehearsals, describe what they notice, and set a goal for their next attempt.

Oral performance is a vital part of language arts, and it is too often either neglected or relegated to elective courses and after-school experiences. Workshop and genre study pedagogy gives students the opportunity to analyze, draft, revise, and “publish” oral performance in many of the same ways, and in service of the same learning standards, that teachers readily apply to print genres. The more widely teachers can define “text” (and “public speaking”) in the classroom, the more that literacy learning can emerge from forms of art that truly stir students’ passions.

Works Cited

Andrew-Vaughan, Sarah, and Cathy Fleischer. “Researching Writing: The Unfamiliar-Genre Research Project.” English Journal, vol. 95, no. 4, 2006, pp. 26-42.

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle. 3rd ed. Heinemann, 2015.

“Club Meeting Roles.” Toastmasters International. www.toastmasters.org/membership/club-meeting-roles. Accessed 29 August 2017.

Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014.

Lucas, Stephen E. The Art of Public Speaking. 11th ed. McGraw Hill, 2012.

Scarbrough, Burke, and Anna-Ruth Allen. “Writing Workshop Revisited: Confronting Communicative Dilemmas Through Spoken Word Poetry in a High School English Classroom.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 46, no.4, 2014, pp. 475-505.

Trefor-Jones, Glyn. Drama Menu: Theatre Games in Three Courses. Nick Hern Books, 2015.

Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension. Scholastic, 2002.

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Fig. 1  How our co-constructed feedback form might look by the time of a “Storytelling Speech” assignment

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Fig. 2  What makes a good persuasive speech topic?

Public Grammar: Creating Community

Larry Gavin

There are five things most educators can agree on. First, most educators value student questions as a measure of student engagement in the classroom. Actually, questions are frequently the most important thing because they move the conversation forward and verbalize learning. They make learning occur “out loud.”

Second, the more heterogeneous, the better. The beautiful thing about questions is that, even if they come from an unexpected place, they can move the class’s learning forward. Classes that are democratic create the chance for divergent questions to exist.

A third important characteristic is that classroom learning unfolds into learning that is connected to the world.  Reading about the isolation and loneliness of Santiago as a result of his age in The Old Man and the Sea leaves the classroom and connects to a realization about the isolation and loneliness of grandfather or grandmother that you haven’t talked to because you are so busy. Then you call or visit.

Fourth, good classrooms offer choices. Students make decisions, and those decisions have meaning and are scaffolded for student success. What that success looks like is also clear, because it is defined by learning targets. In addition, there are ample opportunities to practice learning.

Finally, students want to feel welcome and be heard. They want to get their voices into the room. They want to see an interest in them. They want to move, and that goes beyond just school. Classrooms that make students feel connected are cognitively driven.

I teach grammar publicly. I teach grammar with the only context being grammar. I teach grammar in isolation. All of these are things that language arts gurus hate. This is triage grammar, performed before the student knows they need it. The only context is the sentence problem with which we are dealing. Grammar taught from the students’ own writing comes later, but with this instruction, many of the errors in that writing don’t occur in the first place. I do what works—what works for me, what works for my students, and what fulfills the characteristics research shows makes a good classroom.

How do I know? It began about four years ago with a note. “Mr. Gavin, thanks for doing grammar prep each day. After a semester with you, my score on the xxx test went up three percentage points.” There were no grammatical errors in the note.

And then another: “You may not remember me….” And then many more. At one time I kept the notes because of their rarity. Now I don’t, because they are common.

Students write me and comment on lessons that in some cases happened in 2004. At first, grammar in isolation was just my secret. I never talked about it. Now I’m going public.

Each day, students come into the room and sit down to complete the three grammar sentences on the board. Usually students start before the class period bell rings. They are starting class before class starts. I consider that a positive. Then one student volunteers to go to the board and make changes in the sentence. They say what they are changing and why. I provide any additional instruction needed. Then the marker is handed to the next person. They make a change. Student stuck? The whole class helps them, because we’ve all been in the position of not knowing the answer. And the questions are the important thing. The whole process takes ten minutes.

That’s the mechanics; here is the real story. Students are engaged in class work immediately in the period. They are talking about language right away. They are engaged in a mechanical activity that connects to their cognition and allows them to struggle with making meaning. As students approach the board, I use the opportunity to learn their names. It usually only takes a few days before I know every person in every class. That way I can address them by name early in the semester. We all like to be called by name. Students are moving, walking through the room, and getting out of their seat, but moving with a mission, a purpose.

Where this all really comes alive for the citizens of my classroom is when people have questions, and they always do. They actually ask questions about tense, pronouns, subordinate clauses, independent and dependent clauses, and the myriad of meanings the language suggests. They are also making choices, deciding what to do about specific problems, stating their ideas about why a change makes sense. Learning about the language becomes a habit. It becomes, as Aristotle said of excellence, “what we repeatedly do.”

The learning goes into the world too. Students come in and say, “Walmart’s express lane says ‘twenty items or less.’ It should be fewer. Less is volume: fewer is number.” Not a big thing—in fact, perhaps the smallest of things—but maybe what is learned by having school spill into the world is a big thing.

The most important learning occurs between getting the marker and sitting back down. The conversation we have about the learning. And after the student makes the changes, I say, “Good job, thanks.” I get to talk to every student every couple of days, and I get to show them that they are important. We have a focused daily conversation centered on learning. That seems like a good thing.

Listening to the Silence: Addressing Anxiety Disorders in Our Schools

Abby Rosen

As teachers, we ask a lot of our students. We demand not only respect for our authority, but curiosity, effort, and perseverance in the face of failure and humiliation. They also ask a lot of us: content mastery, understanding, and the ability to constantly adapt to new challenges. Usually, students rise to our expectations with ease, as we do to theirs. But others struggle with grades, motivation, and self-esteem, while teachers face student disengagement, isolation, and—too often—burnout. Some students receive Individualized Education Programs to accommodate their learning challenges. Others who fail to meet our expectations are deemed lazy or unwilling, but a quieter but equally vicious cause is often at the root: anxiety disorders. Anxiety in teens is increasing (Schrobsdorff), and our schools have a responsibility to pay as much attention to these silent struggles as they do to the louder, more disruptive ones. Without proper training and ongoing support from mental health professionals, too many students and staff will continue to suffer and slink away from our schools in silence. Just like I did, until now.

Everyone has experienced anxiety—butterflies in the stomach or nervous excitement—but it also manifests as intense fear and behavioral paralysis leading to avoidance or social isolation. In other words, for those with clinical anxiety disorders, the butterflies never go away. They flutter from the moment you wake up until the second you fall asleep, coloring every thought you have and decision you make, sometimes making it impossible to act or ask for help. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. One in eight children have an anxiety disorder, but according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, eighty percent of youth with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not receiving treatment (“Children and Teens”). These illnesses exist just under the surface and are compensated for or hidden, so others don’t know until it dramatically impacts that person’s life. Oftentimes, people like myself don’t even realize they have an anxiety disorder for years. They just think that they were made to overthink, worry, obsess or panic. People with anxiety disorders look at others being happy, taking risks, meeting deadlines, and achieving their goals with wistful envy. They also watch as others receive attention and care for their outward issues while they continue to quietly deteriorate. I’ve seen it in my own eyes and the eyes of my students in every classroom I’ve ever entered.

As far back as my memories go, so does my anxiety disorder. Most flashbacks play out like TV reruns because, like a studio audience, I sat still while my peers moved around me. I always wanted to know the rules of the game before I started to play, and I insisted everyone else adhere to the letter. In a lot of ways, I was lucky. My anxiety manifested itself as perfectionism, which served me well in school. I got good grades and was well-respected by teachers. No one noticed me struggling because why would they? Lots of my friends battled openly and viciously with self-injury, eating disorders, depression and suicidal ideation. Like many mentally ill teens, they did not want to tell their parents, so we spent hours online talking about their issues without any real progress being made. It brought us closer together, but this secret keeping harmed everyone involved. Over time, their behavior alerted concerned parents and school staff, leading to offers of therapy and school accommodations. This did not cure them of their mental illnesses, but it did allow them to deal with these issues in tandem with the social and academic problems their illnesses caused. I, on the other hand, told myself that my problems weren’t “bad enough,” and I stayed quiet. This allowed my anxiety to fester, and I graduated high school more anxious than ever.

Once I started college, I received my generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis, and I decided to pursue teaching to spread my own love of reading, the one thing that always quieted my mind. My teaching classes were full of people like me: INFJ’s bursting at the seams to help others, spread a love of learning and support each other through the next few years of teacher training. Again, I excelled in the academic aspects of my program, but I was wracked with constant worry. While others asked questions about “best practices for advanced students,” I stopped myself from asking things like, “What do you do once your students realize you’re incompetent?” The closer we got to student teaching, the more I realized that we were all about to be handed real classrooms full of real students who we really had to teach. While this concept terrified me, it excited my classmates and I felt the familiar divide of mentally healthy and mentally ill pushing me away from the otherwise like-minded people I once related to. The more stressed I became, the more I retreated into myself despite all the people around me reaching out to help. I saw this same retreat in a number of students during student teaching, but I didn’t know how to teach them and help them at the same time. I could have turned to my cooperating teacher for help, but I wanted to be seen as competent no matter what. Instead of committing my energy to becoming a better teacher, I gave in to the feelings of helplessness that came from being unable to help everyone and myself at the same time. Once student teaching ended and I got my degree, I told myself I’d done my due diligence, but teaching just wasn’t for me.

After only a year working in retail, I had enough distance to see what happened to me and to my students. School stress can compound feelings of anxiety and depression, as does isolation and self-doubt. School is a minefield for an anxious person, whether they are teaching or learning: lots of people in narrow hallways and cramped classrooms; unpredictability; forced social interaction and class participation; pressures to achieve, befriend, perform, and behave according to ever-changing rules out of your own control. I always expected to look around and see my colleagues fighting the same losing battle against these forces, but they weren’t. No one talked out loud about struggling mentally. The closest anyone got was joking about being Jekyll and Hyde before and after their morning caffeine. A mentor of mine once told me that I would “suck as a teacher for three years.” If I could just accept that, she said, I would be fine. Though she knew me well, I don’t think she knew just how hard it was to know I sucked for three minutes. I imagined my struggling students felt the same way. They saw themselves falling behind while others excelled without any signs of distress. This learned helplessness was enough to almost knock me out of the profession entirely, so it is no surprise that it claims so many students as well.

During our college courses, teacher stress was discussed but typically met with generic advice like “focus on your hobbies” or “find a healthy balance between work and home life.” For teachers not struggling with anxiety or depression, these things are still difficult to implement. While those platitudes are enough for some, others who struggle with boundary setting and emotional management are left with no real advice or strategies to deal with the onslaught of new stressors. Most of the long-term teachers I knew weren’t cold and jaded from the work they did; they just drew clear boundaries are stayed within them, insisting that others did the same. For others, like myself, the ability to define the line between my job performance and my self-worth would eventually prove to be too much. Before I even got my own classroom, I imagined myself failing over and over and over again if anyone ever gave me the chance to ruin my own classroom someday. All the while, I typed sincere cover letters and perfected my resume to trick some poor school into believing in me more than I believed in myself. It worked: I found my first job. It was a high school focusing on credit recovery. These students, I thought, knew what it’s like to struggle. Maybe, I thought, we could learn how to overcome our demons together. I reminded myself that my desire to help others was stronger than my inability to help myself. I told myself that my experience with anxiety gave me an advantage.

When I got hired, I shared a room with a math teacher. The two of us, both young white women, handled upwards of 70 “at-risk” students, managing their credit recovery, classroom engagement, and access to school and government resources. All teachers on our school’s small staff ran advisories, but our motley crew was a little different. We got the more “delicate” students, as one administrator put it, who struggled with mental health, addiction, identity, personal and social issues. At first, I held my roster of “fragile” students like a mother hen. I talked with them when I should have been differentiating my lesson plans, but the connections I made were more valuable than my planning time. Unlike my lessons, which often felt ineffective at best, I knew that these talks were significant to my students and to myself. Then, the world outside of my room started to seep in. I couldn’t keep an eye on all of my students at once. I had to teach. After parent calls, chasing down transcripts and missing credits, taking attendance and making sure they got to (and stayed in) class, I spent the rest of my time lesson planning in what little silence I could steal. More days that not, my carefully planned lessons dissolved within the first five minutes. When I wasn’t teaching or planning, there were always students waiting for help or to talk about today’s crisis. Every twenty, ten, or even five minutes I spent talking to one student meant another chunk of time I couldn’t give to the other thirty or to myself. I felt myself getting overwhelmed, but I had support, momentum, and I could feel myself making a difference. I was open with my students about my own struggles, and they trusted me and respected my honesty. They confided in me about their addictions, pregnancies, financial hardships, sexual assaults, self-harm, and gender identity issues. Some talks required mandatory reporting, and others only required me to listen and let them know they were heard. Those moments are what I think of after more than a year away from the classroom. Those are the things I worry I may have given up too soon.

But those moments were often shattered by thrown chairs and slammed doors. The sound a fist makes when it hits a wall. Or a window. Or someone’s face. The noise a human head makes when it hits the ground. Noises I never knew growing up. Those are the things I remember when I question why I left—why I can tell the difference between happy-loud and angry-loud from a mile away. Why multiple loud voices at once now trigger panic attacks. Why I look around a room sometimes and identify all the things that could be used as a weapon. This violence, anger, and chaos I witnessed for the first time at 24 was nothing new to my fellow staff members. When I, still shaking, told my co-workers about the fight I got caught in the middle of on my first day, they listened but were not impressed or appalled. They told me about students wielding weapons, ripping each other’s hair out and the full-scale riot that broke out the year before I started. I was horrified by how casual this all seemed to them, but this is not unique to our school. 11.5 percent of Minnesota teachers were threatened with physical violence by a student and over 6 percent were physically attacked (Zhang, Anlan, et al.). One year in my district, a student choked a teacher unconscious, resulting in permanent brain damage. I knew teaching was going to be stressful, but these were more than occupational hazards. These incidents would be reasonable grounds for leaving any “normal” job, but instead, they were elements of a normal Tuesday. After only my first week at school, I had already faced a reality that felt harsher than I could handle, but once again, my inner turmoil was deprioritized by constant crisis.

One day, during a PTSD-induced altercation, one of my students, “Mark,” threatened his girlfriend and two staff members who tried to intervene. As a result, he was not allowed back in the building without a restorative justice meeting. Mark was an otherwise quiet and respectful student who rarely participated in class despite performing well on most assignments. At 9:45 the next morning, I got a call Mark’s mother. He drove forty-five minutes with no heat in his car to pick up some work and have his meeting, but he was not being allowed in the building on his own. Sitting in his car in single-digit temperatures, he called his mom to let her know that he was done. He was at his limit. He was threatening suicide. His mother told me this was my fault. I was his advisor, and I was responsible. I was reviewing a chapter in a book with a student who could only make it to school one day a week, but I had to put my phone down, run outside without my coat and try to calm this student down. Our social worker was meeting with another student with others waiting outside to speak to her. In this moment, I’d never been more aware of the fact that I chose teaching over psychology. All I could do was throw promises at his brick wall and hope something got through. I begged and pleaded with school security and our intervention staff to let him in. This was, after all, life or death. After he was allowed back in the building, I returned to that student patiently waiting at my desk. I wiped my tears on the way up the stairs, and we all tried to pretend we didn’t know what just happened. Mark was admitted to the hospital on an involuntary psychiatric hold later that day. Only two hours later, a student I was very close to joined him in the same psychiatric ward after confiding in another staff member about her suicidal ideations. She’d tried to come see me earlier that day, but I was too busy. There was only one of me, after all. Despite all this, I still had five class periods full of students waiting for me. I felt, perhaps for the first time, what my students felt every day: overwhelming emotional stress coupled with the pressure to perform perfectly in front of a room full of people. I don’t remember the lessons I taught that day, but I will never forget the look of despair on Mark’s face or the pain in his mother’s voice telling me it was all my fault.

Before I started teaching, I thought PTSD only happened to war veterans and refugees. Though we covered it in my college classes, it was only one on a long list of disorders whose percentages seemed too low to worry about in mainstream schools. Yet a fifth to a half of all children will experience a significant trauma during childhood. Three to fifteen percent of girls and one to six percent of boys who experience trauma develop PTSD as a result (“PTSD in Children and Teens”). The rate where I worked was significantly higher than that, and studies have shown incidence of PTSD in as high as half of students exposed to interpersonal violence (Kletter, Hilit, et al.). Those students who had a PTSD diagnosis were very open about it because it clearly explained their issues with anger, impulse control, trust, and low tolerance for chaotic environments. At their most violent and disruptive, many students were in the throes of a PTSD-induced blackout. However, my quieter students also struggled with PTSD every day. During class, students would often get up and leave the room without explanation. In a more typical school environment, this would be frowned upon, but, as a school filled with students fighting any number of mental battles, we understood the need for self-regulation. Most students would eventually rejoin the class, and when I asked them afterwards why they left, they would tell me that they just needed a minute away from the distractions, the topic of discussion, or the other students. These students were punished at previous schools for exercising a coping skill that some adults never master. After living for years without any professional mental health help, these students learned how to navigate a world that fundamentally misunderstands and reprimands them for the very things they can’t control. I found myself frantically googling “PTSD in teens” on my lunch break and crying. By creating lesson plans including loud noises, close quarters between students, and even topics directly related to past trauma, I was unwittingly re-traumatizing my students. At the very least, by not having all of the information about this serious mental health issue, I could not create curriculum specifically to combat it.

I tried over and over to see how we, with our limited resources, could have prevented this crisis and others like it, but everyone was doing above and beyond what they could. We, like many schools across the country, just didn’t have the bodies to attend to everyone’s needs at once. In a school of hundreds of students, many with at least one significant mental illness, it felt impossible to approach every situation without doing harm to someone. No matter how much training I’d received, I often had nowhere to turn with new questions as my understanding of these and other anxiety disorders evolved. That said, I was privileged to work at a school so hyper-focused on students who struggle with mental illness. Though we only had one social worker and one rotating psychologist for 400 students, they did all they could. A large number of our staff worked exclusively on conflict resolution, security, student retention, job placement, and skills training. I’m fortunate to never have experienced the threats or the actual violence that others in my position did, but that didn’t stop the fear. I still feared for my safety on the off chance that one of my students turned on me. In desperation, I turned to our social worker for advice, adding another body to the already heavy weight on her shoulders. I felt guilty but was desperate for professional advice. My direct supervisor, a fellow teacher familiar with mental illness, emphasized the importance of self-care. We were given ample paid time off because our administrators knew the burdens we shouldered could not and should not be compensated for with sick or vacation time. When I needed to leave after a particularly rough day, as long as my work was done and my obligations covered, I didn’t have to explain myself. I still lied and told my colleagues I had migraines to avoid telling them that I was just overwhelmed. For overworked and overstretched staff, there is still pressure to handle it all with quiet grace. I told myself that our students were the ones with real problems, and I didn’t want to become another liability.

Unfortunately, the people most likely to help others are the most harmed by doing so. Many of my students with their own mental illnesses spent hours and hours supporting other friends in crisis because they knew what it felt like to be helpless. Like us teachers, they diverted attention away from learning to stand with their peers in corner of hallways, talking them down or talking them up. Taking on this emotional weight without any outside support can be overwhelming and compound existing mental health issues. When it comes to mental illness, the desire to help is constantly met with the reality that the impact you can make is limited by the amount of energy you can contribute. There is always more to do and only so much time in the day to do it. I found myself talking to students on my school-sanctioned Facebook page late at night, just like my students did for their friends. No matter the day I had, there was always someone who needed me more than I needed myself. This constant giving of self is seen as dedicated, compassionate and admirable, but the true impact of overextension is not talked about enough. Students in crisis and teachers aren’t the only one being hurt by this. Because of limited time and resources, the students who weren’t “needy” didn’t get any attention. Students who were excelling were left to fend for themselves on independent projects with little supervision. I didn’t have the time or energy left to make sure that they were getting extra resources because I was too busy playing therapist instead of using my position in the classroom to support my students in other ways.

Eventually, the reality set in that I was not a professional. I was not qualified to give advice. Without proper mental health training, warning signs go unnoticed. We are expected to be mandatory reporters, but we are unable to provide real, in-the-moment advice or guidance. Though teacher-student relationships are valuable, they are not a replacement for qualified mental health professionals. This is why providing mental health support at school is so critical. We have the opportunity to embody the community ideals so many schools are based on. By providing in-school therapy, opportunities for restorative justice, and avenues for safe self-expression, we can lift up our students in ways they may never experience outside our walls. We need to encourage students and teachers to speak up about their experiences, or let them whisper them to someone safe until they are ready to speak aloud. And when they do, when our students speak up and make the brave choice to let their mental illness see the light of day, we need to embrace them. Give them English credit for reflection on their experiences. Let them write about the history and treatment of the mentally ill in this country. Teach them what neurotransmitters are and how they affect mood and behavior. Because those struggling with anxiety disorders are often ashamed, they are unlikely to bring up the topic themselves. It is our responsibility as educators to shine light on the darker parts of our students’ lives and do what we can to help. Our students want strategies to deal with anxiety and depression. We constantly restrict and criticize cell phone use, but what is the first thing most people do when we get uncomfortable in a social situation? People lose interest or feign apathy when they do not understand something or feel up to the challenge in front of them. These aren’t “deviant” behaviors that need to be punished out of our students. These are clear indicators that the current climate is not working for them, and they are looking for a way to cope.

Though it is far from a comprehensive solution, I had great success implementing a teaching unit specifically focusing on mental health. It was by far my best-attended and most-engaged-with unit during my two years in the classroom. Students made posters about specific mental illnesses, highlighting statistics and little-known facts about these common but unspoken ailments affecting them and their peers. Many of them chose to research a mental illness that personally affected them. Each poster included information about the illness and a call to action. “Talk to someone!” “It’s okay to be sad!” and “See your advisor for more information” peppered the walls and prompted productive discussions. I don’t believe that making students make posters will change the face of mental illness in our schools, but I know it raised awareness. Students opened up to me, other teachers, and their advisors about struggles they faced or saw people they loved facing. Teachers came to talk to me because they knew I understood how significant mental health issues are today. Even though we, as a staff, saw countless powerpoints on the high prevalence of PTSD, emotional behavior disorder, anxiety, depression, antisocial personality disorder and more, our students didn’t. I don’t think they knew just how many of their peers shared their hidden burdens.

Often, mental health issues are only addressed after they boil over. Students receive counseling, diagnoses and support only after they’ve disrupted a class or come to blows with another student. It is possible, however, to stop these mental health issues from becoming crises. Mental health education should be a mandatory part of the curriculum for students and the subject of continued staff development for teachers. When something is stigmatized, it only stays that way because people feel more comfortable leaving it unsaid. Only after I named my anxiety and depression was I able to start fighting back. Only after we acknowledge the existence of mental illness in our schools can we join hands with our students silently fighting alone. But acknowledgment isn’t enough. In the battle against mental illness in schools, numbers matter. We need to know which of our students are struggling, and we need mental health professionals proportionate to that number. Without awareness, mental illness will remain a silent killer. Without continued support from professionals, staffs with good intentions will still fall short of students’ needs. By removing boundaries to mental health access, making necessary accommodations for students, and destigmatizing mental illness, we stand a much better chance of keeping struggling but passionate students and teachers in our schools where they belong.

Works Cited

“Children and Teens.” Learn From Us, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children.

Kletter, Hilit, et al. “Helping Children Exposed to War and Violence: Perspectives from an International Work Group on Interventions for Youth and Families.” Child Youth Care Forum, med.stanford.edu/content/dam/sm/elspap/documents/A48.pdf.

“PTSD in Children and Teens.” PTSD: National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 1 Jan. 2007, www.ptsd.va.gov/public/family/ptsd-children-adolescents.asp.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright.” Time, Time, 27 Oct. 2016, time.com/magazine/us/4547305/november-7th-2016-vol-188-no-19-u-s/.

Zhang, Anlan, et al. Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2015. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, 2016. Web. 31 Dec. 2017.

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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“We Made it for You” — Spoken Word by Daniel Ellis

I’m here to speak truth.

I’m here to speak truth.

I’m here to speak truth.

Truth in the light of histories textbooks. That deny my heritage.

Truth in the light of men’s ignorance. Whom infringe upon the rights of those who’re indigenous.

Truth in the light of broken dreams. As they carried us in chains across the eastern seas

I wrote this to speak truth into the misguided, mismatched, misinterpreted, misread and misrepresented flukes they disguise as the truth of what they truly think I am.

To them I am

A “dolla dolla bill y’all”, a “Get money, spend money, f*** b words”. Another sound cloud rapper they can twiddle to with their screen tapping thumbs, not understanding I did it to promote my people and their message of struggle and pain.

Then claiming to love my “culture” and wear their hair in my fashion because they think it’s “high” fashion.

I am here to speak the truth

You CANNOT say the N-word if you haven’t been called it before.

To them I am

Those pair of nikes. The ones you cop cuz everybody thinks I play basketball and is good at sports.

To them I am the stereotype

breakdancing, rap loving, watermelon eating, unaware, ignorant beast of a man, who in the truth of it all is just trying to live his life like every human being.

I’m here to speak truth.

I get followed in stores. Not because the manager finds me so likeable he needs to be near me, but because of his racial bias he thinks I can’t and won’t buy that sweater on rack 15 at Forever 21.

I’m here to speak truth.

I am the constant criticism of rebellion. The moment I ask for my rights to be given freely and I say “Black Lives Matter”, they still devalue and desensitize. All because they’re afraid of what’s before their eyes. A revolution.

I’m here to speak truth.

They think just because of my skin tone, I should be in a different zone. They think I shouldn’t be here. “Go back to Africa”, they say. “We don’t like you’re kind”. “It’d be best if you didn’t speak your mind”.

When I hear someone say go back to Africa, or that they don’t need black people and say Blacks aren’t American.

Don’t tell me to go home because I will not stay where I’m not wanted . But it makes you think because they wanted us so bad they had to have a nation so in a sense they must’ve wanted us pretty bad? Now I don’t mean that in a good way. We didn’t ask to be here. On the Ivory coast home to the mother shore. Taken from our homes and land. Kicked and pushed. Grasping for return as we were dragged across the damp African sand. We rocked back and forth in a strange and alien place where we were corralled on ships like cattle. The restless waves as they rolled and battled. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Taken from our homes. As some were drowned in water.

Wail and wail in the enduring spirit men and women dreaded to hear it.

I’m here to speak the truth.

We came to a nation that wanted us only to build it for them.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Built on the backs of slaves, the nation of so called freedom.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Forced to believe in a higher power and made to forget our history. How can I believe in a god of the men that denounced my god telling me my God is now their God all whilst wanting me to believe they are God…. it makes you think.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Years of struggle bred resilience to pain. As we learned there didn’t need to be any shame of our pigment, and that it was better to live in it.

I’m here to speak the truth.

They tried to silence us by killing our leaders.

Malcolm X Martin Luther King. On those sad days did we truly sing. In the name of freedom sad songs that defined our people. I sing of the southern fields and slave ships that make me think of the sweet by and by. How I would always cry. Seeing Grammy Nellie tell me of her days in the south. Talking about the day she met Mamie Till and The way Emmett looked without a mouth.

Evil intentions for but a boy. All he had in his heart was joy. Where the days where hot in the endless sun singing spiritual songs of freedom. Some Glad morning when this life is over I’ll fly away… Like those black bodies swinging in the southern trees they too will fly away with the winds of change, all in the name of liberation.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Were so close and yet so far, So that’s why we must fight.

I’m here to speak the truth

You’re right, Black people aren’t Americans.

We Are America.

The fruition of strange fruit bred from beautiful seeds that blossom in grow in the harshest of places and spaces. Beautiful Black People who embody the essence of the American dream of progress, ambition and hard work that we made. We are the leaders who’ve climbed ladders and mountains to gain the truth of our struggle. Pioneers of this land. We the people have the right to have rights.

I’m here to speak the truth.

You didn’t make America Great.

We made it for you.

We made it for you.

We made it.

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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Increasing Student Motivation in the Classroom

Increasing Student Motivation in the Classroom

by Mary Jo Kerekes

[pdf version here: MaryJoKerekes-StudentMotivation]

How do I increase student motivation in my classroom?  It is a question that I ask daily.  Some students have a desire to “get a good grade”, others have a desire to learn something new, and others….well um…just really don’t seem to care.  They are in class because they “have to be” or “it was better than the alternatives”.  Some of these students become engaged as they progress through the course because they find that there are some interesting things to learn.  Some students just never get to that point.   I believe in them, do all that I can to encourage them, set high expectations for them, and offer them the best instruction I can think of.  The result?  These students don’t do the assignments, they goof around and disrupt those around them, and end up with a low grade in the class.  These students have the ability and most are well-liked by their peers, so I am left thinking, “What could I have done differently?”

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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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Read Them Together: Paired Book Reading for Global Literature

Read Them Together: Paired Book Reading for Global Literature

by Jongsun Wee and Barbara A. Lehman

[pdf version here: Wee-Lehman-ReadThemTogether]

Abstract:  The need for global literature is growing as the society rapidly becomes more diverse. This study documented American children’s responses to global literature when it was paired with a home country book. The data were collected in a third grade classroom in a midwestern state. The results showed that in paired book reading, the children naturally compared two books and analyzed the characters’ problems by comparing them with their situations. The children did not discuss the foreign settings in global literature unless they were prompted to talk about them. They also did not treat the main character in global literature as a foreigner. The results suggested that pairing global literature with a home country book may be helpful for children to understand the global literature. However, the teacher needs to intentionally direct students’ attention to global settings and the foreign character’s experiences and culture, otherwise, children may miss an opportunity to discuss those topics emerging from the global literature.

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Featured Article–Implementing Tabletop Gaming in the English Classroom: Promoting Literacy through Interactive Gameplay

Implementing Tabletop Gaming in the English Classroom: Promoting Literacy through Interactive Gameplay

by Mike P. Cook, PhD, Ryan Morgan, and Matthew Gremo

[pdf version here: cook-implementing-tabletop-gaming-in-the-english-classroom]

 

Introduction

Table-top gaming, at its core, is simply a term used to refer to any social game that is traditionally played in person around a table. Over the years, the term itself has become an umbrella for all forms of board games, but in gaming culture it is most commonly applied as a label for various role-playing systems. While the concept of a role-playing system may seem like a rather complex idea to fully comprehend, it can most easily be explained as a traditional game that has been stripped of all of its fluff and niceties in order to exist as a system of bare-boned mechanics, which govern gameplay. The entire history of the characters within the game, as well as the entire story and how those characters interact with it, is created and executed by the players themselves while operating within this system of overarching rules and mechanics.

The onset and initial popularity of roleplaying systems can most easily be traced back to the 1974 publication of the original Dungeons & Dragons. Since the inception of the original D&D, however, a myriad other systems have spawned under the same guiding principal of creating the structure by which players could relate and interact with their own stories. One of the most popular of these systems was released by Paizo Publishing in 2009 under the title Pathfinder. While the system itself was a fairly direct reflection of one of the many modern versions of D&D, it varied in two very important ways. First, the system itself is more accessible, as some of the more complex and troublesome mechanics of the original D&D systems have been stripped in order to facilitate more streamlined gameplay. Second, and perhaps most important, Pathfinder offered free digital publication of all of its materials. While Paizo did, and still does, publish vast tomes of rules and mechanics for the Pathfinder system—in the same vein as D&D—all of the materials are available for free online to any player interested in engaging with the system. Because of these two very important differences, the Pathfinder system became the springboard by which our new roleplaying system could be created and implemented in the ELA classroom.

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Meyer Wolfshiem in The Great Gatsby

Meyer Wolfshiem in The Great Gatsby

by Elisa Malinovitz

[pdf version here: Malinovitz-Wolfshiem in Gatsby]

Introduction:

The Great Gatsby is included in the Common Core exemplars for literature, it’s rare to find a high school or university in the United States that doesn’t teach it, making it one of the most analyzed novels in modern American literature. Students examine and often re-examine the novel at different times throughout their lives, yet there are subtleties in the book of meaning and importance which escape the attention of many analytic reviews. Seemingly lacking is a discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stereotypical depiction of his one Jewish character, Meyer Wolfshiem. Continue reading

Theory in Practice in the High School Classroom: Using: The Kite Runner to Teach Literary Theory

Theory in Practice in the High School Classroom: Using: The Kite Runner to Teach Literary Theory

By Taya Sazama

[pdf version here: Sazama-Using The Kite Runner to Teach Literary Theory]

Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner, is one of the newer modern sensations to hit high school classrooms. In a setting where a majority of the studied texts were written before the start of the twentieth century, this is quite an achievement. Especially when that text was written by a first-time author and native of Kabul, Afghanistan, published in 2003 in the wake of the terrors of 9/11, and centered on the experiences of an Afghan immigrant. With these characteristics, it is indeed fascinating, and some would say surprising, that The Kite Runner so quickly became a staple in many upper level secondary classrooms. The novel is rich in character development, figurative language, and historical significance. Yet these are not its only selling points. In an age of educational reform, what I and many other high school teachers appreciate most about Hosseini’s text is its ability to hold up under the close study of multiple critical lenses. While literary criticism has not always been, nor does is continue to be, a major aspect of the secondary English classroom, it is texts like The Kite Runner that prepare the way for high school teachers and students to begin to delve into theory in a way that is both un-intimidating yet still scholarly and enriching. 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

Minnesota Preservice Teachers Perceptions of LGBT-themed Children’s Literature

Minnesota Preservice Teachers Perceptions of LGBT-themed Children’s Literature

By Jongsun Wee

[pdf version here: Wee-Perceptions of LGBT-themed Children’s Literature]

Diversity is an important topic that preservice teachers need to explore a great deal before they launch their career. The state of Minnesota recognizes the importance of understanding diverse learners in education and lists it in standard 3 in Minnesota Standards of Effective Practice for Teachers  (see: MN Standard of Effective Practice for Teachers. Standard 3. diverse learners: A teacher must understand how students differ in their approaches to learning and create instructional opportunities that are adapted to students with diverse backgrounds and exceptionalities). As expected teacher behaviors, the standard 3 states that, teachers need to “understand the contributions and lifestyles of the various racial, cultural, and economic groups in our society” and pay “attention to a student’s personal, family, and community experiences” (Minnesota Department of Education). My college, where I have taught a diversity class and children’s literature class, emphasizes recognizing and appreciating diversity in many forms. We also try to develop students’ awareness of diversity through classes in our teacher education program. Students also have other opportunities to be exposed to LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) related issues through university-wide events, such as seeing LGBT-themed films, listening to a guest speaker, discussing LGBT issues, and participating a LGBT conference. Continue reading

Teaching The Giving Tree

The Giving Tree: Pedagogical Essay

by Kandi Heenan

[pdf version here: Heenan-TeachingTheGivingTree]

 

Introduction

The struggle is real. Defending the significance of using literature across the curriculum is something many instructors face—especially teaching “kid’s books.” Lessons, moral or academic, can be gained from any type or genre of literature. Children’s books specifically, even those as perceivably simplistic as works by authors like Seuss and Silverstein, hold a valuable and relevant place in the instruction of high school and even college-age students in a context not limited to Children’s Literature courses. Continue reading

Approaches to Teaching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Approaches to Teaching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

By Jennifer Thiel

[pdf version here: Thiel-Approaches to Teaching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory]

Introduction

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one of the most popular children’s books in the last 50 years. The following essay is about certain options of how this book can be used in a teaching context. In the beginning I will focus on some theoretical background knowledge and why this book was challenged, and I give a quick summary of the plot. I will then follow with one possible lesson plan for a 45 minute class and give some more ideas how the material can be used for teaching. 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 2: The New Face of Homelessness by Melissa Brandt

The New Face of Homelessness
By Melissa Brandt

You know that moment when you’re at a party or a social gathering and a person you barely know asks, “So, what do you do?” I dread that moment. Not because I’m embarrassed by what I do. I love my job. I love the people, students, and families with whom I work. Their troubles are my troubles. Their successes are my successes.

“I’m the Homeless Liaison for Rochester Public Schools,” I say with trepidation. I am nervous because there are certain words, I have found, that immediately strike a social-emotional nerve, and the word “homeless” generally strikes the mother of all emotional nerves. After I tell the party-goer what I do, I wait for one of three standard, social responses: pity, reverence, disdain. Most frequently, I see a look of pity cross the face of the person, a feeling of sadness for families in a homeless situation. We spend a little time chatting about statistics and bemoaning the state of the world, and the person moves on. Sometimes I see a look of reverence. It’s the I-would-never-in-a-million-years-want-your-job look. There’s a curiosity to this response. The person expressing reverence is usually interested in what the day-to-day challenges of the families and students. They want to know what homelessness looks like. I usually provide a few anecdotes, we spend a little time chatting about statistics and bemoaning the state of the world and the person moves on. 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

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

Strategies for Teaching Literature 1: An Evolution of the Narrative Techniques of Dostoevsky by Wes Schaller

Crime and Punishment: An Evolution of the Narrative Techniques of Dostoevsky

by Wes Schaller

The notebooks of Fyodor Dostoevsky have both complicated and enriched the analyses of Crime and Punishment. Whereas some writers may employ the notebooks to supplement and illuminate their ideas, others may regard them as irrelevant territory—not to be used within the realm of critical analyses. This dilemma will necessarily be addressed later on, for the disparity between an author’s evolving intent and his final product is indeed significant, though I will endeavor to make relevant what some may perceive as irrelevant. Nevertheless, the driving purpose of this essay is to shed light on certain narrative techniques by comparing Dostoevsky’s rough draft of Crime and Punishment—written as a first-person narrative—to the final product—written in third-person omniscient. Incorporating such a comparison into creative-writing courses entails numerous advantages, precisely because the change in narration yields significant effects; illustrating these effects can ultimately broaden a writer’s understanding of how the narrative voice functions in any given novel. 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 2: Examination of the Cultural Influences Behind ‘The Hobbit’ by Gillian Singler, Alicia Guthmiller, and Kevin Smith

Examination of the Cultural Influences Behind The Hobbit

by Gillian Singler, Alicia Guthmiller, and Kevin Smith

Introduction

The New York Times first pointed out in its review of The Hobbit, that “…there may come the thought of how legend and tradition and the beginning of history meet and mingle…”The Hobbit” is a glorious account of a magnificent adventure, filled with suspense and seasoned with a quiet humor that is irresistible…this is a book with no age limits. All those, young or old, who love a fine adventurous tale, beautifully told, will take “The Hobbit” to their hearts (“New Books for Younger Readers”), and after an intimate examination of the text, one can find that Tolkien’s well-crafted text provides not only the historical heritage of English culture, but also an appreciation for and comprehension of the past that has continued to affect the futures of all cultures.” 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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