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.

Opposites Attract: Binary Opposites in Alice Sebold’s Lucky

By Tanya Stafsholt Miller

The cover of Alice Sebold’s memoir reads, “In the tunnel where I was raped, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was LUCKY.”  By juxtaposing the incongruous words “rape” and “lucky,” Sebold invites readers to ask, what does it mean to be “lucky”? Are “lucky” and “unlucky” binary opposites, as they seem to be, or is it possible to be both? Sebold invites readers to question our understanding of binary opposites throughout the book, as apparent opposites prove to be more similar than different. Near the end of the book, Sebold states, “I live in a world where the two truths coexist; where both hell and hope lie in the palm of my hand” (254). She does not say “heaven and hell” which are the expected binary opposites. Heaven would have been too much to expect. Hope, however, casts a glimmer of light into the future, a way of coping with the unpleasant present.

The fact that Alice finds luck in her horrific rape and hope in the hell of the rape’s aftermath is a testament to her enduring optimism. Throughout the memoir, Alice consistently relies on literacy to give her hope in the hardest moments of her life, thereby turning hell into hope. Language and literacy are the salve she uses to heal from trauma, whether it be storytelling, poetry recitation, or creative writing. The shaping of painful experiences into literary art empowers her to not only heal from the victimization, but also to rise above it. She doesn’t just survive; she thrives.

The first time Alice uses literacy to find hope out of hell is when her father and grandmother take her to a burned down house to salvage treasures from the wreckage. The five-year-old Alice is fascinated by the Raggedy Andy doll and matchbox cars, physical reminders of the child who died in the fire. Although her father deems the toys unworthy, Alice is already making the tragic fire into a story of her own: “Out of the fire grew narrative. I created for this family a new life” (33). This early life experience of turning tragedy into narrative is just one example of Sebold using literacy to escape the harsh reality of her life. Salvaging redeemable treasures out of the wreckage of a fatal house fire is a tangible example of finding hope in a hopeless situation. The fact that Alice turns tragedy into narrative indicates her natural affinity toward storytelling. This predilection toward literacy will prove to be her saving grace at the fateful juncture in her life.

Literacy becomes Alice’s mental escape while she is being physically overpowered by her rapist. She endures the unendurable by reciting poetry in her head. “I went into my brain. Waiting there were poems for me” (6). She mentally detaches from her own body and finds hope by reciting poems committed to memory. At this pivotal moment, literacy helps her escape from the most hellish situation imaginable and gives her a reason to hope. The rhythm of language, the consistency of verse, the shaping of meaning into sound become an out-of-body experience for Alice. Poetry, like an old friend, presents itself when she needs it the most, giving her an escape, but also hope.

After the rape, Alice feels like her life has been cleaved in two: “My life was over; my life had just begun” (30). Sebold uses the binary opposites of “my life was over” and “my life had just begun” to reveal her optimism for the future. Yes, the life she had before the rape—as a virginal co-ed—is over. The contrast between the photos she poses for with Ken Childs and the photos taken by the police indicate this clearly. She goes from “smiling, smiling, smiling” for Ken Childs  to “shocked” for the police photos (20). “The word shock, in this context, is meant to mean I was no longer there” (20). The “I,” or the self as she knows it, is gone and will have to be re-invented.

The summer after the trial, she begins her makeover. “The possibilities of the before-and-after that I had been presented with all my life took hold” (210). Her enduring optimism arises as she begins to reinvent herself so as not to be “defined by the rape” (210).  Here again, two binary opposites—the before and the after, the end and the beginning—are presented for scrutiny by the reader. The end of the Alice she was before the rape opens up a window to set free the Alice she will become. The end is the beginning, and the beginning comes about because of the ending. They are mutually dependent; one could not exist without the other. Out of the ashes of this tragedy, like the mythical phoenix, Alice’s old self dies so the new one can arise.

Alice’ s new self emerges when she writes a poem directed to her rapist, at the encouragement of her poetry teacher and mentor, Tess Gallagher. By writing a poem to the rapist, she not only escapes her rapist, but she also empowers herself to confront her rapist. This shifts her perspective from victim to advocate. This is an important distinction. To be a victim, or even a survivor, is to be reactive to trauma, to be defined by something that is out of one’s control. To be an advocate is to be proactive in seeking out solutions, shaping one’s own future, and taking control.

Writing a poem directed to her rapist releases pent-up emotion, allowing Alice to express hatred and anger toward her rapist. Gallagher recognizes the importance of the poem.  By inviting Alice to write about the rape and to workshop the poem, Gallagher gives Alice permission to write about important content and to share it with an audience (103). When Alice workshops the piece, it evokes a visceral reaction from her fellow students, one of whom implies that Alice could not be both beautiful and filled with hate, as if the two were polar opposites (103). They are not, but that is the myth that he believes. The power of Sebold’s language evokes an intense reaction in classmate Maria Flores as her own memory of incestual rape surfaces (152). The pivotal moment in Alice’s healing journey is when she realizes the power of her writing voice. She uses literacy to save herself, to teach those like Al Tripodi who believe myths surrounding rape, and to advocate for other victims like Maria Flores who can not or will not use their own voices.

As if writing the poem “If They Caught You” were an appeal to a higher power, only one week later her appeal is made manifest when Alice sees her rapist and reports him to the police. Before doing so, she checks in with her teacher, Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life. At this hellish moment in Alice’s life, she receives poignant literary advice from one of the great memoirists: “Try, if you can, to remember everything” (108). Wolff practically invites her to tell her story, even if it is many years hence. As he well knows, writing about memory has power, and it can promote healing. Memory is “often the only recourse of the powerless, the oppressed, or the brutalized” (108). Once again, at a pivotal moment in her life, literacy provides Alice an escape from the hell of reality. At this point, it seems that Alice Sebold’s destiny is foretold through the power of language. The rapist will be caught, Sebold will get vindication, and she will write the memoir that will tell her story, using literacy to give power to the powerless.

In the end, Alice Sebold states that “I now feel I was destined to write Lucky” (256). If that is true, then does it follow that she was destined to be raped? Although Sebold would erase that moment of her life if she could (257), she realizes that by having that experience and writing about it, she is able to reach more people and do more good than if it hadn’t happened. Would Sebold have been a best-selling author if not for the first-hand experience of rape? It’s impossible to say for certain. One thing that is certain is this: the Alice Sebold who wrote Lucky could not have written it if she hadn’t been raped. Therein lies hell and hope in the same hand. By all means, Sebold would have erased that moment of her life if she could. Since she cannot, she uses the power of language to shape the story of her rape. By doing so, she empowers herself to be more than someone else’s victim; she becomes the author of her own story and an advocate for others. Literacy is the tool that Sebold uses to turn a hellish event into a vehicle of hope for the future.

Throughout the memoir, Sebold uses literacy to find hope in the hellish events of her life. During the rape itself, she escapes mentally by reciting poetry. Later, she finds her literary voice through poetry in Tess Gallagher’s class. This poem leads to an intimacy between Alice and Tess Gallagher that would lead Gallagher to attend the trial in lieu of Alice’s own mother. The poem also opens Alice up to the possibility of using her literary voice to write about the rape.

Alice Sebold’s optimism allows her to see herself as “lucky” in an unlucky situation. She chooses to see the positive, to go beyond victimhood to advocacy. Alice Sebold is acutely aware of the luck of her circumstances. The “superficials” of her case make her lucky in the courtroom (173). If her rapist had been “a middle-or upper-class white professional from a well-respected family,” she might not have been so lucky (267). She is lucky to be a virgin wearing nondescript clothing, and that her rapist is a man with a criminal history. All of these are lucky circumstances on the unluckiest day of her life. The unlucky circumstance of Sebold not being accepted into Penn State leads her to attend Syracuse University. If she had gone to Penn State, she wouldn’t have been walking home through that park on that fateful day. However, she also would not have had the luck of taking classes from such literary greats as Tess Gallagher and Tobias Wolff, and to take independent studies from the likes of poetry giant Hayden Carruth and fiction guru Raymond Carver (212). For an aspiring writer, that line-up of mentors is pretty lucky. Alice Sebold creates her own luck by using the unlucky event of her rape and making it Lucky.

Alice Sebold’s life is filled with binary opposites that she has pulled together into a new life for herself. Her life has a distinct before and after, she makes a beginning out of an ending, she finds the luck in the unluckiest circumstances, and she holds hope along with hell in the palm of her hand. Just as she did when she was five years old, the optimist in her turns tragedy into narrative, and Sebold finds a new life for herself as an author of books about rape and as a rape survivors’ advocate. Alice Sebold says that there is a “continual push and pull” between her role as advocate for rape victims and what she would have been doing if she had never been raped (260). In the end, to be “unlucky” is to see oneself as the victim of fate—to use the passive voice. To create luck in spite of unlucky circumstances is to be proactive, to take control, to shape the story, to focus on the future. “I was raped” becomes “I advocate for rape survivors.” To this end, Sebold’s own words resonate: “In the end I think my greatest luck has been in finding the words to tell my story and in the fact that they were heard” (268).

Works Cited

Sebold, Alice. Lucky. Scribner, 1999.

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.

Internalizing the Message

By Kay J. Walter

I had a few extra minutes that day when I entered the classroom in which I was teaching composition to second-semester freshmen at my university. I teach at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, a public university in rural Arkansas attended mostly by first-generation students of higher education. I try to start each of my classes promptly, but I was early, and lots of my students were already there, each absorbed in a virtual world deep inside a smartphone. I covet their attention at times like this. I want them to begin shepherding their thoughts toward one another, our class, and me rather than careening recklessly from one website image to another.

To begin collecting them and their thoughts, I wrote a URL on the chalkboard. They are conditioned to virtual tasks and they quickly took the hint. Almost immediately they started finding their way to it. “What do you see?” I asked them. “You,” they replied, delighted with sure knowledge of a correct response, and they began reading the blog post intently. I had committed the novice error of distracting them when I needed their attention. I had their attention now but not on the lesson I had planned. “Monitor and adapt,” I heard a teacher’s voice in my head remind me.

I had planned to discuss “Graduation” by Maya Angelou, which I had assigned as reading homework from their textbook. I like to teach the Angelou text because it provides opportunities to point out the value of human potential, which the graduation speaker overlooks in the story. When Mr. Donleavy has the opportunity to talk to a rapt audience celebrating the achievement of local twelve-year-olds, he instead spends his time bragging of kindnesses he has done to benefit others. His talk amounts only to a campaign speech and ignores the real concerns and needs of his listeners. His attitude entirely dismisses the children who hear him, and his tone inspires only reluctant support.  Audience members no doubt recognized that his opposition for political office had nothing to offer them, not even the time and attention necessary to appear at their ceremony and orate in distracted words about someone else.

In a typical lesson on Angelou, I would discuss the responsibility adults have for encouraging all children and helping them optimize their potential because some of them may grow up to be famous writers who will tell stories of their childhood experiences. I like to say, “It matters how I treat each of you because one of you may go on to tell stories about me.” This lesson works especially well at my university because the story is set in southern Arkansas, not far from us, and the students understand the cultural implications intuitively. I take particular delight in pointing out that our university gets mentioned by a former name in this story and recount for them a history of our institution. Oh, I had big plans for lecturing that day, but teachable moments arise without warning, and spontaneous reaction is necessary to optimize learning. I could save Angelou for another day, but I couldn’t skip the lesson. In order to begin class, I had to redirect them, but it goes against my better judgement to disturb students when they want to read. So I decided we would read together—aloud, taking turns, finding our way through difficult pronunciations, unfamiliar words, and sinuous syntax. In this case, perhaps one text would be nearly as good as another in serving the reading lesson.

They seemed absorbed by the blog post, and their interest is always productive to learning because a need to know precedes long-term storage of information. When they have a problem to solve, they can exercise critical thinking skills and remember what they discover. As the school where I teach is my alma mater, I can sometimes think in harmony with them. We paused mid-thought to discuss implications. We read about the need to support teachers of color and considered why it is important for children to learn from them. We recalled teachers who had taught us about diversity and how their lessons helped prepare us for college experiences. We wondered as we went along. We considered why a family might move from Alaska to Arkansas and imagined the culture shock a child might undergo as a result.

We puzzled over the idea of preservice teachers and thought about the ways in which teachers are servants. We thought about the literacy experiences newborns and toddlers can have and reflected on our own and their influence on our successes in school. We considered the idea of lifelong learning and its implications for life beyond commencement. They wondered what they would want to study after graduation and imagined themselves in graduate school or taking lessons in fields of study beyond their majors. We talked about the elders in our families and the wisdom they embody. We envisioned ourselves as octogenarians with a variety of interests and expertise to share with our progeny. We thought about the challenges of being non-traditional learners and remembered the people in our lives who say “I wish I had gone to college.” We discussed the reasons why they don’t go to college now.

Perhaps most importantly, we discussed why it is important to be active participants in our own educations, what behaviors demonstrate our active learning to others, and how active learning can enhance educational experiences. We changed readers often, but I did not read to them. I let them read to one another. We soon found that I had outstretched their vocabularies. “Matrilineal,” I prompted—a mouthful. I said it three times “Matrilineal. Matrilineal. Matrilineal,” and they repeated it after me three times. Three is the magic number in writing—three points in an overt thesis statement, three multi-paragraph areas of support in a strong essay. A word repeated three times becomes familiar, but that does not provide meaning.

Reading aloud is hard work for the inexperienced. My students come from a literacy-poor culture. Their worlds have an impoverishment of aspiration and a paucity of encouragement to read. John Ruskin says, “The main thing which we ought to teach our youth is to see something, all that the eyes which God has given them are capable of seeing” (VI.483). They have been taught to read—to recognize high-use vocabulary and to sound out exotic words rapidly, to devour pages whole, at a glance, never pausing to rest their eyes upon and delight in the nuances of prose at play. They are good at looking, but too often they do not see. What Ruskin tells us about talking is true in their reading: “Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see” (V.333). I wrote unfamiliar words on the chalkboard under the URL and showed them the keys to unlocking meaning for themselves.

In “matrilineal,” I underlined the letters L-I-N-E. I put square brackets around the initial [MA] to help them see. I watched them smile as understanding dawned. “Your mama’s side,” they nodded. It was a bright moment. They could see what I’ve been telling them about words having families—mother, mama, matrilineal. We paused to learn patrilineal too, just for fun. We were linguists! We were wordsmiths! We were poets! After a few new words, my students saw the efficacy of making a list of unfamiliar words we wanted to master. Problem solvers! We were cheerfully at work, relishing the textures and sounds and tastes of new words. We were children with toys—taking words in with our ears and our mouths as well as our eyes. We had read, closely and thoroughly—an accomplishment surely, but these are college students, so mere reading wasn’t the entire lesson.

“What did we learn?” I asked them. Besides the new words and the idea that Arkansas is encouraging diversity, “How will you internalize the message?” I understand that they can read for comprehension. These are successful college students, the ones who didn’t flunk out the first semester. Like Faulkner’s victors, they endured. We have fast hold on the meaning. But what about the message? Understanding ideas doesn’t help much unless you can act upon them. An internalized message changes something about the reader’s ideas, beliefs, or behaviors. Reading matters most when it makes a difference. If they are enlightened, they have a light to share. Envisioning a means for sharing is the purpose of reading.

This took considerable thought, but eventually my students were able to vocalize ideas they were forming. There are children in their families whom they want to teach, to spend time with, to share ideas with, just as the teachers they read about are doing. These children can get excited about learning new things, and my students can become their mentors, helping them see just as the teachers we read about are mentoring the little ones in their lives. My students expressed the desire to learn their own fields of study so well that they too can be excited about having knowledge to pass along. They wanted to be passionate about their studies in the way that the teachers I wrote about in the blog post are passionate about their work. They want to have something of value to share with others just as those teachers do.

Learning is enlightenment, and enlightenment is joyous, but learning also brings responsibility. We must use the wisdom we gain for good, sharing the light we have with others lest we all stumble in darkness. It gave me pause when my students asked me, “Is learning always good? Isn’t it bad to learn to use drugs?” I had questions for them in response: Certainly recreational abuse of drugs is bad, but is it ever bad to LEARN? Is there a way to use even this learning for good? If I learn the process for cooking meth and use that acquired knowledge not to cook meth myself but to recognize when a family in my neighborhood is doing so, and if I act upon the responsibility which comes with my new knowledge to save the children of that family from an environment in which cooking meth is a customary way of life, does that redeem my learning? Does it make the learning good? We learned that complicated ideas have no easy answers, but education gives us the ability to consider their implications for ourselves.

Education comes with the responsibility to enlighten others, and good multiplies the potential for good. Ignoring these responsibilities is wickedness. Our duty as educated and enlightened teachers is to find a way to make the wisdom we have gained, the accumulated facts we have mastered, the knowledge we have acquired, into actions which promote good. We must better the lives of others if we want a better life. We must all progress together if we want a better world. What we choose to read matters greatly. When we read something beneath our capacity—intellectually, morally, or emotionally—we miss an opportunity for growth. We limit our light and our opportunity to share. We fail to learn. Most of the textbooks for university students are now written at the seventh-grade reading level, and students struggle through canonical novels which were once considered junior high entertainment. We limit their ability to read complex texts by providing information at a reading level they have already mastered.

Complex texts challenge our understanding and teach us the joy of development, and this is always good. But whenever we read something excellent and challenging, our reading shapes our lives. Comprehension is necessary to learning, but the way we internalize the message will predict the world we live in. Our actions publicly reveal the light we have to share, and making my classroom glow frequently is my duty as a teacher. How far the glow can spread is up to my students. A classroom filled with internalized light glowed brightly in my presence that day.

 

Works Cited

Ruskin, John. The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin. Edited by E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903-1912, London.

#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.

Feedback form for storytelling speech.png

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

Persuasive speech topic venn diagram.png

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.

Seriously, What’s the Difference?

Jeanette Lukowski

It all began with an article from The New York Times titled “The Community College / ‘Real College’ Divide.” The article was part of an assessment tool being used by the community college for whom I was an Adjunct English Instructor that fall semester of 2016; the Assessment Coordinator was asking all teachers of Composition I to use a set of common articles in the beginning of the course, and again at the end of the course. I had two sections, so agreed to help.

In December, then, as my Composition I students were working through the assessment activity during our last day of class, I read Kristin O’Keefe’s article for the first time. Published on The New York Times’s blog in February of 2015, O’Keefe seemed inflamed by comments made by “an educator explaining criteria for high school graduation…to her audience of parents and incoming freshmen: ‘here’s what you should take if you want to go to a real college – you know, not community college.’” Although I was not as annoyed as O’Keefe appeared to be, I was intrigued by the suggestion of there being a “divide” between the two types of schools.

I have a personal history with both 4-year universities and community colleges.

I grew up in Chicago, moving to Minnesota when I was in my twenties. While living in Chicago, I attended both community college and university; I also attended both types of schools in Minnesota, before receiving my B.A. as a non-traditional commuting mother of two young children.

My teaching credentials also encompass a wide array of experiences, from traditional classroom experience at both universities and community colleges to online teaching for each type of institution.

What, I wondered specifically, is this “divide” O’Keefe refers to?

When I met with the Provost several hours later to discuss his invitation to teach additional courses for the community college during spring semester (I was already committed to an adjunct load for the year with a four-year university seventy-five miles away), I asked about my ability to use the same textbook for the spring semester Composition II course as I would be using with the university’s equivalent course. Since many of the community college students transferred to that particular university, I would see if I could unearth this suggested “divide” in northern Minnesota.

The Provost agreed to my proposal; my rather informal, semester-long “assessment project” began.

*          *          *

The first challenge I faced was to align course syllabi for a M/W/F fifty-minute class with a T/Th seventy-five-minute class.

Additionally, the university ran on a fifteen-week class schedule, while the community college’s course would last sixteen weeks.

Oh, and their Spring Break weeks occurred at different times.

I wasn’t given much time to dwell on these matters, though, since there were only two weeks of “break” between the community college’s semesters—and the office personnel who do the printing of syllabi and ordering of textbooks close for official holidays like Christmas and New Year’s.

Again, because this was an informal assessment project being pulled together in a hurry, I made no firm plan of how to track the “data” I would be collecting; I simply made notes on one of the many legal tablets I carry around with me from class to class. Some notes were made while students were freewriting in class (to use Peter Elbow’s term), and some more notes were made while I sat alone, holding formal office hours on one or the other of the campuses.

The journal entries that follow are observations of and conversations with students I have had the pleasure to meet and work with over the years, and the correlations I choose to draw by way of possible connections.

*          *          *

Week 1:

The first day of every course, no matter where I am teaching, runs pretty much the same way. I hand out the syllabus, run through introductions and such, and—if time allows—have students compose an in-class journal entry.

The second day of class, the university students received a “fresh” version of a lecture, while the community college students received a more polished, practiced version of the same lecture—followed by class discussion about the set of essays they were assigned to have read for homework.

The class discussion with the university students the next day began with a similar opening question, but followed an entirely different trajectory, as all such conversations are apt to do.

*          *          *

Journal from February 9, 2017:

Conversation styles are throwing me this week. I have been having an impossible time getting the [university] students to talk—while almost the exact opposite is occurring at [the community college].

Tuesday, for instance, I was “lecturing” the class about the highlights of chapter 3 in our textbook—“Arguments in Media,” or whatever. [Female student] was answering every question—with her deep, loud voice—and never raised her hand.

When [male student] in the second row opened his mouth to contribute (also a deep voice, but not quite as loud), he was almost “silenced” (drowned-out) by the building lull of conversations going on behind him. Now, usually there are two groups (pairs) of young women talking all the time—but this day it was all three back rows?

I regularly practice two distinct types of teaching styles with students: Lecture Mode, when I instruct students about the serious matters I would like them to know from each portion of the textbook, and Discussion Circles, when we collaboratively explore the many nuances of writing in published essays. Pedagogically speaking, Lecture Mode is the time when I convey the many “rules” of writing (in this particular case, the ways academic arguments are constructed, and how to locate—then cite—all sources used according to MLA style), while Discussion Circle time is used to examine the many ways a variety of writers have incorporated argument(s) into their work.

When I am “imparting knowledge” during Lecture Mode, students sit in their regular rows or columns, depending on the configuration of each specific classroom, and while I neither require nor request it, most students will automatically raise their hand if they have a question or want to offer a comment. By contrast, when it is time for Discussion Circles, I ask students to arrange themselves in such a way that no one has his or her back to another student; they are invited to contribute to what I hope becomes a hearty conversation, the only requirements being that they respect our right to disagree with one another—and they don’t take the “debate” out of the classroom’s conversation.

Although I have heard about teachers who use tools such as a talking stick to maintain order within the discussion circle, I have never felt the need to micro-manage the conversation until this particular class at the community college. For reasons I could not fathom at the time, too many of my group of twenty-eight community college students were maintaining their rigid behaviors from high school: playing with their cell phones while I was in Lecture Mode and chit-chatting with their neighbors whenever the spirit moved them. (Discussion Circles made cell phone use during class too obvious for all but one of my most defiant students, but we as a class chose to ignore her bad behavior, and all breathed a collective sigh of relief on days she was absent.)

The twenty-five university students, on the other hand, would pretty much rely on five of their classmates to speak, no matter what the topic, or how the seating was arranged. I tried everything short of standing on my head or placing electric shock buzzers in their chairs, but there were literally only two days when I heard most of those students speak in class: the first day, when I asked them to introduce themselves, and the last few days, when each student was asked to give a five-minute informal presentation on the topic of their final paper.

Pulling teeth.

*          *          *

Journal from February 16, 2017:

What if the “difference” between a four-year university and a community college is nothing more than the difference between a city and a small town?

  • Everyone knows everyone else at C.C., vs. larger populations of Univ.
  • Many more opportunities at Univ.—since kids “live” on campus, vs. commuting from home to C.C.
  • People attending Univ. “move away” from home—perhaps staying in Univ. “town” after graduation, vs. C.C. students who have no intention of moving (part of reason they are at C.C. in first place?)
  • Students are focused: four years to completion (perhaps five), vs. C.C. students who fit college in, when they can, around other life events
  • Activities are focused on-campus—students don’t have tons of contact with off-campus locations early in their “careers” as students because many lack transportation, vs. C.C. activities taking place in a commons-area (high traffic)—or in partnership with an entity in the community (since most are commuting to the typical small—one-building—campus)

*          *          *

Journal from March 3, 2017:

While it is not scientifically proven, student athletes in each institution seem to have different foci. At [the community college], student athletes are being imported from other states—and the school seems to make extra “accommodations” for those students. (Academic struggle means withdrawing from the course just days before it ends, rather than letting the student fail?)

I have also read / heard about the “one-and-done” student athlete rule / philosophy at [the community college]; attendance is lax, attention to skills-learning in the classroom doesn’t seem to matter.

[The university], on the other hand, has presented me with two young men who have placed academics first. Both are “from” small towns in Minnesota (Roseau for one, Detroit Lakes for the other); one plays basketball for [the university], while the other decided to drop his hockey career for academics.

In the news, at the very time I was drafting this essay, a family of basketball players was under the lens of scrutiny. Although I have no connection to either the family or the institution, my retired teacher mother asked me the night the news broke, “How do those young men think they can get away with theft like that?”

I simply replied, “They weren’t thinking, Mom,” because I had seen similar attitudes of nonchalance from other student athletes.

I have had the opportunity to teach some very fine, honorable student athletes. Just as all teachers are not cut from the same cloth, students athletes run the gamut as well. But that incident brings the question back around for me: are colleges holding all students to the same level of academic rigor—whether athlete or musician, artist or writer?

*          *          *

Journal from March 14, 2017:

This morning, my clear-headed thought was that [the community college] teachers are focused on teaching a specific set of skills—but perhaps overlook the importance of critical thinking. [I had overheard a community college instructor giving students oral exams in the office space we shared. The instructor’s technique was problematic for me.]

Skills aren’t always “transferable” from one discipline to another, and students never think about using many of the skills beyond the immediate classroom.

Critical thinking, on the other hand, could/should be part of everything they do, once mastered.

Anyone can learn to use a computer; anyone can figure out a way to memorize “data” like the Periodic Table in chemistry; anyone can be taught the rudimentary skills of cooking, playing an instrument, or even learning how to dance. But THINKING, especially CRITICALLY, that takes a whole new layer of…changing computer keyboarding skills to programming, transforming a student into a scientist, a master-chef, a talented musician, a prima-ballerina.

Critical thinking raises the bar from proficiency to mastery. It makes one self-reliant. It allows us to problem-solve, not just monitor or identify that a problem exists.

My class(es) and I were also reading a novel this semester, an activity I like to include as part of their expanding look at published writing. I approach it like a book club rather than a literary analysis, and ask the different levels of classes to engage with the novel in differing ways.

This semester’s selection was T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, because it allowed us the opportunity to engage in some of the nation’s hot-button topics (immigration, the wall between the U.S.A. and Mexico) without the extra layer of political affiliation (the book was published in 1995).

One of my students at the community college—a young woman who had been home-schooled by what I assume are very conservative, Christian parents (based on conversations I had with the student throughout the semester)—was stunned by the compassion exhibited by the Mexican immigrant male towards his wealthy, Caucasian male “rival” at the novel’s end. While I no longer recall her specific words, I remember the feeling of euphoria accompanying me on my seventy-five-mile drive home that afternoon; oh, happy day, her critical thinking skills were developing!

*          *          *

Journal from April 2, 2017:

The hammer falls hard on the position essay.

 [The community college] problems include two students presenting papers written for another class (one talking about her experience at [XYZ] Community College? Another using the I-Search final paper she wrote for me in Comp. I, complete with multiple online sources viewed in Dec. of 2016), and one young man who turned in a paper with the clear statement, “women like me…”

Ugh.

Students are often still childlike; children test boundaries. Each semester, no matter where I teach, I tend to run across a student who blatantly plagiarizes a paper. This discovery was recorded so specifically because I was sitting on campus, either grading in my office between classes or silently fuming in the library with my students while they were independently researching for their final paper.

Each college has a specific protocol for handling plagiarism. I publish the institution’s specific language in my course syllabus, “punish” the student based on the infraction, and pass the information up the chain-of-command if deemed appropriate.

After that, I entrust the administration with the situation—never inquiring about their decision—just as I hope they trust me to continue to do my job without interference.

*          *          *

Going back to O’Keefe’s, “The Community College / ‘Real College’ Divide,” she writes of a “divide” between “people who believe in community colleges, and people who dismiss and even diminish them.”

I do not know where O’Keefe lives, nor what region she is writing about with regard to this article—but I know what I heard when my children were each introduced to their high school in Minnesota. The high school’s guidance counselors promoted a very specific set of courses for students who tested well in the years leading up to ninth grade, making them “college ready,” while the students who had not tested well were simply given a plan to graduate.

Is that the “divide” O’Keefe means?

When I look into a classroom of students each semester, I do see a different set of people depending on whether it is a community college or a four-year university; I also see a difference in student population with the time of day, regional location of the school, and current state of the nation’s economy.

The similarities vs. differences I observed this one semester in northern Minnesota were:

  1. The community college students were younger than what I encountered in another community college in another time and state. Without asking for their Name, Rank, and Serial Number (although three of them shared specific information about being sixteen years old in their writing), I ascertained that approximately half of my community college students were enrolled through their high school’s Post Secondary Enrollment Option (meaning they were driving over to the community college for a class or two while still engaging in high school curricula and activities). By contrast, I don’t recall a single PSEO student being in the university class, so the maturity level of any topic discussed was always higher in the university than the community college.
  2. Most of the PSEO students were attending the community college without a clear sense of purpose. Without a defined career path / major in mind, the PSEO students were working in a vacuum of sorts; their work was unfocused and random when compared to their university “peers” who were working towards a very specific goal—and already had enough knowledge about their field from which to prepare a decent academic argument.
  3. Finances seemed to dictate the students’ attending college. Since the local area had recently experienced an economic recession of its own, many of the students were identified as First Generation college students. Were they attending the community college as a way for their parents to avoid the financial burden in a year or two? Were they attending the community college because they couldn’t find a “good paying” job in the area? Were they attending the community college because the local high schools were cutting budgets by hiring fewer teachers / offering fewer courses? If one is offered an athletic scholarship to a top-tier program, or has parents who are financially supporting the venture, students tend to gravitate towards universities; if students are coming from homes where money is a concern, and/or students are paying for it themselves, community college tuition is often a more affordable way to complete those “core” courses most Bachelor’s degrees require.

Yes, there are tangible differences between the four-year university and a community college—reputations of specific programs, athletic team classifications, and the variety of Majors/Minors each can offer—but a “divide,” as in a chasm, or to separate into opposing factions? No.

Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive to the term “divide” right now, thanks to the divisive nature of the language many people in positions of power are using.

To borrow from Karl Marx, “Nothing can have value without being an object of utility.” So I challenge us all—as teachers, and as students—to focus on the value our education has brought into our life. The use will deem it a quality education.

A Few Confessions of an English Teacher

Alexandra Glynn

Preparing for classes rouses up the guilt again. I teach writing, but I don’t do what I tell my students to do. I plagiarize, in a sense, all the time. I don’t read articles; I skim them enough to make them seem read. And when I write, I really don’t consider any of the items that my textbook says to consider when considering audience.

Scorn not the plagiarist. If you are not plagiarizing, you are not reading; you are not bringing ancient music to our modern hearts. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself, as I browse through books looking for something someone wrote that I can put in my sentence, to cast the glory into it and dart a kind of luster into it that I could never fabricate on my own. I tell my students not to plagiarize, but I do it. If I haven’t knitted in some of the poets, the way the psalmist weaved through some of Moses (Botha 1) into Psalm 119, [1] I haven’t really said anything, and certainly haven’t said anything that is commonly thought but never so well expressed.

And I have a two hundred second rule for reading articles. I allow myself two hundred seconds per article and look for what argument the writer is making (fortunately, this is almost always in the beginning of the paper), then for what kinds of words they use, and based on those two data points, I decide whether or not I will look for any good quotes in the article. Then I cast almost all the articles aside, like lords lain low. And yet I tell my students to do diligent research, not to be lazy, and to carefully consider what they are reading. I console myself with Hegel, whose words I skew to mean that one should read “prefaces and first paragraphs” (43), and only those. [2]

And finally, I ignore large segments of my textbook, which right now is Bullock, Brody, and Weinberg’s Little Seagull Handbook. For example, they suggest that in considering audience, we consider which audience we want to reach, their background, their interests, demographic information, what they “already know—or believe—about [my] topic,” and the like. I skip all this, and only take the last suggestion: “How can you best appeal to your audience?” (W-1c 3). And I answer it the same for everything I write: I can best appeal “by patterning of sounds.” Everything else about my audience, which I am always telling my students to consider—faithfully referring them to the second book of Aristotle’s Rhetoric—I ignore it all. I only care that the members of my audience have a “Dr. Seuss gene” and they are caught by patterns of sound.

And of course, I would never advise my students to do anything like this. How would I dare? For what am I doing? Teaching them to chant the music like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong? Or training them all to be Shakespeare, who “was not a genius” but rather “he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well” (Forsyth 1). It often seems like I am lazily and lotus-like laboring to bleed out all the “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” that Orwell feuded with. But meanwhile, I know that “the will to produce citizenship through the teaching of writing is strong” (Wan 28) and that since it is probably also true that “the teaching of writing involves the teaching of ethics and ethical language practices” (Duffy 230), I ought to spend all my time ensconcing my students in citizenship and ethics, or at least grammar. So I do this. I do this for their practicing of writing what I would not ever do for myself. And meanwhile, at a few moments during the sixteen weeks, like attempted flashes onto the inward eye, I slip unconscious crooks into the psyches of my students, hoping they will be enchanted into the poets, and after class, turn to them. For don’t they already do this in their music? Isn’t it true that a human being “is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody” (Shelley)?

Unresolved on this, I go to prepare for classes again, a hypocrite, pondering all these things weak and weary. And I consider that I am a poser, consoled only by the thought that not all my colleagues are such actors. That I am in a noble profession, in a place where, as the poet says, “walls come down, / valleys rise, / bridges stretch outward” (Kurtti 9).

Notes

[1] The full quote: “By alluding to, borrowing from, rephrasing, and reinterpreting segments of the Torah, Prophets, wisdom literature, and Psalms, the author of Psalm 119 created a new authoritative text by replicating and re-contextualising what must have been considered to be authoritative texts in his day” (Botha 1).

[2] The full quote: “Should anyone ask for a royal road to Science, there is no more easy-going way than to rely on sound common sense and for the rest, in order to keep up with the times, and with advances in philosophy, to read reviews of philosophical works, perhaps even to read their prefaces and first paragraphs” (Hegel 43).

Works Cited

Botha, Philippus. “Interpreting ‘Torah’ in Psalm 1 in the light of Psalm 119” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 68.1 (2012).

Bullock, Richard, and Michal Brody and Francine Weinberg. “Writing Contexts” in The Little Seagull Handbook. Norton 2017, pp. W1-5.

Duffy, John. “The good writer: Virtue ethics and the teaching of writing” College English, vol. 79, no. 3, 2017, pp. 229-250.

Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence. Penguin, 2013.

Hegel, G. F. W. Phenomenology of Spirit [1807]. A. V. Miller (transl). Oxford U Press, 1997.

Kurtti Pylvainen, Sandra. “Close Reading.English Journal, vol. 104, no. 4, 2015, p. 9.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language [1946]” orwell.ru. Retrieved from http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/.

Shelley, Percy. “A defense of poetry [1840]” PoetryFoundation.org https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69388/a-defence-of-poetry.

Wan, Amy. “In the name of citizenship: The writing classroom and the promise of citizenship” College English, vol. 74, no. 1, 2011, pp. 28-49.

Works Plagiarized

Addison, Joseph. “The Spectator No 421. Thursday, July 3, 1712.” The Spectator. Retrieved from http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/addison421.htm.

McKay, Claude. “Invocation” in Selected Poems. Dover, 1999, p. 23.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Raven” in The Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. G. R. Thompson (ed). Norton, 2004, pp. 58-61.

Pope, Alexander. “An essay on criticism.” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69379/an-essay-on-criticism.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Song to the men of England” in English Romantic Poetry. Stanley Appelbaum (ed). Dover, 1996, pp. 149-150.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Lotus-eaters [1832]” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45364/the-lotos-eaters.

Wordsworth, William “I wandered lonely.” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45521/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud.

Wordsworth, William. “Scorn not the sonnet” in English Romantic Poetry. Stanley Appelbaum (ed). Dover, 1996, p. 58.

 

Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Re-imagining Stereotypes and Gender Roles

Melanie Magaña

[Ed. Note: At the end of this Introduction, readers are directed by links to the three pieces comprising the triptych.]

Introduction

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the story of Beauty and the Beast ever since the Disney movie put it on my radar.   On the one hand:  dancing teacups! Catchy tunes! Bookworm as heroine!  On the other hand, the underlying message to girls seems to be this:  You can change him.  If you love him enough, and if you’re good enough, you can change him.   This message is a lie at best, dangerous at worst.  No matter how jolly those dancing dishes might be, or how good or loving the Beauty is, even together they’re no match for a Beast if it turns out that he’s not Prince Charming.

William Trowbridge, poet laureate of Missouri, once introduced his work about King Kong by saying that “[King Kong] just wanted a pretty girlfriend.” That line stopped me in my tracks!  My understanding of the story was that, after being kidnapped by humans and brought to New York City to be made a spectacle of, King Kong needed a friend.  Why did it have to be “a pretty girlfriend?”  Trowbridge went on to state that King Kong was “a classic story of Beauty and the Beast, just like The Phantom of the Opera, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame…”

His examples got me thinking: how many other examples of this story live in our collective consciousness?

  • Family Guy: Brian, the family’s dog, constantly dates svelte yet busty young blonde women who never seem to notice that they’re dating a dog.
  • Knocked Up: The female lead is also svelte and blonde, yet the best date she can get is an alcoholic, pothead slacker?
  • Male rock stars who date and marry female models.
  • Any movie (or real life) featuring Woody Allen as the romantic lead.

All of these examples led me to the conclusion that Beauty and the Beast needed a new flavor, one that women can appreciate.

The retelling and refashioning of stories is nothing new.  People have been recycling myths, legends, bible stories ever since their first telling.  The Disney movies are the most immediate examples to come to mind.  If you look at older versions of the folktales on which they’re based, you’ll see how vastly different they’ve become in order to suit the audience of the day.  Frozen is one of the more altered examples, as the moviemakers took the story of the Snow Queen who steals Kay away from his family until Gerda frees him, and they changed it to the story of two estranged sisters.

The folks at Disney are not the only ones who retell old stories though.  My favorite book ever is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which retells the Cain and Abel story in at least two different ways; Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved retells the story of Jacob and Esau, which in its essence is just another Cain and Abel story.  Anais Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown sets the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in 1930’s America.  Shakespeare’s stories (not exactly original when he wrote them) have been retold in countless ways: West Side Story, Warm Bodies, A Thousand Acres, and Scotland, Pennsylvania to name but a few.

Although some of the examples I’ve given seem to have taken their original tale and turned them upside down (Romeo and Juliet in the zombie apocalypse—what?), they each retain enough of the essence of the original story to make it recognizable as a universal truth, and change the details enough to be accessible to a broader audience. At the heart of Beauty and the Beast, I found the story of a person who feels fundamentally unlovable (and haven’t we all, at times?), but who is given a new mirror in which to see the self.  Have students write about their own favorite story, folktale or myth.  Here are a few ways to get them thinking about the way it speaks to them, and how to retell it to make it relevant to others in the same way:

  • Put the characters in a different setting. What would happen if the characters were part of a contemporary setting, or a futuristic one?  In Alice in Wonderland High, Rachel Stone brings Alice & company to a contemporary high school setting.  In Briar Rose, Jane Yolen takes the story of The Sleeping Beauty and sets it in Nazi-occupied Poland.  If David and Goliath lived in contemporary America, would the stoning be a literal one or metaphorical? If Icarus and his father lived in the twentieth century, would they contribute to aviation or space travel?  When they’re brought down by hubris, how could it come about?
  • Change one or more characters in some fundamental way. In Murder at Mansfield Park, Lynn Shepherd takes the loveable Fanny Price and turns her into a shrew with as many enemies as there are motives to kill her.  In The Lion King, Hamlet & cast are, well, you know!  How would the wizarding world change if Harry Potter, embittered from years of ill-treatment by the Dursleys, teamed up with Voldemort in book 1?  What if Bruce Wayne had a physical disability? What if the group in Lord of the Flies were girls?
  • Insert a character from another reality. In The Eyre Affair, someone has changed the ending of Jane Eyre to pair Jane up with St. John instead of Mr. Rochester.  Author Jasper Fforde sends Literary Detective Thursday Next into the pages to find the culprit. In Lost in Austen, 21st-century Amanda discovers a secret portal through which she can enter the world of Pride and Prejudice…and Elizabeth can enter 21st-century London!  What would happen if Katniss found herself in the forest with Hansel and Gretel?
  • Is there a minor character who might be rounded out? Jo Baker gives a compelling account of life as a servant in the Bennet household; Tom Stoppard brings Hamlet’s childhood friends to center stage in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (see also The Lion King 1-1/2). Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey, a minor character in her Outlander series, became so popular that he now has a series of his own. Many of the fairy tales give little credence to the Prince, whose only role seems to be marrying the heroine.  What might his real motivation be?
  • What happened before Once Upon a Time? What happens after Happily Ever After?  Gregory MacGuire is probably the most well-known current author for writing the story behind the story for tales such as The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, Peter Pan and others; in these, he also tells these famous stories from points of view of than the main characters’. Jean Rhys does the same for Jane Eyre’s doomed Mrs. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Budge Wilson fleshes out Anne Shirley’s back-story in Before Green Gables.  As to what happens after the final page, Sandra Lerner imagines what happened in the Bennet-Darcy marriage after ten years in Second Impressions. What sort of adult might Holden Caulfield be? Or Tom Sawyer?

The above ideas barely scratch the surface of possibilities due to the myriad facets of the human psyche; what speaks to one person about a story may leave the next person cold. With the slightest change to a story as I’ve suggested, the universal truth inside each tale can become magnified, giving the opportunity for re-examination.  With re-examination, another reader may find a truth that wasn’t readily apparent in the first reading, and could meet a new literary love.

[Ed. note: The three parts of the triptych are listed below. Click each title below to be magically transported to that story.]

  1. “BEAUTY AND THE BEASTESS”
  2. “BEAST’S BEAUTY”
  3. “BEAUTY’S BEGINNING”

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

Sharon Rudnicki

Introduction

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

American Slavery

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

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

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

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

 

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

Introduction

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

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

     “I teach to change lives!”

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

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

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

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

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

Opening the Door to Developing Next Generation Literacy

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

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

Lyndi Maxwell, PhD

Abstract

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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Dogmatism and Teaching Writing

Alexandra Glynn

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

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

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

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

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

The Elements of English Studies

Brittany Stojsavljevic

Introduction

As part of the introductory English studies class I took during spring semester 2016 in a graduate program at the University of St. Thomas, I was asked a deceptively simple question: What should the field of English be teaching its graduates? The short answer seems obvious: English. The class itself focused on the history of English studies and critical lenses. But throughout the class we also discussed what texts and what mediums should be included in English studies, what skills should be developed, and how connected English should be to other fields of study. This question prompted me to consider what I had obtained from my undergraduate education, and also what I hoped to gain from my graduate education and into the future. For the midterm, our task was to consider everything we had explored this far, develop an English studies program, and explain why we made our decisions. In my answer to this question, I focus on what college graduates should be leaving their educations with through the lens of developed and desirable skills, and include interview responses from several people within my own network, from Ph.D. students to adjunct professors to tenured professors, on their own thoughts on how and why English studies should be taught.

One simple way of considering what skills are vital to graduates is to look at what the corporate world praises in the hiring of English majors. In fact, at a 2015 seminar on recruiting that the Association of Departments of English participated in, having clear communication about what graduates do professionally and what skills they need was one of their recommendations. Both a 2014 Huffington Post article, “In Defense of the ‘Impractical’ English Major,” and an ADE Bulletin article, “The Starbucks Myth: Measuring the Work of the English Major,” list critical-thinking skills, communication skills, and empathy as some of the top qualifications English majors enter the workplace with. All of those skills also have an added benefit, as “The Starbucks Myth” points out: they have lasting value and the flexibility to survive no matter what the latest trend becomes.

With the aim of maximizing the above skill sets, my proposed English department will be designated as English and Cultural Studies. I will concentrate on how each of the aforementioned skills can be developed through techniques already being used in classrooms by professors and provide information on why these skills are important from scholars.

Critical Thinking

            Critical thinking is a traditional domain for English departments, particularly within the last two centuries, if considered in light of taking a text and reading it critically to understand the various messages and themes a text can convey.

Brian Brown, who received his master’s degree in English from the University of
St. Thomas and serves as an adjunct professor there, teaches a course that centers on masculinity in America in which he purposefully sets out to debunk the impossible image of modern manhood. He selects his texts so that they have some touchstone to contemporary culture and so that his students will be able to relate to them. He typically uses clips from modern media, in addition to Sam Shepard’s Family Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Fight Club is especially integral, he said, because many of his students have seen the 1999 movie, but do not fully understand its message without that critical lens. “Everyone loves [Fight Club] but they don’t understand it until they until they read it with the lens of how it affects the American male, and that really strikes home,” Brown said. He added that while McCarthy is certainly more canonical, he considers himself “counter canon.” He said, for him, it is important to find something his students will be able to relate to, which often is no longer canon. On the contrary, if he does teach something that is considered canon, he likes to pick something students often have already read, think they know, and change their understanding of it. Continue reading

“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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Poetry Selections from Joshua Feliciano

More Than Just Words

Poetry is like a song written on paper
It doesn’t always have to rhyme
It doesn’t always need time
You could make a poem in poetry about everything
It could take seconds and it can take hours
But poetry is like a way of expression
You can always use it when experiencing a side of depression
There are times when you are feeling down
Or maybe you’re just feeling
Up!
Poetry is a place of freedom

 

Life Before Growing Up

Look in all honesty I never had much
I grew up with enough food to survive and the entertainment I needed
But the truth behind it all is my mom shedding blood and tears behind it all
Even as a kid I used to sit and think about it in a bathroom stall
Can you feel my pain?
If not just know this constant pain runs in my veins
Everyday reflecting on what I did and why I did it
Sitting alone in the dark wanting to be a part of the darkness
All this pain laying right on top of my conscious
There’s a whole lot more
But I’d rather keep that in my core for now

 

A Message to Future Me

A message to future me:
Remember that time you graduated high school
Well now life is a bit harder isn’t it
Just keep focusing on your true being you’ll have this in no time
Remember when you struggle just think about your wife and kids
Remember the time you realized it was going to be extremely hard in the military
Well now look back at it, it was pretty easy wasn’t it
Now you have other goals to focus on
Focus on those around you and the ones that were there for you when you truly needed it
Drive forward because your life moments are not what built you to be you
You worked hard for this yourself
Now build from it

 

Sinking Pain

I see others being mocked for what they wear, oh it is too much to bear
Putting on a fresh pair of kicks, people think it’s to pick up chicks
Working hard in classes to get a possible good future, just to get bullied and get a few sutures
Paying attention to what people are saying, just to head home and keep on praying
People acting cool in school, when after the days over they sit around and drool
Kids coming to school unprepared, while teachers not knowing the child’s despair
I see girls wearing lots of makeup, when the beauty inside can raise the stakes up

 

Mother Love

The family photo just sitting there in the distance
Ripped up but not broken
Our family may not be so bright or wealthy
But forever we lay and stand together
We may be grown but my mother will always see us as her little ones
It doesn’t matter if I’m 21 or 50 my mother will always treat me like a child
I love my mother and forever will love her

 

Hope

I hope that I start a fresh life, with a beautiful wife
I hope someday that after I graduate from high school,
my life wouldn’t treat me much as a fool
I hope that someday these crayons I use will evaporate,
so that I could see what it looks like melted and elaborate
I hope that someday my children will grow, for my legacy I will bestow
I hope that someday I can rest easy, rest easily without feeling a bit queasy
I hope that someday the people around me will succeed,
so they won’t become alcoholics drinking tons of mead
I hope that in the light of day, my destiny will shine and lead the way
I hope that sometime soon I have a nice house,
come home to a good morning and my wife in a blouse
I hope that in time of despair, god will help us with time to spare
I hope that one night, god will give me power with all his might
I hope that one morning, I can die peacefully with plenty of people mourning

 

Government

We all know that in politics only one can be the winner
The smartest and bravest will usually be the sinner
This government we follow empties our pockets causing a bruise
These distractions we’re being attracted to are not only to amuse
Everything we’re brought towards to always seems convincing
One by one, each and every person’s information is slowly mincing
In this world, even if we understand a certain matter nothing seems to be comprehensive
Days and days go by and it seems to me everything in life gets more expensive

 

Life Behind the Scenes

Good ol happy moments
Just sitting back and relaxing
Playing video games that teach
So attached to learning like a leech
Reading good books and comics
For a person like me it’s a bit ironic
But a lot of people don’t realize my mind works like I’m sonic
On free times I lay down in bed watching Youtube
Watching videos about literally anything
Analyzing and researching everything
I may be a bit different but I’m very gifted
I help other people when times get devastating
I open up their minds with my words and usually have them contemplating
I am my own king
Living my life on words is better than living my life focusing on expensive things

 

Experiment 89

It was cold, matter of fact freezing in this steel coated room
I stood up feeling weak,starved, and dizzy
I walked on a floor that had sharp but little pieces of glass
I could not feel the pain being administered by these little glass pieces
I see a door close by as I stumble across this risky floor
I look through the glass pane only to discover other patients like myself being tested on
I see another within eyesight being mutated into some sort of creature
It was scaly, massive, and scary looking
Scientists begin opening the doors, patient’s run wild as the beast swallows them one by one
I make a run for it, so close to the door and “Gulp” “Crunch Crunch”

Infographic-Making Activity

Infographic-Making Activity

By Michael MacBride

[pdf version here: MacBride-Infographic-activity]

Objective:

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

Approximate Time Required: 30 minutes

Materials Needed:

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

Rationale:

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

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

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

by Heidi Burns

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

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

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

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

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

By: Kelly Birkett

[pdf version here: Birkett-FiveWays]

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

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Building Literacy in all classrooms

Building Literacy in all classrooms

by Melissa Brandt                   

[pdf version here: Brandt-BuildlingLiteracy]                   

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

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

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

by Dr. Jennifer Simpson

[pdf version here: Simpson-TheWriteTrack]

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

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Making literacy teaching a priority in a culturally diverse classroom

Making literacy teaching a priority in a culturally diverse classroom

by Adrienne Rische

[pdf version here: Rische-LiteracyTeachingCulturallyDiverse]

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

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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Teaching Fiction: Craft, Composition Theory, and a Lie

Teaching Fiction: Craft, Composition Theory, and a Lie

by Luke Daly

[pdf version here: Daly-TeachingFiction]

[see the companion creative pieces here: “The Four Deaths of Mitchell Fish“]

My first magic trick as a new lecturer of creative writing was reappearing three days per week. I disappeared too, at the end of every class, but the students didn’t seem to impart this with the same mystique.

“Daly!” sometimes they would shout, or I would imagine them shouting, as I entered. In my younger life, I was always running, always late, so I may have encouraged them to see this as a magical act. And then I’d say, “Today we’re going to talk about Point of View,” or something like that. And we would. Not only would we talk about it: identify it, discuss its concealing and revealing qualities in selected works, practice it during writing heuristics, and in general start to build it into our lexicon, but the students would come to class having read the right chapter from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Or maybe that day it was the chapter on character. By all accounts, they would be ready to wring every drop out of Character into their own writing. But this was not the slam dunk case, as many educators will understand. One goal of this essay is to discuss why this gap occurs and how to work through it.

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The Four Deaths of Mitchell Fish

THE FOUR DEATHS OF MITCHELL FISH

by Luke Daly

[pdf version here: Daly-FourDeathsofMitchellFish]

[see the companion essay “Teaching Fiction: Craft, Composition Theory, and a Lie“]

I. Oxygen

I slash in like a dull knife but don’t tip into the abyss.  Just wow at the Formica.  Some wrongful oxygen rises up the ways in my neck.  I do fall then

II. Oxygen

Slick Mick pushed in through the screen door, stopped in the middle of my eat-in kitchen with the brand new formica countertops his finger in the air like he was gonna say something.  Fell face first on the floor right where you’re standing.  If I’m telling the truth? I hoped he was dead. So I started sifting my hands like this through the bills and penny-savers on the formica, feeling for my cordless phone and hoping that if he was dead, I wouldn’t find the phone quick enough to save him.  And I saw him on Day One, charming as only a drunk can.  Previous to the nightly urination in bed and being too far gone to wake up and clean it.  Previous to driving my glossy black Oldsmobile into the Blue Earth River the day after I got it.  Previous to stabbing his hand with a steak-knife trying to show off for Jenny at Ponderosa.  That’s why Ponderosa uses knives with rounded tips now: My man, Slick Mick.  And here he was in my trailer, like a damned dead fish, oily from the car but no real work, just playing around with his nuts.  Go on and lie there, you sick duck.  I’ll call you an ambulance just as soon as I find my cordless phone.

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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

Graphic Novels in the Classroom: Suggestions for Appropriate Multimodal Writing Projects in Graphic Novel Units

Graphic Novels in the Classroom: Suggestions for Appropriate Multimodal Writing Projects in Graphic Novel Units

By Michael P. Cook and Jeffrey S.J. Kirchoff

[pdf version here: Cook-Kirchoff-Graphic Novels in the Classroom]

Abstract

While the NCTE (2008) definition of 21st century literacies is several years old now, the role of the ELA teacher continues to include helping students learn to read and make meaning from a variety of texts and text-types. However, much of the use of multimodal texts in ELA classrooms remains centered on reading and not on student composition. In this article, we address the multimodal composition component of NCTE’s definition, by including reading and writing. We argue for using graphic novels within instructional units, and as mentor texts, to create multimodal texts. First, we discuss the current literature on graphic novels in the ELA classroom. Next, we provide reading suggestions for students, as they learn to interact with and make meaning from graphic novels. Then we offer suggested multimodal composition projects teachers can utilize within a unit including graphic novels. Finally, we discuss options and considerations for multimodal assessment.

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The Kite Runner From A Marxist Perspective

The Kite Runner From A Marxist Perspective

by Kristine Putz

[pdf version here: Putz-KiteRunnerMarxistPerspective]

The use of Marxist and other literary theories in the classroom helps students to realize that the subject of English is beyond the rudimentary put your comma here or reading for the sake of fulfilling some predetermined standard (a certain number of minutes of reading per night for example). English is also about critical thinking and analysis, and using literary theory is an excellent way to accomplish this and to engage students: “literary theory can make English about something, transforming texts from artifacts into something vitally social, interesting, significant” (Zitlow 128). Literary analysis gives students the opportunity to study and apply social issues to the text, which gives the text more relevance and meaning. Students are much more likely to be engaged in a text if they can see its relevance to the world around them. Using Marxist literary theory specifically is unique in the sense that it can provide a way for students to analyze the power/class structures in our world: “it helps them and us enter into and understand positions other than our own in a diverse and complex world” (Zitlow 129). Understanding these positions and structures helps to create understanding and to show the realities of the world around us. Therefore, teachers should not be afraid to use theory in their classrooms but instead embrace it. 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

Technology and Critical Thinking

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

by Jennifer Hiltner

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

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

My Not-Quite-Scientific Composition I Experiment

My Not-Quite-Scientific Composition I Experiment

by Jeanette Lukowski

[pdf version here: Lukowski-My Not-Quite-Scientific Composition I Experiment]

Although I have been teaching college writing courses non-stop since I first entered the classroom as a T.A. in 2001, and have taught for a number of universities and community colleges in both Minnesota and Wyoming, Fall 2014 was the first time I taught an online class. I wasn’t exactly avoiding teaching online… I was just never told to do one until my annual contract was renewed in Fall 2014—with the caveat that I teach an online Composition I course.

In all honesty, I dreaded teaching online. “How am I supposed to put all of what I do,” I said to my mother over lunch, running through a short catalog of facial expressions I use in the classroom, “into a box?” Continue reading

A Tale of an Introductory Literature Class Gone Well

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

by Heidi Burns

[pdf version here: Burns-LiteratureClass]

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

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

Five poems by Dallas Crow

Dallas Crow

1296 Highland Parkway

St. Paul, MN 5511

dallas.crow@breckschool.org

[pdf version here: Crow-poems]

 

Antigone in Her Tomb

_____________________________________________________________________________

Zeus,

Your will, finally, is unknowable. I am

exhausted, exasperated. Look

where my most willful

vows have landed me. Father, mother, and a brother already

underground, exiled for eternity from our native

Thebes . . . I claim no kin in that city. My

so-called sister mourns alone,

respected by a fool and other frauds, a

quorum of spineless idiots

posing as law-abiding citizens. The

offense reeks—a blind man can see that.

No one deserves such a sentence, least of all

my deceived, much-wronged brother—

left to rot on the desert plain. Generations will

know I would not accept that un-

just decree. I am not sorry, though I admit

I may have misjudged the jury of the gods.

Here I will end my otherwise unending agony,

groomless, convicted, and unconvinced.

From now on, on the surface of this most grotesque

earth, my name will echo, a doer of

deeds, one who believes, who acts, while

Creon—cruel, unjust—will be forever

banished from the rolls of the noble.

Always, always, always,

Antigone

[From Small, Imperfect Paradise (Parallel Press, 2013). Originally published in Arion.] 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

Students teaching teachers to teach students

Students teaching teachers to teach students

by Michael MacBride

Every semester I tell my students that I learned from them, and I’m sure this is something that most teachers say, or at least think, at the end of the semester. This last semester, Fall 2014, I thought my students should take this to the next level by writing their own pedagogical essays. The logic being, since we all learn from our students, why not tap directly into them as a resource and see how they would teach us to teach material to other students? They were all part of a topics English class focused on banned books and censorship. When I was constructing the book list for the class, I really struggled with the confines of the 15 weeks that I had at Minnesota State University. There was a whole unit on young adult literature or children’s literature that I simply couldn’t fit into the class, so I made that the focus of these pedagogical essays. Students had to choose a young adult or children’s book that had been banned, challenged, or censored, and come up with a way to teach this to a particular audience. I let them choose what that audience was, essentially which grade to teach this book to, and left them to their own devices to come up with a method for teaching that book. As usual, I was pleasantly surprised, and greatly impressed, at what they came up with.

What follows this short introduction are three of essays from that class. One essay is dedicated to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one on Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, and one on Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen. Each essay takes a unique approach and offers practical activities that can be directly applied to any classroom. The essays follow a standardized format: an introduction and overview, summary and background about the book and the challenges against it, and suggestions for teaching the book. The hope is that by using this standardized format, that instructors can navigate to the sections that are most relevant to them. Beyond the direct benefit of the lessons themselves, however, I believe the true gift of these essays is an opportunity to see these texts, and our classrooms, through a fresh set of eyes. Students teaching teachers to teach students. Enjoy.

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

Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen: Unusual History of Censorship

Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen: Unusual History of Censorship

By Laura Cattrysse

[pdf version here: Cattrysse-Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen]

Every child has their favorite fantasy book that mom and dad read every night five times before they can actually fall asleep. Maurice Sendak’s book In The Night Kitchen is a fantastical story that parents actually enjoy reading because of Sendak’s clever rhymes and other-worldly, yet relatable illustrations. The story is about a boy who falls asleep until he hears a noise that jolts him awake. He falls out of bed, out of his pajamas, and in to the Night Kitchen. There he meets three bakers who stir him in to cake batter, thinking he is milk. He tells them that he is not milk, but he can get some milk for their batter! He jumps out of the cake, covered in batter, and in to bread dough which he kneads in to the shape of an airplane. He uses the airplane to get in to the extremely large milk bottle sitting in the Night Kitchen. Once in the bottle, he loses his batter coating, grabs a pitcher of milk for the batter and brings it down to the bakers, where they bake their cake. The story ends, “And that’s why, thanks to Mickey we have cake every morning” (Sendak, 40). I will discuss the publication history of In The Night Kitchen and why it has been widely banned, and then I will offer a two-part lesson plan informed by the book focused on discussing both graphic novel terminology and censorship. 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

Daylight Savings Time Vocabulary in Context by Bill St. Martin

Daylight Savings Time Vocabulary in Context

Bill St. Martin

Irondale High School


 

 

Focus Composition                             Name ______________________________

Vocabulary In Context

Building your Personal Thesaurus                              Hour _____________

Continue reading

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

Michael MacBride

Exposing Yourself to Students: You are a Source!

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

Analyzing Poetry and Songs

Song Exploration Project

Scott Hall

Irondale High School

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

The Women of Beowulf and Student Responses by Kathryn Campbell

“The Women of Beowulf

Kathryn Campbell

US English/Journalism

St. Paul Academy and Summit School

St. Paul, Minnesota

 

If you’ve ever taught an early British Literature text, you know that strong, multidimensional female characters are hard to come by. Take Beowulf, for example: women are only named after they become wives, with the exception of one monster mother, who is depicted as a vengeful threat who must be vanquished after her son Grendel’s slaughter.

 

This writing and discussion activity will help students think multi-dimensionally and build understanding through creative fiction. It also facilitates close reading and annotation, because it is essential that the students’ adaptations of the character are true to her original (albeit limited) reference in the text. The closing activity furthers empathetic reflection and may help build vocabulary. Continue reading

4 Poems by Richard Robbins

Four Poems by Richard Robbins


 

 

St. Francis and the Birds

—a painting by Stanley Spencer

 

The parade will go no

further than the wall, where

the gardener shields her eyes,

 

the ducks, hens, and geese scuttle

toward his frock, each dove

and jay leaning forward

 

on the low tiled roof to

watch the boy lead each one,

saint and bird, toward that town

 

his wings would bend for,

blind daylight place from which

his face must turn away.

 

* First published in I-70 Review 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