Monday, March 10, 2014

Making it Count

In the 2009-2010 school year, a history teacher colleague and I set out on our second year of the journey we called Hislish. We taught together, everyday. We saw the same kids, everyday. It was a tight-knit group. Unfortunately, at the end of that year, I received an opportunity to teach for the Governor's School, the position I currently occupy. The decision to leave was hard, but the future of our class was, like so many abberrations to the early 20th-century factory model of education, administratively in doubt. I still see those kids in dreams and in memories, but I hadn't seen them in the flesh for a while.

I use that metaphor, in the flesh, intentionally. Flesh is weak and malleable. It betrays our confidence in it with the slightest pin-prick of a splinter. It betrays our trust in it when it falters and fails to recover. I saw these students again in the flesh because one of them discovered how frail our lives can be.

On February 27th, one of my former students, at the age of 20, died of Leukemia. He fought 14 months. We say that we fight cancers of all types, but this time the fight was truly vicious. This young man was a fighter in the classroom, on the football field, and in his daily life. There was no challenge too big for him to accept. In fact, the bigger the challenge, the more fight in this student. On March 8th, sitting in a church built to host 800 people in a single service, I looked around at the crowd so large people were standing along the walls. Five eulogists chronicled the young man's many achievements: football captain despite his short stature; All-State defensive player again despite his small stature; honor roll student; college student athlete; devout man of faith; best friend to another student; brother to another young man graduating high school this year. As you might assume, tears come often and plentiful, but so did the laughter. The funeral truly was a celebration of life. And we all celebrated together: catching up while sharing bittersweet hugs and smiles.

But it wasn't the funeral that helped me understand the importance of our lives, as teachers, to these young people. It was the viewing.

As it was only my second viewing, I was hesitant to go. Luckily, my sense of duty and my affection for the family prevailed. That was what made this even harder; the young man's mother was a colleague. How do you look someone you know in the face and truly offer them the encouragement and sympathy they need, especially after the loss of a child? The answer was unexpected. As my wife and I stood in line to express our condolences, I could hear my friend crying with each expression of grief as though it were the first. The heart-rending cries of a mother who has lost her child. I held it together, trying to appear strong for her, trying to stand as a support it a time of trouble. Then we were there, standing before her. We gave her a big hug. She stepped back, and said: "Do you remember the poem he wrote for class about being a big brother?" I said I had. She asked if I remembered walking it down to her and telling her that if it didn't make her cry, then nothing would. I said I did. Then she said this: "I've kept that poem in my purse the entire time." We both crumpled. I wanted to say "thank you for sharing that with me" but all I could manage was "Thank you" before losing my composure. We hugged, and my wife and I moved out of line.

But in that moment, I knew why it was I started doing this job in the first place. That might have just been an assignment at the time, but it became something more. The work we do, asking students to define themselves in different formats and fonts, asking students to express their humanity, is vital. Science and mathematics have their practical applications, but the humanities helps us to feel and to know ourselves better. So, behind all of the sadness and the encouragement, behind the faith and the despair, behind the questions and the silent answers, a small piece of paper was transfigured into a totem of great love. All I had to do was give him the time to write. I cannot think of a testament more powerful than that.

So, hang in there. Keep teaching. Even in these darker days of the third quarter, there are moments that remind us just how muchh our work means in the long run.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Real Linguistic Horror

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT



Stephen King has been dethroned; at least, he has been dethroned as the king of horror among young adult writers. Tapping into what could accurately be many teenagers' worst nightmare, Michael LoMonico has written a novel about a young man who must (gasp) speak only in Shakespearean verse. My students would be, and were, horrified at the thought. If your students are anything like mine, they fear the Shakespeare unit more than most things because they are, well, Shakespeare. So many students come to the high school English classroom with one of two Shakespeariences (Yeah, I said it):

1. The Dummy Experience: Nothing makes someone feel smarter than being handed a copy of a novel with a "simpler" version of the text on the opposing page. Did I say smarter? My mistake. Just as translations of great works of literature only hint at the meaning tucked away in its original language, so too the "No Fear" and various other off-brands of Shakespearean play sacrifice meaning for accessibility. So, when students come to the high school classroom, if they've had the dummy experience, they sit waiting and ready to jot down the answers that the teacher will provide and then ask for on a test. The loss of complexity is a loss too dear to be taken lightly. There are lines and phrases in Shakespeare that still defy a single interpretation; heck, some lines still defy any interpretation. To remove that layered and personal process of meaning making reduces the study of Shakespeare to a gotcha course in plot summary. I did not sign up for that.

2. The Play Experience: For clarity's sake, let me say that I do not mean actual performance of the plays. As a matter of fact, you will see that I advocate that later. What I mean here is the let's-all-dress-up-and-pretend-we-are-doing-Shakespeare-but-remove-the-difficult-language approach. One of my favorite lessons in the Romeo and Juliet unit is walking through the opening, guiding my students to an understanding of what those naughty young men are saying. Students think Shakespeare is the stuff of old, stodgy men in bizarre costumes. They don't really believe the language says so much in such a small space. When they do realize what those two bawdy young men are saying, they usually claim that I have either ruined the play or made the play for them. After all, Shakespeare is a classic, he cannot be "dirty." They never get this in the versions they do in Middle School. In my experience, the Middle School experience is limited not because the teachers don't have the knowledge nor that the students are incapable of dealing with the language (I mean, the original audience was largely undereducated by today's stringent middle school standards). What I mean is that the "fun" of creating the play usually outpaces the struggle to understand what the play says. Oftentimes, the aforementioned dummy versions of Shakespeare are substituted in these productions.

What Mike LoMonico's novel does for young adult readers is build the very confidence needed to take on these plays using a bit of magical realism and a plot straight out of Disney. The moves the narrative makes are so familiar, so unthreatening to young readers, that they cannot help but be charmed by its invitation to sit for a while and enjoy a story about a young man who magically cannot speak in anything but Shakespearean phrases. Opening with the requisite establishment of a teenage voice in all its slang-ridden glory (I seriously felt that I have taught multiple Emmas in a single year), LoMonico's narrative quickly moves the two protagonists to the inciting incident in Peter's parents' study. As anyone who has owned a Riverside Shakespeare can attest, and as I am sure the Reverend Hale of another well-known play would attest, it is certainly a text weighted with authority. Once the tome strikes Peter's dome, he is unconscious until the EMTs place him on a stretcher and he says "For this relief much thanks." I write this in italics because this is how LoMonico denotes Shakespeare's words in the text, providing a quick visual reference for students as they read. The emphasis is unnecessary, but it draws attention to Shakespeare's language. At the end, this focus seems to be LoMonico's thesis: Shakespeare's language is not just immortal, but magical in the way that it transports the imagination to new places. Whether Peter, the eponymous Shakespeare Kid, is at school or a Mets game, the presence of the Bard's words in his speech amplifies everything.

A few students have read it and they are amazed at how enjoyable the experience was. Their horror at reading a "Shakespeare" book has, to once again shamelessly paraphrase, converted from disdain to courtesy. They even seem more open to the idea that we will be tackling one of the plays in a month's time.

This eagerness borne of LoMonico's novel is what classroom teachers can harness. In the Commonwealth Governor's School program, we have limited, but mandatory, summer assignments. My proposal for next year will be to adopt this text as summer reading for the ninth grade. The way the story incorporates and comments upon the play Romeo and Juliet is the perfect introduction to a year that has them encountering the play at the beginning of October. Besides, the story is fun and fast-paced, perfect for a day at the beach or a stormy day inside.

Bottom line: Go get this novel. It is widely available from Amazon. When you open the front cover, be warned. You won't be getting much done until you reach the end of Peter and Emma's journey through Shakespeare. So now the wheel is come full circle, and I will bid you good night, good night until we meet again.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Love or Lust: Romeo & Juliet and Missing the Point?

by Dan Bruno (@HSMatters)

I may be in the minority on this one, but I have to come clean. I have never been able to justify the modern argument about love or lust in regards to Romeo & Juliet. There are many reasons for this confusion, but I want to make sure I am clear: I need someone to explain this conflict over love or lust because I cannot see it.

I have many colleagues who fret over the sensitivity of the main characters committing suicide in a play we teach to fourteen-year-old students. I am beginning to believe they fret over this portion of the play because they have allowed cynical, modern lenses to interfere with their artistic vision. If we dive into the play, a number of reasons against the reading of the play as lust surface from the depths of Shakespeare's text.

First, the contrast between the other male characters and Romeo. A softie by any other name would be as saccharine as Romeo tends to be. He speaks in the conventions of courtly love, by acts with the abandon of a teenager. The other male characters do not speak in courtly phrases and tidy metaphors; instead, they revel in violence and conflict. Heck, Tybalt has such an act to grind he actually hates the word peace. Forget the concept they represent, Tybalt's out for logocide. The most bawdy and lusty characters end up dead by open brawling violence, not quietly committing suicide in a tomb. Romeo is different from the other males precisely because he is not as lusty.

Second, the holy palmers' kiss sonnet. Shakespeare and his sonnets; Petrarch and his sonnets; Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her sonnets; let me count the ways. If there is one thing "universal" in literary study, it is that sonnet structure is associated with love. If sonnets are poems about love (yes, even ironically about love), and this first dialogue between Romeo and Juliet is a sonnet, this dialogue must be about love. Before I get harangued for simplistic syllogistic logic, also consider the metaphor Shakespeare uses in the sonnet. The two lovers are not just speaking about love, they are speaking about pilgrims on a holy quest. Love and holiness: I just cannot reconcile myself with lust and holiness being a pair. Was Romeo just pining away for Rosaline? Yes; but my dude does not miss a beat. Why harp on what's past when what's present is so lovely.

Third, the balcony scene. The stories of Petrarch and Laura and Dante and Beatrice are sweet until you realize that they are essentially pulling off the literary equivalent of Frankenstein's monster. Each man, at the loss of so lovely an object of admiration, reanimates the dead woman and speaks for her. In this way, the two female voices become formulaic, expected, in line with the men's perspectives. Juliet is not given the chance to speak in such saccharine language as Romeo because the meddlesome male is spying on her. Juliet is relieved that Romeo sneaks up on her at night because the night's darkness can hide the "maiden blush
 that would "bepaint [her] cheek / For that which [Romeo] hast heard [her] speak." Realizing that the conventions of courtly love are useless at this point, she says one of my favorite lines in Renaissance literature: "But farewell compliment. / Dost thous love me?" I can almost she her crossing her arms, narrowing her eyes, and preparing to shove this fool off of her bedroom balcony. Juliet is not one given to frailty and helplessness. Unlike the ideal women of Petrarch and Dante, Juliet has a life and mind of her own, and she is smart. Some say that Romeo is lusty and pushes her past her own comfort; I say that Juliet knows exactly what she is doing and falls in love with this deep and sensitive soul. Like Ovid before him, Shakespeare seems to be letting the poets prove to be the best lovers.

Fourth, and final, the union of the two families. This feud is old. This feud is bloody. This feud could not be stopped under pain of death. Watching the Folger's Master Class on Romeo & Juliet last night, I was struck by the actress Erin Weaver's explanation of the suicide scene. She says that there is ample justification in the text, besides the love for each other, that drives Romeo and Juliet to suicide. I have to admit that was a new perspective. She explained specifically that Juliet has little in the way of relationships with others outside her family, and these relationships break. The one with her mother is not particularly strong from the start, but when her father says "get thee to church o' Thursday, / or never after look me in the face" Juliet's heart breaks. In the eerily similar passage from Much Ado About Nothing, the good friar convinces Leonato that Hero's disobedience is false. In that play, Leonato relents, is shown the truth, and everybody lives...(you know the rest). In this play, Capulet leaves angry, the betrayal is real, and Friar Lawrence is not big on communicating effectively with others. Abandoned, Juliet only has Romeo left. With him gone, what more can there be? To ascribe to lust the power to end life, the power to stop violence and convert it to peace, and the power to mend physical and emotional wounds is to miss the point. What else but holy love, corrupted by the violence of these two families' rage, could be of significant enough loss to justify the immediate and certain change of heart in these two old, battling fools?

I am interested in what you think. Am I just being ridiculous? Have I missed something big glaring at me? I have always found the idea of having the debate over love and lust intriguing, but I've never seen how the lust side can get enough textual support to be convincing. I'm looking forward to reading some feedback and discussing this seminal text.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mastering Shakespeare: the Folger's 21st Century Outreach

by Dan Bruno (@HSMatters)

Tomorrow night at 7 PM EST, anyone who is anyone is the wild world of High School English will be tuned into the first Folger Master Class on teaching Romeo & Juliet. Just what is this wonderful opportunity you ask? Listen "to hear true shrift":

This one-hour professional development session will be stremed live to any computer, iPad, or Android device. You need only register ahead of time to be a part of the action.

You will be able to see, hear, and/or interact with:

  • Two scholars: 
    • Gail Kern Paster, director emeritus of the Folger Library
    • Ayanna Thompson, professor at George Washington University
  • Actors in the Folger's current production of the play
  • Teachers from around the country
On top of all of this dialogue, each participant receives a downloadable bevvy of materials for teaching the play.

This course is a history-maker for the library; it is the pilot of this new type of digital learning experience. the Library will be asking all who participate to complete a survey when the Master Class is over. If you are interested, please click this link to reach the registration page.

So, come be a part of the action as the Folger enters a brave new world that has such technological wonders in't.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Being Atticus Finch: Teaching Students to Walk in Another's Skin

by Dan Bruno (@HSMatters)

When Othello suspects that Desdemona has been unfaithful, he says: "My name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face." Once again, the bard is ahead of his time; he has Othello use the language of a different race to identify his shame with his color. What would it be like to think of your own skin color as a metaphor for shame everyday?

This question also led to one of the most important psychological experiments of the 20th century: the Clark Doll Experiment. Kenneth and Mamie Clark did not intend to be the linchpin in the famous Brown v. Board of Education court case, but their ingenuity became just that. After seeing example after example of African-American child choose the white doll for the wrong reasons, the Warren court overturned the prior ruling of separate but equal and changed the face of 20th century America.
How does a privileged white kid understand living in a town where you used to be slaves? How does any privileged kid understand living in poverty?

Why my obsession with race? Our program, the Commonwealth Governor's School, has just begun our newest unit: an interdisciplinary study of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. We could just read the the text, but there are social issues, especially for my students, that need to be understood. How does a privileged white kid from the suburbs understand fearing Johns Hopkins University Hospital because the doctors there are white? How does a privileged white kid understand living in a town where you used to be slaves? How does any privileged kid understand living in poverty? With these questions in mind, I began to design how I would introduce students to the unit's ideas.

The first thing that came to mind was a website I first learned about in my sociology of education class at UVA. Project Implicit, a sociological project from Harvard, maintains a website where anyone can take an IAT (Implicit Attitude Test). According to the project's website, "The IAT asks you to pair two concepts (e.g., young and good, orelderly and good). The more closely associated the two concepts are, the easier it is to respond to them as a single unit. So, if young and good are strongly associated, it should be easier to respond faster when you are asked to give the same response (i.e. the 'E' or 'I' key) to these two. If elderly and good are not so strongly associated, it should be harder to respond fast when they are paired. This gives a measure of how strongly associated the two types of concepts are. The more associated, the more rapidly you should be able to respond." The time it takes to respond one way or the other reveals the switch from unconscious attitude to conscious choice. So, I might not want to associate the elderly with negativity, but it takes me longer to correct this unconscious attitude and hit the appropriate key.

I asked the students to take the IAT at the beginning of class and then to write their responses down on 3 x 5 note cards (leaving off their names). I collected these and read them aloud while another student kept a tally of the class's responses on the board. The results are posted here:
IAT Results for my class
(EA over AA is on the Left)
The IAT we took was on race. The outcome measured was how much the test taker preferred European-Americans (EA) over African-Americans(AA) (to get a really clear idea, I suggest you take the test at this link). I had the student serving as our scribe put an "S" on the left for strong preference of EA over AA, then an "M" for moderate preference, and L→0 for little to no preference. We mirrored the M and S on the right side, but these were for preference of AA over EA. If you look closely at the photo, you can see that the overwhelming majority of my students have a strong to moderate preference for EA over AA. In fact, 65 % of my class fell into this range. If you include the little to no preference students, the total rises to 83%; the other 17% fall into the right side.

What makes these percentages so important is that the percentage of non-African-to-African-Americans in the class falls out about the same: 87% non-African American; 13% African-American. These three students come from varied backgrounds and varied places. The only cultural similarity that they share is that they have darker skin tones than everyone else. Moreover, these three represent distinct variations on the skin color continuum: one mixed, one lighter, one very dark. When I opened the class period, none of the students believed they were about to come face-to-face with the cultural divisions that have lingered between us since before this country was founded, but they did. The difficulty of the lesson arises now. How do you help relieve the guilt that inevitably comes from modern cultural perspective? Every single non-African-American
student's head was bowed, their eyes diverted away from their darker peers.
I referenced examples of things I'd seen in my career: the rush to judgment and rejection of students of color in disciplinary matters; the habitual rewarding of or taking away of points in regards to students of color based solely on color and not merit; entire classrooms segregated by seating chart.

I dove first into the psychology. I put up for examples of racists Bob Ewell (we read To Kill a Mockingbird earlier in the year) and pre-conversion James Jarvis (from Cry, the Beloved Country) as examples of men who consciously acted upon their subconscious attitudes. The hatred made them racist in (and I introduce this term in process) overtly racist. What we are attempting to coax into the light is the notion of covert racism. I referenced examples of things I'd seen in my career: the rush to judgment and rejection of students of color in disciplinary matters; the habitual rewarding of or taking away of points in regards to students of color based solely on color and not merit; entire classrooms segregated by seating chart. Then, I hit them where they live--television. I asked them to stand inside the 7-11 near school, to browse the aisles looking for a quick snack as the smell of 24-hour coffee and 24-hour sausage invades their nostrils, to feel the shake of the bass as the lowered vehicle glides into a space, to consider their immediate reaction when four young black men get out of the car. Nearly everyone flinched. I admitted that subconsciously I also would hit the panic button, but then I ask them to think about every crime show they have seen on TV. I ask them to consider who plays the street thug. Who plays the informant? Who plays the violent and dangerous criminal? Most of the time, it is a black man or a group of black men. Even when the black man is just sitting in a frame placed on him by a white guy, we have to make that stop before reaching our lily white villain. These biases are programmed culturally; feeling them is not the student's fault.

Then, I bring it to Kenneth and Mamie Clark. I ask them to watch the heartbreaking video of young black boys and girls rejecting the doll that looks like them. And then I ask the class to consider why even with three black students, no one strongly preferred African-Americans to European-Americans. There are times in life where the silence is so loud it is nearly unbearable. The mute cacophony of the class was almost too much for each one of them to bear, so before the discomfort became too great, I brought it back to the text.

One of the spots in the text of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that catches me off guard is the part where Skloot discusses how the Lackses and their friends feared Hopkins. Could they imagine, I ask, feeling mistrust for an entire hospital based on the racial biases that were woven into the African-American cultural fabric as a means of survival? The responses are coming thick now. They have never felt it, but they can understand how an attitude can become rooted in the subconscious, worrying the conscious mind with the spectre of what may happen. Then, a discussion ensues that makes me proud to call these my students.
I even heard one of the African-American students say "that is how I feel everyday."

They made me proud because they owned the subconscious biases and spoke openly about race for probably the first time in many of their lives. I even heard one of the African-American students say "that is how I feel everyday."

As English teachers, we deal with a lot of topics surrounding hatred and racial bias. As Robert Frost might say, "Something there is that harps on racial conscience." So many of the novels, plays, and poems we teach are laden with the tension of centuries of racial misunderstanding, violence, and fear. Then again, so are the hallways of our schools. I encourage you to use the IAT; like Atticus suggests, it can force students to consider what life would be like wearing a different person's skin.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

There's Got to Be Some Hero in Us All

By Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT
Secondary Section Blogger

Define Irony: On the "Everyday Heroes" day of my school's recent homecoming week, based on my own visual survey, 90% of the teachers in the building dressed as doctors, lawyers, etc. I dressed as myself. People didn't get it. *Collective groan*

More to the point, I recently attended a Model United Nations conference at high school in Loudon County, VA. The host of the conference did not feel comfortable giving the Wi-Fi password to visiting coaches because he did not know it himself. The policy in Loudon seems to be to keep as much from the teachers as possible. Coincidentally, the principal of the school happened to wander in and give us an impromptu speech about how folks who give up time on their Saturdays to bring students to events like these instead of spending that time with their families are the unsung heroes of education. This particular unsung hero thought, but withheld, the following: "Would you be willing to give an unsung hero a Wi-Fi password so that I can grade some work?" Since my cooler head prevailed, I never got to hear his reponse; my guess: NO.

Heroes and Heroism is a topic that is as old as the literature we teach. Heroic songs of gods and god-like men and women permeate the literature of our earliest civilizations: Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Ramayana. These stories set the foundation upon which we tell stories today. Joseph Campbell even made scholastic gold out of describing the archetypal journey that the hero undertakes. Yet, year after year, I find it difficult to develop engaging ways to teach this specific topic. One suggestion I can make, especially if we are dealing with heroes who do not travel much (that is tragic heroes and others whose journey is more mental than physical), is Jim Burke's Cycle of Life, Literature, and Learning.

The order of those elements is not coincidental: literature and learning are ok; however, life is the focus of what we do. We teach stories because of the way they illuminate our lives. So, how can I connect the mundane lives of my students with the extraordinary journeys of men like Odysseus?

If you are looking for a way to introduce the topic or even to question the need for/presence of the topic in our curriculum, head over to the NCTE connected community and read Jocelyn Chadwick's submission for the November Engage Now! lesson. In her lesson, students critically examine what heroes are and whether or not we need them. The final project, a digital montage, is an idea I am excited to try out in my own classroom.

So, from one unsung, everyday hero to another, check out the lesson plan, but also keep on being heroic. Doctors may have the vital task of preserving life, but teachers are in the business of building them. If we worship doctors as heroes, then teachers definitely deserve the title.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Welcome Back, Welcome Back, Welcome Back!

I hope everyone is having a rewarding beginning of the year season. As a piece of interesting trivia this month, I thought I would explain how I, your humble blogger, am like Gabe Kaplan. Yes, I said it. Gabe. Kaplan. Or Kot-tair, if you prefer. And while you may think that I too launched John Travolta to super-stardom, I would have to say that the guess was flattering, but incorrect. No, Gabe Kaplan, who played the fictional teacher Mr. Kotter, and I are connected because I taught the first two years of my career in the very school I attended.

The beginning of anything generally makes me think of beginnings. The openings of favorite novels, plays, poems. The openings of holes in my Redskins' offensive and defensive lines. The opening years of my career as a teacher. This is year 9 for me. Next year rounds out the decade. I can honestly say that without the experience of teaching at my old school, I would not still be teaching today.

One of the most challenging things I had to learn in my first years was not picking my battles, but figuring out how to fight them. As a six foot, six inch tall former rugby player, I knew how to fight. As a maturing adult, I had no real clue how to bring those skills to the conference room. If I had had a teacher like Tara Seale, I might have figured it out.
Over the course of a handful of days, Tara brings her AP Language students to the satirical table, has them sample the feast, and then turns them loose to create their own dishes.

Tara's August Engage Now! Lesson focuses on helping students design the most difficult of arguments: the satirical ones. Over the course of a handful of days, Tara brings her AP Language students to the satirical table, has them sample the feast, and then turns them loose to create their own dishes. One of Tara's strong suits as a teacher is the way she has students do the learning instead of receive the learning. From having them create their own working definitions of the terms to the ways she creates physical and virtual environments within which they collaborate, Tara maximizes the time to provide students with the tools to construct their own understanding. Then, she asks them to use it. If you are familiar with the study Writing Next, then you may notice that the effect size for this lesson is significant. Definitely a lesson worth accessing and adapting to your classroom.

Argumentation is really the core of all English curriculum. As Andrea Lunsford would put it, everything is an argument. Whenever I introduce this idea to my AP Language class, I get a chorus of disbelief. No Way! These dumb English essays aren't arguments, they are punishments. And so on. The trick is that once students understand that even the literary analysis essays we ask them to write are arguments, pointing out ways to strengthen writing become more universal. After all, what is it about summary that makes it an ineffective substitute for true, deep analysis? It makes no claims. It builds no bridge between the data  gleaned from the text and the construction of meaning (authorial or otherwise). Once they begin to understand that even literary analysis essays are arguments, they can see that counterarguments are a great way to check their work. Asking "what would another reader say?" or "how might someone disagree with your analysis?" sets students up to consider where their analyses are weak and need shoring up.
Fortunately, Kim Parker's Engage Now! submission for September helps teachers show students that counterargument detection is an everyday skill.

Unfortunately, teaching counterargument is tough. Fortunately, Kim Parker's Engage Now! submission for September helps teachers show students that counterargument detection is an everyday skill.
In Kim's lesson, students begin building this everyday skill by reviewing what the students already know about argument, opening a space in the schema to help the information stay put. Then, keeping to the keep it simple maxim, Kim introduces a short paragraph on a high interest topic. As our students' teachers, we know with what types of ideas students in our classes may wish to engage. Kim offers up the resource ProCon.org, a great resource with nearly 50 controversial topics to discuss. The students begin to build thesis statements that will become brief presentations the following day. The catch? The students do not know whether they will be presenting the argument for the topic or the one against, so they must devise a position on both sides. The presentation format and the extensions Kim offer provide a solid base from which to build. To see these activities, head over to the NCTE Connected Community, or click the link above, and download Kim's plans.

One thing that has changed since that first year is the perspective of what English teachers should teach--and how. One of the most shocking things from my first year of teaching was the pronouncement that came down from our state office. Poetry, they discovered through test scores, was hard for students to comprehend. This earth-shattering, boom-lowering revelation led to the removal of poetry from the Standards of Learning test. Besides, they reasoned, who needs to be able to read poetry. I was not as willing to part with it.

Students can be remarkably capable if you give them a reason; so, to teach poetry, I gave them Dante. Not the whole Commedia, just the Inferno. I thought to myself: What teenager does not love to hear about someone else getting in trouble? I was right. Four weeks and a whole bunch of photocopies later, my standards sophomore class was reading nearly a grade level higher than before our study of poetry. The test data was not a shocking revelation to me because I tried to meet them where they felt comfortable. Before we began reading the poetry, I always showed them the Gustav DorĂ© engraving that accompanied that specific Canto. If there is one thing our students are adept at, it is looking at pictures. DorĂ©'s pictures are beautiful and frightening, the type of engravings that engross and gross out. I recognized that  my students were better visual analysts than textual ones. Once I proved to them that they could do the analysis thing, we went to the poetry to pick it apart. We even sometimes mixed in artistic analytical terminology with our literary analysis; that is until the time was right to introduce the correct term.
 Larry's lesson helps show students that Rockwell's deceptively simple depictions of American life have complex and challenging undertones.

Visual literacy can be a powerful resource. Lawrence Butti's October Engage Now! helps build students' familiarity with and comprehension of visual texts in a very hands-on way; a way necessary to encourage students to make visual text analysis an everyday practice. The first portion of the lesson offers up a fairly recognizable artist to American audiences, Norman Rockwell. Larry's lesson helps show students that Rockwell's deceptively simple depictions of American life have complex and challenging undertones. By focusing first on excerpts then moving to the big picture, students begin to see how important the small details are in constructing meaning. Not only does the lesson ask them to make comments, it also asks them to ask good questions about the visual text under examination. The second part offers a great, concise outline of a pre-field trip lesson built on the principles introduced in the first lesson. I am inclined to agree with Larry's assessment that field trips matter, and taking students to an art museum is a great way to get them out of the textbooks and into the field. To access the entirety of this lesson and all of the materials, including some awesome exemplars, that go with it, head over to the NCTE Connected Community or click the link above.
As we begin settling into this school year, I challenge you to think about where you have been and where you are going. Some of the successes I had in the beginning have evolved into coherent plans and activities, but there are still plenty of places where I continue seeking out helpful colleagues and resources. In exactly a month, NCTE's annual convention will be in full swing up in the great city of Boston (GO SOX!!!). If it is possible, I encourage you to go there. Why? Simple. Five years ago, a somewhat discouraged fourth year teacher wandered into the Philadelphia convention center not certain about whether he was going to stay a teacher. The first three years had been rough and he wasn't sure if teaching high school English was the path for him. Then he attended some sessions, met some boisterous secondary teachers, signed up to write a blog, and is sending you this message now. As I get ready for my fifth convention, I realize that the days shared with colleagues from around the country rejuvenate and refresh me because we get to talk about what matters: the students we teach.
No matter what challenges may come in this profession, make the time to smile, support one another, and each fine morning rise to meet the daily challenges of teaching children to read and respond to texts of all types.

So, best wishes to you as we settle into this new year. Undoubtedly, it will bring its challenges and its triumphs. My second year nearly killed me. My mentor teacher, a woman who had taught me high school English as a junior at the school, died in an auto accident in the early spring. I sometimes try to picture her perched atop her mo-ped, leaning into the stinging wind, breathing deeply of the fresh air, luxuriating in the sunlight. She always told me that no matter what, an English teacher had to have a sense of humor; without, we would be crushed by the pressures of the job. I imagine that she was smiling broadly that day. And weeks later, attending the memorial, I looked around at all the quietly pensive faces streaming into the auditorium, digging deep to find the smile but coming up empty. These same faces after the reception began to slowly thaw. A former student told a story of the time she jumped up on his desk to emphasize a point. Someone else remembers the tough love tempered by wicked humor. And like the bright daffodils she loved so well, the room began to glow with the light of life.

No matter what challenges may come in this profession, make the time to smile, support one another, and each fine morning rise to meet the daily challenges of teaching children to read and respond to texts of all types. English teachers have the privilege of teaching students about being human; I for one intend to do so with a smile on my face.