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, 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.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

What Can We Teach?

What can we, as English teachers, teach? Should we teach basic reading and writing only? Seems to me we should get the majority of then funding then: two of the three R's of academics are English/Language Arts-based. No, my question is about more than curriculum. Like Plato's Meno, we need to know if things can be taught that are not on the curriculum. Specifically, can we help students learn to live healthy lives, inside and out?

In Thomas Foster's book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, the act of eating gets an entire chapter's worth of discussion. Seriously. For those who haven't read the book, the second chapter is entirely dedicated to eating, or what Foster calls acts of communion. Eating is everywhere in writing, but it is such an ordinary act that we sometimes forget to notice it. Eating is important. Not just its biological meaning, but its social, personal, and such meaning. Eating can be the gateway to health and energy or a gateway to self-destruction and lethargy. Eating is one of those things we take so for granted that we assume everyone knows how to do it. That is not true: it was not true for me, and it is apparently not true for our students today.

Peter Berg, a holistic mental health and empowerment coach for young people, recently published a fascinating article on recent trends in the health of our students. According to Berg's article, "Young people are in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis. For the first time young people have ailments that used to be limited to adults." These ailments include Type 2 Diabetes ("a disease normally seen in adults over 40") and "cases of nonalcoholic fatter liver disease." These ailments are just the ones tied to the rising number of obese children entering our classrooms everyday. Berg then points out the disappointing state of young people's minds. He cites the following infographic from Alyssa Celebre via Nomad Creatives:


But then Berg shifts gears. He pulls back on the sad state of affairs and declares that the work they do at is changing lives for the better. Berg says that "[he] empower[s] young people to take charge of their health and be the masters of their lives." The main way to do this is to "help young people know themselves. Giving young people time to reflect, think and be still is key in helping them getting to know themselves, what they need, and ultimately, what works for them." After reading that, I knew that we, as English teachers, have the perfect subject matter to help young people reflect and think about their own lives: literature.

I swear I am not saying this to justify the use of literature in an increasingly utilitarian world, but maybe there is something to that tension between the utility of school and the pleasure of exploring our human existence. I keep thinking back to the scenes in the cafeteria from 1984. I look into our cafeterias at school and I can almost imagine all of them dressed in shapeless overalls, skin turned gray by its estrangement from the sun. They sit and eat whatever it is they are fed (sometimes I am not sure it qualifies as food) and then return to sitting in their desks. I know we are supposed to serve "healthy" foods in school, but if your cafeteria is anything like mine, the students know how to circumvent our attempts to feed them well. Just the other day, back before the summer, I passed a student with no less than three big pieces of pepperoni pizza on his tray. Add in the chocolate milk and he had a meal. One solution is to limit the amounts and types of food, but then again I am an educator: I prefer to help people understand. And understanding health isn't so easy.

Just over a year ago, I was turning 29 and staring at 315 on the scale. At 6'6", I can carry 315 and make it look like less, but I was still unhealthy. My knees ached constantly. I was always tired. I didn't want to play with my sons because that meant moving around in crouched positions or walking to the park. Then, I read some stories in succession. I read "The Swimmer" by John Cheever and something started nibbling at my brain. I wondered if my lack of engagement with life now would result in Neddy Merrill's decrepit life when I got older. I read "The Destructors" by Graham Greene and the indomitable chaos of life came rushing in on me; the only thing I had worth maintaining was my own body, and I was trashing it. Then, I watched trainer Chris Powell on what is now called Extreme Weight Loss. I saw super obese people with more weight than I struggle and achieve great things in only a single year. So I decided I would try to do that same. I set out with a goal of being an even 200 by my 30th birthday. Long story short, I didn't make it all the way to 200, but I did reach 237. I lost what I lost because of reading some stories that I had read before, but had sudden relevance to me in a way I didn't expect. I learned to know and listen to myself so that I wouldn't miss out on my life right now. That is the power of fiction.

I committed to changing my life because of the themes of two short stories. If we give students time to think deeply about who they are in their lives right now and who they wish to be, grounded in the context of what we are reading in class, they will surprise us. Throughout my journey this year, my students knew what I was doing. They asked how I was doing after each phase of my plan. They asked what that stuff I was eating was and how it was made. They tried eating things outside the realm of pizza. They tried to balance their nutrients at meals. Some students even lost weight as a by product. My energy increased and I was able to be more on top of feedback and instruction. What can we teach? If we teach fiction with an exigent eye, students will follow our lead and, rather than learning to make a living, they might learn to make a life. And maybe, one day, they might even get to know themselves honestly and love themselves fully.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Engaging Students' Experiences and Backgrounds

By Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

The author Julia Alvarez is mostly known for her poetry, and when she teaches creative nonfiction classes she keeps the focus on poetry. For Alvarez, it is the economy of language that makes poetry so powerful. She explains that the condensing of a moment into a poem helps provide artistic distance so that an author can write about a real moment with the literary eye of a poet. After the students write the poem, they turn it into a piece of creative nonfiction prose by looking for what the poem is about, for the Truth of the experience. Alvarez is a teacher's teacher. She knows that telling students that they have to write about the truth is unhelpful and deceptively obvious. Instead, she engages the students in an act of writing to teach about the content for a separate act of writing.

Teachers looking to engage their students for all kinds of purposes have turned to multi-genre writing to help them do so. One of the pieces students write in our program at the Governor's School is a single piece composed of multiple genres including dual-voice poems, prose, and visual images. Oftentimes, this project is one the students remember fondly because they can easily be successful. Take young Rachel (names have been changed here). She chose to write a dual voice poem about her father's experiences in war, wrote a beautiful short story from her father's perspective, and created a visual presentation about the interview she conducted. Each piece was woven into the other: the poetry informing the prose and the interview underlying everything. Students wrote, they developed themes, and they presented. That is a grand total of three skills in a single unit. Take that long list of standards: three birds with one stone. (And that does not count the research they had to do.)

This month's Engage Now!, from Associate Chair Katie Greene, is a great lesson about multigenre writing and visual text. The lesson addresses a timely issue that many of us will face in the coming months: getting to know new students. In a progression of visual and written textual compositions, students describe themselves to the teacher in the vein of the letter-to-the-new-teacher assignment. The skills addressed are straight from the common core, but the focus is on the individual and valuing the identity that the individual brings to the classroom. Forgetting to value students is easy in a data-driven, standards-based world, and any assignment that provides those opportunities is worth noticing. After all, if we do not show outwardly that we value our students and their experiences, how can we expect them to value those experiences in the construction of themes? Themes must be constructed from the text and the students' experiences. Valuing what students bring is a vital and powerful part of the English/Language Arts classroom.

In short, the lesson asks students to create a logo that represents who they are as a person and becomes part of a writing portfolio. This first step asks students to think in terms of visual representations of meaning and in terms of economy of meaning. The student provides a single visual, not a menagerie of visuals. Following the construction of the logo, students write about their methodology: why did they choose what they chose? Why the colors? etc. Again, a complex, basic skill is reinforced. The metacognition students practice with this exercise will be necessary time after time during the course of the year. Why not start early? The final step is key. Once again reinforcing the economy of language, students are asked to write some artful and short about the logo based on the reflection (i.e. a poem of some form). The exemplar provided is in the form of a haiku. The lesson is an easy, yet fun, way to practice some essential, complex thinking skills students will need throughout the year. I am already looking at how I can adapt it for my students and setting because it is so flexible and powerful in its application of multiple genres to the simple task of getting to know a new student.

Whether you ask students to write poetry before the essay, to write with different genres about the same experience, or to write about themselves in multiple genres and modes, ask them to think about the truth of the text and the truths in their lives. The thing that sticks with me every year are the insights students bring from within themselves and apply to the texts. That is why we teach in community schools: none of us experiences everything, but we can learn from each other if we value the truths of our experiences.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I Will Gladly Pay You for an Essay Tomorrow if You Give Me a Soliloquy Today

If there is one thing I have heard as a consistent worry from colleagues in Common Core states, it is that fiction may get crowded out by the request for more non-fiction in the English Language Arts classroom. Personally, I am not worried about that happening because I know enough English teachers to know that there would have to be a lot of dead bodies before fiction became an inconsequential part of our everyday teaching lives. We love fiction because it is what helps us relax, take a step back, and examine our lives in light of a compelling story. Don't get me wrong, some narrative non-fiction is just as compelling, but answer me this: Which assassination is more surprising? Lincoln's or Gatsby's? We know Lincoln's story and we cringe, breath stopped, as we wait for Booth to squeeze off the fatal shot. The first time we dive into Gatsby's pool, we are just as unaware, just as oblivious to the danger lurking behind the pillars of patio, nestled in the barrel of Wilson's gun. The fictional compels us because it becomes part of us, as we become part of it. This metonymic power of literature to stand in for and represent our lives makes narrative, especially fictional narrative, personal and powerful.

So, when given the choice between learning with fictional or non-fictional texts, why should we choose? Some people might not see the way to incorporate both, but this month's Engage Now! submission from Amy Magnafichi Lucas incorporates fictional texts as models for writing non-fictional essays. Not only does she use fictional text to teach writing, but she dares to use Shakespearean text (cue gasps).

There are a lot of gems to be mined from this clearly aligned sequence of 3 lessons. The first is a concise method for writing crisp and pithy prose. Using a couple example passages from equally challenging writers, students discuss the nature of "the economy of language." Students are then asked to revise Shakespeare. Like the Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie sketch, they are asked to revise Hamlet. Specifically, students look at the soliloquy from Act I, Scene ii about Hamlet's "too too sullied flesh." They are asked to keep track of and justify each decision in the revision process based on the discussion from the presentation. The key step comes after the second class period when students apply all of the techniques they have developed in terms of revising for the economy of language to the peer review of each other's work. Knowledge without action is useless; however, the instant application of skills gleaned from literary analysis and critical thinking to the writing process builds retention and relevance. The conversations in peer groups coupled with the revision of the initial draft provide the framework for a lesson of enduring value.

Check out the full lesson plan complete with presentation and handout here. The next time I go to teach a novel or play and then have students write a literary analysis essay, I plan on using a piece of the text as a model for a portion of the writing process; maybe I'll use that scene where Nick enters the Buchanan residence for the first time to teach about the value of powerful and vivid language. I can think of no other scene in literature that so readily calls up the whirlwind of the 1920s: all of that elegance and class caught up in the violence of a summer wind. The first time I read that scene, it stood out as picturesque and calm; on my second visit, the spectres of Wilson, Myrtle, and Gatsby reared up, reminding me of the fact that these elegant, yet careless people will be responsible for the suffering of so many others. The words didn't change; I did. As I developed greater understanding through multiple readings of that passage, perhaps my students returning to that passage to explore a new writing skill may gain some new insight. In the study of the words, they get a chance to revise their original impressions and engage the text more deeply: economy of language and economy of instruction time.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

This is not an Argument: Helping Students Develop Argumentation Skills in Writing

by Daniel A. Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

If you haven't had a chance, check out Steven Heller's Engage Now! offering this month. This blog post is about his superb research project.

One of the greatest lessons I ever learned about classroom teaching came from a short Italian man who looked, I kid you not, like Mario (as in the one with the brother named Luigi). The resemblance wasn't helped by the deep red that adorned everything in the building and all of our faculty shirts. He took the comparison in stride, as was his nature, making light of it as much as we did. He was especially popular with his self-contained emotionally disturbed classes because they could relate to him via the magic of Nintendo. What Frank understood about his students is something we could all use whether we teach emotionally disturbed students or not (although, one could make the argument that being a teenager in our lightning fast culture may qualify one as emotionally disturbed from the beginning). Frank knew that sometimes teenagers just want to fight; in particular, they want to argue. Frank had a simple solution. He would always respond with "This isn't an argument."

Have you ever seen a kid who is in self-contained classes for BEATING on others try and make sense of this type of behavior? Priceless. If you haven't seen this expression, do the following:
  1. Assign an argumentative research paper.
  2. On the due date, find one of your weaker writer's work.
  3. Read through and notice how expository the argument seem to be.
  4. Look in the mirror.
Nothing is more frustrating than a student writing a book report when you want honest analysis of a novel, poem, or even a current issue. I call them "Yep." statements. In fact, I even write the note "Yep." next each one my students come up with. For example, on a recent research foray into the critical analysis of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of my lovelies wrote this riveting opener: "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a bildungsroman of the antebellum American South, was written by Samuel Clemens; he was more widely known as Mark Twain." Think of a reaction. The best I have been able to muster without causing physical or emotional harm is "Yep."

Arguments by their very nature are dialogic. When someone shuts the dialogue down, the person not in on the trick becomes very confused. Arguments should call out for response, should challenge the audience to remain silent. Oftentimes, high school students aren't comfortable with the role of expert author, so they head down the road of passive bookworm; after all, better to get a wedgie than to have someone ask a question. Steven Heller's research project is brilliant in its slyness. Students will have no idea, unless you tell them, that they are writing argument because of the way he formulates the research question. Rather than prompting them to take a stand, Heller asks students to answer the following prompt:
What factors of _____________ (selected issue of a general topic) must a citizen be aware of in order to make a more informed decision? [emphasis mine]
How much less stressful is it to write a response to this question than to take a stand on an issue of which you may only just be developing knowledge. What seventeen-year-old really knows what he or she personally believes about Immigration, Health Care, or Education (outside of the let's-abolish-schools-and-hang-out platform)? With this prompt, the student is simply researching what a citizen must know. Where's the risk in that? Expository setup for an Argumentative paper.

Students are also encouraged to consider the dialogic side of argument because they must analyze the rhetoric of their sources and turn in annotations demonstrating their engagement with the text. If I had a penny for every time I go over a brief nonfiction piece with a class and I have to badger them into taking out a penny, the state could keep my pension. To add another layer to the dialogue, Heller places students in research teams. John Donne would be proud; in Mr. Heller's class, no student is an island.

What makes this lesson handy for teachers is the inclusion of evaluation criteria for the paper and the integration of various pedagogical checkpoints. I can honestly say I have never seen a teacher include vocabulary drawn from student research before.

As I write this post, I am eyeballs-deep in Huckleberry Finn research papers. I am done with expository writing masquerading as argumentative analysis. Next year, I am incorporating some of Mr. Heller's methods: maybe he can help me turn some of my "Yep." statements into "Wow" insights.

Again, if you wish to get the complete lesson from the NCTE connected community, you can follow this link to access Steven Heller's wonderful research unit.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Di-Verse-ify Your Instruction

This post is about the most recent submission in the ENGAGE NOW! lesson plan series from the Secondary Section Steering Committe. You must be an NCTE member to view the full materials at this link.

Poetry can be maddeningly hard to teach and even more difficult to fit into our evolving curricula. Not long ago, I was teaching in another district here in Virginia where they had public noted that the Standards of Learning no longer focused on poetry because, and here is the kicker, there were no poetry questions on the state test. Truly!? So, being me, I taught more poetry. I taught it to freshmen and sophomores. I taught it to standard level students. I taught them Dante's Inferno.

When we abolish poetry, we abolish the soul of our written work.

I found that to be an appropriate selection given my feeling at the time. When we abolish poetry, we abolish the soul of our written work. Essays can speak to us, novels can grip us, but only poetry can make us feel. Reading and reciting Taylor Mali with my students is one of my favorite ways to introduce poetry because of how easily he invites us to feel what he has felt. My go to poem from Mr. Mali, a teacher by-the-way, is "Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior." I read that poem multiple times every year and I still have to keep my voice from breaking as I get to the final lines. I'm a fan of great literature, but Charles Dickens, try as he might, cannot get me to choke up.

The important, and dare I say functional, thing to remember about poetry is that the experiences we inhabit in those lines from our favorite bards do more than fulfill an emotional need. Poetry, as a history teacher colleague of mine used to comment, is just plain hard. We must read into everything. So little guidance is given that we must engage personally with the work and dig meaning from its fertile lines.

I'm a fan of great literature, but Charles Dickens, try as he might, cannot get me to choke up.

At the first NCTE conference I attended, I stayed for a Monday workshop hosted by the Folger Library. Shakespeare came alive for me that day and I have never looked back in teaching Shakespeare work that way. I came back so enthusiastic about teaching Shakespeare that I insinuated a Shakespearean play into my Standard American Lit course. We read the Antonio and Shylock storyline from The Merchant of Venice as a lead in for The Great Gatsby. We read and performed as much of the play as possible in five class meetings, focusing a lot on the relationship between Antonio, Shylock, and Money. Then we hit Gatsby. That is probably the only standard American Lit class I have had that didn't complain about how flowery Fitzgerald's writing is; they even seemed to like it. They had engaged so heavily in the themes of wealth, power, poverty, etc. in Merchant that Gatsby became another perspective to fuel their discussions, a fuel easier to analyze than Shakespearean verse. Poetic thinking had changed their minds; they were open to the ornate and powerful language Fitzgerald employs.

If you love poetry and are looking for ways to have it help you meet the standards needs of your classroom, head over to the NCTE Connected Community and check out Anna Roseboro-Small's unit "ENGAGE NOW! Poetry: Characters and Settings."

Anna Roseboro-Small's ENGAGE NOW unit also uses poetry in the service of multiple ELA skills. In her unit, students read poetry in order to analyze character and develop sharper writing skills. On top of this, students respond to poetry using multimedia, building on those 21st century literacy skills. My favorite portion of the unit has to be the way Roseboro-Small has students develop sharper writing skills in play writing. I can honestly say that I have never thought of combining the reading and comprehension of poetry with the development of young playwrights. If you love poetry and are looking for ways to have it help you meet the standards needs of your classroom, head over to the NCTE Connected Community and check out Anna Roseboro-Small's unit "ENGAGE NOW! Poetry: Characters and Settings."

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Convention Carol: Keeping NCTE All the Year Long

By Dan Bruno

In Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Scrooge awakens after having had his transformative experience declaring that he will honor Christmas all the year long. As a representative body of secondary teachers, the Secondary Section Steering Committee (SSSC) will be doing something similar with the transformative experience of the convention: we will be honoring NCTE all the year long with new "Engage Now!" lesson ideas beginning next month. In 21st century learning, engagement refers to the active participation and ownership of one's learning; a process by which students and teachers transform the classroom into a space dedicated to the development of their own learning. These lessons are designed to be discrete, adaptable pieces of instruction that any new, mid-career, or veteran teacher seeking to increase this engagement could adapt and implement in his or her classroom.
The scope of these lessons is national. Tied chiefly to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), these lessons will take a specific topic, outline a lesson, provide a list of resources, and build stable links to online materials and activities in and outside of the NCTE community.
The first of these "Engage Now!" lessons will be available on the Connected Community on February 1st. Check back monthly to see what new lessons are being posted.
The first lesson is from SSSC chair Jocelyn Chadwick. This lesson is part of a larger 11th grade unit on identity and voice in a variety of selections from Cisneros, Hurston, Lipsyte, and Shakespeare. These lessons are not limited to these authors and can be applied to any pieces on identity. The skills in focus include: critical reading, collaborative-critical inquiry, collaborative and independent analysis, collaborative research, and whole-class sharing/discussion.
We hope you enjoy these new "Engage Now!" lessons. Feel free to respond to any of these "Engage Now!" posts with feedback so that we can hear about how you are using these lessons.