Saturday, August 1, 2015

Reflecting on the Path of a Journey: ENGAGE NOW! June 2015

While walking out of the movie theater recently, I had to pass by the emergency doors to one of the individual theaters within the multiplex. I could tell the people inside were watching the same film I just had, roars and screams heard clearly through the door giving the film away. Sometimes, I have this same experience at school. Wandering down hallways near the end of the year, I hear all sorts of films playing: educational, entertaining, and even childish. This end-of-the-year slump can be compounded when your summative assessment happens in the first two weeks of May.

AP English Literature and Composition is a course many students across the spectrum experience as both struggle and triumph. Janis Mottern-High's ENGAGE NOW! Lesson for June provides an artistic and poetic context for making the most post exam days. The best part about the project is that it focuses on what students have already done, pushing them to take their thinking higher by synthesizing new products based on their understanding and analysis of the works they read throughout the course.

There are two major benefits as an instructor: first, students get a chance for metacognition, setting the stage for more enduring and permanent learning; second, students showcase how well they have understood the universal themes that run through literature.

The lesson features in-class work time, providing meaningful opportunities for learning in the midst of the school-year blockbuster season. The products that students design are also presented to the class, giving an opportunity to practice oral communication skills and fill more post-AP exam time with learning-centered discussions about what the class has accomplished on its journey this year.

If you are looking for something new to energize your classroom after the AP exam, or you just want a project to help students reflect on their learning in a creative way, check out this ENGAGE NOW! lesson on the Connected Community.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Meaning in the Message: Teaching Literacy to Build Community

Benedict Cumberbatch, saturnine star of Sherlock, is officially a "devastated" "idiot." If you are a fan of the actor's work, like me, then you are probably wondering why these words might be used in conjunction with the talented Brit. The reason Cumberbatch must take his turn on the hot coals of public opinion has to do with a recent interview with PBS's Tavis Smiley. In the interview, Cumberbatch said the following phrase:
I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really difficult in the UK, and I think a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the UK, and that's something that needs to change.
Americans recognize immediately the unfortunate use of the word "colored" in his statement. As a result of this gaff, the star has had to come out publicly and flagellate himself with his own words, hence the "devastated" way he feels about offending some people. If you click on the link above and read the article, you can see the stream of anti-Cumberbatchian sentiment streaming in from the Twitterverse and political activists. What you may miss is the reference to Tavis Smiley's defense of the actor, tweeting "Those who saw Benedict Cumberbatch on @PBS, know he feels persons of color are underrepresented in ." Now, why would Tavis Smiley say such a thing? Why not jump on the fever train to public disapproval?

Let's concede that the word "colored" carries with it connotations of segregation, summoning ghosts of white-hooded men and starkly-lettered signs. Let's concede that the word brings back the sentiments of the separate but equal world of the pre-Civil Rights United States. Let's concede that it could be an act on par with deification of the stars-and-bars. Let's also concede that the entirety of the sentence speaks counter to any sentiment allied with racism.

At this summer's Teaching Shakespeare Institute, Dr. Ayanna Thompson stopped in to talk with the group about race and the teaching of Shakespeare. We talked about casting, performance, and a variety of topics associated with race and the theater. Something that will always stick with me is the way she described the stakes of continuing to play Shakespeare in a racially one-dimensional way: she noted that the audiences are getting older and remaining generally the same complexion, so who will support these arts as the older white patrons die out and the subsequent generations become less and less homogeneously white? It is a fair question. I was always conscious of the complexion of audiences before, but I failed to consider what that might mean for the future of the art form.

The idea applies to more plays than those written by Shakespeare. I saw a production of Death of a Salesman featuring a black actor playing Willie's neighbor and friend, Charlie. The scene where Willie refuses to take Charlie's money or job offer takes on an entirely new dimension of meaning when Willie is white and Charlie is black. It becomes something much more than simple personal pride. Even Bernard, played by an actor of mixed racial background, becomes more than the successful son. In short, racial considerations are never invisible to American audiences despite our protestations of colorblindness.

So, outside of the wording, what is wrong with Cumberbatch's desire to bring to light the lack of opportunity faced by actors of color in the UK film industry? Instead, the substance of his utterance is lost in the maelstrom of public shaming. The Hollywood and UK Film communities could probably benefit from the discussion of under-representation of minorities in parts that do not fall under facile ethnic stereotypes (read this as person of color = villain/terrorist/or other marginalizing part). The Clark doll experiment taught us that separate but equal is inherently unequal, yet we still give the role of hero to far more white actors than actors of color.

That is where we come in as English teachers. First, I would like to abolish the cliche of our time: tolerance. Think about it. What does it mean to say to someone that you tolerate them? Say it to someone you care about and watch the reaction. Now try saying it with acceptance as the goal. Nowhere in the definition of acceptance does the dictionary declare that accept is equivalent to approval. I may disapprove of so-and-so's life choices, but that does not mean that I do not accept so-and-so for who he or she is. Sorry for the digression, it is just a pet peeve.

How do we frame out discussion of teaching acceptance? We don't have to. There are plenty of examples in the world around us. Take Benedict Cumberbatch. Teach this article and ask students to read for contradiction and complexity as a start. There is something befuddling in organizations that vilify and praise an individual in the same reductive sentence or sound bite.

Another option: take a look at the school's arts programs enrollments. I am married to a choir director who also teaches on the high school level. I am always mystified at the relatively homogeneous make-up of the choir. What's shocking is the number of students of color I see daily who love music, but are enrolled in no musical arts classes at school. Have this discussion, perhaps grounding it in a larger work about race (i.e. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Invisible Man).

For the advanced educators: tackle discussions of covert vs. overt racism. The Implicit Attitude Test through Harvard University's Project Implicit allows teachers and students to measure their unconscious biases, including racial bias. I've posted about this tool before and you can find it by clicking on the link here.

If we create an intellectual discourse of acceptance around difference, we can create a community willing to listen to the content of our utterances rather than cherry-picking phrases from the discourse. This responsibility lies heavily upon us as ELA teachers because we are the last stop before students head out into the world to live on their own, a place where these sentiments can have immediate, concrete consequences. Believe it or not, the millennial generation is perhaps the least educated generation on racism. If you look at the article, you will notice that they are also a generation that wants to learn. If we build upon this enthusiasm now, encourage acceptance and real listening, the content of our students' utterances may be allowed to carry the conviction of their open hearts.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Which Line to Tow?

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

I hope this post offends no one, but, given the subject matter, that is highly unlikely. I have been troubled lately about the unrest that seems to be rippling across the country and wondering what role we, English/Language Arts Teachers, have to play in it. There are a number of rich themes that any one of us could spend an entire year teaching: Freedom of Speech, Race, Violence as a Way of Life, Public Service, Corruption, the Power of Fear, etc. As Secondary Level educators, I feel like we have an even more urgent responsibility than our cousins at various other points in the educational spectrum. Elementary schools are generally concerned with building foundational skills and teaching young children who really cannot think deeply on moral puzzles of this many jagged, disjointed pieces. Middle schools could begin to broach the topic in civics courses, but the students still may not be ready to full understand the topic or fully empathize with all of the individuals involved. By college, students generally have a very specific way of seeing the world that they developed in high school.

No, we are the stage at which the most higher-order moral development occurs. In the development of identity, students begin to decide for what they will stand and for what they will fight. They develop fully formed images of themselves as certain types of people. To paraphrase Kohlberg, high school students are postconventional moral thinkers. Mix in the hormones and physical changes of adolescence, and that postconventionality becomes highly significant. The way they see the world colliding with their own moral principles and how they react to these collisions are things we can teach through the medium of literature. But should we? If we should, which works should we choose?

Something there is that subverts the common order. Oftentimes, teachers are forced to mend the very social walls that hem in their practice, silence their hearts, and limit the ways they can serve the students with which they have been entrusted. But these walls are important, too. Not all teachers have the best interests of students at heart: some wear their students down until they mindlessly accept the teacher's view of the world; others are just not worthy of the responsibility of teaching young people. So where does that leave the rest of us?

The truth is that I don't know, and the fact that I don't know is the truth. This personal conflict is what we as teachers should model. I have friends and colleagues whose friends and family are police officers. To expect them to take a counter-cultural stance that excoriates their loved ones is myopic and naive; however, if they spoke about the way the current unrest affected their lives, we might be able to communicate something distinctly human to students in the midst of a social storm that has gone far beyond the control of its progenitors.

Isn't the human what we teach? Don't we ask our students to have literary experiences with us to try on the shoes of another, not find a comfortable pair and go for a walk in isolation? There has been tragedy and death, grief and anguish, shame and a loss of faith. What has shocked me is that there hasn't yet been a voice offering sincere condolence, a gesture of real human reconciliation, a brief moment of mutual understanding. Instead, death is answered with death. Reconciliation is met with silence. And our students must be sitting there wondering why the adults who taught them to play nicely together cannot seem to learn the same lessons.

So, as the media outlets publish stories about Macklemore's impending child and the ways in which Downton Abbey can teach fiscal responsibility (seriously, that is a real story on CNN.com as I write this), I am renewing my commitment to showing my students the way to understanding other people's journeys, of living up to the promise a literary experience can deliver. But I have to be careful not to simply make intellectual clones of myself. In fact, I think Kahlil Gibran said it best:  "The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. / If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind." I only hope that we can be examples in this tough time through our faith in what we teach and our love for our students.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Building Buy In: Movement is Not Just for Kinesthetic Learners

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

"Jab." "Jab." "Jab." "Jab." (Sung) Dance...Boogie Wonderland. Sounds like the weirdest location for a boxing match ever or the most aggressive disco in history. It was neither. This was my C Block today, learning what I learned this past July at the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. As we learned in one of our acting sessions, Shakespeare's language is meant to tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and seen. This full bodied experience of the language helps to internalize meaning. But my third block class wasn't studying Shakespeare. So what was I doing? Why was I doing it? Who is the mysterious author with whose works I was engaging?

The English 11 class I am currently teaching is just starting their work on A Streetcar Named Desire. Getting Williams's work on its feet is no different than putting Shakespeare's work on its feet, so I decided to engage the students in some warm-ups that would teach them some of the basics of acting.

I feel the need to interject a note here about what I mean when I say "acting." The students were not channeling Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington. Rather, when I say "acting" in this context, I mean getting up, playing with words, imagining oneself in another's skin. Sometimes that looks like good acting. Other times it does not. Either way, the opportunity presents the possibility for learning a lot.

So, to warm up today's English 11 class, I decided to do some of the punching activities one of the acting instructors taught us at TSI. We stood with our legs shoulder-width, secured our bases by tightening our leg muscles, and extended both index fingers. The first round is simply a point, not a jab. This helps students direct the focus of their eyes to the target beyond the end of the hand. As we progress to jab, I ask the students to visualize the word jab exploding from the end of their fists and hitting a point on the wall. Before you knew it, the glass at my door became crowded with confused faces as people passing by were wondering why the English class was jab the air as though it had just recited the most cutting momma joke in history.

We stopped jabbing and set up for the scene: scene one of Streetcar. When we got to the section where Blanche and Stella begin to argue about the loss of Belle Reve, I could instantly tell the jabbing exercise had worked. Two students, one male and one female, played the parts. Not only was the intensity of each italicized word or word before an exclamation point given the force of a punch, the entire emotional intensity of the scene erupted. The students had gotten so far into the scene that when Stella leaves to wash her tears and says "Does that surprise you?", the ice in her voice and eyes froze me to the core. These students have known me for five days and they were willing to perform at that level already. A testament to their abilities, but also a testament to the power of experiencing language with the entire body.

As a postscript to my day, the freshmen in my homeroom pour in before and after the final bell to plug their Chromebooks back in and store them for the night. As they came through today, they were full of questions about the purpose of the bizarre activities they witnessed in the hall or heard about through the proverbial grapevine. One young man made my week, but he doesn't know it. He said, "Whoa! That sounds like the best class ever" as he and his buddy walked out the door. That level of pure energy and excitement that causes young teenage boys to stop being cool for a minute and express an actual emotion, that is why I teach.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Preparing to Dive into the Wreck Again

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters. - from "Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich 
So, I have been unemployed now for the better part of the first semester. Soon, I will be taking over classes from a teacher taking time off to have a baby (Congratulations, again!). As I am preparing to go back to the world of pencils, books, and dirty looks, and coming off of the 2014 NCTE National Convention, arguments about education are again dragging me down rabbit holes of  quiet contemplation and not an inconsiderable amount of angst.

This morning, as I was dropping my wife's laptop off at her school, I heard a commercial from the NEA on SiriusXM. The fact that it was on a widely accessible radio station really bothered me because, as is the case with many easily digested tidbits about this complicated work we do, the message was based on incomplete and relatively unsupportable claims. After nine years of teaching, I am still shocked at the amount of anecdotal or apocryphal knowledge that seems to permeate our professional world.

To draw a parallel, let me tell you a story. An oncologist has a patient ill with leukemia. This current manifestation is the second recurrence of the disease. This time, while treating the patient, the doctor added a steady diet of only chicken, potatoes, and peas. Miraculously, the cancer goes into remission. How would the medical community react if this doctor decided to start treating all of his patients with specifically tailored nutritional plans as a means of driving cancer into remission? Unless the laboratory science was there to back it up, including numerous experiments that can be repeated with the same results, I cannot imagine many doctors who would accept this as a valid practice.

So, imagine my chagrin, when the voice of the current NEA president pours from my car speakers expounding 1) the virtues of learning styles, 2) the need for parents to identify these, and 3) the need for parents to ensure schools are teaching their individual children in ways that correspond to these learning styles. Chagrin, perhaps, is a bit of an understatement.

People who have read this blog before know my feelings on the learning styles theory. If not, click here for a prior post on learning styles. Is the work of educating students not hard enough already that teachers need numerous misleading and, largely, profit-driven curricular approaches to put distance between us and our students? That really is the bottom line. As I sit here preparing to teach again, I find it necessary to remind myself that I teach people.

That is where the world of science and the world of education part ways (in fact, that is where education departs from many disciplines): the student. Many theories that are touted as solid, foundational, and "best" practices are based on marginal changes that have more to do with the unique moment in which they happen and less to do with the children they are intended to help. This disconnect exists because children do not repeat behaviors in a predictable and systematic way that can guarantee a consistent result. As I often do when I face this particular frustration, I went back to a great article by Daniel Willingham on the AFT website. In the article, Willingham lays out some important facts about popular educational myths. I still remember reading it for the first time and thinking Oh, that is what I have been trying to say.

Cognition is at the core of what we do; moreover, cognition is a human process that relies heavily upon numerous factors. The best thing a teacher can do is view his or her students in two ways: 1) As the mass of students in need of knowledge and 2) as the individuals who make up that mass. Children have more in common when it comes to learning than we are often willing to admit; the individuality matters more in terms of environment and special circumstances than the actual acquisition of discrete information.

I guess I should thank the current president of NEA. Because of that commercial, I got an opportunity to remind myself of how vital a teachers work it--and how much vitality it provides. The wet suit is ready, the tanks are full, and I cannot wait to dive deep with the students who been entrusted to my care.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Getting Together with the Secondary Section: 2014 Convention Edition

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

It is almost here. In two days, the 2014 NCTE Annual Convention kicks off in Washington, D.C. If you are going to be attending in person, the Secondary Section Steering Committee would love to see and meet you at any of our major events throughout the convention. Below, you will find a complete list of the SSSC events as well as descriptions of who will be there and what the focus will be. Additionally, interact with and follow the Secondary Section throughout the weekend by tweeting with the hashtag #HSM2014. We believe that high school matters and that high school teachers do the most important work in the world. Come socialize, celebrate, and inspire each other in the SSSC events this year.

Secondary Section Get-Together - Thursday, November 20th from 4:30 PM to 6:00 PM in the Maryland B Room

Come hear from researcher and filmmaker William Kist as he shares Running from Crazy and leads a discussion of the film. Following William Kist, Jim Burke of Burlingame High School will share inspiration and his trademark good humor with us. Before the talks and in-between there will be ample time to socialize with your section, make new friends, and reconnect with old colleagues. A good time is guaranteed.

High School Matters - Friday, November 21 from 2:30 PM to 5:15 PM in the Potomac A/B Room

Our annual smorgasbord of secondary ELA ideas and inspiration is guaranteed to leave you feeling enlightened, excited, and enthusiastic. As per the usual, we will kick off with Carol Jago's list of must-reads from the year. Following Carol's talk, we will continue the tradition of sharing our own book recommendations and then launch into the first roundtable session. This year's roundtable list features a ton of really interesting topics including sessions on text complexity and multicultural voices in the canon of high school literature. Following the first roundtable, Kelly Gallagher will share some of his insights about teaching in his usual entertaining and thought-provoking way. After Kelly's talk, there will be two roundtable sessions, giving you more opportunities to network with colleagues and learn something new about our field. This double session always generates great ideas to take back and use in the classroom; don't miss it!

Secondary Section Luncheon - Saturday, November 22 from 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM

Come lunch with your colleagues and hear this year's guest speaker: science fiction novelist, blogger, and technology activist Cory Doctorow. Note: This event requires tickets to attend. If you haven't purchased your tickets yet, there may still be time to snag one if you act fast. Ask at the registration desk when you check in.

The SSSC looks forward to seeing you in person; however, if you cannot attend, please engage with us on twitter, through e-mail, or on this blog.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Asking the Questions that there Are not Enuf Lifetimes to Answer

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

One of the most prominent discussions in the teaching of literature in high school is what makes a work worthy of review, thought, and criticism. In other words, why study To Kill a Mockingbird instead of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or whichever)? The more I engage with good literature and even-better scholars of that literature, the more I begin to think it has to do with the questions we ask about people. While I will admit to the all-night read-a-thon that would happen when a new Harry Potter novel hit the shelves, I will also admit that there is nothing surprising or even intriguing about the characters and the choices they make. I can still remember reading the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and thinking (spoiler alert; although, at this point, really?) Harry, you do not need to dump Ginny simply because you are the hero. It was about as close to blatant formula as one can get. On the Mockingbird side of things, people are still mystified at the existence of non-racists in a town, community, or family of them; what makes people like Atticus rise above prejudice to do his best for a man whose social status has not changed that much since slavery?

This aspect of characters who puzzle us leads me to what I have recently decided must be my number one criterion for a novel, play, or poem to be considered worthy of critical reflection: does it make me ask questions that I could only answer in the span of a lifetime (and, if I am honest, multiple lifetimes)? I had the privilege recently of seeing a new theatrical piece at the Atlas theatre in Washington, D.C.: Caleen Sinette Jennings's Not Enuf Lifetimes. Before I go any further, here is what the website for The Welders, a DC playwriting collective with an excellent mission, says about the play:
It’s 2004, and Frank Riley—a well-meaning, white 50-something car mechanic—can’t understand why his son Ian dropped out of medical school to live and work in what he considers the ghetto. When Ian disappears, Frank must enter Ian’s world in order to find him. He must learn to communicate with Dante, Ian’s black roommate, and Manjit, Ian’s South Asian girlfriend. He must figure out whether Ronnie Holmes, Ian’s black protégé from the projects, could also be Ian’s killer. Most importantly, Frank must figure out why the child of his heart walked away from the life Frank worked so hard to give him. This exploration of rifts and potential bridges between the Boomer and Hip Hop generations features a hip hop-inspired structure with rhymes and music.
The play says one thing outright: Caleen Sinette Jennings loves people. In her profile on the The Welder's website, she declares that she is a Weldebecause "a welder doesn't talk a lot. A welder looks and listens." The people that exist on the stage truly do exist; they have so many facets and contradictions of being that build into the beautiful complications of their relationships. Few of the characters are likable from the start, much like we all are. But as the layers are peeled away, not one character exists as a type. There are moments when characters seem headed for the territory of stereotype, but then Jennings's words transform them in the space of a single utterance.

And those utterances can carry a power that seems unlikely given their brevity. There is a line from Dante, Ian's successful programmer roommate, about the type of hip-hop heard popularly. In response to Frank's denigration of the form, focused on all of the worst aspects of gangster rap, Dante simply replies that that type of hip-hop plays to something in the popular culture, creating greater divisions and keeping the money in the same pockets that have always had it (I am not quoting this line because my paraphrase is far clunkier than the way it came out on stage). It was one of those instances where a line comes out that so pithily synthesizes something you knew but could not articulate.

Even more powerful are the lyrics of Ronnie Holmes, the young father who works hard to take care of his mother and daughter while he tries to survive the Glendale projects. The lines he spits with Ian from his composition book reveal a man yearning to live his dreams, but dealing with the disappointment of failing to realize them. The frustration and righteous anger come through in each syllable, providing an interesting counterpoint to the manically optimistic Ian.

As the play closed, I found myself invested in the futures these characters might have ahead of them (which is no small feat in a show with no intermission). I could easily imagine teaching this play for the questions it was already generating as I left the theatre: What does it mean to love one's children? How can we best teach our children to live in the world? How can they best teach us to do the same? Where is the line between patronizing and supporting? My head just kept spinning. What I could say for certain is that this play taught me, again, the value of love over all other concerns. What is a better message than this with which to send students out into the world? Another very good question.

Not Enuf Lifetimes is still on stage and I would encourage you to go and see it if you can. Click the link here to get details.