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Literature

Way back in 2007, I wrote my first post on this blog, with a type of mission statement that has grounded my career as an English educator from the start–I talked about the idea that Universe as Text embodies: the idea that we need to read and interpret the world around us in order to understand our lives. This idea still lies at the very heart of why I believe in my work so intensely. Teaching English is a way of encouraging new realizations about the human experience in the next generation through stories that are consumed and created.

I’ve been working alongside my teaching partners Mrs. L, Mrs. J, and Mr. B all year to refine the curriculum for our junior level communications class, which we’ve been trying to make more and more about seeing the relationship between rhetoric and society, exploring how authors use narrative as a vehicle for social commentary. We’ve also taken a more individualistic look at literary works, through a psychoanalytic lens, to show what fiction can reveal about a character, about an author, and–in turn–about us.

Somewhere during these professional conversations, I suddenly remembered something that one of my mentor professors, Dr. Tom Scott, used to say in lecture at UWM. He used to reference the idea that literature works both as a window and a mirror. We look out, and see things we wouldn’t otherwise see. We look in, and see ourselves. It’s a simple, but very effective metaphor. As I prepared to transition my class from two units that focused heavily on author purpose and social commentary to a more personal exploration and study of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, I created a stick-figure comic to share with my students to demonstrate the difference in the ways of thinking that we’d be applying. It turned out to be a highly effective way to explain the different ways that we can use to study stories, and the disparate yields (both of great value) that we can gain from that study.

I formalized my comic a bit on the iPad and decided to share it here. [P.s. Procreate is an amazing drawing and painting app, despite its unfortunate name.] It is my hope that this image will also be of use in your class, especially in framing the varied approaches that you and your students take when exploring texts of all kinds.

 

Untitled artwork

twitterature

This post makes a case for composing tweets (yes, you know–Twitter updates) as a method for comprehending, reacting to, and analyzing literature. To some, it may seem like a sacrilege to ask students to convert their understanding of classical lit into informal, often ranting blurbs of 140 characters or less. But trust me: when done right, Tweets will allow students to put literature into context and bring it to a whole new kind of life. I came across this idea a few years ago, and it has worked a fantastic magic in my classroom ever since. I used it to great success with Romeo and Juliet, and this year converted it to use with The Crucible, again, with awesome results. Please feel free to use, enjoy, and employ this strategy!

 Why Tweets?

In the second chapter of literacy expert Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he actually recommends the composing of tweets as a “light” way to get students started with writing. Writing a micro-piece in the length and format of a Twitter update is a non-threatening, familiar, short form that helps kids get their feet wet and ready to approach more complex writing. In my own experience, I’ve found that this lighter writing fare removes the inhibitions or anxieties that come along with more involved writing tasks and lets even struggling students cut more quickly and sharply to the heart of the literature they are reading. Also, the often emotionally charged nature of the genre (let’s face it, people use Twitter to say whatever is on their minds as it is happening) creates an empathy with characters that requires a deep level of comprehension.

 How do I get my kids to write some Twitter-ature?

1. Select an important section of a literary work that students are reading where several major events occur which effect multiple characters. This will be the time span over which students will “tweet.”

2. Inform students that they should pick a character to “tweet” as… they will create an apt username for this character and be the voice of him or her as the section progresses.

3. Teach students the conventions of Twitter, in case they are unfamiliar. (140 characters or less, @ to tweet “at” another user, # to include a tag/category with the tweet)

4. Since the students are embodying characters, not themselves, these faux tweets have to exist outside the world of actual Twitter itself. Decide if you’d like to have your students write tweets on paper or enter them live on the closed-room Twitter-like platform Today’s Meet. Today’s Meet is live and interactive, which you can display on the screen during in-class reading. Writing on paper, while less sparkly, usually yields slightly more thoughtful results. Both have benefits. Either way, I ask for ten tweets total. As students read, they tweet as their characters would. I also ask them to include the page number that inspired each tweet for a richer intellectual exercise and simply for accountability.

5. Share, laugh, ponder, and discuss.

Need a more specific example? Click here to see the activity that I designed for my juniors to complete during and after their reading of Act III of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

 What kinds of things do students write? Does this really work?

The best way I can show you the quality of student writing is by showing you some examples, which I’ll post below. Students are very playful with this kind of activity, but I am also shocked at the details that they notice… In the act that was tweeted below, John Proctor tries to defend his family’s honor in the face of the bloodthirsty courts of Salem and his former lover, Abigail, who is hell-bent on getting his wife accused of witchcraft. The usernames and (#)hashtags are ingenious; referencing even small-but-telling lines like,  “You sweated like a stallion whenever I come near,”  “He plow on Sunday, sir,” and “There might also be a dragon with five legs in my house, but no one has ever seen it!”

Because of this activity, my students know exactly who these characters are and what drives them. Unexpectedly rich, and witty beyond all expectations, character tweets is a perfect classroom activity. Enjoy the examples below from my classroom.

Students tweeting as John Proctor

The Proc: @TheTown This court is senseless and runs on opinion and judgement. There is #NoJustice in these trials! #CourtFail

SweatinStallion: I KNOW I’M NOT A LAWYER JUST READ THE DEPOSITION. #JudgesBeTrippin #annoyed #WifeIsInnocent

Abigail is no child! #demon #laughterduringprayer

Hey guys, who wants to see my pet dragon?! #sarcasm #WifeIsInnocent #PoppetsAreForChildren

JohnDeereProc42: @WhollyMary You’re with God now?!? You traitor!!! I’ll send the Devil upon you all right. #evil #liar #JailParty #NoPlowSunday

FarmerMan26: I confess. I am a #lecher. I am living with a problem. #FinallyFree #ashamed  @ElizabethProctor please tell the truth. #ItsOk

@BigParris thinks he’s all high and mighty. If he wasn’t the minister, nobody would listen to that nerd. #RealMenDon’tGoToHarvard

TheBigProctor: I say God is dead! I hear Lucifer’s boots! #JudgeMe #FreeElizabeth #YouKnowNothing

Student tweeting as Giles Corey

WeirdOldMan80: @MrJudgeD the girls are ACTING again. Someone should put a stop to it before more innocent people are accused. #ThisEndsNow

Student tweeting as Danforth

DanforthJudginU: I didn’t think @OldManGiles had so much rage in him. #ThatEscalatedQuickly #WeWillSeeJustice

Student tweeting as Reverend Hale

W8tedKnowledge: @DanforthTheGreat These girls are clearly lying and you will regret these hangings. What do poppets have to do with the devil anyway? #CareToExplain #WhyCan’tYouSeeTheTruth

If you haven’t heard of TED, you probably haven’t spent much time around the internet. This non-profit organization’s online community, recorded lectures (known as “TED Talks”), and events are hands-down one of the most amazing resources available, not only for teachers, but for all intelligent people who want to partake of the “Ideas Worth Spreading” gathered from some of the best minds in all types of fields.

Throughout second semester, I’ve been (secretly!) collaborating with TED-Ed, a branch of TED that focuses on making great lessons from real teachers available online in the form of short, animated videos. The site also allows teachers to easily flip the video as a full lesson, with links to supplementary materials as well as the ability to add objectives, ask questions, and monitor online discussion. For anyone into teaching and learning, it’s seriously awesome.

So you can imagine my excitement when, this winter, I was contacted by TED-Ed to talk about a lesson that I had submitted: tips on how to find the “deeper meaning” of a text when writing about works of literature. After my lesson was chosen for development, I went through a phone interview, revised several written drafts of my script, and eventually got approved to record. Using a special portable soundbooth that was sent to me in the mail, I was able to upload several takes of the narration, and eventually moved to online collaboration with an animator that I was matched with. The final result is the video below, which went live today!  I am so proud to be a contributing member of the TED community–creating this video was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had as an educator. 🙂

Those of you who know me know this: I have a Shakespeare problem. Well, maybe more of an obsession than a problem. In fact, the only problem is that the world does not have enough Shakespeare-related things in it! As much as I do consider myself a teacher with very contemporary methods and an eye to the future, I also look forward to teaching Shakespearean texts each year with the anticipation of a child before a birthday party. I love the stories. I love the language! I love the drama!! SHAKESPEARE!!!

…Like I said, I have a problem. But the point of this story is how I have proudly transferred this problem to the next generation: a very satisfying accomplishment. After our Romeo and Juliet unit this year, a small group of my sixth hour sophomores were sad that it was over. They half-jokingly requested that I set aside one day a week during our enhancement (RtI) period to preside over a Shakespeare club so that we could act out more Shakespearean plays together. I narrowed my eyes momentarily as I attempted to discern if this was some type of crude joke. My heart fluttered. As it turns out, it was an earnest request. Shakespeare Club was formed in the next 30 seconds with my single word response: “Done.”

 To my great delight, Mr. M agreed to join me in the teaching/ play/ performance/ monitoring of Shakespeare Club. I gathered a list of interested parties (about 12 students), and sent each one a sealed invitation, anonymously delivered during lunch or via friends:

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We started with Macbeth, reading from the No Fear Shakespeare text for maximum accessibility during our brief time each week. Before each meeting, I previewed the section so that I could explain and narrate as needed while student actors milled about. I also created index card nametags with brief descriptors for each character that would be speaking (such as “Lady Macbeth – Straight-up Crazy” or “Donalbain – Duncan’s other son”), so that we could keep straight who was playing whom. Each week, students could select a part to read and take part in the action. All were welcome. Overjoyed but still dubious, I thought it might last two weeks at best.

That, however, was not the case. We eventually had pretty consistent attendance of over twenty kids who came each week to read Macbeth. We got T-shirts made. We also held a brief discussion of the play and had a “Monologue-Off” where both teachers and students prepared original-language Shakespearean monologues to perform for the group. We rewarded these actors with copies of Shakespearean texts that I was able to pick up at Half Price Books for a steal. Shakespeare Club was pretty darn awesome, and it’s something I hope I can take with me into future years of teaching, because–in my humble opinion–there are more kids out there who need to get irreversibly hooked on Shakespeare.

10 Things I learned in Shakespeare Club

1. Shakespeare attracts a great mix of kids–spotlight hoggers, Ivy league aspirers, fun lovers, romantics, literature heads, misfits, and kids who just like to pretend that they have swords.

2. Shakespeare Club is actually an acronym (C.L.U.B) for Come Learn Ur Bard.

3. Even kids who aren’t confident inhabiting themselves can bravely inhabit a Shakespearean role.

4. Don’t take advice from witches.

5. Caliban’s hunched, bumpy back can be crafted by shoving plastic cups beneath one’s shirt.

6. There actually is such a thing as a freshman who will independently memorize and then perform Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy flawlessly for absolutely no other reason than having the opportunity to do it.

7. Cool t-shirts are one of the best ways to raise awareness for a niche academic club. (Thank you, CustomInk.)

8. Students love to cheer for each other.

9. Students get important things from reading modernized Shakespeare. They also get important things from working with the original language.

10. Shakespeare continues to “amaze indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears,” even on Fridays, at the end of the day, amidst a group of squirrely 14-18 year olds.

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Does anybody else out there have a Shakespeare Club for high school students? When and how do you run it? Does anybody want to start a ring of Shakespeare Clubs that can communicate online and/or occasionally meet in person to attend plays and such? What do you think? Like the Universe as Text Facebook page to start the conversation! 🙂

Theater is one of my dearest loves, as is, of course, literature. Any time I can combine the two in my classroom, I do. Performance and role play help students embody the characters they read about in a unique, unforgettable way. I’ll often assign skits as summary, and I wouldn’t dream of teaching Shakespeare without a full cast of students at the front of the room, equipped with props, acting out every word. Not every text lends itself so readily to performance, though… but I appreciate an opportunity to step outside the box.

The past two years, I’ve been teaching A Tale of Two Cities as part of my AP Literature syllabus. Last year, I came up with a concept for a role-playing game that would help my students better understand what I like to call “The Jacques Effect” going on amongst the characters of the novel–secret names, a knit registry of those to be exectuted, plural identities, avowals of loyality, desperation, and greed. Dickens so clearly wanted his audience to feel the intensity and insistance of these historical realities surrounding the French Revolution, but it doesn’t always translate to the modern student, who can find herself simply confused about why the heck everybody is calling each other Jacques all the time, and why Charles Darnay would want to forsake his French inheritance and lay low in England.

Enter “The Jacques Experiment”–the now completed game, which I based off of similar theater games like “Mafia” or “Dinner Party” where an ensemble of actors in character greet one another, all the while trying to avoid a secret murderer. I took that format and specialized it to the historical setting of A Tale of Two Cities. I played the revised version with my students today and it was a huge hit. Not only that, but it really did reinforce their understanding of the novel. They are perfectly poised to read Chapter 16, “Still Knitting,” in which Madame Defarge sniffs out a spy posing as a fellow revolutionary.

Are you teaching this Dickens classic? Please enjoy and use the game, in .pdf form here:The Jacques Experiment . Educational. Hilarious. Challenging to the mind. And a way to see literature come to life before your eyes. (I had one student lurk in the corner, peering ominously over her “knitting” pencils… Guess what? She was a NOBLE!)

This year I participated for the first time in The Sketchbook Project, a massive public art project managed by the Art House Co-op and Brooklyn Art Library. The process is simple–you register online, and Art House sends you a small sketchbook. It’s then up to every artist to determine how he/she will fill the blank pages until the mail-back deadline, at which time the artist sends the filled book back. The sketchbooks (which come from thousands of artists, amateur and professional, from all over the world) are then made part of a touring exhibition where museum and library goers can browse the sketchbook collection. After a year of touring, the sketchbooks are made a permanent part of the collection at the Brooklyn Art Library, and some are made part of a digital collection.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this, as I love to draw and I felt that this could provide a channel and a motivation for it. I think it’s important for teachers to participate in their discipline, and this was a chance for me to exercise my storytelling ability and author something of my own. I ended up creating something intensely reflective. The very process of completing the work helped me think about and process aspects of my own experience. (You can see my finished work in the gallery above.) But I also had an interest in The Sketchbook Project because of something new I’m trying in my English 12 classroom this year–requiring students to keep a school sketchbook as part of their English experience and grade.

My colleague Ms. J and I first got the idea of the English 12 sketchbook at the 2011  NCTE conference. In imitation of a strategy used by some teachers in a Chicago suburb, we decided to make drawing a regular component of our classroom, utilizing the playful, generative nature of drawing to help students interact with texts, brainstorm, and map out their own intellectual landscapes at specific moments in time. (Here’s the overview handout that we gave the students at the beginning of the year explaining the assignment: The English 12 Sketchbook). The students as a whole have responded in a very positive way, and in many cases their drawings are remarkably innovative and rich with abstract ideas. This semester, we’ve done the sketches as stand-alone activities… one about a poem here, another about a thinking process there… but after completing my own sketchbook, I’m wondering if there might be something important to the idea of continuity, of a story. Completing my book in a style that was part literary response, part memoir caused me to reflect on how each piece of an individual sketch (word + image) related to the sketches before and after, as well as how they related to me, to what I was trying to say.

Since my seniors are undertaking a major research paper and project during semester two, these ideas of reflection and cohesiveness are important for success. I may experiment with a sort of “visual journaling” progression that will ask students to use related sequential drawings in order to track the meanderings, epiphanies, frustrations, questioning, and connecting that go along with research. Even as a series of unrelated activities, though, the sketchbook is one of those teaching strategies that I absolutely stand behind, even after just one semester of trying it in class. Here’s why:

*Students peek over each other’s shoulders to see what’s being created–interest in each other’s ideas leads to academic conversation.

*Ideas are recorded in a visually very “presentable” format, using a document camera or scanning images into an online format allows students to show their thinking dynamically.

*Sketchbook activities require a knowledge and application of visual rhetoric–a crucial skill in analyzing film, web, and other media.

*It’s fun to do and fun to watch. Play lessens inhibition, and enables students to take advantage of what they perceive as a low pressure chance to display thinking.

*Asking students to create and explain symbolic representations requires true metaphorical thinking that cannot be faked.

*The time it takes to shade in a space or carefully draw a line creates extended minutes for students to think about what they are creating and why, often yielding deep understanding.

Upon finishing my own sketchbook, I feel like I used my brain and heart to create something of worth. There are very few feelings better than that. Knowing that my book will be held and examined by other people, also, creates a sense of connection. This is something I really want for my students, one of those sort of “intangible standards” that I try to weave into my teaching. I want my students to understand the joy and fulfillment of creating something, whether it’s through words, image/design, or performance. The Sketchbook Project helped remind me of that, and I think I’ll be returning to do it again next year. I may even invite some interested students to try it as well!

Do you use drawing in your classroom? How does it work for you?  Tell me more in the comments section below!

Sometimes when I reflect on my journey as an educator, I think back to my first evaluations as a student teacher. It’s so interesting to consider the things that used to take so much thought and energy which have now become second nature. But what I find even more interesting is that certain aspects of my teaching style from those very first days have remained exactly the same–the things that are intrinsic to my teaching persona and instincts. One of those things is laughter. I distinctly remember sitting down with my evaluating teacher-mentor after an observation in South Milwaukee, and the first thing she did was look at me, smile, and say, “I can tell you really just love teaching your students. You smile a lot. And you laugh a lot!”

It’s still so true. I talk a lot about the joy of teaching, but I really feel that we can’t talk about that enough. It’s just joyful to be in the company of young people, and to smile, laugh, and find ways to make learning enjoyable and… if at all possible… hilarious. Adolescents are, by nature, boisterous and tend to relish sarcasm and wit. This is a power that can (and does) get them in trouble, but it can also be a powerful tool for building rapport and igniting a desire to investigate language, if used correctly.

So, when my dear friend and teaching compatriot, Mr. M., asked what I thought about the idea of a sophomore-level humor unit, I was all in from day one. What followed sparked one of our most successful tenth grade units, and one that we’re lucky enough to be able to showcase at the WCTE conference this Friday. For those who attend the session (or for those who cannot make it in person), we’ve made the materials available here for you. You’ll find our rationale, a bibliography, a list of texts we utilized in class, student examples and more in the links below. We hope that you’ll enjoy building your own humor unit, and share ideas about how to add or modify what we’ve begun here. Thanks for visiting!

The Rhetoric of Humor:

Reading and Creating Comedic Texts to Enhance Student Writing, Literacy, and Community

Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention

Friday, October 12, 2012  ~   Madison, WI

Link to Google Presentation that overviews the essentials of our approach: click here!

Digital copy of handout from the conference: The Rhetoric of Humor handout

Additional formative and summative assignments from the unit: Additional Unit Materials

Most of us have read “that book”: the book that changes the course of our life or changes our mind or our hearts. For me, one of these books is Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. I first read it in my sophomore year of college, and have been rereading it contemplatively ever since. For those who haven’t read it, it is difficult to explain exactly what gives this novel its incredible power… The language is gorgeous, but also gritty when it needs to be. The structure is non-traditional, interspersing oral poetry amidst a storyline that is cyclical, fragmented, and out of chronological order. The plot edges along the realm of the spiritual as well as the political, but really stays centered on the fate of one man, Tayo. The story is his ceremony of healing for an impossible wound, and in many ways he stands for much more than himself. In my eyes, every reading of this book is a ceremony of sorts, and it works on its readers in unique, spellbinding ways.

I could go on, but I think I’ve sufficiently conveyed my personal investment in this beautiful work of literature. So why do I bring it up now? Because I finally got to teach it for the first time this past semester! The decision to include Ceremony was an unexpected but strong compulsion—one that caused me to deviate from the original syllabus and made me require my students to buy the novel, since the school didn’t have copies. (This strategy is actually a good one in a pinch—used novels go for about one cent plus shipping on Amazon; since it was my last minute decision, I offered to cover costs for any students who legitimately couldn’t spare a few bucks.) That’s how bad I wanted to teach this book, and how convinced I was that this was the right time to teach it.

I did have some worries, though, as I contemplated how to present and teach the novel, which is so embedded in Pueblo culture, in a socially responsible way. Here’s a segment of an email I wrote to one of my former literature professors about my concerns:

I’m wondering about the sacred nature of so much that Silko weaves into her writing. I mean… “ceremony”, ritual, story… the whole thing is sacred. I guess I want to be able to help my students understand this culture that surrounds the narrative, this culture so foreign to their conservative, Christian, small town community. But I don’t feel qualified to do that in ways other than drawing from my own very basic knowledge or pointing them to (who knows what this even means:) internet resources. I fear presenting them with an oversimplifed charicature, which might actually be worse than leaving them completely in the dark. Especially since the Laguna are a very private cultural community, it seems intrusive as a non-member of their community to be spouting secondhand information about their religious beliefs in my classroom. At the same time, my students’ current knowledge of indigenous people is limited to Disney’s Pocahontas, superficial history textbooks, and (for some) local stereotypes about reservations. We’ve already been through Native Son, and other demanding texts dealing with cultural boundaries and the tension of power structures, so they’re used to me pushing on their worldviews. But Ceremony is new teaching territory for me. And I want to do it right.

My professor was kind enough to write me back, reassure me that my own respect for the story would likely translate, and recommend some resources, including “Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony” (Allen 1990) and a chapter from Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (Owens 1994). I also scouted out a fantastic, illuminating article by Silko herself, “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective” (1979). With these readings, I was able to figure out my teaching plan. Since I had a hard time locating any other high school teaching resources for Ceremony online, I figured I’d include some of the resources I created and approaches I used. Teaching this novel is a difficult but intensely rewarding process.

*My “Day One” presentation included information on the novel’s renown, the non-traditional structure of the book, connections to Laguna Pueblo culture, and some reminders about approaching indigenous writing. There is also an introductory discussion and writing activity at the end. [CEREMONYintro.]

*I had students freewrite about sacred spaces (this could be anything from grandpa’s garage to a secluded lake bluff to a church altar) to help them understand Tayo’s connection to his homeland. After sharing our writing, we talked about what makes a place “sacred” and how we would feel if anyone ever vandalized or violated our sacred spaces.

*As students read each section, I expected them to interact with the story in a blend of analysis and personal response. I created a response guide [ceremonyresponsequestions] to help them come prepared with writing for discussion. This helped immensely, as they came prepared to offer a variety of ideas in the discussions we had in class each day. I tried to stay as hands-off as possible, and my students generated many unique responses. [Click here for some samples of their response writing.]

*When it made sense, I shared segments of the scholarly articles mentioned above to help students understand why the book is written the way it is, and to enhance their understanding of the book’s cultural foundation.

*We did some drawing to help envision and talk about scenes. A very successful application of this was a sketch of Betonie’s cabin. This is a striking and important setting, and the things students included in their drawings helped them decode what could have been dismissed as a crazy man’s junk collection.

*We wrote an informal literary/comparative analysis of the lyrics to “The Humbling River” by Pucifer, interpreting and connecting the speaker’s struggles and realizations to those of Tayo. I provided the lyrics and played the song for my students while they wrote. Check out this gorgeous, haunting song. (However, fair warning: much of their other material is explicit. Tread carefully.)

While I have much to add and develop as far as this unit is concerned, many of my students came away with a love for the novel. This student’s writing shows one of the overall reactions that make me feel like I at least did partial justice to Ceremony, one of “those books:”

One of the most important or the most powerful messages that I got from Ceremony was about the interaction of the world. There are different levels, different worlds that all blend together, influencing the other worlds. These worlds involve the past, present, and future, the land, history, people, animals, witchery, love and so much more, but they are all circling and whirling around at the same time. When they are out of balance, there’s grief, almost like the nausea that Tayo experiences. Balance is achieved when these worlds align. The cycle continues in a circle, over and over, like the star picture in the book! This culture’s view of an individual as a part of the world rather than as a separate, detached being is striking.

Thank you, Leslie Marmon Silko, for your gift to us. If any other teachers out there have awesome ideas for teaching this novel, please leave us your ideas in the comments!

It’s difficult to wrap my mind around the reality that I’m just months away from finishing out my first year teaching AP English Literature and Composition. This new part of my teaching load was daunting at first, considering I knew nothing about the AP program and that I had never before had the opportunity to put together an honors, let alone an AP course. I knew I was up to the challenge, having always been a person who demanded academic rigor of myself. Still, I knew that this would entail a lot of work… especially considering that, for the first time, I’d be working with students who are all academically very pretentious. Deep down, I had to question whether I would be able to convince them of my knowledgeability and credibility. I knew I couldn’t really “fake” my way through this, not even a little, because students who expect a lot of themselves expect even more of their teachers. My fears were not quickly assuaged; for the first two months of the course, my students regarded me in mostly silence–a silence I had absolutely no way of comprehending. “They hate me,” I thought to myself on a routine basis. Then: “Maybe they’re scared of me? Or scared to fail?” Or sometimes: “God, I hope they don’t think I’m an idiot who’s just faking my way through this.”

Luckily for us all, I have been investing a good percentage of my life since last June studying, preparing, reading, experimenting, and evolving in order to be worthy of my position as an “expert” teacher of literature, and my students now do speak to me, smile at me warmly, and laugh at my (usually stupid) jokes. [Example, for discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son: This man’s criminality stems from BIGGER influences than just his own independent choices… Um… no pun intended.] And, they are learning. They are making progress in their writing that I can visibly see. They tell me that they feel “enlightened” by what they’ve learned this year, and recently played a role in electing me as the commencement speaker for their graduating class. To my shock, awe, and happiness, I must be doing something right!

Don’t get me wrong–I am still very much the novice when it comes to teaching AP. Just look at a list of commonly cited texts of the essay portion of the exam, and it’s very difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the amount of canonical literature one hasn’t read and hasn’t taught. It seems I’ve already got a list a mile long when it comes to things that I’ll be doing a little differently next year. But for the most part, it’s been a great success. Granted, the students’ scores on the exam in May will be a more accurate measure of that success in a quantitative sense, but I am proud of what these students have been able to accomplish no matter what number they pull on the actual test. I am looking forward to building upon this first success, and eventually becoming a master AP Lit teacher… someday!

Since I learned a lot by doing, I’d like to share the outline of my course for those who are interested either to adopt aspects of it into their own AP plans, or those who’d like to offer new ideas that I (or anyone) could incorporate into this initial frame.  I found syllabi that were posted online to be another great help in the initial formation of my course, so I’ll make my own available as well.

Ms. H’s AP Literature Voyage Log

Summer syllabus: AP English Literature and Composition Summer Syllabus (PDF)

School year syllabus: AP English Literature and Composition Syllabus 11-12

My basic approach/primary goals for students

*Thorough exposure to great literature: Over two semesters, students read twelve novels/plays and dozens of poems and supplementary readings from a wide range of time periods and authors.

* I took a chronological and philosophical approach, organizing units by time period but also by the mindset of the time. When needed, I filled in gaps in students’ history knowledge (like more intimate details of the French Revolution or a deeper analysis of colonialism/racism in America than textbooks provide). I made sure that students could understand the unique historical terms, literary period, and worldview under which each story was formed. This really helped their analyses become more sophisticated, rather than repeating tired aphorisms gleaned from simplified impressions of history.

*Nearly every day, students define and apply a new literary term. From “foil” to “colloquialism” to “ballad meter” to “deus ex machina,” they need to be able to wield these terms in writing and identify them on the multiple choice section. I also focus on teaching the many words that can be used to describe tone, like “elegiac” or “pedantic.”

*Close reading, close reading, close reading… we come back to this often–learning and practicing how to truly interpret language, identify the effects of language choices, and using that information to support a well-crafted thesis. [Click on this link for a Powerpoint fashioned to introduce the concept: Writing-about-literature]

*We take, dissect, and question practice multiple choice exams, in an effort to learn what to expect and how the questioning process seems to operate.

*Constant writing. Ask my students, and you will find that they write quite a bit. There are eleven formal essays in all, each of which I spend copious time commenting on. I identify and explain moments of success, problematic sections, and give a final remark along with the grade at the end. It’s worth the entire day that it takes to grade a full class’ worth, because the students respond and enhance their writing as a result. Revision is expected and encouraged.

*Much academic discussion is required, as a full class, with smaller groups, and with me. Students annotate their texts in preparation, and are pushed daily to make comments (spoken and in writing) which, in the words of the AP course description, are “insightful” and “acknowledge complexity.” My students have come an extremely long way in this category, and it’s the one that I’m most proud of. They truly have gone from making banal, insipid generalizations to impressing me on a daily basis with the kinds of things that they observe and characterize. [Click this link for my presentation on insight/complexity: developing-insight2]

 

Fellow AP instructors, I have a new respect for what you do. Congrats on all the work you’ve done, and that which you’ll continue to do. Academic rigor is something sorely needed in American schools, and it’s truly a gift to have a group of students who embrace that opportunity with open arms. Best of luck on the exam. *Fingers crossed for a class full of threes, fours, and fives*

 

I’ve been working a lot with my AP Literature and Composition students on their writing skills. Writing about literature has many aspects that can be troublesome for student writers. One of the most difficult parts for my students has been learning to formulate an argument about a fictional work, and–in particular–using quotes in order to further the argument that they create, instead of inserting irrelevant narrative quotes to illustrate a glorified summary. Part of this, I think, has been due to their tendency to write an essay without quotes first, before going back and trying to “plug in” a quotation here and there. When done right, quotations should be the framework of the piece, upholding and elaborating the claims of the student writer.

So how does one achieve the incorporation of quotes that are an integral part of an essay’s structure? Sometimes you’ve got to start with the quotes themselves. There are various ways to begin composing a literary essay, but I have a tried and true method that has worked for me in my own writing since the idea came to me in high school on an impulse. It’s the Ms. H Method for Planning the Ultimate Literature Essay!  I created a small comic to guide my students through this process, so that they can try it out to see if it works for them (click on the image to make it bigger):

I love this technique because it’s very visual and very hands-on. Rather than overloading the mental circuitry by trying to envision an entire paper at a single go, using the quotation slips allow the writer to manually rearrange, organize, and experiment with ideas before a word even hits the page. For me, this kind of thing really makes me feel like I know where I’m headed from the moment I write the first sentence. Also, it ensures that my use of quotations is crafted and purposeful.

Every writer’s process is different, but whenever possible I like to share mine with my students. For some, it may provide a new, helpful technique. For others, it might inspire a different approach. For everybody, it shows that I am a writer, too–an important thing for teachers of English (and all teachers, really) to share with their students. All writers struggle, and all writers create. I think when students view us as fellow strugglers/creators, they respect our feedback more, find it easier to approach us for help, and more willingly see us as collaborators in the experience of learning to write, rather than omnipotent, wrathful red pens. Sharing aspects of myself as a writer reminds me that I was once much like my students, and consequently helps me better adapt to what they need as growing analysts and philosophers.