Sunday, December 4, 2011

Authentic Research & Creative Writing Task to Complement Octavia Butler’s Kindred

Last year, my high school librarian LaDawna Harrington suggested a project she’s used before to have students create a decade’s magazine which would require students to research a particular decade with a group and write feature articles, advertisements and stories based on their research.  While teaching Octavia Butler’s Kindred, I decided to modify the story assignment to require students to write about a modern American character that travels back to that decade as characters in Kindred do. 

This year, I had a few model magazines to help students see what the final product should look like.  I first had students rank their top choices for different decades in American history.  Across the board, most students identify one or two main events that they can associate with any decade they consider.  It becomes really fun for me when they go to the library and find out so much more about pop culture from those decades and I see how interested they become in their decades. 

The main content of the magazine is their short stories that are modeled after Kindred.  Although students did a good job writing these stories last year, I wanted to provide students with more time to write and more feedback on their creative pieces like I typically allot to my fiction classes.  I started with more writing prompts and exercises to get them thinking about their time period and how to write about characters going back to that decade.  After going to NCTE, I was moved by many of the prompts Deborah Hopkinson and Kirby Larson suggested during the session "The Best Old Stories Make the Best New Stories." 

Students already created digital portfolios and I’m hoping that they incorporate many parts of the magazine on their websites for the 2nd marking period.  Within their decade groups, students had to write letters to each other about their websites that included one positive comment and at least one critique or suggestion (I participated in this process too: My American Literature Portfolio).  As small writing communities, we reviewed the letters in class and discussed what parts of the comments would be appropriate to post on the sites and what parts would be more appropriate to email or inform group members in class.  We discussed the negative aspects of online commenting (especially under anonymous profiles) and how we want to comment on each other's work in a positive manner.

Building on their writing communities for websites, students came to class with drafts of their short stories and as each individual read his/her story, the other group members used small comment cards (How they viewed the tone of the piece in ONE WORD, one aspect they liked about the story, and one suggestion for improvement).  Within groups of 3-5 students, it took them about 20-30 minutes to workshop their pieces.  When groups finished, they had specific directions to annotate writing techniques Octavia Butler used (dialogue, internal thoughts, and plot transitions) as Dana figured out where she was in the past for the first time. 

During the work shopping process, it was important for students to read their individual pieces aloud as most students were able to identify wording issues from this process.  I also participated in writing process and joined a group in each of my four American literature classes.  On my class site, I’m showing students updated drafts for my story featuring Alice Paul and what the editing process is like for me.  I was particularly motivated to write with my students after attending NCTE's session, "The Power of Writing with Students."  Writing with them and participating in the workshopping process has made such a difference and I want to thank the presenters!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Knowledge as a Key to Survival (Frederick Douglass & Marjane Satrapi)

Two weeks ago, I was struck by a part of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis when her mother scolds her for cutting class:
“This time I covered for you, but it’s the last time!  Now is the time for learning.  You have your whole life to have fun!  What are you going to be when you grow up??  In this country you have to know everything better than anyone else if you’re going to survive!!” (Satrapi 113) 
After reading that passage, I couldn’t help but question if American society ever puts that kind of emphasis on education.  Of course the repressive regime Marji Satrapi lives through in Iran is a very difficult environment for her to grow up in and knowledge clearly becomes crucial to survival.  I recognize that many of my students face pressures to succeed in school, but I sometimes question how much most of my students value knowledge and the learning process.  I truly wonder what kind of an impact education would have if the stakes were greater to people’s personal safety and freedom.   
In recently reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the urgency of knowledge is highlighted when Douglass’s master accidentally reveals to him that education is the way out of slavery.  He tricked or bribed little boys to teach him to write, “This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge” (The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Chapter VII).   It became even more imperative for Douglass to learn vocabulary when he first heard the word “Abolition.”  Understanding the meaning of this one word becomes crucial to his life and attainment of freedom.  Douglass writes about his deep understanding of education and slavery’s inability to coexist.
Does our culture value the sustenance of knowledge to this degree?  How can we as students and educators foster the idea that knowledge is crucial to our survival?  During class today, students shared mixed opinions about these questions.  Most students began our discussion by thinking about how education is essential for our eventual success, but I urged them to think of specific pieces of knowledge that can become a matter of life and death.  From there, they began to think more deeply about what knowledge people need to have to travel safely in different countries, what knowledge doctors need to have in order to effectively treat patients, and what knowledge military leaders need to care for their troops.  Some students who have lived in different countries offered stories about how lower classes of people in other countries had to work incredibly hard to gain admission to high school and college to better their lives and to help their families.  
As students continue to read and study The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I hope that the mere discussion heightens students’ awareness of education’s role in our lives.  While we are fortunate to live in a fairly safe and free country, it is important to remember that our ability to seek knowledge and express our ideas is a gift and we should seek to develop our knowledge even if the stakes are not quite as high those Satrapi or Douglass faced.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

NCTE 1st Day's Inspiration

This afternoon, I arrived in the windy city of Chicago very excited to get to NCTE!  After the many months of preparation to present, and the more recent stresses of packing, travelling, and preparing sub. plans, the first day alone proved that it was all worth it!

The first workshop I attended was “Talking Writer to Writer: Rediscovering the Power of Conferring” with Douglas Kaufman, Penny Kittle, and Linda Rief.  The session was absolutely inspiring!  Kaufman opened the session by stating, “The writing conference is a learning event.”  And then the whole room wrote by responding to three effective quick write prompts.  The presenters paid tribute to Donald Graves and it reminded me of a video I used from him that made such a difference in my writing classes last semester:  To build a writing community, you need to write together, and that was exactly what we did during this session. 

It was interesting to watch the three videos the presenters showed of writing conferences with their students because it was easy to see how coaching writing is a skill (not a formula) and how it looks different depending on age groups.  Some of the best advice the presenters gave about writing conferences:
  •      Go into a writing conference like a listener and writer and try not to push your agenda too much.
  •       Try to encourage students to walk away from the writing conference wanting to write more.
  •       Shorter writing conferences tended to be more productive.

This evening, I was able to listen to Natasha Trethewey read parts of her book, Native Guard.  Her speaking about cultural memory, personal history and what gets erased from cultural history was captivating.  She said that she often asks her students to think about themselves as historical beings.  I enjoyed hearing her read her poetry and like many reviews of her writing, I found her style to be very polished, yet accessible.  I’m hoping to use some of Trethewey’s poems when I teach The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (“NATIVE GUARD” 25), Kindred, Beloved, and To Kill a Mockingbird (“SOUTHERN GOTHIC” 40).  Professor Trethewey signed my book and told me that one of her favorite writers is Seamus Heaney.  

I came back to my hotel room tonight feeling so inspired by the sessions I attended today.  In reviewing some of my students' digital portfolios today, I tried to respond to some of their updated posts with conferring strategies I saw today.  The first session reminds me that coaching writing is a difficult practice and I need to be critical of my role in helping students improve their writing.  Watching the presenters review their conferences on film made that so much more apparent and I really appreciate their willingness to show what they've learned from effective and ineffective writing conferences.  

Saturday, September 10, 2011

High School Reading Resuscitation

             Launching an independent reading program has been my goal since I started out as a student teacher six years ago. Last year, I was able to start the program in my elective classes. Most students who already liked to read continued to read and enjoyed the program.  However, I felt like I failed to draw in more reluctant or disinterested readers. 
            When speaking with a colleague, she cited Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide and just how difficult it is to encourage a love of reading in high school.  It seems like most of my students only read when they need to for class.  Over my past five years teaching 10th grade students, I can easily name only about ten students who I discovered loved to read.  I think that there were probably more, but high school curriculums leave minimal time to develop an independent reading program.
            Nevertheless, I’m determined to make an independent reading program work in my high school classes.  I brainstormed the following list, but I’d love for you to share any ideas you have for launching and maintaining an independent reading program.  If any students are reading this, please tell me about any suggestions you have that would encourage you to read.

  1. Make books’ purpose obvious: A colleague put posters around the room with different reasons for why we read.  (Examples: “I read to gain knowledge,” “I read for enjoyment/entertainment.”)  Following her idea, I’ll have students to go to signs to discuss the reasons why they read. 
  2. Make books move:  One of the best strategies for teaching students how to be readers is called a book pass.  My college professor, Dr. Emily Meixner, used this strategy to take a selection of books of interest and have students sit in pairs and pass the books around the room.  Each pair gets about 2-3 minutes to browse through the book and rate it on a note-taking sheet.  It helps non-readers to talk with their peers about books, read the back cover, and select books they like.  
  3. Make books visible:  A couple of years ago, I started bringing books into my classroom.  My desk was covered for a couple of weeks and I felt like I should organize them and put them away in the cabinets.  Before I got a minute to do so, a student started asking me to borrow some of them.  Each week, she borrowed at least two.  I would not have known she was the avid read she was unless I had a cluttered desk.
  4. Make books accessible: I’m planning a day to take my students to the library to pick out books to read.  It is going to be a class requirement to have an independent reading book with them every day.  I plan to provide students with at least 20 minutes a week to read in class and my hope is that they’ll read on their own if they have their books with them everyday. 
  5. Make books the topic of graffiti: My school librarian and I are going to put up butcher paper around the library for students to use to discuss book recommendations. 
  6. Make book recommendations visible: Prior students submitted reading recommendations on a Google spreadsheet, so I plan to share this with current students. 
  7. Make books the reward:  I’m a bit unsure about this strategy.  The joy of reading should be the reward.  I hope that some of my students will get to that point.  To give them a little incentive, I informed students that if they read at least two outside books by January, they will earn extra class currency (Each class writes an honor code at the beginning of the year and students get 3 American Lit. dollars to use for extensions or extra points on an assignment) for 2nd semester.

Please add more suggestions for launching or maintaining an independent reading program in high school.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

You Gotta Be The Story: Joining the Writing Community

When I began my creative writing class this past semester, I was looking for new and innovative ways to launch the new course.  I like teaching semester courses because it feels like September in January! 

Needless to say, I came across a great video by Donald Graves.  His advice may seem simple or obvious, but is extremely effective:

So, for the first two weeks of class, my writing classes have written a good amount, read their work to the class, and offered constructive feedback.  In fact, I modified the workshopping process a bit to include:
1.     A writer volunteers to read his/her work.
2.     Another writer is called on to summarize the story.
3.     The writer can clarify or other students can ask questions to make sure they understand the story.
4.     Students offer constructive feedback. 

I find that calling on students randomly to summarize the story helps keep students focused and attentive.  However, I find that the real key to making this work is my participation.  I feel like I have finally been able to stress that we are a writing community because I too wrote a story, read it aloud, and listened to my students for their suggestions and feedback.  In fact, after I read, a student was chuckling a little to himself.  I asked him about it and he smiled and said that it was kind of neat to be able to criticize the teacher.  After jokingly reminding him who decides on the grades, I listened as my students offered some really good suggestions for ways I could add to my story and clarify a couple of parts. 

How can I expect them to value writing and sharing if I don’t participate?  I have a new-found respect for my students because we are part of this community together and I look forward to a growing as a writer with them this semester. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

For the Love of American Literature

Any American literature teachers, students, or researchers out there?  Anyone who just loves American literature?

Call for Feedback: American Literature Research Paper Pairings

Please review this list of possible options I plan to suggest to my American literature students for their research papers in the spring that focus on developing a comparative argument and supporting their writing with literary criticism.  In the past, students were sent off on their own to read and write about an American author.  It was daunting and most students didn't know where to start to find two works.  They'll still have options, but I want to help them along a little more and suggest pairings that will work and they'll enjoy.  Please add comments if you have any suggestions or email me at

American Literature Research Paper Ideas for Sophomores: Please Give Feedback!

College Preparatory Level:
1.  Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
Gene Luen Yang, American-Born Chinese
Amy Tan, “Mother Tongue”
2.  Julia Alvarez, Saving the World or Before We Were Free
Laurie Halse Anderson, Fever
3.  David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, James A. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar
4.  Chaim Potak, The Chosen
Art Spiegelman, Maus I
5.  Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Flowers for Algernon
6.  Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
Harlem Renaissance Poetry Selection
7.  Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Kurt Vonnegut, “Harrison Bergeron”
8.  Richard Wright, Black Boy
Richard Wright, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”
9.  Bobby Ann Mason, In Country
Thom Jones, “The Pugilist at Rest”
10.  Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
11.  John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust

Honors Level:
1.  Amy Tan, Mother Tongue, The Joy Luck Club
2.  Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent
3.  David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, James A. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar
5.  Chaim Potak, The Chosen
Art Spiegelman, Maus I5.  A Raisin in the Sun, Harlem Poets
6.  Michael Dorris, The Yellow Raft in Blue Water
Sherman Alexie, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” or “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel”
7.  Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Kurt Vonnegut, “Harrison Bergeron”
8.  Richard Wright, Black Boy
Richard Wright, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”
9.  Bobby Ann Mason, In Country
Thom Jones, “The Pugilist at Rest”
10.  Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
11.  John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust
12.  Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
Adeline Yen Mah, Chinese Cinderella