Thursday, June 15, 2017

"...anything that fairly excites our admiration expands us." - Thoreau

Though it's not packaged as "data," here's more evidence to support an inquiry-based classroom. The more a teacher is able to facilitate learning that stems from an area of, call it what you will- interest, admiration, curiosity- the more invested students will be in their learning, the more meaning you will construct in the classroom... the more you are ultimately equipping students to be interesting people that will expand society. Throw away your worksheets, people. No, wait, recycle.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Poetry and Protein

For National Poetry Month, here are my thoughts on poetry’s role in the classroom, featuring way too many food metaphors. For starters, can we agree that poetry is worthwhile? Novalis said, “poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” A school with no poetry would be all method with no madness, right? Poetry offers poignant truth, beauty, and insight into what we all like to call “the human condition.” At some point, life’s cruel, absurd torchbearer has carelessly set us all ablaze, and the degree of our burns are as wicked and varied as any wildfire. Poetry can offer one of life’s kindest balms.

Poetry, in my opinion, is used most effectively in the classroom as seasoning, a garnish, or maybe even a dessert. When it is used as a main course, the waiter could become agitated at the diners’ complaints when the meal is not filling enough, or when they’re not sure how to ingest the course, or... maybe, after one bite, they discretely spit the poem into a napkin having wished they’d been able to order something else. Without some degree of variety and spontaneity your lesson is going to ultimately be as pointless as trying to explain how coffee, or asparagus, or organ meat is delightful to someone who reviles it. They won’t get it; heck they may even come to disdain you for it. Why not give students the freedom to explore poetry the way a novice chef might spin a spice rack, trying out different flavors and combinations? This, of course, necessitates an anthology. For American Literature, here is one of my favorites, loaded with wonderful poems, that isn’t going to break the budget at $2.70.

Now, you can also purchase a teaching unit to go with this book, however, in my opinion, worksheets should rarely be used with poems. While the intention of the worksheet may be wonderful, it always feels a bit too much like a survey card after a great meal: I’d much rather talk with someone about the food while I’m tasting it. I did once purchase a unit in correlation with this book, but usually we get through only a question or two before we’re stirring in other sources, personally relating, or gnawing on the poem’s inferred philosophical questions.

So some of you might be wondering- where’s the protein in this metaphor?!- and like so many armchair nutritionists you may become agitated at the notion of a meal with no obvious source of protein. Let me assuage your anxiety…. the protein is a classroom environment that encourages open-ended questions, speculation, personal connections, gravitas, and maybe a little bit of silliness. The amino acid of your enthusiasm will nourish novice poets and philosophers to speak up. This environment, of course, is in many ways much harder to pull off than simply buying a poetry anthology for $2.70… because, obviously, you must be sensitive enough love poetry for this to work, but thick-skinned enough to keep trying, even when it doesn’t.

Happy National Poetry Month, friends!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Interest Journals

Started in 2005, these interest journals have evolved from a few notebooks with titles in Sharpie, to a shelf full of vibrant (I hope) topics. They are fun to get students writing on a Monday. I have written at least a page in all of them, so it's also a way for students to get to know me better, and vice versa. One of the challenges is to stay up on the reading. I used to read every journal, every time. Now, not so much. I award participation points and plan to have students write their name and the title of the journal they wrote in to help create accountability. As it is, I have two rules for interest journaling: 1) sign your name and date your entry 2) keep it school appropriate. Occasionally I have to deal with "graffiti"... essentially someone trolling someone else's entry, but this is much rarer than I would have thought. Often students enjoy hearing the voices of the past.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Current State of Illiteracy...

So, normally I don't let things like this bother me, but this time it's personal...they've brought books into it. Can you believe there are enough people in the world (mostly American, I'm sure) that are so eager to buy a book full of blank pages that said book has catapulted to the #1 bestseller in books on Amazon, and is currently out of stock? I understood when 1984 sold out on Amazon, but this baffles me.  According to the US Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, there are 32 million illiterate adults in the US, and, I'm guessing, most of them have ordered this book. But seriously, 21% of the adults in the US read below a 5th grade level. The US Department of Justice states that "The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure." Obviously, I think reading is important... I've dedicated my life to reading and writing. I guess that's why the success of a book filled with blank pages irks me so much. We are a country that touts its ignorance. I know it's supposed to be a joke, and a dig at Democrats, but it's scary to me how a book that has no words in it has better reviews than any of Hemingway's books. I feel the need to quote Isaac Asimov... he said, "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way though our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" The cult is taking over, it seems. Well, at least they're currently taking over book sales on Amazon. There's so much that divides us in this country... the distribution of wealth, religious beliefs, race, opinions on healthcare... but there is perhaps no gap more concerning to me than the literacy gap. There seems to be very little a person can do to convince someone who his hell-bent on never opening a book to do so. A great America is an America that reads.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Argumentation: Rogerian Theory using Immigration

The documentary series 30 Days, specifically the episode on "Immigration," shows the controvertial issue in a way that appeals to modern teen audiences. This episode, which you can stream for free on Vimeo here, shows two sides of the argument; Frank George is a "Minuteman" that travels to the border on a fairly regular basis with his 9mm pistol and .223 rifle to report illegals crossing over to US border patrol; George is a legal US immigrant from Cuba. Armida "Gonzalez" (the family asked that their real name not be used) is an illegal, immigrant teenager whose aspirations include going to Princeton and making it to States on her high school golf team. The documentary strives to show the issue from both sides in 2006-2007 US.

Here's where Rogerian theory comes in; after students have finished the documentary, ask them to write to either Armida or Frank.  The difficult part, at least initially, is that if they personally agree with Frank, they must write to Armida and vice versa. Good excuse to teach business letter format, also. The most challenging aspect is arriving at common ground.

Here's the assignment prompt:

Your letter should both articulate the opposing side's view in a way that is unbiased, objective and complete in its ability to match the holder's intensity, use of vocabulary, and give a nod to current controversy. It should strive to establish common ground. If necessary, do research to present an educated, realistic common ground.

Transcendentalist Theme: Simplicity

See the Lonely Island in the Classroom blogpost on how to introduce the theme of simplicity to teenagers.

Also, see the post and video on tiny home builder Austin Hay.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Impromptu Stories

I want to break up these Transcendentalist posts with a little activity that has helped keep me afloat during many a lesson that ended prematurely, or with many a group that was hard to keep focused. It's simple and fun... if you're a storyteller, that is. Choose three students to each contribute a word (maybe these are the students that are hardest to keep focused). Write those words on the board. Encourage zaniness or "randomness." Example:

1. Squirrels
2. Wheelbarrow
3. Guitar

Now, narrate a story, out loud, that connects these three elements. It might go something like this:

I was out back playing my guitar one morning, really enjoying the new spring sunshine, lazily picking notes and putting off spreading the mulch that sat in a pile on a tarp, off to one side. My wife hollered out, "I'm going grocery shopping; I'd like the mulch spread by the time I get back." I looked over at the locked shed where I kept my wheelbarrow and shovel. I had no idea where the key to that old rusty lock was, but I said, "Of course, dear." I kept picking the notes. Now, one benefit of playing the guitar out back is that for some reason, when I play the blues, the squirrels in the neighborhood all come into the big chestnut tree in the back yard. They sit like trained seals and listen. I swear. Today I was feeling good from the spring sunshine, so I picked out a particularly inspired blues tune. Sure enough, the squirrels came. There were gray ones, red ones, even a few black ones. My wife doesn't like the squirrels; "they they eat all the chestnuts, and then we don't get any," (she loves chestnuts), so it's almost as if they knew she was gone, because there had to be a hundred up in that tree. So I picked and picked. More came. So I sang, "my wife she don't know me / today's the day / she wants me to work / and I'd much rather play / the mulch is high / my voice is low / she wants me to shovel / but I say no / that mulch can sit there / that mulch can wait / the sunshine won't last / that's all our fate / so while we're alive / let's sit and play / the work can wait / for another day..." and on and on like that. And do you know what? Those squirrels, bit by bit started spreading that mulch while I played and played. Like a street musician pulling pocket change from passer-bys these squirrels bit by bit took the strips of mulch in their tiny hands and jaws and spread it like a well-oiled, albeit furry, machine. By the time I had run out of lyrics they had spread all of the mulch into the flower beds. "You guys did a great job," I said, beaming. "Wait here." I went inside and pulled down the large bowl of chestnuts we'd managed to harvest late last summer into the fall. There were quite a few. I'd daresay enough for each squirrel to have one. So, I took it out back and like a clown in a parade, threw handfuls of chestnuts to my helpers. They took their prize and went just as I heard the car pull into the driveway. I went out front to help my wife bring in the groceries. She said, " you don't look very sweaty." I said, "it's all done." She looked skeptical, but she loved the mulch! She hugged me and we went back inside to put away the groceries. "Hand me down that bowl of chestnuts," she said. "I think it's time we should roast some to enjoy." 

"About that..." I started, giving my most winning smile.    

So if you're full of hot air, like me, and like telling stories, try mesmerizing your class with this activity by coming up with something off the top of your head, like the above example. Or better yet, let them give it a try for themselves. Finally, you could adapt it to class writing and then have them read what they came up with.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Transcendentalist Themes: Nature and Non-Conformity

Forewarning, this post is going to be like a weird version of A Christmas Carol with babies, crying indians, and guys with  perms laying down difficult truths with uncanny, albeit perhaps computer generated, savor faire. Cool? Okay, just so we're on the same page be sure to click this link and listen while you read. If you've never seen the video, you might want to...

And mute the ads please. "Someone's always playing corporation games." Thanks. Now, crank the bass until the windows rattle.

Okay, now we can hang.

First, recognize that art will say more with zero words than you're capable of saying in an entire class period. Once you realize this, USE ART IN YOUR CLASSROOM. In order to prime students for Emerson's ideas in "Nature," spend some time exploring Thomas Cole's series titled "The Voyage of Life."

Use all four paintings. They're awesome. Luxuriate in exploring their details together. For purposes of brevity I'll get to the point here.


See that baby tweaking out on a lush bed of thick vegetation? That's you. That's how tight you used to be with greenery.

So how did we get here?

That's right... a crying Indian with a load of litter across his moccasins. Good question.

Perhaps we should jump ahead to what happens in adulthood... shall we?

Oh, snap! Look at that!  The vegetation has been swapped for a bunch of stupid, materialistic crap, like silks, gold, double mortgages, trophy wives, etc. In other words, this home boy is "knee deep in the hoopla / sinking in [his] fight"  It seems as if Emerson's opening lines carry literal weight... "To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child." So it seems that when our priorities shift from a connection with nature to an emphasis on worldly goods, our lives grow desperate... The Transcendentalists would agree: "In the woods, we return to reason and to faith."

So take your students into the woods. Okay, that sounds creepy. I mean, go outside, will ya?

When we go outside for the first time and tramp all around a few students always claim that it's something they never would have done at their sending school. "At _______ school, the kids would have been running for the fence, etc." Despite these highly unlikely outcomes the students use to exaggerate the lesser appetizing aspects of their sending schools, what we're doing is, with the exception of maybe environmental science class, kind of non-conformist...

Speaking of non-conformity... "macaroni plays the mamba," WTF? Hahahaha!

Emerson's essay "Self Reliance" relies on your students' understanding of the terms "conformity and non-conformity." Maybe 20% of my students have these words floating around in their schema; so what to do with the other 80%? I find value in these teaching aids.

Collins Street at 5 pm by John Brack.

Immediately students see conformity. Lives full of "quiet desperation." Heck, "it's just another Sunday, (okay probably Monday) in a tired old street." Spend some time asking students what they see. Let them tell you.

If this isn't enough, I like to use a few different children's books. Some that work well are Dr. Seuss' The Sneetches, and Jonathan Allen's The Little Rabbit who Liked to Say Moo. The former is great because it shows how we can get hung up on superficial differences, while the latter is excellent for audience participation. Have the kids make the loudest barnyard noises they are capable of making. And if you really want to indulge individuality, encourage them to make the one noise that makes them unique. Do it loudly.

As before, ask students to poach three direct quotes from the essay that deal with the concept of conformity / non-conformity. If some students are still fuzzy on the concept this scene from Dead Poet's Society should seal the deal.

What is America?! We're a country of rebels, for crying out loud, striving for the best way to live! Even Abe gets down!

I feel like the Transcendentalists were total rockstars; the original rebels with a cause. They offer us a portrait of hope for the future of America. Without them Rock and Roll might have never been invented! We need them!

As for us English teachers, "Don't tell us you need us, because we're the simple fools / Looking for America, coming through your schools."

Monday, February 27, 2017

Transcendentalist Theme: Moral Agency

I will post a series of lessons for breaking down the Transcendentalists' ideas into real-world concepts.  "Civil Disobedience" is the piece we read after finishing The Crucible. I believe it is a natural progression; students remember this line from Elizabeth explaining John Proctor: "The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you." We come to understand John has a strong conscience, and by the end of the play ripping up his confession could be seen as an act of civil disobedience. We talk about this. I ask for real world examples; students struggle coming up with them. So, we watch this recreation of Stanley Milgram's experiment to test obedience to authority, and moral agency.

After watching, students are usually horrified that 9 of the 12 "teachers" go through with the entire experiment, delivering 450 volts to the "learner." We talk about who is at fault: the teacher who flips the switch or the professor who tells the teacher to flip the switch. Most students by now see where this is going and recognize that the little judge that sits in your heart takes precedent over the big judge that sits in one of those leather-clad chairs with buttons... who might enforce something like, oh, say, segregation laws. If you're brave you could bring up travel bans... There is usually one student that thinks the professor should be at fault, because the teacher was just doing what they were told to do. Sometimes, from here, we go on to talk about war crimes, Nazism, and just to keep it light, Bug's Life. Why Bug's Life? Well, Hopper has some words of advice for Princess Atta (who, next to Vanellope, is one of the only Disney Princesses I like):

First rule of leadership: "everything is your fault." We go on to reason that we all want to be in charge of our own lives; those of us in positions of power, in charge of the lives of others, should take responsibility for our actions. "We learned this in kindergarten," someone might say. Indeed. So, why is it hard?

For some it may be hard to admit fault; for others maybe they feel like they don't deserve their success. After a bit of speculation we narrow the big scary concept of civil disobedience down to "taking responsibility for your own actions." From there I ask students to find three (rationale: once is random, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern) quotes from "Civil Disobedience" that relate back to moral agency, or as we said, taking responsibility for your actions.

From there we read MLK's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and attempt to pair three more direct quotes with those taken from civil disobedience. Once we do this, I teach students how to write a synthesis/analysis paragraph. Because this can be challenging, I use the following graphic to coach them on how to structure it.

It is important to emphasize that students should choose the pairing of quotes they feel they will be able to explain the best. Here's one we did in class:

Postscript: perhaps the most compelling lines from MLK's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" are "An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority... An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal."

Modern implications? 

That's up to you. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Walden and Climate Change

A byproduct of writing a nature journal along with Thoreau's Walden is that my students and I now have a record of when plants bloomed, etc. According to scholars, one of Walden's many benefits is that it chronicles the onset of spring in 19th century Concord, Massachusetts. Some have used this record to highlight factors that could be interpreted as indicative of climate change. This NPR article shows just what I mean. There have also been books written about how Walden provides evidence for climate change.  Which, say what you want about climate change, I tend to side with the scientists. On Friday I took this picture, the first leaf of spring in Northeast Ohio (or at least, the first one I have found), outside the school. It was 75 degrees on February 25, 2017.

At the time I was thinking it was just a neat picture I could use in a nature journal... then I thought maybe, culturally, we should really start paying attention to this kind of stuff. I decided to go back into my nature journal and compare dates. For instance here is the first green shoots coming out of the ground at our house two years ago:

I took this picture on February 19, 2017:

Now, I've never claimed to be good with numbers, but I believe this same plant is blooming significantly earlier in 2017 than in 2015. Apparently Thoreau noted that the first open flower of highbush blueberry opened May 1, 1853 in Massachusetts. According to the NPR article, the same plant is blooming in the first week of April. At the Skarl house, the first flower of spring in 2015 opened March 24:

Well, based on the picture I just took roughly ten minutes ago, and the fat buds that are already forming, the first flower of spring at the Skarl house in 2017 will probably be about a month earlier than that of 2015:

I suppose I could get all political. Instead, I think I'll just drop a link and call it a day.  Eh, maybe just one more... okay, last one...

Update: photo taken March 8, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

NCTE Recognizes

I got this in the mail today at school. It appears that NCTE recognizes me as a High School English Professor! Hahahahahaha! To my knowledge I invented this title for an article about my teaching called "Double Play: Notes from a High School English Professor." The article appeared in the inaugural issue of Crosspol, which is a really great journal for and about writing teachers. Check out Colin and Andrew on Facebook and see what they're up to now. They're doing some great work for education. Word y'all!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

1. I am not a dog.

So, my new favorite YouTuber is Zach Anner.  Well, saying new favorite implies I had an old favorite, which I suppose is misleading... in fact, the only YouTuber I have ever watched more than once is James Rolfe as the Angry Video Game Nerd, who, if you've never seen his videos, is magical and entertaining, and also highly crude. But CLEVERLY crude... I owned two YouTuber books for a hot minute: Shane Dawson's I Hate My Selfie, and Jenn McCalister's Very Professional Internet Person. I used excerpts from Jenn McCalister's book to add to our models of literacy narrative; her chapters on how she came to make YouTube films and how she slowly cultivated an audience acts as a really nice piece of digital literacy narrative. It also inspired some of the best digital literacy narratives I've ever read from students. Shane Dawson's book, on the other hand, (WARNING >>> GIANT RANT) I saw as fairly well written, but too gratuitously crude (note, not CLEVERLY crude) to take seriously... or to really allow students to read. It actually kind of pissed me off that here was a person with some charisma and storytelling ability making dick and fart jokes just because it was probably the kind of thing he said to mask extreme self-loathing.... I suppose it pissed me off ever more that he admits this is why he does it. Anyway, now a student is reading it because she has watched several of his YouTube videos, also crude, and I suppose that I'd rather her be reading than on YouTube, so I gave her the book. As a general rule, I suppose, I don't spend much time on YouTube unless it is to stream highly intelligent videos in class, such as this video featuring Cookie Monster singing death metal.  See previous post featuring Cookie Monster...  ANYWHO (END OF RANT >>>)... I really enjoy Zach's sense of humor and openness about Cerebral Palsy. I wrote a story once narrated by a young man with CP. The story was partly inspired by a family friend with CP. Anyway, I hope, if a guy like Zach were to ever read the story, he would think I did an okay job depicting CP. That's something I worry about a lot. I'm writing something much longer that depicts several different people with exceptionalities. I just hope I don't royally screw it up. Also, I ordered Zach's book today.  Really looking forward to it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Driftwood Press

Thanks to James McNulty and the editorial team at Driftwood Press for working with me on "Porcelain." If you're looking for a market for your writing, these folks exemplify what an editorial board of a literary magazine should be. Also excited for an excerpt of my interview to be featured in The Review Review. Thanks guys!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Argumentation: Rickrolling Toulmin

Now, while tEaching the toulmin model of argumentation, I haVe found a dEarth of inteResting examples online.  See the example below:

Geesh!  Only, calm dowN frieNds....we All know, Rick.

Rick is Going to be okay... he Is wearing sunglasses and Vibrant dEnim armor stop wasting our time.

Innovative teachers of rhetoric and argumentation strategies everYwhere strive tO really bring real, lively, relevant claims into their classrooms, don't yoU think? Here is one that I've grown fond of over the years.

Do yoU see how relevant this is to daily life? I strive to make those connections for my students... clearly joking People, but, at least my students are engaged. It's better than talking about some dude's pasty skin, I think.

In the beginning stages of learning, it's important to keep it simple, no?

That's right.


To read more about this important difference, click here.

I've had some really boring teachers before. This teacher is Never Gonna Let You Down.

*Postscript... I was reading some old posts ... I used to blog a lot about Muppets. That is all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow

This book reads like a first draft with promise. The most compelling parts of the novel are flashbacks due largely to the fact that the plot is a bit of a mess and not engaging; the most engaging bit was a flashback explaining the relationship between the main character, Julius, and a woman named Zoya, or Zed, which would have been a nice short story.  It’s the moment, for me, in which I am able to feel empathy for any of the characters; the character are, by and large, flat and lifeless…. Probably a by-product of a novel in which people live forever- in the event of sickness or death their minds are downloaded from the most recent save-point into a new body- so they behave disgracefully (casually smoking crack, for instance), and therefore, despite the author’s attempts to make them deserving of our empathy, are kind of despicable. This would be totally excusable if the novel were pure satire, but the author’s nostalgic sentimentality for the pop culture he should be using to eviscerate us is what ultimately binds his hands and makes the book flat (for instance a major plot twist foreshadowed… or completely given away if you’re familiar with the song “Rocky Raccoon”... by the narrator’s love interest being named Lil who cheats on him with, you guessed it, his “friend” Dan). This is perhaps the most frustrating part for me; I expected a dystopian novel set in Disney World to offer some really scathing satire, really roasting our cultural attachments to inane, overly-cute nonsense, but the author seems not be able to make up his mind on this point: the characters truly love Disney, more specifically, The Haunted Mansion, and spend most of their time geeking about it, working to make it better, and saving it from the forces of evil. Now, the mansion is probably the least despicable thing about the Magic Kingdom, because it is at least a nod to the original folk and fairy-tales Walt Disney used to built his glittery kingdom off of: namely a hard stare at where horror (even if the horror of the Mansion is somehow, frustratingly, made cute by the end with campy songs and pesky poltergeists that just want to hitchhike a ride home with you… gawsh) intersects with beauty; this is my main beef with Disney: the emphasis is on the glitter, the cuteness, the virtue, while the ugly, the horrific has had all its fangs knocked out, talons filed down, and the most menace it can muster is skulking in a long line sucking down a Capri-Sun, masking a longing look at the air conditioned waiting room four bends distant as a malevolent stare (sorry Mel, if you’re reading this. I love you). See here my youngest son’s face just before we forced him to go inside said mansion. That alone was almost worth the utter miasma that is Disney.

I can’t decide if the characters’ love and loyalty to the park is intended to be satirical! It feels like they, and the author, might really be into it. The Hall of Presidents is lambasted as being trite and dull (yup), but even IT is used as a meaningful platform to introduce presidential style satirical narrative into the sorry state of humanity as it’s portrayed in the book: Lincoln intones: “if destruction be our lot, then we ourselves must be its author-- and its finisher.” So the line is blurred here in a way that doesn’t serve the novel. It seems as if the book is trying to say humanity is destroying itself by becoming tritely beautiful, namely the glitter-crack, pleasure-fest that it has become in the book... Heck, the main character is murdered for Christ’s Sake, and the reader really doesn’t care, because nothing was at stake… he’s just uploaded into a new body and viola. So, ultimately his need to find out who killed him is just as inane as the killer’s reveal at the “climax” of the book. So as I reflect, I think this book could really pop as satire if the author figured out how he wants us to view his characters, and Disney. Sort out your priorities, mate... do you want to eviscerate us or inspire us to visit the Magic Kingdom?

I feel like I've just taken a hard swing at a writer I really like, so on the zero percent chance you ever read this, Cory Doctorow, I’m sorry. I really like you when you’re on, but for me this book was rough.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Winning Reading Workshop

So I mentioned in the previous post that reading workshop was going well this year. I believe it has something to do with this updated format. Instead of assigning a recall-style journal every session, I have made a more in-depth, student centered journal that aims to encourage and assess critical engagement with a self-selected text. I modeled each of these strategies earlier in the year when we read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian out loud, as a class. Below is the version I use in the college credit plus class. I use something very similar with the juniors, too, actually.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Superhero Bulletin Board

So... after using Spider-Man in a synthesis project for the composition classes, I was discussing the need for a reading-initiative bulletin board and sort of whining about materials for my old one that were ruined when my room flooded a few years back. It was essentially a bowling alley and the pins were books students finished.

I thought it was clever... anyway... but nearly everything was ruined and we needed to start over. After brainstorming with some of my first period students, we came up with this idea: Spidey is shooting webs at the classic villains in a cityscape. Each web constitutes a book that a student was able to finish... so therefore, reading saves the world!  With some help from my students we made it happen:

The kids seem to dig it.
Update... The Green Goblin has fallen. A dastardly new villain has taken his place.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

So what attracted me to this book was hearing the author discuss the banning of his book from a school reading program in Florida on CSPAN's Book Talk.  I think the fact that he sent the students copies sealed the deal for me... I really needed to read this book, because anyone that would aggressively defend their writing like that deserved the book revenue... and for anyone to see the book as a legitimate challenge to authority, well, it had to be... good. And it is.

Doctorow's novel does something books like MT Anderson's Feed and Ernest Cline's Ready Player One does not: in short, it offers meaningful commentary on the war on terror as well as questioning how technology can both bind and liberate us.

The narrative forces the reader into the passenger seat and has a way of saying, "Relax, I got this." For me, this feeling came after being PWND by technical jargon, and since I am constantly negotiating with the books I read like any pretentious, MFA toting, fiction-writing know-it-all, being PWND by Doctorow's narrative is seriously refreshing. And fun.

Lame ass teachers' pets are bound to protest any of the following: the criticism of standardized testing, the criticism of the department of homeland security, the ugly and critical depiction of water-boarding, the intimate relationship between the teenage protagonists, and the directive to hack whatever moves.

I'd like to address each of these in order. Standardized testing is first...

So it's revealed that the protagonist's girlfriend once swiped and published a standardized text costing the department of education a considerable sum of money to write and distribute new tests. While this is a bold move on Ange's part, and not something I would necessarily be proud of my own kids doing, it creates an interesting discussion: to what extent should tests rule what we do in education? In this teacher's opinion, not much. Too much emphasis on standardized testing undermines the classroom teacher's expertise, authority and ability to impact lives in meaningful ways. Standardized tests, especially the multiple choice ones, often raise recall and skill/conceptual knowledge (the two most basic expressions of learning according to Webb's Depth of Knowledge and Bloom's Taxonomy, see below figure) to the Glow of Divine Authority that limns (see Words Both Curious and Valuable) standardized tests in this country to the extent that they decide collegiate placement, scholarships, teacher evaluation, and teacher pay (some would argue)... and as a good friend of mine once said, these tests inform a kind of educational caste system. It also creates a phony learning environment; my favorite example of this comes from one of George Orwell's essays titled "Such, Such Were the Joys...":

"... the supply of possible questions was not inexhaustible. They were the kind of stupid question that is answered by rapping out a name of quotation. Who plundered the Begams? Who was beheaded in an open boat? Who caught the Whigs bathing and ran away with their clothes? Almost all our historical teaching ran on this level. History was a series of unrelated, unintelligible but — in some way that was never explained to us — important facts with resounding phrases tied to them. Disraeli brought peace with honour. Clive was astonished at his moderation. Pitt called in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. And the dates, and the mnemonic devices. (Did you know, for example, that the initial letters of ‘A black Negress was my aunt: there's her house behind the barn’ are also the initial letters of the battles in the Wars of the Roses?) Flip, who ‘took’ the higher forms in history, reveled in this kind of thing. I recall positive orgies of dates, with the keener boys leaping up and down in their places in their eagerness to shout out the right answers, and at the same time not feeling the faintest interest in the meaning of the mysterious events they were naming."

These tests should be written to encourage creativity, as well as a student's ability to evaluate, synthesize and analyze sources... otherwise stop wasting our time and your resources.

The criticism of the US Department of Homeland Security, specifically their efforts to prevent terrorism, is spot on, and I believe the following passage from the book as quoted by Wikipedia outlining the paradox of the false positive speaks for itself:

The main protagonist of the book is subjected to water-boarding by the US Department of Homeland Security.  In case you're unfamiliar, waterboarding is when a prisoner undergoes a simulated execution in which water is used to essentially trick the prisoner's body into believing it's drowning, and therefore dying. Here's a graphic:

This is certainly effective means of hurting a person; you're basically killing them without actually killing them. So win-win, right? I suppose the counter-argument, and the one in the book simply relies on pathos. It's inhumane. Logos might suggest that using torture to get information is bound to do only one thing: get the victim to admit to and/or say anything to get the torture to stop. Under an administration that promises to reinstate waterboarding "and much stronger" techniques, it's at least a worthy topic of discussion. Is this who we are? Maybe instead of re-hashing last night's rerun of Grey's Anatomy in the break room, we should be asking these questions of one another. Just a thought.

The intimate relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend is.... okay, they have sex. The description is minimalistic, and actually kind of sweet and tender while remaining true to the feelings of the experience. So what? Well, I suppose some groups would say this encourages teen sex, which we're okay with having graphic depictions of (many that are not sweet and tender) all over the Internet, and in our product ads, but a realistic portrayal of a deeply human moment is probably inappropriate... isn't that just a little bit hypocritical? Will a scene like this inspire teens to have sex who otherwise would not... ?  First of all, we have to acknowledge that the CDC states that in 2015, 41% of all graduating American teenagers have reported that they have had sexual intercourse... some other sources are as high as 62% Secondly, I suppose your feelings on this would relate to the age-old debate that surrounds discussions on censorship: monkey-see- monkey-do. In other words, would a book that portrays (in a very human way) an experience that more than half of America's teens have already experienced, be likely to sway kids who haven't? Those in favor of censorship say "probably," which is an opinion censors are entitled to. I guess we'll never know. I will say this, however, at age 17 my brain was already being waterboarded on a regular basis by a culture that worships sex: I mean music, ads, movies, TV, "locker-room-talk..."magazines, and this was "pre-Internet" BUT it was omnipresent, and if I wasn't listening to a song about it, or looking at an ad that used an undercurrent of sexual imagery to appeal to the consumer in me, I found I couldn't go very long without thinking about it despite the deluge of imagery, etc. Many of these portrayals of a sexual encounter emphasized the act itself and, more importantly, the bodies involved in the act. I'd say very little onus was paid to the humanity involved in the act. My argument is this: if we're going to live in a society and culture that bombards kids with sexual imagery, I'm not going to balk at the portrayals that reveal that physical love is about tender, human emotion. Also, they were being safe. 

Finally, in the afterward, Bruce Schneirer, security technologist, literally tells young hackers to try and hack security systems. Some people might argue that this encourages bad, maybe even criminal, behavior. Well, that's not how he frames it. This analogy occurred to me the other day: hackers are critics, and say what you will about critics, their purpose is to inspire practitioners of whatever (cooking, writing, moviemaking, teaching, etc.) to raise the bar. In his argument hackers form a kind of symbiotic relationship with code writers; one sets the bar while the other helps to raise it. It's maybe counter-intuitive to the square community, but nevertheless logical reasoning.