Monday, December 18, 2017

The Case for Reader Response Theory in College

Revised 12.20.17
Reader Response Theory was recognized on the Ohio Department of Education Common Core Curriculum as of last February. (See below graphic from ELA Standards Revision Highlights)

The theory is applied, as the graphic says, to all grade levels. Here is the language that applies to high school:

As an undergraduate Secondary Education major at The University of Akron from 1997-2001, I studied pedagogy, literature, and creative writing. In a YA literature pedagogy class, Dr. Harold Foster advocated for the use of Louise Rosenblatt's approach to literature by having his students read young adult literature and sharing their experiences in written reflections and in class discussion. Dr. Foster's approach was so effective that I taught the fundamentals of Reader Response theory straight out of college in my own first classroom. Here's a slide from a PowerPoint I made during my first year teaching.

Of course better teachers than me have been using Reader Response theory ever since Louise Rosenblatt challenged the accepted notions of New Criticism and the theory that literature was autotelic. But up until recently RR Theory was seen as a middle grades technique advocated for by wonderful pedagogists like Nancy Attwell whose book In the Middle is now its third edition, and by the looks of it, just as relevant today as it was in 1998 when the first edition came out. Despite the fact that I teach 11th and 12th graders I felt reader response had something to offer my students, so (encouraged by videos like this one from Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project) I made it a large piece of my curriculum. For reasons that will be obvious to anyone familiar with the theory, I felt that literature needed to be more useful than simply the world of the academic essay with its rigor and thesis statements; now that I lead a CCP course on College Composition I & II at my high school, where I am charged to teach students how to write with rigor and thesis statements, I feel it is as important now as when I first started teaching to allow students a voice in the conversation about the meaning of literature, which when it's at its best, is also about the meaning of life.

Over the course of my 16 year career as an English Teacher I have encountered the opinion that RR Theory is perhaps a bit too "floofy" for advanced study. The theory goes something like this: because there is no hard, academic research involved, the students will be writing thesis statements that include the word "I" and the writing will be filled with personal pronouns that strike far too conversational a tone to be effective. Honestly, I partly agree, which is why I think the teacher concerned with rigor would do well to hold students to a higher standard (perhaps by integrating work from academic, peer-reviewed journals) BUT WHILE NOT FORGETTING that Reader Response theory can be just about the most useful and powerful form of connecting to literature available.

I recently explored August Wilson's Fences with my CCP students. My main concerns were academic rigor while assessing their ability to use source material, and proper MLA formatting in their writing. Despite these objectives I couldn't ignore the students quietly likening Troy to their own father; I decided to add a reader response component to their essay (see below for the full rubric), which in my world looks something like this:

The result were essays that achieved an academic, authoritative tone complete with the stamp of
authenticity and savior faire that I have been striving to inspire for years from passionate, relevant reader response. 

Would I have continued to use RR Theory even if it had not been officially recognized by the ODE? Sure, because it has produced some of the most poignant essays I have ever read and goes a long way towards making literature useful to everyone from struggling readers to advanced readers. I would have continued feeling a bit Gonzo in my approach to literature, which was often a label that I took pride in applying to my technique, but I am glad it is an officially recognized standard; at its worst, teachers will feel bullied into using it, and they'll do it badly... handling student writing that can be both emotionally daunting and dazzlingly beautiful with all the tender care of an industrial meat tenderizer... and at its best it will embolden other Gonzo teachers and perhaps persuade a few to Rosenblatt's cause with the dedication and nuance to do it well in the classroom.

So while I applaud the ODE for making Reader Response Theory an officially recognized theory, I also challenge those in higher education to make it a part of how you encourage students to respond to literature. Maybe we all need to have a frank discussion on what rigor really means.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

High School circa 1995

Snow White and the Bad Yearbook Photo

I stood in front of mirrors, like my home bathroom mirror with a chip in one corner. In between classes I would duck in and examine my appearance in the mirrors in my high school bathroom. There was no “mirror, mirror” business though. If I wanted to sound poetic and slightly emo, I might call those mirrors a coffin of glass. I saw a boy trapped in by the expectation that he be perfect in every way; perfect for mom and dad who had done so much for him; perfect for God who had sacrificed his only Son for him; perfect for his teachers; perfect for the girls at his lunch table. Perfect for the bite of the poison apple; the perfect poisonous comb, the perfectly strangulating lace and bobbin, the perfect... perfect... perfect.

At sixteen it was a lot of pressure, but I liked what mirrors had to say to me, by and large. If I saw something I didn’t like, I did something about it: a little dab of cover-up to mask a zit, maybe the swipe of eyeliner pencil to even out a sideburn. Designer shirt tucked in just so. I was probably a textbook metro-sexual, though in 1995 that word did not exist. I could have easily blended in with the cast of Friends. I aspired towards Happy Chandler’s hair, Dopey Joey’s physique, and I’d pit my GPA against Doc Ross Geller’s any day. We would all peg our pant legs sipping cappuccinos, quipping back and forth while Hootie and the Blowfish whistled softly in the background. I was working hard to look good, but no one seemed to appreciate my Z Cavariccis or Skids. I was a fashion zombie, at once both hyperly aware, yet all too unaware of myself.  

Then my sophomore high school yearbook picture came out. In it, my eyes were closed, my mouth was wide open as if in a yawn, and gasp! my hair was utterly disheveled. It was, in my opinion, the worst possible yearbook photo of all time, and the beacon of absolute social ruin. I had taken so much care in my day-to-day grooming habits but the photo that would commemorate my efforts looked like I had just rolled out of bed. How, I wondered, could life be so cruel?

Then a strange thing happened. The terrible photo seemed to win the attention of a girl I had been crushing on. She literally told me “Nice yearbook picture,” as we passed in the hallway. Was she flirting with me over the worst event of my social life? This girl wore ripped jeans, concert t-shirts, and sparkly everything. She was dark-haired and strikingly beautiful. She seemed to like my awful picture. I thought, “Maybe I should stop trying so hard to look perfect, especially if it causes girls like this to pay attention to me?” I knew I needed to do something else to get this girl’s attention. I noted the concert t-shirts. This girl liked music. My father’s opinion of modern music was that it caused people to do many, many goofy things.

Oh, dad. Just you wait.   

Bands, Bleach, and Bacne

The previous summer I had saved up lawn mowing money for a five disc CD player. I went with a Sony. I still have it. Anyway, the device held five discs. I had none. So, along with the CD player I bought Pearl Jam’s Ten, mostly just to see what all the fuss was about. The sound didn’t blow my mind. Some of the songs did. Especially the narrative “Jeremy” - a song about Jeremy Wade Delle, a 16 year old boy who shot himself in front of his schoolmates. On some level I knew the band was trying to reach out to kids who felt like nothing, and the song was a condemnation of violence and self-harm. As a kid with some self-loathing issues I could appreciate that message. It was music the likes of which I had never experienced. I was used to Weird Al singing about mashed potatoes. Or Hootie trying to convince a girl that he only wanted to be with her. Pearl Jam was, to borrow a word from the modern parlance of hip, edgy. 

Edgy, I decided, was good.

All of the guys from Pearl Jam dressed like slobs. Or, as my father would have pointed out, “goddamned hillbillies.” They had long hair and wore flannel shirts and ripped jeans.There was already a contingency of extreme grunge kids in our school who wore long, thermal underwear to cover their bacne and, as a rule, didn’t shower. This last fact earned them the nickname The Grubbies. I didn’t want to be a Grubby; I was pretty sure the smell Kurt Cobain was talking about in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t B.O. However, here’s what I did know about Nirvana’s monster hit: I knew I would wait until top 10 at 10 to record it onto neon pink Maxell cassette so I could listen to it again and again on my tape Walkman. The CD could wait. I needed this music now. I knew it was a song about being a teenager. I knew it was directed at me. I knew the lyrics made very little sense. The sound, though, was something I’d never really heard before. The whole song vibed a “don’t care” attitude. It sounded like it was just thrown together. Lines literally expressed an “oh well, whatever, nevermind” philosophy. It said, forget perfect, forget manicured, forget the comb, man. At the time, it was the message I really needed.

The song “Come as you Are” started getting radio play and it spoke directly to me. The only problem was I didn’t know who I was. I was living to satisfy everyone’s expectations, so the perfectly manicured boy in the mirror started to fade. There was nothing casual or cool about him so he had to go. I started growing out my hair and I bought a Pearl Jam shirt that said “9 out of 10 kids prefer crayons to guns.” I decided to start dressing like I just finished cleaning out the garage: nothing tucked in, no pegged pant-legs, no perfect hair. It was around this time that I decided I needed a pair of black Converse All-Stars; I decided I’d come like Kurt Cobain, bleach and all.

Undiluted Clorox Bleach will blister the human scalp when applied directly to the roots. Furthermore, the stuff really irritates the skin if you were to, say, dip your patchy, pubescent, miserable excuse for a goatee into a Dixie cup of the stuff. Bleach causes large, red boils to erupt on the skin. How do I know this? Guess.

While experimenting with the stuff in my parent’s basement I accidentally got some on my black Cons. To my horror the bleach ate away the color completely. Soon I realized I had made a miraculous discovery. Bleach, when applied directly to the scalp does not make one’s hair as cool as Kurt Cobain’s. Bleach, when applied in random patterns, achieved by running one’s thumb over the bristles of a toothbrush soaked with the stuff, creates Converse that are BETTER than Kurt Cobain’s. I was still acting like a consumer, expressing myself with products, but I had added a creative element that was intoxicating, and I don’t just mean Clorox fumes. I was learning how to express myself. This revelation would come to evolve into what was at first a foray, but what would soon become a life-long incursion into the arts. It seems that what at first was simply goofy became a way of living a fuller life. 

It's a shame that so many of the grunge artists I admired chose death. I don't need to list them. Their names are engraved in the hearts of those that lived in that era, and their music helped me, and countless other children of the 90s dislodge the stick that had been planted firmly up our collective behinds by the expectations of Reagan’s America. It felt good to look like a loser but act like a winner. I was somehow proving society wrong, and it gave me the first real shred of power I had ever wielded, and I used that power to cut out a swath where I could make a stand as an individual. To this day I am grateful to the grunge bands that defined the 90s, bleach, and, I suppose, that bad yearbook photo. 

I did, after all, marry that dark-haired girl in the concert t-shirt. And we lived, happily ever after.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Kevin Arnold and Arnold Spirit Junior

Here is why Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is the Native American Wonder Years.

  1. Arnold Spirit Junior is the indigenous counterpart to Kevin Arnold; even their names are similar.
  2. They both tell the stories of their childhood as adults, which brings a kind of sober clarity to the events of the narrative: a clarity we lack during formative events in our childhood.
  3. Both Kevin and Arnold fall in love with the beautiful and unreachable girl (Penelope for Arnold and Winnie Cooper for Kevin).
  4. Despite the challenge and burden of loving a beautiful and popular girl, both Arnold and Kevin persevere to win pieces of their respective love interests’ hearts.    
  5. Roger, a prominent character in Part Time Indian, is a total jock. Roger, a prominent character in The Wonder Years, is also a total jock.
  6. In both series, the Rogers work as a kind of romantic counterpart/rival to the narrator.
  7. Paul (Kevin’s friend) from The Wonder Years is a genius, and so is Gordy (Arnold’s friend) from Part Time  Indian.
  8. They both deal with love, grief, and adolescence with poignancy.
  9. Kevin’s sister Karen is a kindred free spirit to Arnold’s sister Mary Runs Away. They both run away.  
  10. They are both extraordinarily well-written and incredibly entertaining. If you’ve forgotten just how well TV can be written, check out the clip of Kevin and Winnie’s first kiss.

Obviously there are problems with this comparison. Kevin is white and lives in an American suburb; his best friend Paul grows up to attend Harvard. Arnold lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation; his best friend Rowdy has serious anger management issues and is raised by an abusive alcoholic. The Wonder Years is about wonder. Part Time Indian is about hope. These are, of course, vital differences, but both stories are told in the same narrative style and with similar wit and courage. Alexie scholars would probably be content to string me up for making the comparison, but I think it’s a good one. I also think those of you that use The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, especially with a mostly white demographic, might do well to bring in The Wonder Years.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Amateur Essay

Here is a new version of this essay (newest proofread 9.18.17, then again 10.24.17), originally posted in April of 2015. It has been a tough essay to finish, and I'm still not sure it's done, but I'm using it in my composition classes as an example of an "Amateur Essay."

Here's the prompt I have used: the primary definition of “amateur” according to the OED is “one who loves or is fond of; one who has a taste for anything.” So, tell us how you came to have your tastes, maybe how your tastes lead you to do something you love, and how that something has shaped your life.  This post is doomed to be a mixture of black and white and oddly mismatched font, it seems.

TMNT and Me
As an adopted child, my mother brought a common painted turtle in a bucket into my kindergarten classroom. It was 1984 and no one had ever heard of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Eastman and Laird were just unveiling their black and white indy comic at a comic book convention in New Hampshire. Despite this fact, we were enthralled by the turtle.  Time Warp roughly thirty years later: as a parent myself, I decide to drive to my son’s school. It is his last day as a kindergartner at Marshallville Elementary School, and it is Marshallville Elementary School’s last day as a school. They are all set to tear it down during the summer. There’s something inherently sad about the demolition of an elementary school: all of those little amateurs will lose forever the opportunity to one day wander nostalgically through the halls of the building that helped nurture them. On the school’s last day, I am home early from teaching at my own school and in a rush to make it to Marshallville Elementary before they close their doors for good. I notice a turtle stopped in the middle of the hot summer highway. The year is 2013, and everyone knows what a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle is. He is a painted box turtle, and because of red markings on his face, the kindergartners will name him Raphael.
Time warp back to 1988: the year Playmates released the first wave of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. My family moved during the summer before I was to enter the fifth grade. Rather than moving twenty miles south that summer it seemed as if I had also entered a legitimate time-warp that matured children at astonishing speed. In short, it seemed that all of my classmates had outgrown playing with toys! My new classmates were listening to bands like Great White and Young MC on their Walkman cassette players. Songs about hanging with chicks. The only chick I wanted to hang with was April O’Neil, which wasn’t saying much. That yellow jumpsuit? That hair?C'mon, she was the most difficult action figure to find. Besides, she liked Casey Jones. Judging by his long hair and sleeveless shirts, he was probably listening to Great White.
The turtles, despite their apparent lack of popularity with the fifth grade class of Northwest Elementary School, were my solace during that transitional year. I played with the action figures, drew pictures of them, and watched the cartoon after school. They represented everything I wanted to be: tough, resilient, and despite the fact that they were total outsiders, they had a great sense of humor. Everything just bounced off their shells. I was on the cusp of adolescence, and I didn’t just want to be a "teenager," I wanted to be a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle." They all hand jived, man, and said stuff like “Awesome!” and “Bodacious!” in their nearly identical surfer-dude voices. In those early iterations the turtles were still relatively one-dimensional, but they seemed to me, the epitome of cool. Besides, the only dimension I was familiar with was Dimension X: home of Krang, the malevolent master brain.  The only folks that shared my opinion about the turtles were my next-door neighbors, Robert and Ryan. Robert was a grade behind me and drew turtles too. Even then he was an entrepreneur, keeping his originals and tracing copies for a dollar each. He is now partner in a design company called Commuter Industries in Sacramento, California. Back then Ryan seemed to appreciate the toughness of the turtles the way I did. He was a Mikey kind of guy, so we made nunchucks from the cardboard tubes on wire clothes hangers and practiced our ninja moves at dawn and dusk. At the time I couldn’t understand how such “Awesome!” and “Bodacious!” behavior could add to my status as the weird new kid, but it did, and if playing with the Cheapskate during class didn’t seal the deal, constantly doodling turtles and turtle related pictures certainly did: I found myself in a new grade with no friends. My new teacher seemed to understand all of this somehow and began wearing a brightly colored Ninja Turtle wristwatch that was inherently awesome and bodacious because it sent me a straightforward message. "You are not alone."  
Don’t get me wrong, she was still capable of acts of great cruelty. 
As an avid, egocentric artist I decided one day to carve my name into my own desk.... an act of exquisite boldness and stupidity. My teacher made me walk down to the janitor’s closet, borrow a piece of sandpaper, and, in tears, rub it out in front of the whole class. I thought this lapse in judgement might disqualify me from further artistic opportunities. Not so. When the contest to see who could decorate the class door came around, I was chosen to draw the design. I chose Ninja Turtles, of course.I drew a large, turtle-themed mural complete with all four heroes and the Party Wagon, which proclaimed, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Want To Be Your Friend!” 
It should have said, “I Want To Be Your Friend!"   
Ironically, my unabashed love and fondness for the turtles led to my first real friend. Paul was the kid that could speed read, spoke Elvish, and got A’s on everything. This boy was Krang, the master brain. He was into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I aspired to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Or, as my classmates might have said, Paul was the D&D Dork, and I was the Turtle Freak. I taught him how to draw and he taught me how to roleplay. We became great allies. It seemed that the people I bonded with most deeply during childhood were those with whom I was able to share a passion. Perhaps not such a brilliant insight, but one that still defines the terms of my relationships, as I’ve found it is only through this kind of interaction that you glimpse the real amateur. To borrow from Michael Chabon’s essay “The Amateur Family,” being an amateur is all about not being afraid to disclose that which holds you in a vulnerable state of wonderment.
Time warp back to 2013. Twenty-five years passed since I first learned and then forgot how to be an amateur. One day, on the ride home from his after-school program, my son Wyatt told me about his friend in kindergarten with whom he played Ninja Turtles at recess. “Do you play with anyone else?” I wondered. “No one else believes in them,” was his response, and in an instant I remembered being the original Ninja Turtle at my school. “They’re real, aren’t they dad?”I answered the way I do all of my son’s questions that deal with wonder.
"Of course they’re real." 
Each turtle played an important role in my upbringing. Raphael was my favorite turtle in those days when I was grappling with the relentless bully known as puberty. I was playing Raphael in armwrestling tournaments at lunch, while lifting weights in my basement, and while competing in the most brilliant contest ever conceived by the male teenage mind: bloody knuckles. I was Donatello studying with the Master Brain for straight As. I was painfully shy and, even worse, just as quiet. I struggled with the outward expression necessary for leadership roles. Unfortunately, I took everything way too seriously to be a carefree jokester like Mikey. As the years unfold these are still aspects of my personality I'm working on bringing to life. It seems any well-rounded guy needs to embody the tetrad of turtles. 
Some say comics, cartoons and toys are best left behind in adulthood, and that we should aspire to put away childish things as we mature; some may even go as far as Dr. Fredric Wertham and crusade against comics as trash that rots the mind. As a kid I got around to reading the original comics, had checked them out as graphic novels from the library in fact, but I got caught up in petty grievances like, “their bandanas are all red!” and “why are there so many Krang?” I absorbed the dodgy origin story. A random canister of mutagen bounces out of a random truck after the random truck hits a random pothole and the random canister of mutagen hits a random pedestrian holding a random glass bowl of turtles… see what I mean? I didn't understand or appreciate the Jack Kirby, Daredevil nod. Even today it seems a shaky basis upon which to build an entire world, and you may ask, "Didn’t the story eventually coalesce into a streamlined narrative the more you read?" Well, if by streamlined you mean they eat pizza and fight dinosaurs from outer space, then, yes, I suppose it did. It was the art that drew me in, and all puns aside, I came to revere the full page action sequences. The turtles were grittier than they were on TV, which had to do with the style of Kevin Eastman’s illustrations: thick, black lines and heavy cross-hatching. As an adult I have tried to put away childish things. I sold most of my turtle toys for twenty dollars at a garage sale and told myself I was too mature. My sons have been a blessing in many ways, but one of their unexpected benefits has been in healing me of the wounds inflicted by reason and adulthood by reminding me of my childish obsessions. I have truly enjoyed watching the Nickelodeon TMNT series with my sons, have begun obsessing over the excellent IDW comic line, and, I realize, still aspire to emulate the tetrad. I spend a fair amount of time and money buying turtle toys and comics. Some are for my kids but, let’s be clear, a lot of them are for me. In the novel Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon writes that nostalgia is just a way to try and reclaim some part of your youth. Tragically, my neighbor and close friend Ryan committed suicide in his early twenties. I know that part of my affection for the turtles has to do with the fact that we can no longer swing nunchucks, and every time I re-buy an old toy we shared, I remind myself it won’t bring him back. Those hallways may be just a memory, but it still feels good to walk down them. Now that I am an amateur father with two sons, the message of the turtles that speaks to me most clearly is that of the importance of family. I am in awe of the love, respect and obedience the turtles have for their “dad,” (a giant sewer rat that teaches them Ninjitsu) and how loyal they are to one another. In my most sentimental moments, the relationship the turtles have with Splinter reminds me of my own adopted parents, their unconditional love, the unusual fact that my dad and I look nothing alike, and the fact that they taught me how to survive in an imperfect world.  Now as a father, it is all I hope for my own sons: for them to see their father as a person worth obeying, to have the courage to stand up against evil, and to look out for one another no matter what uncertainties may lie ahead. Some believe that cartoons and comics are at best a waste of time, or at worst, trash that rots your brain. Just the other day, my oldest son Wyatt wore a policeman’s hat and a Ninja Turtle shirt out to dinner with the family. On the way home I overheard him telling his younger brother Jonas that he would run down any bad guys that ever tried to hurt him, and that he would always be there for him. Always. He made sure to emphasize the word “always.” It makes my heart swell with pride to hear my little turtles profess such loyalty to one another, and if that’s trash, then I guess this amateur belongs in the sewer.
Time warp back to my son’s kindergarten classroom. One of the last acts of my son's kindergarten class before the doors to the school closed for good was to name the painted turtle Raphael. They were taken with the way the turtle reared up and attempted, unsuccessfully, to climb out of the white plastic bucket that served as his temporary home. Despite the thoughtful touches (a smooth grey rock, a bit of grass and a twig), he seemed to really dislike his new digs. My sons wanted to keep him as a pet. “He needs to be free. He’d be unhappy as our pet,” I explained in my most reasonable dad tone as we stood next to a public lake. This was to be his send-off, but the kids were having trouble letting go. “But you took him away from his family,” they argued as we tipped the bucket on its side and, sure enough, Raph moved with all of his touted agility and speed out of the mouth of the bucket and into the water. If you’d have blinked, you’d have missed it.  “Maybe he’ll find a new family,” my wife said. It's all we could hope as we watched the still water, and, together, wondered.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Online Security

Last winter I posted a response to Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and I mentioned Bruce Schneirer's contribution to the afterword. Here's a list of the top 20 Online Security blogs of 2017 where you can find access to the ideas of other security experts.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Shape and Resonance in the Narrative Essay

Sherman Alexie's "Superman and Me" is a perfect example of a crafted essay that uses both techniques I call "the rule of three" and "full circle." Both can give shape to a narrative essay and both are done extremely well in this particular essay. Alexie uses repetition in the "rule of three" For instance: 1. "I was trying to save my life." 2. "They were trying to save their lives." 3. "I was trying to save our lives." The "full circle technique" is achieved through Alexie's description of Superman breaking down the literal door to save lives, and in the end, Alexie trying to break down figurative doors to save lives in reservation classrooms. Both techniques are used effectively to achieve thematic resonance. In my experience students have been able to imitate this effect to achieve power in their own narrative essays.

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.

*Update: as of 8.29.17 there are 2,647 reviews and the book is up to a five-star rating.

** As of 10.20.17 there is another, identical product on Amazon. The gem I discuss above costs $8.86. The new copy, by Donald Walker, is $7.95. Nothing like a little free market competition to drive down the prices of the things that truly matter in life.

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