Category Archives: Literature Related
What makes a good reader?
I’ve spent the last two years of teaching juniors trying to answer this very question and each year I arrive at some same things and some different. This year I taught a class of freshman for the first time. While I learned many things while teaching freshmen, the course itself demanded that both student and teacher have a clear understanding of what exactly is a good reader. In fact, one could argue that freshman year objectives are centered around habits of a good reader. So how do teachers answer that question?
If taking 9th grade “Coming of Age” Module, it means reflective interaction with the text. Don’t be fooled; this is just a fancy way of saying good annotations. I was somewhat suprised that most freshmen do not know how to annotate. Only somewhat surprised because I did not know how to annotate well until college. But what exactly are good annotations? And do annotations make strong readers? The short answer is yes and no.
Growing up, I was never allowed to mark in my books. Books were assigned and the classroom copy recieved was kept in near pristine condition despite years of use. My teachers threatened us with hefty fines if a book dare have a stray pencil mark. This was problematic; I am a visual learner who needs a tactile experience to remember things. I need to write in books. I need to ask my questions in the moments I read them. (And believe me, sticky notes and the book are not the same thing. ) My senior year in high school, my mother decided she was through buying massive amounts of sticky notes. She bought my books for the AP Literature and AP Language classes. The struggle then was not “could I write in a book and get away with it” but “what do I write in the book now that I own it?” My current color coded system seemed out of place. The pink sticky notes that indicated a vocabulary word or the blue sticky notes that indicated a good quote lacked the immediate silent scream they once had when they hung over the page edge. “This page, right here, this page” became very irrelevant when I could write in the book. But what would I write?
I started the AP course and the first thing the teacher told me was that I did not know how to annotate, that it didn’t matter if I used sticky notes or if I wrote them in myself: it was not annotating. (I’ll spare you the grief-striken two days I spent moping over sticky notes.) I’ll never forget that moment, the teacher looking at my highlighted, color coded inked notes while we read Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5. Lady Macbeth musing over a letter from Macbeth, newly Thane of Cawdor:
“That’s not annotating. Where are your questions for Lady Macbeth? Your own reactions? Why is that word important? How do know that quote means more than a series of phrases?”
When I teach good annotations, I start with this story. I think my students feel the same I did all those years ago; they know to define words that are new to them. They know how to identify strong passages. But like me, they don’t know why they are important or how to use annotations to breathe into a text, to let the story completely overtake your thoughts (or corrupt your thoughts in the case of Macbeth). They don’t know how to interact with both story and their own curiosity. I knew enough to highlight Lady Macbeth’s famous lines, but I didn’t know to engage them. I had to learn, to be pushed into what I’m calling annotation justification. I had to ask myself why that word, that phrase, that moment was important to both me the reader and me the audience. One digests information; the other reacts. I had to learn how to change my annotations from “this is Lady Macbeth commenting on Macbeth’s inability to act on his ambitions” to “fascinating that Shakespeare makes a woman the villian, and that she is labeled such because she chooses to aggressively pursue power through her husband.”
It didn’t happen overnight. It did happen though. My teacher spent the first ten minutes of every class sharing her annotations, quite literally, under a document camera. She justified each notation. And when she couldn’t, she asked questions about why that seemed important; she predicted why it might become crucial to a character. She did this every day of the six months I spent in her class senior year. Did I still define words for clarity? Yes. But I hunted down better words, words that pushed on the text (“the milk of
human kindess” instantly feminizes Macbeth). And it changed the way I read.
I provided the same courtesy to the freshman. Under a document camera (even old technology can be the best for a particular purpose), I justified every annotation of mine for Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and for Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist. And I let them ask questions, interrogate my selections or sometimes dialogue about the questions we shared as a class. Will it make them better readers? Maybe. Do I worry they will create systems of organizations so complex it will overwhelm more than help? A bit. But at the end of the day if the only lesson learned is that becoming a good reader is hard work, I’ll take it. If at the end of the day, they find value in their own questioning and engage words that push through meaning, then I know I’ve created readers who will keep reading.
And I’m wondering what that might look like when I see them again as juniors.
I love it when the seniors leave little gems in their OneNotes for me to find. Especially when in the midst of The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood.
My 11th grade English teacher had one motto and one motto only for nearly every inquiry or sought after advice: life is not a solo act. A high school me understood that as the importance of friends but, while a true sentiment, not quite how I understand that motto now. In fact, my previous understanding rings a bit false; we all need friends but that doesn’t always guarantee you are not a solo act. Friends are often our most forgiving audience. No- I think Mrs. Isenhour’s motto was about something slightly different than friendship, something the adult me recognizes immediately as a cornerstone of many successful relationships: collaboration.
Teachers are the stuff of collaboration. The vocation almost demands it, whether collaborating with a student to master an objective, working with another teacher to develop interesting curriculum, or simply attending professional development with a team. Collaboration might be my favorite thing about teaching, especially any collaboration that allows for interdisciplinary design. And if by chance lunch happens at a table with a diverse crowd, collaboration can be organic as it was the day Ms. Mattox introduced Dr. Ward and I to Kara Walker, a silhouette artist that focuses on the American South as a medium. We spent lunch discussing visual arts and the profound effect visuals have in moving others into action or reflection. And later, when meeting in the Madeira art studio to view Walker’s work, I could easily see the Southern Gothic influence in her art and I couldn’t help but recall the Gothic module in the American Literature curriculum.
It’s very tempting to write an entire diatribe about the Gothic tendencies in the Puritans and the arguably unavoidable connection to a Gothic inheritance in antebellum Southern society, exactly as we did that day. I’ll spare the reader this in service of staying on topic.
What happened next is, quite frankly, my favorite collaboration of this year. Using Walker’s medium, Ms. Mattox, Dr. Ward and I crafted a project for the Gothic module in which I am affectionately calling “A Light in the Night.” We prompted students to remember their Slavery to Civil Rights module and connect the grotesque displays of racism during that era to Walker’s intent in some of her pieces; we then ask them to recall their current study of the Gothic grotesque. In many ways, these two courses are the shifting notion of a very literal darkness for the Puritans trying to settle a nation in the wild woods and the very metaphorical darkness found in even the most democratic hearts and minds. Students then channeled Walker, Gothic motifs, and their own “darkness” to create silhouette candles. The results were sublimely fantastic, scary even: Mallie’s created a candle that reflected the electric chair and the horrors associated with the death penalty. Katie’s candle reflected the damsel in distress motif and the fantastical dangers surrounding femaleness. Ally’s candle watched you, quite literally, behind two demonic eyes. For all students, it was clear how art could channel the feeling of a time period, past and current, to move some into action and some in reflection.
As for our own reflection, it’s a project that speaks to the testament of collaboration. Perhaps Ms. Mattox coined it best, “[Collaboration] provides teachers a new opportunity to view their subject matter in a different light and lens, and share ideas for engaging students on multiple levels of learning.” Essentially we become students too, waiting for that moment when the interdisciplinary design becomes alive in the mind of others. While my favorite part was designing the project, there was some shared sentiment for Dr. Ward’s favorite moment: “seeing each little success: the right cut, the design that came out “just so,” the happy accident—each one a lively little moment of insight.” I think that’s an elegant way of saying that collaboration is very much a reminder of how shared experiences are often the most insightful; that while individuality is indeed a solo act, life is not.
Many teachers cite student growth as their favorite moments in teaching, moments when an abstract idea clicks or a student begins to connect the dots between disciplines. These are all noble moments. Mine is not so noble.
Two years ago, I created a sci-fi course as a senior English elective. While I admit that a lot of my motivation stemmed from my own love of sci-fi and speculative fiction, I do also recognized the immediate importance of teaching this specific class at an all girls school. Not only is literature (arguably of almost any culture) dominated by male protagonists, but male dominated worlds. Men, both in an authorial context and a literal one, are allowed to create, design, and experiment. Women protagonists must inspire. Women authors must role-model or journal. Women are often expected to be caretakers. And, while sci-fi is not a exception to any of this by far, it encourages the reader (female or not) to engage someone’s creation (Frankenstein), someone’s design (The Matrix), or even someone’s experiment (The Giver). Science fiction will even allow its writers and worlds to have female badasses, female problem solvers, and female leaders. For the sci-fi teacher, the classroom conversations shift in ways that just aren’t possible with classic literature. And in a STEM/STEAM world, science fiction engages any reader in ways that intersect literature with math, science, and engineering.
I’ve somehow started to launch into a diatribe about why science fiction is a necessary study in the modern day high school. I’ll save this for another post.
My favorite moment. Two years ago I created a sci-fi course intended to push girls into interdisciplinary thinking and into conversations about ethics, justice, physics, and civilization building. And while I’ve had many amazing moments, my favorite one (so far) happened today. When I teach scifi, I begin by teaching both Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and the lesser known archetypes via Jung. Both are easily rooted in psychology, but many times its hard for the students to grasp at the idea that opposites exist as a means of balance; balance is a basic principle of physics. (We get very meta quickly here, so I’m sparing the non-literary reader as much as I can.) This is often times when my dry-erase boards look the most aesthetically pleasing. I do this lesson as a two part introduction to Alan Moore’s Watchmen and for good reason: in creating an alternative history, Moore has to offset the reader’s discomfort of both recognizing and not recognizing that world with the familiar, sometimes relate-able journey of very defunct characters. Both Rorschach and The Comedian have to feel at once familiar and not; we recognize their plight by unconscious familiarity with the hero’s journey. Who your hero is becomes the novel’s great crisis; Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero is ultimately commentary on our own need for a superhero.
Hence, when paper time comes around for Watchmen, I’m often met with two kinds of responses: “how am I going to write all my feelings about this in an analysis” or “oh my god I have to write all my feelings about this in an analysis.” This is so often true that I rarely expect anything different.
So, when a student met with me today, I was completely blown away. “Can I write about how the archetype of the Joker becomes the truth-sayer and how problematic that is for the reader? Or even for other characters? Am I remotely close? And have you read Moore’s The Killing Joke? My dad gave it to me when he heard we were reading Moore. Ms. Heishman, are you ok? ”
Yes. Very. I spent 45 minutes today waxing poetic about Jokers, the hero’s journey, Watchmen’s Comedian, physics, and how justice is a social construct. With a student. With another girl (I’m really just a grownup fan girl.)
Let’s all teach science fiction. I mean that.
Whew! The school year FLEW by- before I could collect my thoughts, the juniors were now seniors and the seniors were, well, gone. So was my time…
I have so much to reflect about the year- the OneNote introduction to the junior class, the changing curriculum to come, moving The Adventures of Huck Finn to AP English…and that’s just the beginning. I have all summer to share the year, starting with some amazing project examples. I started the year dedicated to open projects, meaning that no project had a list of “things” it had to be. More like each project had a list of objectives and meanings it needed to express. It was a bit scary at first- letting the students take the wheel on how and what their final products would be- and there were some failures. But I’m a proponent of failure in the classroom as well as letting the student set their standard. Most of them will set it higher than a teacher ever would.
I did this project with two different modules; the first round you can read about in my previous post. The second time around wasn’t much different save for this: it had to be a product. (No emojii comic books, please.) Same rules- the chosen annotations/project had to be from either Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. For project completion, each student had to complete an “interview” about their project (click Project Annotation for the questions). This module did not disappoint- many of them developed projects so innovative and creative, I plan to use several as examples next year. So, with much ado, here is the first of many showcases.
This is a Marauder’s Map of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Pretty amazing, yes? I’m excited to see what this could look like when applied to Song of Solomon. I’m pretty excited in general that Harry Potter found a way into my classroom…stay tuned and I’ll share the Tarot Cards next!
*Note to reader: the original published version is here.*
“Learning to love reading is easy; learning how to be an active reader is not,” I say often to my students. I hope they start believing me because this is precisely what Madeira English is about: active reading. From the moment they start ninth grade, we push students to articulate the why or significance of a text. By sophomore year, we ask them to expand their ability to express how a writer’s technique creates shades of meaning. In junior year, we inch toward research mode by asking how that significance might correlate to a movement, a historical time period, or even an abstract concept. It is a process and it begins with active reading. But what does that mean?
This is the question asked most often in my classroom usually in some form of “How should I read this?” or “Am I doing annotations the right way?” From a teacher’s perspective, there are many answers to those concerns. For some, annotating means a highlighted, scribbled-in-the-margins book. For others, it means a Cornell-style note page. Last year in my class, it meant a presentation of insights in a shared document. The teacher in me loved this; the reader in me started a rebellion. After all, isn’t part of the assignment how you enjoyed the novel? Why you may not like it? Aren’t annotations a little too forced? I am trying to read, after all.
I really began investing how to join those two things- how to move my students to both a personal response and an academic view of a novel. I spent the summer like most English teachers, reading, only this time, I really tried to examine how or when my love of the book merged with my thinking about the book. And, while I may be closer to an answer, I do not have a perfect one. I did, however, emerge with new thinking about annotations. When we began Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in the junior English Slavery to Civil Rights module, I asked students to do two kinds of annotations. The first is what I’m coining “commitment.” The assignment was simple: pick a chapter you liked, a chapter you felt connected the reader to a bigger idea, then organize your annotations for sharing. Not much different than last year; the significance here is “pick a chapter you like.” I’m coining the second collected annotations “invent.” I asked the students to do the same thing except, this time, they were to take the annotations and make something. Anything except notes. Make something that illustrates understanding and demonstrates why they liked the book.
The results were incredible. See them here: https://vimeo.com/142632023
This week in my OneNote English adventures…
I’m still trying to convince my students, particularly my art afficionados, that OneNote is an amazing tool for graphic drawing. So when I said, “Your OneNote is a sketchbook- use it!” for one of the activities this week, my artists looked at me a bit skeptical.
Let me explain.
Some of my classroom activities involve creating a graphic organizer of sorts; this week it was to create a visual infographic that demonstates gothic elements in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. I started small- you can use any platform. Paper, pen, marker, computer, performance- any and all modes were available to them. Much to my dismay, most of them chose paper, pen, marker, crayon.
Now, while I don’t fault anyone for this (I love the feel of a gel pen on a moleskin myself), in the process of trying to convince the students that OneNote is much more viable and much more than a simple organizational tool, I was failing. On one hand, I was getting good work:
On the other hand, they weren’t realizing they could transfer the same techinique to OneNote. In fact, this is what happened when I told them to think about doing their graphic digitally:
Admittedly, not a bad start, but not quite the same as the first attempt.
Part of this is that we are a bring-your-own-device school. I was asking girls who didn’t have a surface to work with the draw function and a mouse. I was also expecting girls who hardly ever touched a surface to fight at the opportunity to use mine-many remain unconvinced it could do the same thing. I did have three takers though. Here is the beginning of a different “The Black Cat”:
After watching and seeing P. create this, I turned over at least six. Only time will see if those six establish a sketchbook via OneNote. I’m at least happy they are fascinated by the Surface computer.
So, while I have convinced five of six in my department to switch to OneNote and two in the History department, I’ve still got some ways to go with my students. Ultimately, I think a rotating set of Surfaces, a classroom set so to speak, might be the best route. Now, I just have to find the money…..
Hang tight, my teacher friends. I promised a OneNote present soon- it’s coming, and I still have yet to tell you about the Socratic Circle done in OneNote!
It’s day five of the snow apocalypse in Northern Virginia. Snow days can be a teacher’s wish come true and their worst nightmare all in one. A former me would be scrambling to piece together an email, maybe some way to scan something in pdf form, and then hoping my students had both a computer and a printer at home.
Not this year and never again.
Not only am I on schedule with my lesson plans but in our five days off, my students have completed a quiz, a timed essay, and three collaborative activities that correlate to the reading. I’ve even sent a link to help a student who left her book at school, all via OneNote.
The beauty of OneNote is realtime- things move in OneNote immediately. When my students take a quiz, they can take it at the same time as normal class. When they take a timed essay, I use OneNote’s time stamp to track when completion happened and page history to tell me when they started. I dropped my audio lecture and powerpoint in the class content library so I could introduce Poe and start reading him as soon as we return.
While this is all good, the one thing I really love about OneNote is the collaboration space. For example, yesterday we did a group scavenger hunt for details about Edgar Allan Poe’s life. A simple table grid helped organize the data.
In another class, we used the collaboration space to generate a chat board, a way to post questions about their reading of George Orwell’s 1984.
And today, I’ve been dropping in on each student’s outline page in their own personal notebooks to answer outlining questions.
Makes me think that you could almost do an entire class virtual in OneNote….
Lord, I might be turning to the dark side.
I tried to write a post all about VSTE, and well, it just made me want to write about what I presented at VSTE (The Virginia Society of Technology in Education). So, two birds, one stone.
Let me tell you about this game I started playing last year.
My school runs on the modular schedule which means our academic year is broken up into 5 week units. I teach mostly juniors- so junior year of English looks a bit like this: each junior must take the required Slavery to Civil Rights module (junior year is American Literature) and the research paper module (I don’t want to discuss how this works for AP History students in this post). For the remainder of the year, they select three of four options. In the modernism module, I teach Hemingway’s In Our Time and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in five weeks.
Take that in for a minute. Five weeks.
As you can imagine, that’s a small amount of time to condense a lot of context, both literary and historical. When I first start with this venture last year, I spent the first four modules trying to bet on the right horse- how much is enough to read Hemingway? To read Gatsby? To teach about the Lost Generation? Where do I put poetry? Interwar period? THE WAR(s)? At the same time, I was starting to really entrench (sorry, I wrote Hemingway and then he was in my head) myself in game-based learning. (Now, what I do isn’t true to the current definition. I’ve come to learn that I’m more of a “playbased learning.” I’ll talk about that perhaps in a different post.) To me, the module schedule timing felt right for that kind of environment- five weeks. But I would have to create the elements first. And, because Hemingway was already complicated enough for an all girls audience, I choose to start with Gatsby.
The first play of this game was relatively easy, but in many ways not quite a success. I created stock figures, stereotypes of the 1920s: the mob boss, the mobster, the dectective, the police, the socialite, the press, the bank. Each figure had a particular perk- the mob could steal, the press could publish, the socialites could curry favor, and the bank did what banks do. Each character also had a security deposit box where they could keep evidence, pass messages, keep money. The objective was simple: convince the public that Gatsby was either guilty or innocent (depending on your character) by collecting or fabricating evidence from the story. We played for a week; the students even built alliances, something I hadn’t considered. They robbed with delight and I recieved everything from the hotel receipt from Myrtle and Tom’s affair, a faux newspaper that connect them mob boss to Gatsby bank accounts, a printout of Gatsby’s bank accounts, a string of pearls, a crime scene report…they were true to the text while being creative. It was incredible.
And yet, I still felt that the game was amiss. My students spent a lot of time trying to create evidence (sometimes just to create it) rather than thinking about the objective. Moreover, while they were alive in the world of Gatsby, I didn’t feel they were connected to the time period, let alone connecting Hemingway and Fitzgerald to a movement. And, to top it off, I’m a tech teacher. I pride myself on integrating technology. This game operated mostly with brown envelopes and paper money.
In the middle of all this, I took the game on the road with my work partner. We present at VAIS (Virginia Association of Independent Schools). I kind of turned my talk into a “how to play a game in class” to “it’s not quite ready, what would you do” session. The session was really invigorating- it was nice to see that other English teachers wanted to do the same thing- create worlds (whether virtual or digital) for their students to understand context. However, we didn’t really come up with a good way to modify the game.
So. I finished last year learning OneNote, going completely paperless, and trying to figure out how to make Modernism different with a game that was going well for my students, but not for me. Summer needed to be about work. I’m going to flash forward a bit here- just imagine me at my desk, fast forward mode, bending furiously like a puppet on absurd amounts of caffeine, a furrowed brow while I pretend that I didn’t just cram everything for this year into the last week of summer. You get the idea.
This year, the game has changed and I am loving it. It started with Lauren (my work wife/partner):
“Well, if you don’t want them to create their own artifacts, you’ll have to reconsider your objective.”
(Cue my groaning) “That would require taking the emphasis off Gatsby.”
“Yea. Perhaps. Or what if Gatsby was just an access point. What if, Fitzgerald, and not Gatsby was the point?”
And from there, the new edition was born. The characters are chosen a bit the same- each student picks a historical figure to play as and they create a facebook page for that character. This is still done in secrecy; we hold a Gatsby tea party to introduce the players to each other. (I’m told I make a very good barkeep.) They come in costume, and ask questions (with some help on what kinds of questions to ask- no questions that can be answered with yes or no statements). And then…then they get the rules.
There are five ways to win, depending on the alliance you’ve created/chosen. Each alliance has certain pieces of evidence and a certain amount of money they must collect to win. In this version, I have already created the evidence and I have already printed the money.
What’s the difference, you might say.
In this version, you win evidence, skill cards, and money through challenges. Now, these can be as Gatsby-related as I want or they can be time period related. I even threw in a few writing challenges. And, I DID IT ALL IN ONENOTE.
It. Was. Amazing.
I have everything from the Charleston set to modern day music, a written piece on why Lucious Lyon in Empire is a modern day Gatsby, a recreated Depression era advertisement and even an MLA citation for every Fitzgerald book our library owned. This version allowed my students to get really entrenched in Modernism. What’s more, we played for FOUR WEEKS. Alliances shifted, challenges became harder, and the competition was fierce. Every single student was engaged.
The game still needs some tweeking- I’ve learned that evidence should move into circulation quickly (the last time we played, I was sure the mod would end before a winner declared) and that challenges were a great way to scaffold learning when applied correctly. I am also considering taking the money bit out- it seems to complicate the game more than move the players. I did love using OneNote, but the cards were challenging to keep up with; while my students didn’t know that they could easily copy cards into their notebook and I would be none-the-wiser, I should have a better system. I experimented a bit with a twitter board in the collaboration space of OneNote with some degree of success, but I’d like to move away from having a tupperware container of “security deposit boxes” (aka brown mailing envelopes).
I took this to VSTE (Virginia Society of Technology in Education) in December. Despite my nerves, I managed to explain this to a group of educators (I won’t claim I did it well). Point is, I’m learning that there are other teachers craving the same immersed environment. They keep me alive. (Shameless plug: go to VSTE. If you are a technology oriented teacher, GO TO VSTE. You will find your people. I did.) I connected with one teacher who plans to do something similar with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and another who might take this to his history class. Please do- take and adopt. Maybe we can be friends, and I’ll tell you all about the Edgar Allan Poe/Forensics mashup I built with a fellow science teacher (next post spoiler alert). I posted the pdf of the rules (thank you Lauren for being much more skilled in InDesign than me). By all means, email or comment below, and let’s start having fun in the classroom!
PS: I have consent and permission to share student content on this post.