Necessary: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I was supposed to write a back-to-school post, but then back-to-school happened.  I promised I’d write by the end of August, and then September happened while October keeps on happening.  I promised myself it would be all warm and fuzzy and “yay back to school.”

c06-48Instead, I want to write to you today about some pretty complicated things, and if I’m being honest, I’m at a loss where to begin.  I’m going to try anyway: I teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain in my classroom.  In case you are unaware of the complication involved in that task, here’s a short briefing.  In this literary text, the author chose to use a derogatory term in describing the novel’s runaway slave, Jim.  He didn’t just use it once; he used some 271 times.  This fact has made Adventures of Huckleberry Finn arguably one of the most banned books of our century.  It is still officially and unofficially banned in parts of the United States.  I tell you this so that you will understand how controversial my next statement is: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a necessary book in a high school curriculum.

My intent is not to justify the literary merits of a book that challenged the status quo in its day, or to explain why Huck’s familiarity with that derogatory term is crucial to understanding the novel as an indictment of inherent racism.  You will have to read the book, without any personal agenda or attempt at racial politics to understand why Huck’s “alright then, I’ll go to hell” moment was and is a siren call in American literature.  You’ll have to read it to understand that when Huck calls Jim “my nigger”, it isn’t just a term of affection but an acknowledgement that in a corrupt, sickened culture, it is Huck’s white privilege that saves Jim and shames Huck.  You’ll have to read it to understand why Toni Morrison’s states “the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged, and advanced.  What it cannot be is dismissed.” 

I say this in so many words to every class I teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I want my students to talk about that word, the history of racism in our country, and even the racism that still exists.  Most of the time, the conversations surrounding that novel are genuine, reflective, difficult, and redeeming.  For me, it’s an acknowledgement of my own white guilt, my own white privilege, and my own cultural heritage.  It reminds me that we still have so much more to do.

This is all just part of why I write you.

Today, a colleague shared with me an incident that happened while on dorm duty (I work at a boarding school).  Four students at my school took it upon themselves to reproach another student for supposedly using that same derogatory term in class. This may not seem so terrible. Everyone is allowed to voice their hurt, their uncomfortableness in being offended, intended or not.  Let me also share with you that none of these four girls are in the class that this offense was rumored to have been said.  These four students approached the other student in her bedroom.  One more thing- this class is currently studying, you guessed it, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

My first thoughts were scrambled in outrage.  Rage became questions: how does this cultivate an environment that promises integrity, compassion, or awareness of self and others, a motto my school holds dear? How does this cultivate an environment that promises integrity, compassion, or awareness of self and others, a motto my country holds dear?

The United States we all live in is built on innovation, creativity, and diversity.  It’s also built on the backs of slaves, the blood of brothers (and sisters, my inner feminist reminds me), and a complicated history.  And we can’t even begin to understand this legacy or inspire progress if we can’t find a way to talk about it.  I worry that my students are so occupied with the politicalness of their identities that they are unable to divorce themselves to think analytically about something.  But what worries me most is that what could have been a great conversation was instead an accusation.  There is no clear cut answer on many issues surrounding race, racism, and identity.  But there is a way to talk about it.

I don’t believe this is the way, and I really believe we as a community nation should start talking about how to talk so that our students we can have those genuine, reflective, difficult, and redeeming conversations.  And until we can do that, we doom every generation after us to not only dismiss Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the uncomfortableness it invokes, but we also deny any opportunity for the next generation to understand why Jim is crucial to progress.

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Twas the Night Before Class….

Sometimes I’m not quiet, I’m scheming.

I need to write about the VAIS conference that energized my teaching philosophy, but all I can think about right now is the Gatsby game that begins in my classroom tomorrow.  I’m like a kid at Christmas, an excited neurotic bundle.  I can’t wait to see it played, I can’t wait for feedback, and I’m already anticipating writing about it.

I can’t help it; I’m a gamer through and through.

This all started with “what ifs.”  I often find myself on Lauren Roy’s couch (she is the an education technology specialist at my school) playing through “what ifs.”  In my dream school, English is married to computer science or a technology class.  Video games are nothing more than interactive stories; novels are the original role playing games.  Yet so many educators are reluctant to join the two for fear we lose something.

I, on the other hand, think they would be great for each other.

It started like this:

“what if Gatsby were a video game”

and

“what if we took the desks out of my room”

and

“didn’t we just buy Ultimate Werewolf for Casual Sundays?”

and

“couldn’t Gatsby be an Ultimate Werewolf game?”

And suddenly, we were scheming. Two weeks later, and the Gatsby RPG  is ready for play tomorrow.  I’ve deviated a little bit from the original schematics (I’ll write more after the prototype is played through), but it’s just wonderful to know the fruits of collaborating with an amazing “what if” partner.  (Also, OneNote is a great tool to keep all those couch borne “what if” ideas.)

*Click the picture for better detail.*

OneNote Planning for Gatsby

OneNote Planning for Gatsby

For now, I’m giddy and can’t wait to play.  Will report back soon.

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A Picture is Worth a Thousand words (ok, maybe more like 261?)

When teaching English, it’s easy to forget that visual literacy isn’t just the ability to read and interpret written text.  Especially in today’s world- infographics, ads, commercials, movies- they all demand some inference and interpretation very similar to analyzing a story.  This was very much at the heart of one of my favorite teaching activities to do with students.

In this particular case, I asked them to gather items for a character’s suitcase.  See if you can guess what character it might be (Some hints:  I was teaching American Drama and the movie is a classic).

Guess who's coming to dinner...

Guess who’s coming to dinner…

A pearl necklace, a scarf, a bit of lace, perfume, lipstick, tea, and heels?  This can only mean Blanche DuBois.  They even arranged it artfully so- leading us to discuss the things that would upset Stanley or how one might modernize the movie by substituting certain items (“who drinks tea anymore? I’d drop a Starbucks card in there bruh”) or updating her wardrobe (“girl has a thing for lace.  Someone get her some Gucci leather”).

The best part: this can be modified to do any character from literature.  Have a knapsack? Huck Finn does.  How about a green tarp?  Better see to Pilate (Song of Solomon).

And then, if you are really ambitious, snap a photo and you have an instant quiz/test question: “choose an item from the suitcase that symbolically represents that character.  Explain it’s significance and compare the item to the character.”  As I tell my students, no surprises here.  Just pictures turned into words.  Make it so.

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Things I Assume the Juniors Know But Don’t….

1. Annotate in a productive, fruitful manner.

2. Cite correctly in MLA style.

3.  Outline a paper.

4. Understand grammar lingo associated with paper editing, feedback, and construction.

 

Yikes.  Looks like I have some planning to do for next year….

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Reason #45 Why I love OneNote

It makes visual journaling soooo much easier….(and this yet after writing about a moleskin journal)Visual Journal Prompts_Page_1

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The Untarnished Moleskin

Mattias Aldofsson's fountain pen moleskin drawings

Mattias Aldofsson’s fountain pen moleskin drawings

I’ve been in love with journaling since I could remember/retain what journaling meant; I remember my first diary very clearly.  It was pink, glittery, and had a lock that was sure to keep out my little sister.  My grandmother bought it at the dollar store, along with the pack of pens that I would lose in the next hour.  But that diary….

It seemed to me (and still does to some extent) that both important people and everyday people alike kept a journal.  Lewis Carroll (of my beloved Alice in Wonderland stage) kept meticulous diaries, even though they would one day incriminate him.  Virginia Woolfe, the first writer I really understood as a woman’s writer, was an avid journal scribe.  Mark Twain was never seen without one, Kurt Cobin rarely seen with his but it existed.  It didn’t matter what walk of life, as a young girl I thought that people were supposed to keep diaries and journals.

I’d like to say that I kept up with my journaling through grade school naivety, through high school angst, and even through college busyness.  But only some of that is true- I went through spurts of intense writing, where every day was meticulously detailed, “Lunch: tray of fries.  Milk.  God, why can’t I stop eating fries.”  As I got older, details become ideologies ruminated at the end of the day, “How is it possible to know when you are in love, like the very moment?”  But the truth is journaling, like writing is hard.  And habit-forming, as in, you have to do it and make it a habit or you don’t do it and oops, where is that thing again?

And yet, I own at least seven, unused, neatly wrapped moleskins.  Every now and then, I take them out, fondle the unbroken spines (50 Shades of Molekskin anyone?), and wonder if today is the day I will write in one.

Hike Guy's Moleskin Page

Hike Guy’s Moleskin Page

I imagine some of my hangups are the same one my students face when asked to do an essay, rough draft, or even a creative writing piece; after all, the same questions they ask plague me.  What do I write?  How do I start? What if I get it wrong?  What is a good entry? How long should it be? Inevitable, I begin to compare anything I might do to the amazing work of others.  Like this guy, Kolby Kirk, and his amazing hiking journals.  I particularly love how his moleskins are hybrids of writing, mapping, and sketching.  I really like his philosophy that journals should be messy, dirty, interactive things that are free from constriction.  Like rough drafts, but fun.

And then, a thought happens: how could I use journaling in my classroom as a way to help my students become active journalists?  How could I help myself?  Where would one begin?  How would one start?  Could I start? I talk all the time about the value of a rough draft, a good outline, and a working thesis.  These are a lot like messy, dirty, interactive moleskins.  Maybe this is merit in journaling frequently in class, but how could there be proof without being intrusive?  What kind of negotiating would a teacher need?

And then: how do I let go of the part of me that wants to organize, label, and categorize every entry before I even start?  How do my students? Do I grade them?  How do I grade them if I want them to write freely?  Is the act alone enough to warrant a grade?

I almost think with my new project (gamifying the classroom), journaling will become a must- it must become both record book and reflection.  Journal prompts are a whole other issue- I have a love/hate relationship with using journal prompts in the classroom.  While I completely see the merit in a guided prompt, the non-teacher side of me cringes every time I see or use one.  I’m much more likely to use a writing guide, an insert if you will for my students.  I really like Mike Shea’s moleskin insert for writers; making one for high school students would be interesting.

The best start might be my own: unwrapping a moleskin of my very own this week and put the untarnished moleskin issue to rest.  Stay tuned.

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Reason #34 why I love OneNote

Because my students rock at outlining.

OneNote Essay Outlining

OneNote Essay Outlining

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Andy Looney Beat Me in Fluxx

Andy Looney!!

Andy Looney!!

Sometimes, the best part of my job isn’t my job at all.  Sometimes, the best part of my job involves play.  This was completely the case on Sunday, when Andy Looney of Looney Labs came to play with us during Casual Sunday.

Now that statement may not quite mean anything or sink in yet.  If you are a Fluxx player, then start melting.  Andy Looney, inventor of the Mensa approved game, Fluxx, ventured out of Looney Labs with 6 different versions of Fluxx, 4 of which were not published on the market.

I’d like to claim that I’m just so cool even Andy Looney likes to play Fluxx with me, but I don’t think I’ll ever reach that level of epicness.  My students however, are awesome.  It was their epicness that made things happen.  Let me explain.

A big part of my teaching philosophy involves gaming in the classroom. I firmly believe that strategic gaming is a great platform to engage play and higher level critical thinking skills.  About two modules ago (we teach on a module schedule), I asked my American Drama Module to create an adaptation for A Streetcar Named Desire.  My only rules: it had to be an adaptation, which means certain plot devices had to remain and the story had to be mostly recognizable.  Beyond that, no guidelines, no project format, no detailed page long project description.  Oh, and there was a prize: best project won movie tickets and me as a chauffeur.  For a boarding school, this was “jackpot”.  (Apparently using article is now not considered hip.)  As nervous as I was about the outcomes of this “open ended project” format (ermergawd I’m going to get cardboard-put-together-last-minute-diaromas), the students were much more in stress mode.  IMG_2274

“Can you at least give us a list of project options?”

“Can you tell me if my idea is right?”

“What if I do it wrong?”

This is exactly why I think teaching creative play in the classroom is so important.  I will spare you a diatribe until a later post, but I will say this: we have programmed our students to believe that thinking outside the box is too risky.  It’s not worth the risk of getting a bad grade, it’s not worth the risk of being wrong.  We have programmed students to think that creative play is wrong.  And that is fundamentally the opposite of what learning and the classroom should do.

Every single group blew me away.  I had a fairy tale adaptation, a Teletubbies version, a fake documentary, and A Street Car Named Desire Fluxx.  While they didn’t win, I did tweet their version to Labyrinth Games in DC (best game shop ever).  I didn’t realize this at the time, but Kathleen at Labyrinth sees Andy Looney for Small Business Saturdays (yet another reason to love this place).  In passing through, I showed Kathleen pics of the version, and lo and behold, in about the time span of a week Andy Looney wanted to come play it.

It was awesome.

 

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Casual Sundays: Slash Game Review

It began as sort of a “I like board games. You like board games. Can we play a board game?” and has kind of become a thing. We call it “Casual Sundays.”

Each Sunday, a colleauge and I bring a new game for girls to play. Two Sundays ago, we brought Slash. Almost instantly, we started an obsession (at least for half of the 10 who played).

I’m way ahead of myself. I need a scale of measurement. Let’s say 1 is a “I’d like my _hours of playtime back,” a 3 is an “eh. Kinda cool,” and a 5 is a “I lost track of time this was so amazing ohmergawd can we keep playing.” At some point, I’ll include a rubric.

Slash is like Apples to Apples but with fictional characters. It’s completely unlike Apples to Apples in that you are the matchmaker; you’re not matching the best adjective with the best noun or even the best offensive category with the best proper noun (I heart you Cards Against Humanity). You’re playing Cupid with characters from classic fiction, cult fiction, television, movies, mythology, you name it. AND IT ROCKS.

My favorite part of this game (other than it generated at least three fan fiction stories) is the moments you have to explain a character to the current matchmaker. Example:

“You don’timage know who Captain Mal is? Ohmergod.”

“Nope. I also don’t know who The Kraken is.”

“One is a space captain. The other a giant octopus. Lots of tension could happen, but lets face it. The conversation about space vs ocean would be epic.”

The game combines two things well: romancey angst (which teenage girls love) and characters from all different kinds of verse. My favorite paring: Captain Jack Sparrow and The Golden Girls. All of them. I can totally see that too.

Rating: 5/5.

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“Outlining Sucks” or Why Students Hate the Hard Parts

I tell my students all the time that essays are my favorite part of teaching English.  It gets me a lot of eyerolling, but it’s true.  Well, partly: I love teaching essay construction more than I actually like to do essay construction.  The part of the essay planning that actually involves, well planning.  But I’ve also been one for picking something a part to see how it works.  Essay construction is very much like that- trying to pick apart a piece of literature and figure out how it works while simultanously constructing an essay that works.  Most students I know skip this step.  Instead of outlining, planning, gathering evidence, figuring out a thesis, they jump right in.  And it almost never turns out well.

I tell my students this but inevitably they by pass this stage anyway.  When it came time for the big out of class essay round two, I was determined not to get the same paper- brilliant in spots but lacking evidence, well said in a sentence but lacking any structure.  I was receiving 30 papers that had moments of clarity but lacked any overall organization.

When did we start skipping this step?  When did I start skipping this step?

This aggression will not stand, Donnie.

So the last module, I decided to spend a two days on essay organization.  Not only did my students enjoy and really understand the importance of this process, but their papers were infinitely better.

I had them start out with a series of different colored post it notes.  The first step in this process is to identify a controlling idea, or a thesis.  Most students just jotted down a fragment, an idea. Outlining oneHere, this student starts with the blue sticky note, “pilate vs macon/life of freedom/both children of the flying Solomon”.  We then talk about how to create good thesis statements- that the significance is really crucial.  One can talk all day about how Toni Morrison uses a certain symbol, but if you don’t explain why this is significant in your essay then I don’t care. Yellow sticky notes indicate further exploration; the thesis becomes “Society shops the idea of freedom into different forms for each of Solomon’s children”.  While not completely finished, I give them the go ahead for outlining.  I use red, yellow, and green page tabs.  Yellow indicates to proceed, but know the thesis will need more once the outlining is complete.  Red means “ahhh no stop!  Give me more on this idea!”  Green is easy- it means keep going.

And then the fun begins.  We talk about different ways to outline and organize information.  I tell them a story two ways: in a chronological order and then in order of importance.  Usually it’s StarWars.  For example, I ask my students when would you prefer to met Darth Vader, when he’s young and just starting out in the force or later as an opposition to our young hero, Luke Skywalker?

Allow me to digress. This is important.

You see, some students will argue that meeting Darth Vader as a child takes away the importance of Luke’s journey.  I would agree- if the main point of the story is to highlight Luke Skywalker’s struggle with the dark side, then chronological may not be the best form of organization.  Instead, I’d highlight the most important plot points- his discovery of Leia’s message, the self discovery on Tattooine, the fight with his father.  You can skip in and out of the timeline.  However, if you are arguing the spirituality (lack thereof or glimmer from within) of Darth Vader, then one may want to tell his entire story, in chronological order.

This works for just about anything- even The Hunger Games.

Organization and structure are important; they decided how the reader gets the information.  It’s the most persuasive tool a writer can master.  Once they understand and develop their outline, they have to justify WHY (not just how) they are organizing their essay.  And this two minute conversation has been the most crucial part of the process.  Thinking about structure and the reader is the most important thing students can do in the revision/creation part of an essay. Outlining 3

Once they have their outline on yellow sticky notes (and another tagged approval process happens), I ask them to write a personal objective for their paper. This is the light green strip.  Here, this student’s personal objective is to “be less obtrusively wordy”.  With objective in mind, they start the writing process.  They go back (and I encourage them to do so) many times to their outline (now in digital form) and add, subtract, move.  Some even use the sticky notes as placemarkers; ways to imagine what their essay might look like if organized differently.

When they are about halfway through the rough draft process (I did this activity on the day of peer review), I Outline 2ask them to identify three things about their paper: the strongest sentence, the strongest piece of evidence (quoted material from the text), and a list of four to five words that they really feel articulate the paper.  This go on post it notes for reflection later.

I have a nine panel window door that I used for each of my nine students to hang their process.  The important part is that this does go on display for the entire process.  It creates a community that holds each other accountable.

From there, they embark on their own. They might hate you at the start, but I can tell you from experience they will understand and appreciate that approaching finish line so much better.

Below is the first essay’s beginning digitalized outline after pre-planning; it turned into one of the best papers I’ve graded all year long.

OUTLINE

FLIGHT/ Freedom

Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon focuses on a

Thesis: Pilate and Macon’s determination and courage to pursue their ideal freedom are qualities that has been developed from their family roots; simultaneously society impacts the two characters which formed two different lives of freedom.

  1. Macon VS. Pilate( Beliefs+ physical appearances)

Physically:

Macon-Tall, Strong, always carries keys around-pg. 55 “Own things=most important thing” quote, portrayed as “impregnable” the most feared and respected black man, willing to go to any extent for his money (power)(pg. 25 with Porter)

Pilate: Tall, strong->willing to go to any extent to protect her baby (Reba/Hagar/ Milkman?)-> Flexible: police scene, taller/ shorter in front of different people (pg. 206)

Isolated but regarded with respect, nobody bothers her (mentioned several times in the novel, people back off when they hear its related to Pilate)

Not well mannered (according to the people in the town in that time period in that society)

Beliefs: pg149->realizes how she wants to be seen in the world

Pg139->indifferent to money,

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