The Things They Carried: Lesson Ideas

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The Things They Carry by Tim O’Brien has become a favorite in my AP Literature classroom. O’Brien’s journalistic style allows students to delve into theme and literary analysis without being weighed down with heavy diction and ornate syntax, but this is by no means a lightweight book. The stories and reality of war bring the depth.

Lesson Ideas:

Anticipation Activity:

I ask students to write down twelve things that they anticipate they will take to college. These should include a mix of tangible items such as their phone, blanket, and favorite coffee mug with intangible items such as their mother’s love and memories from high school. Students cut these items into strips and turn them face down on their desk. I randomly choose six items from each student’s desk. Students then write for five to ten minutes on their feelings of what was taken, how life will be without those things, what was left, and general observations. Students are then prepped for a conversation on the randomness of war, the effects of war, and personal sacrifices the war required of soldiers the same age as many of my students. Some students are surprised to learn that losing some things can be good but most have negative effects; some students.KEEP READING

Five Books to Jump Start 2017

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With so many books and so little time to read, our AP Lit Help team offers reviews of their favorite professional reads from last year. Happy reading and learning in 2017!

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Writing with Mentors – How to Reach Every Writer in the Room, Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell                                                                                                                                                   Review by Jori Krulder

Writing with Mentors is one of those books with ideas so straightforward and obviously useful that you ask yourself “Why didn’t I think of this years ago?” It is based on the simple premise that the best way to create engaged and independent writers is by teaching them to find and use current texts as models for writing. Students read and analyze the text and use what they learn to write their own texts. In addition to providing step-by-step ways to build units of study tailored to the needs of your students, this book offers several resources for finding the real world texts that will help students to see the possibilities out there when it comes to writing. Once I learn the process for finding a mentor text to fit the needs and interests in my classroom and using it to guide students in creating their own writing, I was given limitless possibilities for instruction. And once students learn the process, they’re also able to apply it to future writing endeavors. This book empowers both students and teachers with one of the most important gifts of learning: independence.

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Who’s Doing the Work? By Jan Burkins                                                                                                                                       Review by Elizabeth Metheny

I read Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’ new book, Who’s Doing the Work?, at the start of this school year. It was a perfect shot-in-the-arm to help me reflect upon my role in student learning. I’ve taught high school English for ten years and have worked with all skill levels from struggling freshmen to Advanced Placement seniors. As I read through the book I saw myself in many of their examples. When students struggle, teachers often feel responsible to do more. Check! When teachers define, scaffold, or summarize for students, the student becomes dependent upon the teacher. Check! When students are assigned a complex text, they rarely use the strategies teachers have taught them. Check!  Burkins and Yaris argue that reading and English Language Arts teachers must take a step back and allow their students to grapple with material. Additionally, they explain how teachers can make easy adjustments to facilitate authentic learning and how those adjustments can help students become more independent and capable of transferring their learning.

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Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie                                                       Review by Roy F. Smith

What started out as required reading for a professional development session, John Hattie’s book Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning turned out to be an essential addition to my professional library.  Hattie’s work is grounded in data and effectively argues for a visible “practice of teaching.”  While most teachers work to assist their students in becoming more knowledgeable, Hattie focuses on those teachers who are “expert teachers” in their disciplines.  Hattie argues that these expert teachers are not only content experts, but they are also “passionate and inspired teachers.” Visible Learning leads teachers and administrators to an understanding of the strategies and techniques these knowledgeable and passionate teachers practice every day.  Hattie’s work is not a “theory only” lecture. The heart of his book develops the key stages of the expert teacher’s daily lessons. He delineates a framework that includes chapters on preparing lessons, starting lessons, the flow of lessons, feedback, and the end of the lesson.  Evaluating expert teachers’ strategies to make learning “visible” for all students, and putting these strategies under rigorous scientific measures, helps all teachers practice these strategies in their own classrooms.  Hattie sums up his book’s goal when he claims that “My point is that teachers’ beliefs and commitments are the greatest influence on student achievement over which we have some control – and this book outlines those beliefs and commitments.”      

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In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom by Kelly Gallagher                         Review by Susan Barber

Seeing Kelly Gallagher’s name with “the best interest of students” on a book left me no choice but to buy, and this book did not disappoint. Gallagher honestly reviews Common Core standards and argues that teachers need to stay true to teaching reading and writing rather than a set of standards. This book provides practical and theoretical content, old and new ideas, and teacher and student insight. In a world where many educators seem to either be highly outspoken against the standards or all in with them, Gallagher walks the line between the two putting best practices and students at the forefront of the book rather than engaging in an argument about standards, the current state of education, or the despair of literacy in today’s society. Some of the book is common sense which in my opinion is what is missing from many of today’s classrooms. Other parts of the book fights for student choice and engagement pushing educators to stay current with research and continue to grow as an educator.  My copy is already earmarked and worn from use already, and I have no doubt yours will be as well.

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The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark                                                                                                                       Review by Susan Barber             

I read a lot. I grade a lot. I confer a lot. So when I find a book with lessons ready to roll out in my classes, I have found a gem. The Art of X-Ray Reading is a gem. From Fitzgerald to Shakespeare to Homer to Joyce to Morrison, Clark provides a lesson for a section of a text focusing on close reading. Do not confuse the term “close reading” here with a fad of filling out a worksheet on a passage but rather a serious study of a section. Students wade through syntax, determine diction and connotation, and tie the small to the big picture of the work. Clark turns the texts into mentor texts for writing and labs for teaching reading skills. His lessons are meaty, thorough, and engaging. Though only providing lessons for twenty-five works, teachers apply the principles of these lessons to any and every work taught in their classrooms. 

Best Lesson Series (Concept 1e)

I would be amiss if I failed to remind you of the Talks with Teachers book The Best Lesson Series: Literature written by teachers for teachers. If you have not read this, you are missing out!

What was the best professional book you read last year?

My Teaching Manifesto

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Reading

I will provide a variety of quality works for my students.

I will teach skills that will help students become better readers rather than teaching a text.

I will be an active reader and share personal reading with my students.

I will learn alongside my students.

I will embrace the ambiguity of multiple interpretations of a text instead of one “right answer.”

I will offer reading at times during class just to enjoy the beauty of words and passages without analyzing the text.

I will provide EPIC (experiential, purposeful, imaginative, and collaborative) lessons. 

I will allow students to have choice in their reading. KEEP READING

Character Complexity

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In an ever-continuing effort to guide my students in reading deeply and finding meaning in a text, I wanted to do something different near the beginning of Brave New World to help students see the complexity of the characters. When I read chapter four of Brave New World (for the 100th time), I knew this was the perfect place to try a new idea because Benard Marx and Helmholtz Watson are sized up (no pun intended) in Section 2. I love teaching foils because comparing characters (or settings, symbols, themes, or any comparison for that matter) is one of the easiest ways for students to notice differences and find an entry point to draw conclusions about the meaning of the work as a whole. KEEP READING

Texts not Terms

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This conversation happens frequently in my classroom; I’m guessing it happens in your classrooms as well. 

Student: “What do you want us to annotate the text for?”

Teacher: “Meaning.”

Student: “Yes, but should we mark similes, personification, themes, or what exactly?”

Teacher: “Sure – if you think they’re important and add to the meaning, mark it.”

Student: “Ughhhh.”

And so it goes. (I just finished Slaughterhouse Five; humor me). KEEP READING

Georgia On My Mind – A Guide to Atlanta for NCTE Attenders

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Welcome to Atlanta. Whether you call us A-town, the ATL, the Big Peach. Empire City of the South, or HOTlanta, I’m so excited to be volunteering for NCTE over the next few days as English educators converge on this eclectic and vibrant Southern city. I’ve seen several posts and recommendations (including NCTE’s comprehensive guide) all offering great advice on Atlanta, but I would feel a little less than hospitable if I didn’t share my suggestions for a classic and iconic look at the city.

Note: When I say “ trust me,” trust me. I will not let you down. KEEP READING

Choice Reading and AP Lit: It Can Be Done

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I am a big fan of choice reading in my classroom.  With my 9th graders, our classroom culture largely focuses around our choice novels, and my students display their love of reading.   And then I get them as seniors, and we hit AP Lit.  Many teachers (and students) feel that choice reading and AP Lit cannot work together.  But, I’ve been able to prove that they can.  Here are the top 8 ways to make choice reading successful in an AP class:KEEP READING

Dylan Composes His Way into Literary Discussions Like a Rolling Stone

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One of my first lessons in AP or any senior level literature class revolves around the question of what exactly constitutes literature. Because I wanted to change things up this year, I have not done this lesson and am glad because now I am going to teach Bob Dylan.

Question 3 calls for students to answer a prompt using a novel or play that is a work of “literary merit.” Each year students ask if they can write on Harry Potter, The Fault in Our Stars, or The Cat in the Hat for the exam; (surprisingly none of my students have written on the latter to date). While I could direct students to a list of what I believe to be appropriate criteria for literary merit, I prefer to let students wrestle with the difficulty of literary merit before I offer my thoughts.KEEP READING

Quick Writes

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Recently, I received a Facebook message from Travis, a student that I’d had the privilege of working with in my 11th grade English class several years ago. He wanted to tell me “In the spirit of Thanksgiving” how much my quick writes helped him “grow as a person.”  

This message surprised me, as my quick writes are nothing revolutionary; students are given a prompt and simply write their thoughts on the topic for 5 minutes. Next, the class discusses their ideas about the topic – usually for about 10 minutes, sometimes more if the discussion takes off, and then we move on to the next activity. Occasionally, the prompt is related to the main activity/lesson of the day and sometimes it is just a topic I think the students might like to discuss. You can find countless great prompt ideas on the internet – a wonderful one I found recently was in the New York Times titled Questions that Lead to LoveBut all that’s really required to make a good quick write prompt is that it’s thought-provoking. Later in the year, you can even mix things up by letting the students write the prompts.KEEP READING

Back to the Future: The Rise of Dystopian Literature

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One of my favorite novels to teach is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I have taught it twice a year for at least nine of my fourteen years teaching, and it remains a fresh favorite for me. The majority of my students typically enjoy it, as well; but until recently, most of my avid readers did not connect Brave New World to other books they were reading. Enter The Hunger Games and Divergent series. Finally, students are talking about and making connections to dystopian literature! Below are three reasons dystopian literature has a distinct place in the modern classroom.

  • Dystopian literature is the “it” item in modern YA.

If you ask a classroom of high schoolers how many of them have read The Hunger Games and/or the Divergent series, you will find a majority have read (or at least seen the movies) one, if not all, of the books. Even most of the non-recreational readers in the class will know what you are talking about when you reference these series. They read what captures their attention, and reading dystopian literature is now at the top of the list. If we want to continue to engage our students, we must give them what they want, and right now, they want dystopian literature. Many of them will be surprised that classics such as Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World can go toe to toe (and surpass, even) their current literary flings.

  • Dystopian literature has characters and situations to which students can relate.

Tris and Four in Divergent, Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games, these characters connect with high schoolers because they are close in age and go through some of the same emotions and troubles in which current students find themselves. From the older novels, John and Lenina in Brave New World, or Winston and Julia in 1984 share similar struggles. Same song and dance, and students still connect. Winston and Julia may be a bit more mature in years, but the mentality and the struggle are the same. While our students may not be battling the government and the injustices prevailed upon them by that government, they are dealing with fitting in, being the new kid, having a crush on someone, or facing a friend who has a crush on them. Maybe they’re dealing with parents who are absent (1984) or embarrassing (Brave New World) or abusive (Divergent) or any other combination found in these modern novels. The point is: students are relating, and students are reading. Avid readers grow into more articulate students, both in speech and in writing. Our goal as English teachers is to mold students into creative thinkers, effective communicators, and lifelong readers. Dystopian literature can help encourage this and maintain that spark of interest that could fuel a fire for a lifetime.

  • Dystopian literature links students to the issues of today.

Today’s high school students can be quite vocal about their opinions on today’s social, economic, and political milieu. These dystopian novels put into perspective the elements of their world that make them relevant. While they may feel like they’re having to rid themselves of all competition around them or form alliances to make it through a tough class in one piece, students see their environments in these stories. The safe space of the future helps them to displace some emotions, but many of them will see the connections between the ruling classes in these novels and the ruling elite of our present day. It opens the conversation across curriculums, from history to science and technology to sociology and psychology. When they address the same issues in the older dystopian novels, they are often surprised at the “predictions” that have come to pass. Some of my best classroom discussions come from these dystopian worlds connecting to our own little dystopias.

One of the things I love about teaching and referencing dystopian literature is the awareness it brings. These novels always have a way of reminding my students how important — and easy — it is to be kind, helpful, and honest; that is okay to be unique and to stand up for what is right and just.

What is your favorite dystopian novel to teach and why?

Jill Massey teaches AP Literature at East Wake Academy outside of Raleigh, NC. In addition to being a lover of all things British literature, Jill enjoys directing her church choir, cheering for NC State, and updating her dog Titus’ Instagram account. 

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