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. 

Mudbound, Skype, and Hillary Jordan

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No More Guessing on Author Intent in Mudbound – Susan Barber

After falling in love with the novel Mudbound last summer, I decided to make it this year’s summer reading. Mudbound has so many great teaching points from point of view, narrative perspective, characterization, symbolism, and themes that one could spend months uncovering the layers of meaning. Oh, and did I mention the story is high interest?  Students came to class on  day one anxiously awaiting discussion; they enjoyed the novel so much there were few complaints about having summer work.
KEEP READING

Teaching Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

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In preparing this commentary, I asked a former student to proofread and chime in! Jenni Gish is a 17 year-old senior; her comments are in blue. 

I’ve been teaching Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five in my Advanced Placement Literature course for three years. This year (2016) was the best experience yet. My AP class, open to 11th and 12th-grade students, reads Slaughterhouse Five at the start of the second semester, after we’ve already read Dante, Shakespeare, Shelley, and reams of poetry. They’ve been well-trained in college-level reading skills and are adept at discussing a variety of literary techniques. They’ve also come to trust me enough to speak openly and freely about their reactions to anything we read, which is necessary when discussing Slaughterhouse Five.

Jenni: It’s important to have an open discussion. Teenagers have so many thoughts and questions that we feel we can’t talk about. They have to be addressed! It helps to have a safe environment to express this “loss, grief, and trauma”!KEEP READING

Using Student Data for Self-Evaluation

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One of my favorite aspects of teaching AP Literature is helping students become independent learners and learn how to make adjustments in studying based on personal progress. Since AP Literature has so many moving parts, the nature of the class calls for individualized reflection and goal setting. One student may naturally be gifted in writing analysis essays while another is a cautious close reader. Some students find their sweet spot to be modern poetry while others are more comfortable in Romantic prose. Helping students note areas of strengths and weaknesses enables them to identify patterns and make adjustments but also teaches them valuable study skills for college. KEEP READING

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