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.
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Poetry Props: Strategies for Student Understanding

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TP-CASTT, SOAPStone, and DIDLS have been long-time methods of teaching students how to unpack and understand poetry. These have their place in the classroom and offer students a structured approach to poetry. In the past few years, however, class discussions and the teaching of poetry has become more organic and student-driven. With that in mind, here are some simple activities to use in the classroom when teaching poetry: … KEEP READING

Bridging the Gap between AP Language and Literature

AP Language

I became an English teacher largely because I love literature. Most of us would consider ourselves “readers” and have a love for words that led us to this career. That’s why I was really surprised when I loved AP Language so much.  There was no poetry, very little fiction, just nonfiction works (articles, essays, speeches, letters) to synthesize, analyze, and argue.  AP Language gets down the building blocks of why and how an author uses words to achieve his purpose. From my first introduction to the course, I found myself analyzing every sermon, televised speech, and opinion column for its use of rhetoric. … KEEP READING

Thoughts from an AP Lit Reader: Question 2

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The College Board dotingly refers to their first-time readers as acorns and even distinguishes us with an acorn on our name badge.  “The Reading,” as it is so fondly referred to, is a surprisingly pleasant professional development opportunity that involves reading 1.2 million essays in a collaborative effort with colleagues from all over the country and even the world.

When the Chief Reader report comes out it will be a valuable resource for all teachers. According to College Board, sadly only 11% of teachers who access the exam questions take advantage of the material provided by the question leaders.  This will use much more sophisticated vocabulary likely including words such as penultimate and ubiquitous. In the meantime, here are my observations as a first-time reader on Question 2 that are designed to be helpful for implementation into the AP Literature classroom.  KEEP READING

Thoughts from an AP Lit Reader: Question 3

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Many of the lessons I learned from reading Question 3 essay after essay were ones I’d learned before, but the prevalence of some the problems that cropped up reinforced in my mind the points I am going to emphasize with my students next year. Here are some of the crucial ideas I’ll be bringing to my classroom this fall:

Introductions: GET to the point and HAVE a point

AP readers who are looking at many, many essays for many, many hours do not enjoy reading lengthy introductions. Students have a very limited time to write their essays and readers will understand (and appreciate) not having to hunt for a thesis amidst historical accounts of the author’s time period and your thoughts on which politicians tend to lie the most. Do not bother to restate the prompt, as I can assure you, many, many students have already done and do not give a laundry list of the three literary techniques you will be discussing in your essay. Instead, formulate an idea that answers the prompt using the novel you have chosen and hopefully incorporating the meaning of the novel as a whole and get on with your essay. KEEP READING

Teaching Beloved

Beloved

As excited as I was to teach Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the first time, I was also terrified. With the conservative culture of my school, its reception was, as I expected it to be—hesitant, at best. Concerns ranged from violence to sex, and the pushback allowed me to reflect on all the benefits of teaching Beloved. Now, years later, the novel remains as a mainstay in my AP literature curriculum. KEEP READING

Another Year in the Bag

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Another year is in the bag. My students have negotiated the AP Literature exam and senior year with grace and dignity (for the most part). It is always a melancholy day when I say goodbye to these kids I’ve come to know so well. But, I know they are prepared for college and the world that awaits them in the fall. Now it is my turn to reflect on the journey we took together and begin my plans for the new crop of students heading my way in the fall. 

Like most teachers, my reflections fall first on what I will do differently next year. I carefully consider what worked well and want failed to live up to expectations, but I also consider what was missing. First, what went well?

Students read deeply and widely. As a class we read and analyzed the following works: Madame Bovary, The Importance of Being Earnest, Hamlet, Frankenstein, and Song of Solomon. Students also read four self-selected novels or plays. Their readings included: The Road, Sula, Beloved, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mudbound, and many others. There was a sense of literary excellence and challenge in the class, and I am proud of this classroom culture.

Students learned to read specific passages and poems closely and analytically. They learned to make arguments. I worked to focus students on the craft of writing and the skillful arrangement of language authors use to create meaning. We looked at specific sentences through warm-ups I call “Spotlight Reading.” I saw growth in insight and analytical writing.

What failed to live up to expectations? 

I try to do too much. I want kids to read everything. What happens? I rush through works that deserve a slower, more methodical pace. Quality literature requires attention. I need to curb my inclination to do too much. In the end, the kids are short-changed, and I feel frustrated.

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Ten Commandments for Teaching Poetry

The Ten Commandments of Teaching Poetry (1)
  1. Teach strategies for understanding. The goal is to help students learn to read and enjoy poetry on their own, so allow the poem to be a vehicle for teaching strategies to unlock meaning and understanding. Sadly poems are too often taught as information to be memorized for an assessment. Teach the skill, not the text; allow students to use their skills to make meaning of the poem.
  2. Expose students to a variety of poems. Just as some people prefer jazz over big band or hip hop over country, poetry preferences exist. While I prefer the Romantics, teaching only Wordsworth and Byron is a disservice to my students. They should be reading Sandra Cisneros, Billy Collins, Langston Hughes, and e.e. cummings. Offering a variety will help students find poems they find comfortable and give them the chance to consider other styles. 
  3. Give students choice. Research proves that choice reading of texts increases student engagement and motivation. Allow students to bring in poems that they like to share with the class. The poems may be silly, sad, or profound. This will not only give students a chance to research and find poems but give teachers insight into their students.
  4. Questions are okay. Students are often afraid of poetry because they don’t understand it. Understanding poems typically requires multiple readings and extended time for reflection. Teachers need to help students be okay with walking away from a poem with questions. I tell my students to lean into what they understanding and dwell on that; further insight will come over time and with subsequent reading.
  5. Shift is everything. Coaching students to identify the shift is the single most important thing that will help with understanding poetry. The meaning of a poem ordinarily follows the shift thus giving students a built-in signal for unlocking the meaning. 
  6. Read for enjoyment. Somewhere along the way in teachers got the idea that everything text presented in class had to be dissected, analyzed, and taught for assessment; this is simply a disservice to our students. When I listen to music, I sing along, dance, and often comment on songs but rarely identify figurative language in the lyrics and how the syncopation adds to the melody; I listen to enjoy. The same is true for poetry: we need offer opportunities for our students to enjoy poetry. Poetry Fridays by Jori Krulder unpacks what reading poetry for enjoyment in the classroom looks like.
  7. Make poetry relevant. Good poetry is timeless but sometimes meanings get lost in generational gaps and archaic language. Modeling text-to-self connections gets students in the habit of thinking how a poem can relate to them. I often pair “The World is too Much with Us” with “Touchscreen” or “The Chambered Nautilus”  with Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite and have students figure out how the modern clips connect to the older poems.
  8. Punctuation matters. When given a poem to read, students will pause at the end of each line and ignore punctuation. Not only does this make for awkward reading especially if a poem doesn’t rhyme, but students have a more difficult understanding a poem read without considering punctuation. When my students are having trouble simply reading a poem, we take it sentence by sentence often reading like prose to build skill and confidence.

  9. Structure, form, and type matter. A basic framework of structure, form, and types of poetry help students understand meaning, and while students may not be able to clearly identify types and forms of poetry, they will be able to tell whether it is formal or informal, structured or unstructured which adds to meaning. Teaching students to use structure, form, and type as clues to unlock meaning moves them from memorizing terms for assessment to understanding poetry.

  10. Have fun! Be creative with teaching and reading poetry. Celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 21st or help your students write slam poetry with Ted Ed’s “Become a Slam Poet in Five Steps” lesson. Have your students share poetry via Google Hangout or Skype with another class or devote a day to studying song lyrics as poetry. The options are limitless!

 

Literary Criticism for the Student’s Soul

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One of the biggest challenges of the high school English teacher is teaching literary criticism. It can be such a subjective mystery for so many students, even the brightest. I have found over the past few years that having students take ownership and responsibility for not only their learning but the learning of their classmates pushes them to a level of understanding and communication that is far more engaging and often easier to grasp than my method of presentation. … KEEP READING

Using Children’s Books as Mentor Texts

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One of the best professional decisions I have made was applying to become a fellow with the National Writing Project. Because of my interaction with colleagues across the spectrum from K-12, my teaching has expanded and I see possibility everywhere. One of my favorite techniques for assessing students both for formative and summative purposes that has come out of these connections has been through the use of children’s books. Here are three of my favorites:KEEP READING

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