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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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!
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
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
Have you ever had one of those loose-ends days where the students are tired, you’re worn down, and everyone is a bit unmotivated or even unwilling to give the content or curriculum the TLC it deserves? I offer you a quick fix, or “fixe” if you will…the AP Lit Quickfire Challenge!
Inspired by the “Quickfire Challenge” on reality show Top Chef, students have one class period, and one class period only, to create an intentionally designed product highlighting the literary element dujour. Similarly to the show, students may only use whatever’s in the kitchen. And by kitchen, I mean classroom. … KEEP READING
There is nothing more rewarding than hearing the collective groan from my students as the end-of-class bell interrupts an engaging, authentic conversation about a text. What is even more thrilling is when students have become so involved in a discussion that they (with little interruption from me), begin to construct a powerful understanding of a text. … KEEP READING
Desiring to change up my reading list this year, I decided to add As I Lay Dying and am so glad I did because it has proven to a great choice. I feel part of my duty as a southern teacher is to offer at least one southern work for my students, and AILD perfectly fits the bill. The story of Addie Bundren’s death and her family’s journey to Jefferson to bury her offers multiple points for teaching and student reflection. I want to give a shout out Matt Brown for sharing his resources and encouragement; most of my lessons were s̶t̶o̶l̶e̶n̶ ̶f̶r̶o̶m̶ inspired by him. … KEEP READING
In an attempt to introduce project-based learning into our sophomore American literature classrooms, my colleagues and I, created the American Literary Canon project. What began as a way to try and get students engaged in the literature of America, and move beyond reading a bunch of dead white guys (and, in all honesty, a way to make our end of year assessing less strenuous), has now evolved into an assignment that allows students to explore literature that is meaningful to them, as well as, the opportunity for students to create personal artifacts of their learning. … KEEP READING
At the start of a new semester or new school year it can sometimes be difficult to get students to jump in and participate in a class discussion. I’ve found that the silent discussion can be an effective technique to use to get all students to participate. There is a low risk for the students because names are not attached to the discussion, and it allows them time to think before they respond. They are not competing with other students to have their voice heard. This discussion style works especially well when paired with a short story or a novel. The example I’m using is from The Good Earth, a novel taught in junior level English.
Planning and Preparation: Before students can discuss, I choose quotations from the text that are impacting or provocative. These quotes are then typed out and centered on a single sheet of paper. I try to leave plenty of room for students to write. I’ve also found it helpful to have more quotations than students, that way when it comes time to move desks, the students aren’t waiting for someone to finish.
The process: When students walk into the room, I ask them to take a seat at a desk or table with a quotation. First, they read the quotation to themselves. They are then asked to underline important, powerful words, or words that have a strong connotative meaning. After they have done several questions: Why this passage is important? What does the quote contribute to the meaning of the work? Why is it significant? The students will then write a statement somewhere on the page to share why they think the quotation is significant. The next step is for students to generate a question pertaining to the quotation that will get their peers thinking. This question is written somewhere on the paper.
After students finish writing their question it is time to move to another quotation. They will begin the process a second time with me walking them through the steps. You will notice that students may double or triple underline the same words, or they may select new words all together. An additional step I add is that students will now comment or answer the question/s provided by their peers. After a second time of reading, commenting, and questioning, with my direct instruction, students then go through the process on their own.
There is no set number of times for students to rotate through the quotations – it depends on time and number of students in the class. I usually allow a minimum of 10-15 minutes for them to complete this part of the discussion. After students have looked at the last quote, they will then return to their original seat. I allow them time to look at the responses and to see how their discussion grew as their peers responded. The discussion can end there if you choose.
Next Steps: I will often take the discussion further with the students by placing them into small groups. Once in small groups, they read the quotation out loud and share an intriguing question or comment that was written by a classmate.
If you wanted to take the discussion one more step, I often ask the smaller groups to choose one of their quotations and create a discussion question from their small group conversation to get their classmates thinking.