Gimme More Rules So I Can Be Free!

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“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit… the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.” — Igor Stravinsky

Students often want to know why an author did not say something in a more straightforward way. Why didn’t Shakespeare just say the girl was hot? Why did he have to get all “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” about it? Yet when we turn the question around and ask our students to write descriptively about, well, anything, they often hit the blank white paper wall. … KEEP READING

Advertising Fallacies: Snowboarding Cars and Other Fine Things

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If there ever is a perfect time to teach visual analysis, appeals, and SOAPSTone, now is the time. You can’t look anywhere without being bombarded by pressure—to be the best, to have the best. The message everywhere is BUY.

In today’s media-driven society, teens are immersed in advertising. In most cases, because it is so ubiquitous, they don’t even notice. They tune out the bar on the Facebook Wall, the popups in their favorite phone games, and can even fast-forward through commercials with their DVR. This, however, doesn’t mean that they are immune to the subtle effects. Now, more than ever, we need to teach them to read these things for what they are—ploys to make money. … KEEP READING

5 Things You May Not Know About Hamlet

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Hamlet: a rite of passage for most high schoolers. The play, and the madness surrounding it, has become a phenomenon in the high school classroom. As a British literature teacher and a lover of all things Shakespeare, I look forward to teaching Hamlet every single semester, and I find myself disappointed if someone has already taught it to my  seniors. As Shakespeare’s longest play, it lends itself to deep complexities and interesting historical elements, many that are easily passed over or just mentioned in passing for the sake of time. Since time is irrelevant in the world of trivial information, here are five things you may (or may not) know about Hamlet.

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5 Reasons to Teach Watchmen

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Widely considered the Citizen Kane of graphic novels, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon’s mid-80’s masterwork Watchmen offers tremendous value to the AP Lit classroom.  Yes, there are superheroes and costumes.  Yes, there are panels and word balloons.  Yes, the violence is plentiful and the themes adult.  And yes, the color pallette feels dated. (It was the 1980s — forgive them.)  Beyond the aesthetics, one finds a deeply complex, multilayered narrative thick with allusions, symbolism, archetype and an exploration of the same themes found in more traditional texts.  Here are five reasons to consider adopting Watchmen into your AP Lit reading lists.

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3 Reasons for Poetry Fridays

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Every Friday, we start my English class by playing around with a poem.

The study of poetry in English class is often devoted to seriously pursuing theme, searching for literary devices, and supporting ideas with textual evidence: all worthy endeavors, but not conducive to experiencing the enjoyment so many of us get from reading a poem that truly touches us. This is equivalent to being forced to write an essay on every single book you read for fun; it misses the point of why we read in the first place. I want my students to have the opportunity to enjoy poetry the way I do.

Here are three reasons Poetry Fridays can change the way your students feel about poetry: … KEEP READING

Cracking the Code: Language and The Awakening

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We dive into language with a unit called “Breaking Free”, which focuses on feminist literature. Because high school students are saturated in the literature of “dead white guys”, this unit is meant to immerse them in the feminine perspective. Before The Awakening, we study The Story of an Hour and Desiree’s Baby. In addition, we read The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood, which drives an entire class period of discussion. Students become outraged and mock the text. It is always one of the most lively discussions of the year and I just ask them what they think.

Because a student’s entire understanding of the novella hinges on his or her reading of the first chapter and all of the clues that Chopin embeds , I read the first chapter in class and ask students to mark up the text as I read. Much of the time, this just becomes circled names and actions. Next, I ask them to go back and look at it through the lens of How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Forster, which they read over the summer. They get a little closer to the text and pick up on Chopin’s nuances– a primary symbol, characterization, and colors. … KEEP READING

Shakespearean Musical Chairs

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My AP students enter my class having read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade… and that’s it. No Othello in 10th. No Julius Caesar. No Hamlet. It’s the hand I’m dealt and rather than lament this, I have to get to work building skill as quickly as I can. This isn’t an easy task because Shakespeare’s language can be difficult for experienced readers, let alone ones that lack exposure.

I knew I had to develop a way to reduce their inhibitions, build their close-reading skills, front load information about the play, and make it fun and inviting at the same time. That’s when I came up with Shakespearean Musical Chairs. Here’s what I do: … KEEP READING

Literary CSI

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Do we each have literary DNA? Is our writing style unique?

Vassar College professor, Don Foster, whose book, Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, argues that no two people use language in precisely the same way, our identities are encoded in our own language, a kind of literary DNA. Combining traditional scholarship with modern technology, Foster has discovered how to unlock that code and, in the process, has invented an entire field of investigation–literary forensics–by which it becomes possible to catch anonymous authors as they ultimately betray their identities with their own words.

I first heard about Foster’s book through Lawrence Scanlon at an AP workshop a few summers back. An activity that can promote close-reading skills, Scanlon suggested, was to have students become literary detectives by investigating multiple poems with the poet’s name removed to determine who wrote what.KEEP READING

Why I Don’t Play by the Rules

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A better title would have been “The Few Times I Actually Do Play By the Rules,” because it seems my default position is to play outside them. Take my involvement with this site, for example. I do not teach AP Lit. Never have, never will. I do teach AP Latin. I have done that for longer than my students have been alive, but I do not teach AP Lit, and so right away you may be thinking, “Why am I reading what this guy has to say?” That is a fair question, and if I were writing about topics particular to the AP Lit exam, then you should by all means move on to something else, but I am not, and so I hope you will stay with me for a few more words. … KEEP READING

5 Works of Art to Teach Critical Thinking

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With the emphasis on high rigor in today’s class, the English class sometimes becomes repetitive. Reading, writing, and discussion are the staple of a successful class, and these must be done. Art, however, is one of the most underutilized resources in today’s AP class. The Roman poet Horace claimed, “A picture is a poem without words” meaning art and written word are different mediums of expression. Art offers students a break from written words while continuing to develop the same skill set needed to be successful readers through challenging students to think both critically and analytically.

Here are a few examples of how I use art in class: … KEEP READING

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