Author Archives: cbrown30

Presentation Response

Yesterday was a moment of validation. Going into my classroom, with rambunctious 9th grade students, some eager to learn and others desiring to be entertained, can be stressful and tiresome, but yesterday provided an opportunity to observe the diverse levels of intellect and maturity that my lesson can reach. Having already completed the lesson with my 9th grade students, with pleasant success, I knew it was an effective approach to a tedious reading process; my students were attentive, considerate, and productive. Most importantly, what would have taken four days of class time was accomplished in three by using the flipped classroom design.
The flipped classroom concept translated well into the GMU presentation as everyone already had a firm understanding of Blau’s close reading methodology, which allowed me to avoid lecturing. After everyone completed their quick scan of the text for questions, I was able to move through the room and observe group discussions. This moment was particularly validating as each group found questions worthy of discussion, similar to my 9th grade students. Most groups had questions on what Mr. Maloney said, but the more interesting questions were those apart from that central, obvious omission. Why did she not have a stronger emotional reaction? Why was she drinking while pregnant? These are the questions that only come up when students go beyond the surface reading, and typically that only happens when looking at a piece for the second or third time. Having collected my 9th grade student’s annotations after their first and third readings, I was able to see that many only had the surface questions about Mr. Maloney from their first reading, but the other questions were added during the second and third read through. Not only does this validate the lesson, it supports the argument that single readings are not enough to comprehend a seemingly simple work of literature.
The class discussion, following Blau’s design, also played out to my expectations. I was happy to receive supportive comments from my peers and glad to see how the flipped classroom, which was not my focus, became a focal point for some of the conversation.
If anyone is interested in looking at the introductory video please follow the link:


Getting Students to Empathize

This weeks reading kept reminding me of my current 9th grade students, a group with so much diversity that I could not name all the countries/nationalities they embody, and the variety of responses and perspectives I get from them on our daily readings. From Ch. 4 in Understanding By Design, it states “we talk about seeing things form an interesting perspective, implying that complex ideas generate invariably and legitimately diverse points of view.” I found this to be reminiscent, not only of my students, but of Blau’s students in his book. When he sets his students into groups of three, with a secondary objective to make diverse groups, he was able to get a variety of perspectives which enabled each student to garner a varied understanding of the work. I did a similar task with my students and required the same sort of diverse groups as Blau. As the groups worked on their reading analysis I was able to overhear a variety of unique thoughts, but there was one group that just did not get it. Perhaps it was this concept of not having “sufficient respect and empathy” for the work that disabled their capacity to comprehend the reading. The most frequent response from this troubling group was their distaste for the subject; “who cares” and jokes about other student opinions seems to exemplify the lack of empathy, which prevents students from even beginning to develop an understanding of most literature.
The challenge with the group made me think about “backward design” and what my goal for the students really is. It is not the story I am trying to teach, it is the skill of reading comprehension and the transferability of that skill to future readings. So what value is there to selecting a single piece of literature for the entire class, especially if several students are clearly not interested in the same materials as their female peers? Even after considering the possible difficulties I may face, I decided it would be best for the students if they had some freedom in picking the literature for which they would be applying my objectives. I set up a bookshelf with seven different titles and my students will individually pick the title that best fits a subject with which they can empathize. My instruction will be generic regarding the methods, I will model with a piece unique from the collected titles, and students will be able to demonstrate the transfer of knowledge by applying those skills to a work which I have not discussed in class.
There is quite a bit more to this, but it seems to be a good start in a direction which will allow for diverse discussions, flexibility for the students, and differentiation of instruction.

The Contrast in Medium

Early in my comparison of Nat Turner, the graphic novel by Kyle Baker, and “The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, VA,” the historic testimony, I realized a contrast in authenticity between the historic document and the graphic novel. Even though both items have the same intent, to retell the events, the graphic novel’s format makes it less believable. The artist’s creative license and personal influence seeps through the pages and colors the events with his imagination, but the historic testimony is simple letters on a page. No interpretation is given, no illustrations are used to provide examples, and no heroic context is expressed in the testimony.  The Clerk, Edmund J. Lee, even provides an articulate introduction defending the authenticity of his report, stating that he will “publish them, with little or no variation, from his [Turner’s] own words” (4). Exempting the “little” for clerical errors and edits for clarity, the work should be considered the most accurate interpretation from Turner’s perspective. However, it should not be confused with a historic record of the events. Turner’s confessions are circumspect at best; Lee even comments on this point by saying “If Nat’s statements can be relied on” when he is discussing the possible value to the confessions. The authenticity of the record should not be in doubt, but the words of Turner may be questionable. When he says “I heard a voice” and “the Spirit appeared to me” (9-10) is reminds me of other killers who believed their actions were directed by a higher power. I also question the truth of his words when he relates the details of each murder, as he was only able to kill a few people as his sword was too blunt and the others in his group were too efficient in their work. Most of this is accounted for in Baker’s graphic novel, even the scenes from page 15-16, which seem to be lacking in literary detail, are covered by Baker’s illustrations of the soldier’s confrontation with Turner’s group.  The main point I find to be disconcerting with Baker’s illustration is the depiction of a heroic, superhuman, struggle of the murderers against the soldiers. The account on page 16 gives little details about the fight, but Baker’s illustrations add details not present in the testimony. It is the addition of actions and emotions which makes Baker’s graphic novel questionable when compared to the true testimony.

Side note: the photographs taken on location of Turner’s Rebellion elicit a strong sense of nostalgia. It is hard to look at them an imagine all of the atrocities that occurred in these peaceful scenes. I did not get the same sense from the Baker’s illustrations, possibly because he included people in his illustrations where most of the photographs were only of the landscape and empty buildings. Turner’s bible, open on the stump of a tree, is a particularly imposing image, as the book’s content was the impetus to his rebellion.

Thinking in the Gutter

The McCloud comic-strip pointed out a few theories I never truly considered. From observation, I have learned that McCloud’s illustration on object permanence, panel  three on page 62, is an accurate reflection of child behavior. My niece, at one year and five months, finally understood the concept of object permanence this past summer when she learned to hide her toys in the couch cushions and retrieve them upon request at a later time. McCloud takes the idea of object permanence and extends it to the idea of closure. Closure being the idea of “observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (63). The most intriguing and valuable to our discussion would be the application of closure to literature, particularly Nat Turner. Each image only showed a part of the story, like the early pages set in Africa, where the reader must assume the complete setting. The most important spaces of the text are those moments between the panels which McCloud names “The Gutter” (66). His chapter title, “Blood in the Gutter,” now makes sense, and the connection between McCloud and Baker’s Nat Turner is made. Baker has many bloody gutters, with shadows creeping up on helpless victims, Turner’s attacks hidden and obscured, and only the brutality of Turner’s co-conspirators is clearly illustrated. McCloud’s comic brings forward the ‘blank’ space, which I once would have called ‘empty.’ In this space between Baker’s illustrations is the majority of the story of Nat Turner. What did he do when nobody was looking, what did he not report after he had been captured? It also seems unusually convenient that all of Turner’s co-conspirators died in their rebellion and Turner survived to tell the tale of how he primarily directed the violence, that little blood was on his educated hands. Perhaps the gutter can do more than fill in the gap between one moment to the next, perhaps it can allow readers to question the work. The gutter allowed Baker to avoid the reality of the situation, that Turner’s attempt to catch up with the rest of his murderous group is as unlikely as a dog trying to catch a mailman in a densely packed neighborhood. They had to stop to kill at each house, yet Turner was free of that time consuming task and was successively unable to catch up. Baker’s panels seem to excuse Turner from the most heinous acts, but the gutter allows the reader to question and interpret the time not illustrated.

What Shakespeare and video games have in common

In response to What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee, I would have to first point out the line which hooked me into his thought process: “For heaven’s sake, why would you do that alone?” (8). This quote, from a 21 year old, points out one of the simple truths about effective learning, it is not a process to  approach by one self. This is observed at all levels of instruction; with the exception of independent study, actual learning only happens when one person develops a greater understanding with the aid of another’s support.
I was also happy to see the statement: “In such multimodal texts … images often communicate different things from the words” (17). This made me consider our future reading of Baker’s Nat Turner and reconsider my first reading of that graphic novel. Did I pay enough attention to the images? Did I use the images to support/confirm the words? Or, did I use the images to add to the words and speak for themselves? Gee’s statement, “If you can’t read the images, you will not be able to recover their meanings from the words,” makes it clear that visuals must be carefully considered. It is not the artist’s intention to obfuscate the meaning, and a reader’s responsibility is to pay close attention to each element of a text. My 9th grade students clearly recognize this with our ongoing reading of “Romeo and Juliet,” where we are both reading and watching the play. The play without images would be incomplete. Following Gee’s concept of semiotic domains, it would be my best guess that a Shakespearian play includes multiple modalities: oral and written language, images, gestures, etc.. But this line of thought made me question if I am testing my student’s on their ability to comprehend Shakespeare based only on his writing or if my assessments are inclusive of the multiple modalities the play expresses. Gee’s “content” discussion did not do much to alleviate my concerns. Now I wonder if my students are simply learning to memorize content (blank verse, monologue, soliloquy), rather than learning to read/process the multiple modalities, as in the “Newton’s law” example on 23-24. The logical conclusion to this line of thought, following Gee’s experiencing, affiliations, and preparation, would be testing my students on a play not discussed in class to see if they make an affiliation with their experiences from “Romeo and Juliet.” I can only hope the experience sticks with my students and the “preparation for future learning” is assumed through their effective affiliation (24).

“Any Minute Mom…” and “The Story of An Hour”

Prior to reading chapters 6-10 of Blau’s The Literature Workshop I was contemplating what short story or poem I would use for my literary analysis and reflection essay due after spring break. After reading the syllabus I felt a bit dismayed by the open option to use any piece of literature for the assignment, and the ‘literary analysis’ also lacked detailed direction and expectations. Putting these concerns aside until class I moved on to the reading and discovered that chapter 6 addresses some of my concerns and specifically  mentions “that learning to write has to include learning how to find and choose a topic for oneself” (123). This line made me consider the literary analysis assignment in a brighter light, that the assignment was an opportunity to read and explore something of greater personal interest.
As the chapter continues it mentions the necessity of choosing a text which enables the possibility for “different avenues” of literary interpretation (125). Finding a short story which is contentious enough to inspire debate on interpretation, young enough to not have been exposed to numerous prior analysis, and of a topic which interests me personally makes for a difficult find. Fortunately, Blau shares his sample short story, “Any Minute Mom…,” which reminded me of a few stories I reserve for my own students who may have finished their assigned work ahead of schedule, particularly “The Story of An Hour” by Kate Chopin. This story may be my choice for the literary analysis essay, even though I expect there may be considerable prior scholarly analysis.
Blau’s activities: Jump-in reading, Pointing, Writing about a line, and Reporting Out and Publishing, present a perfect starting point to develop a literary analysis. I found the ‘Sharing in Writing Groups’ activity to be an impossibility for my upcoming task, but one which I could easily use in my own classroom. The first three activities work simply enough on ones own, with pointing as an individual listing of favorite/outstanding lines. The reporting Out activity would work perfectly with a bit of research. In place of a classroom of peers I will have to search the databases for existing analysis and compare the findings of others to my own. I also realize that following this order is especially important, as reading any scholarly analysis prior to writing my own could have an influence (adverse or not) on my own interpretation. Following this method I expect I can produce a paper which demonstrates a construction of my knowledge and not, as Blou puts it, ‘a paper made of prefabricated parts” (153).

“Sonny’s Blues” and “Confronting Resistance”

This weeks reading seems to have taken on a new purpose, establishing the difference between reading and interpretation. When I first read “Sonny’s Blues” I was surprised by the emotional response I had, how the narrators thoughts and actions elicited sympathetic reactions. Perhaps I was in the rights state of mind, or perhaps it was my own personal history and experiences which enables my understanding, but I found the short story to be alluring beyond any other recent work I have read. This makes me question the quote Wilner took form Scholes, “If we impose our own values on every text, we have nothing to criticize but ourselves” (177). I would question the validity of such a statement when our personal values illuminate our readings, yet it is reasonable to believe that some values may overshadow other interpretations. Despite my reaction, there were moments where I had to pause and collect my thoughts, to gather the evidence and carefully examine the actions of the story to make sense of what happened. This most often took place when the narrator skipped on the timeline, such as his transition from learning of Sonny’s incarceration to his own daughter’s death, or how he discussed his parents in the past tense, and then they were back alive in a brief flashback. The structure of this story keeps me on my toes, thinking and connecting the thoughts of the narrator, and trying to figure out what was going on inside of his mind.
Despite some of difficulties with following the narration, only one moment stopped me in my tracks. The absolute, final line made me question and consider the possible implications of the cup of trembling and Sonny’s Scotch and milk. The drink itself, a Scotch and milk, is enough think about, but the composition of the mixture is most likely a distraction from the more important allusion to the biblical passage. Thank goodness for foot notes. Yet even the most detailed foot notes leave some room for interpretation, and at this point I still see the “cup of trembling” in both a positive and negative light. It may represent the penumbra in which Sunny is left, but I would prefer that it means the narrator is now able to see just how close Sunny needs to stand beside the darkness in order to shine.
My above interpretation brings me back again to Wilner, as he discussed how students may not share in the same “enlightened” ideas from reading the same literature. Each reader comes to a work with their own perspective, which may enlighten their reading, but not necessarily in the same fashion as other readers.

Reaching the younger audience and modeling

This weeks readings focused on the concept of understanding the author’s expectations and how readers need to be aware of the author’s assumptions. This started with Rabinowitz’s Before Reading which differentiated between the actual audience and the author’s intended audience. Understanding the difference seems to draw a realization which enables young readers to accept their difficulties with a text, thus getting over the embarrassment that they don’t know. This connects nicely with last weeks readings, specifically the “difficulty paper.” Keeping that in mind, Rabinowitz stated that “making assumptions about the readers’ beliefs, knowledge, and familiarity with conventions” is impossible for an author to accomplish in a text. Therefore it must be expected that some elements of each text will not perfectly match a reader’s prior knowledge or expectations. Unfortunately, some authors present a text which expects too much from the audience – knowledge of an allusion or ability to sympathize with a character – and thus presents difficulty to the less informed/capable reader. The essay continues with an explanation of authorial reading, Rabinowitz’s definition for reading with the author’s intended audience and expectations in mind while simultaneously reading “in an impersonal way” as to avoid misdirecting the meaning with personal interpretations. All of the above may be difficult methods to apply for an inexperienced reader, and they may not pose much use in a younger classroom. But, Rabinowitz’s later sections illuminate the simpler task which may be used by a younger reader, pay attention to titles, first, and last sentences, as they are “privileged” (possessed of insider information) and can reveal important points about the text to a reader. These areas to focus on for a young reader could assist them in getting over the hurdle of not understanding the purpose of a text.
Another passage which was revealing this week, and easily applicable in the classroom, is Collins, Brown, and Holum’s “Cognitave Apprenticeship Making Thinking Visible.” This article presented ideas already recognizable in my classroom, but it also shared a few insights I would like to attempt -more modeling- and a few which may not be possible in the large classroom setting. The primary difficulty with some suggestions is understanding the dynamics of a thirty student, or greater, sized classroom. The “Reciprocal Teaching Dialogue” can potentially work with any sized group, but as the group gets larger is provided more opportunity for distraction, lack of interest, and difficulty on the part of the teacher to monitor each student. This task seems reasonable for a group size no larger than the low twenties. Fortunately, the article did not focus entirely on practices which, at this time, seem impossible to sustain. One great method of instruction is modeling, and the idea of getting in front of the class and sharing how one approaches a reading or writing task is a simple way to provide an example, and lead by example, to get students to find success. The most obvious method for modeling would be the thinking-aloud process. I have done this with small groups after school and will be making an effort to do this with the larger classes as well.

Difficulty in the class room

It seems that the continuity between this weeks reading is the struggle to overcome challenges in understanding, particularly with reading, but as the essay. “Cathedral,” exemplified, this struggle to understand can extend to other elements in life. “Engaging Ideas” provided a groundwork to the concept of how to assist struggling learners, what causes difficulty in reading and what methods to explore to assist those with difficulty. Following that article with the above mentioned “Cathedral” allowed for a hilarious break. The obvious egocentrism of the speaker, coupled with outright ignorance allowed for a bit of comic relief, specifically the slapstick-like description of the blind man’s random eye movements. This article seemed more appropriate for a reading methods exercise, but the conclusion revealed another teaching method, working together and guided learning by struggling though something unfamiliar and difficult. The officers success, directed by the blind man’s questions and supporting comments, made for an effective segue to the third article, “Introducing Difficulty.” The premise of learning through struggling resounded with the previous essay.
One particular quote stood out to me, “Nobody, not even a genius, knows without having learned to know” (Salvatori and Donahue 3). This line would serve as a helpful reminder to any student, those who are struggling and those who work with ease. The reminder of past struggles adds value to the skills acquired, and the affirmation that even the “genius” had to work hard validates the struggling learners efforts. One strategy which stands out is to have students write out their difficulties, enabling them to “acknowledge the complexity of reading” (Salvatori and Donahue 5). This seems like a reasonable exercise for me to implement with my 9th grade students, considering the frequent difficulties they had with the Odyssey. I am curious to see how  they express their difficulties.
In contrast to the above readings, Pope’s “Textual Interventions” seemed more like an exercise in not reading for detail. The density of the writing made it comparable to a scientific research paper; an item which, according to “Engaging Ideas,” should not be read for detail, rather skimmed over for general ideas. The 46 page document may have been better served as a bulleted list as the distracting examples provided little assistance in comprehension. The proposed instructional plans, presented in a conversational tone, were interesting, and inspired several ideas for my own classroom, but the format of presentation still irked my sensibilities for what qualifies as appropriate literature; “Now firm up…Then turn…Don’t draft…Do this…” all could be plainly outlined in a structure more accessible than an essay (16). Despite my reservations regarding the structure of this piece, it does present some lesson ideas worthy of further, in depth, review.
The final article, “How Experts Differ from Novices,” seems to conclude a simple sentiment, experts are capable or reasoning and solving difficulties due to their experience and training in a particular field. This sentiment nicely returns us to the earlier article, “Introducing Difficulty.”