Author Archives: eallen5

Let this be a lesson to us all

So, that was fun. And a bit scary and nerve-wracking. And challenging. In other words, a good exercise. I always appreciate the chance to teach, even if it makes me a little self-conscious. I will admit, I originally chose my story (“I.D.” by Joyce Carol Oates) because I had been moved when I read it and felt I had quite a bit to say about it by way of analysis. Then, when it came time to think about teaching the story, I panicked a bit. It seemed too long a piece, with too many moving parts. The most challenging aspect was finding a way to teach a subset of the story’s content in 15 minutes and have there be some kind of coherent exploration, but at the same time, keep the discussion and activities open enough to student interpretation (i.e., not just say, “here’s what the story means”).

When we first studied Blau’s book this semester, I found it very interesting. I liked some of the concrete techniques highlighted in it, even if his blow-by-blow descriptions of their execution were somewhat idealized. I especially liked the practice of “pointing” because it seems a way to have students focus on what is meaningful to them in a story. However, because “I.D.” is such a detailed and relatively un-short short story, I toyed with the idea of “focused pointing” to help direct the traffic of student commentary.  Again, I was unsure if this was a good idea. Would it interfere too much with student interpretation? Was I telling them how to think about the story? After trying it in the lesson, I like the idea of focused pointing to help “organize” thought, not to sort it into neat little boxes of interpretation.

However, throughout the semester, I’ve been wondering: How detached should the teacher be from the interpretive activities of a class? Are we mostly facilitators? Do we put stuff out there, and just let everybody have at it? Certainly we act a bit like traffic cops, overseeing discussion so the group doesn’t get hung up on a question and so everyone gets their say. But what place does the interpretation of the teacher have in the classroom? To what extent do we share our own acumen, education and breadth of experience, and interpret along with the students?

The Take-Away

I read with interest Prof. Sample’s blogs and the Wiggins/McTighe chapters. In my time as a marketing communications specialist, I became acquainted with the notion of backward design. Rather than writing to learn or as a means of discovery or creative development, or even just to impart facts (as with news, academic, fiction or non-fiction pieces), marketing communications pieces start with the customer in mind. Therefore, we communications types at IBM’s networking division asked our marketing folks: Who is the piece for? What kind of knowledge or lasting impression do we want the reader of the brochure, flier, article, etc. to come away with? What information or ideas are most important?  Armed with the answers to those questions, we would construct a piece combining text, diagrams (these were the early days of wide-area computer networking) and photos to impart the information in a very precise way.

The notion of backward design greatly facilitates the effort to maintain perspective and stay on track over the course of a semester. There is an old saying: “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your main objective was to drain the swamp.” To translate to an English classroom, often the teacher and students, as Prof. Sample notes, plow through the assigned reading list and serve the breadth, rather than uncovering meaningful aspects of what the reading can help them understand (the depth). Now, if the stated objective of the class is to get through the list and read as many stories as possible, this may be OK. But if the objective involves deeper considerations (as Prof Sample says, “revealing assumptions, facts, principles and experiences”), then we’ve got some swamp draining to do.

At the same time, I’ll note that the concentric circles (though technically not concentric; they’re really more like a set with subsets) represent an interesting and valuable concept as teachers seek to identify the best student learning results. I would hope (but am not sure) how much latitude or variance there would be among the enduring lessons or knowledge that each student might come away with.  How might a student’s background knowledge, culture or temperament affect the take-away?


The Big Picture

Greenberg’s “Nat Turner: The Man and the Rebellion” greatly complicates and challenges  the story set forth in Kyle Baker’s graphic novel – as well it should. It would be hard to defend the use of a graphic novel with such minimal use of text as an authoritative history of any person, place or set of circumstances. Baker is telling a story with an emphasis on the visual. We as readers/interpreters get a sense of the story through that which art tells best: vivid representations of scenes that make good viewing, the visceral emotions and actions of the people involved in the 1831 events. What words there are are selectively chosen to accompany the graphics but as such, tell only part of the story.

Likewise the actual text of Nat Turner’s “confession” tells us only part of the story, because, as Greenberg points out, it was taken down by someone whose motives were particularly suspect and who certainly wasn’t sympathetic to Nat. Furthermore, we don’t know how much he or Nat left out in the telling. Greenberg’s piece offers a lot of fascinating background and historical context to enhance our understanding, but it is no more the whole picture than the other two texts. Finally, the series of wonderful old photos from the University of Virginia archives offer us more visual fodder and perhaps engage us in a way that Baker’s novel does not in that these are the real locations. I can’t help but look at those photos and marvel: how small most of the houses and outbuildings really were, what the dust on the roads must have felt like when you walked them. I wonder if such and such a tree is still standing, especially the one from which Nat Turner was hanged.

So, what we really need are all these bits and pieces. When we approach a given story (I like that word so much better than “literature”), we do best when we broaden our understanding to include a number of different sources – being exceedingly careful with that word “authoritative.” This aspect of variety is not only a grand thing for the different kinds of information it affords, but for the opportunities it gives us to engage students. Graphic novels may be incomplete, even superficial in some cases, but they give certain students important entry points into literature, science, history, etc. And for the rest of the students, they can enrich understanding, and yes, even inspire argument. I also like the cross-discipline idea of art plus literature (or science, or history, etc.): discussing choices the artist made in rendering and presenting his art, why an item placed in such a way on the page has a certain meaning for the reader, etc.

Picture this

In 2009, my brother and I self-published “The End of Gath,” a graphic novel trilogy. It was based on an idea (a dream, really) my brother had that grew into a Steampunk/science fantasy story. Being a graphic artist, he had the images in his mind, but not necessarily a fleshed-out narrative. I’ve written some fiction – short stories, one novel perpetually in revision – and have critiqued and edited many works by friends over the years. My brother asked me to assist with the written part of his three-part tale, and I jumped at the opportunity.

It was an interesting project – I had to write with the idea that the visuals would cohabit the pages, but for the most part, those visuals didn’t exist when I wrote my bits. We constructed it not in standard comic panel structure, but as what I consider a truer version of the term “graphic novel”: large visuals interspersed with blocks of text. My brother created illustrations that were imaginative and beautiful to look at. We critiqued and suggested changes to each other’s contributions. After a number of years of work, we had a finished product we both loved. Others seemed to love it, too – especially the pictures. Not surprisingly, they were the first things anyone noticed about the book … sometimes the only things people noticed. There are words there, I wanted to say, if only you’d bother to read them. Damn. Had I spent long hours of work and thought on a glorified picture book?

The answer is no. It’s a good story, and I’m proud of my part in creating it, adding much to my brother’s original framework. The book might have benefited from making the text stand out more vis-a-vis the illustrations (larger type size, different font, etc.). But I am sold on the graphic novel format as a distinct and effective way to tell a story, communicate ideas, etc. I am sure there are people who would never have picked up that book, never have viewed more than a page or two without the illustrations. The visuals draw people in, make the text come to life, enhance it in so many ways.

As such, I don’t view graphic novels or the comic panel format as any kind of “dumbing down” or oversimplification of a given text. Rather, it is another way of communicating and enhancing the author’s message. And, just as video games demand and develop certain skills that are beneficial to learning, graphic novels and comics, as Scott McCloud points out, ask that readers use their imaginations and play an active role in their understanding of the story told. This is due, in part, to the manipulations of temporal and spatial elements that McCloud discussed. But it is also seen in the way writers may illustrate a story to show an elaborate analogy and help the reader make connections. For example, Art Spiegelman, in his devastating two-part work, “Maus,” tells his father’s Holocaust story and its emotional and psychological aftermath through the depiction of the European Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. Readers may, after a while, get so involved in the story that they almost forget the characters are shown as animals, but the subtext of hunters and prey remains – one that can easily be understood by people of different eras, ages and backgrounds.

I hope the use of graphic novels and comics grows in schools and in the literary world.  We should use every tool at our disposal to enliven learning, reading and writing for our students – and everybody else, for that matter.


OK, I’ll admit I’m clueless when it comes to video games. When I was young, our neighbors across the street acquired the revolutionary game of Pong, a version of tennis played on the TV screen. Awed by the sheer majesty of two moving lines and a little ball (along with the weird little “boop” sound effect), I tried once, twice, thirty times to volley the ball back to my opponent – and failed. (Auth. note: I suck at video games, even prehistoric ones.) So I opted out of the video game world, puny as it was back then, and never got back in as it grew more vivid, violent, clever, profitable and deeply engrossing (for others) than I could have ever imagined. Today, anything I know about video games stems from my teenage son’s love for them.

That said, I’m not hostile to the games or dismissive about their potential to help kids gain useful skills beyond eye/hand coordination. I thought the vast majority of Gee’s points about the ways video games address key principles of learning and literacy were valid. I especially liked his point about the “psychosocial moratorium” principle, wherein students can take risks in a low-consequence environment. I like the idea that learners can try out new ideas and approaches to problems, but also know that they can “save” a game if they get stuck, think about it and come back anew, hopefully with fresh ideas. And the committed learning principle, I think, is an incredibly important aspect of video games’ contributions. By virtue of their appeal to a large number of people, utilizing the games in some kind of learning capacity increases the chance that learners might stick with a subject longer and with great focus (one can hope). I like the way taking on an identity in a game and learning the semiotics involved parallel adopting an identity in the classroom (as a junior scientist, mathematician, psychologist, etc.) and learning the language, processes and behaviors that are employed.

Where I think Gee fell short is not making his book about the case for the educational value of video games … well, fun. That’s the place where the motivation to play video games comes from, isn’t it? Certainly, Gee’s work would have served its readers even better with some illustrations from the games he discussed and some more concrete suggestions of how video games might be employed inside a classroom environment (or outside, as part of an assignment). Beyond being aware of how their design and content aids learning, I think it would be great to use them as learning tools. I realize that Gee notes that this was not the primary goal for this book – I would argue that it should have received significant attention.

For my part, I am fully in favor of marshaling as many different kinds of media and entertainment pastimes as possible in the pursuit of learning: books (fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, comic books, etc.), websites, Facebook, Twitter, music, movies, television, radio, video games, board games, card games, and whatever else we can get our hands on. Far from Gee’s fear of “co-opting” youth culture, it is an acknowledgement that this is the world our students – and we – live in. When we find ways to approach learning that capitalize on learners’ interests, we can make lessons more immediate, meaningful and, yes, fun.





(Eng)fish out of water

I read with particular interest Sheridan Blau’s description of some of his students and their practice of handing in papers composed of pompous, overly complex wording and a lack of true understanding. I was especially struck with his line, “For such students, an assignment to write a formal academic paper is an assignment to make themselves stupid” (157). He notes how these intelligent learners abandon their own voice (and often their own understanding) in an effort to sound erudite and professor-like. This isn’t an affliction merely for the young. Before I started my master’s program in the fall of 2011, it had been 27 years since I’d seen the inside of a college classroom. While I had ample confidence in my ability to write, I had much less assurance about my ability to write like an academic. I loved reading the books, poems and short stories in the lit classes, but wavered a bit on the academic treatises on theory and deep literary interpretation. I was a fish out of water, in too deep, wet behind the ears, and any other aquatic cliché you can think of.

It became a habit to read things two or three times just to make some sense of them, which admittedly, made me feel a bit dense. The language seemed unnecessarily wordy and obfuscatory (in itself, a big-ass word, but very apt). This aspect was especially frustrating for me. My undergrad degree is in journalism, where verbosity, redundancy, lack of clarity and overwrought syntax and word choices are constant enemies. You shouldn’t write like that, but even if you do, any editor worth his/her salt will rework it or make you do it over. For his part, Blau points out that “such language use is perverse in the sense that it violates most of the tacit rules or conversational maxims (Grice 1975) that have been found to govern conversations in most ordinary human transactions where people are exchanging information – maxims like try to be as clear as possible, avoid obscurity in expression, avoid excessive wordiness, say what you mean, say what needs to be said …” (157-58). But in my first couple of grad classes, writing sometimes felt like an “out-of-body” experience, using someone else’s vocabulary to make what points I could. In any event, I hoped they sounded good.

I’ve since learned to swim in the grad school pond. Subsequent classes (including ENGH 610) have helped me realize that multiple readings of texts (while a bit more time-consuming) are a good thing, both for reinforcing what I read and for enhanced understanding. I’ve come to accept that reading and learning can be very messy propositions (I already knew writing was messy). I’m more comfortable now with the discourse in the realms of writing and literary theory and instruction.

However, I still get frustrated at times with nebulous wording, and pages and pages of text that seem to run repeatedly over the same ground or veer greatly from the central point of the piece.  If instructors offer complex interpretive texts and lectures, it’s easy to see why students appropriate this tone and style to sound like they know what they’re talking about. This is not to say there isn’t a place for “$10 college words,” as we used to call them, but we must encourage students to fully understand them before they use them. Blau’s excellent suggestions of using first-person construction, reading logs and group work represent, I believe, important steps to keep students from floundering.

Pair of Thoughts about Paradoxes

So much thought-provoking stuff in the Sheridan Blau’s book, but I was especially struck by two paradoxes he described:

  1. It’s a great point Blau makes on p. 55: “the intellectual work undertaken by teachers in the teaching-learning relationship [presents] richer opportunities for learning to the teacher than anything the teacher might do in the course of teaching his students.” Damn, but this is true. It would be safe to say that teachers are doing the heavy lifting – research, deep analysis, identifying historical context – before the students ever hit the classroom. Blau calls this work “the most difficult interpretive and conceptual problems that might trouble my students as readers of the texts I assigned.” What instructors need to consider is that “troubled” students (intellectually troubled, that is) generate questions, look for answers and argue in a group environment. This gets back to the brief discussion we had in class about the Scholes piece suggesting that it is not the teacher’s job to provide a dazzling display of acumen and erudition to his students. He has to strive to elicit some subset, some glimmer of that from his students, as they work through challenging texts with the guidance (but not complete authority) of the instructor.
  2. Also in the “From Telling to Teaching” chapter, Blau says that “meanings constructed through reading are also composed exactly as written work is composed and through a process that entails rough drafts and revisions as much as any task of difficult writing would.” He further asserts that “reading is more like writing than writing is,” and explains that student revision of compositions often “make them worse.” By contrast, Blau says, “in reading, revision never fails to be productive in yielding additional insight or the recognition of new problems – the confusion that represents an advance in understanding” (53). Gotta disagree here. True, writing and reading are subject to much the same expressive and interpretive sausage-making. It ain’t pretty, folks. But to say that student revision of writing often makes things worse, while rereading always is productive is BS, in my mind. I would argue that writing revisions consistently represent advances in understanding – they turn a student’s understanding and reasoning processes into a concrete product and serve as a springboard for discussion. If there is the blessed, revelatory confusion Blau praises, it is evident on the page (or computer screen) and the ensuing consideration (either from the writer’s own review or that from his peers) advances understanding. Both reading and writing when revisited by the student represent a march toward deeper understanding, appreciation and clarity of thought.


For Better or Verse

Somehow, poetry has always served as a source of both comfort and apprehension for me – and this week’s readings helped me sort out why. When I’ve read poetry on my own, when I’ve called the tune (and the piper), it’s been great. I can kind of wander and meander through the words of a poem like W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and contemplate whatever images and meanings occur to me. In any official capacity, however (e.g., in the classroom, whether as a student or during my 10th grade teaching practicum), I tense up a bit. I’m thinking, “What am I supposed to be seeing in this poem? What did the poet mean to say? How do I guide the students so they get out of it what they are supposed to get out of it?” Where does poetry get its power to at times intimidate readers and writers?

In the Fish piece about poem recognition, we are faced with a seemingly simple question: What the hell is a poem, anyway? In reality, it is not a simple matter but, at least for me, it has an instinctive answer. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment on pornography, poetry is hard to define, but I know it when I see it. In taking this position, I use Fish’s very interesting term, my “poetry-seeing eyes” to identify a written piece as such. I am looking for positioning of text, patterns of words and thematic elements, perhaps brevity and succinctness, etc., etc. So when I have identified and read a poem as a poem, the aforementioned challenge begins: What does it mean?

In Fish’s estimation: “Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them” (p. 271). This is a view that is at once liberating and intimidating. It is liberating because it allows us to construct meanings from poems based on our own personalities, backgrounds, experiences and knowledge; it is intimidating because that may not always be an easy proposition. Some people – students and adults alike – just want to know what a poem is about (Just tell me what it means, and then I’ll know and have that piece in my arsenal of poems I have read and “get”). When we open up the poem to subjective interpretation, we ask students to take a risk. We ask them to make connections in their own minds, and construct meaning that resonates with their own sensibilities and knowledge base. We will generally ask them to share their thoughts in a classroom environment. As Diane Middlebrook comments in the Showalter chapter, “It’s not just something you can learn on your own; poetry is best consumed in public” (p. 69). At the same time, it takes more effort on the part of the teacher, I think, because he/she is not simply imparting the meaning of the poem, but drawing that meaning from his/her students in order to construct an interpretation (perhaps many separate interpretations).


Betsy Allen – Week 2 reading blog: The Passion of the Pedagogy

I found the “How People Learn” chapter, “How Experts Differ from Novices,” to be very interesting in its examination of experts’ abilities to find key patterns and “chunk” important information – concepts that are certainly indispensable, but not new to me. However, the part of the chapter that discussed the different ways experts exhibit flexibility (or not) in their approach to new situations was a bit of an eye opener. The ideas of placing an emphasis on adaptive expertise and the value of metacognition serve a classroom teacher exceedingly well. It’s not enough to know the subject inside out or to be well-versed in pedagogy. It is the melding of these two concepts – and the inclusion of the instructor within the continual learning process – that, in my opinion, represents a great classroom environment.

When I was reading this piece, it put me in mind of my first “Career Switchers” teacher training class. I was accepted into the program by passing the Praxis II and as a function of my 25+ years of experience in writing, editing and professional communications. However, beyond my participation as an instructor in a number of creative writing workshops and my role as an active volunteer in my kids’ schools and as an Odyssey of the Mind coach and judge, I had little experience as a teacher. As we went around the room for our perfunctory introductions, the program leader asked us to share what had prompted us to enter the program. Most of the students said they loved to work with kids, or loved teaching.  Just a couple of us explained that it was a love of our subject (in my case, literature and writing).  I started to wonder which was more important – loving a subject and bringing the accompanying knowledge and enthusiasm to students, or developing proficiency in the teaching practices that help kids learn the things on which they will be evaluated. The easy answer is that both are important, but in fact, they may get in the way of each other.

As the chapter points out, the combination of passion and pedagogy in its best practice goes hand-in-hand with adaptive expertise, where the expert (instructor) can continually evaluate the approach to a given problem or interpretation, including in the ways he/she attempts to reach students and address their unique learning styles. As the authors quote Shulman: “… pedagogical content knowledge is not equivalent to knowledge of a content domain plus a generic set of teaching strategies; instead, teaching strategies differ across disciplines” (45).  As the example (Box 2.4) so nicely shows, it is easy to get wrapped up in one’s love of subject, to the detriment of learning. A better practice is to evaluate one’s approach based on where you know your students are (intellectually, developmentally) and to come to them on terms they can understand and expand upon – with all the passion you can muster.