Author Archives: Joy Wagener

No Cliffs Notes, kiddos!

I’ve been a fan of “The Second Bakery Attack” since I first read it four years ago.  There are so many layers there, and this made it difficult to plan for the microteaching lesson.  Where to begin?  I initially wanted to jump to the heart of the matter—the “HUH?” reaction everyone gets from it.  “What is this cinematic image? Why is the wife a secret robber/burglar/thief/ninja and how did the husband not know?”  But, in planning my lesson, I thought jumping straight to those points would be very difficult if some of the smaller bits hadn’t been considered by the class.  So, I thought starting with the historical context would be the best approach to understanding this story, to unlocking the story.  I believe students think, “Just tell me what the point is,” but they need to get there much more slowly than they want.  Sorry kiddos, no Cliffs Notes with a concise summary for you!  Understanding and unraveling a piece of literature takes time and finesse.  It’s not all about one, concise message.  This is especially true of this short story.

The purpose of my lesson (to look more closely at the pop culture references) was actually just a small seed in my literary analysis paper earlier this semester.  I surprised myself tremendously that I took one small comment in that analysis and blew it up into this lesson plan.  And boy could I have gone on and on and on about it!  Fifteen minutes almost isn’t fair!

Things that I feel went well: Timing – this was the only time throughout my practicing that I actually got it all into fifteen minutes.  Phew.  I also feel that the entrance and exit tickets went especially well.  Asking the class to reflect on themselves (what brands did you encounter today? How are brands cursing you?) made the story suddenly very accessible. The group discussion portion was also great, though I wish we had time to discuss the answers / reactions.

Things that I feel need work:  Nerves in front of groups of my peers.  As others have noted, it’s very easy to stand up in front of teenagers each day, but it’s a different ball game to speak to one’s peers!  Not sure how to work on these nerves, but you all were terrifically receptive and kind. I also am an over-planner, trying to squeeze in as much info/discussion/questioning/awesomeness as possible.  Especially in this context, overplanning worked against me.  I wanted to share all of the cool teaching strategies I had thought of, but only had time for a quarter of them.  Sometimes I have trouble cutting the possibilities down and identifying the most essential and effective techniques.

It’s been a wonderful journey this semester.  I leave with pockets full of techniques, strategies, and ideas that I’ll be using soon!

Easier said than done… for me.

Joy Wagener

In his post on ProfHacker, Prof. Sample wrote, “The idea behind backward design is simple, yet it’s something I find myself relearning again and again. Even now, as I prep for the upcoming semester, I am tempted to focus on what I want my students to read, rather than what I want my students to understand. It’s a testament to my perennial rediscovery of backward design that I wrote virtually the same sentence as above in my earlier post on backward design—and had forgotten I had done so. I trust (hope?) that I am not the only one who needs gentle reminders about the value of designing curriculum around understanding.”

I concur!  My school district uses Understand by Design (UbD, we call it) and every new employee sits through a week-long orientation on the “system.” Each employee is asked (forced?) to write unit plans for the entire school year using the UbD format.  This is all done at the start of the school year which, frankly, takes away the excitement of it all.  It’s a chore that is often done in a lazy-way in order to move on from it.

Consider that task.  As Sample suggested above, could you write out a UbD for every unit you’ll teach this year?  What if it’s a brand new course? What if you’ve never taught it before? What is your plan needs to change mid-year? I find the concept of UbD’s very exciting and a wonderful prospect.  It’s awesome to be able to teach everything in a way that leads up to the goals / what knowledge and understanding you really want your students to know; however, again and again I find myself straying from the master plan because it is difficult to plan ahead, it feels like a chore, or I stumble upon something else great in my planning process later in the year.

One big reason I stray from the UbD plan is because I find that working towards one major performance goal often neglects other important aspects of the text I might be teaching (I have trouble prioritizing). It’s almost as if I need several UbD’s for each novel or unit. Secondly (and as Wiggins and McTighe mentioned), it is very difficult to give your students the experiences they need in order to meet some of the six facets of understanding, namely empathy, self-knowledge, and application.  So, it’s worth prioritizing what needs to be taught.  And just like Prof. Sample, I need to prioritize my learning goals and, do as Wiggins and Tighe suggest:

  1. “To what extent does the idea, topic, or process represent a ‘big idea’ having enduring value beyond the classroom?”
  2. “To what extent does the idea, topic, or process reside at the heart of the discipline?”
  3. “To what extent does the idea, topic, or process require uncoverage?”
  4. “To what extent does the idea, topic, or process offer potential for engaging students?”


The influence of background information

Joy Wagener

While I was reading the primary sources and looking at photos from the Turner rebellion, I was wondering whether this material brought positive light to my first reading of Nat Turner, or if my first reading was better because I had zero context. It’s hard to say, actually.  When I first read it, I was literally in shock, jaw agape, when I saw images of severed hands and heads with blood smeared across the frames. With each turn of the page, I felt as shocked as Nat’s victims must have felt when awakened by the shouts of the murderous mob.  I felt sympathy for the white men, but I also could feel Nat’s pent-up rage and discontent.  However, now that I have so much background and context for this story, I feel more enlightened about the bias of Kyle Baker, but also surprisingly skeptical of Thomas Gray’s motives and reliability.

In the article by Greenberg (“The Confessions of Nat Turner: Text and Context”), the author mentioned that Gray was poor and in need of money. He was not Nat’s lawyer. There is no evidence that this testimony was ever read in court. Gray’s motive seems to be completely monetary which calls into question the reliability of the “confession.”  Another interesting point Greenberg brought up was the strange use of language Nat presumably used in his confession—ie, his eloquent way of stating things which would have been outside of his vocabulary. If these are Gray’s words and not Nat’s, then the story is significantly impacted.  Also, why would Nat feel comfortable enough to open up on Gray?

While my first read of the novel was simplistic and filled with my gasping, my second read created many more questions for me about the truthfulness of the story—in the language, the interpretation, and in Nat’s “confession” of facts.  Did Gray alter events in his recording? Did his motives to make money overreach the truth and facts? I find my reading of Nat Turner forever altered by these questions and my considerations of their impact.

Graphic novels through graphic teaching

Joy Wagener

I began this week’s reading with the Cohn, Rabkin, and Nodelman pieces, thinking they’d prepare me for what I would have to figure out in the more graphically presented material in the McCloud chapters.  I started with what was familiar, yet was completely thrown by the language they used and the material they discussed—it just didn’t connect as well because there were not always illustrations of what they were talking about.  How can you explain a graphic medium without including some graphics?  For example, Nodelman’s article goes into tremendous detail about the stylistic devices used in graphic literature. He discussed the format, mood, shapes, lines, symbols, point-of-view, focus, color, and movement in graphic novels, yet he includes few than 25% of illustrations of these styles.  The Cohn article (“Mis-en-Page”) offered more complicated information (theory?) about graphic novels which left me feeling more confused about what he was discussing; he included a few illustrations of what he was discussing, but I cannot say that I really understood his point about “conventional, rhetorical, decorative, and productive” conceptions.  I felt these articles were informative, and even interesting, but I had no idea what I was missing until I picked up the McCloud chapters.

McCloud described all of the stylistic devices of graphic novels that the other authors discussed, but instead of just telling about it, he actually showed it to the reader.  His delivery of information about graphic novels through the media of a graphic novel was highly effective and I found myself really enjoying the lesson.  I especially enjoyed his conversation about the “closure” leaps made between panels of a comic and the chart of those closures on page 74.  I referenced these closure methods throughout my live Tweet of “Nat Turner.”  I’ve read comics and graphic novels before, but I had never really thought about how much the reader invents the story between panels.  Then in chapter four, McCloud goes into more depth with the use of time made between panels, in the “gutters.” It’s very easy to follow along and understand the concepts used in graphic media.

Having completed the reading, I felt armed and prepared to take on “Nat Turner.” The pre-reading material made “Nat Turner” more enjoyable for me as I was able to identify the stylistic choices and techniques Baker used to tell the story, leaving out information and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks.  I’ve been tossing around the idea for a while now of teaching a graphic novel to my students, and now that I have these articles and information in hand, I feel well prepared to do so— but they’ll definitely have to read the McCloud book before reading the assigned graphic novel.

Writers must also be readers

Joy Wagener

Several of the readings this week focused on the need for students to write—write more, write with ease, write through the difficulties, write to know oneself, write for others. As many of the authors reflected, writing is HARD.  Grading writing is HARD.  I think that’s why so many teachers shift their focus to literature, or have students use writing as a way to demonstrate mastery of the assigned literature. I know that I’m guilty of using writing as an assessment tool instead of a tool for learning. So, how do I transition from writing for assessment to writing for learning? How do I make room in my curriculum for writing without burdening myself with grading or without cheapening the writing process with rubrics, expectations, and guidelines?

Echoing Elbow in “The War Between Reading and Writing,” it’s apparent that many new English teachers are not well prepared in teaching writing, but are overly prepared to teach literature.  I know this is true of my background, coursework, and licensure. Writing is just supposed to come, right? I think part of the difficulty in instructing students to write comes from the teacher’s own level of comfort with it. For example, in “When Writing Teachers Teach Literature,” Cheryl Glenn keeps a diary throughout her semester to document her feelings about assigning writing to her students. She is at first uncomfortable with how much writing she plans to assign, doubting that the students will engage with it and doubting that she’ll be able to manage grading all of it. I can completely sympathize with that! Throughout her semester, the same students keep returning to her office hours to raise complaints or to conference with her about why they have poor grades. It’s an uncomfortable situation, yet she usually has a “big picture” response for them. She reflects that it’s difficult for her to dig her heals in and stick to the value of doing all of this writing, revising (or contrastingly, NOT allowing her students to revise) as it becomes more and more difficult. “Jill” hasn’t met the group work requirement while “Dan” has not listened to any of the feedback from professor or from his group. Glenn is conflicted over the pedagogy of what she’s doing—should she allow students to be truly independent in writing? Or does writing have to require a reader as well?

Elbow argues that all writing requires a reader. Readers are the ones who interpret and negotiate meaning in a text.  So even if the reader is oneself, or just one other person, or a much larger audience, one must write with an effort of clarity. In William Cole’s piece called “Less as More, the Ten-Minute writing Assignment,” he has a great activity for teaching students to write with clarity and concision. Dealing with an enormous class size, he gets students to write one to three sentences each class on a specific prompt. Not only do the students have to be concise and clear, but they have to demonstrate mastery over the content and grammar within the sentence constraints. The result is a clear idea of what the student knows—and it’s faster for Cole to assess. I love this idea! It’s a writing challenge reminiscent of Tweeting out messages to #ENGL610.

Writing is indeed a challenge, just as reading is a challenge. However, they both need to be taught, if only has a means to the other. Writing takes time. In the end of the semester, Glenn notes that the process—all of the doubts, conferences, confrontations, conversations, and growth—was worth it.

I am not a gamer.

At the height of “cool” amongst my friends, I owned a Gameboy in the 90’s and had three games—Super Mario, something involving Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons, and one of the Kirby games.  I played Mario to the end, but never got into the other two.  I played this handheld game for maybe two or three years, then never touched it again.  I couldn’t even say where it is now—somewhere in a dusty retirement.  Just two years ago, my husband and I received a Wii for Christmas (regardless of the fact that I was vocally opposed to receiving one as the holiday season ramped up).  I can count on one hand how many times we’ve turned it on in the last two years.  We are not gamers—nor are we interested in spending any time on them with friends or family when we attend parties. So, when I started reading Gee’s book, I was very skeptical that video games had any power to teach, and honestly still am.

While I don’t disagree with Gee  that video games have a very large capacity to teach and reach players through developing skills such as role playing, critical thinking, multi-modal literacy, and exploration, I think there are equally legitimate ways of learning that don’t involve children (or adults) sitting inside on their behinds, and getting dizzy with too much screen time.   Gee says, “learning encourages exploration, hypothesis testing, risk taking, persistence past failure, and seeing ‘mistakes’ as new opportunities for progress and learning” (37). He references in this part of the book that a game called Pikmin is perfect for teaching these skills; however, wouldn’t going outside and using one’s imagination also practice these skills (and  be healthier)? How about meeting up with a few friends and building a fort, pretending to be knights of the highest order?  Sure, video games can offer a different environment to learn and grow, but I think Gee is a little one-sided. He says his argument on video games is “a plea to build schooling on better principles of learning” (9), which seems to assume that schools have no pedagogy, no idea what all this teaching is building up to, or how to effectively reach students.  This offends me.

But this is not to say that I disagree with everything Gee is arguing.  He convinced me that students who spend many hours playing games – even violent ones—are NOT wasting time.  I now understand that there is a lot of value in playing games, many of which are more complicated and thoughtful than I had originally believed. The story lines encourage multi-modal learning.  However, what bothers me about these students playing for hours on end or even all night is that they then come to school without their homework completed or without enough sleep to keep their eyes open in my class.  This, I think, is why I came into this book with such a negative attitude towards video games.  I couldn’t see beyond the games as obstacles to learning what I wanted them to learn.  Instead, I need to figure out a way to incorporate gaming into my classroom.  But how?

Pointing and Jump-ins

As I read the second half of Blau’s book this week, I was thinking about approaches to teaching “Sonny’s Blues.”  The trouble with applying Blau’s clever activities from chapter 6 is that the ones he models are on very short texts which can be dealt with in one class period (75 minute blocks, he explains).  But, “Sonny’s Blues” is 23 pages long.  Not only can this not be read in class (not even via “jump-ins”, an idea which I WILL be using in my classes!), but Blau’s other strategies of “pointing” would become difficult due to the length of text.  Asking students to “point” out lines which were memorable, powerful, or puzzling from a 23-page text will likely cause anxiety and lack a focus on passages which may be most important. It may be necessary to scaffold “Sonny’s Blues” even more by assigning it for homework, narrowing down in class a smaller section of text which seems significant, and then going through Blau’s strategies of pointing (128), writing about a line (131), sharing in writing groups (133), and reporting out and publishing (133). For example, the last two to three pages of “Sonny’s Blues” carries a lot of literary weight and significance in comparison to earlier passages.

What I like most of all about Blau’s approach to students creating their own writing topics is the last section which he calls “reporting out and publishing.” This is where he takes what the students have written about (about their “pointed” out lines) and sort of finesses out a theory in each students’ approach to the text.  Not only does this listing of approaches demonstrate to the students how one text can elicit several valuable ways to approach and criticize a text, but it validates each students’ ideas, giving them some authority.

I agree with Blau that teachers often feel the need to feed paper topics to students, but there must be a balance between students writing to demonstrate writing and students writing to demonstrate THINKING.  These are two different approaches to writing—two necessary and separate approaches.  I know that I’m guilty of having fed topics to my students. Through the strategies he discussed in chapter 6, I feel more confident that I can lead students to make their own conclusions about what they’re reading and help them to develop paper topics.

Finally, I wanted to comment quickly on Blau’s discussion of assigning a grade at the end of the semester via writing portfolios in chapter 8. He advocates for a holistic grade based on reflection writing and students choosing which works should carry more weight. I know my school would never accept this model because students need to know how they’re performing throughout the weeks, not only at midterm or semester’s end, but I really value his holistic approach. I especially like the amount of student control he allows in determining which pieces will be prominent in the portfolio.

Old knowledge makes way for the new

I read the short story “Sonny’s Blues” first this week without looking ahead in the other readings to see where the discussion of reading literature might be going. While I read, I was thinking the whole time of how I might address this story with my high school students. I noted immediately that they might misconstrue the drug references in the text to be glorified as “cool” for the time period since Sonny seems to have done well for himself in the end—and also for the fact that the drugs helped him to find his voice or sound. I struggled to figure out how to get around those misconceptions and shallow interpretations of the plot without the story becoming, as Wilner describes, and anti-drug message. So it was incredibly apt that the article by Wilner would address my fears of allowing students to start with what they know and then give them the tools to build critical interpretations of a text.
Wilner describes a similar situation where her students misunderstood a text to be about homophobia while they missed the more rich and instructional thematic qualities. She explains that a teacher must let students enter into a text with their preconceptions and understanding of topics. A teacher must meet his or students where they are and then scaffold the instruction to allow students to fully interpret a text. I think the trick here is in not prescribing to students exactly what they should get from a text; instead, students must learn the skills in order to perform the interpretive acts on their own.
And yet, I remember conversations we’ve had in class this semester on the pitfalls of ideologies presented in texts like “How to Read Like a College Professor.” If tools for interpretation are too prescribed, then a student will be led down the wrong path, assuming that everything is a symbol or holds a metaphor.
Wilner describes that there must be a balance between the “complex relationship between beliefs and cognition” (Wilner 2). Students must negotiate between “old knowledge and value systems” and “new knowledge” (Wilner 2), finding a way to build understandings and reshaping what one had assumed. So, it is not about prescribing steps for a student to follow, but instead wanting to “help students see what constitutes and valid question or ‘problem’ and to cultivate in them the art of answering the question or solving the problem as an expert would do” (Wilner 6). Teaching reading should be about instructing students on how to approach a text and question it—to interact with it.
As a final thought, I appreciate what Blau says in chapter one of “The Literature Workshop” regarding confusion when reading a text. Blau says, “The only texts worth reading are texts you don’t understand. Because if you understand a text as soon as you read it, you must have understood it before you read it, so you didn’t have to bother reading it in the first place” (Blau 24). Reading is about discovery. It’s interpretive. And I think this confusion is what makes it so interesting to teach.

Meaningful Readings

Each of the readings this week bounced me around between theories on how to approach and teach reading.  Showalter’s chapter on “Teaching Poetry” had me convinced that the best way to approach reading (poetry) is through emphasis on student interaction—reading aloud, making connections to one’s personal life/emotions.  Then, Rabinowitz’s “Who is Reading?” article had me scrap Showalter’s theory in favor of approaching a text armed with historical and biographical information in order to understand the “actual audience” or “authorial audience.”  By this theory, a reader cannot understand a text without understanding the precise conditions under which the intended and historic audience received the text.  Otherwise, nuances of the text will be wasted on an uninformed and modern audience.

I think this dialectic – reader response v. authorial audience – is what fascinates me most about this week’s reading.  Is it best to allow students to jump in to a text and draw personal significance?  Is this a true understanding of a text?  Or must one take the historical route to understanding a text?  Should one abandon personal emotion and its influence on comprehension?  Certainly there must be a give and take.

I can speak from experience in my teaching of high school juniors and seniors that when I frame a text in a historical context and present background information on the author, the students have an easier time of getting into the story.  For example, Camus’ The Stranger is much easier to interpret when one knows what existentialism and absurdism are.

However, asking them to read something through the theoretical lens of reader response is very difficult for them.  Some can appreciate texts for their personal and emotional connections, but given such fluid and organic guidelines terrifies the majority of the class.  The way they’ve been taught each year leading up to my class has been with an emphasis on context, searching for very specific symbols, allegories, personification, metaphors, and the list of literary devices goes on.  They’ve been conditioned to search for devices before they are allowed to (God-forbid) enjoy a text for the text’s sake.

To bring back the enjoyment of reading poetry, Showalter says teaching must “select from a fuller range of [texts], and we should present them in a way that encourages readers to connect the poems to their lives” (64). In this way, the text becomes “most directly meaningful to them” (64). I like this idea, but it is a struggle to fit this into a curriculum so driven by standardized tests and checking off the boxes.  Where does reading for personal meaning fit in?

Rabinowitz also comments that there are “multitiered” models of reading and the reader will engage in different strategies based on the purpose for the reading (20).  I think this is important to remember.  As a teacher, I must emphasize that different assignments dictate a different approach to the reading.  I know the Virginia SOL tests are moving in this direction with their new emphasis on non-fiction texts.  With that genre, there are clear purposes for each text and a student must learn to adjust to each.

“In short…”

My first blog… I think. I think this is where I am supposed to post it!  (NOPE!  This is my second attempt to post…. I’ll get the hang of this by next week!)

I started my course reading this week with ”Textual Intervention, Critical and Creative Strategies for Lit Studies” by Rob Pope, which is about teaching literature through several different lenses of literary theory. What was most interesting about this is that Pope never actually mentions that his methods of reading (or interacting with) a text are actually literary theories. But they most certainly are! Over the course of discussing his examples, Pope addressed feminist theory, reader response, formalism, historical, biographical, even a little psychoanalytic. As a high school English teacher, I teach a hefty unit on literary criticism and theory and felt encouraged by his suggestions for approaching the difficult task. It can be daunting when faced by a room of 25+ juniors to show the benefits of reading texts in a new way. I appreciate that he describes the reader’s criticism of a text as ”a dramatic monologue” where choices are made to affect one’s interpretation (Pope 21). Each reader will dramatize literature in a slightly different way, but it’s necessary to see those differences in order to hone in on the author’s base-text.
I then read “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.” This article discussed how experts grapple with content in comparison to how novices engage with the same content. What I found most interesting here was the author’s point about students developing “adaptive expertise” (50). The author suggests that students, like experts, should be metacognitive about their learning. It is ideal that students should first try to master the content and, second, reflect on how they got there, but in the fast-paced world of public high schools, there is very little breathing room between one state benchmark and the next. A line in this article angered me. It said, “In short, students need to develop the ability to teach themselves”(50). How can this be “in short”? I feel this is a gross exaggeration of how teachers can foster metacognitive skills in students. It is only through consistent practice at reflecting—in writing, in dialogue, in practice—that a student can learn to value the act of reflection and then to internalize it and teach himself. It’s not so simple that a student can “in short” learn to teach himself. While that line ruffled my feathers, I do agree with the author’s overall premise that students need to learn the “expert-level” skills of noticing, organizing, representing, and interpreting content in order to develop understanding of a topic. Teachers (experts) must help students (novices) to focus on the “big ideas” and concepts in a unit and not on the small details. When one can see the overarching goals of a unit, it’s then easier to see how the small pieces fit together.