Author Archives: ljonesz

A little anxiety never hurts

I was excited to do the microteaching activity, but I must admit that I was feeling anxious prior to starting the lesson. I think the main reason for my anxiety was that I was concerned about how to organize the fifteen minutes in a way that would be informative, and fun at the same time. While planning the lesson I found myself drawn to some of the teaching approaches outlined in the Blau text. For example, I liked the writing about a line activity, and the jump-in reading exercise he described in his book. Given the text that I was teaching, however, I knew that time would not allow for me to do a jump-in reading exercise of the whole text, and I didn’t think that writing about one line of “Orientation” would be the best activity for the short story. Ultimately, I am glad that I included a variation of the pointing exercise in the activity, but I was a little bummed that the clock ran out before the class could fully work through the exercise.

I wanted to do a small lead-up activity prior to the pointing exercise. I was certain (of course) that my classmates would be able to start with the pointing activity easily, but I wasn’t sure that the students I designed my lesson for would immediately be able to recognize the critiques present in “Orientation”. There were so many questions that I wanted to start off with that it was hard for me to narrow down my handout sheet to just three. I changed my handout numerous times trying to figure out which approach to take. In the end I was really encouraged by the feedback that I received in class. I was happy that responding to the discussion questions felt like a natural transition to the pointing exercise. I also really enjoyed the class discussion about the text.  It was so great to see that people enjoyed reading the text, and I hated having to limit the conversation about it.

As I reflect more on the experience I am glad that we were only given fifteen minutes for the teaching presentation. When the lesson was first introduced I was skeptical about how much could get done within that time, but I learned a lot from my participation, and by watching others while also participating in their lessons.  As a “student” I found myself jotting down notes for techniques to use while teaching. I like that most of the lessons involved group work that didn’t feel superficial, and at sometimes was even difficult.  I will admit now to everyone that I plan to borrow/steal the really great handouts and materials that were covered in class. This was a good learning experience that not only left me with new ideas, but valuable experience that I can transfer to the classroom. I am excited now to work through a lesson on “Orientation” the next time I teach a class, and I don’t think I will feel as anxious next time.

Understanding by Design

“Understanding by Design” reiterated some of the theories and concepts that we have covered throughout the semester. I appreciated the examination of understanding and found my self in agreement with many of the concepts, but felt overwhelmed thinking of how to design curriculum that would meet all of the goals set forth in the text. I think that in order for students to truly understand something they have to go beyond just repeating facts and show how they can effectively apply the knowledge that they have acquired. Instructors then must design assignments that force them to think deeper about what they read and study in class. Wiggins and McTighe state “curriculum designed for understanding must…help students realize that their job is not merely to take in what is “covered” but to actively “uncover” what lies below the surface of the facts and to ponder their meaning” (103). This most assuredly should be the goal of any assignment that we include in course syllabi, but I think that this can be hard to tackle. We have discussed before how what we already know has a critical impact on what we can accurately learn in the future. As a teacher I feel that you have to continually reassess your own understanding of a subject manner, while also accurately assessing the knowledge level of the students you’re are teaching. If you are not aware of your own limitations and blind spots, then designing curriculum that can reach students and fully engage them can be a struggle.

I also appreciated that the authors’ discussed the importance of empathy. As I was reading chapter four of the text I found myself thinking back to some of the things that Wilner confronted in her classroom when she had her students read and respond to “Territory”. I think this is a good example of how a lack of empathy and a refusal to walk in someone else’s shoes can inhibit the learning process. Wilner describes her students as being hostile and prejudice toward the main character of the text, and gives examples of how her assignments eventually caused students to take a more thoughtful look at the text. I think that empathy is crucial to learning, and as we saw in Wilner’s example, indifference toward other people’s beliefs can completely prevent students from grasping the bigger themes in a text.  She was able to confront this issue head on by offering her students an option that she would not have normally made available. By allowing students to respond to the writing in the form of a letter rather than a formal essay her students got more out of the assignment. As teachers when we see that students are having difficulty embracing an assignment or reading, we sometimes must learn to reevaluate our traditional ways of evaluating them, and then design assignments that will force them to move beyond their limitations. I also thought it was relevant to discuss the difference between empathy and perspective as the authors do when they explain “ Empathy is warm; perspective is cool, analytic detachment” (98). As good critical readers we have to negotiate between both aspects of understanding. It is important that we not stand so far away from a text that understanding the positions of the different characters becomes impossible, yet we must also be willing to stand back far enough when necessary to critically asses the possible assumptions the author may be making, and what we can surmise from that.

Nat Turner Revisited

In the introduction to his text Baker writes about what motivated him to retell Nat Turner’s story through the medium of a graphic novel. He states that he often wondered why Turner’s rebellion was cited in all the history books but never covered in detail. As I studied Baker’s text last week, and as I read the additional text about Turner’s rebellion for class this week I find myself wondering the same thing. It is clear why the elite during Turner’s time would want to suppress his story, and portray him as someone purely motivated by visions of grandeur, and religious fanaticism. The intelligence that Turner displayed in organizing and carrying out the rebellion was an obvious threat to the power structure of his day, seeing that subsequent to the rebellion stricter laws against educating slaves and restricting their right to assemble were passed.  It is clear that certain facts and realties that provoked the rebellion were omitted from Thomas Gray’s text and from earlier accounts of the rebellion, so I am left wondering whether or not we can fully know the story in all its truth and complexity. How we record and chose to remember events in history, control our ability to accurately tell those stories in the future. Baker’s portrayal of Nat Turner’s rebellion moved me emotionally, but it also left me wanting more information. I am left wondering now if my lingering questions about Turner’s story can ever be answered.

When you compare Baker’s text to Thomas Gray’s retelling of Turner’s story, it is clear that both authors work to create different images of Nat Turner. Greenberg correctly points out that Gray’s book most certainly was written from a biased point of view, given he was a slave owner, and would have been familiar with many of the families that were killed during the rebellion. He also accurately points out that we can never know how much of what Nat Turner revealed to Gray was accurately portrayed in the retelling of the rebellion. In spite of the above concessions, I have to admit that I could not get through Greenberg’s piece without feeling a mixture of anger and skepticism. Greenberg describes the Southampton community that was the setting of the rebellion to be “relatively isolated, and economically stagnant” (6). He also points out that blacks out numbered whites in the community, and it was likely that “masters and slaves lived and worked together in small numbers and in close proximity” (7). In addition to this description of the community in which Nat Turner lived we are also expected to believe that Turner himself did not face any “unusually brutality” from a master, besides being relocated and sold to different owner numerous times in his lifetime. Greenberg’s examination of Turner’s rebellion and its aftermath provided numerous details, but I still found myself with lingering questions. Greenberg mentioned that slaves and masters worked together in close proximity, but the apparent distrust that would have existed between the two groups even prior to Nat Turner’s rebellion is not addressed. Given the obvious tensions that existed between slaves and slave owners, and knowing that slaves out numbered the white population in the Southampton community, it is safe to surmise that fierce actions were continually taken by the white power structure to control the black population. I am sure that these actions did result in brutality that would be considered both usual and unusual.

In his text, Greenberg also offers details about the aftermath of the rebellion and writes, “It is important when studying the Nat Turner rebellion to recognize white Virginian’s efforts at restraint” (22).  This recognition of “restraint” he explains is not meant to praise slave owners for their decency, but he later states that slave owners liked to “think of themselves as caring and humane in dealing with slaves” (22). This is emblematic of what gives me pause in Greenberg’s text. His argument is based on the assumption that because the slave owners wished to display themselves as benevolent that the salves interpreted their actions as such. I resist such a reading of slave history. It seems to me more likely that slaves did not respond to the “justice” of the trials as benevolent but saw the trials as another representation of the total and severe authority that was over every aspect of their lives.  It is clear that all the actions that were leveled upon those who were a part of Turner’s rebellion or suspected of participating in the rebellion were done so to deter future slave rebellions, and keep the institution of slavery alive. I reject any retelling of Turner’s rebellion or any retelling of slavery in America that would assume that most slaves viewed their master’s concern for justice as benevolent. Slavery in American was profoundly unjust and shameful. What I appreciated most about Baker’s text is that he manages to retell Turner’s rebellion in a unique way; and also manages to visually capture the horrors of slavery that would eventually provoke an outcry and crusade for freedom.

Learning to read pictures

The question that was posed in the beginning of Perry Nodelman’s text reminded me of the discussion that we had in class last week. Nodelman asks the reader to ponder why children books have become so popular, and later debunks the assumption that children picture books are more popular than other forms writing because they are easier for kids to understand. I agree with his claims and think that picture books are enjoyable for children and adults for many of the same reasons that video games are enjoyable. The pictures that appear in children books and comics can be visually captivating, just like the graphics that you see in some video games. The visual images that appear in these different mediums attract viewers and can compel interest in the story that is told.

I found this to be true while doing the reading for class this week. The pictures in Baker’s Nat Turner were visually captivating,  and his novel is something that I would enjoy reading outside of the classroom. The text was enjoyable for me, even though I knew the outcome, because the pictures and the text work together to retell Turner’s narrative in a powerful and enthralling way. The images were thought provoking and at times difficult to interpret. I don’t think I would enjoy the text if it were easy to unravel or presented in a simplistic manner.  When I think back to my response about video games, I see now that I was practically addicted to finishing Tomb Raider that summer because the game was a challenge. I did find the narrative  that was unfolding through the game to be compelling, but part of my interest in the game came from figuring out how to work the controls, solving the game’s puzzles, and conquering whatever enemies appeared on the screen.  In the same way, learning how to read the pictures in Baker’s novel was a challenge. I paid more attention I think to the pictures at times than I did to the actual writing. Each picture told a story, and as the reader you had to work hard to unravel the meaning that was behind it.

I also think interpreting pictures along with text can be more challenging for readers. Nodelman writes that “As we shift our attention between the pictures and the text, we must shift between different ways of thinking” (154). Working to understand a written text along with the pictures that accompany it can help develop critical thinking. As a reader you work to compare what you see visually to what are reading. I think this can  result in a deeper understanding of the story that is told, and benefit learners.



The summer of Tomb Raider

I approached the James Paul Gee text with curiosity and skepticism, given my own experience with video games. I have to admit that my last true dedication to a video game was when I “wasted” a whole summer playing Tomb Raider with my sister on our PlayStation. At the end of our video game experience I can remember feeling an odd sense of accomplishment (having successfully battled oversized rats, and winged zombie-like-monsters as I remember them) but I don’t recall feeling like I benefited from some insightful learning experience. In fact, when I reminisce about that summer it has always been with a small sense of embarrassment. When I think about all the other productive things I could have done during that time, there is a small shame. I enjoy a game of Super Mario Bros every now and then on my Nintendo DX during a long ride (and even finished my last game, yea me!) but in general I really don’t devote much time to video games. Reading the Gee text forced me to look back on that “wasted” summer and rethink my whole experience.

The version of Tomb Raider that I played was different from the one Gee describes in his book, but I found myself wondering if there were things that I was learning, even unconsciously, as I played the game. Gee writes that playing certain video games like Lara Croft can give players the experience of “trying new identities that challenge some of their assumptions about themselves and the world” (117). He also explains that taking on another character can make you, at least while you are playing the game, become more like them than yourself. I can see how taking on different perspectives can make you a better learner, but I don’t remember having such an experience when playing video games. In fact, when I played Tomb Raider many years ago I never felt like I was becoming more like the character while playing. My goal was to conquer the game by any means necessary because I was interested in how the story would unfold; I don’t think the experience challenged any of my views about my surroundings or myself. I also must admit that as a female playing video games I am often concerned and agitated with how women are portrayed. I think this concern has kept me from fully identifying with the characters that I have previously played.

Overall, there is value in engaging in a conversation about video games and learning. Playing video games can definitely be challenging, and Gee correctly points out in the beginning of his text “confronting a new form of learning and thinking can be both frustrating and life enhancing” (7). We have discussed previously in this course how working through frustration can deepen our understanding of things, and does add value to the learning experience. The particular game that I am most familiar with may not have opened my eyes to new knowledge, but I do believe that there are video games out there that can certainly accomplish that task.  For this reason I do see the merits in Gee’s argument.

Effective Writing Assignments

I think one of the most difficult tasks about designing a literature course is selecting effective writing assignments. By effective writing assignments, I mean writing assignments that not only fulfill the learning requirements of the course, but writing assignments that students actually care about. As a student I can remember rolling my eyes every time I was asked to write in a journal, or do free writing at the beginning of class. I didn’t take the writing tasks seriously because it always seemed like busy work, so now I can sympathize with students when I think about the attitude I had about journal writing. I think Blau outlines good ways to introduce journal writing to students, in ways that are practical and meaningful.

First, it is important that students understand that a journal or reading log is not just a place for them to summarize what they read, but they should use the journal to document questions that they have about the text, as well as possible answers. It is also a good idea for students to use their journals to explore writing ideas for their future papers. When I was assigned a reading log for my English class as a student the writing that I did was outside of the classroom, and I was not required to bring the journal to class. After reading this book, I think that it should be a requirement for students to not only bring their journals to class, but to routinely share their writings to their classmates. I think if you clearly show students how their journal writing can assist them in future assignments, and help them work through questions they have about the reading that they are doing, they will embrace this type of assignment more readily.

One of the things that I appreciated about Blau’s book was that while he discussed the writing assignments he uses in his classes, he also described the problems teachers can face implementing such writing assignments, and evaluating them. I have always liked the idea of using reading logs, but have struggled with determining how to evaluate them. I like the idea of having students write a reading log audit as a way of monitoring their progress, because it makes them accountable not only for their reading but it also forces them to be reflective about the choices that they are making while reading and writing. I also think that students will take reading logs/journals seriously if they know up front that their journals may be read in front of the class.

It is easy to feel defeated in the classroom when a new teaching technique or writing assignment is not received well. Given this, I was also glad to see Blau acknowledge that, “many of the most interesting problems we face as teachers never go away” (151). I think that teaching will always involve some form of experimentation.  A tasks that works well for one class, may fail miserably with another group of students, so you are constantly testing new things out in the classroom to see what fits.

The Literature Workshop

The comments that Sheridan Blau makes about confusion in the beginning of chapter 1 of his book, reminded me of the reading we did during the second week of class about difficulty. Blau describes a scene in a classroom where a frustrated student speaks out about reading Julius Caesar in class and refers to the play as being stupid and dumb, and questions why Brutus conspired to kill Caesar if he loved him. The teacher’s response to the student is critiqued by Blau, and he goes on to explain how student confusion in response to literature “often represents an advanced state of understanding” (21). I think its obvious that embracing student questions and confusion in a literature class can produce interesting class conversations and can also results in students and teachers developing a deeper understanding of the literature being studied. I also believe that it is the responsibility of the teacher to maintain order in the classroom, and to foster a learning environment that does not seek to diminish students’ questions, but encourages respectful conversation. Encouraging students to work through difficulty when interpreting texts, and showing them how to use their questions and confusion about a text to examine its meaning is essential to the learning process. Literature teachers have to accomplish the former but they must also correctly identify those in class who are hindering the learning process for others. In order to be a successful instructor I believe you must also recognize that not every question about a works importance or validity is evidence of deep critical thinking. In certain circumstances instructors are faced with students whose frustration is in fact evidence of their lack of desire to do the work.

I could also sympathize with the teacher who avoided certain lines of Macbeth due to his own uncertainty about their interpretation. After retelling his experience in a class with this instructor Blau asserts, “The only texts worth reading are texts you don’t understand” (24).  His explanation of this principle was interesting, and if I had not encountered a similar experience in the classroom, I would probably have thought his comments to be completely bizarre. I can remember preparing for a class, and feeling hesitant about including a poem by Louise Erdrich, because I was more familiar with works done by other poets. It was my first time teaching poetry in class, and I wanted to make sure that I had all of the answers in regard to the author’s background and the work itself. I decided to put my hesitation aside, and discussed Erdrich’s poem, “The Lady in the Pink Mustang”, along with some other works in class. I was surprised that the poem, which I felt would be the most difficult for them to understand, was in fact the poem that they wanted to talk about. Some students brought up things about the poem that I did not even think to mention as I first began to lead the discussion, and it turned out to be a good learning experience for us all.  As a new instructor there is always a fear that your credibility will be questioned if you don’t have all the answers. I think this fear keeps many teachers from embracing texts that they are not familiar with, especially when it comes to poetry.

Later when Blau discusses an interpretation of Theodore Roethke’s poem, “ My Papa’s Waltz”, I was shocked to discover that before 1985 no student in any of his classes had offered an interpretation of the poem that linked it to abuse. I can remember studying this poem as a freshman in college, and later teaching it in my first English class, and in each case abuse was mentioned. The last time I taught this poem in class there was some disagreement as to whether the poem was a reflection on a happy childhood memory, or whether the poem was about abuse. I was reluctant to tell the students in my class how I interpreted the poem, and instead as a class we noted places where it would be plausible to see a positive interpretation, and a negative one. After we discussed the poem I played a recording of Roethke reciting it. After listening to Roethke read his poem some students who previously interpreted the poem as positive found his reading to be quite depressing and were inclined to change their original interpretation


Making Poetry Matter

I found the article written by Showalter to be interesting, and could relate to many of the things that were written about teaching poetry, and overcoming students aversion to it. When I began teaching literature I found that some of my students were reluctant to study poetry, and that not all teachers were willing to embrace it either. When I met with one of the instructors at my school I was surprised to learn that she didn’t even teach poetry in her classes. She explained that her students found it too difficult to understand, and she felt it was easier to engage them with short stories and plays. In a way I could understand her point of view, but I still kept poetry readings on my syllabus because I thought that as an English teacher I had a responsibility to teach poetry in a literature class. When I first attempted to discuss poetry in the classroom I found that some students assumed that the poetry we were to study would be difficult to understand, dated, and irrelevant to their lives. During our class discussions, when we began to breakdown some of the poetry, students began to open up as they could see how the poetry we discussed related to their own experiences and beliefs.

Before we can expect students to value any form of literature we must first show them how it is important to everyday life, and how studying literature can benefit them across different curriculums. As a student I found value in studying things that I could relate to my own life and experiences. The classes that I enjoyed the most, were ones in which the teacher taught the subject in a manner that made it real to me. I agree that in order for poetry to be studied more in the classroom as instructors we “ must select from a fuller range of poetic texts, and we should present them in a way that encourages reader to connect the poems to their lives” (64). The writing correctly points out that teaching poetry can be a daunting task when you consider all of the elements that go into interpreting a poem. The textbook that I use incorporates a diverse selection of literature that covers an array of issues. Being able to discuss both contemporary and classic works makes it easier to find writing that can be relatable and engaging to young students.

I was also happy to see that the writing discussed the benefits of reading poetry aloud in class and in using portfolios. I recommend that my students read poetry aloud at home, and also have them read it aloud in class prior to our discussions. I have never thought about having the whole class read in unison, but can see how this technique could be beneficial to the learning process. I also like the idea of having students to keep a poetry portfolio as a way of exploring and analyzing poetic language.  I like using in class writing assignments to help students think deeper about the readings that we cover in class, because it gives them the opportunity to be more critical about their interpretation of poetry before we talk about it as a group.  If students have a poetry portfolio that they can reference throughout the course it can help them keep track of their own progress while also assisting them with future writing assignments.

The Elements of Difficulty

Leslie Jones

While reading the Salvatori and Donahue text I found myself reflecting on my own experiences as a student and an instructor.  The authors explain that our common understanding of difficulty and its relation to the reading and writing process is often misunderstood, and they further explain that “readers who engage, rather than avoid, a text’s difficulties can deepen their understanding of what they read and how they read” (3). I agree with their assessment, but must admit that as a young student I was not always encouraged to embrace difficulty while reading and writing.  I often felt pressure to understand the texts discussed in class quickly, and to get good results. I further felt that questions were not necessarily evidence of critical thinking, but rather evidence of a lack of knowledge. Further, as a student in elementary, middle, and high school I found that more attention was given to the final quality of my schoolwork rather than the process I went through to achieve understanding.

Many students fall into this category because of the way classroom learning is structured and evaluated. For example, if your school funding is contingent upon favorable student test scores, then as an instructor you may have no choice but to try and achieve student understanding in a limited amount of time. In this case students who master school work and reading easily may receive all the praise and attention, while less time is focused on the actual process that learners must go through in order to become more critical readers and thinkers. It was as a college student that I began to understand that embracing difficultly was not only necessary to the learning process, but also necessary to my development as a writer.

I agree with the authors, and feel that embracing difficulty is necessary to the learning process, but as an instructor I have found it challenging to encourage my students to engage in critical thinking, and move from summary to analysis. I found it valuable that in addition to discussing why introducing difficulty in the classroom should be viewed differently the authors also provide examples of classroom activities that encourage students to be more reflective while reading and writing. In my classes I have students keep a journal in which they record their reflections to the readings that we do in class, but I have never assigned a difficulty paper.

In addition to the triple-entry notebook I think that the difficulty assignment would be a good way to encourage students to embrace their questions about the texts they read. It can also teach them to view their uncertainty about a text as a normal part of the learning process, and not as a weakness. Students should be encouraged to write about the questions and uncertainties they encounter while reading, and they should have no fear in voicing those concerns in the classroom. Both of the assignments that were outlined in reading could help instructors foster an environment in the classroom where critical discussion of readings are embraced because both assignments encourage reflection, and don’t diminish the importance of the writing process.