Author Archives: Meghan Short

Blink and You’ll Miss It

Looking back at the Microteaching presentation, it went by in a flash—partly because I was nervous, partly because fifteen minutes is no time at all.  The most uncomfortable part about this whole experience for me was constantly having to look at the stopwatch I had running on my phone.  While some it—the amount of time I was having everyone write—would have been timed in a normal class, nothing else would’ve run by a strict time schedule if it were my real classroom.  I would so much prefer to judge how much time we need based on actual student needs that it felt very uncomfortable and unnatural to do it a different way.

Even more uncomfortable was not being able to discuss what I could hear happening around the edges.  I so badly wanted to be able to talk with everyone and hear everyone discuss this story for an hour, especially once I heard several different perspectives on it happening in the different groups.  I think maybe I miss my classroom just a little bit.

Those were the hard parts for me—the great parts were seeing people engage with the text and each other.  I really appreciated the feedback I got, and one of the things that had me most nervous was about the way I give instructions.  It’s odd for me how I can feel the slight difference between high school teacher Ms. Short and elementary school IA Ms. Short (where I am now), and I was worried that I might have somehow become demeaning or belittling in the way I address people in the classroom.  So, it was a bit of a relief to find that the consensus was that instructions were clear rather than annoyingly simple.   It was also great to hear that things I had hoped would work well, did work well, and that the point of the lesson translated to people in the class, even if not all of my ninth graders would be able to peek behind the curtain to see it too. 

I love teaching, I love working with students, and I’ve missed that part of my life for the past two years. With graduation on the horizon, I’m looking forward to entering that world again.  It was a great, albeit fast, fifteen minutes to be able to feel like a real teacher again!

Interesting Article

I’m not sure if anyone saw/read the article in The Washington Post this week about violent video games and the different view points on those games, but I thought some people in our class might be interested!

Here’s the link to it

Happy Wednesday!

Colliding Interpretations?

One of the first things to catch my attention was the difference between theory and interpretation.  Theories, which are general things, need to be true and there cannot be more than one theory about the same thing—one necessarily will need to disprove the other.  We are not nearly as interested in ‘theory’ in this way in the teaching of literature; instead, we are more interested in ‘interpretations.’ Interpretations are “contextual and specific” and also “are bound by the personal, social, cultural, and historical contexts in which they arise,” (91).  I’m reminded of our read-aloud activity where all three students had different ideas about the poem “Gretel in Darkness,” that amounted to three different, legitimate interpretations.

Another thing to catch my attention in the six facets of learning (which were all fascinating and I thought, succinctly defined), was application.  Application (Facet 3) deals with taking knowledge and applying it in a realistic context.  I think so often, we as teachers, especially working in a high-stakes testing environment of public secondary schools, don’t necessarily work to put knowledge to work in an entirely “real world problem” context.  And I think this can be the hard thing about making sure that learning is “engaging,” which comes up in chapter 9.  Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe highlight the need for the learning and accompanying work to be “purposeful from the student’s point of view in order to properly focus attention and provide direction” (199) and also the need for schools to move away from the “carrot” and “stick” system of extrinsic motivation and into a more intrinsically motivated classroom (202).   It’s so easy to fall back on the idea that “you need to know this in order to ‘pass the SOL’ or ‘do well on the AP exam’ or ‘get a good score on the SATs.’” And while this system of high-stakes standardized testing is not going away and cannot be ignored, neither is the best way for students to learn.  Unsurprisingly, the best way for students to learn is to make what they’re learning about interesting.

And now these two ideas– theory/interpretation and application of knowledge–collide.  Sometimes we treat testing and intrinsic motivations are ‘theories’ which cannot coexist together and therefore we must sacrifice the one (intrinsically motivating the students, because that’s the part we can control), because of the other. Or we say we’ll devote time to the ‘testing curriculum’ and cover that boring, dry stuff, and we’ll devote time to the ‘interesting curriculum’ and make that engaging.  But what if, as a practice, we saw the realities of 21st century education and engaging students simply as different lenses that we might use to interpret our curriculum?  Regardless of how frustrating or annoying one interpretation might be, it’s still a valid one for secondary teachers.  Is this a challenge to me (and everyone else)? Is it possible to make what we see as SOL test prep into reading that is engaging, meaningful, and mysterious?

Background and Bias


Nat Turner’s is a complex story, which I knew little to nothing about prior to my experience with Nat Turner in graphic narrative form.  The background reading for this week though left me, like Joy, wondering about whether background would’ve been a help or a hindrance in this situation.

It probably says more about me as a reader than Baker as a writer/illustrator/designer, but I didn’t realize until the articles this week that Nat Turner’s Confession was not only not written by Nat Turner himself, but by a man who had suspect motive and not altogether trustworthy credibility.  That was one of the most eye opening things that the readings for this week, and it makes me wonder if it’s possible to tell Nat’s story in anything but an extremely biased way since the main source we have on the event may be a biased account masquerading as something objectively truthful.

Despite not being sure about the interpretation of events, the readings and photographs for this week lent a sense of reality to what was otherwise a slightly unreal, otherworldly tale.  Actually seeing the photographs of the areas where the rebellion took place, especially done in a similar coloring to the illustrations in Baker’s book, made it seem even more real for me.  Too, there were parts where Baker’s illustrations combined with the “Confession” left me feeling more confused than anything else.  The account of Nat knowing things that had happened before his birth was one place that left me feeling that there must be more to the story, and Kenneth Greenberg’s piece helped me fill in that gap.  It doesn’t seem that we know a great deal about what exactly that event was that Nat recalled, but it became more clear to me that everyone who knew Nat saw that time, and other events, as markers that Nat was destined for greatness.

I’m not sure where all that leaves me about knowing what to do with background information.  I enjoyed my first read of the story in more of a purely for the story sort of way—I was trying to understand what was going on, rather than trying to do any sort of in-depth interpretation.  And I liked that.  But, I also like reading it again after developing more of an understanding of what was happening, looking for places that Gray’s influence may have slipped into the account, and looking for places where Baker had to make an interpretive decision.  This worked well for this sort of situation where the readers can probably be trusted to actually go back and read the main text a second time.  I don’t know that it would be possible to approach a story this way every time, but I do think “withholding” background information at the beginning can be a positive way of reading a story.

Equal Mediums?

The readings this week were about graphic novels, comics, or any other sort of “picture book” and how they are more complex than one might first expect.  I strongly support using graphic novels in the classroom whenever possible—especially when students are choosing a book freely to read. They often seem less intimidating to students who are not strong readers, or seem like an “easy” choice to students who are good readers, but in reality they are complex and thought provoking.

Even knowing this, I was surprised by how much detail and deliberate choice is involved in constructing these works.  Kyle Baker’s preface highlights this, saying, “Comic books/graphic novels are a visual medium, so it’s most important for an artist to choose a subject with opportunities for compelling graphics” (6).  Not every story can be successfully told as a graphic novel—so from the very beginning, the author of such a novel must make a good choice.  Understanding Comics takes this idea of deliberate choices further in speaking about the gutter and how “in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea” (66).  Readers are much more active in this reading because they have to take what is left unsaid, undrawn, but that does happen, and fill in the gutter.  Thus, “to kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths” (69).

The details matter in graphic novels, and I would not deny that everything from color, to shape of the frame, position of the frame, to size of the frame and much more play a role in this.  I’m convinced—graphic novels require care, thought, and active skills in both creating and reading them.  So here’s my question—are they literature? I can’t deny that reading all 200 pages of Nat Turner had me emotionally invested, sickened, confused, uncertain, and sympathetic at different points—all things any good piece of writing should do.  But I also can’t deny that it only took me an hour to read, which would not be true of most 200 page works of literature.

So is time spent what makes something count as literature? Is it the ability to decode specific symbols? Or is it the story, the ability to get caught up in something outside the self, the absorption in another world, the puzzling through and coming to a conclusion in the end?  Aren’t all of those things part of what we value about literature? Don’t we get all of those things out of good traditional and good graphic novels?

The genres are still different—to say their not cheapens them because the form is part of the work whether it is a traditional novel, a graphic novel, or even an oral folk tale.  But maybe the point is that since each can be equally complex, requiring thought and interpretation, we should regard them as equal mediums of story.

Now What?

I really wanted to like this book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, and in some ways I did, but in other ways I felt like I was left asking, “Now what?”  Maybe this is a problem with my expectations about the book rather than any real problem with it.  I can buy into one of James Paul Gee’s premises: video games are not necessarily a waste of time, they can actually provide a powerful learning experience that is, in some ways, more authentic or valuable than a lot of school learning experiences.
I hadn’t really ever thought about video games and the power of literacy, so Gee does push me to give credit where I previously hadn’t in the arena of video games.  I particularly found myself doing this in the early chapters of his book, and I was on board with what he was saying in Chapter 2—“we can say that people are literate in a domain if they can recognize and/or produce meanings in the domain” (20).  I’m certainly not literate in the domain of video games, and that’s likely how some of my students feel about arenas where I expect literacy.  Gee’s learning principles for this chapter, which deal with understanding and thinking critically about a subject and the necessity of knowing how to be literate in a certain domain are solid educational principles.
In fact, all of his learning principles are solid principles, and that he makes a strong case for the way they are all found in video games.  But, this is where I have the problem: what do I do with that information?  I don’t think that Gee is advocating the abandonment of any kind of traditional literacy by replacing it completely with video games.   I don’t even think he’s necessarily advocating bringing video games into schools so that all students are required to play them.  I think he’s making solid points like: “[Video games] lower the consequences of failure…players are encouraged to take risks, explore, and try new things” (216).  I would not argue with this being a sound educational principle or that video games do this.  What I’m struggling with is this: most educators would already agree that we need to create a safe environment for students to take risks.  It’s what Blau talked about extensively.  Gee makes many good points about what video games can do: create strong identities, allow students to make choices, encourage them to explore and go back and do recursive thinking.  And he says that schools should do this too, and he’s right.  But here’s where I get stuck: how? This is where maybe I want something out of this book that it was never trying to provide.  Maybe it is intended to be largely theoretical rather than practical, but I’m struggling with that too because of the many, many specific examples Gee provides about specific video games without specific examples of how to translate that to the classroom beyond just the idea that we should translate it to the classroom.

Considering Literature Practice

I agreed with about 95% of what Sheridan Blau said in The Literature Workshop, but it’s more helpful to think through the questions I had.   I find so much benefit in the portfolio assignment that he talked about in Chapter 8—I had never considered allow students to collect any and all relevant materials to the course, even unassigned papers or notes—and I certainly value the idea of basing the final assessment on the progress of the semester.  I think he can encourage risk taking, encourage students to rework their papers, and to really invest themselves in their writing through this method.  Especially since he doesn’t grade the papers throughout the semester.  But that’s the sticky part—not because I love grades and think that I need to stamp a score on everything a student does.  I would love to give a cumulative, holistic-like grade to my students.  I just want to know how to do it.

It was frustrating for me that Blau so often references how much secondary-school teachers can use his ideas, or that these workshops can apply to a high school and in this case, he just choose not to mention how to adapt this to secondary schools.  I can’t actually imagine in this culture of high stakes testing, data-driven remediation, and tracking of students that I could do anything close to this, which is probably why Blau doesn’t address it.  I wish there were suggestions for a way to get even close to this—a way to encourage students in risk taking and still prove to the department or school with data that growth is occurring in their writing.  Blau’s comment struck me (as it also did when Elbow discussed it) when he says, “I didn’t have to think about whether my commentary justified or failed to justify the grade I was awarding the paper” (182).  I so often feel that this is the starting point for my comments, and I can’t believe it’s just a reality of high school English, but I haven’t found anything yet that circumvents this problem.

The other, less major, question I had for Blau was about his frustration with students being taught in high school not to use “I” in their formal papers.  I confess, I’m one of those teachers, partly because I don’t want them to say “I think,” but also because I want to push them out of a comfort zone where their opinion is the only thing that matters.  Certainly I don’t want to strip them of all their personality in a piece, but I do want them to have to think what the evidence is within the text rather than just offering their knee-jerk reaction or undeveloped opinion.  I wonder if there is also a balance to be struck here—Blau has pretty well convinced me to teach students about figuring out when or if “I” is appropriate in certain situations and how to use it appropriately (even if I doubt I’ll ever bend on using “you” in a final draft).   It would be an interesting experiment—to see if students allowed to use “I” would use it in a way that strengthened their evidentiary claims rather than diminishing them.

Working through Difficulty with Peers

I’m a product of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, so Sheridan Blau had me hooked from the Introduction when he discussed how the National Writing Project led him towards this style of teaching in literature as well.  I admit, I’m sad that I don’t have a classroom to practice these techniques with yet, because I’m already thinking about how I want to incorporate Blau’s ideas—whether as a full on lesson, as several mini-lessons, or as habits of mind for my students—when I get back to my own classroom next year.   But since I don’t have the ability to practice these things and report results, I want to think about the implications of what Blau’s saying.
One of the themes of our readings is the idea of difficulty: how we approach it as teachers, how students approach it, how we teach students to work through difficult things.  One thing that has been cropping up with the sixth graders I work with is that (according to their parents) they feel very anxious about getting anything wrong on homework, on worksheets we do in class, and also on tests or quizzes.  Much of what we’ve discussed in class and Blau discusses in The Literature Workshop deals directly with this idea: students don’t necessarily know how to work through something difficult and they don’t recognize that “failure” the first time is actually a necessary step in the learning process.  In Chapter 2, as Blau presents the workshop on “Sonrisas,” he comments that “to move ahead in the wrong direction is not progress.  But to move backward in order to correct your course is” (46).  So much of what creates problems for students is that they’re afraid to move backward because they don’t understand that sometimes that’s a necessary step.  We often talk about making our classrooms a safe place for students to take risks, but it seems that when we simply lecture about our interpretation of a piece of literature, we’re not only not showing students how we’ve come up with that interpretation, we’re also nullifying that safety zone.  One of the things I really like about the literature workshops as Blau presents them is that much of dealing with confusion is handled on the peer to peer level, rather than asking the teacher for answers when there’s a problematic section.  This should empower students to realize how much they can come up with just within their peer group, and it also makes admitting confusion more possible because it’s in a low stakes setting with only a few people, rather than in front of the whole class.   The more students can practice admitting confusion, backtracking when they had a misconception, and reading things over and over again, the more they’ll be able to begin doing these things naturally when they read on their own.  I hope.

Not One, But Many

The thing that struck me the most about this week’s readings was the focus on demystifying how experts analyze literature, and moving away from thinking about one correct “answer.”  In her article “The Reader’s Apprentice,” Sherry Linkon delves into this as she says, “we teach skills and ways of thinking through demonstration,” but this method “can leave students with the impression that the process of analyzing cultural texts is natural and instinctual.  Unintentionally, we hide the effort involved, making textual analysis seem simple and straightforward” (247, 248).  I know that I have been guilty of making students think this even when I believe I’m teaching them how to read a text.  I have a vivid memory of talking about Tennyson’s “Ulysses” with ninth graders, which they found very challenging.  I offered some starting points for discussion and they continued to look baffled and unsure.  Finally, one student said to me, “It’s easy for you, you’ve got the answers on your poem in front of you.”  It was my turn to be baffled as I held up an identical copy to the poem they had in front of them without any sort of “answer key” (what would that even look like?!) on it.  They had never considered that I was simply thinking about the poem and talking about it; I had never considered that they thought I was just telling them the one “right answer.”

This week’s readings touch on many things that were going on in that exchange—novices often approach things like a multiple choice problem—as Linkon says in “Developing Critical Reading,” students believe “texts have set meanings that are available for identification by the informed reader, and that the purpose of reading a text is to locate and define its meaning” (para 2). Students also don’t realize that there is an awful lot going on behind the scenes for practiced readers, and students lack an understanding of the idea that literature can, and does, mean something different to all people depending many factors.

Even though I want students to understand that there are several possible interpretations, there does need to be some guidance about how to get to an interpretation that seems well-reasoned and sensible. Peter Rabinowitz in Before Reading discusses this—he accepts the idea that texts can mean something different to readers, but he also promotes the idea that there are certain conventions, symbols, approaches in literature which guide readers as they construct meaning.  One example he gives is that a cross would never work as a symbol for Judaism in a religious parable (24) because there are certain interpretations of meaning which are not open to us.  Elaine Showalter also talks about this in “Teaching Poetry,” as she gives some practical suggestions for ways to approach poetry with students.  This balance is what I want to strive for—having some concrete ways of discussing things with my students where they can see my thought process and understand how I came to interpretation without making them think it is the one right answer.

Meghan Short: Blog, week 2

I found the readings for today pleasantly practical for the classroom.   Throughout reading the first chapter of Textual Interventions I was highlighting ways to use the different exercises.  The idea of looking at things from an alternate perspective and creating something new from the perspective, then comparing the new with the old would create powerful, and interesting, learning.  It’s only been recently that I’ve realized how fluid texts are—this was not something taught to me in my high school or undergraduate education–and I wasn’t bringing this idea to my students.  The “Preludes” chapter offered some practical ways that this would now be possible for me.  I particularly liked the “I think, therefore I am” activity because one of my favorite writing activities for my freshmen was to work with NPR’s “This I Believe” essays and have each of them create a short essay with their life philosophy.  Playing with a statement like “I think, therefore I am,” and the implications of that would be a fascinating way to have students begin to think about their guiding principles.

Although I really enjoyed the “Preludes” chapter, the chapter “Introducing Difficulty” from The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty was even more engaging.  It expresses concisely and clearly the struggle I’ve had with students who believe the difficulty has no place in the classroom.  As the chapter quoted from the OED and J. South “They mistake difficulties for impossiblilities” (2).   Countless students have told me “This is hard,” implying they should not have to complete the task.  They do not consider that perhaps I have intended for the exercise to be hard, have assigned it because it is hard, and want them to wrestle with that difficulty.  I love the idea of doing a “Difficulty Paper,” because it includes students in a discussion who often feel on the fringes of an English class (those who know they have difficulties with understanding a reading) and forces other students to admit that they may have to struggle with certain aspects of a text.

I found chapter eight, “Helping Students Read Difficult Texts” from Engaging Ideas to be the least helpful in what I could do differently in my classroom.  I think the ideas presented are true—students do not know how to read for different purposes and often do not read as effectively or efficiently as they could or should.  But the ideas presented in the end were overwhelming, partly because I have tried using many of them.  They are valuable, and I have found that using them selectively for specific students with difficulties works quite well.  But when I tried to introduce them to all students as helpful measures they reported greater frustration with the reading that they lost any rhythm of the text and any sense of the pleasure of reading disappeared. While I acknowledge that it was my fault because of how I made students use those methods, the long list of them at the chapter’s end was quite reminiscent of a teaching style from which I have moved away.