Author Archives: adalton4

Literature teaching reflection

I enjoyed teaching to everyone last night—you’re a great class! Thank you to everyone who participated.

Overall I was pretty pleased with how my presentation went. I thought I had a good balance of discussing the objectives and methodology of the lesson and doing the actual activities. If I had more time I would have liked to hear more of the responses people had written so that I could gauge how well my 10th graders would do with the assignments. The snatches of conversation I did overhear as I moved around the room sounded pretty interesting!

I decided to not write while you all were writing. I felt like sitting down to write would leave me too unavailable for questions and unable to observe everyone’s progress. With all of you this wasn’t an issue, but I know it would be with my sophomores. I’m curious to hear from others—have any of you tried writing with your high school students? I’m willing to give it a try, but I’m not sure my students would let me put down more than a couple sentence before they interrupted me!

After I finished I found myself wondering if I had explained my follow-up assignment on interviewing a parent very well. I knew I only had 5 minutes left and I think I might have rushed my explanation. The objective behind the assignment was to have students think more about Mrs. Sommers’ identity struggles and send them back to the text with hopefully a more nuanced sense of sympathy for her as a character.

If you had any thoughts or suggestions I’m happy to hear them!

Rereading without the words.

After listening to the class discussion and considering my own impression of Nat Turner, it struck me that the most important thing to focus on when teaching graphic novels would be rereading. This has proven true for a variety of literature so far and I can see a clear necessity for using this skill with graphic novels as well— as many in class expressed, it can be too easy to flip through a graphic novel without lingering on the images.

What seems the most obvious technique would be to have students add text to silent panels, then have students compare what they “heard” in the silent panels. Students could also compare them to the original and reflect in writing which they prefer, a student version or the original. This would generate rereading opportunities as well as open a window for discussing what the advantages and limitations are of illustrations as text.

Another way of generating rereading would be to have students select a series of 10 panels from throughout a novel that they feel best summarizes the story. This activity would also give me as the instructor a gauge for how well my students are understanding the content. Students could also be asked to rearrange the panels or select based on a chosen theme, character, or plot line, then reflect on the new impression this gave them either aloud or in writing.

Class discussions on some of the “grammar” of graphic novels would also be useful. My sense is that most students would intuitively understand how to read them, but I think it would be interesting to discuss what impression the longer vs. shorter panels or certain lines/backgrounds gave to certain scenes. Having the students engage in this grammar by drawing a panel with changes could also be a way to engage students in rereading and examining how pictures can function as a text.

After I finished writing the above I realized I was considering how the average student would learn to read and comprehend a graphic novel— I wasn’t considering what my English language learners or students with disabilities would need. For English language learners I think that graphic novels could be an advantage because of the illustrations, but they could also be more difficult if students are from a culture that does not share the same visual grammar. For students who have difficulty reading body language or focusing/tracking, the visual aspect of a graphic novel may also present challenges. I think both groups of students would be best assisted if they had a reading partner or the instructor described the illustrations to them and work with the student to interpret them.

I think graphic novels could be a real advantage in the English classroom—they make for quick and enticing reads, leaving more time to invest in writing about and discussing the literature.

Nat Turner and the necessity of being appalled.

In Kyle Baker’s preface to Nat Turner he said that he chose the story for a graphic novel because of how the story contained so many images. I remember being horrified at that statement—sure, it has compelling images, but such terrible ones! It was after beginning to read the story that I saw how right Baker was. Hearing the story of Nat Turner, which I knew before picking up the book, was nothing compared to seeing the images represented in a graphic novel. True, the images were horrifying—and as they should be.

I won’t bemoan how desensitized our culture has become to violence—I know that for me and most others this isn’t a function of insufficient empathy but the only way to make it through the day. All the same, I think its useful for there to be art to resensitize us from time to time. I don’t think it does us as a population much good to drown ourselves in despair over the atrocities of the present and past, but I think we would fare much worse if we did not have visceral, painful reminders from time to time. I liked Nat Turner for that reason.

Baker didn’t shy away from portraying the reality of the Turner rebellion’s victims—white children were murdered too. As uncomfortable and as appalled as I was by this fact, it made me think about race relations in a way I hadn’t before. This term we’ve read and discussed how readers write a text against the text or “ghost chapters.” Despite the very few words used in Nat Turner, I knew it was a narrative because I found myself questioning it in this same way. Why would Turner and his followers kill white children, even infants? I found myself answering “well, because they will grow up and be slave owners too.” That answer brought this story into focus in a powerful way and left me unable to settle on any one interpretation of Turner’s actions from a moral standpoint. For a historical tale, that seems proof of success to me.

Much of what we read in the McCloud selections on comics was already familiar to me as someone acquainted with how comics are written. The most interesting part of these pieces was how it addressed the use of silent panels. McCloud said that these panels can make time seem to stretch on indefinitely and that it can make the image even more haunting to the reader. I found this especially true of Nat Turner. Days later, I’m unable to get the image of the infant from the beginning out of my head. Several hands stretch out to the African baby as it falls through the air. This image was disturbing and powerful in a way that I doubt words could have enhanced.

Text Book and Metaphor

Much as I enjoy reading Text Book, I share the concern of some others that the wealth of stories are overwhelming the points the author is trying to illustrate. For example, there are multiple stories to illustrate the elements of a narrative, but very little discussion after the examples of how the elements were present. I understand why this choice is made by the authors—they intend for the students to use the written exercises to discover these points rather than having the points spelled out.

Despite this, I felt like a few more examples of how to analyze the reading examples for the elements being studied would have improved the quality and comprehensibility of Text Book. The number of exercises devoted to any one point make the book seem introductory in level, but the lack of worked through examples make me suspect it would be difficult for students new to these concepts to get much from the book.

The section that interested me most in Text Book thus far was the selection on metaphors and daily life. I agreed with the author that metaphors reinforce our perception of events, but I think some of these became circular questions—which came first, the cultural perception or the metaphor? To use the example the authors used, consider war and argument. The authors assert that war is being used as a metaphor for arguing, but to me it seems that war is just arguing writ large, that they are spaces on the same continuum.

Though I disagreed with the authors in places regarding their analysis of the relationship between metaphor and the shape it gives daily life, the text was successful at making me reflect again on the relationship language has to our perceived experience. For this reason alone I found Text Book both interesting and useful.

In one word: practicality.

Retracing my blog entries resulted in the sketch of a teacher who is preoccupied with practicality. My focus on practicality takes several forms—I worry about my own adequacy as a teacher, about what can realistically be done with 9th and 10th grade high school students, and about institutional constraints. Each reading is filtered through one of these varieties of the same concern—is it practical for me?

My concerns about my adequacy as a teacher come up when discussing the difficulty paper—I’m unsure that I would be able to teach my students how to notice when they are struggling, or should be struggling. I see myself wrestling with self doubt again when discussing a culturally critical approach to literature. I worry aloud in that post if I am doing my students a disservice if I have ideas about how to change our culture in my heart, even if I don’t tell students what to think. Reflecting on this—and having jumped through hoops on this issue many more times since I wrote that sentence—I think I’ll always wonder about that, and that it’s a good thing. If I am wary of impressing my own ideas rather than letting my students watch their own take shape, I will be more likely to maintain the type of classroom environment that I seek.

I notice that I don’t say “but what about the sort of kids I have?” in any of my blog posts, but as anyone who has heard me talk in class could see, it very clearly guides my thoughts. When I ask if an activity is practical, I’m really asking a lot of things: can I get away with this at my high school? Can I maintain discipline while we do this? Do I have the time or materials to do this with my growing student population? These concerns tie very closely into my concerns about what I can do given my particular institution. Institutional concerns in my posts range from concerns of content to more practical ones, like the amount of time considered acceptable to borrow a novel from the communal book room. I wrote about these concerns several weeks ago, and naturally I’m no more resolved or comfortable with them than I was then. It seems to me though that resolving institutional concerns is largely a matter of doing what a veteran teacher, now 45 years in, told me after a recent meeting on the fresh SOL scores: “We go, we nod and say we’ll do it. Then we go back to our rooms, wait a few weeks for them to forget, and we go back to doing what we know works.”

There has been a shift in my most recent post away from feeling frustrated or disheartened by issues of practicality to cheered by things I found in Blau that I found readily applicable. I felt that I had an answer to what has long been the question of smart but lazy students—“hey, doesn’t it mean whatever I think it means?” I also felt I could use Blau’s habits of successful readers with my students, as well as the general reminder that I need to let my students sink a little if they’re going to learn to swim. I mentioned in my writing that I felt I had some practices down, but that I needed to change some habits of mind, and I’ve seen this change in my teaching. I’m less afraid to stop teaching and to let the students puzzle things out for themselves with the help of my questions instead of my answers.

Somewhat amusingly, another theme is that I comment on my need for practicality several times in my blog entires as I go—I know it’s a topic I bring up a lot. What I had not noticed before is that I’m almost apologetic that I bring up this issue so often. After giving it some thought, I think I feel too similar to the “Well, what do they need to read a novel for if they can’t use it in their future job?” crowd when I ask for practicality. I realize consciously that these are very dissimilar approaches, but it’s a hard feeling to shake even now that I’ve brought it to the surface.

Wrong answers and right practices

The discussion in the last half of the book that interested me the most was Blau’s discussion of wrong interpretations. He seemed to be walking a pretty fine line between saying that students should create their own interpretations, that these interpretations are valid—and that some interpretations can be wrong. I suspect this looked like a thin line to walk because in the classroom it is.

I appreciated that Blau noted that teachers in secondary schools (as well as many others) are often expected to produce students who can recall what the accepted interpretation of a work of literature is. I found myself holding this issue in mind as I read. Much as I want to encourage students to read and make meaning of their own, I wondered what I was to do if a student misunderstood the events in a narrative. At first I felt like I would be doing them a disservice either way— I would cheat them of their own reading experience if I directed them on how to go, or I would praise them as competent readers only for their next instructor to be baffled by their ignorance regarding the accepted understandings of works they had read.

Blau’s answer of evidentiary support was a relief and made complete sense. Asking students to provide textual evidence draws a necessary line to show that while there are many right answers to what a text means, there are still wrong answers. Basing the correctness of an interpretation on textual evidence is an easily defendable practice, and being able to defend one’s practices as a teacher is important whether we as teachers wish it to be or not.

Blau’s book raps up with the seven practices of successful readers. After reading this section I decided to turn these principles—shortened and in high school level vocabulary—into a display in my classroom. I don’t know how helpful the students will find them on a conscious level, but I hope it will reinforce that my classroom is an environment in which success is based just as much or more on persistence as on natural skill.

I’m also putting the seven practices up as a reminder to myself. Much of what I took from Blau’s book is that many of my practices are on the right track—but small habits of mind are what I need to be a more effective teacher while using them. Blau has reminded me of how important it can be to do what feels counterintuitive—to not answer students’ questions, to allow them to struggle, to repond to questions with more questions—in order for my students to realize that they have the capacity to find the answer on their own.

Between a rock and a sign out sheet.

I said in an earlier blog post that I came to grad school because I wanted to know what best practices were according to a community of professionals. After having completed a course on writing instruction and being a quarter of the way into a class on reading instruction—well, I’m starting to think ignorance was bliss. But not in the way one might first assume.

One point that Blau makes—and I couldn’t agree more—is that rereading is key to understanding literature. I know this to be true of myself and I’ve observed it multiple times in others as well. This is something I try to facilitate in my classroom—and it’s been a point of contention.

There’s a log book in the English department at my school, broken into 3 week increments for signing out novels. I had one signed out for my 9th grade class earlier this year, S.E. Hinton’s That was then, this is now. It’s about 150 pages, and an “at grade level” read for my students. There is only a class set, so all reading is done in class. We read the novel within the 3 weeks, but my students were writing about and discussing the themes in the novel—drug use, growing up, racism. I wanted them to be able to reread as we did these assignments, so I checked the sign out sheet and as no one was signed up, I signed it out again.

I will spare you the details of what happened, but I had a serious disagreement with a colleague who came in a week later and wanted to use the book. She interrogated me angrily in front of a few early comers to class that morning—why was it taking so long? Do you really need a month to read that book?

Incidents like this, not to mention the breadth of what we’re expected to cover, makes doing this type of careful analysis and rereading so difficult that I have questioned myself and fretted more than I care to admit. My foray into grad school has pointed me in the direction of what practices are best and confirmed some of the practices I was already employing—but what good is a tool if my hands are tied behind my back?

I acknowledge that the answer is as simple as doing the best I can, but it’s distasteful to me to have to compromise what I consider the core principles of my work. Blau said in his writing that teachers are often put in the “professionally humiliating” position of being told what and how to teach, and he could not have been more right.

On Gee, application, and critical distance

Reading Gee’s book about video games and learning left me with as many questions as I had before I started—and if the twitter stream from class is any indication, I’m not alone in that regard.

First, Gee derives learning principles from video game usage, and the 36 principles he points out all hold water for me—many of them being things I’ve heard before in education classes. Where things became more thorny was when Gee admitted that even he is not taking his work to mean that video games should necessarily be used in the classroom. I understand that Gee’s point was that the classroom should do many things that video games do well—work at the outer reaches of the individual’s development, reward effort, build identity—but there wasn’t one suggestion on how to make this so.

I know I tend to be a broken record about “well, how can we apply this in the classroom?” but it’s the entire reason I took on graduate school. After four years of undergraduate work and four years of teaching, I feel competent but I still have questions about best practices—practices being the key word. I want to challenge and reward each student individually—but with 150 students, how do I do that? I don’t mean to imply that discussing such topics isn’t worthwhile if they aren’t immediately implentable. I appreciate discussions like those in Gee’s book about what our goals will be because of the direction they give. To me, this makes a clear case for smaller class sizes and more relevant instruction practices—but that case has already been made elsewhere. What we need is a way to make it happen.

Another area of questions for me about Gee’s work centered on the demographics of those who generally play and are featured as central characters in video games—white males of middle class or better standing. While I don’t think different demographics of people learn differently, I hesitate to accept Gee’s generalizations that he has taken from video games when it comes to applying to all types of learners. He acknowledges that the world of video gaming is clearly lopsided, but I don’t think he holds that focus in mind when he generalizes about their benefits.

I think it was too easy for Gee to gloss over some major issues—for instance, how all of that social game “chat” on headsets often goes (misogynistic, homophobic) because of his group membership. Gee is only human and this wasn’t a scentific trial, but I think he lost some objectivity because of his love for video games. He gives them too much of a pass in some areas that I think are critical, especially given his assertions about learning as a social act.

I appreciated Gee’s careful deduction of what video games have to offer, but I felt I was already aware of those principles from other sources. On the whole, this leaves me feeling I did not learn a lot of new material from this book.

The inescapably political classroom.

After having completed my reading for this week, I found myself with one big question left to address: why read in a culturally critical manner?  What is to be achieved with this approach?  I’m not unfamiliar with the approach and so I have my own ideas as to why, but I felt it would be useful for this week’s writing to puzzle out what possible goals professionals in the field such as Scholes and Linkon might have.

I can see the question taken from two approaches, the first being that it is impossible to not read a text in a culturally grounded way, but that reading critically as well enhances the reader’s metacognition as to why they are receiving and constructing a text the way they are.  This seemed to be suggested in Linkon and Scholes by their assertions that students possess both some degree of agency and a necessary grounding in their own current culture.
The other approach to answering this question could be that the goal of reading in a culturally critical way is not just a more metacognitive method of reading, but a useful way to critique culture with an eye towards improving it.  This is where things get sticky—if a teacher advocates culturally critical reading, are they by extension advocating critiquing and changing culture?
I think that this is the crux of why we don’t see more teachers advocating for culturally critical readings of text—this issue of critiquing our culture and what implications that carries with it. On one hand, some people are really quite content with the status quo and see little about culture that needs critiquing, while others don’t wish to be perceived as taking a political stand in the classroom, never mind that tacit acceptance of the culture is a political act as well.
As a current practicing educator and someone who attempts to consider issues of culture in literature when I discuss it with my students, I have found myself doing this careful dance in the classroom more times than I wish to remember.  When reading Elie Weisel’s Night, I’m  piqued at his use of the term “homosexual” for what is very clearly a pedophile in the story.  When I discuss this cultural issue with my class, I find myself wondering, will I be seen as politicizing the classroom?  If I don’t discuss the word choice in this instance, aren’t I politicizing it just the same?  I don’t tell my students what opinions to hold, but if I have one in my heart, have I done something unfair as their mentor?
It’s been said by those with more experience than myself that critical thinking in the classroom suffers under the impression that it’s advocating a liberal mindset, and that such a political act has no place in the classroom.  As Sholes and Linkon suggest, no reading can be done by a subject totally untouched by their culture.  In the same way, I believe no classroom teacher of literature can teach it without committing a political act—it’s just that acts of critical thinking draw more attention.

Knowing when to struggle.

After reading and marking up The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty and repeating the process with the selection relating the studies done on experts and novices, I noticed an overlap.  Often while reading Difficulty I wrote in the margins “But how do you teach students when to apply this?”

As the selection about novices and experts shows repeatedly, an expert recognizes patterns and is able to begin solving the problem—in fact, to know that a problem exists at all—because of their expert knowledge.  While Difficulty provides a method for students to attack difficulties, how will a novice student know when they should be struggling?

Reflecting on the difficulty papers provided by student novices within the book and thinking of my own experiences with students, I realized that some difficulties will be easy for students to spot.  A cultural element that isn’t familiar or a difficult word are easily identified stumbling blocks.  I can see the difficulty paper being a productive strategy for helping students navigate these types of difficulties.

On the other hand, other types of difficulties frequently go unrecognized by students.  Difficulty addressed a large section to reading Shakespeare, which led me to reflect on my own experiences as a reader and teacher of Shakespeare’s work.  There are many words in early modern English that have altered in meaning over time and these are often stumbling blocks for students.  For example, the expression “passing fair” is often taken by students to mean that the woman in question is “just barely attractive” because of how the word “passing” is understood by the student—or so they think.  It is only with an expert’s help that a student realizes that the word “passing” didn’t mean what they thought it meant.

I don’t bring this topic to light in order to attack of dismiss the idea of the difficulty paper, but it does give me questions about how to teach students the difficulty paper.  I can certainly model how to spot difficulties for my students—but is that enough?  Is there something more I can do as the most expert person in the room to help my students identify difficulties?

Though I have questions remaining about the strategies presented in Difficulty, I did appreciate that the strategies given emphasize showing students how much they know rather than how much they have left to learn.  I have watched many students become disheartened by their own confusion and so I know how important a student’s confidence is to following through on a difficult text.  Reading this text has definitely inspired me to make a more conscious effort to demonstrate to students how their struggles with literature are an indication of their successes and not their failures.