Author Archives: alicia

Post Mortem

Dang, you guys are fast!

I felt both relieved and energized after giving my lesson last night. First, I was lucky that I had made a good guess about how long everything would take. Those of us who have taught hundreds of lessons know that you can never totally predict where a conversation will go in class or how long it will continue. Sometimes you just have to be flexible enough to scrap part of your plan and invest in what is working at the moment. I think everyone who presented did a great job of that!

I actually felt oddly guilty because you all made it so easy. Like Susanna, I think that my actual students would not have made the connections you all did. I would have had to sing for my supper with the 10th grade crowd (and I had those artificial transitions waiting) but you were a spectacularly insightful and helpful audience. I felt as if the lesson taught itself!

Abbie was also teasing me about my ineptitude with the technology (she spied me trying to push “F” and then “5” when told to push F5). I am well aware that the classrooms in this area are much better technologically enabled than what I am used to. I will have to brush up when I return to the classroom next year.

Overall, I want to thank everyone in the class for encouraging me to look at the teaching of literature in a new way. When I was back in Chelsea, MA, I felt lucky just to communicate the plot and to push my way through the standards (so, to teach required concepts like figurative language and symbolism). In this class, however, we have focused on what can be savored in the language of the text – in how it is written. I am learning to think that my job includes the responsibility to communicate the ART of writing as well as the elements of fiction. This is, indeed, a change for me. I think it is a valuable one.  In the future, I will be asking more questions about why authors write things they way that they do – not just “what did this author do?”  It should make better readers and writers of my students.

And now I look forward to hearing more from the presenters who are coming up! Thanks again.

Back to Basics?

Thinking about how we can get students to slow down while reading Nat Turner, I tried returning to the same methods we’ve reviewed this semester for use with traditional literature. Why not?

How about asking students to pick a “most important frame?” in the tradition of Blau’s “most important line” exercise? This would not only push students to carefully review the panels, but also encourage them to try to distill the point of the story (and what is that point, by the way?) down to one pivotal moment. This might be even more important for a graphic novel, since it tends to feel like the part you’ve read is done with and the part you haven’t read is about to happen. Using this lesson would help the class to focus on the novel as a whole.

Or who says that graphic novels have to be restricted to graphic exercises? Why not have the students “write” a chapter or section of the book, using words they feel convey the story in a style that fits the illustrations? It could be really interesting to see what moods and genres they’d tap into. This exercise would also drive home the idea that a graphic novel is not so different from traditional novels they’ve read.

Lastly, how about having a character from the novel write his or her version of a section of the book – from another point of view? Or write a letter to Nat Turner about what he or she thinks about his rebellion? The challenge here would be finding a character who didn’t fall massively on one side of the rebellion or the other (black or white) as the lines of loyalty would certainly be drawn pretty distinctly. Or here’s an idea – how about a letter from a modern civil rights leader (such as Rosa Parks) to Nat Turner? That might generate some interesting discussion.

Once you open up activities to the rich array of opportunities we use for the written word, the possibilities become nearly endless!

Working With It

I’m going to come right out with it and say I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of reading Nat Turner. Part of it is personal preference. I’ve never been one for comics (and I know this transcends comics, but it’s a similar style of reading). I found the material upsetting (if not unfamiliar) and I thought some of the text in the story was hard to understand. I didn’t know what was going on part of the time. When thinking about what the heck I was going to say in my blog post, I started trying to focus on what questions could be discussed about the text.

The first useful aspect of the text I came up with is the fact that even though this is a graphic novel, there is still plenty of room to discuss the author’s intention. From his introduction, it’s clear that Kyle Baker considers Nat Turner to be more a hero than a criminal. But then he includes really graphic material about murdering children (over and over) and you have to ask why. If he really sees Turner as a hero, wouldn’t he minimize the murder of innocent children and focus on the righteous outrage? It was an interesting choice to me.

Also, I think his decision to include Turner’s significant religious inspiration puts the text in a position of swaying readers purely by virtue of their own religious views. A person who doesn’t believe in organized religion, for example, may consider Turner to be a lunatic zealot instead of understanding his emotional reasons for the uprising, based on his (very understandable) motivations from his past. I don’t know – I just see the focus on his religious inspiration to be polarizing (for better or for worse). It would have been much easier to position him as a hero by glossing over his heavenly inspiration and sticking with the facts of his life – which were horrible enough to drive many a man to such acts.

I think, overall, the problematic aspect of the text is the fact that the author sets the expectation he’ll be treating Nat Turner as a hero and then shows a number of things in the story that make him difficult to support. So why do that? Was it Baker’s intention to raise the discussion of whether or not Turner was really a hero? That’s probably what I would focus on in my class.


One of my issues with Text Book is that it feels a bit antiquated. While some of the sections are fairly timeless, others hinge too much on a newsworthy item (such as AIDS) or a pop culture phenomenon that is discussed in a stale way. One of those phenoms is advertising, as discussed by Esslin, who is more from the era of Ogilvy on Advertising than he is of the current landscape.  After all, the article is 30 years old!

As someone who escaped from the rubber room of advertising, however, I am compelled to tell you that what Esslin says about ads being miniature dramas is correct. In fact, more than the average person realizes, ads are actually an exercise in showing the consumer a brief moment that reveals a much greater and deeper story (perhaps not unlike the scene we read of the women examining the farmhouse of the murder victim).  Unlike what we see on TV shows, advertising executives don’t sit down with a bottle of gin and make up ads out of thin air.  Nowadays, any print or TV commercial by a self-respecting client and agency will be written off of a meticulously researched and painfully (you have no idea how painfully) composed document called a creative brief. That brief states who the target consumer is, what the key idea (thesis) is, what the support points are (like product claims or other compelling info), any necessary mentions (like a trademark), what the “brand personality” is, and even a “takeaway” (which is usually a statement of how the consumer should react to your ad). All of this has to generate a message that will be condensed into not FIFTY seconds, as Esslin says – because it’s not 1980 anymore – but thirty or (even worse) fifteen seconds.

The reason I bother blabbing on about this in my blog is that I think the study of commercials does have some application when considering how to reveal things that can’t or shouldn’t need to be shown to the reader. How do you draw a character who doesn’t have time to tell everyone her life story, but gives you the feeling you already know it? How do you reflect a certain brand personality (tone) through your words and actions? Considering what we, as consumers, take away from commercials could actually be a fun and interesting way to link to a discussion of how to show-without-telling in much greater literature.

On a personal note, reading Esslin also makes me think again about why piles of research show that 15 second commercials just don’t work.  Clients love their cost-effectiveness, but I think (again) that this format  just busts the limits of how much drama or involvement you can bring the viewer in such a short amount of time. Behind every commercial (whether slice-of-life or testimonial) there really has to be a drama (or a comedy) – or else the story is forgotten.

Man in the Mirror (Starting with…)

Looking back over my six previous blog posts, there are two major themes that emerge under one umbrella, and that umbrella is really personal connection.

The personal connection plays out in two ways.  First, I continue to return to the importance of keeping my content relevant to my students.  This probably comes up for me a lot  because I taught in a school that was mainly composed of immigrant families, and for whom typical canon-type material was often difficult to for students to understand.  Years later, I still suffer from memories of the frustrations I encountered teaching standard texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird.  My largely Latino population just didn’t “get” these books at all.  I didn’t have much choice in which novels I taught, but my greater latitude in areas such as poems and short stories is a way in which I might have increased relevancy for my students.  I did try, at the time, but you can only do so much on the first and second and even third pass at this job.  If I were to teach these classes again, I would try to improve in that area.  This theme of relevancy probably resonates more strongly with me than with some other class members who have students more familiar with white culture and American pop culture, as well…and who speak English!

The idea of making a connection plays out for me, personally as well.  I consistently write a blog entry that draws upon something we read that week and then finds some personal connection to a key concept or idea.  In her book Talking From 9 to 5, Deborah Tannen explains that, unlike men,  women tend to show sympathy with another person’s problems by listening to them complain and then telling about a matching problem of their own (she calls this “Troubles Talk”).  If that’s true, then I definitely fit the model!  My way of connecting with the suggested classroom practices is by digging into my past as a teacher and finding an example where that practice came into play for me – either when I tried to use it (such as the attempt to get my students to re-read texts) OR when I might have had better insight and unsuccessfully did something else (such as my recurring issues with teaching Jane Eyre).  Some of my blog posts are a reflection upon past practices that I enacted as an inexperienced teacher who had very little formal training or support.  In the case of Sonny’s Blues, this craving for connection manifested itself in the form of my personal link to Sonny’s experience.   During Gee’s week, I drew upon my own experience of playing the September 12th game.  In all cases, I would rather think about how the readings relate to my own experience than talk about sticking with theories or ideas I haven’t yet tried out.

What do I think of this obsession with personal connection?  In many ways, I’m still trying to recover from three very tough years in a failing school, where I received little support and a lot of responsibility. I remember a few sweet victories, but I am still trying to find a way to once again believe that success is possible with most students.  I am trying, through my discussion of past failures and personal feelings, to find new ways to attack problems that still haunt me.  Hopefully, as the class continues, I can continue to envision new and positive ways to get back to the business of teaching.

Straying from Blau for a sec…

I should probably talk about Blau again this week, but I am still thinking about Sonny’s Blues, which I’d never read before.

For much of the story, I was focused more on checking to see how much was left than I was on relating to it in any way or enjoying it. Reaching the end, though, I found a very powerful (visceral?) connection to the character of Sonny and I was reminded of how golden it can be when we manage to produce a piece of writing that truly resonates with our students. You see, ever since I was in elementary school, I’ve been a singer. I participated in all the usual stuff – musicals, choir, even a cappella groups. It was during my seven years of voice training, while I was living in Manhattan, that I truly discovered my calling, however, and that is cabaret.

I’m not talking about strippers on a pole, of course. I’m talking about the kind of cabaret that is best performed at 2am on a Wednesday night in small Manhattan bar. I’m talking about Gershwin and Strayhorn and Kern. I’m talking about music that you love so much that you don’t care you are drunk and singing to only five other hardcore Porter fans and that you still have to get up at 4:30 am and catch a flight to Cleveland (where you will present an advertising concept to the Nestle client in a beige-carpeted boardroom). When I try to describe this type of degenerative lifestyle and this brand of obsession to those who have not experienced it, it is nearly impossible to find adequate words. If the love of your own particular brand of music is not powerful enough to make you desert productive work, hometown, and creature comforts for a life of nearly certain poverty and excess, then you are lucky. I was lucky. People in the business always say, “only live the life of an actor/dancer/singer if there is nothing else you can do.” It is a hard slog, indeed.

So Sonny’s Blues ended up speaking to me in such a way that I am still thinking about it a week later, despite the lackluster start. Of course, students cannot always read texts that are mirrors. That would be restrictive. But how can I keep finding stories that contain even a shard of that mirror? To see the immigrant experience in an immigrant of another nationality, for example (per Linkon). Or to spot the abusive father (?) in Roethke. I am still trying to figure out why I think reading Victorian British literature is important, but I return again to Jane Eyre and ponder what relatable element exists there. Dead parents? Overly critical teachers? Disenfranchisement? I’m reaching. How do you, then, teach a work that may contain nothing recognizable to your students and still make it memorable? I confess, without the ending of Sonny’s Blues and the music connection, I’d have quickly forgotten the story and moved on.

Here’s to hitting the sweet spot, anyhow. My job is to pick the right material – and I think my views on that topic are evolving.

What Binds Us Together?

I opened Blau reluctantly. As someone who taught for years in an extremely challenging school that had high teacher turnover, I have long felt that the ideals presented by the ivory tower just don’t fly in the exhausting and thankless world of the urban school. To teachers who are struggling to read Shakespeare to a class of ninth graders who are reading on the fourth grade level…well…you get sick of being told you just need to raise the bar and believe in your students. However, I came to like Blau for his honesty regarding his preconceptions and limitations. I think sometimes a tired teacher needs to know that the person who is preaching to him or her has also experienced failure and understands the odds.

Of particular interest to me is the problem of cultural literacy. Even though diversity is creeping into the curriculum, my experience is that there is still a heavy emphasis on what we teachers were, ourselves, taught — dead white men. As Scholes went on and on about Hemingway and his universality, I thought “my ninth graders never would have picked up on these World War clues.” I found that, when I was working with them, I was constantly stumbling upon problems I never expected. They had never heard of Marilyn Monroe, for example. The administrators blamed low test scores and poor retention of our material on this “cultural illiteracy”. At one point, we actually had a mandate to teach three idioms per quarter and the specific idioms were chosen for us. A drop in the bucket.

Reading Blau and mulling over “My Papa’s Waltz”, I think one of the solutions is to try very hard to find works with universal underlying themes (such as first love in Romeo and Juliet or familial relationships in “My Papa’s Waltz.”) There will still be terms and cosmetic elements that don’t make sense, but those could be surmountable. Note to self: avoid texts that are very time-and-place-specific if an alternative exists. I’m not sure what this means about my choice of Jane Eyre…but it doesn’t sound good!

Sometimes the lesson takes little practice…

I want to say, first, that I really liked Gee’s book. My husband is a huge gamer (we’re talking won-a-free-XBox 360-has-friends-who-write-gaming-software gamer) and it’s been both amusing and annoying to see his adult fascination with this world that he inhabits with his guy friends. While I think that Gee conveniently avoids the fact that games are essentially escapist/fantasy experiences and are, as such, much more attractive than the boredom of school, I appreciate his thoughtfulness about why games attract people so much and how we can harness that power to do good rather than evil.

I was struck, however, by my own experience playing the game September 12th. I was a little thrown by the opening statement that I couldn’t win or lose and that I could shoot or not shoot. As the game began, I exercised logic (like – I’m supposed to shoot bad guys) and took aim at some terrorist-like “meeples” (as my husband calls them). The rocket missed its mark, blew up a house, and caused a group of sobbing civilian mourners.

I tried two more times and then closed the game. The point had been made. I think it took sixty seconds. If we can invent lessons that are this impactful, we can stop worrying about recursiveness. You know…when feasible!

Pursuing Patience

With all this talk of embracing difficulty and recursive reading (practices that we are engaging in as “experts”, according to our readings) I am reminded of real-life experiences I have had trying to make the work of reading “visible” to my classes in the past. After hearing from a reading specialist, years ago, that my students probably didn’t understand it was NORMAL to re-read things, I tried modeling this behavior in class. Many times, we would read something, I would stop and point out that it didn’t (on first pass) make sense, and then tell them “this is where I would have to go back and read it again.”  I got a considerable amount of eye-rolling. I think that, for this group of students, the idea of “wasting” one’s time reading any of the stuff we were doing in class, let alone (God forbid) RE-reading it…well, it was just unfathomable. I won’t pretend to have solved this problem. And I’m not saying this in a negative “the strategy will never work” kind of way.  However, I did start asking myself why my students gave up on reading so easily, as well as other pursuits in English class.

One of my jobs as a ninth grade teacher (and the one universally dreaded by my colleagues) was to drag the class kicking and screaming through a term paper. One of the most unpleasantly surprising moments for me was getting the ninth graders in the library and onto the computers, suggesting they start their research with a google search, and having all their hands fly up within moments. “Miss…” they would say, gesturing at the list of search results. “What do I do now?” Baffled by their lack of expertise in, of all areas, COMPUTERS, I would suggest that they start opening some of the links and looking at them. Aghast, the students would look at me. “What…ALL of them? That’ll take forever!”

I tell this story to lead into a question I’ve mulled over for some time. Is today’s instant-gratification-on-demand-twittering (sorry, Prof)-soundbyte culture making all of us too impatient to suffer through difficulty? I, myself, am guilty of sparking to anger as soon as my screen won’t load. I have been known to hastily close a website that didn’t instantly reward me with an answer and surf to another. But as an Atari-wave Gen Xer, I didn’t encounter the internet until I had graduated from college. Was there enough “waiting” in my upbringing that I can still work through problems with some shred of patience?

I am not trying to diss the internet culture or say “GAWD, these kids today…” I just wonder how to present thinking and waiting as a positive activity in an era when even I, admittedly, no longer wish to wait. Can there be a slow-thinking movement to match the slow-food movement? What can we, as teachers, do to bring challenges back in fashion?

To close, I demonstrate with a picture of my 10-month-old, who shocked me yesterday by overcoming great difficulty in order to escape from the house.  Babies are wired to overcome difficulty.  What happens to us that makes us lose that?

Babies take on difficulty with no problem.

In literature, as in life, stuff is just messy…

One of my biggest challenges as a teacher is my own totally uninspiring memory of high school.

Actually, it’s really a lack of any memory that frustrates me.  I can recall a few teachers by name.  I can tell you a few of the texts that we read.  But beyond the fact that I now know Hamlet’s fatal flaw was indecision (haven’t you heard?), I’d be hard-pressed to explain much about any of those works that I studied.  I’m also not exaggerating when I say that I cannot recall a single poem I read the entire time I was in high school.  I’m sure we read some, but I’ve totally forgotten about them.

What literary knowledge I have retained was gained during my undergraduate years, when I majored in English at a college with very small classes and absolutely no multiple-choice tests.  It occurs to me, now that the topic has been raised, that it was during these years that the messiness of literary analysis was allowed to flourish in my presence.  There were seldom pat answers from my professors – only what seemed like more irritating questions.  The Type A “closer” in me hated the loose ends.  It was like geometry instead of the neatness of Algebra.

Ten years after graduating with my B.A. in English, I first set foot in a classroom as a teacher.  I was desperate to figure out how to teach the texts I’d never, myself, studied.  I felt like I was a fraud, and that any “real” teacher would have read them all before.  Clearly, I thought to myself, I had huge, embarrassing holes in my education.  I filled those holes guiltily by stealthily researching the unfamiliar works on the web and using textbook support materials offered by other teachers.  At the end of my first year, I announced to my family (with some surprise) that even the works I’d read before seemed much more enjoyable now that I had to teach them.  To know them so intimately and struggle alone with their meanings had actually improved them for me.

Reading “Elements,” I realize this should not have been a shock.  Like most people (even those good at literature, who got A’s in school) I thought that the study of literature was about having professors tell you what the “official” meaning of a work was.  I really thought that.  And a lot of other people are out there, teaching, who still think it…like most of the people I worked with at my high school teaching job.  I look back now on my feelings of guilt about using the textbook support materials and I realize that these instincts were actually good ones.  What I was lacking wasn’t the education in literature.  It was the realization that the most important part of being literate isn’t the possession of information – it’s the ability to discover it for yourself.

So…difficulty?  BRING IT.