Author Archives: esadler

Reflection on Teaching Presentation

Well, first of all, thank everyone for being so participative! I’m sure my 8th graders will be just as receptive (*snicker*). In any case, I’m glad to say that I have finished my presentation! And I hardly remember any of it…

I tend to do that when I get nervous: the whole experience becomes a total blur. But I will at least spell my process out for you!

I chose this piece because I have a fear of teaching Poe. I adore Poe; he’s one of my favorites, but I’m always nervous about treating morbid subjects with kids. I think they should be treated, and I think they should read Poe, but it still makes me anxious. So, I decided to do a Poe piece to sort of stretch my teaching abilities.

The work we read this semester that most inspired me was Blau. I thought his ideas were truly the best ways to get students understanding and interpreting literature; however, his techniques were geared toward college-age students, and I teach middle-schoolers, so I tried to pare down some of his ideas as best I could for my presentation/lesson plan.  A few of the ideas I used were reading together in class, using the “jump in technique” (which I have started using in my classes with some hesitation, but I have found to work extraordinarily well; it’s my new favorite way to read as a group), discussing interpretations with classmates, and allowing the students to come to interpretations on their own. I have been trying this year to stay out of the conversation as much as possible, only jumping in to restate a student’s assertion for clarification or to correct a mistaken assumption.

I also pulled from Salvatori. I liked the idea of having students “write through” difficulty, though I thought the difficulty papers might be a bit much for them. So instead, I decided to have them re-read, using a double-column notebook (something many are familiar with) to note difficulties and possible solutions. This way, it shows the student is engaged with the text by noting where they lack understanding, and trying to engage in a conversation with themselves to achieve understanding. Then, I thought a la Blau, they could share these difficulties in groups to try and help each other come to a richer understanding of the text.

Finally, I capped it with the group discussions on literary terms to help cement the various literary terms and their applications in their minds. Though, in retrospect, I think I worded some of the questions badly, and I think I could have posed better questions. But I’m not sure if that’s me being self-conscious. Any feedback there?

Someone asked me about the homework assignment at the end of class, and I forgot to mention how long I would ask them to make it: I would say about 1 1/2 pages, typed, double spaced. I would not count this as a formal essay paper, and so I would not require it to be as formal as an academic essay. I would look more for ideas and the way they present the point of view (accuracy and creativity) than the formal language; though I would, of course, check for proper grammar. In any case, I hope you enjoyed my presentation and remember more of it than I do… 🙂

Disturbing and Intriguing and, dare I say, Different?

As promised, I said I’d delay my thoughts on Nat Turner until this week. So, here they are, though I’m not sure they’re much different from the views I expressed in class last week.

As far as the actal reading (of words goes), itwas interesting, though the words, as the book tells us, come directly from The Confessions of Nat Turner, so they are not really Kyle Baker’s own words. This not only had an authenticating effect, but also made the mood of the story more eerie. The words, coupled with the pictures, had a rather chilling and horrifing effect on me. This might be due in part to my overactive imagination coupled with a visual learning style. I could see what was being said, both literally, as well as in my mind, and it brought it closer to my senses.

That being said, would I classify this as literature? I’m still going to have to go with the “no’s” on this. I strongly feel it is something else…not literature, and yet, something. I would still place it in the “art” category before the literature category, because I felt I was putting on my “art appreciation hat”as I “read” the images. I had to notice things, such as the circles, the way light was used in the hanging scene, the shaded and shadowy lines when the girl is creeping away at the end. Yes, these are analytical skills, but they are art analytical skills. As for the art telling a story, as per a novel, I have looked upside down and sideways for a painting series I studied as an undergrad, and I cannot for the life of me remember the painter (if I do, I will repost), but painting series also tell stories in a similar way. The particular series was a group of 6 paintings. They would use, what McCloud would call scene-to-scene transitions, where you have to “read” each scene to know the story before moving on to the next scene. The one I am thinking of started in a painting where some men were gathered around a table talking, while a young man and woman sat, awkwardly staring at each other on the side. You understood, from the position of the men, and the strange expressions on the couple’s face, as well as the luxurious trappings around them, that this was an arranged marraige for a young wealthy couple. There were other signs, as well, that “foreshadowed” the couple’s unhappy end. The next few paintings led you through a sad story, where the woman had an affair, the husband was killed trying to defend his honor, and the woman ended up with syphillis (as depicted by a black spot on her), and the family ended up ruined, all because of the unhappy marraige. But, as I read Nat Turner, I felt I was using similar skills to decipher the story there. Only, I had the aid of a few words now and again to help me. This painting series was from the 18th century. A precursor to comics or graphic narratives perhaps? Not sure I have enough expertise on the subject to make that call, but I do find it an interesting connection. In any case, Nat Turner was disturbing, but so are many other things I read. It doesn’t make it any less valuable. It was intriguing, and I had to use a lot of analytical muscle to “read” it, so overall, a new and exciting experience for me!

Wow…I didn’t mean to drone on that long. It just happened. Then I remembered we’re supposed to say something about teaching a graphic novel. As far as teaching one is concerned, I have actually used them for my ESL students. Not of the Nat Turner variety, but they do make graphic narratives for students learning to speak English. It’s effective because the student can match the words to the picture. You ask vocabulary and comprehension questions at the end. So, if the story is about a woman talking on the phone (a simple example–the ones the kids read are much more interesting), then at the end, you might say : Who was talking on the phone? (The woman), thus they associate an older female with the word “woman.” Like I said, simple example, but you get the idea. That being said, I think they would be very effective to use with ESL classes to not only help them learn the language, but read the language, as well.

As a middle school teacher, I am not sure I would be able to teach Nat Turner or Maus to my students, though I might, if I taught older high school students or college age students. They seem an interesting medium to explore, and I would definitely have a discussion on whether they thought such works were works of literature or not. It seems a good way to introduce the idea of a literary scholarly debate! I would probably have them do a mock debate in the classroom and teach debating techniques along with it. I think that would be fun, but I always loved doing things like that in high school. It’s a nice, healthy, acceptable way to argue!

Comics as Literature?

As I haven’t finished Nat Turner, and I wish to reserve all  comments for the end (i.e. next week), there is something more pressing I wish to discuss this week. It’s something relatively new to me, and something which has only surfaced recently: the idea of comics as literature. My roommate, who was an English major in college, first introduced the idea to me when we were having a discussion on some of our favorite books. She mentioned she took a Holocaust lit. class once and had to read a book called Maus, which was a graphic novel. She said it was one of the most eye-opening things she had ever read, and reading it changed her ideas about what was and was not considered literature.

I have heard similar thoughts expressed from students and professors of literature. One professor even suggested that everything written was literature, from the thousand-page novels to the obnoxious travel brochures you get in your mail. Okay, maybe she didn’t put it quite that way, but that was the sentiment I got from it. My response was very antagonistic: “Really?” I wanted to say. “Does that mean every stick figure I draw is art?” So, needless to say, I was skeptical about the whole “graphic novel” thing.

As I was reading McCloud’s Understanding Comics, however, a few things really stuck out to me. One was the way comics manipulated space, and the way a person’s senses were needed to fill in the gaps between the pictures. The baby/peekaboo image was a good one, as most children think if they cover their eyes, you can’t see them, because they don’t quite understand that not seeing you is not the same as you not seeing them. Similarly, in comics, a person’s senses are needed to fill in the gaps of what is and is not there. In a book, for example, an author typically does this for us, explaining what something looks like, and ignoring what isn’t important. The reader is left to fill in those details on his or her own. In comics, the artist draws what he wants us to see, and we fill in the gaps. We create the closure as we wish it to be, though we must complete it within the realm the author (or artist) has given us. We are left, basically, making assumptions.

The other interesting idea was the way comics manipulated time. That what is omitted is oftentimes just as important as what was included, and that the way something is drawn effects the impact is has upon the reader. It is true that harsh lines often represent a different mood than soft or curvy lines. It’s hard to imagine Charlie Brown as a homicidal maniac, because he isn’t drawn that way. The Joker, on the other hand, is hard to imagine as the kid-next-door. So the emotions represented by the art and manipulated by the artist represent a full range of emotions, just as any other piece of art does.

So, to bring it back to my initial question: Are comics (or graphic novels) literature?  I’m going to have to–at this point in time–say no, I don’t think they are. Do I think they are any less advanced or important? Not necessarily. I think they’re a medium of their own. Just because words and expressions are involved does not make them literature.  A lot of music involves words and expressions, but music is music. The lyrics might have literary elements, but the whole is not literature. Perhaps my view of literature is too canonical for most people’s taste, but if we are going to categorize, let’s at least do it consistently. Should graphic novels be considered art (as in “the arts”)? I think many should. Nat Turner certainly has the range to be included in this category. So, perhaps the question isn’t so much “are comics literature” as “are comics art?” But this is my own humble opinion.

Issues with Textbooks (and Text Book)

I would like to start by saying I have honestly enjoyed all of our readings thus far. That being said, I have to say that I am finding Text Book very difficult to wade through. Is it the choices of literature that are inserted? No, many of them I like very much. Is it the thought-provoking questions at the end? Not really…some of them I have found quite interesting and, well, thought-provoking. No, the most difficult part of getting through Text Book is the book itself. The format drives me crazy!

Each literary text runs one right after the other without a break in between, so you feel as if there are no real stopping points. Nothing introduces each literary text in any grandiose way before you read it, so you feel bogged down by the amount of reading you feel you’re doing. Similarly, the discussion/writing questions are formatted right at the end, rather than on a separate page, so that they seem to “run in” to the story, rather than come after the story. Some stories have a small blurb on a literary element just before them: “Character and Confrontation,” “The Short Story,” for example, but these seem short and not very well separated from the element/story that came just before the new introduction. It would have been much easier, and much less overwhelming, had each element been given its own chapter, with the stories contained in that chapter, and discussion questions placed on a separate page from the end of the story, rather than running along just after, if that makes sense.

As I said, the stories are interesting, as are the questions, and even the thoughts about the various literary elements are insightful and good information for every literature major to know, but the format threw my poor little mind into a stressed-out overdrive. This just goes to show that formatting in textbooks can make a difference to how someone perceives and/or intakes information. Something to keep in mind when looking at the textbooks that our own students have to navigate through.

Learning Something New…About Myself

Wow. When reviewing my posts for the past 6 weeks, I have definitely noticed some recurring themes I had not been expecting. I was expecting that I would talk about all of the readings. I was also expecting that I would have mentioned some ideas I found useful. What I was not expecting were two things that I mentioned each time that I did not really realize I kept repeating:

1. I told a story about myself, or at least mentioned something personal, in every post. This struck me as unusual, since I usually shy away from writing about myself, particularly when I know other people are going to read it. Perhaps this means I’m growing more self-confident in my own ability to express personal feelings in writing, which has always been a goal of mine, and something I had not realized I am now better able to do than I was when I was 13 and cringed because my teacher made us write a personal essay, and I was embarrassed to have anyone read it. Haha. There went another personal story!

2. I have spoken a lot about ideas I have found practical to apply to my classroom, and for ideas that were too advanced for my class, I tried to work out ways I could adapt them for my class. This was interesting because I can really see myself learning and trying to implement things I read about each week. As a second year teacher (and one who has no teaching degree), I am trying very hard to learn everything I can about this profession. While many things I do in the classroom work for my students, I have seen a great many things I can improve on to give them more of an edge and a love of literature. Using the Blog as a way to work through myown “difficulty” of adapting ideas for the middle-school classroom has been most helpful.

This has, by far, been the most practical class I’ve ever taken. It’s exciting for me, as I was rather thrown into the world of teaching, without a very good lifejacket. I have loved every minute of it, and the people with whom I work have been more than helpful; so thus far, it has been a very positive experience. But until now, the only things I have relied on for lesson plans have been reading books on my own about teaching, thinking back to my own middle school and high school experience, and using my own creativity. It’s refreshing to be in a classroom with people both in my position and people of experience. It’s fun to listen to other people’s ideas on teaching, as well as reading what the professionals have to say. I must admit, I feel far more confident in my own teaching ability now than I did six months ago. Part of that is experience, but part of that is also the excitement of learning and implementing new ideas. So I look forward to learning more and growing in my chosen profession!

Blau’s Interpretation of the Modern Classroom

This has quite possibly been one of the most practical books I’ve read in a long time…well, perhaps, ever! I am not known for reading practical things (excepting, of course, street signs), but this book has given me a great deal to think about. First off, I have already begun implementing some of his ideas in my classroom. Most notably, I am much more aware of my responses to students in the classroom. When they ask me to explicate (my term, not theirs), I find myself asking them to interpret first. I am finding students much more willing to engage in a discussion, arguing or backing up their classmate’s assertions, which is fascinating to me, as that was an experience I never got to have until college, really. It is also one of my favorite things about English, discussing in a non-threatening environment my own thoughts and opinions. The amazing thing is, I teach 6th-8th grade English! And yet some of these kids (even the ones who don’t necessarily have the best grades) are talking about texts in a very advanced manner–they just don’t realize it yet. It’s been a fascinating experiment the past few weeks, especially since all of my classes are studying Shakespeare. Who would have thought that a group of 6th graders could explain “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day?” to me! And one of them even pointed out something I had never really noticed before. It was a discussion I was not so much leading as participating in, which made the kids feel more in control of their own educational experience.

While I do not agree with everything Blau says (part of my own “discussion with the text”), I have found a lot of his conclusions and observations very useful. I look forward to trying a full-fledged literature workshop very soon. This book seems to want everything that I myself want for my students–that they take charge of their own learning and begin to grow confidence in themselves as readers. This feels more like a book review than anythin else, but I really was fascinated by this book, and I look forward to trying more techniques in the near future!

Explaning a Bike to Sir Phillip Sidney

Well, thus far, The Literature Workshop offers some of the most practical and insightful tips on teaching literature that I have ever read. Already, I have bookmarked workshops and made plans to incorporate some of his ideas into my lesson plans. The truly interesting part? Most of the ideas I am most excited about are not ideas I am considering for my 8th graders…but for my 5th and 6th grade language arts class. Perhaps because they are my language gurus. They were actually asking me today what Middle English was, and why our English is so different from theirs, and how come we don’t speak Middle English anymore? The most common question I get from my 8th graders is “What time does this class end?” But I digress.

I have often wondered the best course for teaching interpretation. Teaching comprehension is fairly straightforward. Getting students to ask the right questions about literature isn’t always. How do I get them to move from comprehension to interpretation? Blau’s chapter on “correct” interpretations was interesting, as I have often found that to be a contentious debate in literary circles. It was the most common complaint I heard in undergrad from English students: “The professor didn’t like my interpretation, so I didn’t get a great grade on the paper.” It was also a common complaint from those outside the English major: “English majors have it easy. They just have to give their opinion, and it’s always right, because how can a professor argue their interpretation is incorrect?” Blau combats this by pointing out that the object is not whether or not you have an opinion, but whether or not you can prove your opinion with information found in the text. Two people can view the same text and walk away with entirely different interpretations, and still both hold valid views if their opinions are supported by elements found directly in the text itself. This must be why law schools value English lit. undergrad degrees–they have the ability to interpret texts and back up their assertions with facts, regardless of the side. As Blau further makes note, this instruction is “salvational,” as so many professions make use of one’s ability to interpret texts or situations (77-78). I highlighted this sentence, as I feel it should be the creed of the English teacher. It makes English important in a world that sometimes thinks its a “frivolous” or “easy” subject.

This has truly been an eye-opening book. While some of the things he suggests are far too advanced for my middle schoolers, I do believe I can tailor most of his ideas for them, and make literature a more exciting world for them to play in. As for the title of my post, I just found the most fun activity on pg. 93– have one person explain a modern poem to Sir Phillip Sidney! What a great idea, and the kids always love role playing. I will definitely have to try that one!

Identity in Games

Okay, this post will officially establish me as a “dork.” You know, one of those people who “speak” gaming. In fact, as I write this, I currently have another screen going on with an MMORTS (massive multiplayer online realtime strategy), in which I am allied with other players from around the world, building up cities, and trying to destroy other alliances in an attempt at global domination. All before dinner. I also play a lot of RPG games that are Dungeons and Dragons based. Which is why I found Gee’s chapter on Arcanum so intriguing.

I’ve played Arcanum and many, many games like it. Someone mentioned games are used as escape mechanisms (I don’t disagree), and RPG games are, in a way, the ultimate escapes. You create someone entirely outside the realm of your own being, and you develop them the way you want to develop them. People tackle this in different ways. My dad is the one who got me hooked on PC RPG games. He ALWAYS builds his character according to how he feels he can best win the game. He looks at the stats: someone with this much strenghth can have x, y, and z attributes, and therefore, I can take down opponents more easily (in fact, the easiest way to win most RPGs is to start with a human fighter). I, on the other hand, always take a more whimsical approach that tends to make some games excrutiatingly more difficult because I don’t build my character based on what will win. I create a character, not a machine. I imagine this person’s background–where did they come from? A debutante background? Then she must have pretty high charisma. She had a tutor, so let’s give her high intelligence. So forth and so on. As I travel the game, I develop my character according to his/her background (which I created) and what I feel his/her reactions are to what has occured thus far in the game.

In this way, I completely understand Gee’s assertion about the three identities at stake. In the first place, my character is its own person–albeit a person I have developed. In the second, I am that person for the time I am playing that game. But I am a great many other things, too. When Gee mentions being joyful at Bead Bead picking pockets (pg. 50), I had a minor shock of revelation, as games, though not real, do play off of real emotion. This is often a source of contention between my dad and me. Because we do play the same games, often, we’ll talk about them. I almost always start off with “good characters.” One time I tried to play a “neutral” character, but she ended up being good because I kept doing “good” deeds. I feel immensly guilty everytime I stole from someone, or killed someone, or said something mean. My dad rationalized, “They’re not real people!” And rationally, I know this, but for some reason, the emotion is real. As Gee mentions, the player takes on the role of the character, which is both “active and reflexive” (54).

I’ve often felt that these sorts of games are good learning tools (in moderation, of course) because they teach excellent creative problem solving skills, almost in a MacGuyver sort of way. You have to try and fail and try again to put things in just the right order to get something to work. Translate that to real-world problem solving, and video games are good learning tools. What I had failed to consider before was the fact that the RPG identity can be translated to classroom identity. Gee mentions treating students as scientists, despite the fact that are not literally scientists (6). It’s a virtual identity.  I often refer to my students as writers, despite the fact that only two actually have any ambition to become what we would call writers. But by applying the virtual reality to them, it allows the student to identify with that virtual reality, and apply themselves to learning how to move within that identity, similar to the emotional connection one feels with a virtual RPG character; when spoken to as that character (as one is in such games; no one calls me “Beth,” but rather, I am called by my character’s name), it makes the identity that much more real. Learning to identify oneself as a learner is a powerful step in owning one’s own academic identity.

Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical about this book. Though a gamer who believes one can learn from games, I wasn’t sure what it had to do with education, per se. And while I don’t agree with 100% of Gee’s assertions, I’d say a good 98% are very applicable to the classroom and to teachers. Not that classrooms should go to virtual RPG learning systems anytime soon…

Value of Reading Journals

Wow! The readings this week were insanely thought-provoking, and I had a very difficult time deciding to which amazing idea I wished to respond. I decided to settle on a paragraph in Linkon that struck me as familiar. I am not sure if anyone else’s school uses the McDougall/Little “Language of Literature” textbooks for their middle/high school English classes. Or if anyone has ever read about using Reading Workshops in their classroom. In either case, they recommend each student having a Reading Journal.

Mine all have writing journals, and they use them quite frequently, but what they don’t have is a reading journal. The way they had always been described to me before made them seem…not quite useful. But Linkon’s view of the Reading Journal made me stop and think that I should try and use them in the classroom. On pg. 262, she notes that she has her students stop anytime they find themselves responding to a text, rather than the typical “look for this, this, and this, and write it down in your reading journal when you find it” assignments I had always heard about. Linkon’s suggestion makes much more sense to me, as it breaks down the student’s reading process, so that both the student and teacher can see exactly what goes through the student’s mind as they read, thus working together to solve any comprehension issues, but also engaging both student and teacher in academic discussion.

She also has them write a few lines if they didn’t feel compelled to stop, which also makes sense and hopefully deters the typical, “I didn’t get it,” response that students like to make, sometimes when they struggle, and other times when they just don’t want to take the time to read thoroughly. At least if they are writing a few lines at the end, it’s almost like a shortened difficulty paper, in that it asks students to be active in identifying why they didn’t “get it.” Having the students talk about their questions and difficulties in class also ensures that students are engaging each other in academic discussion, which involves more critical thinking than having the teacher answer all of their questions.

Though I believe Linkon is writing more about college students, I think her ideas could definitely be pared down to high schoolers. As I mentioned earlier, the readings this week really got me thinking about my students and new ideas for the classroom that it was hard to choose which to mention on this blog! But I do believe Linkon’s version of a reading journal might really be worth considering.

The Difficulty with Shakespeare

Someone else has already noted that Salvatori and Donahue have a somewhat superior tone in “Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty.” I did not quite consider that while I was reading, however, once I read that blog post, it suddenly clicked: they were a bit off-putting at times. Not that I did not agree with them at several points, but as a reader, I did feel a bit defensive when I disagreed with them. Every rhetorical question they asked was answered with a seemingly irrefutable answer, which at times caused red flags to come up.

Still, I did find this book very interesting, and I learned a lot about how people read. I also found the idea of “difficulty papers” appealing, and I think I would like to try that in one of my classes-particularly since we are about to enter Shakespeare.

Which brings me to my next point: I have been dreading Shakespeare all year long. Not because I dislike Shakespeare. To the contrary: I am a Shakespeare fan! I have been dreading teaching Shakespeare, largely because at the mere mention of the name, my kids moan and groan and mutter choruses of torture. As I read The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, I found myself faced with the same problem Salvatori and Donahue describe: the man himself. None of these kids have actually ever read a Shakespeare play before, and only one of them has every actually seen a Shakespeare play performed. How is it, then, that they all cower in fear when I suggest studying him? They did not make such a fuss when we studied Mark Twain or W.W. Jacobs or George Orwell! In the book, S. and D. say, “…a reader brings to texts a repertoire of expectations, experiences, and knowledge (whether implicit or explicit) which she can use to negotiate meaning (no reading is ever “pure” or “original”), that repertoire may produce so much noise that alternative readers are inhibited” (107). This seems to be the battle which I, and so many other English Lit. teachers, are up against. Perhaps they have heard from older students who say he is difficult; perhaps their parents had bad high school Shakespeare experiences and have whined about him; perhaps a television show quoted Shakespeare, and to the child, it made little to no sense. Whatever the reason, it is now a war I must wage to dissapate all their previous (mis)conceptions about the man himself to get them to see the beauty and excitement inherent in his plays. I think I might try to have the students do some difficulty papers, so we might begin conversations about what we don’t know to figure out what we do know. One of the examples in the “How Experts Differ from Novices” also suggested that when students start with what they do know (by identifying with the experience), their response is overall more positive (the Jake vs. Steven example; I don’t have a page number to reference). Perhaps by starting with what they do know, we can overcome Shakespeare’s great aura and start from ground zero, building only positive experiences from here on out!