Author Archives: nikki


First things first, here are the PseudoTweet posts you all composed last night.  I hope you enjoyed and found some educational merit in the activity.

  • Helen Krebs:  My brother is so lazy since coming home.  I wonder what he’s going to do with himself.
  • Mrs. Krebs:  Why doesn’t my son love me anymore?
  • Helen Krebs:  Hare probably won’t ever pitch to me in the back yard anymore—he just reads and walks to town and sleeps.
  • Helen Krebs:  Don’t get why my brother is so different.  What’s wrong with him?  Can’t we just play ball?
  • Mrs. Krebs:  Harold, have you found a JOB yet?
  • Harold Krebs:  No one understands what I went through.  My parents don’t respect me as a grown man.
  • Harold Krebs:  Goin’ by the girls’ school to see sis play some ball.  She’s got a killer arm and her friends think I’m cute.
  • Harold Krebs:  Mom made me breakfast in bed again.  Love the bacon, hate the passive-aggressive convo.
  • Helen Krebs:  Is it weird to call your brother your beau?  I just want to make sure he knows I love him, even now.  Especially now.
  • Mrs. Krebs:  My son is back from war and just isn’t the same—unmotivated, not interested in girls.  Are other moms experiencing the same?  Help?!?!
  • Short-haired girl who walks down street (to BFF):  Who is that creepy man who keeps watching us walk?  He makes me nervous.  Let’s walk a different way tomorrow!
  • Helen Krebs:  Don’t think anyone’s coming to my indoor game.  They think I haven’t noticed about Harold but I have.
  • Mrs. Krebs:  I am worried about my son.  He just lays around all day, walking aimlessly.  He sleeps till noon.  I wonder when he’ll get back to normal.
  • Mrs. Krebs:  Please pray for my dear son Harold.  He’s lost and needs healing from the Lord.
  • Helen Krebs:  Krebs is being so weird lately.  I wish he’d get back to his old self; I can’t figure him out!
  • Harold Krebs:  Geez, everyone should just leave me alone!  Nothing’s wrong with me!
  • Harold Krebs:  Lies are my essence.  The world is full of ‘em.
  • Helen Krebs:  Hare is coming tonight so I better pitch like crazy!  Have to pitch an A-game, time to impress!  He taught me how.
  • Harold Krebs:  Had I known then what I know now I would have never enlisted in the war.  It’s not like had to go; I chose to go.

On to my reflection . . .

Thank you all for listening so attentively to my presentation.  I have to admit, it was actually pretty disorienting to stand up there and see that I had everyone’s undivided attention.  (Needless to say, I’m not used to that with my 10th graders!)  I felt much more like a presenter than a teacher, as I don’t feel I incorporated enough hands-on activities to keep a group of 10th graders interested, but I hope the activities I was describing (when conducted in real life) would have done so.  In comparing my presentation with other people’s, I feel like I talked/explained too much and didn’t get “students” involved enough, but I knew that was going to be the case as I was planning.  I opted for a more information-based presentation partially because I was too stubborn to let go of any of the pieces of the lesson, but also because I was confident that you all wouldn’t need to do every activity in order to understand the learning objectives I have for my real students.  In any event,  I’m not sure it mattered as much to you as it did to me, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

It was very difficult to forgo the discussion sections of my lesson plan because I knew you guys would have had great points to talk about.  Unfortunately, that’s not the reality of my everyday interactions with students, so although I would have personally enjoyed the intellectual discourse, I had to refrain from indulging in large- and small-group discussions of the text.  (I had considered scripting a more realistic discussion, but I decided to save everyone the pain.  I think we’ve all been there when the crickets are chirping—no need to simulate  the agony!)

I feel like the main thing I could have done differently would be to slow down and talk about a few assignments more in depth instead of trying to race through 2+ days of lesson plans.  Were I to do it over, I think I would focus on a few specific activities rather than providing an overview of everything.  One part of me doesn’t feel like I did justice to my learning objectives with PseudoTweet and the question flood because I glossed over them so quickly; I would have liked to have had more time to talk through my rationale for each one—which, in short, was that I wanted to encourage (force) students to read, engage, re-read, and re-engage with the story.  And I wish I had remembered to mention where I got the inspiration for my activities (Blau, Elbow, Greene, and Salvatori & Donahue).  Another part of me keeps saying that I explained it all in writing and that you are intelligent people who can read, so I didn’t need to bore you by lingering over details you were capable of reading on your own.  But I still think I could have slowed down and explained better.

I also feel like I should have incorporated more hands-on activities for the benefit of the audience.  I planned to do three participatory activities, but only got to two—the question flood and PseudoTweet posts; I was also planning to have you write/discuss one of the journal responses, but that was the first to go due to time.  (Sidenote:  I keep noticing that I’m thinking of you guys as the audience more than as students because I felt like I was presenting much more than actually teaching.)  Ironically, I sped through the explanations so quickly that I ended with more time than I expected and ended up being disappointed that I hadn’t included the journal/discussion activity I had planned to include in the middle.  I tried to revisit the topic of that lost activity (the story’s title), and I appreciate you guys having something to say about it, but that conversation didn’t flow as I would have liked.

Overall, I’m pleased with the lessons I created if not with how well I articulated them.  As I think I explained last night (it’s a bit of a blur), I had already read the story with my real students, and we did some of the activities, but I tweaked my 610 lesson considerably after seeing what did and didn’t work in my classroom.  I’m looking forward to trying last night’s version of the lesson next year when I have more time to dig into the story with students.

Please share any thoughts or suggestions you have about any part of my lesson or handouts.  I’m especially interested to hear what people think about the types of activities as well as the pacing of the lesson.  I’ve never purposely avoided full-class discussions as much as I did in this lesson, and it felt risky, so if you have thoughts about that, please let me know!

Teaching a Graphic Novel

In thinking about how I could teach a graphic novel, the first thing I realized is that the content of the text is an important factor in how I would present it to my class. Not all lesson ideas or approaches would be appropriate for all comics. (For example, considering the controversial content of Nat Turner, I wouldn’t introduce it in a lighthearted lesson, nor would I choose it as the first graphic novel I show my students.)

As I said in my blog post last week, I noticed a big difference in my own thinking about the content of Nat Turner vs. the way in which it is presented. I don’t think high school students would naturally separate those two aspects of the text, so it’s important that the teacher does so for them (as necessary) or (preferably) develops lessons that encourage students to do so on their own. To do this, the teacher needs to know his purpose in presenting the text (that sacred concept of backward planning). He has to consider his ultimate goal: Am I teaching graphic novel X because I want to teach a/any graphic novel or because I want to discuss the issue of X? (My initial opinion of Nat Turner is that it would be better used as a starting point in discussing the actual issue of the slave rebellion. I don’t think it would be as productive, with a high school audience, to discuss the physical presentation of the story—at least until after the genre had been introduced and dealt with using less controversial examples. Then, yes, full steam ahead with NT.) So the only real conclusion I’ve reached so far is that you need to know WHY you’re teaching the text in the first place. (I know–good teaching 101, right?).

Maybe I’ve over-thought Prof. Sample’s question by hashing out all this goal stuff, but I couldn’t start brainstorming until I’d set some parameters for my hypothetical lessons. But now, finally some ideas . . . If I were to teach a graphic novel, I think I’d want to find one that it is middle-of-the-road in terms of difficulty (i.e. not Nat Turner, but also not an Archie comic—no offense to Archie). I would want students to be able to differentiate between content and presentation, but also be able to examine both together (as in, why do you think the author chose to convey this message in this manner as opposed to in a more traditional form? It strikes me that Maus would be a great example to use when discussing both form and content together).

Bottom line, I think there’s a lot a teacher could do with any given graphic novel that would inspire students to think critically about certain aspects of the work (images, text, purpose, message, voice, plot, etc.). Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with:

  • Remove all text from the images (thought bubbles, captions, onomatopoeia) and then ask students to fill in their own captions. Students would have to support/defend their captions with textual evidence (in this case, image-based evidence). I’ve done a similar activity as a review of Macbeth, but the version I’ve done doesn’t really require critical thinking, only summarizing skills. The activity could vary depending on whether you’ve shown the students the original text beforehand—I can see it being worthwhile both ways.
  • Cut up a shorter graphic novel (graphic short story?) into pieces and have students reassemble based on their knowledge of story conventions (exposition, climax, falling action, etc.). This lesson would work well with a traditional short story unit because it would show students that the mechanics of stories are similar even when the final products look different. (You could then discuss why authors choose particular methods of conveying a story. How a short story is better/worse/different from a graphic novel, movie, song, etc.)
  • Slow down the reading of a longer graphic novel by giving students only short sections at a time. Study the sections one at a time, asking students to write about what they see, how this excerpt connects to previous sections, and how the story might play out after this point. After seeing all the sections, students could review their notes and evaluate how their understanding of the story changed, improved, or declined as they read more passages. (Now I’m thinking of reading log audits. I’m sure there’s a lot you could do with something like this.)
  • Ask students to translate a graphic novel into a written short story (or vice versa). Discuss the pros and cons of each genre, difficulties the students encountered, possible combinations of the two presentation styles, and so on.
  • Visually experiment with multiples storylines or narrative perspectives. One novel I teach uses a fragmented narration style that really confuses my regular 10th graders. I could ask students to represent different story threads by cutting and pasting panes from a graphic novel in different patterns or combinations. This activity would help visual learners in particular.

These are only “rough draft ideas,” so I’m really more interested to see what everyone else comes up with. I love hearing different perspectives and ideas because I always find something useful to bring back to my students. I hope we can compile a more comprehensive list of ideas and flesh them out as a class.

My First Graphic Novel

Instead of focusing on how disturbed I am by the content of Nat Turner, I’m instead going to reflect on the experience of reading my first graphic novel. To begin, I have to admit how skeptical I was about reading a graphic novel for a graduate English course. Call me traditional, but I didn’t think it was accurate to say I was going to “read” a graphic novel. Now I see that I passed judgment too early, as my reading skills were certainly exercised throughout this book. (Interestingly, I’ve never had a problem saying I’m “reading” a book on CD, which I do all the time, so obviously I was prejudiced against the genre, incorrectly assuming it had no intellectual merit.)

When I first opened the book, I was struck immediately by the amazing illustrations. I was entranced by the detail of facial expressions and body language, as well as the variety of and intricate details within the images. I hadn’t intended to read the book straight through, but I was in such awe that I couldn’t put it down. Granted, that awe was often replaced by revulsion, but any book that has the power to evoke such strong emotional responses obviously merits examination. I exclaimed out loud on a few occasions, and I studied several of the more grisly images longer than I was comfortable with because I just couldn’t look away. I was amazed by Baker’s ability to disgust me with what are essentially cartoon images. I had previously thought that the subject matter would have to be affected by the method of presentation (after all, how seriously can you take a comic?), but I quickly learned that I was looking beyond the method of illustrating and studying the content itself.

On pages 88-90, for example, I am amazed at how clearly Baker conveys young Nat Turner’s dilemma: he has to feign ignorance when the overseer finds him with the Bible—in fact, he looks downright comical in his pretended stupidity—yet immediately afterward, in the bottom panes of page 90, Turner’s hatred for the white man (as well as his own circumstances) is clear. I’m not sure it would be as effective to try to convey these feelings in words (no matter how powerful and compelling the diction), so in this way the image is superior. (Even as I write this, I’m amazed that I’ve been so quickly convinced. I’m a fierce proponent of the power of words, so I feel disloyal in acknowledging the validity of what feels like the antithesis of all I stand for as a reader and writer. That said, I’m already looking for other examples of graphic novels to read, though preferably less disturbing ones.)

As I start to wrestle through the idea of possibly teaching a graphic novel (issues of school and parent approval aside), I can see several pros and cons. The pros are obviously that kids would enjoy the experience (in fact, many of them read graphic novels already), and that the story is immediately clear to anyone who is capable of reading facial expressions and body language (almost everyone). I also think a graphic novel would be a great way to talk about basic plot structure in a text (e.g. locate the exposition of the story, identify the climax, is there resolution?, etc.). The biggest drawback is that of course the students wouldn’t be learning traditional reading skills (taking meaning from words and paragraphs), but there’s plenty of traditional reading built into the curriculum already. I’ll hold the rest of my thoughts about how to teach it until next week.

The last comment I want to make has to do with how disturbed I was by the subject matter, so I’ll try to make it brief because I know I could go on at length about that. As entranced as I was by the book, I was equally concerned by the fact that Baker presents Turner as a hero. I agree with what Jennifer said in her post—I readily admit the inhumanity of slavery, but I don’t see Nat Turner’s actions as a justifiable retaliation, and I also suspect his understanding and application of Biblical teachings. It seems to me that the Nat Turner portrayed in this book would be dismissed as a religious fanatic today. I know this is a simplistic stating of the case, but I couldn’t comment on the book without remarking on the one glaring drawback I perceived. The questionable nature of Baker’s portrayal doesn’t in any way hurt my appreciation of the genre, and that’s why I’ve tried to address the two issues separately. I hope we can do the same in class next week.

Thoughts on Having No Thoughts

I must be missing something. I haven’t enjoyed this reading as much as I think I should be (and I don’t really even know why I think I should be enjoying it). I appreciate the variety of examples of literature, but they are distracting me (in a good way) more than helping support or clarify the points the authors make. In fact, I’ve been hard pressed to collect my thoughts well enough to write something thoughtful in response to this week’s reading. Every time I finish reading a portion of the book, I wonder what I have to say about it. I just can’t think of anything. Nothing. Nada. I opened the book expecting discussions of teaching practices, but what I found was more like an anthology—but not quite. I’ve enjoyed the selections (though some of the non-fiction selections have been tedious to wade through). And I’m always pleased to come across poems or short stories I haven’t read before because there’s something exciting about discovering a good text for the first time. But thoughts? Nope. Maybe it has to do with the looooong and drawn out method of organization (if you can call it that), but I feel like I’m just trying to keep my head above water with this one.

Fortunately, thanks to this course, I have a new appreciation for the merits of struggling with difficulty, so I’ll go with that.

After reading the first chapter, I realized I was more confused than anything else. I couldn’t figure out the target audience (much like the case of Salvatori and Donahue), and that ambiguity frustrated me. I can’t determine whether I’m supposed to be the student or the teacher. This uncertainty and frustration has lingered through the first two chapters. I feel much more like the student as a result of the hang-on-for-dear-life feelings I have as I plod through, but some passages seem geared more toward other audiences. I agree with Abbie that the book certainly could have been organized better (more concise chapters perhaps?) and in a more reader-friendly manner. (And let me just say, that is no small matter to a serious reader. I have very strong feelings toward authors who expect their readers to wade through an almost 100 page chapter on metaphor. That’s just not nice.)

So, in short, I don’t think I’ve worked through my feelings about Text Book yet, but I suppose that’s okay—especially as we still have half the book to go. I’m going to try to come to some better conclusions (or at least formulate intelligent thoughts) for next week because I don’t like uncertainty. It’s not a comfortable space for me to inhabit.


The first thing I notice when revisiting my old blog posts is that my attitude toward my students seems to have shifted slightly.  I haven’t done a 180 as a teacher, but my perspective has changed a bit such that I’m willing to give my students the benefit of the doubt more.  In my first blog entry, I focused on my students’ weak reading comprehension skill s, but through assigned readings, class discussions, others’ comments, etc. I’ve started to see my students as able readers (though perhaps unpracticed in the “traditional” methods of literary analysis).  I hope I can maintain an open mind as I continue teaching—especially as I expect there will be many times when I’m frustrating and/or overwhelmed.

Another common characteristic of my blog entries is that I’m always searching for practical applications:  How can I use this concept or approach in my classroom?  (Hence my appreciation of Linkon and Blau and my frustration with Gee.)  On several occasions I go on tangential explanations of how I might incorporate the ideas I’ve read about into my own classroom lessons (with Krik? Krak!, Things Fall Apart, All Quiet on the Western Front, etc.).  I’m always on the lookout for new and better ways of presenting/discussing the literature I teach.  Part of the reason for my “practical application radar” is that I like to simplify complex concepts/texts, summarizing the main idea or reducing many ideas into the essence of the argument.  For example, in Blau’s TLW, I had to keep a list of the best ideas I came across, and then I had to reduce the list even more when writing my blog.  (A second and perhaps equally valid reason for my quest to find practical applications is that I’m in grad school to become a better teacher, and when I write those painful tuition checks every semester, I like knowing I have at least a handful of new ideas to bring into the classroom.  Maybe not the most selfless motivation, but it helps alleviate the financial pain.)

On a related note, I noticed that I’ve made lists in some posts.  This doesn’t surprise me because I’m generally a list person, but what interests me is that the blog lists seem to be a way for me to wrestle with information overload.  As I just said, I like to have a handful of ideas to take away from each reading, but on the occasions when I feel I have fewer ideas (as in the case of Gee) or more than a handful (Blau), I need a way to process that information.  I recently asked my students to make a similar list after reading a play.  They were to list everything they had learned throughout the unit about themselves as readers and/or about how to read literature (not about the play’s plot).  Some students had long, unwieldy lists of rambling thoughts; others were short bulleted lists of single words or short phrases.  I’m even more fascinated by the idea of lists now.  I’ll have to keep my eye on this.

The last thing that really jumped out at me is actually very simple, but it took me a while to notice that I was noticing it.  When I write, I refer to the text—both general assertions made by the writers and specific quotations with page citations.  I read through my entries several times before realizing that this common thread ran throughout all of them.  When I first realized what I was seeing, I thought, Obviously I refer to the text.  That’s what good readers/writers do.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there’s a lot behind referencing the text—a lot of skills, values, and assumptions that my students do not necessarily have.  To me, going back to the text is a method of validating my own ideas (even when they are in disagreement with those presented in the text) because I have a point of reference, a passage I can point to as evidence when developing my thoughts.  I would write more about referencing the text, but the last thing I noticed is that I always go WAY over the word limit.  (Clearly I have no self-control when it comes to spouting off my own ideas!)

So to sum it up, I think I’ve learned a lot more about HOW I think/process/respond to texts than about WHAT I have to say.  I was worried that all I would do as I reviewed my posts was cringe at my stupid ideas, but the things that jumped out at me most were process-oriented tricks or tasks that I don’t really even think about as I’m writing.  In short, I can definitely see the benefit of having students perform this kind of writing audit (be it based on reading logs, essays, or any other type of writing).

Week 6

I have really enjoyed Blau’s book, especially because of its practical applicability to me as I brainstorm new lessons and approaches to reading and writing. My thoughts are, as always, a bit scattered as a I work to make meaning of all that I’ve read (there’s a lot to take in!), but here are a few things that jump out at me:

–Reading logs as preparation for class discussions: Students don’t realize it, but if they have an opportunity to jot down ideas before being put on the spot by the teacher, they are so much more likely to have formulated a thoughtful response to what they’ve read. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the (many) moments when we call on student after student and no one seems to have anything to say about a passage that is overflowing with material for analysis. I really like the reading log idea because it helps prepare students to make thoughtful comments in class, but I’m still working through practical applications of this practice in a high school classroom. I like the idea, and would like to implement it in some form, but a reading log audit would be a bit of a stretch for my sophomores—and I simply don’t have time to collect and read the logs regularly.

–Students revising their initial impressions based on input of others: This concept fascinates me. I love doing group annotation activities (“silent conversations” as I call them). I ask kids to annotate a poem or passage; they then pass their papers around in a circle, each making one or two comments about, in response to, or against what the original person wrote. By the end of the exercise, the students’ initial ideas have usually changed, extended, or been reinforced in a stronger way. I’m thinking now of asking students to write a reader response journal to a poem/passage, and then, when they bring it in to class, have them read and respond to their own writing (and then possibly have others provide input as well). The students would then go home and revise their original response. I think my students would really enjoy this activity, especially if I give them freedom to be creative in their presentation of the information (different colors, fonts, etc. to demonstrate their thoughts at different times). I enjoyed the Think Aloud analysis we wrote for this class for similar reasons. It’s refreshing to color outside the lines every once in a while.

–Questioning the thesis-proof essay model: I see Blau’s argument and I agree that in “the real world” of writing there are few circumstances that call for such an essay style; however, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that we, as high school teachers, have to prepare students for standardized tests (SOLs, SATs, etc.) that require these cookie cutter formulas. I would love to use some of Blau’s suggestions, but I just can’t see how I can add them in to the already overflowing curriculum I’m up against. I think the best I can hope to achieve is a balance between thesis-proof essays and other, more open styles of literary analysis. Even if I start with only a handful of such activities per year, that’s a step in the right direction.

How do I love thee, Literature Workshop? / Let me count the ways:

  1. Non-threatening Approach:  People often talk about “bad teachers,” but Blau doesn’t assign blame.  He explains that although some traditional teaching practices are flawed, teachers don’t rely on them for malicious reasons.  Now, instead of thinking of these people (and myself) as “bad teachers,” I realize they are (I am) simply misguided.  Call me needy, but I appreciate reassurance that my intentions are good—otherwise I couldn’t stand such prolonged (and painful) reflection on my own practices.
  2. Ironic Paradox of Teaching (55):  Teachers learn more than students when “teaching” a lesson.  I’ve never thought about it quite like this before, but it’s certainly true.  It makes me wonder how so many otherwise “good” teachers can be fooled into thinking they’re doing the teaching, not the learning.  This one idea alone is enough to turn my basic approach in the classroom upside down.
  3. Memorable Sayings:  Blau uses expressions from other scholars to summarize his own arguments, specifically, Newkirk’s “looking for trouble” (24) and Rosenblatt’s contention “that taking someone else’s interpretation as your own is like having someone else eat your dinner for you” (25).  These two sayings will help me apply Blau’s concepts in my classroom because they are easy to remember and clearly encapsulate his ideas.
  4. Two Terms:  “pseudoliteracy” (27) and reading “dysfluency” (30).  I had never come across these ideas stated like this, but I could immediately apply them to what I see in my classroom on a daily basis.
  5. Personal Reflection:  Blau refers to many other scholars throughout TLW, some of whom I remember from my undergrad days.  I pulled out some old books (Rosenblatt in particular) and reflected on my English Ed courses back then.  I’m learning so much more now than I ever did as an undergrad because it’s hard to understand educational theories when you have no concrete experiences to apply them to.  Now, as I read TLW, I’m picturing my students (past and present) in the workshops.  I’m hearing the types of comments they make and envisioning how I can encourage them based on what I know about my teaching environment and myself as a teacher.
  6. “Responsible” Teachers:  Blau questions what it means to be a “responsible” teacher:  “The conventional idea . . . is that a responsible teacher will [answer all possible questions before assigning a reading] as if reading is . . . a process in which one never experiences frustration and . . . always understands everything immediately” (41).  Blau’s suggestion certainly isn’t conventional.  I never thought about providing crutches to students as doing them a disservice, but now I see that it enables them to continue hobbling along lamely with weak skills.  This is going to be a struggle for me because it’s so different from what teachers are tacitly taught to do, but now that I’m aware of the harm of enabling, I can work to improve my methods.
  7. Poetry Workshops:  They’re fantastic!  I was so intrigued by the workshop for “My Papa’s Waltz” that I did an experiment of my own.  Both people I asked to read the poem explained their interpretations apologetically (as if they knew they must be wrong because I, the English teacher, had read the poem differently).  This shows me even intelligent adults believe there is one “correct reading” of a poem.  (The workshops also reminded me that I enjoy poetry a lot more than I usually think I do.)
  8. Transcription of Workshops:  This method enabled me to picture the workshops in my own classroom.  I could even identify my real students by the types of comments made by S1, S2, etc.  I felt like a fly on the wall, and I could see myself in the role of both teacher and student.
  9. Two Disciplines of Interpretation:  Textual evidence and evidentiary reasoning (75).  The next time someone argues that if there is not one correct reading, then any reading could be correct, I can show him this explanation.  Blau outlines the parameters of legitimate interpretation very clearly.
  10. Background Information & Intentional Fallacy:  Excellent practical examples of how background knowledge and the author’s intention do and do not affect students’ readings of a text.  The Roethke discussion and Sir Phillip Sidney exercise were very helpful.

Practical Applications of Gee

As you’ve probably noticed from my Twitter posts, I’m frustrated with Gee’s theoretical arguments.  I admit I was skeptical when I saw a book about video games on the reading list, but by the time I cracked it open last week, I was ready to give Gee the benefit of the doubt.  In fact, I read the first few chapters eagerly, ready to see learning in a whole new light.

Eventually, I realized that what he is saying sounds great theoretically (and I do “buy” it), but the practical application component is seriously lacking.  The examples he gives for science classrooms are wonderful; if I were a physics teacher I would be taking notes and brainstorming lesson plans, but I’m not a physics teacher.  I guess I was disappointed with Gee because after reading Linkon last week I had pages of notes, and (this is embarrassing to admit) I was literally dreaming of lesson ideas.  For some reason, the ideas just aren’t flowing this week.

So.  Because I’ve been struggling with the breakdown between theory and application, I decided to start this thread in hopes that others will chime in with ideas/suggestions/practical applications that they have envisioned for their classrooms.  I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t any—in fact, I’m sure there are plenty, but I haven’t figured them out yet.  My disclaimer:  I haven’t finished reading the book—and Abbie’s comments about the end of Chapter Six have given me hope—so it’s quite possible that I’ll retract my previous comments later, after gaining greater insight (I hope).   In the meantime, I’ll get things started by including a few passages I’m keeping in mind as I grasp for practical applications:

 “Achievement Principle:  For learners of all levels of skill there are intrinsic rewards from the beginning, customized to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery and signaling the learner’s ongoing achievements” (64).  Varying degrees of scaffolding, based on different learners’ needs.  But don’t we try to do this already?

 “’Regime of Competence’ Principle:  The learner gets ample opportunity to operate within, but at the outer edge of, his or her resources, so that at those points things are felt as challenging but not ‘undoable’” (68).  Achieve the perfect balance of difficulty and “doability.”  Easier said than done!

 “One good way to make people look stupid is to ask them to learn and think in terms of words and abstractions that they cannot connect in any useful way to images or situations in their embodied experiences in the world.  Unfortunately, we regularly do this in schools” (72).  Relates well to discussion of video game manuals and textbooks written in language that is literally comprehensible but to which one cannot attach genuine meaning without having experienced embodied learning in that domain (99-104).  Idea:  Provide context/background for texts before beginning; relate to students’ prior knowledge.  But how do teachers encourage students to experience embodied learning (in this case, the reading of lit) before they are comfortable doing so?  This seems like a catch-22 . . .

 “It is my contention that active, critical learning in any domain should lead to learners becoming, in a sense, designers.  Some, like the players who build their own extensions to games, will actually design new things.  Others, like me, will design in thought and talk and let it inform their play” (96).  Idea:  Asking students to rewrite a story from a different perspective requires them to 1) be familiar with the original story, 2) form their own meaning, and 3) design a text (upon/against?) the original text.  Encouraging students to become writers/critics helps them interact with texts on deeper and more personal levels.

Finding the “Right Answer”

After only two weeks I recognize a subtle shift in my attitudes and approaches to teaching literature to high school sophomores.  My blog post last week included the type of frustrated complaint often overheard in faculty workrooms (“They just don’t know howto read!”), and although I’m willing to move away from that (simplistic) diagnosis, it’s important for me to remember that students—as novice readers—do not automatically “get” the process of reading literature.  As Sherry Linkon explains, “Active reading that examines the text itself closely draws upon the reader’s experience with and knowledge of other texts, and engages both the reader’s own perspective and historical and cultural resources to uncover complex meanings” (250).  This is not a depth of engagement and analysis that comes naturally to the average student in a high school English class.  In fact, students do not even realize they should be personally involved in the process of finding meaning, as they expect there to be a single neat and tidy “right answer” (and perhaps that is just as much the fault of teachers as students themselves).

One passage early in Linkon’s article made me recognize the shortsightedness of my previous complaints:  It is not “appropriate (though it may be tempting) to blame students for not reading well enough, not trying hard enough, or simply not being smart enough” (248).  (Tempting indeed!)  After reading this statement, I feel I’ve been unfair to my students.  Their inability to read at the expert level is not an excuse for me to throw up my hands in resignation—rather, I need to learn how better to support and encourage their process of reading.  For example, Alicia mentioned in her post that she realized her students don’t think it’s normal to re-read a passage, so she tries to model this practice to them.  Such is also true for my students, who approach a text with the belief that there is one ultimate (and seemingly random) “answer” embedded in the words and it is their job simply to locate that answer and transcribe it.

I enjoyed reading about the Inquiry Project Linkon assigns in her American Lit class because I see the merit of allowing students to pursue their own lines of investigation regarding a text—after all, we should be encouraging students to make meaning partly based on their own perspectives.  I’m not sure such an open-ended project would be a perfect fit for high school underclassmen, but I hope to use some aspects of her project in my next lit unit.  Students will work in groups to study carefully one thematic element of a novel.  Although I’ve used the framework of this project before, thanks to Linkon’s article (and our discussion last week) I have several additions.  The students’ first task as a group (before they even begin reading the novel) will be to generate a list of questions they want to address while examining their topic.  I also plan to include metacognitive reflection writings a few times along the way (after their first reading—initial impressions—and then later to revisit those first impressions).  Although I don’t have the flexibility or resources to conduct the project the way Linkon does with her undergrads, I hope that by incorporating some elements my students will be able to interact with the text on a deeper and more personal level.

I want to end with a question I’ve been considering since reading the excerpt from Scholes:   I like his descriptions of the practices of reading (text within text) and interpretation (text upon text), and I believe I can work with them in my classes; however, is what he refers to as text against text (criticism) too lofty a goal for the average high school student?

Using Krik? Krak! as a Stepping Stone to Tackling Difficulty

After reading only a few chapters of The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, I realized I had become a bit cynical. Sure, I thought. The students described in this book are willing to do the difficult work required of careful reading. My students are not. As a rule I dislike cynicism (Sidenote: anyone catch Conan’s comments re: cynicism last night? So refreshing!), so I was disappointed to find myself already questioning the relevance of these concepts to my classroom. (I was also disconcerted by the repetitiveness of the writing—not to mention the incorporation of definitions such as simile and personification—and I must admit it took me a while to get past these venial flaws.) It seemed at first that the discussions and activities presented in the book would be well over the heads of my students; however, as I continued to read, a few ideas have jumped out at me. In fact, I just finished Chapter Five and now have a new appreciation of the concept of difficulty (and its relevance to my students). I actually had to force myself to put the book down and begin this blog while my thoughts are still fresh (albeit a bit scattered).

Although some of the book’s activities may be better suited to an undergrad class, there are certainly basic concepts that relate to high school students such as I teach (sophomore “honors” students who are generally less than prepared for the rigors of an honors curriculum). Recently I’ve been mulling over the dilemma that confronts me daily: my students are in an honors course, yet they lack the foundational skills necessary for reading carefully (if at all), making predictions, and drawing relevant inferences. In short, their reading comprehension skills are nonexistent (or atrophied from lack of exercise). The idea of engaging with a text is foreign to these kids. They expect to be able to do one quick reading (those who read the text at all—others opting for the quicker fix of consulting SparkNotes) and understand everything. Obviously they’re missing the point.

Issues of enrollment aside, I know I need to meet my students where they are and provide support to help them move forward as readers. The concept of embracing difficulty as “a rewarding path to knowledge” (back cover) may be a bit too much to ask, but I hope to be able to encourage the kids to view their difficulties as opportunities to enhance their understanding of a text, not as impermeable barriers to comprehension (a la Kim Woomer’s comments regarding “difficulties” and “obstacles” on page 2). I anticipate my attempts succeeding with the students who are actually interested in becoming better readers, and I suppose I’ll just have to tolerate the apathy of the others.

The section in Chapter Five about Krik? Krak! fascinated me. I haven’t read the entire book, but some of my undergrad classmates used it for lesson planning activities, so I was familiar with it. After reading the three difficulty papers presented about KK, I immediately flipped to Appendix D to read “Night Women” and “Between the Pool and the Gardenias.” I really enjoyed both stories and am already tossing around thoughts of how to incorporate excerpts from the book in my class. Due to a combination of factors (the recent earthquake in Haiti; the fact that my students are currently learning about the Haitian Revolution in the history half of my World Civ course; and the fortuitous coincidence that I have a few days to spare in my lesson plans), this would be the perfect time to study selections from KK. My ideas are all abstract at the moment, so I’d appreciate suggestions from others. I plan to pick up the book later today and (if possible) read it this weekend. I hope to find a story or two to use with my classes. I’m envisioning an annotation activity where the students color code their reading difficulties (i.e. red=unknown word, blue=I don’t know what this sentence means, green=what does this have to do with the story? and so on). My students generally do well with annotations, but I’m not sure how they’d handle monitoring their reading and stopping so often to make notations. In any event, I hope to sort out a plan in the next couple of days, as I’d like to do the lesson on Tuesday or Wednesday. And as I said, all input is welcome!