Author Archives: Susanna

Post-Presentation Reflection

First of all, I want to just say to Abbie (and others who are not currently teachers) that you are not alone!  Even for us teachers, at least for me, it is especially nerveracking to teach adults, especially other teachers.  I think it must be frightening for anyone to stand up there in front of all those literary experts!   Thankfully, in my case, after a few minutes of sympathetic smiles and actual participation (No one cried out “But I don’t have a pen!” or “This is boring!”), it felt just fine.  And I’ve heard it said at conferences that teachers make some of the worst students– but that was certainly not the case yesterday, and as a presenter,  I really appreciate your participation and support!

Next, I want to reflect on trying to cram in days worth of activities into one thirty-minute teaching session.  It was even harder than I thought it would be!  There honestly have been so many strategies and ideas that I’ve wanted to incorporate into my teaching from this class, and I think I just was trying to fit in too much.  I didn’t say this during the presentation, but I could probably have fit most of the activities into one 90-minute block, but the project would have extended the activity for several more classes.  In terms of timing, this is more time than I would normally allow for my students to engage in a short story, but it certainly is worthwhile.  I think I will do more work like this with shorter pieces, as a way to prepare them for analyzing longer works. 

In any case, with the time constraints and my own overplanning, I think we did start to enter into really interesting conversations and then, for the sake of time, I had to move the lesson forward.  I would have loved to have made more time for those conversations, and if I hadn’t overplanned, I probably could have!  Still, it was fun to see the vast difference in an adult reading of “Hills Like White Elephants,” versus my students’ somewhat less insightful reading. (They did seriously consider a drug “operation” in both of my classes.)  I was hoping to do more in-class reading, re-reading, writing, and re-writing, with this lesson, and I hope that came across in my presentation.  That kind of reflective and transformative reading/writing really is helpful for students, and I love some of the ideas Blau and Scholes have on how to conduct those kinds of lessons.

Lastly, I was trying to explain at the end that my students are essentially doing the open-ended creative project I passed out to you right now, but that their projects are on longer works that they can write about on the AP exam, Billy Budd, Sailor (by Melville) and The Awakening (by Chopin).  Many students were really excited to see on the list of project ideas “graphic mini-novel,” a first for me, and they really are taking off with that idea, if they’ve done it.  I did not explain this well at all, but one of my students took personal family photos and turned it into a storybook version of Billy Budd.  Another student used computer graphics and re-told the story of The Awakening with only pictures and no words (almost Nat Baker-esque in that regard).  Others are turning in their work tomorrow, and I just can’t speak highly enough of allowing students to create visual representations of higher-level literature.  I love that our class discussions on Nat Turner moved me to re-design this assignment with my students’ interest in mind.  A few students even asked if they could create a video game (though they admitted they wouldn’t have the time to “perfect it”), and when I said yes, that video games really can provide intellectual stimulation and have value, they were shocked.  I’m going to show them Gee’s book and tell them video games actually are helping me to learn how to teach better!  I can’t wait to see their faces then.

I guess what I am trying to say is that, though I am not overwhelmingly satisfied with my presentation, I did want to convey that I feel strongly that I have learned a lot from reading and discussing the material we’ve covered this year.  I know that some of my classmates and I have talked about how students have seen us “shaking things up” and they like it, and I like it, too.  Maybe re-reading and reflecting should be common sense.  Maybe assessing what makes something “difficult” should also be common sense.  Likewise, it should be clear that video games and graphic novels have something to offer us teachers about learning and about teaching literature.  Somehow, it’s all starting to come together now, and though it did not really come across in my presentation, I am grateful for all of the ideas I now have floating around in my teacher brain.

Also, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the other three presentations yesterday, and I am planning to “borrow” some of those ideas.  I’m looking forward to more!

Teaching Nat (& any graphic novel)

One of the things that first struck me about our class discussion is the way graphic novels offer students a chance to really consider what constitutes literature.  In any class, I think it can be beneficial to discuss what literature is and also why we like it.  Nat Turner, or any graphic novel for that matter, offers a great introduction to that kind of higher-level thinking.  I loved the exercise Prof. Sample showed us with converting a Craigslist ad into a “poem,” and though most might scoff at the notion of that kind of art, isn’t that what much of modern art does?  I keep going back to what creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson spoke about in the film clip we watched in class, and I have to think that education is changing and so is the nature of literature, the form, the content, even the way we process literature.  That said, in order to keep up with the changes, teaching students to really consider what literature is might be just the ticket to teaching them to open up their mind and explore the literature that matters to them.  For some of them, this might be the writing of video games, screenwriting of popular movies, or for others, graphic novels.  I have a feeling that only so many of us really appreciate the literary classics, and that is okay.  Besides, “classic” is not a fixed definition, and neither is “literature.”

Besides opening students up to the idea of what literature constitutes, graphic novels present a new way to dissect a narrative, as well as a new way to create a narrative.  I often have students re-tell chapters they have read for homework in the form of comics– but why not begin to call these “graphic re-tellings”?  I actually am really interested in teaching students excerpts from McCloud’s book, especially in the extra time following the AP exam, as a way to analyze both literature and art, and this combination thereof.  That said, negotiating what we already do to incorporate the genre of graphic novels is another way to teach stories like Nat Turner.

Lastly, evocative stories like this one certainly allow students to consider what is age-appropriate and what isn’t.  Often, students feel sheltered by the topics in literature and when we teachers draw attention to the violence, the sex, the scandal that they might otherwise not catch, they certainly seem to perk up.  With texts like Nat Turner,  or at least excerpts of Nat Turner, we might be able to ask students what they think about the evolution of violence in pop culture and in literature in particular.  Students really benefit from any kind of higher-level discussion and one which interests them, particularly given the relevance of this particular topic (since violent is inherent in so many video games, TV shows, and movies that our students watch), that this kind of book would certainly feed into an interesting conversation on the purpose of violence in stories.  Likewise, by comparing this story to the textbook explantaions of Nat Turner’s rebellion, or even to war poems (like those Nikki is teaching this week!), we might push students to really consider when violence is acceptable and when it is over the top, and why they feel like that.

Lastly, I really like Susan’s idea about having students create their own mini-graphic novels.  What I envision my AP seniors doing after the AP exam (along with a research paper I’ve put off until then, so we’ll see if we get to this more fun stuff!) is reading excerpts from McCloud and creating their own fun and original graphic narratives.  I did something similar with my sophomores this year with folklore, both fairy tales and oral family stories, and the students really enjoyed the opportunity to be creative and get back to something they really enjoyed as children: storytelling.  The same could be true with what they might have once viewed as “comics” and would now hopefully come to see as a separate and perhaps more literary genre: graphic narratives.

I do have one question.  If it’s not a long story, do we call it a “graphic short story”?  Or a “graphic tale”?  Or the ghastly “graphic narrative”?  Is this where “comix” comes in handy?  I can see that it might put an end to this line of questioning.

Considering a New Kind of Literature

I have to start off by saying that after my recent indoctrination into the world of graphic novels (thanks to Sample’s Postmodernism class two semesters ago), I am totally sold on the idea of graphic novels as literature. I know that a lot of you would not agree with this statement, so I’m going to try to make my case. First of all, we are mistaken to think that literature has ever solely relied on words. The same kinds of “gutters” that McCloud describes exist in more traditional forms of poetry, novels, and short stories—and we would be remiss to ignore the importance of ambiguity in higher-level literature. That alone, of course, cannot prove my point, but I will say that the confusion a number of us felt (myself included) in reading Nat Turner relies on our lack of comfort, as some of you have said before, with this kind of artistic ambiguity.

A better point might be that we are so accustomed to traditional forms of the written word that we only accept newer or more challenging styles after the gurus of our era deem them respectable. For example, had someone like e. e. cummings or William Carlos Williams come along at the wrong point in history and tried to uproot all of the traditional structures then associated with the “written word,” particularly with poetry, he likely would have been ignored. When we literary folk (as with others in other fields) find ourselves uncomfortable, we often struggle to accept the changing nature of art (and literature is just one form of art).

Perhaps graphic novels are more art than literature—but that’s where I get particularly confused. If literature is art, and graphic novels can be considered art, why aren’t we acknowledging the overlap between a narrative told only in words and one told through a combination of words and pictures? The same overlap appears in drama. Drama relies on actions (which may or may not be included in the playwright’s written stage directions) to tell the story. Why then would we scoff at the idea of pictures helping to tell the story when most of us would consider drama to be literature when it so consistently relies on actions in addition to words?

Part of the problem might stem from reading something like Nat Turner as a first example of a graphic novel. Nat Turner relies so little on the written word, instead producing images that move from scene to scene, or aspect to aspect, which is probably particularly jarring for people who have little experience with anything other than (my childhood favorites) Archie and his crew, Jughead, Veronica, and Betty. Likewise, the graphic nature of this graphic novel (love the pun) can be disconcerting, though I share Tim’s sentiment that Nat Turner’s actions sort of balance out (or at least reflect) the horrors of slavery, which as a practice perpetuated the countless deaths of innocents for centuries. Because I knew what I was getting into with graphic literature, I was actually eager for this reading, despite the heavy nature of the subject. Having basically started out my graphic novel experience with The Shooting War and In the Shadow of No Towers, I was hungry for more– and the more controversial, the better! Frankly, I have been really looking forward to this week, and I can understand that others may not share my opinion that graphic novels are literature (or perhaps even worthwhile), but hopefully, we can all manage to learn something about this kind of art and how it can add to our teaching experience.

Last thing, I promise. If I ever teach creative writing again (and even maybe in some of my regular classes), I’d like to teach excerpts from McCloud’s book. I especially like the attention to “gutters” and “closure”—I think higher-level and/or creative students could really benefit from paying more attention to the nuances of comic arts and perhaps apply those same kinds of analyses to written literature, you know the kind we all agree  on.  In spite of all my appreciation for the new kind of literature (which is really not all that new at all), I know that College Board is nowhere near putting a comic strip on the AP test.  Still, as a teacher, I see the merits of graphic novels– and as a person, I enjoy reading them.  They just seem easier– and yet sometimes, as was the case with Nat Turner, they really aren’t.

Teacher-Reader response

Well, if there’s one thing Text Book has reminded me, it’s that, as a teacher-reader, I am more interested in the passages themselves than in the corresponding questions.  I keep finding myself skipping the questions altogether—and I suppose, as teachers, we should be looking at the questions to get ideas how we could teach these passages or concepts to our students.  Still, the repetitive format of passage/questions presented for me a dilemma as a teacher-reader, and I imagine it might present the same concern for student-readers.

That said, this book feels to me like a postmodern (because it is fragmented and intertextual) reworking of Sound and Sense, which for some teachers is essentially the Bible of AP Lit.  However, it makes more sense as a text for the AP English Language class (taught in the 11th grade in most Fairfax County schools) because it really effectively focuses on the elements of language rather than literature.  The introduction even says so: “We hope to help you feel more at home in the house of language, and we are confident that a better command of written language will contribute to a better life” (xv-xvi).  Of course, now I’m distracted by the use of metaphor (“house of language”) rather than the point I was trying to make—oh yes, the authors intend for the book to expose readers to the various texts they encounter in everyday life and in the English classroom and to teach them to read more effectively.  I’m just still not really sure how effectively this book does that.

By introducing younger or less experienced English students to Freudian slips and the everyday uses of metaphor, they certainly are making important connections for the students.  My question is: would the student see these connections on his/her own?  In that regard, I completely agree with Faye’s question about teaching some of these works in/out of class.  The book seems to be geared toward high school or undergraduate students, and as teachers, I guess we are responsible for deciding how to teach this sometimes very random variety of texts.  I also wondered if these connections would be more meaningful to students because they are more common examples of literary techniques.  For that reason, I simultaneously found myself wishing I had enough copies of this text to pass out to AP Lit. students to expose to them the more “meaningful” examples of parables and metonymy, among other “things.”

Overall, I share the sentiment most of you have written about in your blog posts so far: I’m not sure how I feel about Text Book, but I can see that the book contains some useful sections and some other rather ineffective qualities, too.  I’m curious whether my feelings will change when we read the second half for next week.

Again with the Bullet Points!

Looking back over my blogs so far, I see several tendencies in my response to our class readings:

  1. Mostly, I find myself sounding (and feeling) really enthusiastic about what we have been reading. I know I am less inclined to criticize the books we read in class, and instead I try really hard to find the positives. The only blog that leans toward being negative is my response to Gee’s book, and that list of “points of contention” likely stemmed from my own concern over perpetuating the often-harmful lifestyle that goes with video game addiction (or any addiction for that matter). At the same time, I found merit in the book and made a point to say so at the end of the blog, as if I felt it necessary to end on a positive note. (Pretty typical for me.) Still, I see that I sometimes ignore the aspects that I don’t find particularly helpful or engaging in the books we read, in favor of those that are more helpful and engaging. I suppose this is, in part, my own distaste for students ignoring the positive in the things we read, as well as my own desire to get something out of everything I take the time to read. At the same time, I find myself wishing I leaned toward the more skeptical because the whole positive shmositive thing gets a little old. And here I go again, ending on a positive note (which I just can’t help): I have enjoyed the reading because, for once, the educational gurus whose books we are reading actually seem to propose relevant and useful methodology.
  2. As other bloggers have said before me in this week’s blog, I have also consistently provided anecdotal evidence to explain my take on a particular text and its ideas for the classroom. For example, in week two I discussed the eye-opening observation I had earlier this year that reminded me how important it is to provide students with context prior to handing them a college-level novel to read at home. Likewise, in week three, I shared some of the conversations I had been having with my AP students about the background and experiences each of them brings to a text, as well as the idea that there is no one right way to read Hamlet’s behavior. In week four, I talked about reviewing with students Jeopardy-style and how that kind of engaging lesson “tricks them into learning.” In week five, I went into a long diatribe about my students missing the important use of irony in “The War Works Hard” and my own struggle to defend taking points off missing that sarcasm. Lastly, in week 6, I did not go into any particular anecdote (for once!), but I did comment on how Blau’s ideas coincided with some of my own teaching philosophy. Interestingly, I often use anecdotes to aid my teaching as well as to liven up the learning environment, especially when I am not the only one sharing my relevant anecdotes. Often, anecdotes lead students to make important connections, both with the literature and the teacher as a human being.
  3. I also see myself connecting scattered thoughts with the bullet points or numbering you see in today’s entry. I can’t help it—I like bullet points/numbering way too much. Much like the agenda I put on the board for each class or the way my mind creates its own bulleted lists for everyday life, my blogs so far have reflected my desire to cover a lot of ground all in one blog (or in one class or in one day). The type-A planner, combined with the talker in me, makes a blog a perfect place for me to demonstrate my ability to multi-task (or my inability NOT to multi-task) as well as to jump from one point to the next with the ease of adding yet another bullet point. Who doesn’t love the inherent organization a once-very-jumbled set of notes suddenly takes on when it is suddenly put to bullet points?
  4. Lastly, I always go over the suggested word limit. Here I go again.

A Few Points on Blau

In an effort to touch on the many (sometimes very unrelated) things that have come to mind as I’ve read The Literature Workshop, I am once again going to create a list. This time the list will consist of my responses to a few quotations that strike my fancy.

1) “Student readings […] often differ not as a consequence of ideological or theoretical or even cultural differences, but as a consequence of inattention, inexperience, or ignorance (among other causes)” (190).

I like this point because I agree that it is our responsibility to educate students on the difference between misreading or “pseudoliteracy” and expert readings. By giving them a safe and conducive environment in which to practice their reading and writing, we help to improve their “performative literacy,” teaching them how to go off on their own to read as experts themselves. Blau proposes a great deal of useful classroom strategies for (1) modeling and teaching the kind of close reading (to combat inattention), (2) exposing them to a multitude of relevant and difficult texts (to combat inexperience), and (3) encouraging students to experiment with literary endeavors, even in the face of failure or ambiguity (to combat ignorance). I’m a huge fan of this kind of approach because it doesn’t dumb literature down, but it does make learning more accessible for all students.

2) “The decision on how much historical or contextual information it is necessary for a teacher to give to students in order to foster rather than preempt their autonomy as readers is one that each teacher must make based on a knowledge of the students as well of the texts being taught” (200).

This is something we have already talked about in class. I really have a hard time deciding just how much context to give my students prior to reading certain books, especially since the AP exam only gives them so much background, too, on the exam readings (if any background info. at all). This year, I have started to give more contextual information this year than before, but Blau makes a good point that we, as teachers, have to know our students and the texts being taught before we decide what to tell them ahead of time. I also think that, like one of the pieces we read earlier in the semester pointed out, we need to remember that our students (at least in my case) are in high school, and they cannot be expected to read as experts just yet.

3) “While reading, interpretation, and criticism define the overt focus of instruction in the academic discipline of literature, they also analogously describe the sort of critical thinking that is required for responsible intellectual participation in most civic, economic, and moral transactions and in virtually every academic discipline and learned profession” (204).

I completely agree, Blau! Teaching students the kind of higher-level analysis necessary for good literary responses certainly will aid them to think critically in other aspects of their lives. I wonder, however, if the same is not true for any academic endeavor which can, in turn, teach students to think critically. Of course, I am partial to the teaching of literature, but I also wonder whether critical thinking in other core classes (and even electives) might serve the same kind of purpose. Either way, I completely agree with Blau here.

Overall, I am a huge fan of Blau’s book. I feel confident that there are a number of activities in his book that I will incorporate into my own classroom.

Blau: Guiding Students toward Stronger Interpretation

Like many of my fellow ENG 610ers, I have found Blau’s book exceptionally helpful.  Thinking back through all of my experience with education classes, I cannot recall another book that relied on, or even included, scripts in order to propose a teaching strategy.  What better way is there to share with teachers how to implement a strategy than to model for them the exact thing you propose in the form of an imagined (or sometimes real) dialogue?  I love how Blau includes students’ criticism and diatribes, and the way “T” comfortably moves students towards a consensus, or in the case I’m going to discuss next, towards stronger interpretations of difficult passages.

I find myself particularly drawn to Ch. 3: “Which Interpretation Is the Right One? A Workshop on Literary Meaning.”  I particularly enjoyed his example of a literature workshop on “My Papa’s Waltz,” and I’d like to try to have my AP students read the script aloud in order to model for them the kind of ambiguity that we find in the kinds of passages that show up on the AP exam.  I have been fortunate to have some conversations like this in my classroom, though I’m sure they have never been this organized or well-led so I’d like to aim for more planning when I try to implement a literature workshop in my classroom.

Along with this literature workshop in Ch. 3, Blau discusses the multiple possibilities inherent in interpretation, which certainly got me thinking.  Without meaning to constantly connect everything we read and do to the AP course I teach, I cannot help but wonder how an AP teacher is supposed to balance allowing students to interpret passages (particularly ambiguous passages) in multiple ways while also preparing them to answer multiple-choice questions that suggest there is only one correct way to read that passage.  I really do love the openness of the AP English Literature curriculum (because I really can teach whichever higher-level texts I want to teach), but the AP exam’s much more rigid multiple-choice section certainly causes me some concern. 

For example, for part of this year’s AP midterm, I had my students annotate the Dunya Mikhail poem, “The War Works Hard” which seems to literally suggest, through a laundry list of the war’s effects, that war can be productive and useful.  Of course, when we read the piece more carefully, it seems clear that the speaker intends this message to be ironic.  For example, the poem reads, “It inspires tyrants/ to deliver long speeches,” and “It contributes to the industry/ of artificial limbs” and “builds new houses/ for the orphans” (  When some of my AP students read this poem, they took the speaker’s words literally as evidence that the speaker saw the merit in war.  While I did not entirely dismiss the notion that the speaker illustrates that certain people and industries (and even flies) benefit from war (and death), I was particularly astounded by the students who said the poem showed how good war can be for humanity.  Not only had these students simply believed what the speaker said, neglecting to identify the poem’s irony (though I told them to look for verbal irony in particular), they also seemed somewhat brainwashed by their misinterpretation of the poem’s message.

When I graded these midterm annotations, I felt I had to honor the AP exam and score the students who caught the verbal irony higher than the students who did not; however, when we went over this poem, I had one particularly precocious student try, unsuccessfully, to, as he put it, “prove me wrong.”  His line-by-line analysis was wonderful because students were actually able to see where that kind of interpretation fell flat.  In any case, as productive as that classroom dissection went, I felt oddly resentful that the AP exam requires me, the teacher, to punish students whose interpretations are not “correct enough.”  (I should explain that my school has pushed the AP teachers this year to make sure our grades align more readily with the students’ expected scores on the AP exam, which totally renders my grading more punitive than it was before this year.) 

I hate to find myself enacting the same kind of rigid interpretation that I dislike about the AP exam’s multiple-choice section, and yet I must prepare the students for that portion of the exam.  That said, I felt oddly comforted when my precocious student inadvertently proved himself wrong (and admitted his mistake) to miss the poem’s ironic tone.  Likewise, I felt I wasn’t forcing an interpretation on these studetns when another rather articulate student summed up the poem with the following words, “This poem just proves that the consequences of war simply outweigh the benefits.” 

In case any of you are interested in teaching “The War Works Hard,” I found myself emulating Blau’s tendency to rely on some sense of authorial intent (though with Roethke, the intent is much more ambiguous), so I looked up Mikhail’s background.  In my resarech, I found the following interview with Dunya Mikhail on NPR, in which she says, “When I think of war, for me, it’s by default a … lose-lose case.  I believe there’s no winner in the war because, you know, the killed one dies physically and the killer dies morally. So they are both dead.” (  Thus, while Roethke’s poem may celebrate ambiguity, I would argue, and I think my students would (now) back me up on this that Mikhail’s poem is much less ambiguous in its relevation of the hardships of war.  Either way, I am only beginning to see the difficulty in teaching the analysis of poetry, something which is inherently so personal in its ability to speak to us, in a high school classroom.  Thankfully, Blau has some really great suggestions on how to make this process, much like the writing process, more of a successful and meaningful experience for students and teachers alike.

On Gee: A Brief List of Talking Points

As I read What Video Have Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, I started to imagine what I would say to Gee if I were to sit down to tea with him one snowy afternoon. I jotted down a list throughout my reading that would help me to remember the points of contention I wished to discuss with him. (Some of them have already been mentioned by other blog posts, so I feel as if I am part of an “affinity group” of doubters.) 

Here is my list of points of contention, each followed by my post-reading reflection:

1) Gender? Sexualized females?

Just because Gee makes a disclaimer in the beginning of his book does not mean that we can toss aside the damage that such factors might cause in a learning environment.

2) Multiple intelligences?

I have to wonder whether Gee has taken into account the multiple ways that people learn. He does not seem to ever point out that while certain other teaching strategies work for some students, video games may also only work for some students. Students who are skilled in either visual-spacial intelligence or bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (two of Gardener’s list of multiple intelligences) may excel at video games, but what about the students who just flounder repeatedly with this kind of activity. I think adding video game-style learning to any curriculum can be useful, but I want to iterate that certain students would not reap the same benefits. Differentiating learning is very important, and I concur with Gee that we need to be more cognizant of gamers’ learning styles, but I can’t be sure that all, or even most, students would learn better with gaming-type curriculum.

3) Childhood obesity?

This may seem random, but one of today’s headlines explains that Michelle Obama is working to prevent childhood obesity so it was on my mind.  As I was thinking about my students sitting at home over these snow days, playing video games, I got to thinking about their lack of exericese.  We all know that chidlhood obesity stems, in large part, from the inactivity involved in many video games (as well as in TV-watching). I know that games like those played on the Wii might be the exception to the rule, but as Todd pointed out, don’t we also see people who suffer because of gaming? Sure, they may be learning and becoming better thinkers, but what are they doing to their health?

4) Addiction? Gambling?

Next on my list was the idea of addiction. I think I had, at this point, started skimming other people’s blogs, and after reading Todd’s I realized that I, too, attribute gaming to addictive behavior because, in certain cases, the game becomes life. This thought led me to yet another: sure, gambling is fun in the classroom, too. It certainly makes for a more interesting lesson, I’m sure, but it promotes something that many consider immoral and dangerous. While a lesson that incorporated gambling might really inspire students to learn, it also might inspire them to a life of addiction. Gambling certainly can indicate a high level of intelligence (as is clear in the movie 21 in which MIT students count cards and make lots of $), but it can also lead to a life of desperation.

5) Active learning? Technology?

In a sense, I think what I got most out of this book, aside from a higher appreciation of some video games, is the notion that we as teachers need to incorporate as much active learning and technology as we can into our classrooms. These days, our students’ lives are immersed in technology, and whether we old-schoolers want to admit or not, they learn better (in ways we may not even grasp) when lessons can be tied to some kind of active learning, particularly when that active learning involves technology.

For example, when I have students play group games in which they review vocabulary words or literary terms that are projected for them Jeopardy-style on the classroom TV or white-board, they get so into it that they forget they are learning. In essence, I have “tricked them into learning,” a phrase a mentor of mine shared with me and I continue to try to incorporate into my classroom. In essence, this is what Gee is talking about when he suggests we incorporate what he has learned about learning into our teaching.

In conclusion, I blame the snow for why I spent so much time on this post, but Gee certainly had me thinking, and while I won’t say I disagree with all he says, or concur for that matter, I do feel like I’ve been forced to think about learning in new and intriguing ways. That said, I’d like to get back to playing Grand Theft Auto IV now.

Believing In and Implementing New Teaching Strategies

Perhaps I am too easily influenced by the things I read in my grad. classes, because I am already incorporating what we read this week into my teaching. For example, I was already planning on teaching a few Hemingway pieces from In Our Time, mostly because that’s the only book we have enough copies of to give out, but also because I read most of his stories last semester and loved them. I now have every intention to have my Honors 10th grade students dig through Interchapter VII as Scholes did. While he’s right that it will be tempting to “show off” what I know now about the text and its context, I’m going to let them analyze first with what they know and then introduce them to some of the “principles and procedures that lead to strong interpretive positions” (30). I’d love to see some of them move from understanding the allusions to putting the whole piece together as a larger comment on “a world where human qualities are regularly crushed and brutalized by social and biological forces too powerful for individuals to resist” (35).

Likewise, as of today, I am asking my 12th grade AP students to pay more attention to not only the experiences they bring to the texts they read, but also to the approach they naturally take. I told them that I tend to lean toward a more psychological or gendered approach, and I told them that one my classmates (that was Todd!) said last week that he tends toward archetypal readings. I want students to pay more attention to their own theoretical approaches. As I told them today, I realize now that I need to empower my students more by helping them to become more aware of (1) what they bring to the text and (2) the power they have to interpret on their own.

I want students to understand that there is no one way to interpret Hamlet’s behavior—perhaps he is mad, perhaps not—but that they have the power to decipher on their own what they believe to be the case. This recalls something in Linkon’s article: “It is the combination of these [multiple habits and practices] that generate the excitement of scholarly work—the moment when everything changes, when research and reflection transform a story or painting, making available more complex insights into both the text and the world that it represented” (252-3). During my thesis-writing experience so far, I have had several of these ah-ha moments myself (in between the hair-pulling and nail-biting moments), and I really want my students to share this transformative experience, particularly the AP students who are about to enter college classrooms where that kind of inquiry and analysis will make them more competitive and better-equipped to succeed.

I wonder whether my excitement (which I swear is real) about reading these pieces stems, in part, from my generally negative opinion of education pedagogy. I have often found myself frustrated with the simplistic and childish ways some educational gurus suggest we change our teaching, but these two texts have both made the case that we should adjust our teaching of reading in a way that makes sense to me. It’s logical to help the students to get stronger and more confident as readers and to do so in a way that moves them from a basic understanding to a more complex and meaningful criticism of texts we read.  It also seems particularly useful since the pieces seem to be directed at college-level courses, and I want to effectively prepare my Honors and AP level students for college-level work.

Week 2- Teaching with Difficulty & Admitting It

As many of you have discussed already, the idea of challenging our students and effectively teaching poses a complex dilemma for teachers.  When I read The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, I found myself constantly recalling teaching snafus, moments in which I just hadn’t realized how difficult works had been for my students.  One of my tweets this week mentions that Othello may be a more accessible text than Hamlet for high school students.  Then, coincidentally, in the chapter we read from How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, the writers included a way to get at Hamlet from a more relevant place for high school students.  On page 34, the book assesses how two new teachers tackled Hamlet differently; though they are both experts, one teacher drew too much on his college experience to teach less-prepared students about the “notions of ‘linguistic reflexivity’ and issues of modernism,” while the other started out with a scenario to which the students could relate.  Only once the students could relate to Hamlet’s frustration at his uncle’s usurpation of power did the teacher introduce the play.

This reminds me of a moment last November when I observed another advanced class (an IB class rather than the AP class I teach) at another school.  In some kind of arbitrary moment of fortune, I happened to observe a class on Hamlet, just as I was beginning to teach the play myself.  The “virtuoso” teacher I observed had introduced the students to the play little by little, whereas for years I had been quizzing the students almost immediately to make sure they had both read and understood on their own.  I wanted to introduce them to the difficulty of college, but at the same time, for years I had been overwhelming them with material that was both challenging and at times, un-relatable.  This past few months, I have been working to more effectively introduce the stories  (and make them relevant to their lives) as well as address difficulties that I anticipate they may have ahead of time.  It has been rewarding for the students and for me to see how much better they understand with a little preliminary help from me. 

After reading The Elements, I’ve also considered how I handle the question of  reflecting on “difficulty.”  One of the things I have significantly neglected to do with my students is to ever have them reflect in writing about what exactly they find difficult.  We often discuss the challenges they face as they are reading and afterward, but I am entirely convinced that some reflective writing, specifically on what precisely turns them off about what we read and what overwhelms them, would really enhance my teaching.

I wanted to leave off with one of my favorite quotations from How People Learn:

Beliefs about what it means to be an expert can affect the degree to which people explicitly search for what they don’t know and take steps to improve the situation. In a study of researchers and veteran teachers, a common assumption was that “an expert is someone who knows all the answers.”  This assumption had been implicit rather than explicit and had never been questioned and discussed. But when the researchers and teachers discussed this concept, they discovered that it placed severe constraints on new learning because the tendency was to worry about looking competent rather than publicly acknowledging the need for help in certain areas.

When I first began teaching six years ago, I wanted to seem like an “expert.”  In recent years, I have come to terms with the boundless knowledge that goes into the various concepts inherent in teaching high school English.  If any of us knew everything there is to know about grammar, vocabulary, rhetoric, linguistics (and so much more), and if we had read all of the literature that exists, we would be superhuman.  Admitting our limits as humans, and therefore our limits as teachers, can be refreshing for both us and for the students.