Author Archives: susanwhalen

Reflections of a First-timer

Standing up in front of the class to teach last night was definitely a humbling experience, especially after following such great (and hilarious) presentations that were hard acts to follow. Thank you all for participating! If you can tell by my blog title, I have not yet taught in a classroom before, so this was a great experience for me to see what works and what needs tweaking (like perfecting the Blau guiding questions style.)

I would’ve liked to have had more time to present my mini-lesson on types of verse, ballad form, and pastoral, but for the sake of time I glossed over it. These were also ambitious concepts to cover (I am learning about this now in grad school and did not really cover this in undergrad), but I think it’s good knowledge for students to have in analyzing a poem. I am very thankful to Beth for answering what verse “Strange Fruit” might be in, and I am impressed that she recognized it would definitely not be accentual-syllabic (I think some students believe this is the only type of verse). I forgot to mention that I would have students keep a literary terms journal all semester that would be handed in with their portfolio at the end of the year.

When I wrote my reflection for my lit analysis, I was nervous that our class would develop an interpretation too quickly as I felt I did, because at our level of study it seems obvious. However, I also questioned whether or not an AP high school student or undergraduate student would understand what was happening right away, especially without historical context. My pre-writing on literature as protest and the drawing activity was meant to guide students into the interpretation, but I wonder if it was too much of a push?

I realize with the drawing activity, I should have started with the group that had stanza 3 (who would’ve drawn more literally based on context) and worked my way back to group 1. The idea of that activity was to get across the dichotomy of the Southern pastoral scene and the lynching. My fall back plan, which I think I would go with next time, was suggested by Prof Sample in my reflection paper. This was to give students one of the lines about the beautiful South and have them write a line of verse that would come before or after it.

My expectations were right that our class developed an interpretation quickly; however, I was still very impressed with the discussion and new developments I had not considered. I definitely had one of the “you learn more as the teacher” moments when the discussion went into Biblical references of Adam & Eve (I had not thought about this before, very interesting). You all had great informal and formal knowledge to contribute from knowing it was a Billie Holiday song, to sharing experiences growing up in the South, to providing intertextual grounding for the poem.

I also forgot to mention a post-writing activity for an end-of-year portfolio with the choice of writing a 3-5 page researched analysis on the poem or creatively writing an imitation of the style using imagery (or allegory for the overachievers).

Any and all advice will be greatly appreciated! Thank you again for being great sports.

Teaching Nat Turner

I think Nat Turner definitely deserves re-reading, and that re-reading would be a great tool for students to fully comprehend the text. There are plenty of ways I think this graphic narrative or novel could be taught:

1) Present a difficulty-paper assignment that has students recognize why they have a difficult time reading the text (i.e. because of the genre, because of the historical context).

2) On a more creative note, have students write one to two sentences of text for what is going on in the parts like “Home” that rely only on images. Or conversely, have students draw their own images for what is going on for a portion of the text of Nat Turner’s confessions.

3) Similarly, you could have students attempt to create their own (shortened version) of a graphic narrative. To relate it to the text, you could have students create one regarding some injustice they felt they have experienced.

I first came across the graphic novel in reading Maus I and Maus II in my undergraduate Holocaust literature course. At the end of the course we had to do a project or research paper, and I decided to create a mini-graphic “novel” on the anti-Semitism I witnessed growing up in a predominantly Jewish town. This helped me better understand the benefits of telling a story through this medium.

4) Ask the students questions relating to the text that may require them to go back and re-read: who fed the baby to the shark? Why is the first image of someone reading in the dark? When the white man wants to kill one of the captured Africans on page 35, and there is a bubble indicating “$!,” what does that mean?

5) Do a pre-writing or post-writing exercise about a “motive” for Nat Turner. In his confessions, he explains a lot about what happens (and as we learned in Prof Sample’s lectures, this may be exaggerated based on Thomas R. Gray’s own motive for financial gain) but not a lot about why.

6) Have students research the historical period or pre-write about what they know about slavery. I think having the background knowledge of Nat Turner’s confessions is relevant.

7) Introduce or discuss other texts that might be related, such as “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall or “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, etc.

The Graphic Graphic Novel

It’s interesting to see so many people express dislike or disinterest for Nat Turner. It is a heavy subject on all fronts, and I think the graphic novel is a great medium to get this across. Most of the comments I am reading say how the images were so graphic and violent. However, unless you have the talent for linguistics like Truman Capote, I think this medium of the graphic novel is appropriate and necessary.

I was disturbed by many of the visual images going on, more so than the calm and collected retelling of Nat Turner’s confession. The images only amped up my awareness of how complicated and violent the turn of events were. If I have any criticism, it’s that there was almost unequal weight of violence, and I think that more of the horror could have been shown in the “Home” section. It seems most of the graphically violent parts like decapitation and the murder of children were in the images of the murders during the insurrection. I think a whole discussion could be had in analyzing this book based on why this part is shown as the most violent, when really it is a reaction to being dehumanized.

I am intrigued that the beginning tells so much of a story without any words. Although I must admit some parts were confusing because you really have to focus and provide your own context for what is going on in the images, I must say re-reading or rather re-looking at the images helped work out certain areas of confusion. For example, on pages 52-53, it took me awhile to realize what was happening. Initially I thought the white captors were throwing the baby overboard to the sharks, but I soon realized it was the captured (perhaps the parent of the child), who made this decision. In realizing this, so much is said about the conditions of what was happening that a parent would want to kill their own child instead of putting them through this experience.

This certainly is not an easy going read because it’s not an easy going subject, but I think to show the truth of it; including the sick sentiment of the “white family” happily picnicking at Nat Turner’s lynching, says a lot about a disgusting time in our country’s history. I think if you are deeply disturbed by this graphic novel, then it has done the best job in serving its purpose.

It’s All Ordinary

I hate to sound like a cynic, but in initially reading Text Book, I didn’t buy Pratt’s views of natural narrative, opening with “We think of literature as something special, as something above or beyond the way we use language in our daily lives— and so, in certain respects, it is.” (p. 2) I think this is an unfair assumption to take on that most people view literature as unattainable compared to ordinary speech. I had a difficult time agreeing with Pratt and seeing how all of the requirements according to Labov on p. 7 must be considered for a natural narrative to be complete. We can see even from WCW’s “The Use of Force,” with a lack of abstract and evaluation, that this is not always the case.
Perhaps, it’s because of my access to literature and writing courses, where I was taught dialogue in relation to ordinary speech and iambic pentameter as representation of natural speech. In my undergraduate fiction course, I was taught to write dialogue as it occurs naturally in real life. My professor gave us a short story by Hemmingway as an example of how the conversation between the two characters passes over one another.
I think most of the writing exercises that follow the excerpts in this book would be useful in a classroom setting. Although some of them I couldn’t necessarily relate to the intention of the book to show how ordinary written and spoken language is similar to literary language. As a writer, I think this is understood and unavoidable.
However, the exercise on page 46 to develop a story from the news article intrigued me as being the first exercise to support the intention of the book. Imaginative writing is stemming from ordinary language, instead of imaginative writing stemming from other imaginative writing or ordinary language stemming from imaginative writing. I think this would be a valuable approach for teaching writing.

Noticing what I Notice

In reviewing my blog posts, I notice that I tend to write critically of the text, citing specific portions of the readings to discuss, to make intertextual connections or connections between the reading and what we’ve discussed in class, to relate the readings to personal experiences, and to make decisions on which teaching strategies I would employ in my own classroom.

In my first blog post “Difficulty Paper-like Exercise,” I related the contents of the book The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty to the real-life situation I had of a class where we participated in an exercise similar to a difficulty paper. I noticed that in describing the situation, I recognized certain learning strategies by students, like using formal knowledge, identifying limits/questioning parts of text, and cultural literacy in the context of Linkon. I also identified the New Criticism approach to literature, which would later be a discussion in class.

In my second blog post “Breaking Expectations,” I revisited difficulty as a subject. I also related what we discussed in class regarding teacher’s expectations to the reading, and related my own personal experiences to this as well. I was able to recognize the role of the teacher and student, and critically think of issues relating to this like having false expectations or assumptions. I quoted specific parts of the reading to back up my opinions or to argue against the reading. At the end of the blog post, I was able to decide which strategies learned from the reading that I would choose to apply to my own classroom, as well as the philosophies I liked but thought might not be as practical.

In my third blog “Transference,” I connected the Gee reading to other learning strategies in prior readings, noticing some shared pedagogical philosophies, such as combating “boring” or difficult texts, the need for modeling/demonstration, etc. I brought in someone else’s previous blog post in order to connect it to what I read and learned. I approached Gee critically, questioning the text and bringing in quotes from the text as well. In the end, I couldn’t escape writing about personal experience, which I brought in with a PS note on the publishing industry and educational technology.

Blog 4 “Background Info” contained these same elements of connecting the reading to class discussions and activities, and relating the reading to previous blogs and personal experience. I brought back the idea of New Criticism I had from my first blog and that we discussed in class. I addressed the role of background knowledge in interpreting texts, and related this to the “think aloud” activity in class.

My most recent blog post “Blau Ch. 8” involved referencing a specific part of the reading, the Interpretation Project. Again, I related this to other strategies like the difficulty paper (seems to be my favorite strategy or most blogged about), and I cited other readings like the Linkon article. I noticed different levels of learning and adaptability for students, similar to recognizing learning strategies in my first blog. I again related this to personal experience, and I decided what I would like to try in the classroom.

Blogging about my blog posts has helped me realize that I approach these blogs critically and through interconnection of what I have learned. I think being able to connect the different readings we have is important, but it also makes me realize that this should not be the only strategy for learning.

Blau Ch. 8

One of the most interesting and new strategies that Blau brings up is in Chapter 8. In the Interpretation Project on p. 177 he recommends that students do not do any library or web based research, but rather to use information from the papers’ or thoughts of other students in the group to support or contrast their point in their own papers.

The beginning stages of this project is described much like a difficulty paper, but I am conflicted over this twist of using each other as sources. On one hand, it’s great because as Linkon brought up in her article, a lot of students do not know how to research properly or how to use the information they find from research. Blau also points this out in saying that students may end up writing a paper that cites source after source instead of developing their own independent ideas. However, I think there could be a lot of room for misinterpretation with students using each other as a source of authority on the subject when the students themselves are trying to figure it out. A “good” student might be able to pull an idea from another student that they find is an “incorrect” interpretation and use that to show or discredit an alternative point of view. This student may also be able to pull another students’ similar idea to defend their own point. But, what about the other students who struggle developing their own interpretations on the poem/story let alone extrapolating from another student’s ideas.

This almost reminds me of a semester I had where the professor barely lectured or spoke during class; instead, students were divided into groups and were to present on the weekly topics. The students acted as teachers, informing us other students of the research they had done on a certain form of poetry. In a lot of ways this was great for the student presenting, because as Blau mentioned earlier and in this situation the teacher often learns more when teaching than the student. However, as a student listening to what may or what may not have been a correct parlaying of information on the subject. I had a difficult time parsing through the presentations by students for pertinent information. I think it also has a lot to do with seeing the teacher as the authority, which as we discussed is not always good because students may take a teacher’s lecture or interpretation as the sole way to think.

I guess I need to see results of this type of project, which Blau didn’t really provide for this section, before I would try this in a classroom.

Background Info

No! I was considering using “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell for my teaching presentation; however, Blau uses it in one of the workshops in Chapter 4. The point of using this poem is an example of how sometimes background knowledge is essential for interpreting a poem. Students might have more confusion of this particular poem if no one is familiar with the role of a ball turret gunner and the structure of fighter planes in World War II.

Blau even admits that he’s never conducted that workshop without at least one participant knowing about WWII bombers and ball turrets on page 84. I wonder what would happen, especially with newer generations moving farther away from that era, if no one knew. Blau mentions that he draws a picture of the WWII bomber, which is one method of introducing the background information to students.

However, in class we’ve also discussed New Criticism and how perhaps, background information can get in the way of a reading as well. A good example of how background information got in the way of interpretation is my group’s “think aloud” exercise, where we had such focus on the poet William Carlos Williams in our interpretation. However, background information would have also been useful had my group recognized the date of the poem 1934, we might’ve considered The Great Depression in our reading (especially with the broken green bottle).

I feel conflicted on whether a teacher should provide background information before a reading. In some ways, this would be very helpful. As a reader, if I’m at home, I tend to research information I am not familiar with in relation to a text. On the opposite side, I think that giving background information might lead readers to one type of interpretation, which brings up what Blau points out in Chapter 3 about one of the misperceptions of reading literature being that there is only one “correct” response/interperation.


As I read Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, I connected many of the ideas he had on applying learning strategies to gaming with those we have read previously with Salvatori and Donahue, Shulman, Scholes, and especially Linkon. Gee discusses active and critical learning, which relates to Linkon’s article on cultural critical reading. There is an emphasis on making students active learners instead of passive learners as Scholes would describe moving from reading to interpretation to criticism. This is also shown with Linkon’s example of the inquiry project, where students engaged in real inquiry and took on a new identity as researchers and critical thinkers.

However, Gee says “Certainly children will be at a disadvantage if they have one or more identities that do not fit with, are opposed to, or are threatened by the identity recruited in the [science] classroom…” Similar to how Tim’s Week 3 blog post on Linkon reflected how different cultural identities influenced his student’s readings on The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Megestu, the student’s cultural identity affects how they learn. We already know that some students are more adept at learning and that there must be an interest in learning or else the student will have the blame “this text is too difficult,” or “it’s boring” as we learned from The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty. There didn’t seem to be much resolution offered for those children who would be considered disadvantaged by Gee, but there was an expansion on identity as projective identity in his book. Projective identity “plays on two sense of ‘project,’ meaning both ‘to project one’s alues and desires onto the virtual character’ and ‘seeing the virtual character as one’s own project in the making…” (Gee p. 50) Gee later explains (in relation to science classrooms mostly although I really wish there were some English class examples) how the student needs to take on the identity of the scientist (or other expert) in order to become that type of thinker. So, for literature would this mean that a student should empathize and place his/herself in the identity of say the main character? Also, what about the disadvantaged students? How would a student even consciously know to project identity or how does the teacher get the student to project identity in the classroom? Gee goes on to discuss “repair work” for the students who cannot connect between real world identity and virtual identity: learner must be enticed to try even if he/she is afraid to try; learnermust be enticed to put in lots of effort even if there is little motivation to do so; and learner must achieve some meanigful success when he/she has expended this effort. (Gee p. 58) This all seems pretty obvious as generalities for teaching (as we’ve discussed positive reinforcement and making reading interesting in our class). In fact, these things seem more premptive or continuous than “repair work”.

On page 74 Gee says, “Of course, humans don’t just store experiences in their minds ‘as is.’ Rather, they edit them according to their interests, values, goals, and socio-cultural memberships.” This relates to the reading on experts vs. novices and how experts compartmentalize knowledge. In that same article about how experts learn and apply things, it mentions how experts recognize patterns, which Gee also discusses in the 4-step process (for children and experts) on probing, hypothesis, reprobing, and accepting the process on page 88. He also mentions how “situated meanings lead to real understanding and the ability to apply what one knows in action. Verbal meanings do not (though they do sometimes lead to the ability to pass paper and pencil tests). This is why so many school children, even ones who are good at school, can pass tests but still cannot apply their knowledge to real problem solving.” (p. 105) Linkon tried to resolve this by having students do the inquiry project. He also discusses how players learn the game by playing in a “subdomain” of the real game, or initially the first episode of a game which is a type of walkthrough of how to play. This is similar to how Linkon expresses the need for modeling and demonstration.

There is a lot in Gee’s book on how literacy applies to video games, including transference of things learned in one game applied to other similar games (like first-person shooter games), and as I try to be a good learner I shouldn’t complain (as I did above) about the lack of English classroom examples because the point is to transfer what I learned in Gee’s book on literacy and video games to English classrooms.

PS- When I worked in publishing on secondary school level math textbooks, our big competitor was trumping our market because they developed a new program enVision math, which had some pretty intense graphics on video games or technology that teaches math (my company called it “smoke and mirrors”).

Breaking Expectations

In reflecting moments of difficulty for students, Sherry Linkon says in her article, “Too often, final papers offer competent close readings that either rephrase what was said in class, suggesting that students have done little thinking on their own, or reflect course themes only minimally, suggesting that students are not applying what they’re learning to their own interpretations.” (p. 253) I wondered if this is related to the student’s expectation of reiterating points because the student believes it is what his or her teacher will accept as the “right answer.” As we discussed in class, usually when a teacher has an idea of an interpretation or what she intends to teach, if this is disrupted in some way, then it will be less likely accepted by the teacher. It makes sense then that students instead of taking the risk of furthering their thought process, will write on points their teachers have made. I too am guilty of this; especially in a merit-based educational system, unfortunately, grades are the measure of success and students are afraid of failure.

For a midterm last semester, I wrote an essay on Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a fly buzz.” In making an analysis on the last stanza, particularly the second to last line of the poem, “And then the windows failed, and I,” my interpretation was that this insinuates the speaker’s eyes closing and thus, the speaker dies. The problem with my analysis was that I was choosing an interpretation that I tried to remember from high school or undergraduate classes (with the death part). As far as the eyes closing theory, it made sense because I thought of the phrase “eyes are a window to the soul.” I chose this line of the poem as the pinnacle point of my interpretation. However, my professor, who is beyond familiar with prosody, shot my interpretation down, taking a more literal stance that indeed the windows were failing to let light inside. So, I take there to be two issues with this in terms of learning and teaching. 1) I was that student that Linkon speaks of rephrasing what I heard from somewhere else, and expecting my professor to want this already theorized interpretation. 2) This was not the interpretation my professor wanted or expected, so essentially it was a further thought process, and instead of opening up to it, my professor refused my interpretation.

I am also guilty of thinking I work best under pressure and should procrastinate (although Linkon stresses that this doesn’t work). Linkon also says, “No matter how early in the semester [teachers] give term paper assignments, most students will complete them quickly, in a week or two at most near the due date.” (p. 253) I agree that this happens often; I have also found that a lot of papers will be on a syllabus at the beginning of the year, but that teachers will not explain what the paper will involve until later on in the semester, closer to the time the paper is due. Perhaps, this is a teacher succumbing to his/her knowledge that students’ wait to the last minute? Not only do students have assumptions of what professors expect, but professors have assumptions of how students work (mostly not ahead of schedule). However, starting a research paper early is critical, as pointed out by the “inquiry project” in Linkon’s article. She says, “[students] need to learn to evaluate how well an approach works and adjust their thinking as they work—to reframe questions, to try another strategy for locating sources, to revise a conclusion in light of new ideas.” (p. 258) Most of the students participating in the research project in the article, revised their focus of their papers as they continued to do research, because their initial ideas just scratched the surface. In taking a week or two to write a paper, a student doesn’t allot herself enough time for such revision. While I think students would benefit from a capstone course or the inquiry project as Linkon outlines, most courses or schools do not have the time to focus on a semester long research project. So, how can this be done? When I eventually go into the classroom to teach, I would at least take the philosophy Linkon had about viewing teaching as an apprenticeship. I would also try to clearly outline my expectations (that I expect students to think critically on their own and take a step further than what we discuss in class). I would also not assume that students know how to approach a research paper or culturally critical texts, and would welcome tutorials on research and would discuss requirements for such papers earlier on. Basically, expectations on both sides (teacher and student) need to be revisited.

Difficulty Paper-like Exercise

Last week in my New American Poetries course (a literature course on post-modern poetry) with David Kaufmann we discussed what according to The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty would be a “boring” or “intimidating” poem. Before class everyone was required to read several poems, including Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” which at first glance is a tedious poem written in seven parts, saturated in challenging language relating to nautical terms and imagery with metaphors and connections to both religion and the literary classic Moby Dick.

I did not realize until later while reading The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, but the professor’s method of opening class discussion to the reference-heavy poem was similar to the exercise of a difficulty paper. He asked everyone to read the last section of the poem (due to time constraints and having other poems to discuss) and to take a few minutes to write down any ideas we had about the last section of the poem. Then, after everyone completed jotting down notes of their thoughts on the last section of the poem, as a class we were supposed to analyze this last section. However, when Professor Kaufmann asked what we noticed about the poem, there was more silence than talk and we did not get much beyond that it seems there are a lot of references to Moby Dick. Someone also connected the dedication at the beginning of their poem with prior knowledge that the poem was written for a relative of Lowell’s who drowned while serving in the Navy. Our class is full of MFA Poetry students and other graduate level writers, and most of us are familiar with the process of analyzing poetry; however, even at experienced levels a poem can still be challenging and require what some students discovered in The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty as some “extra work.”

Professor Kaufmann then revised his question to ask, “Why is this poem difficult? What is getting in the way of understanding the poem?” With this new approach our class was examining the parts of the last section that hindered a clear reading of what was going on in the poem. The discussion started to open up. We decided in order to understand the poem, it would help to be familiar with nautical terms like “gaff” and “shoal-bell.” Also, we discussed how the syntax was tricky. The last section seems to be addressed to the Atlantic Ocean; however, some parts contained modifiers that were confusing to trace back who or what was being modified. For example, “It’s well;/Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors, sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:/ Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh/ Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers/ Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil/”

What does supercilious mean in this context? “Unmarried and corroding” is modifying or referring to what? This poem seemed syntactically convoluted, as well as coded with references similar to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” where you need to refer to footnotes every line.

We then went on to point out the references to other literature and to Old Testament passages, particularly with the last line of the poem “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.” Through the use of prior knowledge of Biblical stories, we related the address to the Atlantic and other lines to the flood and Noah’s Arc. At the end of the flood there was a rainbow, which was God’s promise that he would not flood the world again so long as man agreed to treat the blood of man as sacred to not be shed.

We ended up realizing, that Lowell’s poem does not sum up with a message in this last line, rather his poem is diagnostic instead of remedial. The open-endedness of the poem and back and forth between God and what is happening in the Atlantic is intentional to show the speaker of the poem’s conflict with religion and this pact made between God and man.

This activity, which I related to a Difficulty Paper although on a smaller-scale, is also how literature had been approached post-World War II when the GI Bill of Rights was signed, which upped college enrollment by at least 30%. The accessibility of college put scholars of all different backgrounds on the same level, so in order to teach literature to both the elite (who would be familiar with the likes of Shakespeare) and the undereducated in the same class (who might not be familiar with specific authors), a new way of approaching the analysis of literature, called new criticism, was developed. New criticism involved reading the text itself without bringing in outside sources or knowledge of other criticism in order to analyze the work.