Author Archives: toddkelly

Texts from last night

Thinking about my teaching presentation last night, the one thing that bothers me is that I did not do a good job of explaining how the lesson flowed from one activity to another.  I felt that it came across as individual mini-assignments that were loosely based, but not necessarily part of a cohesive whole.  As far as the pre-writing goes, we would have spent a good amount of time discussing the conventions of the comedy genre, and I would have referred back to the list we created during the later discussion, which hopefully would have tied the pre-writing to the story and discussion.  Actual discussion would also not have been as forced, and I would have taken the time to allow for a lot more student input before telling them what was happening and how it fit into the definition of postmodernism. I like to have allow lessons to form organically in each class I teach and this loose approach may have been detrimental to the format of the presentations for 610.  Oh, and I agree with Maggie that following monkey acting activities was not an easy task.

That is just me nitpicking however, and overall, I thought the lesson went fairly well.  You guys were fun to teach to and I wish we time to actually discuss the story, because I think it is fun.  Your evites were all great, good job, and a particular tip of the hat goes out to Alicia and her naked skating.  Thank you for your input last night, and I look forward to reading your comments.

I feel like the kid who is absent the day people pick lab partners and is stuck with the weird kid

Basically, I am saying that most of the good options are already taken by other people.  Which is great.  I enjoyed reading all of your posts and feel that there are some really good ideas out there.  My post is basically a fragmented mess of semi-formed ideas, but that is often what my units look like before I actually start teaching them.  I’ve never been a plan every second of every minute of every class kind of teacher.  I have some general points I want to hit, but am usually open to any interesting side routes that present themselves along the roughly sketched path in my brain.

One thing that I would obviously want to discuss with Nat Turner, would be the gruesomeness of it.  But I want to go beyond just what makes it gruesome? or is this necessary? or is there any place for this sort of content in a serious literature class?  I would want to focus on how the graphic novel as a form achieves this revulsion in us compared to other media.  Does Nat Turner have a more visceral effect on a person, then a description of torture/murder in a novel?  How about a nonfiction account?  And finally, what about a medium where the viewer is more passive, like film or television?  How effective is each of these mediums in making us uncomfortable and what specific techniques does each employ in the process?  This would be tough in a high school classroom, as issues would obviously arise if you were to start long detailed passages of brutal acts  of violence or showing clips from violent movies.

As I mentioned last week, I think Nat Turner would be a great companion text for the novel Beloved. Many of the same themes are explored and Beloved is as much of a stomach punch text as Nat Turner in my opinion.  Nat Turner would also obviously work well with The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron.  William Styron’s novel is interesting because it elicited a response from prominent black writers such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin** (called William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond appropriately enough).  The main issue was that the black writers took issue with the way that Styron (white, Southern) portrayed Turner.  Questions arise about whether a white writer has any “right” to tell a historical black man’s story, and broader issues about depictions of race, gender, sexuality, etc.  Do certain people or peoples “own” certain stories?  Is there such a thing as out of bounds in literature?  Does anyone have a problem that Kyle Baker is a white man telling this story, and telling it in this way?

Have students pull what some people are claiming Thomas Gray did and write a completely fabricated confession of a real historical (or even someone in the news today) figure.  All they would need would be some basic facts about a marginal person in a history textbook and could fill in the details themselves.   If you want to get crazy, you could have them turn it into a graphic novel.  Writing a poem helps you understand the mechanics of poetry in a way that just reading poetry cannot, it makes sense that the choices involved in creating your own graphic novel would lead to a deeper understanding of the form as well.

**Correction:  Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin actually defended Styron, I misread the information I was looking at.  My apologies.  However, there was quite a brouhaha over Styron’s novel, especially when it won the Pulitzer Prize. There is a section on Styron’s novel and the response to it in the reading on Blackboard.

Literature vs. Text

I have read in many of the blog posts for this week that several of my classmates have trouble identifying graphic novels, or comic books for that matter with “literature.”  Most of the time, this seems to be an exclusionary distinction, graphic novels cannot count because it is primarily a visual medium, and “literature” is the written word.  One potential flaw I see with this distinction is drama.  Plays are primarily a visual medium, they were meant to be seen on the stage, performed by actors, not read.  However, I do not see  a rush to exclude Shakespeare from the category of “literature.”

Is my example a bit extreme? Probably, but i wanted to hit home a point.  I think instead of focusing on “literature” we should instead focus on the idea of “texts.”  Though hardly a technical definition, I think that a text is anything that can be interpreted, anything that can be considered more than the sum of its parts.  I also think that there is great value in studying various texts in the English classroom beyond just the written word.  Our students are barraged with hundreds of “texts” on a daily basis, a majority of which do not fall under the classical definition of literature as the written word.  I want my students to be able to read and interpret these texts as well as the more traditional written texts we look at in class.

For example, to study John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” in my class, I used a variety of texts to look at the theme of the interconnectedness of mankind across different mediums.  We used songs like “I am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkle, which takes one of Donne’s metaphors and explores the disadvantages of human connection.  Then we compared Three Dog Night’s “One” with Aimee Mann’s cover of the same song to discuss how Mann attempted to convey the mood of the lyrics with her more somber rendering of the song.  We looked at movie clips from “I Heart Huckabees” and “Magnolia.”  I showed them the art project Garfield Minus Garfield to show the isolation we feel when we lose that human connectedness.  We also looked at the website We Feel Fine to show how the internet has fostered a change in human connectedness on a global scale by its ability to place us in touch with large numbers of strangers with relative ease.  Their final assessment is to write a “Pop Culture Meditation” where they find a text in their own lives that explores the theme.  My students are into it, they are engaged in a way that they have not been when we have just looked at the written word.

As far as Nat Turner goes, I think that there is something of real value to be studied.  To me, it mirrors a lot of the same themes as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a text that I think everyone can agree is a piece of great literature.  The horrors of slavery dehumanize the characters in both of those texts to the point where they commit brutal acts that it is hard for modern day readers to fully comprehend.  I think both texts also serve to show that the scars of slavery have yet to be fully healed in American society.

Yes, the written word has been the traditional mode of study for these types of things in the past. However, for hundreds of years, the written word was all we really had to study.  I was reading an article the other day about colleges across the country who are now offering courses in HBO’s The Wire, a show of which the most common adjective seems to be Dickensian.  As these other types of media and texts mature and show more depth, I think it will become common to study them alongside of traditional written texts, and I am all for it.

On Text Book

This is probably the hardest post that I have had to write in this class so far.  My main problem is that Text Book does not seem to inspire any feeling in me one way or another.  If I liked something about it alot, or disliked something about it alot, I might have somewhere to start.  However, I read the two chapters and my strongest reaction was “oh, I guess that is kind of interesting,” or “I am not really sure why this is here,” but nothing to really grasp onto.  I skimmed over the book again, looking for something, anything to get that old belly fire stoked,  but have still not found inspiration.  I just sat down and started to type in the hope that something relevant and coherent would come out…that does not seem to be happening.  So read on at your own peril, you’ve been warned.

Many of you have already noted on the problems in the book, and I agree with most of your assessments.  The intended audience for this book is not clear to me.  Some of the background discussions and explanations of literary devices seem basic, but many of the literature selections and questions that go along with them are pretty tough in my opinion.  I also agree that the structure of the book could use some work.  Running all of the literature selections together, or randomly breaking them up in divisions and subdivisions made the book tough to get through.  I felt that most of the non-fiction selections, and the authors’ sections went on for entirely too long.  The Freud section and the metaphorical structuring were especially redundant in my opinion.  The book seemed to just be applying the “lets throw a bunch of spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks method.”  It jumps around all over the place, doubling back on itself and grabbing things from all directions.  However, none of this made me really dislike the book, it just was slightly frustrating or occasionally boring.

Which brings me to the things that I did like.  The idea of intertextuality that they propose on the first page: “The point of all this is that texts and life exist in a very complex relationship.”  The idea to think of books, or novels, or poems not as closed circuits but as texts that are constantly being changed by and changing the reality they encounter is one that fascinates me.  But then they kind of drop the idea, or maybe we have different ideas about what intertextuality is.  I also liked most of the literature selections: Borges, Calvino, most of the poetry.  Some of it was new, and some of it was a reminder of texts I have enjoyed in the past.  I also enjoyed Emily Martin’s “Egg and Sperm: A Scientific Fairy Tale.”  How our subconscious feelings or associations or prejudices can work their ways into the most seemingly random constructs is a good reminder of the power of words and what they can represent.  I wish I could share it with my students, but I do not think that FCPS would be too thrilled about it.  So there was enough in Text Book to keep me reading it and somewhat engaged.  I don’t regret having read it, but I am not thrilled about it either.  Tepid is how I would describe my feelings, or profoundly ambivalent if I wanted something a little snazzier.  That also pretty much sums up my feelings about this blog post.  So if you stuck with me this long, thank you, and I will try to get some fire in my belly for next week.

Sorry it is so long, but it is about my favorite topic……

Me, me, me, me, me.  Going back and looking over the posts, what I have noticed is that they are all for the most part about me.  Other than the Week 1 reading where I connected blindness to novice reading, pretty much every post has been about my experiences, and what I saw in my classroom, and my opinions on the usefulness of the various readings throughout the semester.

However, I do not think that this is necessarily self-indulgent or egotistical (though some of you may disagree).  I think that it stems from what is possibly the most important development for me in regards to English 610 this semester.  That would be reflection.  Specifically, that would be reflection about my teaching experiences, my teaching philosophy, and my teaching practices.  When I first started teaching oh so many years ago in that long forgotten year 2006 I had a head full of the newest pedagogical practices and the idealism to believe that I was going to adopt all of them and be some sort of super teacher.  When I actually started teaching, it did not take me too long to settle for maintaining control of 32 hormonal teenagers for an hour and fifteen minutes at a time.  Not that I completely abandoned everything I had learned or did not want to be super teacher (I still do), but I realized early on that there were any number of obstacles in the way.

Somewhere along the way I developed my own personal style of teaching, and I think that is normal.  It worked for me, I think my students learned some stuff and seemed to more or less enjoy my classes.  However, once I had settled on that style I stopped thinking about how to improve on my teaching.  Lesson planning became mechanical for me, everything fit into what

I had decided would be my practice.  Again, I don’t think they were bad lesson plans, but there was a certain rigidness to how I planned units.  At some point I just stopped reflective practice (even though it had been one of the biggest stressors in PSU’s teaching program).  When I started grad school for literature, teaching got pushed back even farther in my brain.  I was constantly reflecting on literature, and literary theory, and even how I could use some of the stuff I learned about literature in my classroom, but I was not actually thinking about teaching practices or philosophy, just content matter.

Other teachers never really talked about these types of things.  From what I can tell of faculty lunch rooms, teachers mainly talk about their own children and American Idol.  All of the seminars and professional development meetings I had to go to did not really spark my interest either.  They always seemed poorly run and taught by people who had not seen the inside of a classroom in over a decade.  They were something to get through so I could get back to grading.

However, now as I look back over these blogs, I realize that thinking about teaching, reflecting on my practices is now actively part of my consciousness again.  The readings, and even more so the writing about the readings has made me form an opinion on a wide range of pedagogical issues.  Honestly, at times, it made me wonder if I have been a bad teacher over the years because I was on auto-pilot (though usually only for a second, I feel pretty good about what I have done).  Also, as I begin to try to incorporate some of these ideas into my teaching, I notice that my style of teaching, which had been set, is slowly changing.  It is adapting and hopefully getting better.  It makes me think of something else that I learned my first year that I have forgotten: we never actually are finished learning about teaching.  It is a process and skill that you continue to hone over your career.  However, to hone it, you need to constantly be reflecting on it, a lesson I forgot.  Looking over the blogs, and now writing this one, I have remembered it and will try not to forget it again.

Intolerable Ambiguity

One of Blau’s criteria for achieving performative literacy is “tolerance for ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.” This struck me as one of the major problems that I see with my students on a daily basis. At my school, senior year is divided into AP Literature or “regular” English 12. I teach the “regular” sections. Although I do have some solid readers, most of them are inexperienced, or just not that interested in reading literature.
Whenever I try to get to the bottom of this distaste for reading in English class (which is often), I usually get some response about how the reading is “stupid” or “doesn’t make sense.” When I probe more about what is “stupid” or “does not make sense” about a reading, it usually has to do with some ambiguity in a reading. Students want answers, they are waiting around for me to tell them what a text means, so they can write it down in their notebooks and dutifully re-hash whatever I said on the test. To try to combat this reliance on my readings of texts, I stopped giving them “answers,” I decided to leave interpretation up to them. Easy right? Well, not so much. The problem then became that many of the students would just give up. They had no persistence when it came to literature with any sort of ambiguity in a text, or when a text’s meaning was not obvious right away. There was a near riot when I tried to use William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say” as a warm up (ok, I am exaggerating, but there was some yelling and they were not happy).

The other problem that I have with this approach is that instead of coming up with an interpretation on their own, students grasp onto the first interpretation that someone in class presents. Now often these opening interpretations are good starting points, but they are no means the end of the conversation. Also, sometimes they could definitely be considered incomplete or missed readings. They will go out of their way to come up with spurious, often logic-defying evidence to back up an interpretation presented by someone else instead of forming a new one on their own.
Students today are just not interested in any sort of grey area. They want everything to be black and white. I think it may have to do with the testing culture that these students have been surrounded by their whole educational careers. It does not really matter what has caused it, it needs to be addressed in some way. Reading Blau, I realized my “I am just not going to give any answers” is not really the solution. I need to help them understand the mental processes involved in reading and interpreting and foster an environment where students can learn to trust themselves. Hopefully, if I can adopt some of Blau’s ideas and activities I can lead them to be more accepting of multiple interpretations and the ambiguity that goes along with a literature reading.

Efferent vs. Aesthetic Reading

There was definitely a lot in The Literature Workshop that I identified with and enjoyed.  The transcriptions of the workshops are great models to use in the classroom, even if I realize I will not be getting quite the same level of response/cooperation as Blau’s students.

I agree with Nikki that although I read a lot of educational theory back in college it all seemed alien to me as I did not have any real world context to place it in.  For example, I know that I read Rosenblatt in college, but I do not really remember much of what she said.  Reading the summary of her ideas about efferent and aesthetic reading in Blau’s book (145-147) now, as someone with classroom experience, I am able to relate to it, and agree that it is one of the fundamental problems I run into as an English teacher.

“Why are we reading this?” “What are we supposed to be getting out of this?”  I am inundated with these questions on a daily basis.  The question as always been so hard to answer and annoying to me because to me it seems obvious: we are reading this because it is literature and the experience is supposed to enrich your lives.  I have tried to tell students that reading literature is all about the experience, about appreciating the language, of relating to a piece of art, of connecting to humanity via shared experience, and so on.  Nope.  They are not buying it.  “What are we supposed to get out of it?” really means “What will be on the test?”

Until I read this passage it never dawned on me that English class is really the ONLY place this students are expected to read aesthetically.  They have to read in every other class, but in every other class they are being trained to read efferently.  I am the only in that classroom who primarily reads texts that are meant to be read aesthetically.  It made me realize that I should be more forgiving of my students and their need to know “what they are supposed to be getting out of it.”

However, as Blau points out, testing for aesthetic reading is remarkable difficult.  There are the state mandated tests that are more efferent that aesthetically based.  There is also a push for common curriculum and common assessments in many school districts.  In my experience common assessments lead towards a “correct reading” of a text, and therefore a more efferent reading.  There is also administrative pressure for crunchable data on assessments.

I guess I should focus on what I can change, as the I do not see the educational system moving away from collective testing anytime soon.  What I need to do in my classroom is incorporate as much of Blau’s ideas about enriching a literary experience for students while also making sure that my students are prepared for the types of assessments that are mandated for secondary students these days.

Hate to be Debbie Downer but….

I really did not like this book.  I’ve read your posts and it seems like some of you liked it, and I tried to, I just could not get into it or really see the value.  I am not anti-gaming, or a luddite in anyway.  I played lots of different video games growing up from sports, to first person shooters, to RPG’s.  I’ve even recently discussed video games with my students in class, namely the best games ever (Goldeneye, Mario Kart and Chrono Trigger would be the top three).  I also still occasionally play a little Wii.  However, this book just did not do anything for me.

I did not feel that any of Gee’s ideas had any real world application for my classroom.  I agree with Nikki, he had some good ideas about science, but I did not feel that it really applied to a literature classroom.  Letting students “take the long way” and “peruse” sounds great, but I have thirty kids in my class at all times and I need to maintain some sense of coherence and control.  There were some principals he talked about that I strive for, but he did not really give me anything new to work with.  I will be the first to admit that I did not like the book almost immediately for whatever reason, and may not have given it a decent chance.  I read through it however, and even took notes (really enjoying using the index card as bookmark and note taking apparatus..thanks Abbie? I think).

I also feel the book is dishonest.  I am sorry to all the gamers reading this, but I feel that there are negative social effects of playing hours and hours of video games alone.  I do not buy the whole “affinity groups” thing.  Video games can lead to isolation.  I have seen plenty of examples.  There was a guy in college who dropped A WHOLE SEMESTER, because he was playing too much Diablo instead of going to class.  My friends and I had a Sunday ritual (Big Bowl Noodle House ya’ll) and our one friend would refuse to come with us because he had to slay a dragon every Sunday at eight with his guild.  Your online guild should not take precedence over your real life friends, standing in the room, asking you to come hang out.  This summer, one of my roommates, who had quit WOW-ing began to start playing again.  He just checked out.  He would spend hours just WOWing, and we lived a block from the beach.  You could say these are extreme examples, call me old fashioned or a “cranky pants” as I’ve been called, but I think children are better served playing outside, or maybe shovelling my sidewalk.

Oh, hi Pluto, it must be fun working at Disney Land. Although at any major theme park you live under the constant threat of terrorist attacks.

Slow Down Sherry

While I think that Linkon’s Inquiry Project is a very good project and one that obviously benefited her students, I would not be so quick to jump into having a literature classroom that insists on placing all literature in its historical and cultural context.  I think that there is a lot that can be gained by just close reading a text and ignoring the author’s biography, time period, social class, etc.  A piece of literature is a piece of art and should stand up on its own merits, it does not have to be  a reflection of its time period.  Although they are not in vogue right now, both Russian Formalism and American New Criticism were based on the idea that we need to separate the text from its context.  I think formalism is an especially interesting for introductory English classes, it explores what makes something literature instead of just writing, a question we could all explore with our classes.  We also should make it clear that there are critics out there who do not believe that what the author intended matters at all.  Basically, I think we are doing our students a disservice if we imply that placing a work in its cultural context is the only way to analyze it.

We have all noted in class or in blogs that students will regurgitate our answers for us, or will try to give us the answer they think we want.  If we tell them that a text is a reflection of its culture, then all texts will be reflection of their times.  This brings about another problem in my opinion, relevance to the student.  There have been many posts about making texts relevant to students’ lives today.  Teaching them that texts depend on their historical context does nothing but distance them from students.  One of the biggest problems I had with Beowulf was trying to convince students they should care about Anglo-Saxon culture.

Stressing the historical approach also reinforces the idea that there is a “correct reading” of the text, that is, you study the culture, you will find the “meaning” or the “reason” for the text.  If we teach our students that Animal Farm has to be read as a reflection of socialism and the Cold War, their eyes will glaze over (most of our students were born after the Berlin Wall fell at this point).  Now if we take the novel out of that specific context, and just read it and have them come to their own conclusions, who know the parallels they could find to their own world? (the media, the War on Terror, the Health Care debate, clique hierarchy, just off the top of my head).

Again, I am not saying that there is no value in learning about the historical context of a text.  However, I feel that we need to be open-minded about different ways of approaching a text and letting our students come to whatever method they favor on their own.

Blindness and Teaching

The relationship between Robert, the blind man, and the husband (who I will refer to as “Bub”) in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” relates to the issues addressed in the chapter we read titled “How Experts Differ from Novices.”  Bub may be an expert at seeing a cathedral, but he lacks the pedagogical skills to teach Robert, the novice, to do so.

As teachers we tend to forget that students are not seeing things the same way that we do, or did, when we originally learned the subject matter.  A good example would be “Box 2.4” on page 34 of “How Experts Differ from Novices.”  The one teacher, Jake, cannot understand why his students are not enjoying Hamlet when he is teaching it the same way that he was taught, which he enjoyed immensely.  Like Jake (and Bub), we too often take for granted our point of view, and project it on to students.  We were easily able to decipher meaning of a poem or passage, so we know it can be done, and we do not understand why they are not able.  I think that “How Experts Differ from Novices” does a thorough, scientific and clear job of explaining why this happens.  In English studies, we place the emphasis on the text itself, we believe that it is all there to figure out, students just need to take the time to tease out the meaning.  We do not give credit to the multiple reading strategies we have internalized over the years that we are able to call up and apply without realizing.  Students, who do not have the experience we have, are not able to see a text the way that we do, their thought process is blind to things happening automatically in ours.

Bub is not an expert on cathedrals, he is an expert on seeing in general.  What Bub is trying to teach is how to “see” a cathedral, not just memorize random facts (as Robert already has).   Similarly, most of us are not experts on every text that we teach, but we have a general knowledge of English studies.  Also, it is more important for us to teach our students to see a text the way we do, than to memorize random facts like the number of plays Shakespeare wrote.  Bub starts off trying to teach Robert what a cathedral looks like from his, or a sighted person’s, point of view.  He says that cathedrals are “tall” and “have these supports” that “remind me of viaducts,” all of which is completely useless information to Robert.  Robert sits there and smiles politely.  Just like our students sit there and nod their head while we go on about literature using all the knowledge we learned in college, not realizing that this information is useless unless we frame it some way that they can understand.

Eventually, Bub is able to comprehend that the way that he has tried to go about teaching Robert to see a cathedral is not going to work.  They are able to work out a strategy that will allow Robert to learn what a cathedral looks like.  Just as important however, is the fact that by looking at a subject that he has taken for granted (his sight) in a new light, Bub is able to learn something new about the subject and himself.  Similarly, if we form new pedagogical techniques to help our students “see” a text better, we will most likely learn something new ourselves.