Author Archives: vbartush

Feedback please!

First of all, I want to thank all of you for actively participating in my presentation activities tonight. I realize that by the end of class everyone is tired and wants to go home, so your enthusiasm was much appreciated and really helped me to conquer my nerves.

Now, I’m going to ask some specific questions that I hope you will answer in order for me to learn as much as possible from this experience.

1) Pre-writing activity – When planning this lesson, I had mulled over the idea of assigning students a pre-writing activity before giving them the story to read. The idea I had was to ask students to create a pamphlet, telling them that it would need to be something that they felt could make a positive difference in people’s lives. The purpose of this would be to have them approach the story with an understanding of just how difficult that task would be. Hopefully it would help them identify with the narrator and her struggles. However, I wasn’t sure if this activity would be age-appropriate for college students. Would it? If not, do you have any other pre-writing activities I could use with this story?

2) I posted six prompting questions to generate responses (3 for each part of the story), can you think of any that would have been more productive?

3) What did you think of the technique of breaking the story up into two sections? Did it help with your understanding of the text?

4) Timing – I planned two days for this text and the activities. Is that enough time? Too much?

5) Choice of Text – Do you think “The Pamphleteer” is an effective story for achieving the three objectives I had? For a refresher, those objectives were:

  • to practice literary interpretation through written reflection and group discussion
  • to establish a classroom environment that fosters group discussion and collaborative learning, and
  • to evaluate my students’ critical reading and interpretation skills.

6) Written assignments – Were they okay? Do you have any other suggestions?

If you have something to say about anything not covered in the above questions, please say it. I am impressed with the amount of practical knowledge and experience you all have and look forward to hearing your ideas/comments/criticisms.

Focusing on the concept of hero

In my last post I questioned whether this book could be categorized as literature or not, and after reading my classmates’ blog posts, listening to the discussion last week, sitting in on Professor Sample’s lecture, and revisiting my own questions; I want to completely disregard what I previously wrote.  I realize this probably makes me appear to be a tad wishy-washy, but in my defense I wrote my blog last week with the ulterior motive of what my boyfriend likes to term “poking the bear.”  I felt the need for some reason, possibly because I’m an organizational freak who likes everything to fit neatly into compartments, to place the graphic novel in a category.  Because I wasn’t exactly sure how I would categorize it, I looked to my classmates for input.  I knew that there would be many strong proponents in class of teaching graphic novels, so I poked the bear by challenging its place in the literature classroom hoping to get some strong reactions.  And I did. 

With all of that said, I’ve decided that the label isn’t really what is important here.  What is important is a text’s ability to evoke a strong reaction from the reader.  I think that this emotional response could be harnessed to develop a very meaningful lesson for students.

So, how would a teacher harness those deep emotional responses?

One issue seemed to be brought up several times in class last week – the issue of Nat Turner as a heroic figure.  I wonder if Kyle Baker included that phrasing in his preface to spark controversy, because that is exactly what it did.   Using this as a jumping off point for class discussion and activity could be very fruitful because it evokes such strong opposition from people.  Staging a debate among students could be one way to explore this idea, although it may be difficult to find students willing to argue for Turner being considered a hero.  Reading Nat Turner alongside other texts from that era (several people mentioned this, I think) would be a good idea.  The students could compare Turner to figures such as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe and decide which is more heroic.  Perhaps I’m hung up on this idea of hero because one of my favorite undergraduate classes was called Heroes in Literature.  We read several different novels and explored the idea of hero throughout the entire semester.  I wonder what our reactions would have been if we were required to read Nat Turner?  I’m sure even the silent ones in class would’ve felt compelled to chime in on that discussion.

How do you classify a graphic novel?

I, too, was skeptical about reading this graphic novel. Having never read one, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My only exposure to this genre consists of reading Archie and Jughead comics, but I think I was about eight or nine the last time I read one of those, and they surely didn’t tackle anything close to the deep and disturbing subject matter of “Nat Turner”. I was very afraid that I just wouldn’t ‘get it’. However, from video games to twitter, I’ve been repeatedly forced outside of my comfort zone in this class, so I decided to go in with an open mind.

So, I opened it and began to ‘read.’ I went straight through without putting it down, compelled by something to keep turning the pages even when I knew I would only find more carnage. When finished, I slowly closed the book, completely surprised and impressed by my powerful reaction to it. I had the same sort of feeling I get from watching a disturbing movie.

There is something that images can do that words cannot. (I felt hesitant to even type that last sentence because believing in the power of words is what has lead me to study English.) However, I am not convinced that a graphic novel constitutes literature. I can see using this book in a history class to make the past become real for students. I can see teaching graphic novels in an art class. I can see this being a fantastic cross-curricular project between art and writing students. However, I cannot see this being taught in a literature class. I just can’t. Using a narrative as the basis for artistic expression and publishing the artwork in book form do not make something literature. Yes, literature is a form of art and the graphic novel is art telling a story, but that does not make them synonymous. Maybe one of you in the class can try to convince me that a graphic novel is literature. I’m willing to change my mind.

Echoing the rest of you

I usually try to write my blog way before the day before class, but a much needed mini-vacation got in the way of that. Now that I’ve had a chance to read everyone else’s blogs, I really, really wish I would’ve lugged my laptop to West Virginia and wrote it over the weekend. I feel like everything I have to say just echoes my classmates:

– The format was difficult to navigate. check.
– I kinda skipped over the questions. check. (Well, I read the first ones and then eventually stopped when I realized that they were all intended for students and not necessary for my understanding of the text.)
– I was confused about who the intended audience was. check.
– The examples were too long. check.

I have to agree with Alicia that some of the examples are a bit antiquated. The whole section about commercials (no offense to your years spent in advertising, Alicia!), seems irrelevant. I wrote one comment in the margin, “DVR!” It won’t be long before commercials are not watched by anyone. I did have to laugh that the one “current” example the authors added to the excerpt from Esslin’s essay was a commercial about AIG.

Do I have anything good to say? Sure. Why not.

I liked the way that the authors included example pieces that reflected other fields of study (psychology, biology, sports and business). For students who may not be English majors, it might be refreshing to encounter a text that is about something that may be familiar and interesting. Although I have to say that an essay that applies football terminology to business is possibly the most uninteresting thing you could ever ask me to read.

I liked Erving Goffman’s concept of character contests and the two examples given of the crimes. Imagining a woman attacking her boyfriend with frozen chicken was funny. I think that those two examples and the writing prompts following them would be a productive assignment to give to writing students.

I am hoping that the rest of the book proves to be more useful than these first two chapters.


Metacognition is a difficult thing to achieve.   Taking yourself out of your head to analyze your own thought processes does not come naturally.  I like that this week we were required to look back over our writing because it revealed to me patterns of which I had not been aware.  While writing my blog posts, I was able to notice a few things about my writing process.  I found that very often I began my blog with one idea in mind, or perhaps a handful of ideas that were loosely related, and more often than not, ended up focusing my post on something different.  Writing was a means for me to sort through my thoughts and arrive at a somewhat cohesive, formulated idea.  I think this has been the most valuable thing about blogging in this class – I come to a clearer understanding of a text through the process of writing about it.  Go figure.

While reading over my blog posts from this semester, I discovered some patterns that I had not been aware of while I was actually writing them.  I noticed that I tended to incorporate three things in nearly every one of my posts.  The first was that I often made reference to either topics from our class discussions or from other articles we had read for the class.  Making these connections is obviously a way for me to create meaning.  Anther thing I noticed was that I asked a lot of questions.  I did not ask many questions in my posts about Blau (possibly because I found this book easy to read because of its practical application), but in some of the other posts I did.  For example, in my post about Gee there are six question marks, and in the one over Sherry Linkon’s article there are eight.  I guess I really took Salvatori and Donahue’s suggestion seriously about generating questions to find meaning.  Finally, I noticed that each of my posts ended in the same way – with an attempt to relate the ideas and questions put forth in the blog post to the challenge of teaching.   This class has obviously been making me think, and I am happy that the blogging assignment serves as a tracking device of sorts, allowing me to follow the development of my thoughts about the teaching practices and theories that we are exploring.

Eight is Great!

Chapter eight is pretty great. I devoured the first seven chapters eagerly, loving the ideas Blau had to offer about running literature workshops in the classroom. However, as I read them, I kept wondering exactly how writing would fit into the picture. Thankfully, Blau answered my questions with chapter eight.

I almost laughed as I realized that Professor Sample has incorporated the first two writing assignment ideas into this class. Our weekly blog works as a reading log, and because it is online, solves the dilemna of how to keep track of students’ progress. The Reading Process Research Report is a version of the Think Aloud we did. I find it extremely helpful that not only do we get to read about these ideas in this book, but we are practicing them as a class. This will make incorporating them into our classrooms even easier.

I love the idea of the alternative formal literary paper that Blau writes about on page 180. I think that for many young literature students (and I’m speaking from personal experience), the form and the conventions of a formal paper can be daunting and can take the focus away from the content. By allowing students to present their ideas in a less formal, less intimidating way, I imagine that the objective of meaningful interpretation is more often met than if the students are required to fit their ideas into a format they are not entirely familiar or comfortable with. This was one of the things I liked about the Think Aloud assignment we did. I was able to focus on what I was saying, not on my organization or format.

Finally, I think that the idea of not grading individual papers is brilliant. I’m not sure how this would work in a high school classroom, but I think it is a great idea. I think that too often students not only rely on teachers for information and interpretations, but also for evaluation. By putting the ball in the students‘ court and requiring some thoughtful self-evaluation on their part, we can foster more independence in our students.

Literature Workshops – a cure for amnesia

Let me first begin by saying that I have enjoyed reading Blau more than any of the other reading assignments thus far.  I found myself taking trips down memory lane while reading his book and revisiting my old literature classes from my undergraduate days.  What struck me most is how little I could remember from some of my classes and how vivid some of my memories from other classes are.  Not only can I not tell you what we read in Victorian Lit, but I hardly remember even attending the class (although I promise that I did).  However, I remember discussions about Madame Bovary, details about Kate Chopin, and arguments we had about Humbert Humbert.  I even remember the names and faces of some of my classmates (and this was ten years ago!).  Perhaps I remember these classes more clearly because I found the texts more interesting to read.  However, I think that the most significant difference between the classes I remember and the classes I don’t are the teaching methods used by the professors.

I attended a small, liberal arts school, and there were only four English professors.  I remember things I read in Sister Thomasita and Sister Deborah’s classes because they let us explore them for ourselves.  I felt slightly uncomfortable the first time I had to get into a small group and discuss what we read the night before because I had never been asked to do that in high school.  However, I soon realized that it was a lot more fun to talk about the book than to be lectured about it.  These two professors did give lectures providing background information about the authors or explaining the literary and historical context of a work, but they also incorporated activities similar to the ones Blau describes.  On the other hand, I cannot remember much of anything about other classes (like Victorian Lit) taught by Professor X.  I do remember that the texts were generally not easy for me to read, and so I would sometimes just not do all of the reading.  I knew that he would spend the entire class time just telling us what we should have understood from the text, so if I could take good notes then I’d be fine.  I don’t want to be a teacher that causes amnesia in her students or fosters a helplessness even among English majors.  I want my classes to provide meaningful learning experiences for students, and with some borrowed ideas from Blau and my old professors and some creativity on my part, I can hopefully achieve that when I do teach some day.

Falling off that stupid cliff

Gee writes that being literate means that one “can give and take meanings” (20). Well, I guess that I am completely illiterate when it comes to video games. I cannot give or take any meaning away. At all. I don’t speak the language or have the skills to play them. I’m not indifferent or apathetic – I really, really don’t like them. When I picked up this book earlier today, I had every intention of enjoying it. I was looking forward to the chance to view learning in completely different terms than I had ever considered it before. I was hoping to shed my old prejudices toward the gaming world and develop a new, more positive attitude. I’m forty pages in, and this has not happened yet. I really am interested in learning about learning, but when the ideas are presented within a semiotic domain in which I’m illiterate, it makes it very difficult for me to stay focused.

Where do these strong negative feelings come from, you may ask? Perhaps they stem from my childhood. My parents refused to buy a Nintendo on the premise that it would “rot your brain.” So, when I hung out with neighbors or friends, I had to sit and watch with equal parts boredom and jealousy while they saved the princess in Super Mario World without any seeming effort. I rarely took the control, because when I did I would inevitably fall off the cliff before reaching the end of the first stage. (Is it a stage? level? world? I don’t know.)

Over the years my aversion to video games has grown into something more than an embarrassed feeling of inadequacy. After reading Brave New World, I developed the theory that technology (video games in particular) has become some form of soma for people. I realize that admitting this makes me sound a little crazy, like an old person who’s afraid of all these modern changes. That’s ok. I admit to this because it helps set the stage for the whole point of my blog.

I love to read – always have. From a young age I found it entertaining and took pride in being ‘good’ at it. While my friends excelled at killing the dragon, I could ace every reading test. For me, the most important aspect of literature is that it exposes the reader to world-views and perspectives that may be very different than his or her own. As a teacher, I will teach my students critical reading skills and how to analyze a text, but my ultimate goal is to expose them to new ideas, causing them to hopefully think deeply and reconsider their own views. I have never taught teenagers or adults, but from all the discussion in class, I realize that I am going to have the huge challenge of trying to reach students who not only don’t love reading, but may actually hate it for one reason or another. Perhaps they struggled early on and never quite caught on to grammar and spelling rules, were embarrassingly less fluent than their classmates when it came to reading out loud, or were never able to give the ‘right’ answer on the reading test. I can relate. Falling off the cliff ten seconds into the game is really humiliating. If they can’t get past their aversion to the subject of language arts, how will they ever reach that ultimate goal of expanding their understanding of the world through literature? How do we get them past the first level if they’ve continually fallen off that cliff?

Critical Reading Skills = Critical Thinking Skills

Like Abbie, I began my reading for this week with Sherry Linkon’s “The Reader’s Apprentice.”  And, like her, I also find myself struck by something in the article that is forcing me to pause my reading in order to think through my thoughts by writing them down.

On page 251, Linkon paraphrases Randy Bass, “…one of the differences between expert and novice readers is that experts are able to both formulate hypotheses and defer reaching conclusions, practices that novices do not use comfortably.  Expert reading is thus critical in part because it involves actively considering multiple interpretations.” 

I propose that you re-read that quote and substitute the word “think” for “read”.  Really.  Try it. 

Perhaps this is at the heart of why English teachers have such a hard time engaging students and motivating them to put in the time and mental work to really read something, even if it is difficult or boring or seemingly irrelevant to their lives.  Maybe we can’t just blame their English teachers from the previous years.  Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that for some reason, these students don’t know how to think critically.  But, does thinking need to be taught?  Isn’t this something that is inherently natural to humans? 

As discussed in class this last week, our education system seems to favor breadth over depth.  When learning isn’t deep, how can thinking be deep?  If students don’t think deeply, how can we expect them to read critically?  I don’t think we can.  Every one of us in this class thinks (and reads) critically.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be in this field of study.  Who taught us how to think?   Were we taught, or have we just had these inquiring, critical minds since childhood?  Were we all reading novels and having philosophical debates at age seven because we were born with the ability, or did someone in our lives teach us to reach past the surface of things and question them, to consider more than one perspective, to draw connections between ideas, and to formulate interpretations that we can justify but aren’t afraid to modify?  All children are curious, but why do some seem to lose that at some point along the way and replace it with a shrug, an eye roll, and an attitude?

As current and/or future teachers of literature, our job is to not just to teach students how to read critically, but it is to require them to think deeply and critically first.  Perhaps for some students, that will be a new experience and a serious challenge.  For us, it will definitely be a challenge.

The Difficulty of “Difficulty”

After reading The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty I find that I have one major difficulty with the book.  I feel that with so much focus given to the difficulty paper throughout each chapter, it is only appropriate to write my blog as if it were a difficulty paper about this book.

For the entirety of the book, I was engaged and excited about the ideas the authors were presenting.  I had never before considered difficulty as a means of exploring and learning.  While reading the first chapter, I came to the realization that if a learner can learn to identify and work through their difficulties with a text, then the three pathologies (amnesia, fantasia, inertia) discussed in Lee Shulman’s article are more likely to be avoided.  If one can find the answers for oneself instead of being given them by a well-meaning teacher, then that person is much less likely to forget or distort what she learned and will  more likely be able to use that knowledge later because of the exercise of discovering the meaning for herself.

In chapter two, the authors explored the difficulties of poetry but insisted that learners already have a repertoire of knowledge that gives them the necessary tools to work through new and challenging poems.  In chapter four they return to this idea.  “What is important is that we become able to identify and use our pre-understandings as a scaffold to construct new understandings.” (62).  This idea of scaffolding and building upon what you know is not new.  I am very familiar with it from my days of being an elementary teacher.

The difficulty I have is a contradiction I found in the last chapter of the book.  In the section about reading a “great” author, Salvatori and Donahue seem to contradict what they had stated in the previous six chapters regarding pre-understandings.  They point out that sometimes our pre-understandings can be a difficulty in and of themselves especially when reading a well-known author whose reputation is greater than our own personal experience with his or her works.  So, in the first six chapters, the authors establish that one must use what they already know in order to make connections with new material and be able to learn.  I get that.  But, in the case of a well-known author, we should put aside pre-conceived ideas in order to adequately understand the text.  So, what we already know is not useful?  This seems like a contradiction, but I also understand the point they are trying to make.  Students should use their pre-understandings but only up to a certain point – the point where their prior knowledge may be the source of the difficulty.  This requires a novice learner to exhibit metacognition and be self-aware enough to monitor his or her own learning.  Or, it requires us teachers to be the monitor and know how to help the students identify when their deceptive pre-understandings are the cause of their difficulty.