Category Archives: Literature

The ABCs of Learning

Every high school student knows his ABCs, and that’s a good thing since those very ABCs are a good tool in allowing kids to learn in fun ways. A number of assignments I use require the basics of the English language, and here are a few I’ve used recently.

1) I had one of my classes choose a Greek/Roman myth to read outside of class while we read a play in class. Once the students choose their myth, they must retell the story using 26 sentences. The first sentence starts with a word beginning with an A, the second sentence starts with a word beginning with a B, and so on through the alphabet. I also require that the students include a citation for their source material, and the 26 sentences must be free of any errors. Not one grammar, spelling, punctuation, or content error is allowed.

They have 26 days to get the assignment completed perfectly for 100 points. Any error reduces the score to 50 points. One correct sentence a day doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Plus, the kids can turn it in to me for correcting as often as they wish. I put a check mark at the end of a line if I find an error, and the students’ job is to find and correct the error. I stop marking errors after I find a third one. It’s rare that a student does not get it done perfectly in that time.

2) I put students into groups of four and have the students write their ABCs down the left side of a page as if numbering the page. Then I give the students a word such as “said” or “good” or “bad” or “sad” or some other overused and simplistic word; they write this word at the top of the page, and I give the students 15 minutes to write down as many synonyms as possible for the given word. I sometimes make this a competition with candy bars to the top group, but I always collect the students’ lists and have my TA compile their lists into one master list which gets hung on the wall. They then have a master list of better words than the given simplistic starter word.

3) I have the students in their groups of four letter their page (as in #2 above) at the conclusion of a novel of study. Then the students are to write down any characters, traits, themes, locations, or other terms related to the novel that they can (all of which is written by the letter which begins the word). For example, after reading Julius Caesar, the students may have a partial list started like this:

  • A: ambition, alliteration, attack, Antony, allusion, antagonist, avarice, Artemidorus, allegiance, apostrophe
  • B: Brutus, beloved, betrayal, blood, body, bias
  • C: Cassius, Casca, Cinna, Crassus, conspiracy, coronet, commoners, Calphurnia, compromise, chaos, Cicero, connotation, constancy, climax

Again, the students turn in their lists, my TA compiles them, and the students have a massive study guide, one they generated without needing me to create it for them.

New Course

For some time I’ve considered proposing a new course or two to my department and then my administration.

My first thought is a Film Analysis course where students analyze movies (the way the film is shot and the thematic elements within each film). We could connect the films to literature, other films, and the students’ lives as well as meet the Common Core standards chosen for the senior English courses at my school. In addition, I could incorporate the following using contemporary and classic films:

  • literary devices, 
  • the heroic cycle,
  • Joseph Campbell’s ideas on mythology,
  • classic motifs and patterns,
  • Christ-like characters, and
  • more.

My second thought would be a Modern History through Science Fiction course. This course could be a Social Studies or a Language Arts class and could begin with The Civil War and move through to the modern day. Authors such as H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Phillp K. Dick, and others would form the basis for a decade by decade historical study of political, economic, and military events as well as look at the ways science fiction reflects and influences American society.

Do you have a course like either one of these at your school? I’d love to know how well respected they are in addition to their popularity.

Common Core Question Answered

On the 1st I mentioned my concern about administrators in my district pushing non-fiction texts into Language Arts classrooms to an unwelcomed and unintended degree. This article by the two co-lead authors of the Common Core Standards affirms my assertions:

By high school, the Standards require that 70 percent of what students read be informational text, but the bulk of that percentage will be carried by non-ELA disciplines that do not study fictional texts. Said plainly, stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in the high school ELA classroom.

And:

The Standards in no way ask ELA teachers to abandon literature; instead, they require that students read demanding, high-quality fiction and demonstrate their ability to analyze such fiction.

Common Core is Here

Well, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are here, and my district (and a few department members) see it as the panacea for this generation of students. While I don’t have anywhere near that sort of faith in the new standards, I do like the professional development that could stem from the implementation of the standards.

However, I do see three problems looming: too much commonality, too much reliance on hope, and not enough joint accountability.

Firstly, I see my department being pushed to use exactly the same assignments in every class on the same day, almost as if a scripted curriculum could be imposed. Of course, we’re told “not to worry” because the new standards will help us all become better teachers. But, then the same veteran teachers (me, for one) who were successful using the old standards are then teaching my department members how to use the new standards. While I think teaching people what the new standards mean, how to reach the standards, and why scaffolding is needed are all excellent ideas to learn, nothing really new is happening. We’re taking what we have and adapting that to new skill expectations. Fortunately, the CCSS differ little from my state’s old standards. Still, I’ve never believed lock-step assignments and daily lessons take into account student and class individuality and needs, a teacher’s strengths, or student interest.

Secondly, the notion that people think these standards will be the magic pill to cure all of our students’ ills bothers me. Standards don’t help students pass a test or learn a skill or achieve. Teachers do. Teachers of excellence with the abilities to engage students, to adapt to student needs, and to scaffold lessons for students will be successful no matter what standards are adopted. Teachers who were successful with the old standards will be successful with the new standards. Teachers who struggled previously will continue to struggle without strong, reliable mentors and skillful evaluators.

Lastly, as an English teacher, I continue to hear the maxim that “all teachers are responsible for reading,” but only the English Department is held accountable for reading scores. When my school’s state reading test results came in, literary reading (fiction) far surpassed non-fiction reading scores. Instead of asking the other disciplines–which teach non-fiction almost exclusively–to improve non-fiction teaching approaches and to become more skilled reading instructors, the English Department is again being asked to add something to its already crowded curriculum.

And, the new CCSS backs this up. An expert speaking to my department about the new standards suggested that 70% of a student’s reading load be non-fiction. I responded that this is splendid since only 1/6 of a student’s day is spent in a literature-based class (reading fiction), which means that students currently read non-fiction 83% of the day (80% if we exclude P.E.). I was told “no, this means the English Department should teach much, much more non-fiction.”

Now, I’m not against teaching non-fiction texts. I do this with every unit I teach, generally using non-fiction texts to help set the context for the fictional readings with which students are engaged. Then, my students must integrate the contextual information into their fiction-text responses and writing.

In short, I’d like to see school-wide reading trainings to begin and to hold all disciplines accountable for raising students’ reading levels. The CCSS could help here since all included subject areas have reading standards now, but administrators at the building and district levels must get on-board and help support this philosophy with action and not just talk.

P.S. People want to compare schools, districts, and states across the nation with the new tests, but I think we missed the boat here by not using the SAT or ACT. How helpful would it have been to pay for kids’ tests already required (or expected) by colleges and universities? Plus, we could have already looked at comparisons. Granted, all curricula are not set up with the SAT or ACT as the endgame in mind, but when have we ever done this? And, the kids still take those exams.

P.P.S. The text book companies have strong lobbyists.

CollegeBored?

My school district has told the high school English Department to create an assessment system like CollegeBoard’s SpringBoard program or else it gets the SpringBoard program.

My department’s resistance to the SpringBoard program is, in part, as follows:

  • expectations for kids will be lowered,
  • vocabulary and grammar are not emphasized,
  • it could negatively affect our AP numbers and scores,
  • our honors program will be eliminated,
  • poetry is not a primary component,
  • it’s scripted,
  • the classics are almost non-existent,
  • it’s based on excerpts rather than full texts (and students struggle with stamina), and
  • the kids tells us how little enjoyment there was with it at the middle school level.

This morning I searched for other people’s takes on the SpringBoard program, and I definitely saw a mixed bag of responses but I read much of what we saw too.

“The meat’s not there,” according to one teacher.”There is no grammar. There is no vocabulary.” Out goes Beowulf and the poetry of Shelley and Yeats. In come TV and film clips and excerpts from other literature.

Another teacher called the program “Orwellian.” This teacher says, “a program whose chief product is culturally illiterate students actually calls itself a literacy program? It’s not that the College Board people don’t try to help students become more sophisticated readers; it’s just that they have them read so very little.”

On another site a teacher notes that “some of the stories and poems use to be in the middle-grade classrooms. Guess what? I teach 9th grade honors. I don’t believe that placing lower level literature in the honors classroom is one of the best practices…Most teachers believe it should be a tool for the classroom, not obligatory to the extent that it is. It is sad that the only people in the classroom everyday are the very people that are not listened to and are afraid to speak up. It speaks volumes about the climate of this county.”

Another teacher used an analogy: “I once felt like a gourmet chef serving up 5 course, 5 star meals to my hungry students. I put my heart and soul into each and every one of customized recipes, and always took special requests when necessary. Now, with Springboard, I feel like a cashier at a fast food drive thru, dishing out pre-cooked, re-heated meals that are quick, easy, and ready to serve, but not all that filling or healthy in the end.”

What I fear behind all of this is what another teacher mentioned: “SpringBoard has essentially broken my spirit and my love of teaching.” Teacher voices in my district seem to be getting quieter too as more and more of the programs eliminate the originality and personalization of the instructor. Pre-packaged lessons in a can are replacing the lesson designs based on the diversity and needs of the students before the teacher, and those farthest away from the classroom appear to be making more and more of the classroom decisions.

Does a teacher really need to build a relationship with a student and learn his interests when the lessons are already pre-determined?

Does a teacher need to research anything or look at modern or immediate supplemental materials when the lesson is pre-generated?

How does a teacher succeed in a classroom where she feels she is giving the students less than what she could and that the child’s future may be negatively affected?

Ultimately, when the creativity, autonomy, and passion of the teacher is exchanged for teaching sameness, what happens to the “art” of teaching?