Category Archives: Reading

Novel Bookmark Idea

I’m starting a new novel with my students on Monday, and I like to give out a reading schedule for each book. Instead of a typical placeholder, I like to do two things with the bookmark.

First, I print out a daily schedule of readings with the date and the pages to be read for that day. This means the students enter class having read those pages, and I have scheduled activities for the period.

Also, on the back of the bookmark, I will have the major themes listed down the paper slip (or the students list them). When the students identify an example of the theme in the novel, they can jot down the page number next to the theme. This is a quick and easy way to allow students to set a (minor) purpose for reading and to help students make a list in preparation for in-class writings. Plus, this doesn’t really interfere with the students’ reading process (which is a major complaint I hear regarding “during reading” study guides).

Any quick and easy ideas you use?

Allusions and Cultural Literacy

I continually hear from my fellow department members that kids today are not as intelligent as kids 10 years ago, and I admit that I have seen a distinct difference between the general students of today and a decade ago; however, I also see a marked contrast between the top 10% of my school’s students today and 10 years ago.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I don’t think the change is intelligence. If anything, in math, students today are a year ahead of the high school students of the early 2000s. Still, my Language Arts students are not as proficient as they once were.

My thinking now is that the students of today lack the cultural literacy of yesteryear. Kids struggle to catch allusions to historical events, biblical figures, and current events. Even in my non-honors classes of the late 90s and early 2000s, kids could explain who King Solomon was when reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This year I have four classes of American Literature of different levels and only two students could identify King Solomon. No one this year knew the Dauphin (a bit more understandable), only a quarter of my juniors knew Hamlet was a Shakespearean play, and (maybe) 10 students knew what decade the Civil War occurred much less that Reconstruction followed it.

I just don’t think today’s kids, on the whole, read as much or are exposed to as much of what is typically defined as “culture.”

Anyway, after seeing this lack of cultural literacy while reading Twain’s novel, I decided to test the kids’ cultural literacy. I have a book about cultural literacy by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and I had six kids shout out a page number. I wrote these on the board, and I then opened to those pages, wrote down the first item I saw, and had the kids try to identify each item. The ones I chose the first time were:

  • The Battle of Hastings
  • coup d’tat
  • Robert Oppenheimer
  • Babe Ruth
  • Canterbury Tales
  • gulags

After the pseudo-quiz I polled the students to see how they did, and the high score was a single student with four correct answers, two students got three correct, and the rest of the students correctly identified 2 or fewer items.

It would be easy to complain and shrug my shoulders and move one, but I decided to try and help increase the students’ knowledge base. I talked with my students, and they liked the cultural literacy quiz so we’re going to try it once a week throughout the second semester.

Also, I started projecting a political cartoon, a comic, or a short music video with allusions. Each day I project the item onto the front screen, give the kids a minute to think about what is seen, and then I ask someone to explain the joke and/or allusions. They love it!

Does anyone do anything similar?


Here is the comic I provided on Thursday with two obvious references to Snooki and Kim Kardashian as well as an allusion to Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” quote (and I had to explain what a timeshare is):

15 Minutes of Fame

















On Friday I shared this comic which uses Angry Birds and The Three Little Pigs:

Angry Birds & The Big Bad Wolf

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.


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.

Move From What to Why!

We and our students are immersed in media today. Look at the numbers:

Arguably the most frightening statistic is that 95% of the media is owned by five companies (Time Warner, VIACOM, Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney, and News Corp). So, how do we teach our students to wade through this morass of information, this new world of constant persuasion?

We teach them to be discerning, critical readers. We teach them to be rhetors.

However, an important shift must happen in our classrooms, especially for those of us teaching high school English students. Our students are pounded over the heads with setting, character, and theme from the time they enter elementary school and on into high school. They get the basics, but we sometimes drive the kids to look only for those ideas, ideas that can be found almost literally on the page.

We need to move from what and where to why.

What I mean by this is that we often ask students what the meaning of a literary term is (the what) and then to find examples in the text (the where), at times actually having the students touch the page for the location of the term’s employment. This is a basic skill, a rudimentary skill at the lower end of a taxonomic scale (usually Bloom’s or Marzano’s).

Let’s move kids beyond this and get to the why. Why did the author choose this setting? Why was alliteration used in that name? Why was this the best metaphor to use (or was it)? Why is the paragraph structured this way? Why is this sentence structured in such a way?

This leads the kids away from searching the text for answers and towards searching the text for meaning. This allows for nuance, not black and white assignments and activities. This moves the kids towards true analysis.

Ultimately, I want to see my students understanding the reasons authors make choices. Whether I use a novel, short story, editorial, advertisement, virtually any text, I want my students discussing the why when we analyze a text and this requires a close textual analysis. This means I have to move my students from defining and locating to analyzing.

It’s a daunting task at times but a necessary one if I want my students to become successful navigators and explorers in this Information Age. If I want my students to become citizens who contribute to our democracy, I need to help them critically read, question, and discover the nuances of argumentation and the means of persuasion.

The Humanities and Contemporary Society

With the focus of education reform seemingly centered primarily on STEM content areas, I am often confronted with the statements, “Why do we teach the classics?” or “Why do we need humanities taught in schools?” Of course, my instant reaction–being an English teacher–is to rebuff these statements with some anger, but in a base sense it is a valid question, one that needs to be answered.

The difficulty is that the questions are usually asked accusingly or with an added sarcastic note or simply put more bluntly and disrespectfully. A colleague at my school told one of my department members that the English Department teaches nothing of any relevance and that the literary studies are unnecessary. It brought tears to the eyes of my department member, but I think there is quite a bit of cynical superiority when people look at the humanities as a lesser discipline.

We see this mentality in our English classrooms. How often do your students put their reading homework last because “it’s only reading”? The kids are taught, indirectly or directly, that literature is a lesser content area or one of little immediacy despite its everyday relevance.

Bill Smoot spent an entire column answering the humanities’ critics, and he concluded that the students needed:

“to pay attention, to contemplate, to appreciate beauty, to experience awe and wonder, to think with depth and sensitivity about life, and to know there are values beyond profit and self-interest.”

The society of today is very often deemed selfish, self-interested, and egocentric, and the study of the classics, the literary canon, teaches us that there is more to life than what kinds of toys we have (although I might advocate for the Kindle in this discussion).

My students have often asked me why they have to study literature, but this question only appears at the beginning of a course. By the time the course concludes, they can answer this question with authority, assured that they know why the classics remain important. I use the classics, ancient and contemporary, to teach the students life lessons as well as to teach critical thinking, analysis, and clear communication; great literature teaches us as much about ourselves as individuals as it does about the people of other times.

Ultimately, classical literature is a study of humanity itself. Antigone teaches us about leadership, rebellion, and individual strength. The Odyssey teaches us about hubris, honor, and justice. To Kill A Mockingbird teachers us about equality, innocence, and courage. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn teaches us about conscience, equality, and hypocrisy. And so on.

Smoot, in my mind, accurately sums up the defense of the humanities with this:

With each new gee-whiz technological gadget, with every claim that the world is now flat and the 21st is a century like no other, I become more convinced that the humanities’ greatest value lies, as my student said, in their lessons for contemporary life. For the world will never change so rapidly as to outpace the issues universal to humanitiy — war and peace, good and evil, justice and revenge. Unless we take an awfully dim view of humanity and its potential, we have to conclude that it is better to think about these things than not, and better to think about them more rather than less. Lest we fall prey to an arrogance like that which infected those suitors on Ithaka [in The Odyssey], we should acknowledge that the deepest literary and artistic expressions of the world’s cultures, from the ancients to the contemporary, are of interest and value to us. We need them.

Integration Is Key

I’ve been on vacation and upon returning I had a full inbox of questions about how to integrate multiple language arts elements into a single assignment. I thought I would use an example from my own curriculum to illustrate the idea of integration.

One novel we teach during the Sophomore year is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and we also teach SAT-frequent vocabulary words and grammatical skills. Thus, I now have three elements to combine. Many teachers prefer to teach each of these items separately–which may be fine for introductory lessons–but I prefer to combine them in the application stage.

A possible in-class assignment could be as follows:

Describe two types of courage in Part I of To Kill A Mockingbird using at least two cited quotations from the novel. In a response of at least two 3-5 sentence paragraphs, use at least four of our vocabulary words correctly and use each of the sentence types learned in this class (simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex).

This seemingly simple assignment forces the students to do the following:

  • identify and describe two types of courage in the novel (analysis),
  • locate, incorporate, and cite two quotations into the response (evidence and citation use),
  • organize the two types of courage into two short paragraphs (organization/structure of ideas),
  • apply the use of at least four vocabulary words (vocabulary application), and
  • incorporate the four types of sentence (sentence fluency and variation).

Of course, now comes the difficult part for the teacher. How do you score or assess the student products? Or, do you?

Possibly, one may decide not to score the products for the purpose of the grade book (an assessment of learning) but may decide to use this assignment as a means of improving the students’ skills (an assessment for learning). I would most likely not enter a score in the grade book with the students’ first attempt but might use this as a rough draft assignment to be edited and improved over time or as an introduction to another assignment using the same elements.

However, when I do decide to enter something like this into the grade book, I would recommend one of two methods. Either score each element separately for the grade book (the analysis, citation use, organization, vocabulary application, and sentence fluency) to reveal the students’ abilities in each of the five areas, or use a rubric separating each of these elements into a distinct column resulting in a final total score.

Regardless, the students need to know how well they performed in each of the five areas. I would hope that these five areas also relate to the course’s core requirements (learning outcomes, Power Standards, etc.). These five areas would either be end of course learning targets or skills leading to the end of course learning targets.

By integrating the elements in a course, the students can begin to add complexity to their products while also saving the teacher time. Plus, this mixing of skills allows students to see the interconnected nature of the course’s learnings.

P.S. I tend to have the students label each element for me before they turn in their final drafts. For example, I would have the students circle the four (or more) vocabulary words, label the four sentence types (and possibly the individual elements of each non-simple sentence), and number each description of courage (a 1 and a 2 would suffice). This simply forces the students to identify what they have and have not done as well as help me identify where problems may lie, much like showing one’s work in math.