Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Telling Stories in School

"Tell us a story."

That is a great interview question, and it's a great impromptu speech topic for high school students as well. Storytelling is the essence of what we do as English teachers, and the qualities of a good story, as well as the ability to deliver it, should be a primary focus of the classroom. For this reason, the personal narrative is one genre that I always incorporate into my classes, from middle school to AP Language to Senior Composition. And with the Common Core as well as our new Colorado Academic Standards emphasizing narrative as one of the three primary modes of writing instruction, it's important to teach the art form.

When I first began teaching AP Language and Composition, one of the first things I learned from a colleague, office mate, and good friend was the important role that personal narratives play in the rhetoric and composition classroom. Many AP Lang style analysis prompts over the years have been personal narratives. Some memorable ones: Meena Alexander on her Fractured Identity; Gary Soto on The Stolen Pie; Jamaica Kincaid On Seeing England; Nancy Mairs On Being a Cripple; and Richard Rodriguez Family Christmas.

I've always enjoyed teaching personal narratives, and on my colleague's advice, I begin with a class long analysis of Audre Lorde's Fourth of July. Lorde's work is so rich with rhetorical devices that it serves as the perfect example of how the personal narrative works. We also read a great piece by Michael Koenigs called Getting Off the Hammock, about his first summer job. It is a beautiful piece that he wrote at the age of seventeen, and it's a great example of how full of opportunities for writing our students' lives are. Ultimately, my students will write their own personal narrative, which is basically recounting a life event which progresses towards epiphany.

They can be insightful  and inspired or sarcastic and silly, but they should be meaningful. And year after year, they are.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Literature as Self Help - The Life Lessons of Dante's Divine Comedy

Why do we teach literature? What's the point of studying history's "stories"? Most English teachers would acknowledge the focus of self discovery and character education in the novels we teach. In fact, the standard has long been to recognize literature as a "record of the human experience." We read to commiserate and learn and understand who we are on both an individual and global historical scale.

That's what makes Rod Dreher's recent piece for the Wall Street Journal so cool. Dreher, who is a columnist also known for his unique take on conservatism, offers a unique and surprising explanation of Dante's Divine Comedy as a classic of self help - "The Ultimate Self Help Book: Dante's Divine Comedy. It's not just a classic of world literature; it's the most astonishing self help book of all time." Dreher explains his own personal struggles and the coping mechanisms he picked up from Dante after browsing the classic in a bookstore.

Another great bit of self-help advice from antiquity comes in the form of non-fiction analysis of classic philosophy in pop culture form. Rebecca Goldstein imagines the wisdom of ancient Greece applied to the contemporary pop culture world in her recent book, Plato at the Googleplex. The value of classic philosophy in our modern lives is far more relevant than many might imagine. And Goldstein is that rare scholar who can frame the insight for the average contemporary reader.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Humanities Majors are Valued

Despite the dis last year by President Obama, humanities majors have always been great assets in the American economy. Anyone who can read and understand complex materials and then write clear, concise, and, most importantly, correct is perhaps the most in-demand of skills. English majors are hot hire these days, according to Bruna Martinuzzi. Martinuzzi is a consultant on leadership skills for Clarion Enterprises, which she founded. So she should know about the value of strong communication skills. Martinuzzi's knowledge and insight about the value of the English degree is validated by so many successful people with humanities background, including Mitt Romney.

The reality is English majors are not hurting in the employment category, despite criticism from people like David Brooks of the New York Times. He, more than most, should appreciate just how valuable the study of the humanities is. English majors - at least the ones who graduate from pretty good schools - are in high demand because of their reading and writing skills, as well as their generally strong qualities of emotional intelligence. Clearly, the success of any society will depend on the skills of its citizenry.

Let's just not forget that the skills in the appreciation of the arts are foundational for any civilization.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Compare/Contrast via George Carlin

With the issue of voice in writing - or speaking - I am a huge proponent of using humor and sarcasm. For example, when we begin style analysis, I have a scathingly sarcastic column from Chicago Tribune writer Mike Royko on gun control policies. I follow that with a hilarious political commentary from Dave Barry on voting in Florida. Both these pieces sing with style and tone. And, students get it - they can relate to it. To that end, when I introduce the idea of commentary, and I plan for students to craft their own piece of comparative writing, I often show them this:

Finding effective models for student writing is an important tool. And, asking students to work within a framework of say, comparing two sports or products, in a sarcastic way, is a great way to generate some voice in their writing. So, I share with my students Carlin's views on baseball vs. football, and then I also have them look at one of the most brilliant examples of a politician playing "both sides of the fence" - that is the infamous speech from Mississippi legislator, Noah Sweat, when asked to speak about prohibition policies.

Whisky Speech
Noah Sweat - 1948
My friends,
I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey.
If when you say “whiskey” you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness – then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say “whiskey” you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools – then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
The Clarion Ledger, Saturday, February 24, 1996, Jackson, MS, p. 3B.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Beware the Ides of March

As an English teacher, my favorite Shakespeare play has always been "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar." This blend of history and tragedy is so rich with language and allusion and contemplative philosophy that it always set, for me and my freshman honors students, the foundation for literary studies at the high school. And, it was simply rollicking good fun at the same time.

Of course, the "history" part of the play is regularly brought into discussion around March 15, most recently in this insightful and inquisitive piece by Vox writer, Phil Edwards. In reality, much of what we think we know about the death of Julius Caesar is the fabrications and invention of a brilliant playwright. There are facts and truth at the heart of the play - but the research of classics professor Barry Strauss from Cornell indicates the story of Caesar's death was even more interesting and intriguing than the Bard makes it:

In major and minor ways, a lot of us misunderstand the death of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BC. That's why I talked to Barry Strauss, a Cornell Classics and History professor. He's the author of The Death of Caesar, a new book that chronicles one of history's most infamous assassinations and dispels a lot of half-remembered myths. A lot of those myths come from Shakespeare, who relied on Plutarch exclusively to paint his picture of Rome. But Strauss uses Plutarch in concert with other ancient sources like Nicolaus of Damascus, Suetonius, Appian, and Cassius Dio, as well as the work of other scholars. Weighed against each other, together they form a more complete picture of Rome at the time — and one that happens to bust a lot of myths.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Teaching Grammar Doesn't Work

"Someone left their book on the table." Wrong, right?

The battle over the use of they and their for a singular antecedent has been a regular struggle for English teachers during the past one hundred years or so. It is a common mistake that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to the hard core grammarians and "strict constructionists." And, it is the cause of many a missed question on standardized tests like the ACT or SAT. Yet, the use of "they" when gender or specificity of a singular subject is ambiguous has become so common that it can certainly qualify for "acceptable use." That is except for standardized tests.

So, what's the answer?

In a recent piece for The Chronicle, scholar Geoffrey Pullum weighs in with commentary on "Valid Pronoun Ambiguity Warnings."

 In other news:

Those in the know - or at least those who seek to remain current in their field - have long understood that teaching grammar the traditional way, with worksheets and practice sentences, has no positive impact on a student's ability to write well. The drill-and-kill method, and even the practice of diagramming sentences, does not actually "teach" kids grammar. Of course, it does teach something. It can teach students to do well on standardized tests like the ACT, SAT, and state assessments.

Having gone to Catholic school - where diagramming sentences is "religion" (sic) - and having taught ELA in Asia where standardized tests of grammar skills are the gold standard of education, I understand grammar. To this day, I help chair our grammar program at my school, where grammar is taught the traditional way. However, I have long asserted that we should not expect the program will create better writers. Teaching writing - teaching composition - will create better writers. And the only "grammar exercise" that has a positive impact on writing is the practice of sentence combining.

Of course, the ACT and SAT still rule the day on college admissions, and teaching grammar skills will help students score higher. In fact, an English teacher and any school would be negligent not teaching grammar to prepare kids for these tests. It's really not that difficult. And some people believe there is a "Better way to teach grammar." Obviously, that depends on your goal and your definition of teaching grammar.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild in the English Classroom

As English teachers review the Common Core standards and consider the increased expectation for the study of non-fiction - especially at the high school level - many will struggle for how to expand their lessons and curriculum.  However, English teachers must face the facts that once students reach college, the whopping majority of texts the kids read will be non-fiction.  And so many of them are in areas with a business or sociological slant.  That is why our English department started adding non-fiction texts a few years ago.

One of our more successful choices, which is the summer reading assignment for our CP English 11 juniors, has been Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild.  ITW is a book-length account of the story of Chris McCandless, a young man who adventured in to the Alaskan wilderness, and whose body was discovered months later, the victim of some poor decisions or some very bad luck.  Krakauer's book grew out of a feature he wrote for Outside Magazine - a story which touched a nerve and set off an explosion of letters, both praising and criticizing McCandless and Krakauer.  In fact, it generated the most mail of any Outside story ever.

The book is an engaging narrative which recounts the story of young Chris and delves deep into his motivations, while also exploring other accounts of adventure and "mis-adventure" through history.  Krakauer has done some amazing research, and his book dovetails well with many fictional works studied in high school, from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye.  It's certainly worth checking out and considering as an addition to high school curricula.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Is Dead Poet's Society a Terrible Ad for the Humanities?

It's doubtful that any English or humanities teacher of the past thirty years doesn't like the classic Robin Williams vehicle Dead Poet's Society.  In fact, one could reasonably argue that the movie influenced more than a few young people to pursue a career in the liberal arts. I mean, what teacher out there doesn't want to be like Mr. Keating? Who hasn't envisioned inspiring kids with those poetic artful monologues? What student doesn't want to feel so inspired to "live deliberately" and jump up on a desk, saying, "Oh, Captain, my Captain"? The movie is truly inspiring and truly encapsulates what all humanities teachers seek to be. And everyone has their own favorite part or DPS-influenced memory. It is simply a movie that deeply effects and resonates with people, and it's one of those films that can't help but launch a discussion.  We all want to create that love of the arts, especially in the STEM-happy world that public education has become. (Though we should all be focusing on turning STEM to STEAM).  And now, the biggest company in the world has appropriated some of Keating's most magical words in a new commercial to sell us ever more exciting technology and media. Is that wrong? Kevin Detmer of The Atlantic seems to think so.

But passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous. When we simply “feel” a poem, carried away by the sound of words, rather than actually reading it, we’re rather likely to get it wrong. We see Mr. Keating, in fact, making just this kind of mistake during one of his stirring orations to the boys of Welton. In a hackneyed speech about resisting conformity that he seems to have delivered many times before, Keating invokes that oft-invoked but rarely understood chestnut, “The Road Not Taken”: “Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood and I / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.’” Wha—? Has Keating actually read the poem from which he so blithely samples? For Robert Frost said no such thing: a character in his poem says it. And we’re meant to learn, over the course of that poem, that he’s wrong—that he’s both congratulating and kidding himself. He chooses his road ostensibly because “it was grassy and wanted wear”; but this description is contradicted in the very next lines—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” and—more incredibly still—“both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” He wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows on some level that it’s a hollow boast.

Ultimately, I'd have to argue that there is much more to praise about the movie than to criticize about it. The ground-breaking and career-defining role for Williams - which moved him past the role of comedian - is still popular and leading idealistic young people into teaching. For that reason alone, it's probably still one of the best teacher films, and a pretty darn good promotion of the humanities.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The New SAT ... just like the old ACT, and AP Lang

In an effort to stay relevant as a standardized gatekeeper for college admission, the SAT test has been re-imagined and re-designed and re-packaged by the College Board. Much fanfare was made last fall with the release of information about "the new and improved SAT."  By now most of the news about changes have been heard: elimination of the archaic vocabulary section, a new essay form that is now optional, a focus on close reading of passages, an expectation of evidence-based responses to reading passages. It wasn't all that earth shaking, to tell you the truth. However, you can see the work samples and judge for yourself by visiting this preview.

Of course, the SAT is playing catch-up to the ACT, which outpaced it for the first time last year. And, in the spirit of "the sincerest form of flattery," SAT's revolutionary "change" to the grammar section is to simply copy ACT's approach or style. The SAT grammar test is now passage-based with multiple choice answers for the best version of a sentence, phrase, word choice. The College Board also appears to be copying itself (and a little of ACT) with its new reading passages, which look surprisingly like simpler versions of the objective reading on the AP Language and Composition exam. That is with a healthy dose of social studies thrown in. The emphasis on non-fiction with a connection to historical pieces in tune with "Founding documents" may require some literacy instruction - finally! - in high school history classes.

The essay? Basically an argumentative deconstruction - also in the manner of AP Lang.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The problem is with PARCC

In the past few weeks, I've had feedback from several "education reformers" and pro-PARCC voices about my criticism of PARCC tests. Much of their arguments have, to me, been grounded in naivete and mis-information. The following is the gist of my responses about my criticism of PARCC testing.

For one, it's not simply a matter of counting up the "testing time" and declaring that students are not "over-tested." For example, my district high schools are losing the equivalent of 9 full school days (out of roughly 174 days of instruction in a school year) in order to administer the tests required by the state. With proctor and tech needs, there is simply no other way. As an AP Teacher, I am positively ill about the impact on classroom time that will lessen my ability to prepare students for a truly meaningful and significant assessment. The excessive number of days/hours and two separate testing windows (PBA & EOY) of PARCC are simply untenable for schools and for students. In a world where students can take graduate school exams like the GRE and LSAT in a few hours, it seems patently absurd that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 are facing eleven hours of testing.

And, this testing monstrosity is a completely new product which has not faced market scrutiny. The PARCC assessment is an unproven and obtrusive assessment tool that inhibits instruction and poses serious equity issues in its format. If states and the federal government had had the common sense a year ago to align with ACT for a new common state assessment - one that can be given in a day or less - rather than PARCC, we might not have the huge parental refusal/opt out movement we are currently experiencing. Additionally, the radical new format of an online assessment necessitates training for students that absolutely requires "test prep" and "teaching to the test." And, with all we know about research on the importance of test format familiarity and "online reading comprehension discrepancies," the online format virtually guarantees the PARCC will not be an accurate measure of academic knowledge or skills, nor the ability to think critically.

I am not opposed to assessment or accountability. As an AP English teacher, I could hardly be opposed to standardized testing, or even "teaching to the test." In fact, one of my earlier pieces about testing simply proposed that Colorado choose ACT-Aspire over the PARCC. And, I have never opposed the use of MAPS or DRA2 or CSAP (or ISAT in Illinois) for my students or my own children. And, I do, in fact, prep my students for AP/SAT/ACT. However, I am critical of the edu-critics who use "test-based" reform as the factor in determining "good/bad" schools, and I am critical of the argument for new standards and tests based on the myth that "public education" is failing. In terms of the achievement gap, my position and the views of PARCC critics are not centered on simply test scores. My concerns extend to the impact on struggling schools that are forced by sheer need of test prep to narrow the scope of instruction to "pass the test." As noted in this profound article, students at high achieving schools will maintain their access to electives and the arts and subjects outside the tested ones despite an increased testing regimen. The same can't be said for other schools.

Truly, I can't imagine why an "educator" would enthusiastically cheer, or even passively accept, the PARCC test as "the answer" to all that allegedly ills public schools. Have they seen the test? Have they taken a practice test? If so, are they not bothered by the radical new system of online testing that has students scrolling passages and questions on opposite sides of the page while they try to answer questions? Are they not concerned about an "essay" section that puts writing in a box that kids can only see a few lines of their essay at a time? Do they know nothing of the research about discrepancies between online and paper reading comprehension? And what about the lack of data? Where is the evidence of valid proficiencies and cut scores? If a product is going to have so much significance, it should have more transparency about its quality. It would not have taken much planning to pilot, research, refine, and release the data to promote the test's value. But that didn't happen. And that's just not good practice.

As a parent and an educator, I can assert that my own children have taken CoGAT and NNAT and MAPS and DRA2 and CSAP and ACT and other tests as diagnostics for learning. I have no problem with these tests. But PARCC? I have serious concerns that have not been alleviated.

Problems "Teaching" Grammar

The teaching of grammar is the nemesis of both English teachers and students alike. And while many lament there is "no good way to teach grammar," few English teachers would argue publicly against teaching it in some way. The problem with teaching grammar in the traditional way is that it lacks any sort of evidence that the practice improves writing or reading or understanding of English. It's true. Literally breaking sentences down into their disparate elements has no positive impact on a student's ability to write correctly. Of course, we like to use the "mechanic analogy" for grammar-mechanics - You can't fix a car if you don't know how the individual parts like a carburetor work. The example is probably as absurd as it sounds.

That said, many of us continue to teach grammar in a disconnected, "underline the verb or the error in a bunch of random sentences" sort of way. The primary reason for this is the continued emphasis on such "skills" in standardized testing. My high school has a pretty standard, and pretty effective, grammar program that, in essence, is simply an ACT-prep course. And we will keep plugging away until the ACT grammar section is no longer such high stakes (which may be sooner than you think). And if we keep doing so, the education publishing world will continue to put out "grammar books," - a situation which makes professor Geoffery Pullum positively ill.

Professor Pullum is a long-standing critic of the teaching of grammar in the traditional sense, as well the inability for "grammar books" to actually articulate what they mean. For all those in the world of English who actually care to follow the issue, Pullum's blog - The Language Log - is an invaluable source of information and commentary. And, in a recent piece for The Chronicle, Professor Pullum rants and raves against the inadequacies found in the most recent version of the "New Grammar Book," or NGB, which he refuses to identify because it's just like all the rest. Delving into Pullum's critique and thinking long and hard about how we teach grammar is worth the time of dedicated English instructors. And perhaps one of us will take up the task ...

... that whoever points out that something needs to be done is taken to have thereby volunteered to chair the subcommittee for doing it.

Some who have tried before - and probably failed in Pullum's view - are:

Jeff Anderson in Mechanically Inclined.

Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Mignon Fogarty in Grammar Girls Quick and Dirty Tips.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Being Well-Read without Actually Reading

So many books - so little time. Or, perhaps, so many books - so little interest in reading them.

In an old Woody Allen movie (I can't recall which one) there was a character who spoke with great authority about books and culture, but actually knew very little. The quote was something like, "Oh, I don't read the books. I read the reviews." That always amused me as a teacher, and friends often referenced it when I appeared to have a knowledgeable opinion about everything. For English teachers and students, the ability of students to just "get the gist of it" without reading the stories is the benchmark of the Cliff Notes and Spark Notes industry. And that seems like cheating - though it's understandable why kids do it. They need to pass the quizzes and tests, but they don't have the time or interest in reading the stories.

So, what's the motivation for adults?

There is actually a sub-genre of books about how to appear well read without reading. And perhaps being knowledgeable about the classics or well-known works is not a bad thing. Adding to that area is Slate Magazine's Gentleman Scholar Troy Patterson who offers advice on "How to Seem Well Read." Patterson's position is actually quite entertaining and useful. The most basic advice is to simply follow the lead of that Woody Allen character - read the reviews. Patterson advises people to simply read the New York Review of Books. The reviews - at least for an astute reader - can provide the basic premise and commentary on the quality of the writing and story. However, for novels they will avoid spilling too much of the plot. So, it might be necessary to check out the conclusions - or Spark Notes summaries if available.

Of course, there are other great reads on how to appear well read. Here are a few I find worth the time.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Beowulf on the Beach