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Thank You, Nelle

It was 1986 and I was asked to read at our school’s chapel. The visiting reverend had the gospel handled; I as a senior could pick an appropriate reading to share with all my classmates. I chose the scene where Atticus shoots the rabid dog.

To me, this scene embodies everything that is wondrous about Harper Lee’s writing. A 1930s community is at a standstill from the terror of an infected dog that could end lives. “Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent…” (103) An aging father is asked to take up a gun, in front of his children, because he’s the “deadest shot in Maycomb County” (106).

(AP) Image found at The Washington Post

Atticus protests; he’s not shot a gun in 30 years. The sheriff begs him. His children and Calpurnia stand frozen, breath bated. The scene unfolds with cinematic perfection, every moment a slow motion rendering of suspenseful action and dialogue. Atticus fells the dog in one shot.

And the dog’s name? Tim Johnson. You can’t walk a foot inside Mockingbird without running into rich character, that wry and understated humor alternating with poignant, gut-wrenching honesty.

Jem is astounded his dad is capable of such things. He’s been so embarrassed by his father’s age and infirmity–his inability to play football and the like. He and Scout can’t imagine why Atticus has never bragged about his shooting skill. It’s because, Miss Maudie says, “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents” (107).

The 17 year-old standing before her peers and teachers that day chose this passage for many reasons, not the least of which was loving this book so much. But today I’d like to think it’s because this moment and many of the moments in Mockingbird are about doing the right thing, the humble thing, and the hard thing.

In our country, this book woke up a lot of white people unaware of or unwilling to face racial inequality. Though most still did nothing afterwards, for a moment they got a glimmer of understanding about injustice. It took the voice of a little girl from the Depression era to awaken a 1960s white-majority America to the fact that white privilege does indeed exist, that the drum major instinct–the superiority complex that Dr. King described so eloquently–is a virulent source of racial hatred.

It all comes down to whether your inner sphere is a raging brew of uncontested, ugly desires, or whether you are, as Miss Maudie says of Atticus, “civilized in your heart.” Jem is thrilled to discover this part of his father—the glorious, secret strength that craves no glory whatsoever.

“Jem picked up a rock and threw it jubilantly at the carhouse. Running after it, he called back, ‘Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!’” (107)

Harper Lee created a man whom most men and women never are and never will be. Atticus Finch of Mockingbird is a tenacious fighter for justice, saintly with his patience, and self-sacrificing at the risk of his own and his children’s safety. Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is a fearful old man who rationalizes and intellectualizes his racism. My guess is the truth of any Atticus who ever lived is somewhere in between.

On this day of her death, I salute Nelle Harper Lee. She did something braver than I as a white girl would have done in 1960.

To Ms. Lee, whose magnum opus was one tiny part of a much larger Movement that had been hard fought so long already.

To Ms. Lee, who hating the limelight herself, stowed herself away like Boo Radley to appreciate the finer things of life beyond fame.

Your light is eternal, a steady flame fueling itself, seeking no air or wind from others. Rest in peace after a life well lived.

“He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” (296)

Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird. J.B. Lippincott Company. Philadelphia and New York. 1960.

Yes, Virginia, It is Rocket Science

Doris makes teaching look so easy, doesn’t she?

Those of you who follow my blog know I write YA fiction, but you may not also know that I’m a former high school and middle school teacher (15 years), an online instructor, and a teacher trainer. That my other consuming passion is writing lessons for teachers and talking shop with them. I’ve authored, co-authored, or contributed to four different works on the art of lesson design.

That’s right, I said “art.” And let me mix metaphors, in a major way, right now: The art of lesson design is rocket science. An excellent unit of instruction is hard to launch, you have a million variables to consider, and everyone is watching you fail.

Yet there are people who talk about teaching as if they could step in and take a teacher’s job tomorrow. These are the same people who would never dare presume to talk about their lawyer, doctor, or plumber’s skill with any type of knowledge or dare say, “Excuse me, I could do that!”

But let me reel myself in here: this post is not a rant against those who have done seat time in a classroom, apparently suffered, and then look down their noses the rest of their lives at the teaching profession.

Though I do believe it would be a lot of fun to see those folks take on a full day of teaching and see where they are by 3:00 PM. I’d like to be there to tell them to, “Peel yourself off the floor; keep going. Your day has just begun. You have parent phone calls to make; practice/club/rehearsal to run; papers to grade; meetings to attend. Nope, you’re not going home yet, or if you are, please take this bag of stuff, or these gigs of digital work, and please get cracking. And just when you’re most exhausted, you need to be designing cutting-edge, differentiated, 21st-century, Common Core State Standards-aligned, engaging, student-centered, blended, and flipped lessons.”

If you are not a teacher, I imagine at least a few of the adjectives I used sailed over your head. Ed jargon, some call it. And that’s how it should be. A profession worth respecting has a vocabulary–not unlike nanotechnology and neuroscience–cultivated from years of research, experience, and experimentation.

As I work with teachers headed into a new school year, I consider the vast array of knowledge, processes, and new mandates our educators have to juggle when designing lessons, and something in me craves a formula, a distillation of all the complexity in order for our teacher-soldiers to march onward.

So for those of you surrounded by notes, texts, computer, and other resources to plan those units of instruction, I’ve created a formula for lesson planning. It is not perfectly comprehensive or suited to every teacher’s learning style. For example, some of the sequence may not follow the way your brain thinks, but try to take each step as a crucial task and determine how you can approach each one thoroughly.

  1. Select a complex text with colleagues.
  2. Identify concepts, or Big Ideas.
  3. Create Essential Questions, global and local, to be used in every assignment.
  4. Select 10 scenes or chapters of the complex text.
  5. Identify CCSS goals and subskills, finding at least three readiness levels (ELL or novice, on-target/grade level, and advanced/gifted).
  6. Identify “how to read” skills, strategies for independent reading.
  7. Develop assessments, formative and summative, with rubrics. 
  8. Develop lesson activities.
This may seem like a quick and simple formula to outsiders, but there’s lots of knowledge and expectations and standards buried in these. I could do a full-day workshop on each step–and we could spend a whole year perfecting the art of each step in our classrooms.
For those of you who don’t teach, please take a moment to take in these steps and appreciate the hard work teachers do to prep one three-week unit of study. For those of you who do teach, you do so much with so little time and resources, and I applaud you. Enjoy this adventure of launching great ideas, thinking, and explorations with our students this year. 
Stay tuned for future blogs with writing prompts for you and your students at the end of each post. And check out the last 4 years of posts; there’s probably a concept, a whole set of journal prompts, that might suit a unit you’re teaching now. 

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare. What You Mean to Me.

Image found here

Today the Bard is 448 years old. This universal author touches so many: he’s global and he’s omnipresent because he’s also quite local and personal. So let’s set the GPS for me with the typical narcissism we love as bloggers. What does the Bard mean to me? It’s still a pretty nice birthday tribute to tell another how he’s changed your life, so I’m sure Will wouldn’t mind a fan 400 years hence bowing to his wisdom, his beauty, and his wit.

I have already written my thanks directly to Will and why I need him, and I have already defended his honor, nay, his very existence. Today, just some simple, quick thoughts of how Shakespeare is part of my daily bread and daily pages.

  1. Poetic language that transports the teen heart. I fell in love with Shakespeare in 11th grade when Macbeth taught me what “all is lost” meant. Is there any better speech than “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow…” (The entire text shimmers at the end of this post.) I knew then that Shakespeare got me. He got depression, he got ennui, he got hopelessness. 
  2. Words, words, words. I have so many great words thanks to the man who made them common parlance. Dauntless, besmirched, and lackluster are just a few. This delightful Youtube video, a must-see for high school students, dedicates Chapter 3 (found at 2:19) to the Bard’s impact. His words, read aloud many times in my own schooling and later in my classrooms, inform my writing today with diction, musicality, and emphasis. I think of his consonance, alliteration, euphony, cacophony, internal rhyme, and meter, and I hear me trying to imitate it in my own work while sounding 2012. 
  3. Kid inspiration. The other day, I’m standing in line for a burrito, and a young man in scrubs said, “Excuse me, did you ever teach at Stanford?” I told him yes once I figured out he meant the middle school, not the university. I could not place him. “I’m Adam,” he said. “I played Mercutio?” Then I remembered. One can only cast an adventurous, humorous soul for that role, and suddenly I saw the 13 year-old I hadn’t seen since 1998.  I told him I was happy he had survived that production of Romeo and Juliet, because I recall it involving a) seventh graders  b) no budget and c) not enough time to master the Bard’s work. But because of intrepid and enthusiastic kids, a persistent if naive director, and some awesome parent support, the thing came off. And Adam made his mark. Now he takes care of patients and plays music. And yet he still remembered being Mercutio. “My one claim to acting fame,” he joked. Thanks, Will, for helping me make an impact on some youth on a dusty stage with poor lighting yet burning still with your incandescence. 
Shakespeare, a book of your complete plays would suffice for a desert island exile. On my worst days there, I’d still find great speeches with more left to mine, and I’d call up great memories with your stories in my classroom. And I would find great words to help me write my story in the sand. 
Writing Prompts:
  • What has the Bard done for you lately? Or once upon a time?
  • Write about to-morrow, about life’s petty pace, and your fears of dusty death.
  • Find one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and let its lines inspire a new work from you.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
 Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
 To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. 
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

excerpted from the MIT full text. Act V, scene v

Very Punny, Anderson; Thanks for the Reminder

Image found here

 “When nature calls and says, ‘Call me Ishmael,’ it’s a whole new way to get absorbed into a novel.”

–Anderson Cooper

Anderson Cooper featured a roll of toilet paper on his segment The Ridiculist last night, but not just any roll of toilet paper: one being sold on eBay for at least $999. Apparently, some dedicated soul has taken the time to type out the entire text of Moby Dick on five rolls.

Watch the segment and see if you can catch all the puns and allusions. But here’s the catch; if you’re not well read, if you ignored your English teachers’ assignments all those years, you won’t get all the references. High school kids will appreciate the bathroom humor, for sure, but only if they know the book titles. At least five other famous novels (The Call of the Wild, Lord of the Flies, Gone with the Wind, The Sound and the Fury, Howard’s End, and Something Wicked This Way Comes) are mentioned. Captain Ahab gets a moment, too.

When E.D. Hirsch talks about cultural literacy, the ability to know many bits and bytes of our history and culture at the drop of a name, it raises a question for educators in a global society of how much both we and our students should know about so many, many things.

Is there a canon anymore? I would argue yes, of course, but as America ages, I think we’ll have to get more selective, and that “dumbs it down.” Huck Finn isn’t the only representative of America, 1885 (trying to capture a pre-Civil War America, at that), but pacing guides and unit sizes force it into “main event status.”  Many teachers search out other American voices to round out the picture: quotations and excerpts from Chief Joseph, Chief Seattle, Frederick Douglass, or Susan B. Anthony. Educators try to give our kids the full picture and mention many idioms, allusions, and other rich moments of America while teaching our main events. It’s important when you consider that Google’s first response to your typing Susan B…yields an automatic “Susan Boyle.” What the mass of people want ain’t necessarily what they need to know–no offense to a reality-show star.

I’m headed to Mysore, India in May to conduct a teacher training, and I face every day my massive ignorance on the subject of that enormously rich, diverse country. I just picked up Imagining India and have a whole stack of authors to get to know in the next few months. My desire to learn more has always been there, since a child, but I always appreciated the cool trivia and fascinating nuggets my teachers shared with me over the years. It instilled further curiosity and modeled lifelong learning. My 6th grade social studies teacher who was brave enough, in a Catholic school, to mention the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone; my high school teacher who spent ample time on Charles Baudelaire and ennui. No, I confess I’ve never read a big Dickens novel cover to cover (only A Chrismas Carol); nope, I bailed out of Moby Dick, too. (Sorry, Mrs. Connor. You were the best English teacher, but my senior year, I was full of ennui! But I read every other novel you ever assigned me, and boy, you had us read a lot.)

The solution isn’t to up the ante of the pacing guide and cram more books in, but perhaps the buffet of differentiated approaches might help this massive cultural literacy challenge we face. There are independent reading lists, tiered assignments, more excerpts and less full reads (for example, top-ten scenes of a classic work over 100 years old), summer reading lists, and book clubs, all of which can allow us to encourage, cajole, excite, and inspire our students to read more, think more, and make connections.

Of course, we hope the parents are spreading the same message every night at home, and not just about books. About great films, works of art, and works of music. About dance and sculpture and big moments in history.

If the whole village delights in our cultural details, we’re growing. We aren’t America on the decline, which seems to be a prevailing fear of late. Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can learn about your country. And the world.

Then, at the very least, we won’t feel ridiculous when we watch The Ridiculist.

The Why and How of Writing Prompts

This blog offers writing prompts each month, ones for teachers and students. I also include several journal prompts in my three books, The Compassionate Classroom (with Jane Dalton); Teaching Romeo and Juliet (with Delia DeCourcy and Robin Follet); and Teaching Julius Caesar. I provide these because teachers need and request them. I’ve always assumed we know why writing prompts are worth the time, but that’s not always true. It’s good to revisit why they matter in the classroom.

Still ringing in my ears is the only parent complaint I’ve ever heard on the subject. “What’s this touchy-feely stuff? What’s this got to do with academics?” While I did convince this parent I wasn’t wasting his child’s time, the complaint gets to a misinformed opinion–that writing prompts are a flights-of-fancy indulgence we can’t make time for. I figure it may also help teachers to have this argument in their back pocket should parents, administrators, or pacing guides approach.

(This image found at Darton College’s Writing Lab site.)

Why You Should Use Writing Prompts in Your Classroom

Writing prompts are great dress rehearsals for deeper thinking, the critical analysis required by most literary interpretation, argumentation, and research.

Writing prompts tap into what I call the Big Ideas–the concepts and abstract topics that need fleshing out in an essay. In the low-stakes dress rehearsal area that is a journal, students can discover what they think as they see what they writeSo Romeo and Juliet is about the Big Idea of Love; that claim is no thesis statement yet. Do you believe in true love? Love at first sight? Platonic love where there’s once been lust? What is more important–the love of family or romantic partners? It’s these interesting questions that come from journaling on a Big Idea.

Students need to make affective, personal connections with the literature before they can delve deeper into analysis. Why are we reading this? radiates from every student pore, every adolescent ‘tude entering your classroom. When students write journals on prompts that at first glance seem to be all about them, that thinking leads to better, deeper conversations when you put the lit front and center. Big Ideas are always relevant to students’ lives: Love, Justice, Jealousy, Revolution, Change…

Writing prompts tap into metacognition, sparking reflection about the writing process. They allow students to mull over the complex stages of thinking that lead to a finished draft and develop a perspective on their own writing strengths, weaknesses, and methods.

Writing prompts allow creative forays into personal, imaginative writing such as short stories, novels, poetry, even lists–every genre and type–that again, serve as great dress rehearsals if not companions to the academic writing we teach. Some schools assign creative writing before assigning literary analysis. If a student can develop a character, create a narrative thread, or craft a symbol in personal writing, isn’t it that much easier for students to approach literature where they must analyze character traits, track a plot’s trajectory, or explicate the connotations of an image?

Writing prompts help our kids access difficult texts, from Twain to Shakespeare to Swift. Old school becomes new school when our kids realize that these authors grappled with very modern problems and timeless emotions. In some ways, not much has changed with humanity, and journaling can get our kids seeing that.

How You Should Use Writing Prompts

How do we integrate this type of writing practice into the average class period, burdened as it is with other reading and writing tasks and the demands of pacing guides and standardized tests?

Opening & Focusing Activity. When students hit the door certain days, they can see their first task–that writing prompt on the board–to focus their thinking. Allow 7-10 minutes. This can be followed by a pair-share or a brief class discussion where students share thoughts. You might collect these journals randomly.

Anchoring Activity. This is a go-to assignment when students finish a task early in order to prepare for the two uses described below. Journal prompts can be listed alongside other tasks that students can pick up for ten or twenty minutes and return to at any time. They are particularly helpful when you have a range of abilities in your classroom and are trying to conduct mini-lessons with tiered groups, conference with students, and interact with several students within a class period.

Essay Preparation. These journals allow students to explore and experiment with a range of essay prompts before making a final selection. Students can contemplate the entire work just read and call up evidence in a more casual writing foray to see if they have enough ideas, supporting examples, and passion about the topic to commit to it. Assign at least two of these before students conference with you or before they identify their choice. This task also allows you to offer more than one or two essay prompts and give students a wider choice.

Pre-Socratic Seminar. Planning on an intensive discussion? Writing on the discussion topics before speaking aloud is important rehearsal for more retiring students as well as those who speak extemporaneously and fearlessly.

Homework. Journal writing on Big Ideas or creative writing prompts offer great homework options. Students are more likely to be alone and more reflective, and, after a busy school day, their minds are freer, rambling, and needing open expression rather than serious drill assignments.

There are many other places to integrate prompts; these are just a few of the most obvious times to integrate them.

Other General Tips:

— If you use hard-copy composition books, allow students to fold over pages of their journal that they don’t want you to read. I always say, “Please don’t fold over every page; I’ve got to read something.” This offer does make the journal the student’s domain first and foremost and encourage ownership.

— Don’t spend a lot of time grading journals but do focus on whether students have done one or two of the following: offered specific and rich examples or discovered some interesting insight or interpretation. I usually give 10 out of 10 points, with one or two points deducted for poor effort. We know a half-baked journal when we see it.

— Tell students that if they do tackle tough subject matter, such as personal dilemmas or crises, that you will feel compelled to assist them by referring them to a school counselor. If students hint at eating disorders, abuse, and other trauma in their lives, it’s impossible to turn our heads.

The best reason for assigning writing prompts is getting to know your students better. I’ve formed better relationships and understandings with my students because of what they have shared with me in their journals.