Do You Remember Your High School Lit Class?

On NCTE’s Connected Community, James Wilson responded to the discussion about multicultural literature, lamenting that “the focus on multicultural literature over the last 3 decades has resulted in an inability to teach the classics of the Western tradition. Few of my college freshmen have even heard of Faulkner and Steinbeck, much less read them.”

I understand Wilson’s frustration, but I learned long ago not to believe every word students report about their exposure to authors and literature. Their reports are more likely to be based on what they remember—things that made a strong impression for some reason. Sometimes that’s because they hated every word of text that they had been forced to march through. Sometimes it’s because they loved the text.

Ask me what I read in high school, admittedly a very long time ago—but even fresh after graduation I doubt I’d recall the details. In 12th grade English lit, for instance, I could tell you that I read Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, and “On Looking into Chapman.” Why? I remember hating Beowulf as endlessly dry and boring. I had to do a presentation on the “Wife of Bath,” where I was expected to come up with a costume out of no where. I had to use the nurse’s cape from my elementary school Halloween costume. I felt like an idiot. Macbeth I think I recall because my teacher must have liked it. I remember her reading aloud passages with a lot of theatrics, especially regarding bloody hands.

The most random thing on the list is Keats. My teacher also had a thing for precis and summaries, instilling a lifelong hatred of them in me, for what it’s worth. For some inexplicably nerdy reason, I wrote my precis of “On Looking into Chapman” in rhyming couplets. She read it to the class, without my permission, and I was made fun of for the next 2 weeks.

Bottom line: The problem isn’t “classics” versus multicultural literature. It’s that all too often students don’t have memorable experiences with literature. Frequently, that’s because they’re marched through the canon in an attempt at comprehensive coverage. Reading literature should be more than that, but many times, it isn’t.

Memorable experiences with whatever literature they read will create lifelong readers — and that’s how to get students who read widely and deeply. You can never possibly teach every great text, but you can teach in ways that make people want to read more widely.

[ I don’t accept that we have to choose between multicultural and classic literature. Multicultural literature is in most cases also what I’d defend as classic literature, but that’s a different topic.]

More Banned Books Week Resources

Muggles for Harry Potter PinOne of my cherished possessions is a Muggles for Harry Potter pin from 1999. Eric Crump gave it to me, having picked it up from the NCTE librarian. I hadn’t read a word of J. K. Rowling’s first book, but I was willing to join the anti-censorship campaign.

I wish all adults understood that while they are responsible for helping their family choose books, they aren’t responsible for telling the rest of us what we can read. Since the world doesn’t seem to work that way, we talk about banned books and the problems of censoring ideas in the classroom.

When I posted a list of Top 10 Things to Do with a Banned Book earlier this week, I was accused on the English Companion Ning of being biased and working to indoctrinate students. Sigh .  .  .

I guess I do have a bias: people should be allowed to choose what they read. I fundamentally believe that students and families should be allowed to reject a text that doesn’t fit with their beliefs and values. But no one should be allowed to make that decision for everyone else.

I advocate choice, and I do so by talking about banned books. I want students to know that books have been banned. I want them to know how and why they get banned so that they understand censorship. And yes, I want them to realize that individuals should be free to read what they want.

Since I posted my Top 10 Things, some additional resources have been released. Some, unfortunately, have been created in response to a sweeping call for censorship by Dr. Wesley Scroggins. If you want to learn more about censorship or to find some additional classroom resources, check out these resources:

Top 10 Things to Do with a Banned Text

Banned Book Week 2010 Poster from the American Library AssociationHow will you discuss Banned Books Week (BBW) this year? It’s easy to find ideas for displays and activities for libraries. The problem is that most of them are too general or would be difficult to use in the writing classroom.

To solve that problem, I began brainstorming ways that students can think critically about censorship. The result is this collection of projects that focus primarily on argument and persuasion. When possible, I tried to think of options that allow students to speak their own minds, for or against limiting access to a text.

So here are the top ten things to do with a banned book—other than read it, of course!

  1. [Mock Trial] Put the author of the banned book on trial (or a character from the text). Let Gustave Flaubert’s experience with Madame Bovary be your inspiration. You can adapt Mock Trial resources and the ALA’s suggestions for conducting a challenge hearing for the project.
  2. [PSA] Make a Public Service Announcement (PSA) that supports the text and the freedom to read (or BBW). You can create a video, audio, or slide show PSA. There are audio examples at the ALA site. Your announcement can focus on BBW as a whole or might be a campaign for the freedom to read a particular text.
  3. [Character Diary] Write a diary entry from the perspective of a character from a banned text. The character may be one whose actions are cited when people talk about banning the book or someone else in the text. There’s a List of Ten Character Diary Prompts you can use if you want to extend this activity.
    Adapt this writing prompt for students: Someone wrote the story of your life, and the book has been banned from _____ because of _____. Write your reaction as a diary entry—Are you shocked? pleased? upset? Do you think the banning was fair?
  4. [Warning] Create a warning label for a banned text. Examine that appearance and wording of warnings that are added to movie and television shows, cigarettes, and prescription drug commercials and ads. Have students then create a label that would be placed on the cover of the text. The label can be realistic or satirical. Here’s an example for Huck Finn and some additional tips on designing warning labels you can use to supplement discussion.
    Introduce the Warning Label Generator to add some play to the project. The images may not match properly, but the tool is fun. And if students think no one would ever put a warning on a book, you can share “Ratings, warning labels don’t belong on books.”
  5. [Testimonial] Write a testimonial letter or blog entry that explains why you support (or don’t) a banned text. Your goal is to convince readers to read (or not read) the text. Alternately, you can argue that the text be kept (or not kept) in the school or public library or read by students in a particular class.
    Your testimonial needs to personal, based on your experiences and beliefs. This is your chance to make a personal statement about why the text should (or shouldn’t) be read.
  6. [Language of Persuasion] Choose a statement for or against banned text, and examine how the language contributes to the argument. These questions can guide your analysis:

    • How are specific examples from the text used? When and to what effect?
    • What about euphemisms — how do the authors sugarcoat or generalize their messages with their word choice?
    • What about their sense of audience? Do they understand their readers? How can you tell?

    After you’ve examined the language, compose a blog entry, podcast, or video presentation that analyzes the authors’ language, explaining what you can conclude about their goals, their sense of audience, and their ideas on the issues.

  7. [A Fable] Have each student brainstorm a list of things that might happen if a text is banned from a library or classroom. You can focus on a specific text or just banned books in general. Next, students share their lists with the class, and identify the items that recur and those that seem particularly significant or surprising. Ask each student to choose an item to focus on, and write a fable that tells the story of the banned text and ends with or discusses the item chosen from the class lists. The moral of the fable will be related to whether books should (or shouldn’t) be banned.
  8. [Biggest Myth] What is the biggest myth that you’ve heard in the media about a banned book? Write a letter to the editor, to the television show, or to the general public that explains why you disagree with the coverage they have given to the myth you’ve identified.
    In your letter, describe the myth that you’ve heard and read, explain why you believe the assertion is untrue, and suggest reasons that the myth has developed. Identify and share more realistic explanations. Persuade your readers to change the way that they talk about the banned text.
  9. [Investigative Report] Describe the book banning in the form of an investigative report—the kind of piece you’d hear on 60 Minutes, Dateline, or 20/20. Start with a question or issue that the banning focuses on, explain all of the facts and details that you uncover in relationship to the issue, and conclude with the insights you gain as a result of your investigation.
    Like an investigative report on TV, your report should stir your reader to some kind of implicit action as a part of the conclusion — the point might be to stir the reader’s emotions, to inspire the reader to challenge the banning, or to suggest that the reader take an active role in how books are chosen for the library or classroom.
  10. [Censor It] Identify passages from a banned text that have been cited for using inappropriate language. Have students work in small groups to rewrite the sections. Ideally each group should have a different section of text to work with. Collect the two versions of the passages. Share the rewritten version of each passage with the whole class first, and then reveal the original version. Talk about what is lost (or not) in the censored versions.
    Use the activity to talk about how rewriting, expurgation, and omission are used as a way to talk about banned texts. Class discussion can include:

    • Radio versions of songs that get air play versus original versions with explicit lyrics.
    • Beeping out words in audio and video broadcasts.
    • Blocking images with a black box or blurred area in television broadcasts.
    • Adding a “clean” voiceover for inappropriate words said in a movie played on television (e.g., “shoot” for “shit”).
    • Cutting scenes and events from a movie before playing it on broadcast television.
    • The name of the CBS sitcom referred to as “Stuff My Dad Says” when spoken and often shown in print as $#*! My Dad Says. (The show based on the Twitter feed Shit My Dad Says and the related book Sh*t My Dad Says.)

For some specific lesson plans, see ReadWriteThink’s calendar entry for Banned Books Week. Check out my Bedford Bits post for Persuasion, Argument, and Book Banning in 10 Steps.


6 News Stories to Connect to Orwell’s 1984

Big brother poster by anarchosyn Big brother really is watching you. Today we accept a certain amount of oversight by government and business as a part of daily life.

Students know about all the surveillance cameras that follow them as they move about in the world. They realize the U.S. government tracks details on their income and health. They know that online vendors know what they buy and everything they looked at before they decide. They have all heard stories of someone who gets a ticket because of an act caught by a traffic light and toll booth camera.

Still, they can bring a skepticism to class when they read George Orwell’s 1984. Seriously, we could never be watched that closely, right?

Several recent news stories may make the answer to that question less certain. Have students read and discuss any one of the stories as an introduction or supplement to 1984, or arrange students in small groups, having each read a different article and then present the information and their comment to the class.

  1. Someone’s watching Granny cook her eggs. A new video surveillance system watches over senior citizens, monitoring everything from when they get out of bed to whether their eggs are fully cooked.
  2. Aunt Martha’s been in the bathroom for 30 minutes. Motion sensors track senior citizens around their homes, sending text messages to family when a possible problem arises. RFID chips track medicine and the inventory in kitchen cabinets.
  3. The scanner says you missed class today. Students must flash an ID card near the university lecture hall entrance to register their class attendance. The resulting information feeds into class participation grades.
  4. Alert! Preschooler has left the building! Thanks to a radio frequency tag in special basketball jersey-type shirts preschoolers wear, teachers and administrators can quickly tell when a student wanders off campus. The system tracks students at recess, in the cafeteria, and even in the bathroom.
  5. Why is Will still on the school bus? RFID chips and barcodes on student and faculty IDs and various pieces of equipment will allow a high school to track where people and things are at all times if funding is awarded. If someone’s missing or out of place, they can take action immediately.
  6. Your recycling bin may tattle on you if you throw away too many plastic bottles or cardboard boxes. In Cleveland, Ohio, RFID chips and barcodes will tell garbage collectors how often you put out the recycling. If it’s not often enough, your trash will be searched and you can be fined $100 if recyclables are found.


Student discussion of the articles can be guided with these questions:

  • What freedoms or privacy rights does the system affect?
  • What is the benefit of the system?
  • How would you feel if you were monitored by the system?
  • Would you feel comfortable using the system to monitor someone else?
  • How do the benefits balance with the loss of privacy? Is the loss worth the cost?

If students read and discuss several of the articles, additional questions can ask them to compare and synthesize the pieces:

  • Notice that the targets of these programs are either students or senior citizens. What do you make of the focus of these systems?
  • What other ways are monitoring systems used in America? How do the systems in these articles compare to them?
  • Create a scale that outlines how you feel about tracking and monitoring. What should always be monitored? What should never be monitored? What falls in-between? Explain how you decide where to place things on the scale.

Note that these articles would also make a great supplement to M. T. Anderson’s Feed.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by anarchosyn]

March of Time Newsreels in the Classroom

Film Canisters by Mr. T in DCBack in the days before 24-hour news networks, people went to their local movie theaters to see what was going on in the world.

The March of Time, perhaps the most well-known producer of these videos, distributed documentaries that covered everything from American culture and lifestyles, to business and industry, to the nation at war.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of this precursor to breaking news videos on YouTube, the Museum of Modern Art has a special film exhibition, running September 1 through September 10. Turner Classic Movies has posted background information on The March of Time and will show five of the newsreels on September 5th.

Luckily, highlights from the collection of historical videos are also available online from HBO Archives. Note that a free site login is required to view the videos. Additional materials are also available from the March of Time’s Facebook page.

The newsreels and documentaries on the HBO site include historical events, cultural happenings, and biographical profiles. The videos provide a wonderful snapshot of life in America and around the world.

I first wrote about the March of Time collection on Bedford Bits last summer. You can check my blog entry Use Newsreel Videos for Background and Analysis there for specific ideas.

One of my favorite possibilities for class discussion this fall is the Oil and Men video, which offers a profile of Standard Oil of Indiana from 1951. What a great pairing that 30 minute video would make for videos and news stories on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Here are some others you may want to spend some time with:

  • Basic English 1, with text by I. A. Richards, is quite odd, though perhaps not the best “teaching picture.” There’s also a Basic English 2 if you survive the first video.
  • Tobaccoland, USA might pair nicely with an analysis of cigarette advertisements and anti-smoking commercials.
  • Leadbelly is a short biopic on the famous musician, which might be compared to profiles on celebrities shown on TV or in magazines like People.
  • Wit and Humor is a dramatization of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.”

It’s unfortunate that HBO has left the running clock on the videos, but it’s still a handy collection with limitless possibilities for the classroom.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Mr. T in DC]

My Literary Genes

I’ve written before about my literary claim to fame: I’m slightly related to Ralph Waldo Emerson, through my great-great-grandmother Anne Emerson.

While I know that Anne was Ralph’s third cousin once removed, I’m not exactly sure what that makes me. Genealogy isn’t exactly my area of expertise.

That’s why I’m loving the relationship in Wolfram|Alpha. I entered the information I knew, and got a lovely chart that made everything clear:

My genealogical relationship to Ralph Waldo Emerson

Depending upon how I described the relationship, I’m Emerson’s 4th cousin 3 times removed or his 3rd cousin 5 times removed.

Either way, it appears that I share a 1/8192, or 0.012207%, blood relationship. We share a 13th degree of kinship, which apparently means I’m free to marry him or serve on a jury considering his fate. I don’t think either of those situations is likely to arise. But enough of my poetic cousin.

The relationship query in Wolfram|Alpha could be used in the classroom to help clarify family relationship students read about as well. If you’re reading Faulkner, you may well need complete family trees. If you’re just trying to explain third cousins, this may be just what you need.


Even More Literary Ten Bests

Ten Bells, Spitalfields, E1Can you name ten memorable vegetables from the literature you’ve read? How about ten pieces of literature that include a shipwreck or perhaps a volcano? You’ll find lists for these and much more below.

When I went searching for the literary lists of “Ten Best” from the UK newspaper The Guardian, I somehow missed dozens of interesting collections. These links will take you to ten of the best:

Always be sure to check for newest additions to the list on the Guardian site. You may find a new list that’s perfect for the texts you’ve been reading in class

Obviously there are more lists there than you’ll need for any one class, and some of the lists may be inappropriate for your students. There’s enough range though that you’re bound to find something useful whether you want to model a year-end activity with the literary lists of ten or try something else.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Ewan-M]

Designing an Image to Represent a Character

Ten Street SignTara Seale posted details on a fun visual rhetoric and writing activity she recently used with students on the NCTE Secondary Section Blog. The activity, inspired by a similar task described by Shelbie Witte, asks students to design and explain a tattoo for a character from Romeo and Juliet. The blog entry includes links to the assignment sheet, the rubric, a sample essay, and a number of sample tattoo designs.

Connecting to Other Literary Tattoos

The assignment can be easily linked to one of the Literary Lists of “Ten Best” from the UK newspaper The Guardian, which I wrote about earlier this month.

Share Ten of the best tattoos in literature with students, or a few of the items listed in The Guardian article with students to get them warmed up. They may know of other literary tattoos to add to the list. This evening, I happened to remember Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. Surely that’s a worthy patch of ink to add.

Other Assignment Possibilities

Naturally, the assignment could be completed for any work of literature. No reason you have to stick to Romeo and Juliet. Nor do you have to stick with characters from a work of literature. What about tattoos for some of the authors you’ve read in class?

If tattoo design isn’t appropriate for the students you teach, just modify the activity. Witte‘s original activity described the tattoos as a mind of modern family crest. Just have students design crests if tattoos would cause uncomfortable conversations with family or administrators.

If you still want the modern-day edge to the activity, have students design a personal logo or icon for a character. Ask students to think of the kind of image someone might post in place of a photo on a Facebook profile or a similar website.

In terms of publication, you can follow Seale‘s technique and have students submit images and an essay, but if you have the resources available, you can try a more technological bent:

  • Students might create Powerpoint presentations that layer the different portions of the image together and include text or audio explanations of the items. For instance, for the image in the photo above, the presentation might start with the basic outline of the heart, then shade red, add the flame, and finally add the dagger—each on a separate slide.
  • Using basic mouseover Javascript and pop-ups, students might make a webpage which features the image and explains the reason behind different aspects of the design when the viewer drags the mouse over them.
  • Use an image maps with alt text, but the length of students’ explanations would be quite limited. Javascript pop-ups would give them more room.
  • Publish the designs on Flickr and have students use the “Add Note” feature to identify specific portions of the image and then include related explanations.

No matter what option you choose, the assignment pairs visual aspects with critical thinking and communication. It’s a fun activity that can be used with students from kindergarten to college. Just adjust the requirements to fit students’ abilities and the pedagogical goals of the class.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Mykl Roventine]

10 Things You’ll Want To Read This Summer

Man using a laptop outsideWhether summer means time to read for fun or to prepare for teaching in the Fall, I bet you’re beginning to gather that reading list.

You probably know where to find details on the year’s award-winning children’s and teen books. You probably have a few articles lying around you mean to get to, and I bet you plan to check out the resources on ReadWriteThink.

Maybe you’re looking for something different though? Check out the ten must-read online resources I’ve included in this week’s NCTE Inbox Blog.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Mr.Thomas]

A Year-End Activity with Literary Lists of “Ten Best”

Clock Showing Ten Minutes Till the HourThere’s not much time left in the school year, and you may find that students are uninterested in reviewing for final exams when they could be making plans for summer fun or a few days off between terms.

You can use the literary lists of “Ten Best” from the UK newspaper The Guardian as the basis of a student-driven exam review activity that can add a bit of fun and entertainment to the last days in the classroom.

If time is short, you can share a relevant list with a class and discuss the examples. Look for a list that fits the content the class has covered, or find one that lists a text that students have read during the course. If students have enough background in the area that list covers, you can discuss whether you’d change the list.

You can also ask students to extend one of the existing lists with something from a reading. Time may require that you narrow the options, so you can give students a list of several options from your readings and ask them to choose one or two to add to one of The Guardian lists. The lists on lotharios, monsters, and unrequited love are focused broadly enough that you’re bound to have read a text with some examples for at least one of the categories. If you’re teaching American literature, the list on American frontier would work well.

If time allows a more in-depth project, have students make their own lists, modeled on the examples from The Guardian:

  • Choose several literary lists and share them with the class.
  • Ask students to look at the both the things that are listed and the information included for each item on the lists (e.g., short plot summaries, descriptions of the relevant characters, and quotations). You might share the heroes from children’s fiction list and the books about war with students to demonstrate how images can be included.
  • Explain that students will make their own lists, using The Guardian lists as models.
  • Brainstorm some possible topics for class lists, based on the readings of the term. Encourage creativity. Maybe the class will come up with some options as unique as best tattoos or best pairs of glasses.
  • Narrow the list down to the topics that will work best for the class if desired.
  • Arrange students in groups. Have each group review the brainstormed options and decide on a topic to explore.
  • To ensure that everyone in the group contributes, ask each group member to find 3 to 5 items for the group topic as a homework activity. If desired, narrow the homework further by having each group member search through a different section of the class textbook or a different time period that you’ve covered (e.g., Student 1 takes readings from the 1700s, student 2 takes readings from the 1800s).
  • During the next class session, have group members share their suggestions and narrow their collection down to ten items. You might ask students to rank the items or announce that, like the lists from The Guardian, the order has no relevance.
  • Have groups add the appropriate details for the items on their list, following the models from The Guardian as a minimum requirement. If desired, groups might make their list more robust by adding images, sound effects, or music.
  • Ask students to prepare their lists to share with the class. Depending upon your classroom resources, you can have students read their lists, create overhead transparencies, posters, or Powerpoint presentations.
  • Once all the work is completed, have groups share their lists as a review of all you’ve read during the year.

The activity works well because students get lost in the task and forget that they are actively reviewing all their readings for the year. I’ve had students voluntarily reread texts to find evidence when they work on projects like this one.

Customize the activity as appropriate. If ten items seems too long, just adjust the number. “Five Best” would work just as well as ten. The number is fairly arbitrary. There’s nothing magical about the number ten after all.

Add a reflective piece, if you wish, by having students journal about why they have chosen the items they have (and why others have been discarded). While the examples all focus on literature, the activity could be adapted to other content areas. Students can gather the “Ten Best” scientific innovations they’ve learned about during the course, or they can list “Ten Best” historical documents for a history or social studies class.

Encourage more synthesis and analysis by asking students to rank the items on the lists. Groups might narrow their lists to the top three or four items. You can then set up voting that asks students to rank the top items. Take a look at Mother’s Day: 12 Of The Most Horrifying Mothers of Literature from The Huffington Post. Along with the list of moms and their descriptions, the article includes a poll that asks readers to rank the characters. The Huffington Post list may not be one that is appropriate to use in the classroom, but the online poll demonstrates one way you might invite students to vote (and it makes the results easy to tabulate).

Finally, you can tie the activity to the final exam for the course itself with these suggestions:

  • Give students a full list and ask them to narrow the list to the 3 or 4 best and to justify their opinions.
  • Have students take a list and draw conclusions about how the topic has been defined by your readings. Using an example list from The Guardian, for instance, you might ask, “What are the characteristics of a lothario, based on the characters listed as Ten of the best lotharios in literature?”
  • Ask students to transform one of the lists to an “Eleven Best” by adding an item to an existing list. Have them write an explanation of how the item would be appropriate.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by cesarastudillo]