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Thursday, April 30, 2009

When Will We Ever Use This Stuff?

"When will we ever use this stuff?" is an oft heard refrain in middle and high school classrooms, and I'll admit I often asked that question myself (most often in Math and Science). According to Carol Jago, it's a valid question, especially when students are asked to write responses to literature. After all, apart from college professors, who does that in real life?

In her NCTE white paper titled "Crash! The Currency Crisis in American Culture" Carol provides some answers. Jago has taught middle and high school for 32 years in Santa Monica, California, and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She is president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English and has written four books in the NCTE High School Literature series.

After you check out her white paper, be sure to weigh in at the NCTE ning. The follow-up comments make for interesting reading as well!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How NOT to Teach a Novel

Some teachers, with all the best intentions, treat novels like pinatas, beating them with sticks until every last piece of sweet candy falls out. Those of you who caught my How to Teach a Novel session at the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS) Conference know I use that metaphor frequently. For good reason, trust me.

As Kelly Gallagher points out in his recent book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Readig and What You Can Do About It, teachers underteach books; that is, they assign chapters in extremely difficult books for independent reading, and students either choose not to read the selection, or they read it with little understanding. On the other end of the spectrum, however, are those teachers who overteach novels; they're not satisfied until the pages have been wrung out like dish rags, emptied of every teachable vocabulary word, allusion, metaphor, and simile.

In my How to Teach a Novel sessions I encourage teachers to read and reread novels with pencil in hand in order to decide, "What's worth our attention?" or, more practically, "What's worth teaching?" (see How to Teach a Novel for a synopsis of this topic). That does not mean, however, that the teacher needs to teach it all!

Imagine that you're listening to the Motown classic My Girl on the radio. How frustrating would it be if every twenty seconds the DJ interrupted the song to examine its language, or to "enlighten you" with some background information which places the song or group into a historical context?

I've got sunshine, on a cloudy day

(Does the singer literally have sunshine? Is this an oxymoron alone, or is it meant to, in some way, be metaphorical?)

When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May

(Who knows the origin of the name Motown? Right, it's related to the fact that Gordon Berry established his record label in Detroit, which is also known as the Motor City. But who can tell me the nickname Berry gave to Motown Records itself? Why don't we continue to pause the song while our listeners look that up?)

I guess you'd say, "What can make me feel this way?"

(Note the use of sentence variety here, and the way in which the singer directly addresses his audience. Is he expecting an answer? What do we call a question in which the speaker does not expect to receive an answer?)

I think you get the idea. When it comes to teaching novels, I wish everyone did.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Top Ten YouTube Videos for the Classroom

Tara Seale has compiled a nice list of the Top Ten YouTube Videos for the Classroom over at her Enhanced English Teacher blog. If you're a middle or high school English teacher, you'll find some great resources and insights there.

For example, those of you who have had the immense pleasure of attending my Teaching that Sticks workshop or my How to Teach a Novel workshop have heard me mention Joseph Campbell's "Hero Myth." The clip below features a discussion of the Hero Myth as it appears in The Matrix. Christopher Vogler, author of The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writersand Using Myth to Power Your Story takes over where Joseph Campbell left off. This snippet of video serves to set up this topic up for classroom discussion.

Thanks for the list, Tara! Visit her site and give her some suggestions for building it to a Top Twenty!