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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Classics Online

There are hundreds of sites online that allow you to read public domain classics such as 1984 and Paradise Lost. If Google is any measure, the search phrase "Read Classic Literature Online" serves up 321 results, and "Read Classics Online" serves up 5,740.

ReadPrintIf you're looking for the best site of its kind, I highly recommend ReadPrint. Unlike other literary classics sites, ReadPrint is incredibly lean and clean, with a modern interface with no annoying ads or upsells. Over 8,000 books by 3,500 authors available at your fingertips.

Like most other sites, you can search by either author, title, or writing type (essay, fiction, nonfiction, play, short story, poem). But what's really nice is that ReadPrint also provides you the author's biography and selected quotes. The quotes alone are worth the visit! I found myself reading through dozens of these, thinking how each could be used as a great thinking prompt at the start of class.

What happens so often as we get involved with new writers and new books is we forget how terrific the "old school stuff" really is. Take this character description from the opening page of Treasure Island as an example:
I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow--a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest-- Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!" in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.

"This is a handy cove," says he at length; "and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop. Much company, mate?"

My father told him no, very little company, the more was the pity.

"Well, then," said he, "this is the berth for me. Here you, matey," he cried to the man who trundled the barrow; "bring up alongside and help up my chest. I'll stay here a bit," he continued. "I'm a plain man; rum and bacon and eggs is what I want, and that head up there for to watch ships off. What you mought call me? You mought call me captain. Oh, I see what you're at-- there"; and he threw down three or four gold pieces on the threshold. "You can tell me when I've worked through that," says he, looking as fierce as a commander.
Arr, that be good writin.' And there's plenty more where that came from. Give ReadPrint a visit; it's sure to become your go-to site for classical inspiration.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Two Hot Resources

shmoopBy sending you over to Literacy is Priceless, I'm hooking you up with two hot resources. First of all, that blog itself. Lots of web and tech resources for bringing literacy into the 21st Century.

Second is the topic of that post, which is the Shmoop website. Shmoop is a fabulous collection of resources in the areas of literature, history, and poetry. I love free stuff! But at this site I especially appreciate the section of each resource called "Why Should I Care?" Next to free stuff, I love relevance!

"Why should we care about this stuff?" is the grunted (yet valid) motto of every middle and high school student, and these well-written and funny selections answer that question (for example, check out the Why Should I Care? for 1984).

Plan to spend some time there.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Don't Know Much About Literature

This review of the upcoming Don't Know Much About Literature by Kenneth C. Davis and Jenny Davis (Summer 2009, Harper Collins) is somewhat biased.

First of all, I was a huge fan of Kenneth C. Davis' Don't Know Much About History. I found that book to be equal parts entertainment and enlightenment. I'm not even embarrassed to say that 50% of that book was news to me. I'd probably still be enjoying it even now, but it's one of those books that's too good to keep to yourself. (And apparently too good to give back to its owner...)
Don't Know Much About Literature
Secondly, as a teacher, I'm a big fan of his Don't Know Much About... series for students. It's profusely illustrated with just enough facts to get them interested in learning more. Don't Know Much About the Presidents is one of my favorites.

Thirdly, I love literature, although judging by my poor performance on this book's quizzes, I'm obviously not as well read as I should be!

Don't Know Much About Literature is a fun way to assess your knowledge of literature old and new, and to gain some tidbits to share in your middle or high school class (or your next backyard barbecue). Selections are typically one page long, with half a dozen questions about authors, novels, lines, film and theatre adaptations, and literary honors.

Here are a few random questions to test your literary IQ:

1. Which Toni Morrison novel received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988?

2. Which book was the basis of the Broadway hit The Man of La Mancha?

3. Who opened their poem with this famous line: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"?

4. Identify this short story from its first line: "In walks three girls in nothing but bathing suits."

5. What was the first Agatha Christie novel to feature Miss Marple?

6. Who directed the 1980 version of The Shining?

7. In what novel does this first line appear? "You'd better not never tell nobody but God."

Do you even need to see the answers? C'mon, they were all easy, right? Well, just to check your spellings, if nothing else...

1. Beloved

2. Don Quixote

3. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Sonnet 13)

4. A & P by John Updike

5. Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

6. Stanley Kubrick

7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

If you scored 7 out of 7, I bow to your literary prowess! I missed the Miss Marple question and I'd be embarrassed to tell you my guess for #3.

So if you want a great gift for a teacher, a book of "stumpers" for your high school AP class, or just a fun read for yourself, you can preorder now and beat the rush!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Unpacking Passages

If you dug the idea of using Quote Analysis, or if you teach The Great Gatsby, you'll want to see the Unpacking Passages pages over at

What I like about Ben Davis' approach is that he created an acronym which would better help students remember the steps. Even this, however, needed some fine tuning and some scaffolding, which Ben describes in an earlier post.

Okay, if you still haven't clicked onto that blog, one more thing you'll dig is the presentation of the documents there, as facilitated by Issuu. If you're a blogger, or if you have a classroom site, you'll appreciate the cool format provided by this free application.

Interested in more ways to organize student note taking? Check out my recent post on Graphic Organizers over at Teaching that Sticks.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Teaching Novels Thematically

For a novel to be compelling now and memorable later, it most work at a thematic level. That is, it must address a universal concept to which students can relate. Is the book about a dog that pulls a sled? No; it is about Determination, and Loyalty, and Overcoming Challenges. Those are ideas to which students can relate. Is it simply a tale about a pig and a spider? No; it’s a story of Compassion, and Sacrifice, and Identity.

In order to make literature meaningful, teachers must find a way to help students connect it to their own lives. Universal Themes and their accompanying Guiding Questions are one way of doing this. Regardless of the novel you choose and its innate merits, you must ask yourself, “What makes this story accessible to everyone? For the kid who couldn’t care less about spiders and pigs, what does this story say to him about experiences which we all share in common?” That’s getting to the theme, or the universality, of the novel.

Houghton Mifflin has an excellent article on Thematic Instruction which lists several major advantages to using themes. One that I feel is especially important is theme's ability to build connections and relationships:
Thematic organization helps to account for the concepts of schema theory and prior knowledge. By having related, focused literature, students are able to build connections and relationships about a given theme, which is how one develops prior knowledge and uses it to construct meaning (Anderson & Pearson, 1984).
But which comes first: the novel or the theme? That’s entirely up to you. Many teachers have strong allegiances to certain novels, so they let the novel “lead” the curriculum. Other teachers prefer to select several themes for the year (often one per marking period) and then build a collection of novels, picture books (aka Mentor Texts, Wisdom Books), poetry, drama, and accompanying activities around that theme.

Another consideration is how far a theme will extend into other curriculum areas. This is where Universal Themes (Balance, Change, Patterns) prove to be somewhat more authentic than Topics (Spiders, Autumn, Tall Tales). Themes more naturally tie disciplines together.

If you’re crazy for a topic such as penguins, ask yourself, “What is it about penguins that gives them universal appeal? Why would anyone care to learn about them?”

Because of Winn DixiePenguins live in cooperatively in groups, so community, relationships, and collaboration could be themes; the role of the penguins in relationship to their polar neighbors introduces the themes of cycles, survival, and balance; and their very unique bodies and behaviors can relate to themes of adaptation, identity, and uniqueness.

Consider the theme of Identity, which was selected from many possible themes related to the novel Because of Winn-Dixie. This penguin-free chart illustrates how the universal theme of Identity can easily be incorporated into the four major subject areas. I also suggest you download my famous Universal Themes list. While not meant to be exhaustive, this list provides dozens of possible themes for your consideration. Have more to add? I'd love to hear from you! Leave a comment or drop me a line.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Reading Strategy: Quote Analysis

Resource RoomGrade 5 teacher Jan emailed to say, "My students want to read and read and read, and it seems that they're rarely slowing down to think about what they're actually reading. Is there one simple thing I can try (immediately!) to get them to think more about what they're reading?"

I'll assume that we're talking about fiction, and for starters I would recommend using quote analysis. Quote analysis is certainly nothing new; I used it informally for years before seeing it in a Resource Room lesson plan for Holes a few years back. I like the format presented there; it makes sense, and it's readily internalized by students. (Click on that link above to check out Susan Jones' four steps for yourself).

The activity doesn't end there, of course. This analysis leads to discussion about the character:
  • What does this quote tell us about this character's traits?
  • Is this behavior consistent with what we've seen so far, or is this a change?
  • If the character is changing, what factors or variables are bringing on these changes?
  • Think of the audience for this quote. What might be their reaction?
  • How does this quote advance the plot?
  • What future actions might occur as a result of these words?
  • Say the words aloud. Can we "hear" different interpretations of the message depending upon how it's said? (Have students alternately emphasize one word over the others).
You can download a recent quote analysis sheet I used for Swindle and adapt it for use with your own novel. Again, I take no credit for this strategy or format, but recommend it whole-heartedly.

Have another idea for Jan's speedy readers? Leave a comment or drop me a line.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Power of the Preview

swindleI recently read how one teacher provides her students with the entire plot of a new novel before beginning a study. Her thinking? If her students understand the basic story line, they''ll better be able to focus upon deeper aspects of the novel.

Not a crazy idea. Think about the last movie preview you saw. Did it really leave you wondering about the film's outcome? On the contrary. It presented you with enough bits and pieces that you could likely cobble together a reasonable summary of the entire film. So why bother seeing the movie?

To that question, a multitude of answers. Me, personally? Nothing beats watching a movie on the big screen with a big tub of buttered popcorn warming my lap. 95% of the time I know exactly what will happen (especially if the plot line follows the universally popular Hero Myth). What I'm there to see is how the pieces fall into place. I'm there to see what lies between them.

With this in mind, I took a different approach to introducing a new novel recently. Rather than share thematically related picture books, or draw out prior experiences relating to the book's topic, I showed them a preview. And you know what? It really got them psyched. More importantly, just as my colleague hypothesized earlier, it helped my students to relax and focus on elements beyond the basic plot.

See Scholastic's preview of Swindle for yourself. See if it doesn't create some excitement for the reading experience. (This book trailer is just one of sixty-five book video previews available at the Scholastic site).

(Go to this blog's original home at Wordpress to read three comments on this post).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Hero Myth

One topic which I casually mention in my How to Teach a Novel workshop that stirs a lot of interest is the Hero Myth as described in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

According to Campbell's introduction,
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Described in greater detail, the journey of the hero typically includes most, if not all, of the following stages:
  • call to adventure: the character leaves his ordinary, exceedingly common life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world;
  • road of trials: there he encounters a number of tribulations, and often one exceedingly difficult challenge (he is often trained or advised by an older, wiser mentor);
  • the goal or book: a reward the hero receives as aa result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self;
  • the return to the ordinary world: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, knowing what he now knows;
  • the application of the boon: the hero applies his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place, or to right a wrong which he was previously under-equipped to face.
Sound familiar?

It's the plot line of hundreds of books and movies, most easily recognized in Star Wars, Gladiator, the Matrix (see my cool post over at the Teaching that Sticks blog), and the Odyssey.

Less obvious is its appearance in The Lion King, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Dirty Dancing.

Dirty Dancing? Absolutely. Our heroine Frances, so naive to the ways of the world that she's called Baby, enters the strange and sexy world of the Catskills resort employees. Arriving wide-eyed and innocent at the steamy after-hours dance carrying watermelons (I'll leave you to analyze that), Baby suddenly realizes that the world she thinks she knows is just a facade. She is indoctrinated into this brave new world by street-wise and somewhat jaded Johnny Castle, who helps her discover herself in many ways, both G and PG-13. She returns to her world (and Daddy) with new knowledge about herself, and the ability to stand up for what is right.

Isn't it nice to find that your guilty little pleasure is following in the footsteps of the Hero Myth?

Teaching students about this literary pattern really opens their eyes to just how many stories utilize its conventions. Student writers may also find that it's useful for identifying weak points in their own stories.

A great place to start exploring more about the Hero Myth (or Hero's Journey as it is alternately called) is by checking out the collected sites and activities at The Web English Teacher. And of course, for you purists, nothing beats the book.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

In Search of the Novel

In Search of the Novel is a series of 8 one hour videos produced by Annenberg Media. From the series introduction:
Discover creative strategies for bringing novels to life for middle and high school students with this workshop, featuring the words and works of 10 novelists, including Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, J. K. Rowling, and Toni Morrison. Within the framework of real classroom practice, the workshop offers interviews with contemporary authors, literary critics, teachers, and students, as well as film clips from adaptations of the novels featured. In Search of the Novel poses basic questions that can help you examine the genre from multiple perspectives and bring it to life for your students.
If you're a teacher serious about implementing an engaging experience with novels, this free on-line resource is a must-see. As a first time user you are required to sign up, but that's it. You can then view the videos at your leisure with no software or video player downloads needed.

You also have the option to purchase the series on DVD or VHS with learning guides. This would make a great topic for a professional study group at the middle or high school level.

A synopsis of the individual workshops is listed below:

Workshop 1. Who Owns the Novel?
(illustrating how each reader makes a novel his or her own, depending on the reader's culture, class, generation, gender, and personality)

Workshop 2. What's the Story?
(how an author spins a story and why it is the most important aspect of the novel)

Workshop 3. Are Novels Real?
(must a novel bear some likeness to reality?)

Workshop 4. Where Do Novels Come From?
(the genesis of characters, plot, themes, and interpretation from the novelist's point of view)

Workshop 5. Why Do I Have To Read This Book?
(the workshop's ten novels are examined to see why they appear on recommended reading lists; also reasons for reading)

Workshop 6. What's in It for Me?
(ways to help students respond to novels on deeply personal levels)

Workshop 7. Who Am I in This Story?
(examining the complex ways readers identify with characters in a novel)

Workshop 8. Am I Getting Through?
(teachers examine their effectiveness in helping students comprehend and appreciate novels; teachers also discuss and demonstrate strategies for evaluation)

9 and 10. Authors' Notes
(contemporary authors — including Orson Scott Card, Horton Foote, Ernest Gaines, Arthur Golden, Daniel Keyes, Katherine Paterson, J. K. Rowling, and Leslie Marmon Silko — reveal even more of their own writing process)

In Search of the Novel is a little-known gem which you'll come to treasure!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Story's Privileged Status

"I have read that the mind treats stories differently than other types of information. It seems obvious that people like listening to stories, but it’s not obvious how to use that in the classroom. Is it really true that stories are somehow "special" and, if so, how can teachers capitalize on that fact?"
The answer to this question is well worth a read for any teacher desiring to put the power of story into their daily instruction. Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham addresses the topic of story in his excellent article The Privileged Status of Story, one of his many Ask the Cognitive Scientist columns at the AFT's American Educator.

Daniel first defines story using four features commonly agreed upon by professional storytellers (playwrights, screenwriters, and novelists). These features (sometimes called the 4 Cs) are Causality, Conflict, Complications, and Character. Even if a teacher chooses not to tell "stories" in the traditional sense, employing just one of these features can have a profound impact on every lesson, helping to create learning that is interesting, memorable, and easier to comprehend.

Although his role is to point out the theory and research behind the well-deserved status of story, Willingham writes like a practitioner, offering suggestions which are practical and simple to implement. For you fans of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, this article is a concise, highly accessible how-to guide for putting story to work in your instruction.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Professional Learning Community Made Easy

english companionMost of us who are psyched about teaching can muster enough enthusiasm to get us through the most trying times. But it's comforting and enlightening to dialogue with like-minded individuals once in a while, and the Internet lets you reach out across the world to do that.

If you haven't already found it, I suggest you get hooked up with The English Companion Ning. Tons of blogs, forums, and groups for seeking and sharing ideas, sites, and resources. I dare you to spend just ten minutes there and not come away with a new link, lesson, or at least a laugh. If you're looking for an approach for a book study or suggestions for a thematic unit, this is a great place to get in touch with professional practitioners like yourself. Jim Burke  and the members of this Ning do some good work!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

New Teacher's Guides at Harper Collins

Looks like Harper Collins has reformatted their homepage for teacher's and readers' guides. Lots of great free resources here for many popular books at all reading levels.

What's cool is that even if your class novel isn't featured here, you can still check out books that are related to your own novel by either genre, topic, time period, or theme.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Tools for Teaching

mosaic-toolsTeachers often email me asking for ways they can help their students organize thoughts during the reading process. I wrestled with the same challenge in my fourth grade class and when working one-on-one with older students in tutoring situations, and I continue to see the same issue (but on a different scale) with my present sixth graders.

My advice? Check out the resources at the Mosaic Email Group's Teaching Tools. If you're not entirely sure what you're looking for, or if you're simply interested in investigating what has worked successfully in other teachers' classrooms, this is a great place to start. You'll find dozens of assessments, lists, organizers, prompts, posters, and more in both Word and pdf format. While there, visit the main page to learn about the origins of the site and to join their email group. This is an excellent way to collaborate with like-minded professionals who are seeking to bring their professional practice to the next level.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Handling a Group of Witch-Hunting Grown-Ups

This stuff still happens? In a way. This brief article posted at the School Library Journal provides some guidance for librarians dealing with parents who want to remove "objectional" books from the library. Definitely of interest to teachers who use novels which might be deemed controversial.

Be sure to read all the entries. One parent group concerned about gang activities at the local mall wants to remove all books dealing with gang themes from the library. First of all, does this mean that modern-day classics like The Outsiders and time-honored treasures such as Romeo and Juliet will be banned for the gang-related topics? And secondly, are Bloods and Crips really turning to the public library for how-to advice?

My take on this? First, educate parents. Provide them with information which summarizes the books you're teaching, while at the same time providing a rationale; in other words, why this book and not another?

Second, have a fall-back book for those students whose parents object to the title you're using. For example, if a parent objects to The Devil's Arithmetic, substitute another Holocaust-related novel. The two books can address identical themes, and be assessed by nearly identical means. This respects the parents' wishes for their children while maintaining control of the instruction and curriculum within your own classroom.

Third, be sure that all books you're using have been approved (including read-alouds and micro-texts). You want the district behind you should an offended parent come out swinging!

You might also want to check out Amazon's list of banned books. You won't believe some of the titles that appear here, nor the reasons why they're found to be so offensive!