Saturday, August 8, 2009

Five Things I've Gained from Reading Literature

People want to know why we teach Shakespeare instead of how to write business reports. Students want to know why they need to read Huck Finn instead of writing resumes. Politicians want to know why we talk about Emily Dickinson instead of doing test prep.

In her report this week, Carol Jago explains that by studying literature, students learn to read and think critically. They learn about the human condition. They learn to explore and critique the many texts that they encounter, from novels and poetry to blog posts and YouTube videos. These are true, well-established reasons, but families, students, and communities who are asking the questions sometimes have difficulty relating these explanations to their personal experiences.

Rather than telling you the benefits of literature, I’m asking you to tell me. I’m asking you to share what you've gained from reading literature..

The Questions

Think about the literature you've read—short stories, novels, plays, memoirs, and poetry. Any literature counts, from picture books to epic poems, and from romance novels to sci-fi fan-fiction. Answer each question, and explain your response in a few sentences.

1. What piece of literature has stayed with you, even though you haven't read it recently? Why?

2. What character or story has influenced something you've done? Explain.

3. What character or piece of literature seemed to relate to a recent news story or personal experience? Explain.

4. What character has make you wonder why he or she did/said something?

5. Name something from a work of literature (such as a character, setting, or quotation) that you find beautiful or vivid.

The Discussion

As you answer these questions, they are actually proving that literature has influenced who you are. Each of the questions has a concrete purpose, to focus on a specific reason that we read literature.

Now, Compare the questions and your responses to these underlying messages:

Literature has enduring value to the reader.

Literature influences our actions and beliefs.

Literature connects to our own time and place in the world.

Literature inspires critical thinking.

Literature has lasting beauty.

Together, the five questions tell us not only what a specific person has gained from reading literature, but also the very reasons that students should read and write about literature throughout their lives. Literature matters. No question about it

Monday, June 29, 2009

24 Authentic Writing Activities

Authentic Writing Ideas

  1. Allow Choice
  2. Create movie trailers that highlight universal themes or questions raised in novels
  3. Dramatic Reading and Analysis of a poem of choice
  4. Team research on a global social issue, provide possible solutions and present to the class/community
  5. Group or individual research on essential question and selection of images to illustrate the concept or the absence of the quality presented in an online slideshow
  6. Choose photo that represents their individual personality, value, beliefs etc. –write a personal narrative, poem …
  7. Choose a newspaper article on a crime committed, turn it into a story. (Patchett’s Bel Canto)
  8. Podcasts
  9. Write commercials/ads of products, services you use, using knowledge of rhetoric
  10. Read digital fiction, write your own -
  11. Choose article from the satiric publication The Onion and identify the elements of satire ( exagerration, incongruity, reversal and parody)
  12. Follow Twitter logs of a variety of newspapers and compare these logs for the differences and similarities in how they report the events. Speculate on the significance of these comparisons
  13. My Future Research/Personal essays – careers, salaries, education/training, employment outlook etc.. Create graphic organizers comparing 3 – 5 possible careers. Write short personal essays explaining what your life would look like if you pursued each choice.
  14. Using a few famous speeches (ex. Obama’s and GW’s inaugurations speeches) create a “word cloud” representing the frequency of word use, the more frequent the word, the larger it is displayed. Analyze the visual representation and evaluate the prominent words and the intention of the writer. Extension – do this to one of your own persuasive pieces of writing.
  15. Research a current economic or social proposal that is important to you. Prepare a written argument to persuade your classmates to support this proposal.
  16. Poetry Cafes/Poetry Slams
  17. Follow a variety of blogs to educate yourself on a topic of personal interest. Write a reflection on the differences in tone, content, expertise, between these blogs and the insights you gained from these blogs.
  18. Translate a section of dialogue from a Shakespeare play into a series of text messages or tweets etc. Then analyze the effect the writing mode has on the tone and meaning of the dialogue along with audience and purpose using this media.
  19. After reading several short stories, rank each story according to the elements of effective short stories. Justify your rankings.
  20. Word trees to reveal recurrent themes and phrases in pieces of writing. Many Eye’s Word Tree -
  21. Write a narrative and illustrate with images using an Internet site such as Voice -
  22. Create a graphic novel/comic strip of a short story or novel.
  23. Epals –choose a project, colloborate with students in other countries,
  24. Create a Facebook page for your favorite character


National Council of Teachers of English

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I heard on the radio this morning that some plastic surgeons consider themselves Michelangelo’s of the body. Plastic surgeons, Michelangelos? It is kind of like the first time I heard that tattooists called themselves skin artists. Or the garbagemen I grew up with became sanitation engineers. Janitors are now industrial engineers and I remember the day when there were only stewardesses, no stewards and now they are both called flight attendants. It brings to mind a conversation I had with a close friend who happened to be African American (I usually hate assigning race to someone I am talking about because we rarely if ever assign a race category to anyone who is white which we said back in the day, now it’s Caucasian or Anglo depending on your geographical location in the U.S.). We were in the process of adopting my daughter and becoming an interracial family, which many black social workers vehemently opposed at the time. “A black baby in a white home? Unh Uh, I don’t think so.” Anyway back to the conversation I was having with this friend who’s race we won’t mention again, she said, “ In my life I have been called Negro, Afro-American, Black, African American and now person of color along with a few other pejorative terms, the name or being PC (politically correct) isn’t important, the respect is. I heard on the TV by whom I can’t remember, “it ain’t what people call you, it’s what you answer to.”

I also remember when Kampuchea was Cambodia, the Soviet Union still existed as did Yugoslavia. I even traveled there in the late 1980s when it was still Yugoslavia. I was there but now I can’t go “there” anymore, it’s no longer a country. What would I find different if I went there now? says since 1990 there are 33 new countries in the world; fifteen of them were once part of the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia is now five different countries. Other neophytes: Eritrea, Nambia, Yemen, Slovakia, Serbia, Palau. Like stewardesses and garbagemen, countries evolve too. There are missing countries; countries that no longer exist; remember East and West Germany? Or how about Ceylon? Tanganyika and Zanzibar? What does it mean for a country not to exist any more? Is a new country just born one day? How do the every day people define themselves once their country is no longer? Who decides what they call themselves? Did the every day people want a new country? Did the every day people lose their country?

For some people a change of name is not a big deal. Many women change their names when they get married. Some people change their names as a statement against patriarchic naming practices. It is their way of undermining the patriarchy. Some people simply do not like their name and change it. Others change their names because its foreign pronunciation is too difficult for their new world. Is the name a meaningless, arbitrary convention? Juliet says to Romeo

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet."


“Deny thy father and refuse thy name;

Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

And I'll no longer be a Capulet.”


Juliet tells Romeo that she loves him, the person, the Montague, not the Montague name. Romeo in his passion for Juliet is ready to reject his family name. Juliet also is prepared to reject her family name for the sake of love. Judy Garland, Cary Grant, John Denver and Elton John changed their names. As did Lucille Ball, Stevie Wonder and Marilyn Monroe. So what’ s the big deal, what’s the larger truth behind this everyday thing called names? Are names just words easily changed and manipulated?

There is a larger truth existing in these ordinary everyday things like names. Names reflect who we are, it is difficult to imagine a world where names don’t matter. First names tell a lot about who we are, about our parents, our cultures, backgrounds and aspirations. Last names are treasure troves of historical information that can even give clues to the occupation of our ancestors. Names of places often reveal the historical background of the place or its significance in one way or another. In most cases, names are not assigned arbitrarily; they are not a random combination of sounds. The name conveys the nature and essence of the thing named. It represents the history and reputation of what is being named. A name represents a personal or a social identity; it signifies a familial connection. Names reflect societal norms and institutions. So in short, the nature of identity is embodied in a name.

So back to names and titles evolving, garbagemen being sanitation engineers, Cambodia now Kampuchea, the Soviet Union no longer existing, African American not Negro and Whoopi Goldberg who used to be Karen Johnson. What’s in a name? Maybe nothing, but maybe something profound depending on one’s involvement? You decide the importance or lack of importance in a name. Does a sanitation engineer get more respect than a garbageman? Is person of color more politically correct than African American? Is Karen Johnson still Karen even though she calls herself Whoopi? Does it matter to us that Yugoslavia changed its name? To us, it may not, but others lost their lives in the process. Now that’s profound!

Technology in the classroom

Allowing students to use their electronic “gadgets” as tools in the classroom is important. Gone are the days of memorizing and regurgitating information. Students have a wealth of knowledge at their hands at the push of a button or two. We need to allow this into the classroom. Teachers cannot be the only agenda writers, we need to allow students to set agendas that are engaging and relevant. Finding ways to integrate technology into the curriculum is a necessity in this age of technology. Too much time is wasted by teachers arguing over how to deal with the cell phone “problem” in classrooms. Time would be better spent talking about how we can use cell phones and other electronics as tools in our classrooms. I have incorporated text message poetry, tried open phone tests, started a Poetry Blog and communicated with my students through text messaging. All have been valuable experiences for me and my students.

There are applications for social communication, organizing, posting, and collecting data and information, game playing, simulations, reading e-books... There are so many applications we as educators can no longer ignore the use of technology in our classrooms.