Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Five Things I've Gained from Reading Literature

Families 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 a difficulty relating these explanations to their personal experiences.

Here's my solution: rather than telling people the benefits of literature, let's ask them to tell us. Let's ask them to share what they've gained from reading literature. We can take advantage of the popularity of short surveys, quizzes, and lists on sites like Facebook and MySpace by creating our own five questions that demonstrate why people read literature.

What to Do

Copy the questions and instructions below, and paste them into a blog entry, a note on Facebook, or a discussion forum—anywhere that you can reach the people you want to. You can use the comments area on this blog entry if you'd like as well. Delete my answers to the questions, and add your own. Feel free to any extra instructions or invite specific people to answer the questions when you post them. You might ask all the students in your class to complete the questions in their journals or as part of a exam review activity, for instance.

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. Just copy the questions, remove my answers, add your own, and then invite others to respond.

  1. What piece of literature has stayed with you, even though you haven't read it recently? Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" comes back to me every spring, when I look at the freshly sprouting trees. When I read this poem in college, my professor pointed to the tree outside the classroom window. As if by design, the sprouting leaves on the trees were a perfect blend of greenish-yellow. They seemed both green and gold, depending upon how you thought of the color. Each spring as the trees wake up and start to leaf, I think about Frost's poem, the incredible serendipity of reading it on that day when the tree outside was a perfect match, and how true it is that "Nothing Gold Can Stay."
  2. What character or story has influenced something you've done? Richard Wilbur’s "The Writer" is a poem that I like to teach, but it's also one that influences me as a writer. Often when I'm struggling with something that I'm writing, I find myself flailing against the topic, making no progress. I get angry. I cross things out. I start dozens of sentences that trail off into nothing. I write and write and write, but I say nothing useful. And then I remember "The Writer" and the "dazed starling," both of whom struggle so hard to meet their goal. I forgive myself a little, gather "the wits to try it again," and try a bit harder, knowing that eventually I'll find the right words.
  3. What character or piece of literature seemed to relate to a recent news story or personal experience? The recent stories about jurors using digital technologies (iPhones, Blackberries, etc.) to look up information about the trials they were hearing made me think about 12 Angry Men. It's illegal for jurors to check facts in Wikipedia or look up news stories on the lawyers or their clients. As I thought about the desire to look up the answers, I found myself wondering, "Was it strictly legal for Juror 8 to go out in search of a duplicate to the knife that was used to commit the murder that is the focus of 12 Angry Men?"
  4. What character has make you wonder why he or she did/said something? Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun makes me crazy. What would make someone think that opening a liquor store would be a better use of money than sending someone to medical school? When I first read the play, his actions left me angry and confused. I could have joined his mother in slapping him. I spent many hours thinking about his motivation and the personal struggles that he faces. Since then, of course, I've had plenty of time to study the play, and I think I understand his actions. Still, though, there's something about a male character deciding that his liquor store is more important than a female character's college education that makes me want to shout at him.
  5. Name something from a work of literature (such as a character, setting, or quotation) that you find beautiful or vivid. The most lasting image for me is always Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." It's a distinct, vibrant, specific image. If reduced to a description though, the summary would say simply, "The speaker sees some people waiting for the Metro." The poem, however, is a single moment that is deeper and more vivid than any summary could ever capture. The poem makes me feel as if I too can see these soulless, wandering people, there on the metro platform.

The Discussion

As families, students, friends, and others answer the questions, they are actually proving that literature has influenced who they are. Each of the questions has a concrete purpose, to focus on a specific reason that we read literature. Compare the questions to these underlying messages:

  1. Literature has enduring value to the reader.
  2. Literature influences our actions and beliefs.
  3. Literature connects to our own time and place in the world.
  4. Literature inspires critical thinking.
  5. 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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Who, Me? A Writer?

When I first learned of NCTE's efforts to establish a National Day on Writing, I thought it made perfect sense.

Of course a national organization devoted to literacy education would want to celebrate writing. NCTE has a long history of advocating for writing instruction, especially in the schools.

But what really got me excited about the National Day is when I started thinking about how it could have an impact in our everyday lives-- outside the world of education. Full disclosure: I'm not a teacher. I don't have a degree in English or Education. But I write every day.

As an NCTE staff member, I write for work-- marketing copy, reports, correspondence with members and colleagues, etc.

But I quickly realized that I write just as much in my "real life" too:

I write almost daily to my "email circle" -- a group of geographically scattered friends who keep in touch via the "reply to all" function in email.

I write blog posts and comments. I send IMs to friends and colleagues. I update my Facebook status. I send the occasional tweet. My friends and family know I'm more likely to respond to a text message than to a voice mail.

Every once in a while, I'll even sit down and write letters and cards—by hand!

Through cataloging the types of writing I do on a daily basis, I realized there were plenty of ways I could take off my "staff hat" and participate in the National Day on Writing-- not as an NCTE employee, but as a person, a citizen, a writer!

Sure, I can simply contribute a blog post or a short story to the National Gallery of Writing, but I could also take it a step further and create Local Partner Galleries for some of my groups/networks.

Some quick ideas include creating Galleries for:

  • My e-mail circle-- We could compile our favorite (and appropriate!) emails and post them as a testament to our enduring friendship.
  • My family-- I could invite family members to share stories, photos, slideshows, etc. in a Local Gallery chronicling our family history in celebration of my grandmother's 90th birthday.
  • My book group— We could encourage group members to contribute pieces on favorite/least favorite books, lists of books read, etc.
  • My exercise buddies-- We could each contribute a piece of writing (training logs, "I don't feel like working out today" emails, healthy recipies) that chronicle the highs and lows of weight loss and exercise.
  • My colleagues-- NCTE staff could share their work as writers, either personal or professional.

The possibilities are truly endless.

How do you write in your everyday life? What groups/projects are you involved in (both in and out of school) that you might want to commemorate with a Local Partner Gallery?

Leave your suggestions in the comments. Together, let’s brainstorm the countless ways we can celebrate writing in our everyday lives.


For more information on how to start a Local Partner Gallery, visit www.ncte.org/action/dayonwriting.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

@wshakes - happy birthday!

My first instinct for a piece on the relevance of Shakespeare in the 21st-century literature class was to go tongue-in-cheek. I might point out, for example, that Shakespeare practically invented Facebook. Re-read Lady Capulet’s description of Paris to Juliet if you don’t believe me. If that’s too big a stretch, at least check out the Hamlet (Facebook News Feed Edition) from McSweeney’s.

But that approach wasn't terribly productive. Instead, I turned to the NCTE 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment Framework and imagined an assignment as I reviewed the list of what 21st-century readers and writers need to be able to do:

As part of their study of a play by Shakespeare, student groups choose a scene to prepare and perform for their peers. After researching available criticism on the play and reviews of its various performances, they view and critique available video adaptations of their scene. Students then collaborate on interpretation, blocking, props/costumes, and so on. Groups also film each others' scenes, edit the footage, and post their work on YouTube with guiding questions to elicit responses from viewers. As part of the process, students discuss the ethics of performing and posting dramatic texts in a digital online environment.

While this is a solid assignment, it’s not terribly original. I know a number of educators who do all or parts of this assignment and have done so for years.

Taken as a whole, though, this set of tasks authentically addresses all six elements of the framework and provides a rich point of engagement for almost all of the questions that stem from them. I encourage you to read the framework in more detail, but with even a quick look at the elements below, you'll see just how relevant teaching, learning, and performing Shakespeare can be to a 21st-century conception of education:

  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities that have a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneously presented information
  • Create, critique, and evaluate multimedia texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by complex environments
What a boon for traditionalists who fear that a 21st-century curriculum will dilute their concentration on great literature. And how encouraging for the tech-savvy that they can put their skills and dispositions to use on texts with the rich history of a play by Shakespeare.

I attended a talk once by Richard Olivier, son of Shakespearean interpreter Sir Laurence Olivier. His central message to a international group of English teachers was this: Stop spending your time and money on buying and reading plays in class. Instead, take students out to see them, as they were intended, performed by actors.

While I can’t agree completely with his statement, it does strike a certain chord of truth, especially considering the centrality of performance in the assignment I outlined earlier. And when I look back on some of my most rewarding theater experiences, top-notch productions of Shakespeare stand out.

Whether it was Mark Rylance as Olivia in an original practices production of Twelfth Night at the Globe, Patrick Stewart in a Stalin-era resetting of Macbeth, or a group of versatile actors in an adaptation of The Comedy Errors at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (portraying a group of actors producing a film of the play), being part of an attentive and appreciative audience savoring the creativity, collaboration, and craft of a richly historical—or strikingly new—interpretation of Shakespeare is connectivity that transcends time.

And, I must admit, I’ll take that over Facebook any day.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Daring to Disturb the Universe

I was pleased to open my March issue of English Journal to find Paul Sahre’s stark and striking poster promoting National Poetry Month. (Language Arts and Voices from the Middle subscribers have the poster as well.)

Written in all caps, neatly, but with an occasional slant that suggests potential instability beneath the surface, is this profound question from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot: “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

Did I mention that the words are traced on a rain-soaked window pane? Or is that a steamed shower door? The combination of text and image is as richly evocative as the poem and speaker to which the poster refers.

“Prufrock” is a poem with special significance to me. Unlike the general English teacher populace, I was indifferent toward literature and reading in high school. But the day we turned the page in our anthology to Eliot’s lengthy poem, and the speaker invited me into the text with “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table,” I read and listened with rapt attention.

We didn’t spend much time with the poem—probably just a class period—but I still remember my first exposure to the images of cat-like smoke and ragged claws; the tense playfulness of rhymes such as “afternoons” and “coffee spoons” or “ices” and “crisis;” the dilemma of the speaker that was well beyond my adolescent understanding.

I think of that day as a gift of sorts.

So, it seems, did one of my students on the day I first shared “Prufrock” with a classroom of my own. I used it to start a poetry unit, inviting students to make observations and ask questions as I read the text aloud. I didn’t say anything about my prior experiences with the poem or my personal purpose in selecting it.

The conversation was rich, and we spent the hour making a first pass at a text we would return to throughout the unit. As the class filed out the door at the end of the period, a student stopped to thank me for sharing “Prufrock” with him.

I was shocked, not only because a student was thanking me for what just happened in class, but also because he was having the same reaction to the poem I had felt ten or so years before.

At the end of that school year, a different student sent me a note of thanks for our time together in the course. “I came into this class thinking that talking about books and poems was going to be a waste of my time,” she wrote. “I’m grateful that ‘In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.’”

Not every poem will have that kind of resonance with our students, and not all students will express their gratitude in such an articulate way. But what a heartening reminder that we get the chance to disturb so many universes when we share great literature with our students.