Sunday, April 20, 2014

Everyone Should Read "Still Life with Woodpecker"

A former student - a senior now who is probably one of the most astute readers I've had in high school classes - let me know that he is currently reading Tom Robbin's classic Still Life with Woodpecker. I was instantly transported back to freshman year of college when a friend handed it to me - and everything about literature changed for a young history major who was destined to switch to English. The book that promises to answer "the mystery of redheads" is a captivating intro to one of America's most innovative and significant writers. And I love when students discover Robbins and all his madcap irreverence.

My student's father recommended the book to him. And that is pretty cool as well, for Robbins is certainly edgy and downright inappropriate at times. Not that a senior in high school shouldn't be able to handle it - but many probably aren't ready. Despite that, Robbins is worth the time for avid readers because of all the ways he challenges convention. I love explaining to students the unique approach Robbins takes to composition. It truly captures the idea of writing as "craft." As teachers of writing, consider sharing some of the magic of Robbins with writers:

Tracy Robbins for

Timothy Egan for the New York Times - on "perfect sentences in an imperfect world."

Alan Rinzler of The Book Deal - with Robbins' advice to writers.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Literature as Self Help - The Life Lessons of Dante's Divine Comedy

Why do we teach literature? What's the point of studying history's "stories"? Most English teachers would acknowledge the focus of self discovery and character education in the novels we teach. In fact, the standard has long been to recognize literature as a "record of the human experience." We read to commiserate and learn and understand who we are on both an individual and global historical scale.

That's what makes Rod Dreher's recent piece for the Wall Street Journal so cool. Dreher, who is a columnist also known for his unique take on conservatism, offers a unique and surprising explanation of Dante's Divine Comedy as a classic of self help - "The Ultimate Self Help Book: Dante's Divine Comedy. It's not just a classic of world literature; it's the most astonishing self help book of all time." Dreher explains his own personal struggles and the coping mechanisms he picked up from Dante after browsing the classic in a bookstore.

Another great bit of self-help advice from antiquity comes in the form of non-fiction analysis of classic philosophy in pop culture form. Rebecca Goldstein imagines the wisdom of ancient Greece applied to the contemporary pop culture world in her recent book, Plato at the Googleplex. The value of classic philosophy in our modern lives is far more relevant than many might imagine. And Goldstein is that rare scholar who can frame the insight for the average contemporary reader.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The New SAT - Just Like the Old ACT and AP Lang

In an effort to stay relevant as a standardized gatekeeper for college admission, the SAT test has been re-imagined and re-designed and re-packaged by the College Board. Much fanfare was made yesterday with the release of information about "the new and improved SAT."  By now most of the news about changes have been heard: elimination of the archaic vocabulary section, a new essay form that is now optional, a focus on close reading of passages, an expectation of evidence-based responses to reading passages. It wasn't all that earth shaking, to tell you the truth. However, you can see the work samples and judge for yourself by visiting this preview.

Of course, the SAT is playing catch-up to the ACT, which outpaced it for the first time last year. And, in the spirit of "the sincerest form of flattery," SAT's revolutionary changed to the grammar section is to simply copy ACT's approach. The SAT grammar is now passage-based with multiple choice answers for the best version of a sentence, phrase, word choice. The College Board also appears to be copying itself (and a little of ACT) with its reading passages, which look surprisingly like simpler versions of the objective reading on the AP Language and Composition exam. That is with a healthy dose of social studies thrown in. The emphasis on non-fiction with a connection to historical pieces in tune with "Founding documents" may require some literacy instruction - finally! - in high school history classes.

The essay? Basically an argumentative deconstruction - also in the manner of AP Lang.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why Does Dystopian YA Literature Always Stereotype and Categorize Kids

Cliques. Are they real, or simply a creation of YA writers and Hollywood directors? It's not surprising to find people sorted into groups in most genres of teen entertainment. In fact, Grace, Ed Rooney's secretary from Ferris Bueller laid it out for us in one classic line:

So, why is it that writers and filmmakers always seek to fit characters into the standard groups that are supposed to make up high school? Is society that cliche? Or are the cliches actually valid, which is why they seem so common. Katy Waldman of Slate Magazine suspects there are significant forces at work in a world where "Everybody Knows Where They Belong." From the Sorting Hat of JK Rowling to Suzanne Collins' Reaping, much of the entertainment for young people is grounded in categorizing people. The latest work Divergent from Catherine Roth is only the latest to follow the archetypal story form.

The studies of societal divisions, especially in regards to high school cliques, are endless. But the question is: are they valid, and what can or should we do about it?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Jonathon Livingston Seagull Flies Again - Is It a Farce?

Anyone who has grasped with the metaphysical in the contemporary age is familiar with a little book from Richard Bach known as Jonathon Livingston Seagull. The small, simply fairy tale of less than 10,000 words was first published in 1970, and became an instant hit with its message of aspiring to greatness and believing in the power of believing. The book is a classic in the spiritual, self-help world. Books like JLS or any of its variations from The Celestine Prophecy to the Course in Miracles to The Tao of Pooh all derive from the basic premise of Norman Vincent Peale in his book from an earlier era, The Power of Positive Thinking.   JLS has flown into our consciousness again with the recent publication of a "Part IV."  Of course, not everyone loves Bach or his philosophy or his silly little tales. In fact, some people criticize books like JLS as the origin and inspiration behind the oversimplification of American thought in the last twenty years. Heather Havrilesky cites the story of "no ordinary bird" as the reason behind the decline of American society. Like all pieces of art, the story of Jonathon is not for everyone, but it does have value in the story it tells and the feelings it evokes. While it is certainly not the answer to our prayers, it also isn't the cause of the alleged "decline" of America, or of American thought. It's a story with a message that might give people a bit of an escape, or a shred of hope, a hint of optimism, or ....

Friday, February 28, 2014

English Majors Are Sexy to Employers

Despite the dis by President Obama, humanities majors have always been great assets in the American economy. Anyone who can read and understand complex materials and then write clear, concise, and, most importantly, correct is perhaps the most in-demand of skills. English majors are hot hire these days, according to Bruna Martinuzzi. Martinuzzi is a consultant on leadership skills for Clarion Enterprises, which she founded. So she should know about the value of strong communication skills. Martinuzzi's knowledge and insight about the value of the English degree is validated by so many successful people with humanities background, including Mitt Romney.

The reality is English majors are not hurting in the employment category, despite criticism from people like David Brooks of the New York Times. He, more than most, should appreciate just how valuable the study of the humanities is. English majors - at least the ones who graduate from pretty good schools - are in high demand because of their reading and writing skills, as well as their generally strong qualities of emotional intelligence. Clearly, the success of any society will depend on the skills of its citizenry.

Let's just not forget that the skills in the appreciation of the arts are foundational for any civilization.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Teaching Grammar Doesn't Work

Those in the know - or at least those who seek to remain current in their field - have long understood that teaching grammar the traditional way, with worksheets and practice sentences, has no positive impact on a student's ability to write well. The drill-and-kill method, and even the practice of diagramming sentences, does not actually "teach" kids grammar. Of course, it does teach something. It can teach students to do well on standardized tests like the ACT, SAT, and state assessments.

Having gone to Catholic school - where diagramming sentences is "religion" (sic) - and having taught ELA in Asia where standardized tests of grammar skills are the gold standard of education, I understand grammar. To this day, I help chair our grammar program at my school, where grammar is taught the traditional way. However, I have long asserted that we should not expect the program will create better writers. Teaching writing - teaching composition - will create better writers. And the only "grammar exercise" that has a positive impact on writing is the practice of sentence combining.

Of course, the ACT and SAT still rule the day on college admissions, and teaching grammar skills will help students score higher. In fact, an English teacher and any school would be negligent not teaching grammar to prepare kids for these tests. It's really not that difficult. And some people believe there is a "Better way to teach grammar." Obviously, that depends on your goal and your definition of teaching grammar.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Shout Out to Young Adult Literature - YA Rocks

Beyond Goodnight Moon and all of Dr. Seuss and the Easy Readers and the comics, it was the books that connected with us in our awakening - our coming of age - that mostly likely inspired our passion and love of reading. As we prepare to celebrate Dr. Seuss' 110th birthday and honor Read Across America Day, writer and YA Lit fanatic Jen Doll explains and honors the YA genre with "The Thirtysomething Teen: An Adult YA Addict Comes Clean."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dr. Seuss Is Turning 110 - Celebrate Reading

Next Sunday, March 2, marks the centennial birthday for one of the most important men in American history - Theodore Geisel, aka, Dr. Seuss. Long before JK Rowling captivated a generation of young readers, a mild-mannered man with a knack for silly, yet inspired, rhymes ignited a love of reading for children as young as ... well for children. This week, William Porter of the Denver Post offers an engaging look at "100 Years of Dr. Seuss." (Yes, I know he's actually turning 110 - but no matter).

So many of us in the English world would love to develop a lifelong love of reading in children, and no one did more than the man who "introduced  millions of children to the joys of reading and the magic of wordplay."  It was the "spirit of playfulness" that permeates his work which made it so endearing. But it's so much more than that, especially when you "Consider the opening lines of The Cat in the Hat." 

Consider the opening lines to "The Cat in the Hat," the 1957 chronicle of a brother and sister's misadventure with a gangly, anthropomorphic feline sporting a red-and-white top hat:

The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold, wet day.
I sat there with Sally,
We sat there we two.
And I said, "How I wish
We had something to do."

Mood, setting, conflict, ennui. Just like Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," except that something actually happens.

"Geisel's works also endure because of his gift for creating rhymes that are fun to read aloud and easy to remember, but are not cloying or irritating," Robinson said. "That's no small feat. I think it's this combination of playfulness and lyricism that makes Dr. Seuss' works stand the test of time."

It's a wonderful, endearing legacy.  This week, on either Friday the 28th or Monday the 3rd, teachers across the country should honor the godfather of literacy by Celebrating:

Friday, February 21, 2014

Is Dead Poet's Society a Terrible Ad for the Humanities?

It's doubtful that any English or humanities teacher of the past thirty years doesn't like the classic Robin Williams vehicle Dead Poet's Society.  In fact, one could reasonably argue that the movie influenced more than a few young people to pursue a career in the liberal arts. I mean, what teacher out there doesn't want to be like Mr. Keating? Who hasn't envisioned inspiring kids with those poetic artful monologues? What student doesn't want to feel so inspired to "live deliberately" and jump up on a desk, saying, "Oh, Captain, my Captain"?

The movie is truly inspiring and truly encapsulates what all humanities teachers seek to be. We all want to create that love of the arts, especially in the STEM-happy world that public education has become. (Though we should all be focusing on turning STEM to STEAM).  And now, the biggest company in the world has appropriated some of Keating's most magical words in a new commercial to sell us ever more exciting technology and media. Is that wrong? Kevin Detmer of The Atlantic seems to think so.