Sunday, July 6, 2014

Re-Telling Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen Lives on in New Styles

Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen novels remain a cottage industry unto themselves. And there may be no author who is more targeted for re-invention and re-imagination and re-packaging, than the young British woman who wrote six novels which bridged the neo-Classical and the Romantic ages. The latest, and perhaps most "Austen-tacious" of ideas in its scope is The Austen Project, a new series which presents the stories of Jane Austen in contemporary settings, written by six well-known contemporary novelists.  An interesting take on this idea comes from Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic, who offers insight about the challenges of adaption - "For Pride and Prejudice to Make Sense Today, Jane Has to be 40." It's a clever bit of scholarship that brings necessary understanding of why the novels of Jane Austen remain so popular and relevant.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Quit ACT & SAT Prep & Focus on Essay Writing

The college admissions game is becoming more and more difficult to predict and to play. And the percentages continue to expose the dirty little secret of standardized test scores - one: test prep classes can help kids game the system, and two: these classes skew admissions toward wealthier students. And, there are plenty of innovative and thoughtful and skilled students who could greatly contribute to and benefit from higher education but are unprepared and unable to play the games to game the system.

Enter Bard College.

Bard College, the innovative liberal arts school, is making waves in the world of higher education by offering an alternative admissions route to the standard ACT and GPA route. Slate's education columnist Rebecca Schuman reports on the new system which asks students to "simply write four essays" to qualify for admission to Bard. Of course, these are no simple high school essays, and they're not just a variation on The Common App. The essays are complex, challenging subjects that demand about 10,000 words of innovative critical thinking and commentary.

Thus, as more colleges begin to re-think the excessive emphasis on the ACT and SAT, English teachers - and really all high school educators - need to amp up the writing instruction and prepare kids for the rigor of some high-level college writing.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Does Handwriting Tell Us About a Person?

With the decreased emphasis on handwriting that is happening in schools as a result of the Common Core State Standards (resulting from the need/plan to assess kids online via the PARCC or SB tests), some teachers decry the lost art of handwriting. Many believe handwriting can tell us so much more than the information which is actually written down. According to graphologists, many personality traits can be identified through handwriting analysis.

Here's a great presentation from BuzzFeed of some of those theories:

Certainly, there is a cognitive development and skill associated with manual writing. And it will certainly be a loss if handwriting instruction and cursive writing goes by the way-side in the name of standardized assessments.

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."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Should Students Know SAT Words?

Obsequious, insouciant, ignominious, incredulous … the list goes on and on and on. These are the sorts of words that pop up on the SAT verbal section, and they are the cause of constant cramming among high school students. In fact, there is an entire industry of prep guides and courses to increase vocabulary skills for the SAT. The ACT by contrast does not share this focus on recognition and knowledge of occasionally obscure and even archaic word choice. Is this good pedagogy? Is the knowledge of more words necessary and in the best interest of our students?  James Murphy, writing for The Atlantic, makes a "Case for SAT Words."

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Senator Rand Paul Models Plagiarism for a Teachable Moment

The ongoing battle that teachers wage against plagiarism - especially in the internet age - was given a vivid and very teachable moment with news of Senator Rand Paul's apparent rampant use of text lifted directly from Wikipedia in many of his speeches.  Rachel Maddow of MSNBC uncovered the story and lit into Senator Paul this weekend, showing numerous clips of Paul's speeches, juxtaposed to the text from Wikipedia.

After stonewalling and refusing to talk about the issue for several days, Rand Paul apparently "conceded" to "using footnotes" in all future speeches. And, to be fair, Senator Paul isn't the first major figure to be caught, or exposed, using material in speeches that isn't his own. Some of the more notable cases in recent times are historian Steven Ambrose, whose entire canon of excellent work was tainted with charges of plagiarism, and Scott McInnis, a Colorado politician whose bid for the governorship was derailed with evidence of very shoddy research and citations.

In the contemporary age, there is so much information widely available, that the rules on ownership of content are challenged and misunderstood and ignored and abused every day. Sadly, many young people simply don't understand the idea of intellectual property and what they can and can't use. In an era where songs are regularly re-mixed and re-sampled, and people habitually post others' content on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the teaching of correct and necessary citation format and rules becomes increasingly important.

Perhaps Rand Paul would be interested in doing a few school visits to discuss "research."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Real Meaning of Enders Game

As Orson Scott Card's seminal coming-of-age sci-fi novel Enders Game prepares to take over another generation of young people with the release of the long-awaited and much anticipated movie, a fascinating new look at the novel by Laura Miller of exposes a slightly different and more enlightening - or more disturbing - view of what the novel is really about.  Perhaps, more than a great sci-fi novel with complicated moral questions, it is an imaginative portrait of the inner life of an abused child, a fledgling psyche trying to reconcile the unbearable contradiction in receiving both love and gratuitous pain from the same source. That is certainly worth considering.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Reclusive Novelists & The Mystery of J.D. Salinger's "New Novel" Revealed

The reclusive artist is a time-honored standard of the culture. And few have done it as effectively as J.D. Salinger, iconic author of the archetypal coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye. When Salinger passed away in 2010, many in the literary world predicted the world would finally have access to the numerous works Salinger was reputed to have been working on in the nearly fifty years since his only novel was published.  Yet, in the past couple years, nothing has surfaced, and the reclusive nature of Salinger and his literary output has remained intact.

Now that may be changing.

Authors of a new biography of the hermit-author are claiming that new works will be coming soon.  
According to David Shields and Shane Salerno's new book Salinger "a series of new offerings" from Salinger will begin appearing in 2015, and there may be enough works to run through 2020.  This could be exciting news for Salinger fans, especially if the works re-visit the life of Holden Caulfield. The Glass family from Salinger's other short fiction would also be featured.  And Shields and Salerno are not the only ones talking about this.  A new film about Salinger is making similar claims of new offerings.

Big news for bookies out there. Let's hope we're not be deceived by the Salinger myth once more. Anna North of has more on the story, and so does The Huffington Post.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Tufts University Ask Students about YOLO

The complicated nature of the college application essay is an intriguing challenge for students each year. Some are fortunate to simply write answers for one selection from the Common App, while others at usually more selective colleges face some occasionally unique and obscure questions. That's the case for applicants to Tufts University this year who were asked to ponder YOLO.  Apparently, Tufts is looking for insight from 18-year-olds about what You Only Live Once means to them. The phrase - which only surfaced in recent years is apparently "the millenials' carpe diem."


Thursday, July 11, 2013

To Teach - or not - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

There is no "sacred book" in the high school canon that absolutely must be taught for a student to have a valid experience in literature. Granted, some English teachers believe it to be an abomination to graduate high school in America without having studied The Great Gatsby, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, Pride and Prejudice, or others. That is, however, not true. There are far too many great works to determine that any one is indispensable, but it's important to understand and evaluate why or why not a teacher would teach a certain novel.  And, one that tops that list of either "sacred" or "taboo" is Mark Twain's seminal 19th century work Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi, I am partial to Twain in a way that many may not understand. In fact, my son's middle name is Twain. In completing my master's degree I was adamant that I take a class called "Twain and the Rise of Realism," and I have taught the novel on numerous occasions to various student populations. It is a watershed accomplishment in American writing, and it offers countless lessons and rich experiences on many levels. However, it remains one of our most controversial choices. That controversy is the heart of a recent piece of commentary from Kent Oswald who offers "A Dissent on Teaching Huckleberry Finn," published in EdWeek. Now, I am not an adamant supporter of the teaching of Huck, and I respect any person's decision to teach it or not, but Oswald is dissent and abandoning the book for some of the wrong reasons.

We should not - and cannot - turn away from viable and monumentally significant literary works because they are edgy or controversial or, worse, that "few high schoolers gain any sense of why Twain is revered, [or] understand what the book is even about." Granted, Oswald argues that the book may be better reserved for college level readers, and I don't dispute that.  Unlike Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck is not a children's book, and I do believe it is wrong for middle or early high school.  And I studied it in both my undergrad and graduate work. Certainly, choosing other works by Twain is a viable and valid alternative.  But we must remember that guiding students through the tough stuff - the ideas and works they won't and can't access on their own - is precisely the purpose of formal education.

For those considering teaching Huck - or not - I highly recommend a PBS video called Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huck Finn. It offers some excellent guidance on the book, the teaching of it, and the controversy surrounding it.

If you're looking for some objective materials, you might also consider my assessment materials.