Thursday, July 31, 2014

Being Well-Read without Reading

So many books - so little time. Or, perhaps, so many books - so little interest in reading them.

In an old Woody Allen movie (I can't recall which one) there was a character who spoke with great authority about books and culture, but actually knew very little. The quote was something like, "Oh, I don't read the books. I read the reviews." That always amused me as a teacher, and friends often referenced it when I appeared to have a knowledgeable opinion about everything. For English teachers and students, the ability of students to just "get the gist of it" without reading the stories is the benchmark of the Cliff Notes and Spark Notes industry. And that seems like cheating - though it's understandable why kids do it. They need to pass the quizzes and tests, but they don't have the time or interest in reading the stories.

So, what's the motivation for adults?

There is actually a sub-genre of books about how to appear well read without reading. And perhaps being knowledgeable about the classics or well-known works is not a bad thing. Adding to that area is Slate Magazine's Gentleman Scholar Troy Patterson who offers advice on "How to Seem Well Read." Patterson's position is actually quite entertaining and useful. The most basic advice is to simply follow the lead of that Woody Allen character - read the reviews. Patterson advises people to simply read the New York Review of Books. The reviews - at least for an astute reader - can provide the basic premise and commentary on the quality of the writing and story. However, for novels they will avoid spilling too much of the plot. So, it might be necessary to check out the conclusions - or Spark Notes summaries if available.

Of course, there are other great reads on how to appear well read. Here are a few I find worth the time.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Beowulf on the Beach

Monday, July 28, 2014

Is Using "They" as a Singular Pronoun Acceptable

"Someone left their book on the table." Wrong, right?

The battle over the use of they and their for a singular antecedent has been a regular struggle for English teachers during the past one hundred years or so. It is a common mistake that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to the hard core grammarians and "strict constructionists." And, it is the cause of many a missed question on standardized tests like the ACT or SAT. Yet, the use of "they" when gender or specificity of a singular subject is ambiguous has become so common that it can certainly qualify for "acceptable use." That is except for standardized tests.

So, what's the answer?

In a recent piece for The Chronicle, scholar Geoffrey Pullum weighs in with commentary on "Valid Pronoun Ambiguity Warnings."

Monday, July 14, 2014

English Teachers Need to Oppose Online Testing - parkPARCC

The Common Core and PARCC/SmarterBalanced testing have raised the ire of many parents and educators during the past year or so. However, most of the criticism of the new "standards" and the associated tests and homework has been in the subject area of math. Math teachers disagree on the value of the standards, but there is little doubt that kids and parents are frustrated by the "new way of doing math." There has been less coverage and criticism of the language arts standards - though many people are troubled by the inanity of the CCSS committee that decided to name them English Language Arts standards, which leads to the acronym ELA - an already established term for non-native speakers.

However, with the coming of new standardized tests like PARCC and SB, which will be administered online, English teachers have a significant reason to oppose CCSS. Despite the passivity of younger language arts teachers who have grown up more accustomed to online reading, "E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities." True English teachers know that interacting with the text is a primary focus of language analysis, and that includes annotating, skimming, close reading, etc. These skills and techniques are associated with having a physical text in front of the reader. While e-readers are becoming more adapted to note-taking - and people are more adept at using them - there is still no substitute for physical texts. In fact, research shows that e-readers negatively impact comprehension. How, in good conscience, can any English teacher support that system?

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to take sample online questions for PARCC, and the format of the test convinced me of the problematic and harmful nature of the testing format. The idea of scrolling up and down between two screens - one with the passage and the other with the questions - absolutely unnerved me. And nothing in my knowledge of how people read and learn indicated that the online format is a positive development for education. It may be more efficient for state test writers and coordinators. And it may be a great revenue source for companies like Microsoft and Pearson. But this is not good pedagogy and not good instructional practice.

Thus, when my nine-year-old daughter came home from school, having learned that she would have to "write her state test essays on the computer," she announced, "I'm not doing it."

And I support her in that decision.

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 15, 2014

Is James' Joyce "Ulysses" the Standard for American Fiction?

There are certain books that people just know - even if they haven't read them. James Joyce's epic and archetypal work Ulysses is certainly one of those. And it certainly qualifies as one that many people know, but haven't read. However, in a compelling piece of literary analysis and commentary, scholar and professor Robert D. Newman of the University of Washington argues that any fan of America's literary fiction actually know Joyce's work well because of its profound and significant influence on the works of some of the country's best known writers. Newman has written the book on Joyce's influence, and now offers a shorter synthesis of his position for, "James Joyce's Lyrical Sensual Literary Legacy: Why So Many Novels Steal from Ulysses."

While “Ulysses” is far from the first example of moral fiction in the history of literature and its critical reception often has tended to focus on its explosion of the boundaries of traditional narrative technique as well as its cultural and historical contexts, its persistent presence in traditional plot and character within some recent mainstream American fiction presents another layer of its compelling influence on the ever-widening circle of Joyce’s heirs. “Ulysses” is indelibly embedded in contemporary American cultural expressions. Our current literary everymen shuffle along their confused and revelatory paths while tipping their hats to Bloom.

In high praise for Ireland's most significant artist, Newman believes that the works of American novelists like Pat Conroy, Richard Russo, or even Faulkner and Pynchon, would not even exist if not for Joyce and the publication of Ulyssses. Certainly, the direct allusions to the novel are ever-present in American fiction and culture. And there are many areas of American art where people would not even notice the influence - such as the songs of Kate Bush or the columns of Prairie Home Companion writer Garrison Keillor. Truly the significance of the novel is vast and under-rated. And with that in mind, perhaps Newman and others will continue to remind everyone "Why You Should Read this Book."

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Problem of Grammar Books

The teaching of grammar is the nemesis of both English teachers and students alike. And while many lament there is "no good way to teach grammar," few English teachers would argue publicly against teaching it in some way. The problem with teaching grammar in the traditional way is that it lacks any sort of evidence that the practice improves writing or reading or understanding of English. It's true. Literally breaking sentences down into their disparate elements has no positive impact on a student's ability to write correctly. Of course, we like to use the "mechanic analogy" for grammar-mechanics - You can't fix a car if you don't know how the individual parts like a carburetor work. The example is probably as absurd as it sounds.

That said, many of us continue to teach grammar in a disconnected, "underline the verb or the error in a bunch of random sentences" sort of way. The primary reason for this is the continued emphasis on such "skills" in standardized testing. My high school has a pretty standard, and pretty effective, grammar program that, in essence, is simply an ACT-prep course. And we will keep plugging away until the ACT grammar section is no longer such high stakes (which may be sooner than you think). And if we keep doing so, the education publishing world will continue to put out "grammar books," - a situation which makes professor Geoffery Pullum positively ill.

Professor Pullum is a long-standing critic of the teaching of grammar in the traditional sense, as well the inability for "grammar books" to actually articulate what they mean. For all those in the world of English who actually care to follow the issue, Pullum's blog - The Language Log - is an invaluable source of information and commentary. And, in a recent piece for The Chronicle, Professor Pullum rants and raves against the inadequacies found in the most recent version of the "New Grammar Book," or NGB, which he refuses to identify because it's just like all the rest. Delving into Pullum's critique and thinking long and hard about how we teach grammar is worth the time of dedicated English instructors. And perhaps one of us will take up the task ...

... that whoever points out that something needs to be done is taken to have thereby volunteered to chair the subcommittee for doing it.

Some who have tried before - and probably failed in Pullum's view - are:

Jeff Anderson in Mechanically Inclined.

Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Mignon Fogarty in Grammar Girls Quick and Dirty Tips.

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

Should Adults Read Young Adult (YA) Lit?

In the past few years, when English teachers I know have discussed new selections - especially for class assignments like summer reading - the debate about YA lit has come up. Certainly, kids are more likely to read YA, and some of the writing can be very compelling. But is it literature? Is it worthy of study? Is it only about character, plot, and theme? Do we want literature to be a window or a mirror?  The questions go on and on. And with the incredible rise of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter phenomenon, the interest of "adults" in "children's literature" has expanded, as the line on reading material has become blurry.

So, should adults read - and actually be engaged or entertained by - stories written for kids? New Hampshire writer Ruth Graham argues no in a compelling article for, "Against YA."

Of course, Graham doesn't just believe the works aren't appropriate and shouldn't be interesting to adults. Her commentary claims adults "should be embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children." And this piece just happens to coincide with the theatrical release of the film adaption of John Green's poignant and compelling work The Fault in Our Stars. This is a richly written YA novel that Time Magazine named one of the Ten Best Books of the year. And, I know I really enjoyed the book. And I really enjoy all of John Green's work. However, I argued against the study of TFIOS in school simply because of the simplicity of the language. It is a great story, no doubt. But other than discussing themes and feelings, there is really nothing worthy of study on a language level.

As for whether adults should or shouldn't read kids books, that's simply a matter of debate.

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.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Personal Narrative, or Telling Stories in Class

"Tell us a story."

That is a great interview question, and it's a great impromptu speech topic for high school students as well. Storytelling is the essence of what we do as English teachers, and the qualities of a good story, as well as the ability to deliver it, should be a primary focus of the classroom. For this reason, the personal narrative is one genre that I always incorporate into my classes, from middle school to AP Language to Senior Composition. And with the Common Core as well as our new Colorado Academic Standards emphasizing narrative as one of the three primary modes of writing instruction, it's important to teach the art form.

When I first began teaching AP Language and Composition, one of the first things I learned from a colleague, office mate, and good friend was the important role that personal narratives play in the rhetoric and composition classroom. Many AP Lang style analysis prompts over the years have been personal narratives. Some memorable ones: Meena Alexander on her Fractured Identity; Gary Soto on The Stolen Pie; Jamaica Kincaid On Seeing England; Nancy Mairs On Being a Cripple; and Richard Rodriguez Family Christmas.

I've always enjoyed teaching personal narratives, and on my colleague's advice, I begin with a class long analysis of Audre Lorde's Fourth of July. Lorde's work is so rich with rhetorical devices that it serves as the perfect example of how the personal narrative works. We also read a great piece by Michael Koenigs called Getting Off the Hammock, about his first summer job. It is a beautiful piece that he wrote at the age of seventeen, and it's a great example of how full of opportunities for writing our students' lives are. Ultimately, my students will write their own personal narrative, which is basically recounting a life event which progresses towards epiphany.

They can be insightful  and inspired or sarcastic and silly, but they should be meaningful. And year after year, they are.