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Married Couple Abandons Parenting for 3 Months to Write Book

This post was originally published on the blog of B.H. (Bill) James, one of the co-authors of Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature:

 

Potential headlines for this story:

Married couple writes book.

 Married couple writes book in only 3 months.

 Married couple abandons parenting for 3 months to write book (ultimate winner).

Married couple surprised by how little they come to hate one another while writing book in only 3 months.

Married couple, as side effect of co-writing book in 3 months, becomes those people at Starbucks with all their computers and cords and stuff and about whom you wonder Don’t they have a home?

Parents of infant and toddler who placed ad in search of parents found at local Starbucks, indexing.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post titled, Things that Have Happened Since the Last Time I Posted on My Blog, in which I singled out five things:

Thing #1: I quit blogging.

Thing #2: I had a second kid.

Thing #3: I (we) took first kid and second kid to Disneyland. Twice.

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife.

Things #5: I was informed I have high cholesterol.

In that last post, I went into more detail about Thing #1 and Thing #2. This is Part 2 of that post and will be about Thing #4, skipping Thing #3 for the time being, just because.

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife

A full explanation of the book’s intent and the impetus behind it is explained here.

So we (Liz and I) had this idea for a book. We’re both high school English teachers, and it’s a book about teaching high school English.

The idea started out as a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five, the idea later expanding to a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five as well as half-a-dozen other books we like to teach.

We batted it around for six months or so, getting serious enough from time to time to draft some chapters and eventually reaching the point at which we began to think about the possibility of submitting it, at which point we learned about book proposals.

So we spent (spent should be precisely defined here as referring to no more than ten to fifteen minutes every few days scratched [into? out of?] an at-home schedule dominated by parenting and grading and Netflix) the next six piecing together a book proposal, which included a query letter and an overview and an annotated table of contents and market research (I say included market research not actually knowing by any degree what market research is and therefore whether or not what we did is it but anyway we analyzed who/what our market is and other books for which the market is the same and how our book was/was not similar and etc.) and a sample chapter.

We sent the proposal out to a handful of education publishers, from which we received rejections, some of which were non-form and encouraging, before finally hearing from a very nice acquisitions editor at Rowman and Littlefield named Sarah (in fact, R&L had been suggested to us by one of our previous non-form and encouraging rejecters).

Sarah asked for some additional materials and some revisions to the sample chapter and then needed to take the proposal to the editorial board. A few days later, she wrote back with an acceptance. We were delighted.

Here’s the said-sarcastically-fun part. Sarah’s acceptance came on July 23rd of 2015. In the same email, Sarah expressed that it would be an advantage for the book—though it would not yet be published—to have an ISBN number and be promotable at the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference that November, and for that reason Sarah wanted to know if we could submit to her the final manuscript by early September (this would later be extended to the first of October).

Now, at that point (July 23rd), we had the sample chapter and a couple of other very rough and incomplete chapters, all amounting to less than fifty pages.

We also, at that point, had a nearly-three-year-old and a nearly-three-month-old, as well as full-time jobs: me teaching and Liz at home with the kids, Liz having taken leave from that upcoming school year. I also had a part-time teaching job some evenings and Liz also was working on her Master’s degree.

But I had this memory from grad school of one of the faculty members, a novelist who also wrote screenplays, giving the advice, said advice delivered within an anecdote about a screenplay, that the answer is always, Yes! Like, for example, if “they” ask you if you happen to have any stories/manuscripts/screenplays/whatever about bla bla bla, you always answer Yes, and then go write a story/manuscript/screenplay/whatever about bla bla bla, and it was with this anecdote with its embedded advice that I convinced Liz that despite the apparent impossibility of pulling it off we should just say Yes!

So we did.

For the several months that would later follow the book’s release, when people would ask something along the lines of How’d you do it, I would repeatedly give the same jokey answer: “We just quit parenting for 3 months and did it.”

But we didn’t really quit parenting or abandon our children–Liz in fact clutched our three-month-old and declared that we could not let this affect our time with the kids–though we did for a time parent them less.

We wrote early in the morning. We wrote at night after bedtime. And for a rather large chunk of each of about twelve consecutive Sundays we got a babysitter and went to our local Starbucks.

Things you notice when you spend 10 or more hours per month at your local Starbucks:

  • Much like Walmart, people will wear almost anything to Starbucks.
  • In any span of several hours at the local Starbucks, a lot of people come and a lot of people go, but the four or five people who remain through all of those hours are pretty much the same four or five people who are also there week after week.
  • If you are one of those four or five people, location is everything, and the ideal location depends upon your purpose. For some, it’s those comfy chairs. For us, it was a balance of table space and access to a power outlet.
  • Though you may not start out there, if you stay at the local Starbucks long enough and if you’re willing to repeatedly pack up all of your stuff and move, you will eventually get your ideal spot.
  • If there are two of you, and you each have a laptop and papers and books, you may very likely need to initially split up, but you will eventually (see above) reunite.
  • Starbucks food seems wholesome and even kind of high-end. And you get the impression that they (Starbucks) don’t even really see it as food people would regularly eat, like at McDonald’s, but food people get to go with their coffee or food people need because they’re starving after waiting in line so long for coffee. It seems more like premium food.

But it’s not. In reality, it’s food taken out of a plastic package and put in a microwave, which is what you get when you eat at a gas station (which I happen to know a lot about), except at the gas station you do the microwaving yourself, and when you eat enough re-heated Chicken Artichoke on Ancient Grain Flatbreads, they just start to taste like gas station food.

My first book took three years to write. All the same things happened with this book—frantic drafting with the recurrent thought that nothing that I am typing right now can ever be in a book in fact it’s so awful it can never ever be seen by anyone ever; never-ending laborious revisions such that one reads the same chapters and the same pages and the same paragraphs and sentences over and over and over again; that feeling that when this is over I never want to read or see or even think about this book ever ever again in fact I’m never going to do anything difficult with my free time again just Netflix and ice cream from now on. All the same stuff, just this time crammed into 3 months.

But it all worked out. We finished. On time. And the people we need to thank are: Sarah; our babysitter, Lizzie; our two readers, Susan and Ellen. And of course our kids, for getting along without us for a while.

The Lit-Farm Project

Laurie Gates, whom we met at an event for Method to the Madness at the Avid Reader in Davis, CA, mentioned the book in a recent post on her blog:

“Many thanks to both B.H. James and Elizabeth James for their outstanding book Method to the Madness: a Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers Through the Study of Literature which inspired me to find a name for my vision and an increased sense of determination to try to make it happen. Their energy and enthusiasm are very refreshing and so very needed!

Finally, special appreciation to the Stockton high school students who contributed such insightful literary essays to the book. Hats off to you and keep up the great work.”

Thanks, Laurie! You can read about her amazing Lit-Farm project here.

Preface to “Method to the Madness”

The following is the preface to our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature.

The book was published in 2016 by Rowman and Littlefield, and can be found at…

https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475825374/Method-to-the-Madness-A-Common-Core-Guide-to-Creating-Critical-Thinkers-Through-the-Study-of-Literature

https://www.amazon.com/Method-Madness-Creating-Critical-Literature/dp/1475825382

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/method-to-the-madness-b-h-james/1123147454?type=eBook

 

Preface

Six years ago, we were each hired to teach a summer school creative writing course in our district.  Our classrooms were across the hall from each other.  There was no curriculum provided.  No pacing guides.  No mandated test.  The course was designed to be credit recovery, full of kids who had failed an English class the previous year.  By working collaboratively that summer, we created a course that was both rigorous and a lot of fun—for the kids and the grown-ups alike.

The students in our classes read great literature—both classic and contemporary—and analyzed the craft of that literature.  And they wrote.  A lot.  And they shared their work and scrutinized their work and revised their work.  We didn’t keep track then, but the following spring, when we duplicated the same units in our 10th grade classes, we did keep track, and those students (roughly 100 of them) collectively generated approximately 10,000 pages of original and revised fiction over the course of one quarter.

There was a third creative writing teacher that year in summer school.  Her kids were, according to her, too noisy, not smart enough, just there to hang out, and quickly driving her crazy.  What was she doing in class?  Diamond poems, acrostic poems, poetry worksheets—the sorts of things you might expect to see at a second grade back to school night.  That was when it began to become clear—what was the difference?  Why were two of the classes that summer working—and working hard—and one wasn’t?

We had no previous rapport with the students—summer school wasn’t on our site that year—so these kids had never been in our rooms before.  All three classes were populated by students who had failed English classes in the past.  All three were full of students that were not necessarily fast-tracked for success.  The difference, really, was strikingly simple:

We were teaching them things that were interesting—to us, as readers.  And through our enthusiasm and desire to discuss—deeply, analytically—what we found interesting with our students, they became interested, as well.

Why, as educators—as people who presumably love learning—do we so often abandon what made us “nerd out” as students ourselves, and instead prescribe to our students boring and/or substandard reading—most likely prescribed to us by a school board or a publisher—to kids who are struggling with writing and reading?  Taking an underachieving urban school, similar to the one we taught in at this time, you can probably count on a few things in that school’s textbook room:

  1. Big, thick, heavy textbooks that include everything the student will read (or will be assigned to read but won’t read) that year. First of all, who wants to curl up with a book that weighs about the same as a sandbag?  Second, it has been our observation that such books include second rate (and safer, and shorter) works by really great authors.  Finally, an anecdote: several years back, when districts spent a whole lot of money on textbook adoptions and teachers were subsequently expected to be spending every minute teaching those text books, the 9th grade English text included Act II of Romeo and Juliet.  Just Act II.  The notion then being that 9th grade teachers would initiate their often-below-grade-level students to the rich and varied world of Shakespeare by teaching Romeo and Juliet, Act II.  Just Act II.
  2. A collection of short (and often short on craft) novels about a young kid from the streets who wants to be a basketball player, or something similarly cliché, the notion here being that the only way to get struggling readers who don’t want to read to read is to give them something they can relate to. Like the streets.  Or basketball.  If this seems in any way demeaning, we agree with you, and don’t believe for a second that the students aren’t aware of it.  You know what’s even more relevant to their lives than the streets or basketball?  Every play Shakespeare wrote, and it’s our job to show them how.
  3. Stack after stack of quality novels and plays shoved in a corner, gathering dust, because “these kids can’t handle books like that.”

What we have found was that when we spent time talking about and thinking about literature that personally affected us, we had a much stronger motivation to teach the skills associated with that literature, and teach them well.  In contrast, it can be difficult to find the motivation to design an engaging lesson around reading an instructional manual.

Great literature—along with the skills required to read and appreciate it—is interesting to us, English Lit nerds, and through our enthusiasm it therefore became interesting to our student population.

The following year we were assigned to team teach at the 10th grade level.  We took the opportunity to overhaul the reading list.  Our criterion was books that students should read before getting to college—the books smart people will be talking about. That year, the list consisted of The Sun Also Rises, The Things They Carried, Slaughterhouse Five, 1984, The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, and Macbeth.

We took that year to test our hypothesis: could you take 180 students of various ability and various backgrounds and find success by mirroring the type of work you would see in a college-level English class.  We did our homework—a lot of homework, it turns out, which we used as an opportunity to model for the students.  We would bring in our notes and a stack of literary criticism we’d pored through, and would show them that to prepare these lessons, we had had to study up.  They appreciated that.

We used itunesU lectures from Yale and Berkeley and Harvard to demonstrate that the things they were discussing in class were the things that people were discussing at the top universities.  They appreciated that, too.

Though not every student loved every text, by overhauling the reading list and creating a new syllabus that reflected a variety of different themes, voices, and styles, students were exposed to a plethora of choices for reading—something they’d never had before.  That was also appreciated.

Turns out it works.  That year, and those subsequent to it, have taught us over and over again that it doesn’t matter who is in the room.  What matters are the teacher’s high expectations and thoughtful assessment.  What matters is how you create a dynamic classroom when talking about books.  And frankly, what matters is a thoughtful consideration of what texts offer powerful voice, complex ideas, and good story telling.

A word about student population.  We are International Baccalaureate trained teachers.  IB is a program renowned for its rigor and high expectations, but we have also taught non-IB college prep courses, English language learner courses, and intervention courses.

By reevaluating our delivery of instruction and the content used, students in those courses have been extremely successful.  They weren’t going to become critical readers by reading travel brochures, as prescribed by some of the curriculum designed for them, but they did become better readers when given quality literature that was worthy of discussion.

In short, it shouldn’t matter who your student population is.  You tailor your delivery to the students in the room, but that doesn’t mean you should condescend to your audience.  They may do the work, but they won’t love it, and if we want them to be hungry for success, they have to believe in what they are doing.

We were fortunate to begin our teaching careers in a magnet program in which we were expected to design our own rigorous curriculum centered on literary works and designed to prepare students for rigorous essay-based exams.  Meanwhile, many of our colleagues were held to the demands of state or district mandated pacing guides and standardized testing schedules, with little room for rigorous curriculum design by individual teachers.

With the onset of common core, with its emphasis on critical thinking and logically developed writing, we thought we may have some relevant experience to share.  What follows is a breakdown of how we approached our English classes.  Everything in this book we’ve used.  Everything in this book we created.  We believe that if English teachers would take up this challenge, allow this core class that all students are required to take be a lot tougher, a lot more rigorous, with a lot more writing, and if they would use good books—not just what they like, but good, quality, art—what we would have are scholars who (even if they aren’t bound to be English majors) will appreciate the choices artists make, and will be happy to discuss those choices with you.