A few weeks ago, Liz and I flew down to San Diego for our second CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) Conference.
Last year, the conference was in Santa Clara (a not-too-long drive for us), and we gave a presentation based on a chapter of our book, Method to the Madness. The presentation was titled, Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (which is also our book’s subtitle).
This year, our presentation was based on another chapter of the book and was titled, Contemporary Short Fiction: the Key to Unlocking Potential and Leveling the Playing Field for Students of All Ability Levels (long title). We had given a longer version of the presentation to Tracy Unified School District in January.
The presentation began with the rationale for building curriculum centered on quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, creative nonfiction). There was (still is?) a misperception that Common Core equals less literature in the English classroom and more “informational” reading. This, of course, is a misunderstanding that the framers of the standards have addressed: “Said plainly, stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in the high school ELA classroom. […]The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature — that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA.” (David Coleman & Susan Pimental)
Next, Liz gave her pitch for using contemporary short stories in the English classroom, particularly as an opening unit, such stories being accessible to a variety of students (including those with attendance issues). These high-quality stories can be taught in a single class period (or two), and they offer students the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of voices while allowing the teacher the opportunity to establish (or remediate) essential skills.
We had prepared to use three short stories—Sticks by George Saunders, The Flowers by Amy Walker, and How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes) by Lorrie Moore—but we only got through the first two.
Each of those stories (Sticks and The Flowers) fits onto a single page, but each story is very meaty. We asked our participants to read and annotate each story, and, despite (as mentioned) each story being only one page, they each led to a wide-ranging academic discussion of the significant choices being made by the author.
(Note: all of the above was great, great, great, and a lot of fun, because our participants were so great, and also because Liz is so great at this.)
We ended with a discussion of narrative structure (the traditional plot curve, which is sometimes incorrectly perceived as a restraint to creativity and voice [a view I once embarrassingly held] but that instead allows for infinite variation).
We were getting short of our time, there were several slides to go, and I was sort of floundering, describing the plots of Pixar movies. Liz would later say that when I gave a third such example, she knew I was in trouble.
But a participant saved me by asking if, when learning about this narrative structure, which is so obvious in Pixar movies, students can apply the elements (ground situation, inciting incident, conflict, complications, climax, resolution) to something like The Flowers, which is so short and describes a single event.
This was exactly where, despite all floundering, we were supposed to be headed, and, as a group, we tried it. It turns out, despite being only one page and describing only one incident, The Flowers “fits” the narrative structure perfectly (infinite variation).
So, we modeled lessons on two one-page short stories (Sticks, by the way, Liz describes as the only “magic bullet” for English teachers: a two-paragraph story that students always like and always have so much to say about). Each story is accessible to a variety of students, and each story provides the opportunity for critical reading, critical thinking, analytical writing, and academic discussion.
Several people came up at the end to buy books (which was very nice), and a few told us that it was the best presentation they had been to all weekend (but maybe they say that to all the presenters).
Earlier this month, we facilitated a professional development workshop for English Language Arts teachers at Tracy Unified School District in Tracy, CA.
The workshop was titled Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature and its focus was building literature-based units of study that meet the demands of Common Core.
The following are some testimonials from that workshop:
“Finally! A workshop that was teacher-driven by competent educators. The presenters were knowledgeable and accessible. The book is teacher-friendly and very helpful. Thank you!”
“I rarely write ‘strongly agree’! Thanks for the coaching and patience! Excellent time flow management! Great scaffolding for middle school! Wonderful content and help!”
“Very organized and practical. Everything I learned I can apply to my own classroom. Thought the ‘So what?’ phrase is great; can’t wait to see their reaction after saying it for the 1,000th time.”
“Please have the James’s come back. I was very impressed and really enjoyed having our speakers. Great job.”
“Great, useful activities and focus on rigor.”
“Time was well-spent and informative. Liked the ‘So what?’ approach.”
“Great, dynamic duo!”
“The presenters were knowledgeable and kept things interesting.”
“I learned some new ideas that I can implement this year.”
“This was quite helpful. Having actual teachers who work with students and have used these techniques was a smart choice. I look forward to using this this year.”
“Thank you for helping us enrich our curriculum w/rigor. I am looking forward to reading your book.”
“Two days in a row with lessons I can use immediately!”
“The instructors were very organized and had us active the entire time.”
“Really developed ways to promote understanding and creating connections with literature.”
“This has been the most relevant workshop in years. Thoroughly satisfied.”
“Bring Liz and Bill back!!!”
This is part two of a series of posts about teaching Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son (for part one, click here). This post will share a lesson that helps students consider the effects of an author’s choices regarding point of view.
The essential question of this lesson is: How does Wright establish (and shift) the point of view of the novel in its opening scene?
First, students should review the basic points of view that a writer of fiction has to choose from:
- First person POV (in which the narrator is a character)
- Third person objective POV (in which the narrator is not a character and reports only what can be observed externally)
- Third person omniscient (in which the narrator is not a character and can report on the external action as well as the internal thoughts and feelings of any character)
- Third person limited omniscient (this narrator is basically the same as third person omniscient, but the ability to report on internal thoughts and feelings is limited to one character)
Note: students will inevitably ask about second person. The answer is that there are stories with a second person narrator (several of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s story collection, Self Help, for example), but second person narrators are much less common.
Once students have discussed these definitions and demonstrated understanding of them, give the following instructions (these can be completed by individuals, by pairs, or by small groups):
- Start reading from the beginning (page 7 in most editions).
- Identify and write down in your notes the POV at the beginning.
- Read until you think it shifts to a different POV.
- STOP reading and write down where the POV shifts and what it shifts to.
Most students will recognize that, at the beginning, the point of view is third person objective (the narrator is reporting only what can be observed externally).
Students will also recognize that the point of view shifts in the following paragraph, several pages in:
Vera went behind the curtain and Bigger heard her trying to comfort his mother. He shut their voices out of his mind. He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough.
The point of view shifts to third person limited omniscient, as we now have access to the internal thoughts and feelings of a single character: the protagonist, Bigger Thomas.
Students should now grapple (again, individually or in pairs or groups) with some follow-up questions, such as the following:
- What are some possible reasons that Wright makes the choice to open the novel in one point of view and then shift to a different point of view?
- What might Wright’s choice for how to establish and develop the POV have to do with naturalism (this is a connection back to part one of this post)?
What students should come away with is that Wright, in the style of literary naturalism (an offshoot of realism that focuses on the effect of external forces [often inescapable, oppressive external forces] on the behavior of the protagonist) opens the novel by establishing an objective ground situation upon which to build.
Before bringing us into Bigger’s mind, Wright first demonstrates Bigger’s surroundings: an impoverished living with his mother and siblings in a too-small, rat-infested apartment. It is from this situation that Bigger’s fear, despair, and hate emerge, and it is also this situation that is the basis for Wright’s social commentary.
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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.