CATE Conference 2018

We will once again be facilitating a workshop at the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Conference. This year’s conference is in San Diego, and the theme is “With Literacy and Justice for All”.

Our workshop is titled, “Contemporary Short Fiction: the Key to Unlocking Potential and Leveling the Playing Field for Students of All Ability Levels”.

Here’s a post about our trip to the 2017 conference.

Advertisements

Testimonials from August 2nd and 3rd Professional Development Workshop at Tracy Unified School District

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!!!”

 

CATE Conference 2017: Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature

cate2017logo-teal_-768x202

Two Fridays ago (February 17th),  Liz and I attended the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Conference in Santa Monica, CA, where we led a workshop on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

We had a group of 25-30 English teachers from around the state, all of whom were very nice and very engaged (and a bunch of them bought our book, which was super nice).

[We also had a really really great time! And we would have stayed the whole weekend but, you know…babysitters and kids and all that {thanks, by the way, to Liz’s mom, Ellen, for watching our kids}. And we really really want to thank the people behind the CATE Conference for having us! It was great! Thank you!]

The workshop was based on our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature, and began with the rationale for using quality literature to meet the common core standards (and that common core in the English classroom does not mean more informational texts and less imaginative literature). Our premise is that by building units around quality works of fiction, drama, poetry, and creative nonfiction, you can meet all of the common core literacy standards (including the informational text standards).

We then moved on to an activity for introducing close reading (or critical reading) in the classroom. The purpose of the activity (which can be found in Chapter 2 of Method to the Madness) is to help students…

…recognize and identify significant choices made by an author

…analyze and evaluate the effects of those choices (that’s the “So what?”)

…use the appropriate academic language (literary terms) when discussing those choices

…prepare a text for analysis by annotating it.

The activity also helps students recognize that literary terms work together–specifically, in this case, diction and imagery combine to create a particular mood, or atmosphere.

Our next activity was centered on a short story by George Saunders (whose first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was recently released). The story is titled “Sticks”. It’s just a two-paragraph story, but there’s a lot packed into those two paragraphs. The story was included in Saunders’ 2013 collection, Tenth of December, but “Sticks” is actually an older story that was first published in 1995.

Here’s a picture of Liz reading the story in the workshop:

20170217_102154

Liz and I have been using “Sticks” in the classroom for about a decade. It’s a great teaching tool precisely because it is so short while being so meaty.

For the workshop, we read the story aloud and then put the participants into groups of four. The groups had five minutes to annotate the story and identify as many literary techniques and devices as they could (they were also given a list of these).

At the end of the five minutes, each group was given a piece of poster paper, on which they were instructed to write a statement about the story. The statement had to make a declarative claim and also had to incorporate at least one literary term.

Each group then shared their statement and supported it using specific evidence from their annotated story.

After the workshop, we had a short autograph session, and we got to browse around the exhibition hall for a while (and also pick up swag).

At the KQED booth, we got a selfie stick (I never thought I would ever own a selfie stick) plus a free tutorial on how to use said selfie stick.

Here’re two photos, one demonstrating my selfie abilities pre-stick, and one post-stick (and post-stick tutorial [hey, I just realized: sticks is a motif in this blog post]):

We were supposed to then post the picture on the right on social media with the hashtag on that card. But we’re getting old, and it was already a big day.

The Argument for the Incorporation of Short Fiction into the English Classroom (Or: There Are No Silver Bullets in Education [Except Maybe This One, and We Should All Be Doing This])

The following is a speech given to the Delta Kappa Gamma sorority by Elizabeth James, co-author of Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature:

 

Method to the Madness is, in essence, a return to the old school way of teaching English. It argues for an increase in the quantity and quality of student writing.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon for students at the high school level to read only one or two texts a year in their core English class. This means a student can have been exposed to ONLY FOUR texts by the time they graduate high school, which is, of course, completely unacceptable.

This is because of

  1. Attendance issues—teachers can’t get through material because students are not consistently all in the room at the same time.
  2. Reading the book in class—a problematic exercise that results from not trusting students to read on their own or not trusting students to return to school the next day with their books.
  3. Focusing primarily (sometimes exclusively) on plot, therefore sluggishly turning pages and taking chapter quizzes, sometimes at the cost of having a classroom that feels urgent and fast-paced.

Here’s the problem: though I can understand each of the above reasons, they create an environment where not enough reading is taking place and that which is taking place is designed to feel like a chore.  It is a design that does nothing to create readers.  People who love to read don’t read like that: one book a year, waiting for everyone to catch up so they can turn a page, days between reading sessions.

So here’s the first step to the silver bullet we’ve all been missing: we should teach literature the way we came to love literature ourselves.  When I think of how books and storytelling and later analysis and criticism became fascinating to me, I have no memory of worksheets. Or plot diagrams.  Or vocab homework.

I remember characters, and life changing teachers who spoke with passion, and hearing or reading something that–all of a sudden–made the world make a bit more sense. This is what we should do for all students.

Often, school districts and the powers that be (rightfully so) start searching for avenues of access for the struggling students.  How, in a district with high levels of poverty, low levels of academic achievement, and high levels of teacher turnover, can we get below grade level students up to speed and competitive?

In practice, this often becomes the moment when we start deciding what THESE KIDS can handle, and that’s the problem. As soon as we have decided that THESE KIDS need something different from high achieving students, these kids are being taught as problems, not solutions.  This manifests itself in several poor teaching exercises. Giving low readers pamphlet excerpts about Yosemite National Park won’t make them better readers. Having units entirely designed on how to design a resume for Blockbuster won’t make them better readers.  Bubble tests won’t make them better writers. Buying truckloads of condescending, POORLY WRITTEN fiction designed for struggling students isn’t any good, and does more harm than not.  I’ve taught these classes and worked with these students and been given this curriculum, and the first major lesson is as soon as we treat them like struggling students they perform like struggling students. You can’t have some students in 10th grade doing a unit on Shakespeare, and some 10th graders doing a unit on resume writing, and have them not know what their school thinks of them.  They know.  And that’s when they stop trying.

Why don’t we flip the paradigm, here?  Why don’t we teach struggling students the EXACT same way we teach high-achieving kids?  Why aren’t the struggling students being asked to read more, write more, think more, just as we challenge our students in our top classes to do? Why is our instinct to make the subject matter as boring and sometimes even offensively transparent as we do? Why don’t we provide thought-provoking, high stakes literature? And trust them to write about and create their own?  And why don’t we teach students who do not yet know the love and comfort of the written word the same experiences that brought us to that love?

The second part of this silver bullet is simple.  Increase the amount of critical reading and writing your students will be exposed to. For this, I would like to create the argument for the inclusion of the contemporary short story.

Short stories often don’t get taught because they aren’t in the book room or in the textbook—what is there is often the watered down, lesser work of great writers.  The exclusion of short stories in our syllabus, however, ignores what the texts offer:

  1. a variety of written voices and authors—women (!), different ethnicities(!), perhaps even people who are still alive!!!! Think back to the idea that lots of American high schoolers are graduating with diplomas after being exposed to just four books.  That’s four authors.  That’s four potentially different styles/genres/etc.  However, chances are they will meet four white writers from the Romantic or modernist age, probably in novel form.  That’s fine, those texts are amazing, but if you are a student who is constantly receiving the message that they aren’t very good at “this stuff”, it isn’t helpful to also message that “this stuff” sounds like a hundred years ago (minimum) and it’s their fault if they don’t get it.  Again, why on earth do we meet struggling students with such a limited example of what storytelling means to them? Ridiculous.
  2. great literature that attendance and pacing issues no longer affect. Many of these stories can fit on a page or two, and therefore, reading in class becomes no problem.  Missing a class doesn’t mean you cease to understand what is happening in the text.

Let me provide an example.  A couple of years ago in my first-period class, I had a student who was perpetually twenty minutes late.  This is because she had to take her little brother to his school in the morning before she could make it to her class.  This was, of course, problematic in a sixty-minute period, and was a larger problem that needed to be addressed.  But in the immediate sense, she was a student trying extremely hard who always was a little behind everyone else.  Instead of missing twenty minutes of reading time, when we were in the short story unit, she could take two or three minutes and know what everyone was talking about.  She could participate meaningfully in the class.  She could jump in when she got there and contribute and challenge herself.  Her external situation was not interfering with her internal participation and learning.

Students who are often late or absent are not necessarily excluded from the enjoyment and study of the literature.  It becomes less about keeping up with the reading, and more to do with engaging with the reading—a much higher level skill.

You can teach all the skill without losing momentum by turning pages. Need a unit on figurative language? Subtext? Inference? Word choice? Characterization?  You don’t need a novel to get there.  Junot Diaz or Lori Moore can do it in ten pages.  And the level of writing is stunning to students of all abilities.

A quick note about that.  A few years ago, I was team-teaching with my husband, and we did a really immersive short story writing unit.  It was a way to make students practice those standard words that so often come up on exams: voice, inference, dialogue, theme, etc.  Instead of merely recognizing the strategies, by writing their own fiction they had to create these terms in their original stories.  At the end, we offered the winner of the best short story collection (chosen by a panel of teachers at our site) a Barnes and Noble gift card and a copy of Junot Diaz’s Drown. That collection of short stories has been purchased by our household no fewer than four times because every time we read from it to our classes, it gets borrowed (or, at least once, lifted) and the students can’t bear to give it back.  This has never happened to me in the case of Harper Lee or Huckleberry Finn.  It’s not that those aren’t just as good—of course they are—but they don’t surprise the hell out of students the way Junot Diaz does.

Don’t misunderstand me; this silver bullet of contemporary short fiction doesn’t end with the replacing of traditional reading lists or the elimination of anything pre post-modernism.  Of course not.  I would argue Hamlet is just as relevant to a teenager’s life than any contemporary short story I could offer.  That’s why they are the great works of fiction: they transcend time and place and continue to speak to us.  I only offer the possibility that the problem here, in large part, is the need to change the paradigm of expectations.  Struggling students must be reading and writing so much more than they are expected to right now.  And that expectation of them must be met by us, the teachers, with the commitment to provide them interesting, challenging works of art that will show them just how important it is to know how to tell their story.

CATE Conference 2017

For anyone who is planning to attend the California Association of Teachers of English Conference February 17-19 in Santa Clara, we will be presenting a workshop on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

The session is based on our book and will provide strategies for middle and high school English teachers to increase rigor and inquiry in their classrooms–and meet the demands of Common Core–through the close study of quality works of literature.

The workshop will take place on the first day of the conference, February 17, from 9:15 to 10:45 am.

We hope to see you there!

cate2017logo-teal_-768x202

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.