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.

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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

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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:

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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.

Testimonials from Workshop on Teaching Literature in High School Classrooms

On January 9th, we led a workshop at the University of the Pacific in Stockton on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

The workshop was based on our book, and focused on the following:

  • The rationale for using quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, and literary nonfiction) in the middle and high school English classroom.
  • Strategies and activities for introducing and implementing close reading, using George Saunders’ short story “Sticks” and the lyrics of Billie Holliday’s “Gloomy Sunday” as examples.
  • Increasing the quantity and quality of rigorous student writing.

We will be conducting a similar workshop at the 2017 CATE (California Assoc. of Teachers of English) Conference, February 17-19 in Santa Clara, CA.

The following are some testimonials from our wonderful participants:

“Very engaging! I wish more teachers would attend! As an administrator, it is enlightening to see solutions to bringing critical thinking to the classroom through literature.”

 

“So many great things in this workshop. I want to try everything TOMORROW!!! Thank you so much!”

 

“Extremely informative and useful. I found and will implement at least three strategies (close reading, on-demand writing) that I will use right away. Thank you!”

 

“This information needs to be shared with our curriculum director!”

 

“Thank you for all of the methods that I can use in the classroom. As a new teacher with no experience, this information is extremely helpful.”

 

“Really effective and simple strategies. As a first year teacher, I would strongly urge my undergraduate peers to check out this presentation and the Method to the Madness book.”

 

“Informative and entertaining, with plenty that will be useful in the classroom.”

 

“Thank you. Workshop went by quickly and had great, engaging, purposeful information.”

 

“We were offered many examples/useful samples of student work and activities. We can use this material in the classroom for planning—especially how to increase writing.”

 

“Y’all are amazing.”

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.