Friday, December 28, 2012

Influential Reads of 2012

This seems to be required in the literary end of the blogosphere. So here are my year-end reflections on the best of my reading for the year: how I decided what to read, why I liked it, and what I took away.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: 
I started out the year finishing this book which I’d gotten half-way through the previous summer, then put on hold until Christmas break when school started. Finished it on into February. Lesson 1: It’s okay to take a long time to read a book. 

Part of the engine that drives my reading habits is a subtle inferiority complex plus competitive streak. This makes me 
    • feel deficient in my knowledge of the classics and 
    • determine to actually read the things that I hear/read people quote/allude to/refer to on a regular basis. 
I think it all started when a college English professor made a statement about “of course you all have read...” and I hadn’t. Later I quoted C.S. Lewis to another professor who asked if I’d read the book that it came from, and I had to admit I hadn’t--I read some of his books, but this particular quote had come from a “collected quotes” book. 

Why this particular “important work”? As a teacher of world lit, I’m especially interested in non-US/British works. As a Christian, I’m especially interested in balancing the curriculum and my knowledge with significant world literature that shares my world view. I’ve read many references to Les Miserables, a student a couple of years ago wrote the song lyrics poetry analysis paper for my class on a number from the musical, and one or two students a year read the “condensed for modern readers” version in the school library. Plus I’d picked up a used paperback copy. I generally pick one paperback tome to carry with me on summer holiday (easier than a stack of YA novels)--I’ve read Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamatzov this way. I’ve also failed several attempts at War and Peace

Several things I learned: 
  1. Victor Hugo’s social concerns were amazingly modern...and the problems amazingly recurrent--children’s right to education, women’s right to dignity, men’s right to work that will sustain their family.
  2. It’s okay to skim--if I don’t care about the Battle of Waterloo, I can skim those 50 pages as long as I catch the one paragraph that introduces a significant character.
  3. It’s also okay to read heavier fiction during vacations and put it aside when I’m spending the whole working day engaged with difficult text--more of the same in the evening puts my right to sleep.
  4. Those old books with their discursive editorializing have some beautiful lines--like about the soul expanding in sorrow to find God the way Jean Valjean’s pupils expanded in the darkness of the sewers under Paris to discern shapes.
  5. When tempted to despair at all the violence in nations in political turmoil today, I’m reminded that western nations did not become democratic overnight and without violence. 

I enjoyed the book, I’m glad I read it, and I don’t feel a strong need to see the movie. I thought I would, but I don’t. Maybe it’s backlash to all the conversations I’ve heard about The Hobbit movie vs. book. A movie isn’t a book. If you loved the book, you’re likely to take issue with the movie because the medium does different things in different ways. I’m fine waiting for it to come out in DVD.  

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: 
As a teacher of world lit living in Japan, I’m always on the prowl for Japanese authors I can enjoy. The search was mostly a failure until I discovered Murakami, and even him I didn’t like immediately. I first met him on front tables at US bookstores--not reading, just becoming aware. Finally checked one out of the public library on my mom’s card during a visit: Kafka on the Shore. It was...odd...but intriguing...but odd. 

Then After Dark was selected as a Sakura Reading Program book. (The Sakura Reading Program is an annual list of quality works by international authors published within the last 2 years selected by librarians from international schools in Japan.) I read it and thought, “Odd...but I think if I read it again I might really like it.” So when the English translation of 1Q84 came in October 2011 and some bookstores opened at midnight, Harry Potter style, while critics hailed Murakami as the first Japanese author to cross over from a literary “author-in-translation” to just “an author,” I decided to offer After Dark as second semester extra credit reading for my class. I re-read it, and true to my prediction, loved it, and determined to read all of Murakami’s works. 

I love his protagonists for being thoughtful odd-balls who have struggled through some difficulty to become people who contemplate the meaning of life and take the time to really see other people even who have no connection with them. His novels also usually address at least tangentially some social problem. 

And while they aren’t classic comedies, there is some hope, some connection made. Murakami does not write from a Christian perspective, but he writes from a thoughtful one, and I think any Christian who enjoys literature and interacts with Japanese people should read these books. They could be the basis for many fascinating conversations. And they are wildly popular here--as well as in the US. Front shelves in Tokyo book stores still display 1Q84 (in 3 separate books, in Japanese--Americans have a penchant for needing everything bound together). Students often tell me one parent has all of Murakami's books. And last spring in a US airport book store I browsed, Haruki Murakami was the author with the most dedicated shelf space.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi: 
My favorite of the high school Sakura Books for last year. I resisted picking it up at first--just another futuristic YA dystopian novel. But when several students had recommended it, I did. The difference I found is how eerily it is rooted in current issues--from climate change to wealth disparity to resource use to employment practices.

The Hawk and the Dove Trilogy (and then books 4, 5, and 6 as well) by Penelope Wilcock:
This was recommended by a friend and immediately became an absolute, all-time favorite. I sent it to my mom for her birthday, passed it on to friends, and am now reading the 3rd book to my 22-year-old daughter. (My children somehow never outgrew bedtime stories. Though over Christmas vacation, with my younger daughter home from college, we're taking a break from Father Peregrine to read our traditional Christmas favorites. Right now we're in the midst of Holly and Ivy.) The setting is a medieval monastery, but it’s difficult to do justice with any sort of explanation. The characters deal with ordinary temptations with living faith and make good seem both real and attractive.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: 
I finished the year with a book I’ve looked at over the last 4 years every time I’ve walked into an English-language bookstore here in Japan--usually in a display of Man Booker Prize winners. But the length was a little off-putting, and I didn’t know if I really wanted to read another Henry the VIII period historical fiction. This Thanksgiving vacation I was in one of those bookstores and saw the same book advertised again as “by the author of the 2012 Man Booker Prize winner.” Any author who could win 2 of those prizes is worth a shot. Besides, I was in the mood for a vacation splurge. 

I fell in love with the protagonist--a smart, thoughtful, up-by-his-bootstraps kind of guy--reading all the latest books including the banned ones of Luther and Wycliffe which cause him to wonder whether his loved ones who have died of the plague are in Purgatory as the Church says or Heaven as the gospels say--an abused child who takes great delight in providing for his own and others’ children--and a man who fell into a convenient marriage which grew into love.  

And finally, a couple of nonfiction works:

Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler: 
My school’s headmaster offered to buy this book for any department chair who wanted it, and I was never one to turn down a free book. As I read, I could identify the principles in conversations I have had or need to have with colleagues, students, children, husband--in just about any setting. The principles are memorable and practical--like when conversations turn crucial, people go to either silence or violence. That’s memorable. What do you do? Notice, and create safety (people go to silence or violence when they feel threatened). That’s practical. 

I found it so important I joined a discussion group to go through it again. In addition, many of the principles have a sound biblical basis--Chapter 2 “Start with Heart” is really about checking the plank in your own eye before worrying about the speck in anyone else’s eye. 

A weekly email communication from a professional organization (NCLE or NCTE) alerted me to this book, and I immediately knew I wanted to read it. I blogged on it during the summer, so I won’t go into content again, but I’m putting it on this list now because I’m going to lead a discussion of it starting the end of January. I think it could be a significant turning point for our loose association of department chairs and principals to become more of what our name claims, a Learning Team. 

My biggest takeaways as I look over what I’ve written? My best books come from recommendations--by reputation, a friend, a colleague, a student, a professional publication, or a prize. And when I really love a book, I have to share it with others--students, colleagues, or the internet world--via assignments, book discussions (formal or informal), or this blog.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Words, Words, Words

Vocabulary sentences I have actually received from 10th grade students:
    • American rice, compared to Japanese rice, is incoherent
    • Jerry pervaded the mall with his girlfriend. 
    • Tom desolated in the toilet bowl.
Knowing a dictionary definition clearly doesn’t mean you understand the word. Here are the corresponding definitions the students had written down:
    • incoherent: not sticking together
    • pervade: go throughout
    • desolated: laid waste
Words have beauty, power, and precision. Some students seem to own that as a natural birthright, some struggle for any kind of control, and some simply don’t care. How can I help all students delight in discovering new words, uncovering their meaning, and learning to wield them? I think we still need some kind of vocabulary program in high school. I think using words found in context is best. But I don't know. When I learn a new word, I suddenly see it everywhere. Then one day, I can use it. How can I help students do that? 

All these things have been going through my head, so when I came across The Vocabulary Book by Michael Graves right before school started in August, I ordered it immediately, knowing I’d only be able to chip away at it bit by bit until next summer, but the bits have been so exciting, I started my Christmas vacation by treating myself to a chapter a day. 

I was so excited because the book articulates what I’d suspected, proposing a 4-pronged approach to vocabulary learning and providing skill components, lesson plans, and examples.

The 4-pronged vocabulary approach is
    • Providing rich and varied language experiences
    • Teaching individual words
    • Teaching word-learning strategies
    • Fostering word consciousness (5-7) 
For an example of skill components, Graves labels word-learning strategies as 
    • Using context clues
    • Using word parts
    • Using reference tools
    • Developing a strategy for dealing with unknown words
    • Adopting a personal approach to building their vocabularies (91)
Here’s the steps to a strategy for dealing with unknown words:
    • Recognize that an unknown word has occurred.
    • Decide whether you need to understand it to understand the passage.
    • Attempt to infer the meaning of the word from the context surrounding it.
    • Attempt to infer the meaning looking for word parts.
    • Attempt to sound out the word and see if you come up with a word you know.
    • Turn to a dictionary, glossary, or another person for the meaning. (114-115)
I need this list of strategies because it comes so naturally to me, I don’t know what I’m doing. Having Graves articulate it for me, I can now teach less apt students what I do. And I’m excited at the timing because I’d been planning to target word choice more particularly in my poetry unit coming up at the end of January.

But even closer than that, the book confirmed that I’m doing some things well--like having students process words at least two ways, having set up two Quizlet lists for each 20-item vocabulary list, one with the word in its context from our reading and the other with a definition. And just confirming that choosing vocabulary words from our reading is a good thing.

Additionally, it confirmed that I can trust my instincts in vocabulary teaching: Earlier this week I was engaging in a holiday tradition, reading my daughter, a college sophomore home for Christmas vacation, “Twas the Night before Christmas.” I found myself doing one of the protocols for young children in the book--leaving out lines for the child to fill in (almost impossible NOT to do with familiar poetry!). 

As a 19-year-old English education major, she was also using her word understanding skills (because we’re all always still learning and growing). After I read, “The stump of a pipe / he held tight in his teeth...,” she asked to see the accompanying picture. “Oh! I was envisioning a big metal plumbing pipe, and that wasn’t working for me.” 

As a 47-year-old experienced English teacher, the following day, I had to look up courser

Graves, Michael F. The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2006. Print.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Talking about Books...and Irony

Irony--it pervades my English class. The bathroom pass, a magnetized sign, proclaims, “The beatings will continue until attitudes improve.” At the beginning of the year it elicits a giggle from approximately 2 out of my 50 students. I tell them that to pass the final exam and exit English 10, they must demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of irony by a belly laugh in response to the bathroom pass.

I came across more irony today--reading a book on vocabulary instruction. It exhorted me to use some unfamiliar words in discussion with my students: “The goal is to expose students to some new and challenging words and to peak their interest in such words.” Really?!? Peak, not pique

Actually, most of the book is quite good. Like the quote at the head of the chapter I read:
You can’t build a vocabulary without reading. You can’t meet friends if you...stay at home by yourself all the time. In the same way, you can’t build up a vocabulary if you never meet any new words. And to meet them you must read. The more you read the better. A book a week is good, a book every other day is better, a book a day is still better. (Rudolf Flesch and Abraham Lass, Professional Writers)

I have a high percentage of Asian students who speak English as a second or third language. They (and their parents) come to me for hot tips on how to improve their SAT scores. My best advice: Read, read, and read.

One way I reinforce the importance of independent reading is by requiring at least 250 pages of it every semester. Nowhere close to a book a day, I know, but we do what we can.

Once a semester, each student has to schedule a 10-minute interview with me about his or her independent reading. Yes, it’s meant to be a form of accountability. I also hope it is a chance for students to experience an adult conversation about reading--for me to model talking about reading, to prompt student talking about reading, to observe and nudge what they read and how they read, to find out how I can teach them better, and, perhaps most importantly, to have fun talking about books. 

I ask students to bring the book they have read and some form of held thinking (whether it’s Post-It notes or a journal entry) to show they have something to say--this is not quiz time for me to find out whether they’ve read the book. Students are to take the initiative, simulating a conversation they might have with a friend 10 years from now--“Hey, I read this great (or awful) book, and here’s what I thought about it” with some give and take. Though I have given them a menu of questions if they need ideas. 

In the past, I’ve uncovered student misunderstanding which has allowed me to change what I do to address it--such as the misconception that you can only have a Christian perspective of a book if it talks about God or Jesus, or the perennial difficulty identifying a theme. This year, a student offered the perspective that dystopian novels demonstrate people how people, made in God’s image, seek something to worship as God, even if it’s a human power that promises some form of security; they also seek, in their fallen state, to be God. Another student, when I asked my lead-up question to theme, “Did the protagonist learn anything or change in a significant way over the course of the novel?” jumped in right away stating, “Well, I’m not sure what the character learned, but I can tell you what I learned!” 

Last week I talked to students who had read the classics Jane Eyre, Out of the Silent Planet, Shiokari Pass (Japanese); current YA fiction Mocking Jay, The Taming (fusing a high school production of a Shakespeare play and a teen romance), Divergent (dystopian); and non-fiction--a memoir (Strength in What Remains) and a book on global issues. 

Students came with variety of preparations: a list of vocabulary words learned, Post-It notes marking questions about meaning, notes on significant points. They reflected on conversations with family members, on themes and theological implications, on how they choose books and what they like to read. Some had already chosen their next book, and some asked me for recommendations. 

But one of my favorites had to be the girl whose spirited conversation went on over the allotted time--both of us enjoying it--until I finally drew it to a close saying, “Well, thank you for coming.” She stared at me and said, “Is that all?” “Yes.” “That was FUN!”

I’m not sure what she was expecting, but I certainly felt like I had the best job in the world as a literature teacher, and that this particular day, I’d discharged it well. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Something Is Better Than Nothing

Quick temperature check. One of my goals this year was to focus students on reading as writers: paying attention to the writers they read as models for their writing. 

I’m a little discouraged that I haven’t done as much of this as I had hoped to, but I am encouraged that even the little I am doing is helping some students. I have never before gotten unsolicited comments from students on the topic, and this week I got two.

In a book talk, or reading conference, one student commented, “I don’t usually read non-fiction, but when I was reading this, I noticed how the author stated his thesis and supported it, using a preview of points and topic sentences. It really helped me as a writer.” 

On an exit ticket, where I asked students to record one interesting thought from reading a chapter of a book on public speaking, a student wrote, “He uses quotes really well in the book. He gives background information before using the quotation.”

What have I done? Just occasionally, when reading a non-fiction article as background to or extension of a theme or literary selection, I ask questions like, What is the author's thesis? Or we look at the hook and the conclusion. Or groups select 3 good transitions. Really: maybe 5 minutes for each non-fiction reading.

You don’t have to be perfect--but doing something is always better than doing nothing. I haven’t been a perfect teacher, but I’m smiling at the end of this week.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

When Subliminal is Sublime

Sublime and subliminal--what's the relationship? Over-the-top-amazing and under the limit of perception--but they sound very much like a noun and adjective form of the same word. I never would have even thought to wonder if I hadn’t adjusted my view on make-up work this year.

Make-up or extra credit work never made much sense to me: cut your losses and start out on top of things next time. Spending the first part of the next unit redoing work from last unit just perpetuates the cycle of behind-ness. But I’m also discovering that taking the time to uncover misunderstandings and correct them and leads not only to learning, but to really interesting windows into the hard work that students’ brains do even when they’re wrong, spurring further conversation and exploration. 

I recently discovered that one student interpreted sublime based on his knowledge of subliminal. Subliminal is a pretty sophisticated word to know, and that transfer skill is also sophisticated. It just ended him up in the wrong place. Why? I looked up the etymology. In subliminal the prefix sub- means just what we have been taught--under. But for some reason in sublime the prefix means up to. Like that confusing thing where in- means not (like invalid, independent, indecisive), except when it means very (like invaluable and inflammable). 

What led me to reconsider make-up work and as a result discover this sublime/subliminal conundrum? Something I read this summer from the middle school principal about fixing broken grades made me reconsider make-up work: How important is it for the student to learn this information or skill? I combined that question with the Understanding by Design concept of uncovering misunderstanding, and this year I inaugurated a make-up mechanism for words missed on vocabulary quizzes. Learning these words is important: I’m upping my emphasis this year on vocabulary in any way I can think of, and one way is saying if you didn’t get it right on the quiz, let’s figure out why and get it right. Students can get half-credit for each word missed on a 20-item matching quiz by filling in the following form:

What I got wrong: I thought _________________________ (word) fit ___________________________________________ (prompt).

Why I thought it fit: __________________________________

What was the right word: ______________________________

Why it this word fits better: ____________________________

I wondered if they’d play the system--not study and then make up half credit--but I’ve actually been quite pleased with the results. Students really do uncover misunderstanding. Sometimes they explain an alternate understanding that works so well I end up giving full credit for it. Sometimes they admit “I had no idea--it was just the last choice left.” But they still have to choose the correct word and explain why it’s correct. And if having no idea is a pattern, that leads to another conversation. And sometimes I discover sophisticated learning strategies and another bizarre quirk from the convoluted history of English. 

By the way, I’m still looking for any other word in which sub- means up to. One point extra credit on the next vocabulary quiz to the first person who discovers one.