Friday, July 31, 2015

Reading: Because Survival Is Insufficient

Two weeks ago I reminded myself to touch base with my students on our summer reading Google Doc. This week, I finally did. Not because I hadn't read anything, but, as you'll see, because I was too busy reading to write. But I finally put fingers to keyboard and posted. Here it is.

I’d seen this title recommended a lot of places—by friends, on the front tables of book stores, some English teachers are even planning to teach it next year. It recently won the National Book Award for fiction (U.S.). And when I put it on a “to-read” list in my blog, a friend I respect said he wanted to talk to me about it when I’d read it. That moved it up the list—to know you have an eager conversational partner.

I read it on the flight from the U.S. to Japan—for a trip like that I always try to choose a novel that will pull me in and keep me there until I fall out the other side without realizing how much time has passed. This book did that for me. As an English teacher, I’m a sucker for literary allusions, and with the first bit focused on King Lear and the second bit on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, what’s not to love? (Might not work that way for everyone, though.)

What is compelling for everyone, though, is the apocalypse that sets up the dystopia: a deadly epidemic. With recent scares about various flues (the school I was teaching at in Tokyo a few years ago closed for the summer 1 week early, and we had to make on-line learning plans after that) and the Ebola outbreak just this past year, this feels more like contemporary realistic fiction than fantasy or science fiction.

Sometimes people wonder what the point of art, literature, drama is—even in our affluent society. How much more in a society where the 10% of the population that escaped the apocalypse is scraping by in a wilderness suddenly lacking all the modern infrastructure which collapsed in the chaos? I love the motto of the traveling orchestra/acting troupe: Survival is insufficient. (And, just to keep it real, the quote is not from Shakespeare but from Star Trek.)  

The most evil character, a sort of cult leader, seems to have survived himself and offered meaning and structure to his followers based on a reading of the book of Revelation that maintains everything happens for a reason: judgment on some and salvation for others. The problem for me is that this guy is the sole interpreter of who deserves judgment and who gets salvation.

Might this be aimed at religion? Possibly—but I see it more as aimed at the human predisposition to interpret the world and set up salvation for insiders and judgment for outsiders. The likes of Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot did it just fine without invoking religion.

Religion, on the other hand, is this: Survival is insufficient. Because we are more than animals: We are image bearers of God. We might be twisted in ways that make us long for control and domination, that drive us to manipulate insiders and ostracize outsiders, but I believe that when we are untwisted, the real longing is for the beauty, meaning, and community God designed us for.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Reading without Words

“The tire has to come off,” said the bicycle repair man before I’d even properly stopped the bike in front of his shop. He paid no attention to my repeated attempts to explain to him, in less than fluent Japanese, that I’d just had the frame refurbished before shipping it here to Okinawa from Tokyo, and so everything was fine except that the tires needed air and the front brake, which I had completely released in order to put on the front wheel (quick release) that had been removed for the shipping, needed to be adjusted. And he wasn’t even gesturing to that front tire (my first panic—I’d done something betraying my incompetence in simply attaching it). 

Finally he pointed to the English letters printed on the side of the back tire—the arrows next to the words “front” and “back” were pointing the wrong directions. He quickly removed the tire, reversed it, filled the tires with air, fixed the front brake, and told me to take it for a test drive. 

And I was rocked back on my heels, that this guy in a blue jumpsuit with a greasy rag in his back pocket and a fistful of wrenches in his front pocket reads worlds of meaning in details that mean nothing to me. I had no idea that when the tread on a bike tire is in a V-shape, the V is supposed to point forward. 

What else don’t I know? What worlds of significance am I missing in the shape of a cloud, a bird song, the way that student slumps in his seatt, that engine noise…?

I hope to teach my students this year to become more skillful, nuanced, insightful readers of words. What do they or people they respect already know how to read better than I do? The sky? The sea? A computer program? People’s faces? The soccer defense? 

Reading is just noticing a detail and inferring a significance from it. We all do it in different mediums. Let’s appreciate how much significance the world is full of that we miss, be learners ourselves on the track of more meaning, and respectfully help our students transfer the skills of inference, connection, questioning, and synthesis they may already have in other fields, to the field of words, numbers, science, art, engines, music, or whatever it is that we’ll be teaching in another month or so.

P.S. The bike guy also read my refurbished frame--he knew it was at least 20 years old--and told me how good it was: "Giant, BMX, everybody has everything made in China these days, and it's no good. Made in Japan or America--that's good." I'll go back to him--he reads bikes better than the guy in Tokyo, who put my back wheel on backward!

What, other than words, do you read, or have you seen someone read?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Antidote to the So-What’s: Finding Connections and Perspectives

So excited to be unpacking my books...

"So what?"

Ever had a student ask that question in response to something you were asking them to learn or do? I used to dread it, but now I invite it--I tell students there's a reason for everything I ask them to do, and if they don't understand it, they should ask.

How can you find answers? As you read and relax this summer, keep a casual eye out for anything that could help inform the themes and issues your students will study next year. Look for things like...
  1. Background information
  2. Case studies
  3. Current culture: Movies, fiction, news stories
  4. Various perspectives: Scientific, economic, philosophical, political, psychological, sociological, technological, aesthetic, pragmatic, ethical, religious…
  5. Biblical perspective: Yes, this is actually a subpoint of (4), but to me as a Christian and as a teacher at a Christian school, it’s such an important one it warrants its own line. Great Christian thinkers have dealt with every issue. If you teach at a Christian school, introduce your kids to the resources out there, the great Christian thinkers in your field. Don’t just have kids make up their own Biblical perspective from searching random verses on Be at least as scholarly with the Bible as you are with texts and ideas in your field—research some expert opinions to inform your own.
I started collecting these types of connections to my classes about 10 years ago when I began realizing how unfair it was for secondary English teachers like me to always have students reading fiction, but writing nonfiction—and the nonfiction writing, which they never saw modeled, was how I assessed their fiction reading. So I started bringing in nonfiction articles for background and additional information on the themes in the literature we read. Significance blossomed.

For example, when 10th graders read the Holocaust memoir Night, they ponder the significance of disregarding vs. respecting and protecting human dignity. We look at the UN Declaration of Human Rights that was the world’s attempt to ensure such respect and protection. We watch some excerpts from Hotel Rwanda and read the introduction to An Ordinary Man, the memoir of the movie’s protagonist, Paul Russesabagina, which show how badly the Declaration failed. We read a Time magazine article “What Makes Us Moral?”, which explores from a purely secular perspective the conundrum of human tendencies to both depths of evil and heights of good. 

And because I teach at a Christian school, we also get a Christian perspective by reading the article “Justice in an Unjust World” by Gary Haugen who was part of the UN investigative team in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide, and subsequently started International Justice Mission. It’s a great article, maintaining that the real question is not where is God when people are suffering—he is right there, full of compassion, suffering with them—it’s where are God’s people, his hands and feet in the world. And what we, his people, can do whenever we are aware of suffering is share God’s compassion and respond by praying, giving, or going. 

I nearly forgot my own mantra—use credible Christian resources—as I was sitting here last week struggling to put together a Christian perspective for a unit on education in my new AP English Language course. The point of the course is reading and analyzing nonfiction, critiquing arguments, synthesizing various points of view, and persuasively articulating one’s own position, so I have plenty of nonfiction—from classic authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson to the modern essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” by Francine Prose. We’re reading one full-length work, Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass

Suddenly remembered that I didn’t need to come up with a Biblical perspective all by myself any more than I was expecting students to come up with a claim about education without any resources—certainly there is a concise, well-written piece of prose out there that offers a specifically Christian perspective on education. In fact, I remembered I’d actually filed one away for future use a number of years ago—“Education for Shalom: Our Calling as a Christian College” by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., on the Calvin College web site. Score! 

So as I finish unpacking my books from my move, I’ll be thinking about my remaining new units and where I can find a chapter, an article, or an excerpt on a Christian perspective for them. Next up: What is the relationship of the individual to the community? I’m thinking there might be something in the John Yoder book Body Politics or a John Ortberg book like Everybody’s Normal until You Get to Know Them.

What’s a topic or issue in your field or a course you teach that you’d like to find a Christian perspective on—for yourself or for your students? 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Using Google Docs to Nurture Summer Reading

How do I communicate my enthusiasm for reading in an infectious way so students who don’t know me, from a school I only visited once, will be more likely to engage in more summer reading?

It’s a situation I’ve never been in, but being in transition to a new school, I’m taking a shot at it this summer. 

The school requires students to read 2 books—1 assigned by the teacher to the whole class, and 1 student-selected from a grade-level list. The school requires some form of assignment for each of those two books. I want the assignment to be not an end in itself, but something that stimulates thought, growth, and more reading, and I want students to choose and read more than just 2 books this summer.

Technology, modeling, scaffolding, and persistencethats how Im hoping to accomplish my goals, asking students (1) to create a “to-read” list, (2) to reflect on their reading, and (3) to share their list and their reflection with each other via a Google Doc I created for each class.  

But first, the modeling: I posted a list of 5 books I was interested in reading over the summer and a reflection on a book I’d recently finished reading. I asked them to post their own list of 5 (1 must be from the grade-level reading list) by the end of the week, and their own response to at least the book from the list (though I encouraged them to do it for more) by the beginning of school. I also provided a list of 10 questions, out of which they could pick 1 or more, to prompt their reflection.

Here’s my “to-read” list:
  1. The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell (New York Times best seller set around the time/place of Beowulf)
  2. So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures  by Maureen Corrigan (since I’ll be teaching The Great Gatsby in AP English 11)
  3. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Given to us at a mission conference--I read and liked Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by the same author)
  4. The Testament by John Grisham (I’ve read others by the same author, but not this one that all the CP 11th graders are reading.)
  5. Nothing but the Truth by Avi (I enjoyed The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, but I haven’t read anything else by this popular young adult author. This is on the 10th grade reading list, and one of my goals this summer is to read as many of the books on the 10th and 11th grade lists as possible.)

Here’s the reflection prompt:
Write a 300+ word reflection, using 1 or more of the prompts below. Avoid mere summary—use specifics from the book to support opinions, evaluations, connections, and applications in the way an educated adult would discuss his or her reading.

  1. Why did you pick this book? To what extent did it live up to your expectation? Rate it 1 (low) to 5 (high) on your own list of great books. To whom would you recommend it?
  2. Fiction: Select one of the main characters, and discuss what changes you observed in this character over the course of the book. 
  3. Nonfiction: What were some of the most interesting things you learned from this book?  
  4. What was a memorable event, scene, secondary character, quotation…? Why? 
  5. Any unanswered questions, confusion, or disagreement?
  6. What kind of style did the author use? Give examples. What did you like/dislike about it? 
  7. What connections did you make? (to other books/movies/songs? the world around? yourself?) 
  8. What is one of the book’s themes? 
  9. How does the book describe any of the following parts of the Christian narrative: The world as God made it to be? What’s wrong with the world? What difference Jesus makes? God’s intention for the world and/or how we can help heal the hurt?
  10. Anything else you wanted to say about the book?

Here’s my reflection on Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier:

I picked this book because I always see it on reading lists and think that I should read it, and then it recently popped up on my Kindle as a daily deal for $1.99, so I thought, “Hey, here’s my chance!” I was always ambivalent about reading it, because I’m not really a suspense/thriller type person, and yet I knew it might be interesting for someone who did love reading those types of books to delve into the history of the genre. (Du Maurier wrote the short story “The Birds” from which Alfred Hitchcock made his famous movie of the same title.) I also figured that since it was written in 1938, it couldn’t be the kind of suspense that would be so graphic it would keep me up at night.

I’d give it a 4 out of 5. I enjoyed how the style of the very first paragraph set me up for mystery and suspense: “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.” The word choice all tells you something is weird: “Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers.” (Yes, this is book will also support SAT vocabulary development!) It reminded me of the description of the setting at the beginning of the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” (Poe was another precursor to modern mystery/suspense/horror genres.) Stephen King, a current master of the genre, said of the book (quoted in an Amazon review), “A brilliantly constructed novel—the ultimate in psychological suspense, instantly gripping and haunting, Rebecca will stay with you for ever.”

If you’re not into description, you might find the beginning slow, but it soon picks up. Most of the chapters end with cliff-hangers, and there were several shocking revelations and reversals along the way. (It was an instant best-seller when it first came out in 1938.)

At the same time I was reading Rebecca, I was also reading a book on prayer by Tim Keller that talks about our “disordered loves.” It was interesting how the two books intersect. Boy, was Rebecca ever a tale of disordered loves—though it wasn’t meant that way, it’s a great picture of how twisted up we humans get by loving all the wrong things in the wrong amount.

How’s it working for me so far? Not perfectly—after several weeks of reminders, I have “to-read” lists from all the 11th graders, and only half the 10th graders. But something is always better than nothing. I’ve initiated conversations about books with those students who have responded, commenting on their choices, beginning to get to know them as readers. I’ve read 3 of the 5 books on my list. Time to post reflections on those and send another reminder. 

Good thing I wrote this blog to remind myself to persist!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Finally: Voice Lessons for Readers and Writers

No more stumbling over explaining voice!
I’ve been edging ever closer in the last 2 years to practical ways to get kids to read like writers. (Or even to identify for myself, so I can turn my brain inside out for students to see, what it is that I subconsciously do that causes my reading to shape my writing—not just the content but also the form. What is it that good athletes do when they watch better athletes in order to appropriate moves they observe to improve their own performance?) 

Now it’s even more urgent because I’ll be teaching AP English Language where one of the curricular requirements is that students are able to explain “how various effects are achieved by writers’ linguistic and rhetorical choices” (Scoring Component 7). A colleague from the AP institute I attended 2 weeks ago enthusiastically recommended the book Voice Lessons, which takes 5 aspects of voice. Each lesson starts with a sentence or two taken from a work of literature, and includes 2 discussion questions and an application activity. I was sold from the first lesson, on page 3, on diction:


“Art is the antidote that can call us back from the edge of numbness, restoring the ability to feel for another.” (Barbara Kingsolver, “Jabberwocky,” High Tide in Tuscon)

  1. By using the word antidote, what does the author imply about the inability to feel for another?
  2. If we changed the word antidote to gift, what effect would it have on the meaning of the sentences?
Brainstorm with the class and develop a list of medical terms; then write a sentence using a medical term to characterize art. Explain to the class the effect this term has on the meaning of the sentence.


One word--antidote--transmutes the rest of the sentence into an analogy, identifying lack of empathy as a poison.  Isn't that remarkable?

So after reading a number of Dean’s lessons, I decided to glance through some books I’d recently read to see if I could pick out sentences and identify the effect authors achieve with deliberate choices. Here are a couple I found:

(1) From Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, chapter 1: “Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers."

Du Maurier creates a sinister atmosphere from the very first description of the setting by personifying nature (a she with fingers), using a couple of adjectives and a verb with strongly negative connotations. If you don’t believe me, just read the sentence substituting these synonyms (supplied by my desktop thesaurus) for the bolded words: covert, subtle, and disturb.

(2) From Marilynne Robinson's Home: “‘Home to stay, Glory! Yes!’ her father said, and her heart sank. He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with commiseration.

The first time through, I didn’t catch what was going on in these first two sentences of the book, and I spent a lot of time playing catch-up, figuring out what the character’s attitudes to each other were. Going back and reading it now, I remembered the instructor at the AP institute did an exercise just like this, stopping us after the first 2 sentences of a reading, asking us to identify whether the author’s attitude to the subject was positive, negative, or ambivalent, and give support. 

Here the first two clauses sound like a celebration of family reunion. The juxtaposition of the next phrase—her heart sank—says the daughter is not as happy as the father sounds. But words can be a smokescreen. The next sentence lets us know that’s happening here. He attempted a twinkle of joy—the word attempt implies failure. In addition, Kingsolver doesn’t just tell us he’s near tears, but shows us the detail of his damp eyes. Finally, commiseration tells us that not only are they both individually unhappy, but the father, at least, understands that the feeling is mutual.

Such intertwined sadness and tenderness, desire to protect and failure to connect, all in two sentences. Aren’t the resources of language amazing?

I’m planning to use some of the lessons in Voice Lessons with my 10th and 11th graders next year, and I’m also planning to keep my eyes open for how authors use these resources, so I can model my observations for the students as we read and model my applications of them as we write. 

How about you? How does an author you’re reading use language to create an effect? How do you use it when you write?