“There is no great secret. You endure what is unbearable, and you bear it. That is all.” ~Clockwork Princess (The Infernal Devices Book 3), Cassandra Clare
Summer is here! I thought for a while, especially after the feet of snow that we had in March, that it would never actually get here, but as I sit on the balcony at the beach in SC, I realize the incontrovertible truth that summer has finally come. Woohoo! I have big plans for this summer, including a ridiculously long reading list (I've brought home a giant crate of books along with another massive bag holding the overflow) and a gigantic revision of my writing. I just finished The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, a novel I started in March but just now came around to reading. It was awesome, and well worth the wait. I'm now plowing through four of Lauren Oliver's books, which I'm sure I'll write about soon enough. But alas, I did not sit down at my laptop to write about summer, or the current novels. I sat down here to write about the phenomenal series I read a few weeks ago, The Infernal Devices series (also familiarly called the Clockwork series) by Cassandra Clare.
Where to begin with this? First, a confession (that may lower your view of me as a literary person): I do not particularly like Victorian literature. I've never been big on Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, or even Charles Dickens (though I did find myself strangely in love with Great Expectations when I was a sophomore in high school). I've never been a big fan of third person omniscient narration, nor have I enjoyed reading about the way that things were in the 1800s. In college, I focused on Postmodernism, and I was fascinated by deconstruction of metanarratives and the notion of the simulacrum in literature. In essence, I could not have been more removed from the study of Victorian literature.
If you have not read this series, my rambling about literature undoubtedly seems irrelevant, but this all comes around to the fact that Cassandra Clare accomplishes a phenomenal feat in her series; she echoes the tropes and style of Victorian literature while creating a science fiction/ fantasy world full of suspense, mayhem, and intrigue that rivals anything in YA literature today. Set in late 1800s London, these novels include famous passages from the time period at the beginning of each chapter, and echo the style and description of the time period. They simultaneously challenge the traditional tropes of fiction, and Clare forces readers to grapple with the implications of stories and the way that we are all drawn into them.
Translation for the teen reader and the classroom: I should say that these novels were recommended to me and brought to me by one of my freshmen students. She told me that I would love them, but to be honest I was a bit daunted by the size and by the notion of reading all of them before the end of school (you know what May is like for teachers). When I started Clockwork Angel, three different students approached me in the hall or during my parking lot duty to tell me that those novels were the best series they had ever read. I will say that the first one in the series takes a bit of work to get into the world of the characters, but it is well worth the investment. From about page 150 through the end of the third novel, I could not put them down. I haven't read The Mortal Instruments series (City of Bones) yet, so I cannot compare them. However, I can say that these novels address many issues, such as: discrimination, deception, the value of life, revenge, and the complexities of love. I can also say that they introduce students to the tradition of Victorian literature while also creating a world that is completely fantastical and that escapes from our own. I hope that you will place these novels on your summer reading list, and that you enjoy them!
“You know that feeling,” [Tessa] said, “when you are reading a book, and you know that it is going to be a tragedy; you can feel the cold and darkness coming, see the net drawing tight around the characters who live and breathe on the pages. But you are tied to the story as if being dragged behind a carriage and you cannot let go or turn the course aside...I feel now as if the same is happening, only not to characters on a page but to my own beloved friends and companions. I do not want to sit by while tragedy comes for us. I would turn it aside, only I struggle to discover how that might be done.” ~Clockwork Princess, Cassandra Clare
"High school is a scary concept, especially when you are an eighth grader walking into it. To be honest, high school isn't all that scary once you get going. My ninth grade year has been my best year so far. All of the teachers are so helpful and caring. They listen to what you have to say and also give great advice when it's needed." ~current 9th grade student
For their final writing assignment this year, my English 9 students wrote letters of advice to the incoming freshman class. We studied Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to explore the use of logos, pathos, and ethos in persuasion, and then my students applied those techniques in their letters as they passed along the wisdom they’d gained over the course of the year. Tomorrow, we’ll post the best letters on the bulletin board, and we’ll place all of them in a binder for the incoming class. The students will have an opportunity to look over the letters and to make signs and posters demonstrating the best pieces of advice.
I first came up with this idea after reading Karen Finneyfrock’s novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door. In that amazing story, young Celia finds her way in the world as she navigates the challenges of her freshman year. See my previous post for more information about that novel and the kinds of students who might best benefit from reading it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this assignment, but what I noticed right away is that many students who often take a long time getting started with writing assignments jumped into this one immediately. They outlined their ideas, came up with clear thesis statements, and spoke directly to their audience. They admitted their own mistakes and expressed their regrets about some of the choices that they had made.
I've read about half of the letters, and here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve read so far:
“You should be able to be who you are and not what others expect of you. Become the new cool. Even when everyone else judges you. “
“Before you start to make fun of someone, just think how much it will hurt them. Would you like to be that person?”
“[The teachers] just ask that you respect them and all of the other students. Your teachers don’t want to sit through a whole year and argue with you. They want you to be successful and respectful. Treating my teachers right really got me a long ways. Sometimes you may not agree with their decisions, but you have to give them the respect that they deserve.”
“Don’t listen to drama because everything you hear might not be true. It helps if you keep just a small group of friends who you can trust. Participating and listening to drama doesn’t show good things about your character and can hurt others as well as yourself.”
I’d like to note that most of the students who gave the best advice were not students getting straight As and behaving appropriately at all times. The ones whose letters were the most authentic and compassionate were the students who had struggled in earnest this year and who knew from hard-earned experience the things that would help them achieve success. The students also had to mark the different kinds of persuasion that they used (we selected different fonts for each kind), so we had a lot of good discussions about what logos, pathos, and ethos are and how to incorporate them into our writing.
Another great benefit of this assignment is that almost all of the students mastered the concept of using a concession and a counterargument. While I’ve tried various ways to help them understand and apply this concept, most of them have been unsuccessful in their previous applications. However, this time, they thoroughly understood why the students might not listen to them, and they knew what the younger students’ objections might be. They addressed those directly and highlighted why the other students should see things from their perspective. Some of the students included this kind of logical reasoning for each of their main points, which really strengthened their argument.
Students said things like:
“You may be shy and think that you don’t want any more friends, but trust me if you’re in a club or a sport, you are bound to make a new friend or two.”
“At this point in your life, I’m sure you aren’t worried about your grades, but they are more important now than ever before.”
“I understand that sometimes you are afraid to stand up because you are shy or simply because you are indeed a freshman but participation can help you in so many ways.”
"You can’t erase the past from everyone’s minds but you can have a fresh start to make more of yourself when you get to high school."
Overall, the students had brilliant points to make to their future underclassmen. They advised them about things like homework and grades, but they also talked to them about participating in sports and clubs, about bullying and making friends, about respect and standing up for beliefs. I should get back to them, so that they can see my feedback tomorrow!
It is with hope and encouragement that we wrap up this year and prepare for the next one.
P.S. I took off last week to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday, but it mostly caused me to feel a bit lost and lazy, so I will do my best to keep up each Sunday over the summer :). Coming next week: a post about the phenomenal Infernal Devices series!
"I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think." ~Socrates
My favorite class days tend to be those during which the students engage in discussions. While I've tried a wide variety of Socratic discussions, I will focus today on how to start using them if you're trying them out for the first time or looking for new ways to approach discussion. Socratic discussions can feel terrifying for teachers because there are a wide range of uncontrollable variables. However, I would argue that end results are always worth the initial trepidation that both the teacher and the students might feel. These kinds of discussions lead to a rich form of learning as the students guide one another (and themselves) toward discovery of new ideas and beliefs. They are truly in charge of their own learning, and they often discover that they have their own thoughts and voice, and that others both respect and value their opinions.
When first beginning, it is best to give clear guidelines and structure. Students do better when they prepare for the discussion ahead of time and when the discussion is rooted in the close reading of a text that they have all read and understand.
They also need to know what is expected. I usually ask them to comment at least three times with meaningful contributions (with a cutoff on the max number of contributions as well--usually 6 times). When they are generating the questions, I require that they each ask at least two questions. I have seen teachers use different ways to help students gauge their discussion--I just have them keep a tally on their paper, but some students use beans or cards or other methods to help students count down the number of things they need to do.
We always sit in a circle for these discussions. When possible, we go to a different space (the library for example) so that it feels more formal and breaks up the routine of class. When we participate as a whole class (which seems to work best, at least until students get the hang of these kinds of discussions), I take notes on what everyone says. I let a student facilitate the discussion.
We have a Socratic discussion at least once per major work that we read. For example, for Romeo and Juliet this year, I used Dana Huff's idea of focusing the discussion around the question "Who is most responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?" When preparing for that unit, I only read through her information on teaching Romeo and Juliet, but on her site she has other great information about Socratic seminars and ways to use them in class. For other ideas on teaching Romeo and Juliet, refer to my previous post.
For Of Mice and Men, the students first participated in online discussions using schoology.com, and then we used those questions as a starting point for the verbal discussion. They moved from those questions (for which they had already prepared answers) to their own questions about the text.
In our most recent unit on Night, we actually had two Socratic discussions. The first was shortly after they watched the Class Divided documentary (see the previous post for comments on this activity). For that discussion, the students silently answered a series of questions addressing tolerance and discrimination. A few students who finished the reading for the day early wrote down the questions on big paper and we posted them around the room. Students wrote their responses and contemplated the issues before having the discussion. The second discussion focused on the memoir itself, and the students generated their own questions for that discussion. They began by discussing three questions I had asked them ahead of time, and from there they asked their own questions related to the text. For the second discussion, I broke each class into two smaller groups and had a scribe and facilitator for each group. This was remarkably successful in most classes.
If the students are going to create their own questions, they need models and guidelines. They will typically begin with plot-based questions that can be answered directly by the plot events. Once they begin to understand that the best questions will not have a single answer nor will they be something that can be right or wrong, they will start formulating questions that lead to better discussions. Through their creation of questions, they will make their own inferences about the text and will require their fellow students to make inferences as well. I always encourage them to create at least 5 questions of their own prior to the discussion since there are often duplicates, and if there is a significant lull during the conversation, I prompt them to pause and create one new question that they are willing to posit to the group.
Another vital part of these activities is self-reflection and self-evaluation. After each discussion, I ask students to thoughtfully reflect on their participation. I have them give themselves a score from 1 to 10 with a justification. (As an aside, I use self-evaluation frequently and find it to be helpful with many activities. I do guide them on how to score themselves, so in this case, I remind them that a 1 equates to a 10%, and that the only people who deserve a 1 would be those students who are passed out on their desks, drooling. One of the benefits of this kind of activity is that no one is completely disengaged--no one deserves that low of a score. I tell them that a 10 means that they were focused the entire time on what everyone said, and that they spoke neither too little nor too much. I know teachers are often reluctant to let students self-evaluate, but I find that their scores often reflect mine, and that if they are different, the students are often harsher on themselves.) In their reflection, I also ask them to comment on what they did well and what they could do to improve. I also ask them to write about what they learned from others throughout their discussion (what comments were most salient and/or impacted the way that they view the issue discussed or the world).
Students love these discussions, and they always leave them feeling energized and interested. They are a way for me to recharge as well, since students often say the exact things that we as educators long for them to think and say, and they come about those discoveries on their own. I also love the way they look out for each other and encourage each other to speak and participate (which becomes a more prominent feature of the discussions each time we have them). They are a wonderful way to have a cumulative assessment in addition to the written assessments we traditionally give, and they are a good way to let students demonstrate what they know about a text if the written assessment uses cold readings and application of skills.
What are you doing in your classrooms? Please leave comments here and share your ideas!
In this honest, uplifting novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, Karen Finneyfrock does a phenomenal job of depicting the struggles and agony that many students experience during high school. At the end of Celia's eighth grade year, her best friend's mother removes her friend from the school in favor of homeschooling. Almost immediately thereafter, her parents announce that they are separating. The situation continues to worsen as Celia deals with bullying, the separation, and the difficulty of standing up for herself. She discovers poetry and finds that writing poetry becomes her only consolation in an increasingly lonely life.
Then she meets Drake, another freshman who just moved from NYC to live with his grandmother in Hershey, PA. They become friends and Drake reveals his own secret, one he had been too terrified to tell anyone before. But even their friendship cannot protect them from the cruelty of others and Celia and Drake both become targets for bullying as their world spirals out of control. They must take drastic measures to try to regain control in their fragile lives.
This novel illuminates the way that feelings of alienation and estrangement can consume you during those early teen years. With poignancy, humor, and compassion, Karen Finneyfrock forces readers to consider the role that we (teachers, parents, mentors, other teens) all play in helping teens become who they are and helping them find their way in the world.
Translation for Teen Readers and the Classroom: This book is excellent for students who are struggling to find friends and who feel alone. It's also good for students who are experiencing the separation of their parents. Additionally, students struggling with their sexuality and with the prospect of "coming out" to their friends and family will benefit from the honesty in this novel. While some districts may disapprove of classroom teaching of this novel because of the controversial issues such as homosexuality and suicide, the novel enables students to take a hard look at the impact of bullying. Finneyfrock reveals the power that words have to harm and to heal, and she shines a light on the reasons behind some of the seemingly irrational behaviors of teenagers. She unveils her characters' deepest secrets with compassion and tenderness while simultaneously showing how frightening it can be to admit vulnerability.
Classroom Project Idea: Celia learns much about herself, the world, and her future during her ninth grade year. Drawing on this narrative focus, I am having my freshmen students write a final project that will be advice to the incoming ninth graders. In addition to the writing piece, I will let them make signs and posters. We'll post their tips and ideas around the room so that it's the first thing that the incoming freshmen will see. Perhaps the words of their more experienced classmates will help ease them into the realm of high school, making them feel a little more comfortable and a little less afraid.
“There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text. I am not convinced. I don’t know how I survived; I was weak, rather shy; I did nothing to save myself. A miracle? Certainly not. If heaven could or would perform a miracle for me, why not for others more deserving than myself? It was nothing more than chance. However, having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival. Was it to protect the meaning that I set to paper an experience in which nothing made any sense?” ~Elie Wiesel, Preface to the new translation of Night
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I’m running low on imagination… which reminds me of the inspiring speech by Julia Alvarez that I attended this week. I’ve been teaching Night at school, the Holocaust account written by Elie Wiesel. While these two events might seem unrelated, Julia Alvarez’s words helped to illuminate the task of making the Night unit meaningful and effective for my students.
Night has proven to be a challenging text for me because while I feel strongly about the issues of discrimination and the power of personal strength to rise up against oppression, I want studying the text to be more than exoticism of the Other and fascination with a story riddled with senseless cruelty and endless violence. The students love the text, but to a certain extent, they feel comfortable exploring the cruelty of the Nazi regime and the injustice of the Holocaust. They know it was wrong; they feel assured that they would have spoken out and taken action if they had been there. I want the reading of the text to go beyond them acknowledging the horrible atrocity (though there is certainly value in bearing witness to the suffering and deaths of so many millions). It is my hope that they will begin to realize the biases and intolerance in their own world and that they will take steps toward addressing those injustices.
As I'm struggling with this text, in steps serendipity in the form of a lovely and charismatic Dominican American woman. This week at Bridgewater College, Julia Alvarez spoke of the power of stories to change the world. It was a message I needed to hear. She spoke of the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic (a story she recounts in her historical fiction novel, In the Time of the Butterflies) and expressed the way that three sisters (and the story of their deaths as martyrs) brought about the destruction of Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship because of the power of their story. She also talked about the uplifting story that she tells in her most recent publication, the non-fiction book A Wedding in Haiti.
Alvarez stated, “Nothing human is alien to the storyteller.” As she explained what she meant by that statement, she illuminated the fact that the storyteller makes it possible for nothing human to be alien to the reader, either. She said that stories help us navigate through our lives and steer us toward remaining “humane”—that they enable the reader to become the Other. She commented that most problems in our world “come from a lack of imagination,” from people’s inability to imagine a perspective different from their own. I’ve been thinking about how to help students have a little more imagination when it comes to understanding others with compassion.
We watched the PBS frontline documentary called "A Class Divided" about a teacher, Jane Elliott, who wanted her students to experience discrimination firsthand, so she imposed a rule that “blue-eyed people are better than brown-eyed people.” She enforced the discriminatory system by making brown-eyed students wear collars and by continually proclaiming prejudicial statements that reinforced the paradigm. The third-grade students took to the new system instantly.
Two boys got into a fight on the playground, and the boy who did the punching explained that he hit his friend because the blue-eyed friend had called him “brown eyes.” This testimony showed how quickly harmless words can become vicious. We discussed the role of name-calling in discrimination and the damage that derogatory terms can cause.
The second day, the teacher flipped the system, explaining that she had lied to them and that brown-eyed people were superior to blue-eyed people. Again, the students instantly absorbed and reinforced the new paradigm. The students who were now on top were vicious and arrogant; those on the bottom were self-deprecating and despairing. The day ended with a debriefing, during which the students confessed how much the oppression had hurt them and how easy it had been to be merciless and cruel when they were the oppressors.
The documentary resonated with my students, many of whom wrote thoughtful reflections about the ways that they had treated others poorly because of personal prejudices or the way that they had experienced discrimination firsthand and the pain that it caused them. They made connections to Night and to our world today (especially in light of the media coverage of the Boston marathon bombing). However, when the time came for our Socratic discussion addressing tolerance and discrimination, many students, despite their preparations and all of the notes that they had taken to organize their ideas, were hesitant to speak. A few brave students spoke out, but they were often met with downcast eyes and long pauses before the student moderators found a way to transition to a new question. I hope that they were at least thinking deeply about these issues so that one day, when they witness injustice, they are able to speak.
What more can we do to help students discuss these vital issues of prejudice and discrimination? What are you doing in your classrooms to help your students learn tolerance and compassion? Please post your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.