[A quick side note to my frequent readers: I have taken a LONG break from the blog to finish my pregnancy term, prepare for the upcoming school year with my absence and new class preps, and have my precious baby, but I'm back now and plan to be consistent with posting each week or two. Thank you for your patience and for reading!]
Over the past few months (which, not coincidentally, paralleled my pregnancy), I had the pleasure of rereading the entire Harry Potter series. Every single book. Every single page. In truth, it was the first time I'd actually read at least one of the books--we listened to at least one of them on audio back in the early 2000s during a particularly hard year that required a lot of time on the road.
I'm not one to reread things in general. Of course, when teaching a text, I reread it to refresh my mind and develop a deeper understanding of it, but it's not a practice that carries over into my general attitude toward reading. I often see it as a waste of precious reading time--there are so many other things out there waiting to be read! I am, however, a big fan of watching reruns (much to my husband's dismay). I've seen every episode of both The Simpsons (up until about season 20; I'm behind on the new ones) and Futurama, and I could still watch each of them on a daily basis (and often do). It's extremely difficult for me to start a new series, and it often takes several episodes (and the rather persistent prodding of my patient husband, who has a far wider taste when it comes to shows) before I can get even remotely invested in any new show.
This experience of rereading Harry Potter led me to ponder why students so often reread books instead of trying something new. I had one student who clung (literally--I'm not being metaphorical here) to The Hunger Games to read it a fifth time as I did my best to patiently but firmly pry it out of her hands and replace it with something new, similar in genre and style, and far more exciting than rereading the same story (I think I chose Graceling by Kristin Cashore, a great book in an awesome, interconnected trilogy).
I examined my own desire to rewatch shows, and I considered why that habit is so much more appealing to me than trying something new. I don't watch much TV (in fact, we didn't have a TV until last year, though we would watch things on our laptop, and I've never had cable or any kind of live TV in my adult life). I'm not opposed to TV or watching shows; it's just not a priority to me. When I do watch shows, I seek them out as a way to unwind at the end of the day. I watch them for comfort and relaxation rather than as a way to grow, learn, or experience significant emotional responses. I'm introverted, so I feel pretty emotionally drained at the end of a work day. I have watched several shows that I find captivating, but that I wind up drifting away from because I do not ultimately enjoy the emotional strain they cause.
The above approach is not at all how I approach reading. I love trying new things, and I passionately seek out books that challenge my views or enable me to empathize with characters. I love suspense and action (This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers was a fun action zombie read that I plowed through shortly after my daughter was born), and I enjoy raw, moving books. For example, I LOVED The Fault in Our Stars (I plan to revisit that book for more concrete teaching plans, but here was my first reaction), but I couldn't bring myself to go to the movie. However, when I thought through that process, I began to realize why students so often cling to their beloved novels rather than venturing out to explore new ones. It's hard to take risks, and many times young readers see new books as a frightening risk.
But I digress... this brings me back to good old Harry Potter and his adventures. Pregnancy was the exception to what I just proclaimed about myself as a reader. The last thing I wanted to do was experience any kind of emotional strain, even one induced by reading. I read very little during that nine months (which saddened and embarrassed me--what will people think of an English teacher who doesn't read?!?--but there were lots of things I gave up, and I'm working on the acceptance and humility that the process of having children brings). When I did read, I found that I could not stomach anything that required too much stress or emotion. That meant that I was suddenly unable to read and enjoy most books.
And so I came back to my old friend, Harry Potter. And I'm so glad that I did.
He and Ron and Hermione helped me through many long, sleepless nights. I even bought the ebook version of the novels (which was complicated, but can be done at this site) so that I could read them in the darkened early morning hours.
Rereading them gave me the opportunity to rediscover the richness of the story. It was amazing to see the way some of the threads of the later books came up in the earliest novels, and the development of the characters was so much more intricate than I remembered. Because I have seen the movies, I remember those parts much better, so it was fun to see all of the events and details that the movies overlooked. I'd forgotten, for instance, how Harry and Ron first met Hermione, and how they kind of despised her for a while before becoming friends. I'd also forgotten how goofy looking Harry was, particularly in the early books. I loved the richness of some of the dialogue, and I marveled at Rowling's style and structure.
From a teaching perspective, there seem to be some easy ways to incorporate the Harry Potter series into the classroom, if one so desires:
There are many ways that you could incorporate a touch of Harry Potter and his friends into your classroom. That series holds up to reading it again and again, and it's a wonderful, fun series to share with our students, some of whom are now too young to know much about it. Have you ever taught it in your classroom or used excerpts to illustrate some concepts or skills? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments section!
[It feels so good to be back here, hearing the clicking of the keys that coincides with the flowing words in my brain. I look forward to writing more posts soon!]
Thanks to this fun BuzzFeed article for the image below:
This is the husband. I have been asked to contribute a guest post this week, and because I am a supporting husband I will do my best to help out and not to destroy all of the pedagogical credibility that my wife has sought to establish on this site.
Full disclosure: I am not an expert in YA lit, and beyond the Harry Potter series I have read very little of it. My wife is possibly scraping from the bottom of the barrel by resorting to my contributions, but she does always remind me that my sense of humor is exactly the same as that of her freshmen boys. And then she rolls her eyes.
I do teach, though, so I’ve got that going for me. We spent the early years of our marriage teaching high school together (I teach Spanish, she: English). A decade, two continents, three states, and five houses later (and graduate school for both of us somewhere in there) I am now teaching at a small liberal arts college and amassing an impressive array of cardigans and corduroy jackets with elbow patches. You can always judge the erudition of a person by their sweaters and elbow patches. At least that’s what I tell myself.
So, qualifications established, I shall commence my contribution to this blog.
I primarily teach Spanish classes in our World Languages & Cultures department, but one of my favorite courses to teach is our First Year Seminar course for entering students. My course is generically titled “An Intro to Critical Thinking through Chican@ Literature,” and we cover a variety of topics pertinent to the liberal arts all through the lens of Chican@ writings. My students are predominantly white, from the surrounding area, and very often first generation college students. For many, this is their first exposure to Chican@ history and readings, and I have been very pleased with our discussions and interactions in class this fall. I am impressed with how quickly the students have been able to move from relative ignorance on the issue to embracing it as another aspect of the American experience that is unique but not so different from their own lives.
Currently I am teaching Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), the groundbreaking Chican@ novel that has received significant critical and cultural acclaim in the 40+ years since its first publication. I would like to say that I have some incredibly creative lesson plans that I executed perfectly and I received a standing ovation from my students after each class. That is not the case. What has impressed me has been my students’ insights and discussions.
Since the First Year Seminar course is designed for first semester students at our institution, it is a course that lays much groundwork for the students as to what to expect from their college classes and what is expected of them. With these parameters in mind, I have made it a priority in my class to make students feel comfortable contributing to, participating in, and leading class discussions. I believe that if they can become comfortable with contributing to in-class conversations on a regular basis, then they will be able to get the most out of their college courses. We all know that these are not skills that are limited to a college classroom - they are desired for any level classroom, and are essentially desirable skills for community/civic participation and involvement.
To accomplish these goals of classroom interaction, I have modeled throughout the semester how to approach a text: What are some textual elements we are looking at?; What questions arise?; What questions are you left with?; How does this relate back to our lives? I got us started by leading discussion on the first few chapters and then I passed it over to small groups. They were responsible for creating the questions we would discuss in class and for guiding our approach to that chapter/section. Many times the groups have hit the same points that I would have. Quite often, I have been surprised by their insight into a point that I overlooked. Each time, I feel like the group has taken ownership of the discussion and genuinely wanted the rest of the class to understand the importance of their selected chapters.
This approach may well not work with younger high-school students. I am dealing with 18 year olds and they do have (some) more maturity than 13 year olds. But the moral of the story comes from the fact that I tend to be a control freak in the classroom. I like to micromanage every minute and make sure that I have plenty of activities to fill the class-time; however, I have learned that when I am able to release that desire to control and direct each component of class discussions, and when I hand that responsibility over to my students, I am often amazed by their responses and participation.
So, Bless Me, Ultima is a wonderful book to teach. There was a film adaptation made that just came out on DVD this fall and offers some great text-to-film comparisons. One of the greatest resources is the National Endowment for the Humanities' “The Big Read” pages. It comes complete with a teacher’s guide with sample lesson plans, discussion questions, and useful handouts. There is also a reader’s guide that offers history and context to the novel, and there is an audio guide and short documentary to accompany the novel. All wonderful resources.
Our class has approached the novel through the themes that it raises. Bless Me, Ultima lends itself well to discussions of myths, symbols, place, maturity, religion, critical thinking, and others. We spent a day talking about the place of myths in society and how they function for good and bad within our culture. Place is always a topic that my students can relate to, even though the hills of the Shenandoah Valley are quite different than the Llano of New Mexico. My students often feel very tied to their hometown and so can relate very well to the importance of setting and place in the novel.
Most importantly, I have found that Antonio’s coming-of-age narration is an excellent starting point for discussions on critical thinking and the process of learning. For these reasons, I think that it is an excellent book for students at a transition point in their lives, such as starting or finishing high school or college. Antonio must incorporate new knowledge into his understanding of the world, and this process is one that models critical reflection and intellectual growth.
So, when my wife discovers how I have tarnished the good name of her blog through my own lackluster writing, I may never be invited back to write a guest post again. I hope that the damage done is not irreparable. I promise, your regularly scheduled blogger will be back very soon! In the meantime, give Bless Me, Ultima a look.
Bonus: Below is the trailer for the 2013 film adaptation of Bless Me, Ultima.
The above image comes from the American Shakespeare Center's page on their current production of Romeo and Juliet. See their homepage here. If you are new to the Blackfriar in Staunton, VA, check out their informational page that describes what the Blackfriar replica is like and how they made the decisions they did as far as the way that the theatre looks and the way that the productions run.
On this past Thursday, 75 of the English 9 students took a trip down to Staunton, VA, to see the American Shakespeare Center's rendition of Romeo and Juliet. We finished the play in class last week, wrapping up with Act V, scene iii, with almost all of the students together, out of their seats, in the front of the room, participating in that giant scene in some way. I'd been hesitant to teach Romeo and Juliet so early in the year for many reasons, including the difficulty of the text and the potential shyness of new freshmen, who might be reluctant to stand in front of the class and read/act out the play, but because the Blackfriar was putting on Romeo and Juliet this fall as part of their twenty-fifth anniversary series, I took the plunge. It's been awesome and I've had no regrets.
During our unit, we've focused on inferences, characterization, summary, and paraphrasing difficult language. Paraphrasing is a skill that I discovered students needed when I was teaching the poetry components of AP Literature. I think for many of us who are strong readers, paraphrasing seems unnecessary. However, if you cannot break it down and put it into your own words in a way that makes sense to you, you cannot truly understand the text. Now, in the case of the entirety of Romeo and Juliet, we certainly did not need to paraphrase constantly, so the students worked on reading the language (they did many of the smaller scenes aloud in their groups) and talking through the scene until they could summarize the main events. We only paraphrased occasionally. I was still concerned that they didn't get it, but when I put Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 on their skills assessment, they did an awesome job with it. That skill will help them immensely when they get ready to write their poetry research projects. We also balanced our reading with watching scenes from the Franco Zeffirelli version of the play (1968) and the Baz Luhrmann version in 1996. I wrote more about those assignments here. We did film comparisons of several scenes, and the students wrote film comparison essays for the fight scene (Act III, scene 1) that turned out really well. In my evaluation of the essays, I focused on thesis statements, supporting details with commentary explaining what those details show, and MLA format and citations. Those specific skills will prove useful when we get ready to do research projects and other writing assignments. The students made brilliant observations about what they saw, and they had strong opinions about which version was more effective and more powerful. They rarely liked both interpretations--many found the Luhrmann's to be a betrayal of the original play and valued Zeffierelli's attention to the setting and costuming of Shakespeare's time period, whereas others thought that Luhrmann's interpretation was more dramatic and better suited to reaching today's audience.
As far as my personal opinion goes, I do remember seeing the Luhrmann version when it came out and feeling betrayed--I guess I was a purist. However, I now love both versions, and I love examining them side by side because they show the complexity of the text. Although I love both, I must confess that after all of this time of examining both of them, I find the Luhrmann twist on the final scene to be incredibly moving. I've seen that scene many times at this point, and I still get chills every time Juliet's hand grazes Romeo's face and he grabs her arm. Wow. I included that clip below for your viewing pleasure. (My teenage self was appalled by this alteration that sullied the original events in the text. Man, was I missing out.) Anyway, this continual discussion in class about interpretations led the way toward the students being great audience members and critical thinkers when we took our field trip to see it at the Blackfriar.
This discussion about whether to update/modernize the traditional aspects of older texts, particularly Shakespeare's plays, continues to be a hot discussion. The new rendition of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway resulted in this interesting NY Times article debating the merits of modernization. As far as the play we watched in Staunton, the Shakespeare troupe at the Blackfriar did a phenomenal job of blending the traditional with the contemporary. The modern elements seemed natural, not distracting, and much of the traditional elements remained intact. The street fights included switch blades and brass knuckles in addition to swords, and Tybalt fought with a clawed glove (which suited the "King o' Cats," as Mercutio calls him). On the way to the masquerade party at the Capulet mansion, the boys wore Avengers masks and acted like the superheroes. Juliet in her Converses with a formal dress and Romeo in his flannel shirt with a vest showed their youthfulness and their attempts to play adults while still being children.
The cast also did an awesome job of showing the complexity of the characters. The nurse was a cross-dressing male actor, who ranged from being a doting, mother-like figure to an intimidating bouncer. The actor playing Mercutio sucked in the audience during his "Queen Mab" monologue in Act I, encouraging us to laugh along with him and then be struck by his seriousness. Romeo was an impulsive, romantic boy who showed moments of complete devastation and weakness as he lay on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably at the prospect of exile. Lord Capulet showed his only daughter genuine affection and tenderness, and the fight between him and her at the end of Act III felt so much like a real fight had between parents and children who misunderstand each other.
The actors playing Romeo and Juliet showed the giddiness and silliness of first encounters, but they coupled that humor with the tenderness of new love. They also showed the transformation from innocence and playfulness to intimacy and seriousness as they progressed from the balcony scene in Act II to the first (and only) night they spend together in Act IV. They made their initial infatuation believable, and they swept the audience up in the headiness of their sudden, passionate love. We mourned with them and for them. We went from side-aching laughter when the nurse wouldn't tell Juliet the news from Romeo to teary eyes as the nurse mourned the loss of her beloved Juliet. When Romeo killed Paris, he used a crowbar that left Paris hung against the door to the vault--an act that showed the rashness and frantic rage filling Romeo at that moment.
That is the magic of a phenomenal theatre cast--they were able to move us from absolute hilarity to profound sadness and loss. The students were awed and amazed. Despite the length of the play, the students remained focused and seated, sucked into the magic of the events as they unfolded. Several of them talked about taking their families to see it. Lots of them talked about going back to see other plays. The students are also dying to see the new version of Romeo and Juliet that just came out in film, but sadly, it isn't showing in our area. We may have to wait until it comes out on video to watch it.
I can't wait to see how watching the play has enhanced their understanding of the text, and I look forward to hearing their insights in the Socratic discussion we have this week as our final activity for the unit.
“In my mind I am eloquent; I can climb intricate scaffolds of words to reach the highest cathedral ceilings and paint my thoughts. But when I open my mouth, everything collapses.”
From the first moment that I heard about the novel Warm Bodies, I was intrigued. To me, the premise is fascinating. Isaac Marion takes two major writing tropes (zombie apocalypse AND star-crossed lovers) and marries them, producing a riveting new kind of fiction. I love novels that are both gritty and tender--ones that delve into complex characters and explore all sides of them (and we all know that I love works focusing on apocalyptic scenarios). While I've read/watched lots of zombie tales, I had never read one prior to this novel that explored the psyche of the zombie, or that presented the zombie as emotional and complex. I love the way that Marion explores issues of identity, memory, alienation, loneliness, and grief. The best part? "R," the main character, has a wry sense of humor that is deadly. The first line of the novel demonstrates his wit: "I am dead, but it's not so bad. I've learned to live with it."
R often addresses the audience directly when he talks, which creates an interesting effect. Right away, R reflects on names as he talks to the reader: "I'm sorry I can't properly introduce myself, but I don't have a name anymore. Hardly any of us do. We lose them like car keys, forget them like anniversaries..." R goes on to reflect on the significance of names as part of identity and culture: "But it does make me sad that we've forgotten our names. Out of everything, this seems to me the most tragic. I miss my own and I mourn for everyone else's, because I'd like to love them, but I don't know who they are."
R's stunning eloquence as a narrator is juxtaposed with his utter inability to articulate his thoughts verbally. He struggles to say simple words and phrases. After trying to communicate with Julie, who is human, R states his frustration: "Julie looks at me like she's waiting for more, and I wonder if I've expressed anything at all with my halting, mumbled soliloquy. Are my words ever actually audible, or do they just echo in my head while people stare at me, waiting? I want to change my punctuation. I long for exclamation marks, but I'm drowning in ellipses.” What I love about Marion's prose is the captivating beauty with which he expresses the conundrum of communication. While R's struggles have to do with his undead state, he also articulates what so many people (perhaps teenagers most especially) experience when they try to share their thoughts with others. I want to change my punctuation. Ah, if that isn't beautiful, self-reflexive language, I don't know what is.
Despite my love of the novel, I was quite skeptical that my students would enjoy it. The text is much more difficult than many YA novels (in fact, it would probably not be classified as YA, though many people pushed it since the movie is definitely geared toward teens). The plot (despite the whole zombie thing) moves rather slowly. Additionally, the end, while functional, raises lots of questions. However, as with all novels I read and want to share, I put it to the test by placing it in the classroom library, and I found it to be a wild success. There was a waiting list for it, and I could never keep it on the shelf. Students who aren't crazy about reading seemed to handle it relatively well, and they enjoyed it.
If you're considering teaching a contemporary, post-apocalyptic novel, this one might be a good choice for a variety of reasons. First, the syntax and style of the novel beg closer study. Additionally, Marion provokes thought about complex issues of identity, alienation, and the determination to live despite horrifying circumstances. I would consider teaching Warm Bodies in advanced upper level classes (such as AP Lang or AP Lit) because of the syntactical structure as well as the complex questions that it raises about what makes life valuable. It would also be a great text to study along side of the film because the film version made some drastic changes (including sparing the life of a major character). You could explore the way that audience impacts storytelling and consider why Hollywood producers might soften the grittier parts of a novel for a teen movie audience. Additionally, Marion creates parallels between Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and his own novel (which I discussed here), and that paired reading would be fun to explore as well.
“Peel off these dusty wool blankets of apathy and antipathy and cynical desiccation. I want life in all its stupid sticky rawness.”
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.