A quick pitch for the POETRY app by the Poetry Foundation: (1) It’s a phenomenal app, and a great way to get kids interested in poems if they have access to mobile devices or iPads. They can “spin” to find poems under various categories. I use it to let my students choose poems for their poetry research project and for other poetry analysis activities. When teaching AP Lit (and with any student who is looking for easy ways to read daily), I encourage them to use it daily to practice close reading and analysis. (2) It is in the running for a webby award. You can vote between now and April 26th, so there are only a few days left! If you like the app, please vote TODAY at the poetry foundation site: http://bit.ly/11rD63K.
For National Poetry Month, we’ve been starting class with a different entry activity (which I will call bell ringers). I learned it from someone who works with the Northwestern Virginia Writing project (whose name I will try to locate next week at school). She called it Borrow-a-Line and it goes like this: the students read a poem (I project it onto the screen) and then choose a line or phrase from the poem to begin their writing. They then write for three minutes straight. They should keep their writing utensil moving that whole time, even if they run out of things to say. They might write something amazing and then get stuck and write something random such as I have no idea what else to say. I’m hungry. I wonder what’s for lunch, etc.
In my class, I chose the first poem, but I’ve let students choose the poems for every day after the first one. They’ve chosen some amazing poems that I’d never seen before. Several of them have actually printed out the poem and brought it in to class; one student brought in a poem hand-written by his father.
Here are some of the poems they’ve selected:
“Defending My Insanity” by Nicolas Kokonas
“Fast Break” by Edward Hirsch
“The Law of the Jungle” by Rudyard Kipling
“Little or Nothing” by Ken Mikolowski
“I Looked Out at Life with Holocaust Eyes” by Alan Freshman
Some of them selected poems from the poets that they researched, but others chose poems that were completely new. For their research project, they use the poetry foundation app (and other resources) to find a poet that they like--each student chooses a different poet. Then they select and analyze two poems by the poet. Finally, they research that poet’s life and write a research essay exploring how knowledge of the biographical information illuminates the two poems they are analyzing.
During the bell ringer, the students and I all write for three minutes. Then they share their work with their group. Next week, they will turn in one piece that they like and that they’ve revised. I’m excited about seeing their products. At the end of this month, I will let them choose whether to continue with this bell ringer or go back to the ones we previously used. I’m curious to see what they decide.
In honor of National Poetry Month, here’s one I wrote during the three minutes, building off of Nicolas Kokonas’s poem:
I’ve had conversations with the rain--
It talks to me
Whispering the secrets of the world
In waves of water
Washing down the streets
And gutters and drains.
I’ve had conversations with the rain
As it echoes through the air
Often loud and angry—then
Quiet and hushed
And gentle on my face
Like the brush of a butterfly wing.
I’ve had conversations with the rain
And yet it will not answer me—not
What I most need to know.
It hides its secrets
Deep within its sky’s domain.
I’ve had conversations with the rain
And I’ve also heard
I’m waiting for it
To speak to me again.
So here’s to using poetry in class, and here’s to celebrating poetry! It’s beautiful, powerful, and useful, and there are so many ways that we can make it an authentic part of students’ learning. If you’re interested in trying the bell ringers, you can use Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day (and you can even listen to the audio!) to get started.
A quick synopsis for people who have not yet read The Road (2006): A father and son (who remain unnamed throughout) travel on a road that was once an American interstate, moving toward the south and the ocean in an attempt to find a warmer place and potentially other people like them. The father remembers all too well the world that once was; the young boy, who was born at the time of the apocalyptic event, cannot imagine what that world was like. The man often ponders the ghost of the world that once was: “Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was?”
I should begin by saying that I love Cormac McCarthy so passionately that this post will undoubtedly be more biased than usual. That said, until The Road came along, I never imagined that I would find myself using one of McCarthy’s texts in class.
What I love the most about The Road (as far as classroom use) is its accessibility, its honesty, and its hopefulness. While many students and readers of The Road would argue that it is fatalistic or hopeless, I maintain that while it is bleak (traveling alone to an unknown destination long after the almost complete annihilation of humanity is a bit grim), it is a story full of hope. As the father says to the boy, “You have to carry the fire…It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
To carry on as the man and the boy do in a world where nothing is left is both exquisitely human and excruciatingly beautiful. “Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
One of the great aspects of this novel for teachers is that it functions on many levels. It is relatively easy to read and moves quickly, but its profundity enables meaningful explorations and discussions.
Another aspect I love about teaching this novel is the research project I have had the students do with it. Focusing on the following question, they research and present their arguments to the class: What happened prior to the beginning of the novel, and what would drive humans to make the choices that they do in the text?
This project encompasses several goals at once. The research is authentic and driven by a clear purpose, but it caters to students’ beliefs about the world and their unique interests rather than focusing narrowly on literary analysis. It also forces them to grapple with the more gruesome aspects of humanity such as cannibalism. The groups must persuade their classmates that they have the most convincing argument. McCarthy provides hints of aftermath within the novel (which they must utilize and incorporate into their presentations), but he leaves the issue ultimately undisclosed.
To be fair, to the characters in the novel, it doesn’t make any difference at all what happened. No knowledge of the previous events would alter the devastating reality of their present world, and I doubt McCarthy cares much what readers believe about what happened. However, like any good open-ended question, it is worthy of pursuit, and it gives students a chance to demonstrate how creativity, thorough research, and the power of persuasion can all fit together to serve their purpose.
Have you had success with other activities for The Road or similar texts? Do you have other research project ideas? Please post them in the comments section! If you’d like the materials that go with the research project for The Road, please email me and I will send them directly to you.
“Listen to me, he said, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, and you’re happy again, then you’ll have given up. Do you understand? And you can’t give up, I won’t let you.”
While I intend to focus primarily on contemporary YA lit and how to use it in the classroom, it’s been “much upon my mind that I ought to tell…the whole truth,” (things I remember from my own high school experience: Dickens’ Great Expectations) and the truth is that in class, I’ve been teaching Romeo and Juliet. Couldn’t get more classic, less contemporary, could we?
Because of its canonical aspects and the language barrier, I approached the unit with trepidation. While I’ve taught many of Shakespeare’s plays, I have rarely taught freshmen and had not yet come across this particular task.
I have no use for beating difficult texts over students’ heads (metaphorically, of course—I feel obligated to highlight that I do not promote abuse). I certainly have done my share of suffering when teaching texts that students did not enjoy (A failed attempt at The Crucible comes to mind, as do the early parts of years when I taught American lit as a chronological survey course). While I love teaching Hamlet to seniors, I found the thought of Romeo and Juliet with freshmen intimidating. I believe in instilling the love of literature and of learning in the hearts and minds of kids, and I believe that some texts invite that possibility more than others.
So I did what I do when I am anxious—I researched (which, as a random aside, is a terrible plan when it comes to things like medical concerns, but which works quite well for conquering fears over teaching certain texts). I came across lots of mediocre ideas and some stellar ones as well. I used one of John Green's amazing Crash Course videos (see youtube link here) to get the students interested and give them some helpful background information. For other engaging activities during the unit, I relied especially heavily on Dana Huff’s posts (on www.huffenglish.com). I was most excited by her ideas about pairing scenes from the Zeffirelli version of the film (1968) with the Luhrmann version of the film (1996). Many of the students are visual learners, and all of them are better equipped to interpret and analyze film, so those activities have been amazingly successful. They made great notes, had good discussions, and wrote strong essays. The films bring out so much of the power within the writing and the story. I watched Luhrmann’s version of Act V scene iii five times. This is the testament to the power of interpretation: I felt a shiver of chills every time Romeo took the poison and felt Juliet’s hand. I’m not easily moved, but I cringed (as did every student watching) as Romeo discovered the horrifying truth.
The unit has been much more successful than I expected. They have become much better at paraphrasing, have made tremendous progress with reading, and have managed to push through the difficult language and into the complex issues that the story itself presents. With the recent epidemic of star-crossed lovers in awesome YA lit novels, the story feels remarkably relevant and even exciting. (If any teachers want to contact me for additional ideas or resources for Romeo and Juliet, please feel free to do so on the contact page or through twitter.)
And so I look toward next year’s Fate and Choice unit with excitement instead of dread. I keep thinking of all the things I can change and add. I used a small excerpt from John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (a phenomenal novel! A review of this will come at some point, I’m sure, but at this moment suffice it to say that I highly recommend it) this year to help students understand the term star-crossed, but I’m excited about the notion of introducing more pairings next year. I just read Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (which is exquisitely written and includes a delightful balance between the crude nature of zombies and the irrepressible force of love), and I’m fantasizing about fun pairings between balcony scenes and other aspects of the two texts. Whether it’s gnomes (I have full intentions of using some aspect of the movie Gnomeo and Juliet), zombies, or terminally-ill teens, the power of this trope resonates throughout our world.
As R. says in Warm Bodies: “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.”
If you're interested in stories where the apocalyptic event actually occurs, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is an excellent choice. In this intriguing story, Julia, the eleven-year-old narrator, experiences the slow decline of civilization as the Earth begins to slow its spin. From dying birds to mysterious sicknesses, the impact of the ever-increasing period between night and day continues to mystify and terrify Julia and her family. Meanwhile, she finds herself in her own tumultuous and often lonely adventure of early adolescence, a time made even sharper and more isolated by the changes occurring around her. She writes from a later perspective, looking back on those early events with bewilderment and nostalgia. She states the paradoxical nature of the peculiar occurrence: "We had rockets and satellites and nanotechnology. We had robot arms and robot hands , robots for roving the surface of Mars...We could make a dead man's heart pump blood through the body of a stranger. We were making great strides in the realms of love and sadness--we had drugs to spur desire, drugs for melting pain. We performed all sorts of miracles... And yet, the unknown still outweighed the known" (Walker 266). Julia struggles to find her way in an ever-changing world in which she is often painfully alone. The future remains frighteningly uncertain, and yet she finds that she is able to continuously move forward and face that future.
Translation for teen readers and the classroom:
This novel would address a variety of issues that could fit well in the classroom. It's a painfully conscious testimony to the struggles that children face as they become teenagers--struggles to fit in with others, to protect themselves from pain, to understand their parents and the adult world. It raises issues about loyalty, friendship, bullying, and alienation. Although it is an intriguing and creative work of fiction, it would not be an easy read for reluctant readers. On the other hand, it would appeal to students interested in apocalyptic events that, while intense, are not particularly violent or dramatic. It speaks particularly well to the experience of students on the fringe of social groups who struggle to blend into the larger social scene. It is a tender account of the human experience of adolescence and the desire to be remembered and to endure.
“Clearly the end is coming,” she said, pushing her bangs out of her face. They instantly fell back over her eyes, shading her beautiful face from the world. I contemplate what she means. “We all know it’s coming. It’s just a question of what it will be.”
I laugh, half because I think it’s what I’m supposed to do and half because I’m uncomfortable with the prospect that she might be serious. She shoves her bangs out of her face again and for an instant, I see the sparkle in her brown eyes, caked with dark eyeliner. In the moment that I can see her gaze, I find her studying me, as serious as the grave. She seems strangely excited and resolute. There is no trace of humor in her eyes.
“My vote is on zombies,” she says confidently. “You know, it could happen anytime.” She gestures wildly around the room as her bangs form a curtain again covering her face. As I follow the gesture of her arm, I suddenly see her fellow students, crazed and active in various states of frenetic energy, in a new and eerie light.
“It could be worse,” she says resolutely from behind the veil of her hair. I consider her statement. I guess she’s right.
She stares at me through strands of her black hair. There is conviction in her voice as she says, “I won’t go out without a fight.”
I nod. What else is there to say? There isn’t much more that any of us can hope for than to put up a valiant fight when the time comes. Zombies and all.
It was then, at that moment of prophetic importance for the single girl student professing what she knew to be true, that I realized that something fundamental had changed in the consciousness of my students. They live in a world that we, the adults, both fear and fail to understand. In their world, the reality of humanity’s frailty is omnipresent. Gone are the days of humanity’s bold and brazen position as the pinnacle of existence. Unbeknownst to those of us whose brains have ceased growing, the world as we know it no longer exists. Humanity is no longer the apex of a complex hierarchy. The teens of today know what we, the adult world, can only grasp at with frail, flimsy comprehension.
We are not the top of anything. And our end will come.
The children of the twenty-first century are the prophets, the realists, and the planners. They are aware at every moment, in every way, of the fact that our tenuous existence could cease at any moment. They ponder which end will consume them. They’re comforted by the simplicity of poems like “Fire and Ice.” They fear much more complex apocalyptic scenarios. They dread the lengthy progression of a slow, gradual extinction. They awaken each day understanding in a way that I, a cynic and pragmatist of the 1980s, can only begin to vaguely fathom.
They live in the era of the apocalypse. And we, their so-called educators, can only do our best to keep up with their evolutionary prospective.
It seems appropriate to proclaim here the purpose of this blog: I intend to explore how to teach trending literature to a population who grows in many ways but continues to stretch farther and farther from the literature we as a society hold so dear. They are amazing kids and they deserve our best. If my creativity can stretch half as far as theirs, I might be lucky enough to serve their needs from time to time.
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.