Category Archives: teaching

the "added value" of literature: an amazing op-ed in response to the state ELA test

This was a crazy week.  I watched my students spend 9 class periods in silence over the course of 3 days while taking the state ELA test (and they have 9 more this week for math).  Then I listened to them talk non stop about “The Pineapple and the Hare” (that’s a link to the google search if you haven’t read about it yet), the most controversial reading passage we’ve seen yet on the state test.  My colleagues and I mulled over two of the six questions for our 45 minute weekly meeting, which happened to be later that day.  Our thoughts at the end were that literature and multiple choice just don’t go together.

The New York Times published this op-ed today by Clare Needell Hollander, a New York City middle school English teacher that encapsulates everything I’ve been thinking about this week, rooted in her experiences running literary book clubs with her students.  It brought my thoughts back to the book club meetings that took place in my classroom this week on Monday and Friday that had been clouded in my mind amidst the state test nonsense.  We finally got to talk about Night by Elie Wiesel, and the ways in which my students read this book were incredible, and trying to summarize the conversations I had would rob them of their beauty and depth.

All I know is that if you put solid books in the hands of teenagers, lives and brains and hearts can change and that you should read this article right now.

Maus and Night: think through WWII and literature with my 8th graders.

The next student book club in my year long line up is Holocaust Literature with graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman and the memoir Night by Elie Wiesel.  I’ve spent the last month or so reading and trying to figure out how to approach these topics with 8th grade students, wondering if I should have picked an “easier” period of history, (but is there one that isn’t filled with darkness?).  While I was rereading Night for the first time since 2004, I kept stopping and wondering if 13-14 year old students were emotionally ready to visualize and process the Holocaust.  I ended up writing a letter to parents making sure that they were ok with the human depravity depicted in the book as well as Wiesel’s spiritual struggles.  Every parent agreed and I still fall confidently in that literature is one of the best ways to study history, and where better to learn how to process humanity than in a book club?

We started today with a general overview of World War Two.  Just reading a page brought up some incredible discussions questions:

What happens when a country is focused solely on itself? When is isolationism or distance a healthy choice? Unhealthy? Do the same principles relate to an individual’s life?

How do leaders like Hitler and Mussolini gain power? What kinds of situations cause people to look to leaders like them?

Winston Churchill said before the war: “Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor.  They will have war.”  We asked questions like: What does this mean? What kind of dishonor is he talking about? Then my students started making connections with this and Terrible Things, the picture book by Eve Bunting that we read during our Social Action unit: that stopping wrong things only when they begin to affect you personally is ethically wrong and made the connection that Churchill believed that looking the other way was dishonorable.

I was so inspired by the energy emitted from my students today and I cannot believe that for a while I doubted whether they would be ready to face such ugliness.  Their insight was incredible and they have not yet even begun to read the books.

The article we read ended with a quote from Franklin Roosevelt, written for a speech that he never got to deliver: “Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships–the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.” Our conversation wandered to my classroom value, posted on the wall, that everyone has a story–and once we get to know that story, we can begin to relate to, empathize with, and care for and understand that person.  All I can say is that studying history well makes us better people.

Miss your old English class?  Read (or reread) Night and/or Maus.  I really believe it is one of the most important works of literature I have ever encountered.  Think through the questions we will be thinking about in our book club:

What is the value of difference? Of human life?

Do the hard truths of human history still impact us? On a corporate level? On an individual level? How? Do you let them impact you?

Why create literature and art in response to history? Why study history through literature and art?

How do we emotionally [and spiritually] process through our history as a people?

defining love in an 8th grade english class.

I think it is a very small contingent of people who go into secondary english education and want to teach in a middle school.  Most of us dream of opening the literary eyes of high school students–the kinds who are past the stage of their hormones being new, the kinds who are starting to think critically about the world around them and their future in it.  Before I ended up at my school, I think I applied to every high school in Manhattan, none of which were looking to hire me.  Through a friend of a friend, I rode the train to Brooklyn for the first time a week into the school year for my interview and figured teaching middle school was much better than day-temping and evening-barista-ing I’d been doing for months.  That was almost 8 years ago and every year I get reminded why 8th grade students are amazing–and this year’s reminder is, not surprisingly, rooted in the epic-reread-bookclub of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (uber-nerds see this).

Every student chooses one of five books to read with me at some point during the school year.  Last year we had so much fun in the book club that I decided it was definitely worth it to do again, even if there wasn’t a movie release to celebrate along with it.   That brings me to this week.  (I’ll be talking across some of the best plot and character moves in the series, if you haven’t read the series yet and you don’t want to ruin your life, I wouldn’t read anymore.  Then I’d go out and start reading. Anyway.)
{usually I wouldn’t pick a movie picture
for a post about a book, but I do love the
movies and I think Alan Rickman is
brilliant.  Am I right, Nora?} 
Severus Snape is barely present in person in the last book of the series, though he is all most readers are thinking about after the close of book six when he committed an act of violence that broke the heart of every reader: either Dumbledore was wrong about him all along (and at the time, the very idea of Dumbledore being wrong about anything was unthinkable) or his trust in Snape had roots in something we did not yet know as readers.  I spent a significant amount of time between finishing The Half Blood Prince in July 2005 and starting The Deathly Hallows in July 2007 repeating to myself: I trust Dumbledore.  I trust Dumbledore.  I think that reading the backstory at the end of The Deathly Hallows is one of my favorite excerpts that I’ve ever read: Snape sacrificed himself, his pride and his ideas for love.  
In our book club we starting talking about how the character of Snape redefines for the reader that love, as demonstrated in entire series, is not about what someone else can do for me or how someone else can make me feel, but self sacrifice.  I watched as these 13 year old minds began to turn this around in their minds and all of a sudden they begin to discuss the other places in the book where this is present.  The first one that came to mind was, obviously, Lily Potter sacrificing her life for Harry, which is something that gives strength and power to Harry throughout the entire series.  We discussed that our empathy for Narcissa Malfoy begins when we see her begin to doubt Voldemort out of love for her son and ultimately chooses to risk her life in betrayal at the end of the series.  And then there is sweet Dobby who sacrifices everything. 
Love means sacrifice.  Love means self-forgetfulness.  And there is nothing better than hearing this from 8th graders, believed by many to be the most self centered age group in America.  

Harry Potter is just too big for a blog.

I was mortified when I realized that I haven’t written on this blog since September 30th.

It’s definitely not that I haven’t been reading, but I think it’s because I’ve been reading so much for school: my students have all created their own reading blogs and since it’s so early in the process I feel compelled to read them all 93 every week, which has been happening over my Saturday morning tea rather than writing about my own reading experiences, per usual (which must change). I’ve also been preparing for the book clubs that are starting up in my classroom. This is the first time I have attempted to be in book clubs with students all year long.  A little crazy.  My brain has been consumed lately with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  While my reading focus has been on what my students’ book club experiences will be like, I also realized that there are depths to be mined in old Harry Potter.  I’ve been overwhelmed by all of my thoughts that I have no idea where to begin, and this has snowballed as I’ve been reading multiple essays in Harry Potter and Philosophy and Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays.

That being said, I’m currently looking to reinvent some healthier rhythms that don’t involve quite so much work *and* I promise I’m on a mission to draw some serious conclusions about Harry Potter (though, I can say that I’ll be rereading this series for the rest of my life, so I suppose I don’t have to discover them all now).  For now, here are some of the biggest Harry Potter threads going in my brain (please do not continue reading if you have not read the entire series, and on that note, if you haven’t read this series, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for):

  • The fact that since we are able to be inside Harry’s brain, Rowling brilliantly creates a narrative in which most readers begin to trust all of Harry’s thoughts and the conclusions he draws, especially about Snape, and especially in retrospect in light of the ending of book 7. 
  • “In book II, Dumbledore tells Harry that the essence of one’s character is defined by what one chooses to do rather than by any inherent ability…by Dumbledore’s standards, is [Snape] not an even greater hero than Harry?” (from Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts, Schanoes)
  • “Both Snape and Black complicate a black and white moral schema. Where Snape forces the reader to accept a bad person who chooses the side of good, Black forces us to acknowledge the potential for violence and ruthlessness that can exist in a good person.” (from Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts, Schanoes)
  • The character arc of Neville Longbottom, and the development of Harry, Ron and Hermione, obviously. 
Tomorrow the Harry Potter 7 Reread book club begins their “pre-club” thinking work…developing the narrative arcs of the first six books in order to provide a foundation for our approach to book 7. My guess is that my conclusions won’t be totally drawn until I’ve talked all this through with my brilliant students.  My hope is that I will be posting on the other aspects of my reading life before then, though. 

Look out.

My after school creative writing class this year was hands down one of my favorite parts of my teaching career.   These rock star middle school students each wrote a piece to be published in our anthology and I’m making the prediction here and now that this is only the beginning. I will be the one waving around short stories in the New Yorker and newly published novels claiming to everyone I know that once upon a time these fine writers were in my class.  These ones made my Thursdays, made my jaw drop with their creativity, made me laugh. I just adore them.  So, all I’m saying is that this anthology was one of my best reads of the year.