Review: Lightning Paths: 75 Poetry Writing Exercises by Kyle Vaughn (NCTE, 2018, 121 pp.)

Paul Wiegel, Ripon High School/Lumen Charter High School,
wiegelp @ ripon.k12.wi.us

Lightning Paths: 75 Poetry Exercises is Vaughn’s second book, and his first focused specifically on the teaching of poetry. Vaughn’s other book, A New Light in Kalighat,  is co-authored with Breana Reynolds and seeks to shed light on the plight of women and children in Kalighat, India. Vaughn’s other publications include a handful of essays on teaching, some of which were published in The English Journal. His poems have also appeared in numerous poetry journals.  Vaughn’s career as an educator spans twenty years and includes stints at both the secondary and post secondary level. He also holds some international qualifications, having participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar—Muslim Culture and the Arts (NEH and City Lore), and he has presented at the Penn Graduate School of Education and Asia Society’s 2015 Global Education Forum.

Vaughn’s book is a series of poetry lessons and examples that can be adapted to a variety of classrooms.These middle chapters are bookended by commentary from Vaughn on the purpose of poetry and some commentary on how teachers should approach some of the book’s thoughts. He categorizes his ideas into three discrete sections: Image, Idea, and Form. Throughout the book, his vision for poetry lessons is rooted in the idea that the instructor’s task is to provide an idea–that lightning path–and that the writer will see it through to the end. In this way, the book’s lessons are not entire prescriptions to complete a poem, they are more like starter ideas that will allow students or writers to make connections on their own.

In the book’s first section on image, Vaughn provides lessons that seek to push writers toward finding images that are the primary focus of the poem rather than treat them as enhanced lines that are part of the larger poem. Once an image is discovered, suggests Vaughn, the writer can play with language to make it larger than the original idea—“A poet presents an image or images but must arrange them, give them context and relationship to other images or to ideas, and must give them a space to exist in our inner lives, whether that be our emotional lives or our philosophical/spiritual lives. The image is the building block, but the image alone does not make the poem—otherwise, a mere list of objects would count as a poem” (5). Vaughn’s activities in this section take much inspiration from the five senses. However, rather than using sensory input as details to enhance the feel or flow of the poem, in this section, he pushes the activity toward using the senses themselves as the focus. For example, one activity is called “Imagery of Sound (I Heard Inside).” Here, the focus is on sounds that the author would imagine coming from inside of a chosen object, and the suggested focuses include “volume, pitch, timbre, direction, and duration; the social-emotional properties…” These are sound images that Vaughn suggests can represent something. The challenge here is for the author to then stretch the poem and decide on a list of sounds and then determine what the sounds represent. He provides the start of the idea and an example to round out the end goal, but leaves the rest to the author.

The second section is focused on idea. Based on Vaughn’s discussion and examples, this section outlines new directions and suggestions for picking a topic. Where the first section of the book places the focus on images and sensory details, this section has more of a practical “What should I write about?” feel to it. The appeal in this section is the randomness of the activities. Vaughn suggests cartoons, games, and trinkets as places to begin a poem, but he also tackles the ideas of personal loss and grief (admitting these are difficult ideas to write about). As with the other sections of the book, Vaughn’s activities provide a basic outline for an activity and leave room for the teacher and student to go in many directions. The overall message here seems to be that inspiration can be found in the mundane—all the writer needs is a little prompting and to trust their imagination. Vaughn writes, “Our imagination, language, the images we carry, the visions we dream all reside somewhere almost intangible until we perform the act necessary to make them presentable to an audience” (40). Some of the more accessible concepts deal with games. There are a number of suggestions based on memories or associations with card games and childhood games like hide and seek. Here the commonly repeated phrase of “write what you know” takes on a bit more focus as Vaughn provides a little more context for this time-honored piece of advice.

The final section focuses on form. Here, Vaughn has listed some of the familiar forms (odes, haiku, ghazal), but also discusses some different ideas about fitting a poem into a pattern. For example, he provides a fresh take on lists, found poems, and imitation. This section deviates a little from the “poem starter” feel of the previous two sections to provide more of a complete idea. The lessons and examples in this section give more of a script to take a poem from start to finish with only a few options for the author to smooth the lines and subject together. One such example is called “Line By Line.” This poem offers up eighteen lines of separate questions and ideas that end up framing an outline for a poem. Once this “raw material” is set down, the crafting of the poem becomes more of a lesson in editing to provide focus and flow. While the ideas in this section would fit in any creative writing class, the restrictions here may actually be helpful for less experienced poets. Vaughn works in enough room for the creative process, but also choses forms that would encourage novice poets simply because of the “rules” required to fill in each line.

In all, the variety of activities offered up in Lightning Paths will allow anyone who teaches poetry to find something to add to their arsenal of ideas. Some will likely ring true to any brand of pedagogy or taste in poetry. The provided student examples for each one also give a little more context to the vision of each activity. A classroom of aspiring poets would be encouraged by seeing the final result that can come from working through the process, and a teacher will find Vaughn’s take on poetry a delightful little journey through the possibilities and potential of the variety of things that can spark an idea.

Review: The Adventure of English (500 AD to 2,000): The Biography of a Language by Melvin Bragg (Spectre, 2003, 317 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education

This book represents a fantastically interesting way to look at the history of our language from the very beginnings to the most recent computer jargon. It covers the history, complete with myriad connections to the original Germanic dialects.

This book represents a fantastically interesting way to look at the history of our language from the very beginnings to the most recent computer jargon. It covers the history, complete with myriad connections to the original Germanic dialects.

Bragg approaches the entire history by using the idea that English is a living thing, not just a handy form of communication. He thinks of English as being a sort of adventurous survivor, taking on all manner of foes from the very start, when its first few days were already being threatened by those darn Danes setting up camp not too far away.

Bragg shows how there is something innately strong and heroic about a language that can keep going despite threats from within and from without. He reminds us that English has always been under siege and has always defeated its competition (though sometimes things looked rather glum). Bragg goes to great lengths to show us the strong capacity English has not only for survival but for conquering other languages threatening to wipe out our language entirely.

His personification of l’anglais as spoken by the masses is the key to his arguments: English is a being, not just a system for communication. Despite his romantic approach, he makes use of entirely sound scientific, historical and linguistic references to the great changes English underwent from its very beginnings. In contact with various Germanic and Scandinavian dialects and languages from the start, English has nonetheless won its struggle to remain the strong force for communicating in England and later nearby and even far away. His strong understanding of the linguistic mutations and blossoming are clear throughout.

The grammatical and pronunciation aspects of the story are correct and suitable for all serious students of the language, for historians interested in that island called “Albion” that would eventually be called “England,” and for writers and teachers connected to the tongue.

Bragg does something that has not been done before: He talks about English as a fit, mutating, tolerant being, able to both hold its own and steal, adapt, and rob other languages of their concepts. The nuances capable of a language having several terms for the same exact object or phenomenon are great indeed. Bragg argues that no other language has been able to accomplish what English has managed to do. The language has fought hard! The language still survives despite many scrapes, wars, decrees, invasions, battles, and revolutions!

I recommend this book to all writers, students of English, and persons with an interest in interdisciplinary connections among language, history, political science, and other related fields. It is not only a great example of looking at a topic a new way, it is also an example of excellent writing and successful use of research to prove a thesis.

Review: But How Do You Teach Writing? A Simple Guide for All Teachers by Barry Lane (Scholastic, 2008, 200 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education

This is an older book written by a very popular professional development expert with a great sense of humor and dynamite ideas for teaching writing. Lane has written a dozen other books both alone and with other experts on the teaching of writing. Although the book is not new, it does contain lots of goodies.

This is an older book written by a very popular professional development expert with a great sense of humor and dynamite ideas for teaching writing. Lane has written a dozen other books both alone and with other experts on the teaching of writing. Although the book is not new, it does contain lots of goodies.

I often grab professional development books from the boxes at thrift shops and dig through those volumes to see if there is something interesting. I think Lane’s work is very interesting because for one thing: he understands the writing process very well. I enjoyed his approach found in this particular book. I will not give away all the content here.

Lane also understands teachers, the demands placed upon them, the external obsession with forms of assessment that do not necessarily correlate with high-quality teaching methods and the daily grind of trying to help students write (and learn) better. Lane has experience in the classroom and has served as mentor, visiting writing consultant, and educator. He has great ideas and a great sense of humor.

His jokes and his wit combine to make a very entertaining read here. He has also an incredibly highly tuned sense of outrage about irony. Teachers who “know better” and who have “been through the mill” will enjoy how he attacks some of the most ironic nonsense involved in trying to teach students.

Lane also understands students, including young ones. While most of what he says is best for elementary school levels, there is also information suitable for high school, college, adult ed, and community writing programs. His candor and experience help him deal with the personalities of emerging writers and with students “groaning” about assignments.

I recommend the book for your library, whether you are a classroom teacher, a teacher who deals with writing instruction specifically, a teacher educator in writing and language arts, or just somebody interested in improving how you teach and/or write. There are lots of darn good ideas here, in a straightforward, accessible, and down-to-earth package.

Review: Reading with Presence: Crafting Mindful, Evidence-Based Reading Responses, by Marilyn Pryle (Heinemann, 2018. 166 pp.)

Paul Wiegel, English Teacher, Ripon High School/Lumen Charter High School, wiegelp @ ripon.k12.wi.us


Reading with Presence is Pryle’s seventh book aimed at making middle and high school students better readers, writers, and thinkers. Among her other books are 50 Writing Activities for Meeting Higher Standards (2017) and Writing Workshop in Middle School (2013). She is a National Board Certified teacher whose experience includes teaching middle school and high school in both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, as well as a stint in Nepal with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Reading with Presence is an expression of a portion of her personal mission statement: “I believe that becoming a better writer develops one’s own thinking, a benefit that improves every aspect of one’s life, a skill of attention and attunement to this world.” The book outlines a prescription for not only better writing and response to a text, but a method for students to see pathways between what they read and how they experience the world.

presence

Pryle’s book provides her perspective and methodology on a tried-and-true method of reading response: the journal. However, her version purposefully makes room for both student choice and expansion. In all situations, students are allowed to choose their category of Reading Response (RR)—upwards of fifteen categories—provided that they include each of her four criteria: you must label which type of category you choose, use an original thought, quote a sentence or phrase from the text that supports your thinking, and write at least five complete sentences.

The book is divided into two parts. The first section outlines the philosophy and framework for these written responses. Pryle details all the parts of the response and explains how she views this as reading with presence, which she describes as “reading with your whole self, your true self, your memories, your opinions, your willingness to learn and grow” (p. 8). Her ultimate goal is the same for all teachers as they guide students through any kind of reading: to interpret and connect to the text through writing. While it is interesting to see Pryle’s take, many teachers will simply find an affirmation of their own beliefs about teaching: we all want students to make connections, to reference the text to support their ideas, and to feel free to take risks in response. While her reasons are fairly standard, it is reassuring to see alignment with ideas about good journaling here. If nothing else, it will assure readers of her book that the specifics in the second half of the book will be meaningful.

Pryle also shows how she uses RRs as jumping off points for other activities, such as facilitating discussion, conferencing with students, and expanding them into larger written responses. While the class is provided with work time for other tasks, “I circulate and have a short, focused reading conference over each student’s RRs. This method gives me a chance to check that RRs are complete, as well as a chance to connect directly with each student” (p.39). Depending on each student’s need, she discusses academic vocabulary, their choice of response, or, in the case of students with comprehension difficulties, the basic plot or point of the author. Another example of extending the original RRs comes in the form of what Pryle calls “Polished Reading Responses.” Required every few weeks, they ask students to choose one RR, improve it, and turn it in. This extension seems to be a valuable part of of Pryle’s process and would be an improvement on the standard journal. Her explanation of what she does to make the process valuable beyond the initial writing of the RR is a valuable part of the book. These Polished Reading Responses are evidence that Pryle’s overall structure and follow through on her brand of the journal process.

The second part details the categories of RRs. She explains each one, including the subquestions to help students navigate them, and includes annotated student samples from her own classroom. Again, this part contains many categories for journals that all teachers who have used journals will recognize: Ask A Question, Detect a Conflict, Spot the Setting. An example of detailed guidance for a specific question can be illustrated through the category of Clarify the Climax: “You read a part that you realize is the biggest event (or most important moment) in the story. Explain why it is so important and what questions or problems get resolved because of it” (p.91). Another category example is Trace the Title in which students are asked to address these specifics: “You read a passage that seems to directly relate to the title of the entire text. What is it, and how does it relate? Does it mean something deeper? Does it touch upon a theme? Perhaps the title doesn’t seem to appear in the book at all—so what could it mean? Why did the author choose these words as the title?” (p.120).

In all, Pryle’s choices of RRs guide students toward all levels of interpretation. Veteran teachers will find a few new ideas here, or, if nothing else, an overall structure to organize journals into a cohesive grouping. Additionally, the ideas for how to use the RRs as springboards to other activities is an effective way to push students to dig a bit deeper, and any time they can use work they have already completed to take the next step is a good idea. Newer teachers will be introduced to an effective method of journaling. There are many ideas here and suggestions for expanding to even higher levels of thinking. Reading with Presence is an endorsement of writing as a response to reading and an effective method of organizing journals while providing for student choice.

Review: Lessons Learned from the Special Education Classroom: Opportunities for All Students to Listen, Learn and Lead, by Peg Grafwallner (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. 114 pp.)

Heidi Hamilton, Special Education Teacher, Arrowhead Union High School, hamilton @ arrowheadschools.org

Elizabeth Jorgensen, Language Arts Teacher, Arrowhead Union High School, jorgensene @ arrowheadschools.org


Lessons Learned from the Special Education Classroom is a quick and practical read. With 26 years of experience, Grafwallner draws on her teaching, coaching and learning to drive the text. Each chapter features examples, anecdotes, resources, and a conclusion on how to use section and book study questions. Professional learning communities or teachers in book clubs will find the end of each chapter particularly useful to guide discussions or apply strategies. These questions could also suit school, department or new teacher meetings.

lessons

Following a forward written by Dave Stuart, Jr., Grafwallner presents ten chapters: “Accept Every Student as They Are”; “Scaffolding a Lesson Is Just Good Teaching”; “Responding to Every Student”; “Students Want to Feel Loved”; “Empathy, Equality, and Equity”; “The Community of Family”; “Change Your Language, Change Your Mind-set”; “Share What You’ve Learned with Others”; “Ask Your Colleagues for Help”; and “Celebrate—It’s Good for the Soul.” The brevity of the book makes the read manageable, and Grafwallner’s simplicity allows readers to understand, process and implement the content.

Not just for special education teachers, the takeaways, tips and examples apply to a variety of content areas and ages. Lessons Learned focuses on good teaching for all students, including those with special needs as well as disengaged students and the gifted and talented. Although many of the examples focus on high and middle school students, they could be modified for any content area or age. Her philosophy focuses on explaining, modeling, practicing and applying. Similar to the modeling strategy “I do, we do, you do,” Grafwallner presents specific examples for her recommendations.

The focus on parents will be particularly useful for teachers who want practical, easy-to-apply strategies. In our school, teachers are encouraged to send postcards to families in order to commend achievements or recognize growth. A similar strategy is presented in Lessons Learned, but Grafwallner takes postcards a step further, recommending pre-printing and including students in the process, allowing them “the chance to showcase the important work they do and the crucial learning that goes in their classroom” (53). In addition, forms such as conference logs, teacher postcards, and annotations also facilitate student and parent engagement. Grafwallner often refers to familiar strategies and then presents a way to expand or better the practice.

Throughout several chapters, Grafwallner focuses on the power of language and how word choice can impact a teacher’s message to parents or students. She suggests teachers refrain from using “struggling or reluctant when referring to student learning” (p. 66). Instead, she recommends a growth mindset approach, referring to students as developing. Similarly, she suggests teachers replace grades with goals. These language choices apply not only to assessment, but any situation in which students begin to “navigate sophisticated and reflective learning experiences” (69). She also advises avoiding absolutes (always, never, forever) and instead giving “explicit examples, and partner[ing] with parents to create opportunities for growth” (51). Using generalizations or absolutes can put students and parents in a defensive stance (shutting off communication), so Grafwallner stresses positive language choices in building rapport, trust and communication.

Much of education is focused on relationships. Grafwallner writes, “Any less than our absolute presence in the classroom shortchanges [students] and the valuable work you do on their behalf … offering differentiated choices to all students illustrates empathy, equality and equity” (41). She encourages authentic learning opportunities and getting to know students. The challenge for teachers will remain large class sizes and increasing demands, responsibilities or mandates.

By the end of the book, educators will feel affirmed in their good work: being transparent with students, remaining optimistic and positive, starting with the why and goal of each lesson, personalizing and differentiating instruction, as well as collaborating with parents, principals and colleagues. They will also be inspired to try new techniques, strategies or language choices to make their classrooms even more inclusive, authentic and inspiring.

Review: Winning Grants Step by Step: The Complete Workbook for Planning, Developing, and Writing Successful Proposals, by Tori O’Neal-McElrath (4th ed., Jossey-Bass, 2013. 128 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education


I have used the book in previous editions and will be using this one now as it remains one of the most comprehensive, hands-on, affordable, and clear books available on this topic. Its 11 thorough and accessible sections cover all of the most important and basic information about grant searching, planning, and drafting for corporate and foundation grants, from stating one’s mission, overall goals, and priorities all the way to putting paragraphs together to submit a full proposal – for both operating support and project (or program) proposals.

grants

The author clearly has an awesome knowledge of corporate and foundation grant opportunities and organizations. O’Neal-McElrath presents the information very clearly and uses good definitions (and includes alternate terms in several cases). Each edition has been clear, and this one includes a companion website with the worksheets and the sites to visit for information, for grant searching, and for other important aspects of the grant seeking game. The website also includes sample budget forms in Excel that students or grant writers can access to begin working on more complicated budgets early on. This is a benefit to those professionals who have bought the book to use right away on a major and complicated budget and on a big grant narrative to include in the proposal.

All of the above having been said, it is important to add that the book is about corporate and foundation grants, covering the vocabulary, traditions, rules, and procedures for applying to those two kinds of organizations for funding. The book does not cover government grants and makes only brief references to them, such as the statement on page 3 that government grants are really only for very narrow project topics. Although this is not necessarily true, it is a tradition for people to believe this. One of the myths of fundraising believed by those who do not work with government grants is that these funding opportunities are somehow magical or esoteric programs. There is a paragraph like this, perpetuating some of the misunderstandings of how both narrow and general government grants work.

Further evidence of this mindset about government grants is the use of the term “onerous grant proposals” and the idea that there is a huge amount of required “stewardship once this kind of funding is secured.” The professional who is teaching or leading learning groups and classes can explain more about government grants and redirect confused students on these points to help shake up these myths.

A second problem with the book is the coverage of grant budgets, and especially the way the grant budgets are presented. The examples of the budget grids are much too complicated, at least for basic grants and smaller grants, the type most students and new grant writers will be pursuing. The notions of cost-sharing, indirect costs, and other budget complications muddy the waters and also overwhelm the students. There are so very, very many basic grant budgets being used by first-time grant applicants that it would make more sense to use them instead of those provided in the book.

Later in the grant seeking schedule, larger and more complicated budget grids would seem to make sense. However, using such detailed and confusing ones at the beginning adds to the notion that “grant writing is too technical” for the average person to do. This is really not the case, and professionals in fields such as education and social work do just fine in the workshops and classes I teach. So do the undergraduate and graduate students I teach in various kinds of courses and in various fields and majors.

A third problem with the book comes up in “Step 3: Writing a Compelling Problem Statement.” Here, there is a small, and common, error: the author uses the term “qualitative data” to refer to data that is the result of qualitative research methods (p. 31). This is incorrect. It is a common shortcut to refer to data that is the result of qualitative research methods in this way, but qualitative data is technically “categorical data,” such as Asian-American, left-handed, 44 years old, or suburban voter. Steering students away from using the term this way while reminding them that some people do this are honorable activities for the presenter.

In contrast, there is a whole page on qualitative and quantitative research methods that is concise and correct (p. 59). The error explained above is not repeated there.

I have great things to say about the book as a comprehensive start for students and new grant writers faced with learning the vocabulary, traditions, components, and processes involved in finding grant opportunities, gathering thorough documentation and evidence, organizing the information, and responding to those opportunities.

I will use the text again soon, and I will include my own materials about government grants to cover that area also. There still is no book that covers all three areas clearly and comprehensively: corporate, foundation, and government grants.

Review: An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski (Howard Books, 2011. 252 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education


Spiritually, I understand the author and her motives and feelings. I really loved this story, and as they say, I could not put the book down once I had started reading. This is a heartwarming story, full of hope, and full of discovery in many ways. I cannot wait to share this book with friends and family and colleagues.

Technically, the title of the book is brief, and we are given this longer explanation on the cover: “The true story of an 11-year-old panhandler, a busy sales executive, and an unlikely meeting with destiny.” Schroff is the executive who, one day on her way to work, stops to help a young man fighting for his life. He asks for spare change, but what he gets is a new friend, a chance at life, and encouragement he has never known.

invisible

An Invisible Thread is a wonderful story (and a true one at that!) of Schroff helping to save young Maurice from the streets, and of saving herself in the process. There are many excellent themes here, from self-discovery to embracing differences, and from stepping outside ourselves to learn more about “how the other half lives” to doing what one knows is right despite naysayers.

Kids living on the street are there for a variety of reasons … and each story is a little different. What do highly-successful, driven, hard-working individuals do when faced with somebody who comes from a completely different world? Readers will enjoy what Schroff learns about a world drastically different from the one in which she lives: corporate America. And very different from the “safe” one in which she grew up, namely suburban Long Island.

Everyone should read this book to come to a better understanding of life on the streets, of poverty, of despair, of differences in neighborhoods and family patterns, and of how some people love to keep up the appearances. Teachers, social workers, and some professionals in similar fields already deal with a lot of the challenges presented and explained in the story, especially those threatening the well-being, health, and education of the young.

The story takes place within 19 chapters, including flashbacks to the author’s childhood, and continues to impact those involved. The story will wrap you in and make you think about your own childhood. That’s what the story did to the Schroff. She had to think about her own life each day as she came to an understanding of Maurice’s life.

The book includes a reading group guide, an interview with Schroff, and three activities for book clubs to complete. This would indeed be a fantastic choice for use in a book club. I hope to use it in such a setting or in a class soon.

Review: Backbiters by Debra Leea Glasheen (Montag Press, 2017. 320 pp.)

Karen Ambrosh, Audubon High School, Milwaukee, kambrosh @ gmail.com


In Debra Leea Glasheen’s debut novel, Backbiters, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, Giluli, maneuvers between her own culture of mahogany-eyed mutants and the culture of her pre-evolved high school classmates (pre-evolved means you and me and all humans in our current stage of evolution).

In line with its dystopian genre, the story takes place fifty four years after a Corporate World War of 2020. Giluli wavers between angst and courage as she faces the prejudice that caused her people, the Red Mighties, to create their own Nationland in a territory in which squirrels and deer are extinct, clover and dandelion are nutritional staples, and even the water of the Great Lakes is putrid.

When a pre-evolutionite leader attempts to extort the Nationland’s water by threatening their future and past adoptions of mutant children, Giluli is selected to help the Red Mighty leader, Padrin Kongkassa. Meanwhile Giluli fantasizes about her own pre-evolutionite biofamily and tussles with her brooding childhood friend, Harsh, who can’t seem to compete with the charming Tariq, a pre-evolutionite boy from Giluli’s track team. Giluli is eventually betrayed by those around her and must choose sides.

backbiters

Major themes of the novel are ethnic understanding, intelligent loyalty, coping with anger, protecting the environment, and anti-bullying. I am using it in my 10th-grade English classroom with great success. The students love the familiarity of the Wisconsin setting, and the exotic qualities of a warped environment caused by a nuclear war.

Backbiters is a rich story with layers of thought-provoking concepts, all presented in a readable style and believable futuristic world. The story touches on many social issues with sensitivity and humanity. It has traditional teen experiences—crushes, identity issues, competition, conflict, and hope – all wrapped in a culturally diverse landscape. The theme of intelligent loyalty provides for rich conversations with students, giving them decision-making scenarios in which they can put themselves in the protagonist’s place and visualize what they would do in her shoes.

Glasheen deserves praise and recognition for creating such a strong female character for teens. Giluli has all of the normal insecurities of a teenager with questions about life and love, but when presented with a challenging task and high risk decisions, she stands by herself and finds her own way. Giluli’s inner dialogue is powerfully and memorably written. My students were able to imagine many possible scenarios and challenges for Giluli to face as she grows and develops in future books. Let’s hope there are more on the way soon!

Teaching materials for Glasheen’s novel are available at debraleeaglasheen.com; Glasheen is also available to speak to classrooms in person or via Skype.

Review: Teacher Man: A Memoir by Frank McCourt (Scribner, 2005. 272 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for
K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education


I loved the other great books by Frank McCourt, but I had never read this one. I was lucky to come across a copy in one of my favorite Chicago thrift shops—where I find lots of goodies! Angela’s Ashes is one of my favorite books, and other writing by McCourt calls to me also. I hope I can find the time to read the rest of his work.

In Teacher Man, McCourt is able to make the tragic something we can endure and the crazy something we can laugh at. He can also take the impossible, the terrible, and the disgusting and turn it into the stuff of lessons—literally and symbolically. He teaches through his story-telling.

teacherman

Teachers will all see through a lot of his yarns and predicaments … discovering underneath a lot of the foolishness of everyday life the author’s ability to teach. Through his writing, through this book, and of course through the classroom activities and memories he shares, he is always a teacher.

Remember that he was a teacher of English, and of literature, and most importantly, of writing. It is his unorthodox approaches to the teaching of writing that any teacher will marvel at in this book. Certainly good teachers of writing will see themselves in his actions and words used for many years in the classroom.

He tells some very heartfelt stories, and tells us about the crazy characters he teaches in many classes during his career. He also tells us about the crazy bosses, and the excellent ones, he has to deal with over the years. We have all had those bosses who “just do not get it” and others whose shoes we would gladly shine for them. His encounters with colorful personalities in the classroom and hallway are just as fun as the ones with helpful or deranged or intrusive parents in the different – and disparate – types of schools in which he teaches.

He taught in public high schools in New York City and a year in the college system there. His ancestors, family, and neighbors of old in Ireland, and his current comrades in America, show the influences all the others people have in an individual’s life. He has met many interesting people in his life, had relationships, and struggled to figure out the meaning of life (he even worked on the docks). He gives us great insight to all kinds of immigrant experiences, including his own. 

He includes some of the funniest passages I have ever seen in a book. His style and his ability to manipulate the reader—through the use of sardonic and twisting adventures—are enthralling aspects of his writing. Teachers will love how he talks about all the typical personalities in a high school class and the way he lets each of them shine in their own way.

The story is, of course, a wonderful one if people are into teaching. Although others will like the book—especially if they have grown up with tales of Ireland in their kitchen—but teachers will by far be the ones who enjoy this book. What are you waiting for?

Review: Grammar to Get Things Done: A Practical Guide for Teachers Anchored in Real-World Usage by Darren Crovitz and Michelle D Devereaux (Routledge, 2017. 232 pp.)

Adam Sprague, Assistant Professor and Student Success Coordinator,
Bellin College, adam.sprague @ bellincollege.edu


Kennesaw State University colleagues Darren Crovitz, author of Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing, and Michelle D. Devereaux, author of Teaching about Dialect Variations and Language in Secondary English Classrooms: Power, Prestige, and Prejudice, have collaborated to offer readers a new lens to view grammar instruction. Their new book, Grammar to Get Things Done: A Practical Guide for Teachers Anchored in Real-World Usage, aims primarily to convince secondary English teachers to move away from traditional grammar instruction and embrace a pedagogy grounded in how we, as humans, use language in real-world situations on a daily basis.

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At first glance, this text may appear to be white noise lost in the shuffle alongside dozens of other books advocating for teachers to drop their worksheets and red pens in the trash bin and adopt a more modernized approach to grammar instruction. While Crovitz and Devereaux do spend a good deal of time and effort making it clear that they stand firmly with those who have argued for teachers to move away from decontextualized grammar instruction, this text differs from many of its predecessors in that the authors offer a specific alternative approach: teaching grammar within the applied contexts of everyday language use.

This approach is not without a well-argued rationale. The first half of the book defines key terms related to grammar and grammar instruction before exploring the differences between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Although these definitions and discussions will fail to contribute a wealth of new knowledge to the seasoned linguist or grammarian, the authors do provide a sufficient summary and explanation of the varying viewpoints for those new to the topic or just planning their first grammar-intensive course.

The authors also supply a sociocultural analysis of grammar, that is, front row seats to a debate focused on discussing just whose language standard English is and how our valuing and devaluing of certain dialects impacts those around us. In good humor, the authors label prescriptivists as “back-to-basics language scolds and ‘grammar nazis’” (p. 8). However, they do avoid showing bias as they state that such an approach to grammar instruction does provide “practical and professional benefit to students” (p. 8). Still, the critiques of prescriptive approaches come often. For example, the authors strongly critique teachers who ask their students to do traditional, repetitive grammar drills. One method the authors find particularly problematic is when teachers “ask students to memorize [a grammar rule], identify [a grammar rule] in ten unrelated sentences, and then rewrite another set of sentences using [the studied grammar rule] correctly” (p. 10). The problem is that while “teachers need a firm grasp of grammar and usage to help their students become better writers and language users” (p. 10), they question how this knowledge will help students see how grammar matters in their lives.

Also, the authors detail how viewing standard English as the only correct means of speech provides power to some while silencing and demeaning those who fall into a demographic that does not regularly use standard English. Here we see one of the authors’ main claims come to light: by valuing only standard English, we are negatively impacting our students (and many in society) emotionally and academically by “othering” them as incorrect. This section of the text is powerfully written and may be particularly useful for readers without strong backgrounds in linguistics and rhetoric and composition or for those unfamiliar with the connections between language and power presented by Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Readers will enjoy how the authors continually pepper the section with ideas for teachers to bring discussions related to language-as-power into their own classrooms, a welcome change from other texts that, at times, rely too heavily upon theory rather than practice.

While the initial three chapters address the many rule-based grammars in use around us, the sociocultural aspects of these grammars, and the importance of understanding concepts related to language expectations among different contexts in order to teach grammar well, the strength of the text comes in Chapter 4. Here, the authors take on four specific grammatical concepts (sentence types, clauses, phrases, lexical categories, and punctuation) and provide 25 modules outlining how the concept works in our language, how speakers use the concept in the real world, and how to teach the concept via student-focused activities. Even though readers may be tempted to skip ahead to the sample units and modules, as they are excellently described and outlined in easy-to-understand language, the authors explicitly state that they do not mean for this section of the book to be used in isolation as a “straight-off-the-shelf workbook” (p. 11).

Still, Chapter 4 has to be considered the text’s largest achievement for its reliance on the practical. Readers leery of the theory-heavy onset of the book can rest assured that the primary emphasis of the text is classroom application. The sample integrated units and modules will undoubtedly help English teachers of all levels gain confidence in positioning their own grammar instruction in real-world experiences. In other words, Crovitz and Devereaux have created a text with various entry points for teachers and scholars of all levels. Some may find the brief history of grammar useful for their own teaching or research, while others may find the sample units most useful in helping them integrate this new style of teaching grammar into the units they already teach.

In short, this is a wonderful book on grammar instruction. It not only discusses the rationale behind their pedagogy, but it also provides examples of how to teach grammar in context. Readers will be happy to see that it is neither theory heavy nor an explicit “here is a curriculum” type book. Rather, the text will leave readers with skeletal base lessons, units, and a pedagogical rationale to use and modify.

Fear and Loathing in the English Classroom would likely make for a dreadfully boring movie, filmed in a classroom filled with fearful students, sentence diagramming worksheets, and subject-verb agreement drills. In some cases, the teachers may also loathe the unit–unsure of how to make the content both interesting and relevant to their students’ lives. Even the authors admit that “grammar is often viewed as a dry and boring subject by teachers and students alike” (p. xv-xvi). There are no easy solutions to this problem, but moving away from teaching grammar in isolation may be one way to overcome this fear and loathing. In this text, Crovitz and Deveraux have articulately made the case that teachers should consider requiring students to analyze their own communication in class but do warn readers that “there are no magic wands with grammar instruction, no quick and easy solutions” (p. 11).

Still, it is interesting that in most English courses, teachers regularly encourage their students to discuss the politics of power and language and analyze their own voices as student writers. This text left me wondering why it is, then, that we largely avoid these topics when teaching grammar. Perhaps we need to stop avoiding these conversations in the grammar classroom, but one concern the authors do seem to overlook is the issue of how overwhelming and time consuming the process of approaching each student’s unique voice can be (not to mention the unique communicative events they regularly encounter, potential intended audiences they are exposed to, etc.) in large, writing-intensive courses. These concerns become even more paramount when working with multilingual, remedial, or basic writers. For as positive as this review has been, readers may struggle with transferring these strategies into their already time-crunched curriculums, as the authors point out that you will need to spend much time “[working] through these concepts yourself until you feel confident connecting language choices to specific situations and intentions” (p. 11). For the overworked and underpaid adjunct professor, for example, such a task may simply not fit into one’s calendar. In some ways, the book may leave readers feeling as though the ideas presented are a bit too idealistic despite their practical presentation. What readers will not deny, however, is the fact that the arguments presented in this text do lead us to question our own methods of grammar instruction.