Poetry Unveiled

Dan Hansen and Becky Hansen, The Poetry Professors, poetryprofs@gmail.com

Ask students why so many of them hate poetry, and you will get some typical answers of “It’s stupid” or “It’s boring.” But dig a little deeper and you will find that students are really feeling frustration. They have come to understand poetry as a guessing game: even when they’re right about the message of a poem, they don’t really know why. We’ve found this to be equally true of English instructors who have decided that poetry isn’t relevant. Some have given up the practice entirely because they were never given the proper tools. This is why we launched The Poetry Professors in September of 2017 to help teachers provide students with the ability to authentically connect and read poetry, or as we like to say, “Less Guessing, More Accessing.”


Why Poetry?
While poetry may seem absent from the Common Core due to its focus on nonfiction, poetry is still essential. For instance, standard RL10 says that students need to be able to read literature of complexity, including poetry, appropriate for their grade level. Now, imagine a scenario in which students are asked to read a novel such as 1984 their senior year, when all they’ve read previously is a few primers in elementary school and a mid-level Chris Crutcher novel without studying characterization, symbolism, and theme development. What chance do those students have of uncovering the nuances of dystopian literature present in Orwell’s masterpiece? This is the state of poetry for many high school students, and the Common Core tells us it must be otherwise.

The Common Core also emphasizes a multitude of approaches to and high repetitions of each skill. The length of the typical poem allows significantly more repetition of several language and word choice standards. Additionally, no other type of literature heightens skill development like poetry. Words are at a premium, and a poem often turns on the interpretation of a single word.

 

Unveiled
Now that we’ve talked about the what and the why, let’s get into the details of the how. Without a doubt, make sure you aren’t forcing your students into one “right” answer. If they can back up their thoughts with evidence, let them hold onto it for that layer. Students already approach poetry with trepidation, and the more you tell them they are wrong “because the book says so,” the more quickly they will go back to hating it. We’re giving you the tools to woo them out of that attitude, but it will take time.

We wouldn’t be real English teachers if our methodology didn’t contain an acronym which walks students through five steps–“UnVEIL”: Understanding, Voice, Events, Interpret Techniques, and Look/Listen/Lesson.


Un: Understand
. The first step is understanding the words used and then understanding how the words are used in the poem. Poetry is not the time to do vocabulary. Most students are going to approach this process tentatively, so don’t make them memorize new words. Instead, give them access to resources that will make them confident in the denotation of each word. Only then will they feel free to explore the connotations. For instance, let’s look at this verse from “Judith” By D. H. Skogen:

not with expectant eyes

not need for validation

but by this divine clarity

the stricken always show

The underlined words could all cause students to trip up. In this case, they might conclude on that the clarity itself is holy. But it is supposed to be understanding at the same level as God in His omnipotence. The words each student readily understands will vary widely, especially those in ELL programs. Make the process of looking up new words a standard so students aren’t intimidated to ask.


V: Voice
. The second layer is to learn about the voice of the poem. In this step of the process, students use character inquiry tools to explore the speaker of the poem to determine perspective, tone, location, and other literary devices and techniques. The human inclination is to read something in our own voice because ours is the only head we live in. In a novel, short story, or epic poem, you have lots of time to get to know the narrator. Most of the time in poetry you don’t. You get ten or twenty lines, and students will naturally believe the voice to be either themselves or the author, which is why we frequently start poetry units with something very engaging and non-threatening, like Shel Silverstein’s “If I Had a Brontosaurus”:

If I had a brontosaurus

I would name him Morris or Horace;

But if suddenly one day he had a lot of little brontosauri

I would change his name to Laurie.

After reading this poem, we ask what the voice of the poem is and generally get … crickets, so, we start asking a set of guiding questions. The first conversation goes something like this:

Instructor: Is the voice young or old?

Student: I don’t know.

Instructor: Are they 47?

Student: No.

Instructor: Why?

Student: Because they think they could own a dinosaur.

Instructor: At what age are humans obsessed with owning dinosaurs?

Student: Like 4 or 5 or 6. Oh, like my cousin Tanner who has an entire collection and can tell you all their features.

Instructor: What else are kids in the 4-6 range just starting to understand that we see in this poem?

Student: *Crickets*

Instructor: Why would they change the dino’s name?

Student: *Lightbulb*

Instructor: Right. They are just starting to understand the difference between mommy dinosaurs and daddy dinosaurs. How does this little voice feel about that?

Student: They think it’s funny.

Instructor: Yes. This has the tone of two little kids giggling in the bathroom about how boys and girls are different.

Now, instead of this poem being “dumb” as viewed from a teen perspective, students can see these thoughts as the precious, adorable insights of a young child. And just that easily we’ve gotten into some questions that will continue to guide us through the voice layer, which is always the starting point:

Who are you?

Where are you?

When are you?

What do you look like?

How do you feel about what’s happening?

Instructors and students will rarely be able to answer all of these questions, and sometimes you’ll want to dive into one of them more deeply. The value is not in being able to answer every single question; the value is in exploring all of them and digging out that which you and your students can dig out.

Let’s explore these questions in the Emily Dickinson classic “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died”:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –

The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air –

Between the Heaves of Storm –

 

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –

And Breaths were gathering firm

For that last Onset – when the King

Be witnessed – in the Room –

 

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away

What portion of me be

Assignable – and then it was

There interposed a Fly –

 

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –

Between the light – and me –

And then the Windows failed – and then

I could not see to see –


So, let’s ask this voice our questions:

  1. Who are you? An older woman, someone who has taken time to get all of her affairs in order: “Signed away / What portion of me be / Assignable.”
  2. Where are you? On her deathbed with her family gathered around. They’ve already done all their mourning because “The Eyes around – had wrung them dry.” She’s been dying for a while.
  3. When are you? Some of the words here indicate this is taking place in an older America. It’s also daytime because there is light outside the window.
  4. What do you look like? An older lady; we don’t have anything more.
  5. How do you feel about what’s happening? She has clearly prepared for death and has gathered everyone around to witness her last big moment. This is now being interrupted by a fly. She is annoyed by its lack of manners.

We use some fun techniques, including a game we call “Lines and Voices,” where you can print a variety of poetic lines and a variety of voices so students can experiment with how using a different voice changes the meaning of the poem. Sometimes we have students fill out a dating profile or a police report for a voice.

Working through the Voice layer, you can get students first to a place where they understand the who and the where of what is happening in this poem. Having those tools in place immediately makes it easier to start exploring the layer that they want to jump to: What is happening in this poem?

 

E: Events. After digging into voice, we start exploring what is happening, and, again, face the dreaded crickets:

Instructor: What is happening in this poem?

Student: Nothing.

Instructor: Nothing?

Student: No, it’s just a guy sitting around thinking.

Instructor: Exactly.

If we tell our students we will “think about” allowing them to use their notes on their exam, they expect we will engage in deep, existential contemplation over this question, right? Close reading techniques allow them to find and piece together those events into a picture or a story. We classify events as a voice performing actions, having thoughts, or expressing emotions, or as physical events, intellectual events, and emotional events.

There is a lot of internal dialogue in poetry. Voices frequently ponder, think, consider, and reflect. We sometimes get caught up in the fact that we believe analyzing is the opposite of poetic. Not true. Voices are always evaluating their choices and analyzing their decisions. When did I see signs you weren’t mine? Why did I let you go?

We find it helpful to access events by finding the first event and then asking “newspaper style” questions:

  1. What is happening?
  2. To whom is it happening?
  3. Where is it happening? (Which can be different from “Where is the voice?”)
  4. When is it happening?
  5. Why is it happening?
  6. How is it happening?

Again, you will not be able to answer every question about every event in every poem. That’s not the point. The point is to explore them all and see what you find. Let’s take a look at this section from Maxwell Bodenheim’s poem “Thoughts While Walking”:

A steel hush freezes the trees.

It is my mind stretched to stiff lace,

And draped on high wide thoughts.

First event

  1. What is happening? Freezing
  2. To whom is it happening? Trees
  3. How is it happening? By a steel hush

Next event

  1. What is happening? Mind stretched
  2. To whom is it happening? The voice
  3. How is it happening? To lace – stretched so thin it now has holes in it

Next event

  1. What is happening? Mind draped
  2. To whom is it happening? The voice
  3. Where is it happening? On high, wide thoughts


Sometimes you will ask a question for which the poem has no answer. This is actually good; the more frequently you ask students those questions, the more they trust that this really is a process and will explore and play with language. In the event examples above, we intentionally left out “When is it happening” because there is no answer for that, and in the first two examples we can answer “how,” but not in the third. These inquiries also help detect figurative language when we get to our next step. In this poem, the event is the mind being stretched like lace and draped on deep thoughts, and it would be really gruesome if that were a literal, physical event. It is an intellectual event during which the voice is struggling to wrap his or her mind around some concepts that are lofty. What does all that mean? We don’t know yet. We haven’t gotten to that part. This is a great time to let your students start spinning some ideas, but they will want to jump right to the final layer: “The poem means_________.” It is not time to land on an interpretation yet. We’ve only just begun.


I: Interpret Techniques
. Note the title of this section is not “Interpret the poem.” Students will want to interpret the poem, but they don’t have all the information they need to make an informed declaration. Poetry isn’t just about what is happening to whom, but also how those events are shaped through literary devices and techniques, such as parallelism, rhyme, metaphor, and personification, that do more than sculpt pretty language. Merely finding them does little to enhance student understanding. Studying author’s craft in poetry allows students to move beyond being able to label a technique and into understanding the reasons techniques are used. Then, students can see how these elements contribute to the poem as a whole.

This is probably the least understood and most important layer. Techniques are like Easter eggs in movies, like how we had to go back and re-watch that entire season of Dr. Who to find the “Bad Wolf” in every episode. When you find the cool thing, you get excited. They are things that don’t always affect the plot at the moment, but they enhance the overall meaning. Continuing our television metaphor, the words of the poem are the plot and the script while the rhyme scheme, rhythm, and assonance are the lighting, costumes, and set dressing. Just as a camera angle directs audience attention to a certain actor, so techniques highlight where the poet wants the reader to pay attention. These are all the things in between the words that make the poetry.

When it comes to poetic technique, educators have talked about it with students since elementary school, so they will be familiar concepts. However, things get a little more challenging when we dive into helping students understand why a particular technique is used. The classroom conversation usually goes like this:

Instructor: Find the metaphor.

Student: There?

Instructor: Good job. Five points.

The question that rarely gets answered for the student is: Why did I find the metaphor? That question can be expanded to include: Why do I care about how long the stanzas are? Why do I care about alliteration? Why do I care about one piece of punctuation?

We’ve divided techniques into three different categories:

Figurative Language: What do we read?

Sound Devices: What do we hear?

Grammatical Devices: What do we see?

To make it easier for students to access, we post a chart with some of the big ones and then add to it as a class throughout the year as we study poetry. For example:

 

Figurative Language

Simile/Metaphor – compare things positively to intensify or help us relate to the unfamiliar

Personification – give human traits to something to help us empathize

 

 

Sound Devices

Rhyme scheme – words that rhyme help us anticipate and speed up the poem. Near or off rhymes do the opposite

Parallelism – long lists or similar structure can draw attention and intensify the importance of an image

Grammatical Devices

Capitalizations – noting where words are capitalized where they shouldn’t be or aren’t where they should be makes us question why

Word Order – when a poem starts sounding like Yoda because of an unusual word order. Unusual word order changes the rhythm of a line or emphasizes a word that isn’t usually highlighted.


Then, as we work through a poem, we ask students to answer three questions:

  1. What is the technique?
  2. What does that technique do in language on a regular basis?
  3. What is that trait doing in this poem specifically?

Let’s look at an example from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

  1. What is the technique? Simile – a simile compares the traits of two things positively using like or as. There are two similes in this stanza: “Bent double, like old beggars” and “coughing like hags.”
  2. What does that technique do in language on a regular basis? A simile helps us relate to something more familiar or intensify something we might relate to so closely that it’s no longer powerful.
  3. What is that trait doing in this poem specifically? “Bent double, like old beggars” When I think of bending over I generally go straight to looking for socks under the couch. Yes, I feel like I have a hard time straightening up sometimes, but this isn’t a hardship in my world. Students are even younger and can stand right up again after being bent double. But even those spry young people will get a feel for the weight of being bent like “old beggars,” and then it intensifies with “under sacks.” Sacks implies weighty things full of flour or wheat, and the heft of those sacks can be understood. Then we have “coughing like hags.” This isn’t a Delores Umbridge little throat-clear. This is the hacking of someone with a long-term lung disease, and most of your students will be able to think of someone in their lives who has a smoker’s cough and can come close to hearing this cough in their minds.


Let’s look at a grammatical device example from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” because these can be a little trickier:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


In this case we are going to talk about that pesky colon in the final stanza:

  1. What is the technique? That pesky colon in the final stanza.
  2. What does that technique do in language on a regular basis? “A colon instead of a semicolon may be used between independent clauses when the second sentence explains, illustrates, paraphrases, or expands on the first sentence” (“Colons”).
  3. What is that trait doing in this poem specifically? If its purpose is to “expand on the first sentence,” we can say that everything after the colon expands on the two lines preceding it. In other words, even though the rest of the poem indicates that the two paths he encountered that day were really the same, he’s going to tell this story in his old age and embellish it, as our grandparents are inclined to do, and say that he took the one less traveled by (even though neither really was less traveled) and it made all the difference in his life (even though it didn’t really).

That little colon will crush all the dreams of your American Lit students who were so excited to finally say the message of this poem is to “be yourself” when, in actuality, the message of this poem might be closer to: “old people embellish the truth.”

 

L: Look/Listen/Lesson. Ah, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. And the moment you will find your students wanting to jump to. They want to read a poem once and say, “This is the message.” It’s our job to help them use these layers to come to a supportable determination of what the final takeaway of any given poem is.

Contrary to popular student belief, not every poem means “be yourself,” “follow your dreams,” or “don’t let others tell you what to do.” In fact, sometimes a poem doesn’t teach a lesson at all. Sometimes the poet simply wants to freeze a moment in time and study it. “If I Had a Brontosaurus” communicated no great mysteries of life message. Silverstein is the master of freezing these moments of childhood and embracing their playfulness in a way that even adult readers can enjoy.

Sometimes a poet wants to embrace a singular sound and examine it more closely. Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky” does not have a deep meaning, but it does demonstrate how we can take language that we don’t understand and yet fully understand the events. Sometimes a poem like “Night Mail” by W.H. Auden works to embody the sounds of its subject:

This is the night mail crossing the Border,

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

 

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

The shop at the corner, the girl next door.

These first two stanzas feel like a train chugging along the track. When the train reaches the top of the hill and begins its descent, however:

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,

Letters of joy from girl and boy,

Receipted bills and invitations

To inspect new stock or to visit relations,

The fact that these lines are closer together and start playing with internal rhyme (see how we used the information from a previous layer to justify our answer?) speeds up how we read this poem, which leads us to feel the train going faster and faster down the hill. The author wants us to hear the train while he discusses its cargo.

Once students are open to the fact that sometimes an author’s message isn’t a message, they can feel more confident using all the evidence they collected to come to a conclusion about the poem’s “Look” at a moment, its “Listen” of a sound technique, or its “Lesson.” The UnVEIL approach provides the scaffolding for this literary analysis through the V, E, and I layers so all of their evidence is there in the work they’ve already done.

Let’s walk through an abbreviated version of the whole process with this poem from Neil Hilborn’s “Fabric Swatches, Paint Samples”:

I will, in all my hereditary optimism,

try to be honest my dear, not just

about where I am and particularly

with whom, but also where I am in the vast,

melodramatic plane that is my feelings

and where I have placed you

and how exactly to cross

the Stupid Desert to find me.

There is quicksand in the Stupid

Desert that I call my exes—they don’t

hate you but, my darling, they also

do not know you, which is not to say

I don’t speak of you, because I do,

I do, to my therapist

who I fired, to the women

at bars and at work and

at Roller Derby bouts who confuse

me for an exit sign, darling,

I use you, yes, to feel secure or loved,

or like a tire wrapped in chains,

so let us say at least that I do not

use you abnormally. All of this

is to say that, should you move here

to live with me and the mental

disorders, I will not lie to you. The sea

is so wide and our boat is so small.

Voice – We have a younger, awkward adult with some mental disorders he’s trying to manage. At the same time, he is trying to love. Our evidence: We know this is a younger adult because he hasn’t settled down yet. He hangs out at bars and roller derby bouts where he goes largely unnoticed. We know he struggles with some mental disorders because he talks about his therapist. We also know he’s awkward because he uses images like “a tire wrapped in chains” and “The Stupid Desert” which are not your typical, warm and fuzzy images in love poetry. If we were to ask how this voice feels about what’s happening, we would easily get to: he is eager for success, but so afraid it won’t work out.


Events
– using our newspaper question technique, we start at the top of the poem:

  1. What is happening? The voice will be honest
  2. To whom is it happening? My dear
  3. How is it happening? In optimism
  4. About what? Where I am, who I’m with, feelings, where I put you, how to cross the Stupid Desert

The fact that the last question is such a long list is something we note with students. You can hear the awkwardness as he rambles on. Awkward nerds who have mental disorders tend to be pretty afraid that the people who love them will eventually stop loving them. Deciding the right time to share which piece of oneself is terrifying and we get this from our poor voice. He’s warning “you” (a woman he loves) about how hard it will be for them to come together and be together, but he wants to try.

  1. What is happening? Voice – speaks of “you”
  2. To whom is it happening? fired therapist, women
  3. Where is it happening? at bars, at work, at Roller Derby
  4. When is it happening? Presumably all the time, because those locations pretty much sum up everywhere our voice is going to go

Perhaps when you looked at that poem, you arranged the events a little differently. That’s fine. Your students might do the same. The key isn’t to be perfect, the key is to build a scaffold where you can figure out what is happening here.


Interpret techniques
– “Stupid Desert” and wrapped like a “tire in chains” are both unusual images when it comes to love poetry. We’re already deep into wondering what these images mean when the voice says the way he loves is not “abnormally.” The fact that he has to say, “This is not abnormal” indicates it is entirely “abnormal” while at the same time asking “what is normal?” when it comes to love. These images are all designed to make the reader feel a little off-kilter, like the voice himself is.


Look/Listen/Lesson
– the message of this poem is encompassed in the last line: Love is a wide sea and their boat is so small. It is a difficult navigation, but he wants so desperately to try to make the journey with the woman he loves. Since the message is clarified in the last line, students may not have trouble guessing it. But push further by asking them, “How do you know?” and you’ll find they’re still guessing and struggling. The notes from the V, E, and I layers above give them the material they need to answer the deeper questions and feel confident in doing so.

 

Make the Teaching of Poetry Great Again
As we look back on why poetry fell out of our good graces so many years ago, it wasn’t because we lost our love for the art form, but because, as readers, we lost our ability to access it and just started guessing as to why we thought a poem meant what it did. We, as a culture of educators, stopped teaching it through a lens of author’s craft and how poets wove words into dense snippets of creative brilliance; it became a unit to “just get through.” That frustration has now trickled down from instructor to student for years.

All is not lost. Poetry is not irrelevant. We just need a new system to restore student confidence in the process. We encourage you to join us in lifting the VEIL on poetry so students can marvel at the beauty in words again.

 


References
Auden, W. H. Night mail. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from PoemHunter website: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/night-mail-2/page-1/

Bodenheim, M. Thoughts while walking. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from Bartleby website: http://www.bartleby.com/300/590.html

Colons. In GrammarBook.com. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/colons.asp

Dickinson, E. I heard a Fly buzz – when I died. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from Poetry Foundation website: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45703/i-heard-a-fly-buzz-when-i-died-591

Frost, R. The road not taken. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from Poetry Foundation website: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44272/the-road-not-taken

Hilborn, N. (2015). Fabric swatches, paint samples. In Our numbered days (p. 12). Minneapolis: Button Poetry.

Owen, W. Dulce et decorum est. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from Poetry Foundation website: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46560/dulce-et-decorum-est

Silverstein, S. If I had a brontosaurus. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from All Poetry website: https://allpoetry.com/If-I-Had-A-Brontosaurus

Skogen, D. H. (2004). Judith. In D. H. Skogen (Author), Langsyne (pp. 200-201). Madison: Layered.

Student-Led Literature Circles in an Interdisciplinary High School Classroom

Erin Jensen, Rock University High School, erinjensen @ janesville.k12.wi.us

 

We all know that it can be difficult to inspire students to read. More than ever, they need a particular set of questions answered before they face the task: Why should I? How does this help me? How does this apply to me? Is it worth it? These questions are difficult to answer:

Student: “Why should I read this?”

Teacher: “It’s a wonderful book, and it checks the boxes of state and national English standards!”
Student: “How does this help me?”

Teacher: “You’re reading! The mind is a muscle that needs to be exercised, so your mind will function better if you read. PLEASE READ!”
Student “How does this apply to me?”

Teacher: “Well, the character’s a kid, you were once a kid, and he’s going through this life-changing moment. But I want you to find a connection to the story, find what it means to you.”

 

Student: “Is it worth it?”

Teacher: “Of course it is, but I want you to determine that worth.”

 

Students do read. However, their daily reading often consists of skimming social media, picking and choosing what posts and articles to dive into. [Fun fact: If you were born starting around 1982, then social media platforms were most likely a significant part of your adolescence, starting with electronic bulletin board systems migrating to the Internet by way of Compuserve and AOL in the mid-1990s (Fuchs, 2014)]. Despite all this reading, high school students who regularly spend time on social media also earn lower reading scores than those who do not (Posso, 2016). According to Wisconsin Literacy, Inc. (2018), 1.5 million adults in the state qualify for literacy services. For students enrolled in public schools, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (2017) focuses on ACT Reading Scores when assessing literacy levels, currently averaging at 19.2, which is below the 20.1 national level. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (2018), a true study focusing on literacy in Wisconsin was last conducted more than a decade ago, in 2003. The “below average” numbers and minimal research into literacy mean that educators cannot simply be passive about the number of students who shun assigned readings.

So, how do we inspire them to read more than just social media posts? There has yet to be a map showing us the right path to take, but I have found that allowing students more choice when it comes to assigned reading is a step in the right direction.

Student choice is not new. Allowing them to determine how to present evidence of their learning has been encouraged over the last few years (Patall, Cooper, & Wynn, 2010). However, the push for this individualized approach has not been felt in the area of reading, for assessing ability and comprehension allows for little creativity. Reading, although a complex cognitive process, has become an involuntary activity of recognizing symbols and determining their meaning and, in school, repeating that rote exercise via a series of questions (Gallagher, 2009). As students learn to read, there is an excitement of acquiring a new skill, but as they continue to read, it becomes a task or chore. To get that excitement back, we need to give them more say in what they read and how they show us that they did.

Rock University High School (RUHS) caters to students who want a smaller environment to harness their postsecondary futures through interdisciplinary, subject-integrated classrooms in school and practical applicability outside of school. Also, as a charter school housed in a technical college, reading literature, though happens to be a point of contention: “I’m going to be a nuclear technician, so why do I have to read Catch-22.” Therefore, within my interdisciplinary Social Studies and English courses, I’m honest and say that literature doesn’t seem to fit neatly on their career paths, but the themes within the book and skills used to understand the book do fit. My first semester teaching this course taught me quite a bit about student engagement and success in the units tied to novels: both engagement and success decrease. Before the second semester, I decided that I would do some research to find more books that fit the literature and English standards, since we read three to four novels plus supplemental materials through the year. After locating these titles, I would have students vote on which most interested them. In some cases, I used their responses to schedule books for the semester or to pick literature circle groups (Daniels, 2002). Surprise! Although this “majority rule” method still made some students feel less than elated with the final selection, the second semester went much more smoothly than the first.

The most successful reading unit involved literature circles focusing on both fiction and non-fiction texts contextualizing World War II. Although it is important to find an array of books that meet district, state, and national standards, this is where I still have some control. I selected five books: Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, Zusak’s The Book Thief, Spiegelman’s Maus, Heller’s Catch-22, and Knowles’ A Separate Peace. Of course, funding for that many sets can get expensive; however, because literature circles should not include more than six students, I needed fewer copies (Daniels, 2002).

First, I asked the students to rank the books on a scale of 1 (most likely to read) to five (least likely to read) based solely on description because many may otherwise opt for only one specific book or because a particular book may be too simple or difficult for some without their realizing it. Knowing second and third choices allows me to please everyone as best as I can.

After the students rated the books, I grouped them into literature circles (essentially, the survey groups them, I simply share the results). If we have an overwhelming number in one particular group, I ask students if they would mind reading their second or third choice.

Next, I made a timeline establishing deadlines for readings and journal assignments based on their role: connector, artist, discussion director, literary luminary, and researcher. Each student in the group is to play each role once in order to branch out and try new ways of connecting to the novel.

I usually keep reading journals prompts open ended. I want them to write their reactions, their questions, their predictions, and their connections, and I try to remind them to record page numbers in each entry in order to help with literary analysis later. At the bottom of the journal entry, there are interpretive big questions for them to think about as they read, focusing on major events, characters, and authorial choice. They can refer to these questions in their journals, but they’re not required to answer them independently. Instead, the questions are to be completed when they meet with their groups (see Appendix B for the timeline and prompts specific to The Book Thief).

When the literature circles come together, they are to discuss their role, share their journal entries, and try to answer some of the big questions. Since my class is an interdisciplinary, dual credit course, the readings go along with a historical theme. This unit focuses on Total War, which covers the many conflicts involving the United States, specifically those historically know as wars: Revolutionary, Civil, World Wars, Vietnam, and the current War on Terror. This course does not have a text book, so students use a multitude of different online resources. Primary sources were mostly retrieved from the Presidential Libraries and the Library of Congress databases. Secondary and tertiary sources come from BadgerLink Explora, Britannica online, and media resources such as the BBC, CNN, and the New York Times. From defining what conflict and war are, to reading perspectives from both the anti- and pro-war movements, students get a better understanding of why conflicts and wars happen and their significance in United States history. Sequencing should allow one to two class periods or fifty minutes a week on literature circles, while the rest of the week should focus on target objectives.

Toward the end of the novels, I introduce the final project, which includes both a literary analysis based on the big questions and a creative element to be completed independently (see Appendix B). This individual work places all accountability on each student and reinforces the objective that each student must make connections and interpretations autonomously.

This unit had one of my highest success rates with over 90% of the class completing their literature circle work, journals, and both portions of the project, so I applied this strategy to other lessons as well. Allowing students to choose the books also invalidated the excuse “I didn’t want to read that book anyway.” Yes, students could potentially change this excuse into “I realized that I did not really like the book”; nevertheless, there was a bit more accountability on the students’ part. Choice empowered many to read and do the work.

Again, literature circles are not new, but at RUHS, where we are trying to help students forge a career path, we need to find ways to show them how reading fits in. Literature circles focus on active reading and on the skills and the collaboration needed to understand what is being read. They strengthen their written communication skills and they get to express themselves creatively. I believe literature circles are effective ways to empower students to read.

Students can read, and students want to read, but it is crucial that we find ways to inspire them. Choice answers their prerequisite questions. Choice engages. Choice holds students accountable, and choice gets them reading.
 

References
ACT data and results. (2017). Retrieved April 24, 2018, from https://dpi.wi.gov/assessment/ACT/data/act

Daniels, H. (2002). Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs and reading groups. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Fuchs, C. (2014). Social media: A critical introduction. London: Sage.

Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Literacy statistics. (2018). Retrieved April 24, 2018, from http://wisconsinliteracy.org/find_literacy_program/statistics.html

Posso, A. (2016). Internet usage and educational outcomes among 15-year-old Australian students. International Journal of Communication, 10, 3851-3876. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database. (Accession No. 127361840)

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Wynn, S. R. (2010). The effectiveness and relative importance of choice in the classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 896-915. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019545

What is NAAL? (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2018, from National Assessment of Adult Literacy website: https://nces.ed.gov/naal/

 

Appendix A. The Book Thief Timeline and Journal Prompts
As you read, you will be responsible for thoughtfully keeping a journal and answering discussion questions.

May 11 Introduction
DUE DATE Part/Chapter Pages Journals
May 12 Prologue, Part One & Part Two 1-122 2 Entries
May 17 Part Three & Four 123-170 2 Entries
May 18 Part Five 239-303 1 Entry
May 19 Part Six 305-350 1 Entry
May 24 Part Seven & Eight 351-455 2 Entries
May 25 Part Nine, Ten, & Epilogue 457-550 3 Entries
May26 (no school)
May 31st Final Group Project Completion


Big Questions (by the end of the book you will be able to answer these questions thoughtfully):

  1. What was the author’s purpose for choosing Death as a narrator? Is this a trustworthy narrator? How does Death see what a human narrator might not?
  2. Knowing that Liesel is called a “thief,” how does the book complicate our ideas of justice and judgment? Which characters do you view as just or unjust or as brave or cowardly, and why? Which events or details most color your perceptions of these characters?
  3. What choices do characters make about groups they will belong to? What groups do they belong to without choice? What are the consequences?
  4. Discuss Liesel’s friendship with Rudy. Does she love him in the way he loves her, or is it a child’s love? Do you think he reminds her of her brother?
  5. Zusak’s books often portray characters with a tendency to fight—including Max and Liesel. Is a child who fights more forgivable that an adult who fights? Why?
  6. From Hans to Liesel to the mayor’s wife, discuss how some of the characters in The Book Thief deal with their past. Discuss themes of memory and punishment.
  7. Is Hans Hubermann courageous? How does he show courage, or lack of courage?
  8. Name some acts of resistance in the book, from large to small. What does the author intend by including these acts?
  9. Who has power in this book? How does Liesel gain power, and how does Max? Toward the end of the novel, Liesel remarks that words give power. How so?
  10. Discuss the meaning of Max painting over Mein Kampf. What is he able to express through this action that he cannot convey in person?

 

Daily Chapter Assignments. For every chapter assignment you will pose three discussion questions and write journal entries.

Questions: All questions need to be open ended (unless you have a follow-up question or would like an explanation). These questions are to be discussed in your lit circle, and you are to write down your and your peers’ answers.

Journal Entries: The following are examples of journal entries (try to mix it up every entry!) Journals do not need to shared with lit circles:

  1. Write thoughts that are going through your head as you read the novel.
  2. Note times when your reading changes:a. You see something you didn’t see before.
    b. You recognize a pattern–the images start to overlap, gestures or phrases recur, some details seem associated with each other.
    c. The story seems to be about something different from what you thought.
    d. You discover that you were misreading.
    e. You realize that the writer has introduced a new context or new perspective.
    f. You see new vocabulary, especially new words repeated throughout (the Merriam-Webster app is very useful, and its voice search feature handy).
  3. Note times when you are surprised or puzzled:a. Something just doesn’t fit.
    b. Things don’t make sense—pose explicitly the question or problem that occurs to you.
  4. Note details that seem important and that make you look again.
  5. Note times when you relate to a character. What is relatable, what do you two share, how are you different?
  6. Note ways in which the story makes you speculate about real life or a connection to another text or even another academic discipline.
  7. Note your first impression of the ending–what “ended”? (How many times have you read a short story or a novel only to find yourself really confused about the ending?)
  8. Note rhetorical/stylistic devices (diction, syntax, figurative language, tone, imagery) that you recognize–how do they contribute to your reading of the text?
  9. Check for hyperbole, such as when is a character (or the author) is exaggerating or over-reacting. What makes it hyperbolic? How would you have written that passage?
  10. What is the relationship of a sentence, passage, or chapter to the entire reading?
  11. What is the function of the passages that don’t carry plot function?
  12. Make a claim about a chapter. Support it with details.
  13. As part of re-reading, what is the function of a chapter to the whole novel?
  14. Find several details in a passage and explain their functions.
  15. Explain where you feel the author has used symbolism.
  16. How would you draw (or re-draw) a scene that you thought was interesting or would be better illustrated?
  17. Find some complexities in a passage and explain their functions.
  18. Activity for Integrated Citation: “Says/Does Analysis”

Short Quote → What does it mean? → What is its function or purpose?

 

Appendix B. Final Creative Project
You will create a project that demonstrates your engagement with and understanding of the text. Productive projects combine imagination and intellect and are multi‐faceted and multi‐layered. They are serious and academic as well as creative and inventive and should be viewed as a chance to demonstrate the final product of all your classroom and individual efforts.

Your presentation should demonstrate critical reflection on and interpretation of your chosen novel. You might consider exploring a theme, image, or character, or you might think about the effect of some literary aspect of the novel. Whatever you choose, you should be able to articulate a meaningful connection between your project and the book. Be creative and express your own unique point of view!
Some Ideas
Art. Painting, Sculpture, Drawing, Mixed Media

Music or Drama Composition. CD compilation, musical/song performance, mini opera or musical play or sketch performance, create costumes and dress as you think the characters in your novel did

Web. Podcast, website, blog, interactive map (flash)

Creative Writing. Poetry collection, travel diary, or reading journal children’s book graphic novel/comic

Academic Writing. Speech, essay, print journalism, interview magazine article newspaper, travel guide, yearbook

Broadcast Journalism. Investigative interview or profile, news broadcast, movies, tv, radio or tv talk show, scene from a film or radio program

Other. Recreate a battle or scene, diaspora project, illustrated family tree puzzle, diagram research project

Project Proposal Due May 19

  1. Book Title
  2. Group (name group members) or Individual Project?
  3. Type of Project
  4. Project Title
  5. Project abstract (50‐100 word description of the project and how it relates to your lit circle book)
  6. If you have a group/partnership, who will do what? Describe the role each group member will play.

 

Practice-Based Instruction in English Teacher Education: Teaching Novice Teachers to Lead Class Discussions

Amanda Stearns-Pfeiffer, English Department, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, stearnspfeiffer@oakland.edu

Abstract. This article describes a yearlong investigation of how explicit, focused instruction in facilitating classroom discussion, combined with approximations of (and peer/instructor feedback on) this practice, impact the way(s) preservice English teachers learn to discuss literature with secondary students.

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“Are My Songs Literature?” Lessons Learned from Teaching a Non-Traditional Text

Jim Carlson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Studies, at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, jcarlson @ uwlax.edu

Emily Mootz, student of Secondary English Education, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, mootz.emil @ uwlax.edu

Krystle Thomas, undergraduate Social Studies and Psychology teacher candidate, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, thomas.krys @ uwlax.edu

Abstract. Carlson, Mootz, and Thomas provide an overview of their experiences as co-teachers during a summer pre-college program in which they taught a non-traditional text, Kendrick Lamar’s (2015) hip-hop album, To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB), rather than a conventional literary text from the Western canon.

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Comfort Zone X: Establishing Safe Learning Environments for Open Discussion of Critical Issues

Aaliyah Baker, Department of Language and Literacy, Cardinal Stritch University, abaker@stritch.edu

Abstract. This article is intended for practicing educators charged with providing meaningful experiences in literature-based instruction for students of all ages. As an educator herself, Baker strives to support students in their quest to become critical, reflective thinkers and mindful consumers of information on past and contemporary issues. The question becomes: how can one encourage open discussion and debate while maintaining a safe environment for a variety of voices and perspectives?

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“I Only Read Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and Other Junior High Tales of Terror: Helping Boys Choose Books While Staying True to the Self-Selected Novel

Mary Beth Nicklaus, Reading Specialist and Interventionist, East Junior High School, Wisconsin Rapids, marybeth.nicklaus @ wrps.net

Abstract. Nicklaus looks at the conundrum of at-risk boys who may need help with the selection process in the face of the self-select novel.

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Teaching Nineteenth-Century Slave Narratives: Engaging Student Scholars in the Production of Digital Story Maps

Amy Lewis, Assistant Professor of Humanities and Liberal Arts, St. Norbert College, amy.lewis @ snc.edu

Abstract. Digital story maps are one key component in a project-based course focused on nineteenth-century slave narratives written in the United States. In this course, the traditional literary analysis paper has been replaced by a digital story-mapping project. This mapping project builds digital skills and literacies by focusing on how to convey stories about enslavement to a contemporary audience via digital maps and how choosing a digital medium affects the stories that we tell.

The author’s training in digital mapping was generously supported by a Digital Learning Initiative Grant provided by St. Norbert College.

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Ancient Grudge to New Love: A Remix of Romeo and Juliet

Tim Jansky, PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison, tjansky @ wisc.edu

Abstract. Jansky discuss how he remixed his Romeo and Juliet unit to best capture the multimodal composing that was already happening in his classroom, a shift resulting in a student-centered approach leading to free-styling, collaboration, and the creation of music videos telling the story of Shakespeare’s tragic lovers.

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Guest Editor’s Introduction

Jeff Kunkle, Capital High School, Madison, jrkunkle @ madison.k12.wi.us

I was drawn to English education largely because of my love of books. I suspect that many of you were, too. The path from avid early reader to English teacher is not uncommon. Many of my conversations with colleagues inevitably drift toward what books we’ve been reading or teaching or hoping to read so we can teach them. Summer break, for most of the English teachers I know, is a time to work through the pile of books on the bedside table. Most of the teachers reading this will be able to point to a formative reading experience that revealed to them the magic and mystery to be found between the covers of a book.

My reading journey began with Golden Books, Dr. Seuss, and the collected works of Charles Schultz. I soon moved onto trailblazing YA authors like Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton. Before long I was spending long hours devouring gargantuan Stephen King novels. In high school a friend turned me onto Vonnegut and Kerouac; I, chock-full of pretension, toted around Cat’s Cradle and On the Road as badges of nonconformity and coolness.

After I was asked to guest edit this section of Wisconsin English Journal, with its focus on the teaching of literature, I reflected back upon the literature instruction I received in high school. I graduated in the early 90s, and looking back at my K-12 academic reading experiences, I was startled at how conservative–how hugely traditional–they were. As far as I can recall, I was assigned no books written by women in my four years of English classes. I was assigned only one book by a person of color. (That book, though, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, was about the coolest stuff Crystal Lake South ever pulled on me. Kudos to Marcus Sullivan for having the guts to teach that classic, brimming with sex, violence, and allegory, to a bunch of wide-eyed suburban Chicago teenagers.) The authors we read and discussed in class–Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Golding, Homer–were pillars of the canon.

The classroom activities surrounding the reading of the books were likewise mired in traditionalism. I remember a lot of worksheets, a lot of multiple choice quizzes and tests. Not much writing. (A notable exception was the classroom of the esteemed Bill Weller, who dared to allow us to be creative. We wrote stories of metamorphosis while reading Kafka, made playlists of songs while reading Crime and Punishment. Mr. Weller’s showing us a live performance of Talkings Heads’ lead singer David Byrne performing “Psycho Killer” is the second-coolest thing CLHS dropped on me.) Although the battles over the canon and rote learning assignments were raging elsewhere, the frontlines had clearly not yet reached the northwest suburbs of Chicago in 1991 (nor, I suspect, much of the nation’s high schools).

Reading over the articles in this section, I am heartened to see that creativity, diversity, and progressivism are burning brightly in today’s classrooms. I was invariably excited by the ideas put forth by the authors (ideas that more than once or twice had me thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to steal that”). Clearly, at least some of the students of America’s middle schools, high schools, and universities are being challenged by reading experiences that are innovative and inclusive, thought-provoking and progressive.

Tim Janksy, in his article “Ancient Grudge to New Love: A Remix of Romeo and Juliet,” takes a text that has seemingly been taught to every freshman since the Bard’s death in 1616 and reinvigorates it through an innovative unit design, one rich in multimodal composing and intertextuality. The final activity of this “remixed” take on Shakespeare is the creation of collaborative music videos. I suspect my former teacher Mr. Weller would approve.

Innovative engagement with classic texts is likewise the focus of Amy Lewis’s “Teaching Nineteenth-Century Slave Narratives: Engaging Student Scholars in the Production of Digital Story Maps.” In this article, Lewis describes her experiences furthering her students’ understanding of and immersion in classic slave narratives through a digital story mapping project. She describes how her students were able to better appreciate and contextualize the harrowing experiences depicted in these narratives through the application of modern digital tools. The results are fascinating and inspiring, and applicable to a multitude of texts.

Two of the articles in this issue deal with the importance of allowing for choice in the literature classroom. Mary Beth Nicklaus’s article “‘I Only Read Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ and Other Junior High Tales of Terror: Helping Boys Choose Books while Staying True to the Self-Selected Novel” discusses the author’s struggles–and, ultimately, her successes–in moving her classroom of reluctant readers towards more challenging texts while keeping their reading experiences relevant and engaging. Patrick McFadden’s “‘Book Reading, Baby!’: An Adventure in Teaching Literature” describes the author’s experiences in taking the framework of literature circles and evolving it to allow for student ownership, collaboration, and accountability. As in Lewis’s article on digital story mapping, McFadden shows how digital technologies can be incorporated into the literature classroom to reinvigorate instruction.

The theme of reinvigorating classroom activities is also present in Aaliyah Baker’s article “Establishing Safe Learning Environments for Open Discussion of Critical Issues.” Baker argues that meaningful engagement with literature can best be fostered by moving students out of their comfort zones and into new territories of thought. Doing so requires the creation of safe academic spaces; Baker demonstrates how creation of such spaces can produce powerful classroom moments and meaningful student engagement with the text.

Sometimes moving beyond comfort zones means challenging the notion of what constitutes literature. In “‘Are My Songs Literature?” Lessons Learned from Teaching a Non-Traditional Text,” Jim Carlson, Emily Mootz, and Krystle Thomas explore the benefits of expanding–or exploding–the canon in an English classroom. They document their fascinating experience teaching Kendrik Lamar’s seminal 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly to a group of high school students. This experience allowed them to engage with larger questions of what “counts” as literature and how non-traditional texts such as rap albums can engage students in unique, powerful ways.

Such innovative, progressive English classrooms will become the norm if post-secondary programs adequately prepare pre-service teachers to think about the teaching of literature in new ways. Amanda Stearns-Pfeiffer, in “Practice-Based Instruction in English Teacher Education: Teaching Novice Teachers to Lead Class Discussions,” describes how focused, practice-based instruction on how to lead discussions can result in new teachers better able to create the conditions for meaningful, authentic classroom conversation. Stearns-Pfieffer shows how pre-service teachers must be allowed to move beyond theory to actual practice, and offers several strategies to better equip emerging teachers with the skills to lead rich classroom discussions.

Elsie Olan and Kia Richmond also explore how to better prepare future English teachers in “Storying Our Journey: Conversations about the Literary Canon and Course Development in Secondary English Education.” The authors pose the question of how to further engage pre-service teachers in a wide range of texts, both canonical and contemporary. They also demonstrate the power of collaboration and conversation in creating more engaging, effective classroom experiences: it becomes clear that meaningful dialogue about teachers’ own practices and experiences can lead to classrooms ready to develop lifelong learners and readers.

As the guest editor for this section of Wisconsin English Journal, I was privileged to be reminded just how innovative and progressive the field of English education has become, and just how many ways we can foster a love of reading in our students. Enjoy, and I hope that you, too, are able to steal some of the potent ideas put forth by these authors and work them into your own classrooms.