Category Archives: Literature

Whitman Wednesday

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whitmanwed

Feel free to play!!!  Most of the images I use are taken with my phone and edited in an app called Pixlr.  Upload to Twitter and/or Instagram with the hashtag #whitmanwednesday.

Use the project in your classroom to show your students how to connect words and images in meaningful ways. Talk about why the images they choose work with the words they’ve selected. Talk about color and line and vision. There is always room for art in English Language Arts (or any other subject, for that matter).

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Community and Identity

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A ramble.

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DigPed PEI participants contemplate identity collaborations

It is the question of the ages: Who am I?

Every generation struggles with its corporate identity, and within that conflict, individuals find their own places in it. Some generations are shaped by war. Others are shaped by revolution or religion. Economics shape generations, whether during a time of great want or a time of tremendous prosperity. Massive outbreaks of illness or natural disasters frame corporate identity. Generations are sometimes named for whatever shaped them: the Greatest Generation of the 1940s, the Hippies of the 1960s and 70s, the Me Generation of the 1980s, and most recently, the Millenials. These group identities are usually thrust upon the generations by social forces, and not everyone fits neatly into them.

To complicate matters, we now have an entire generation of teenagers searching for multiple identities. People have always had the option to present a public identity while protecting a private one, but the internet brought with it a whole new world of identity creation. Now we not only have to determine who we are in the physical world, but we also need to decide who we will be in the virtual one.

In one sense, the web allows us to take on any persona we desire.  Online groups and games allow teenagers to interact with adults as peers, disrupting the power structures of the physical world.  There is danger there, as there is in any undiscovered country, but just as we all learn to look both ways when crossing the street, we can also learn to protect our vulnerabilities online.

But that’s not the point of this ramble.  Here I want to explore the idea of identity and what it is. How is it constructed? What effect does community have on identity development? And how does technology, especially the affordances of social media, affect our sense of who we are and who we want to be?

In the exercise pictured above, attendees of the Digital Pedagogy Labs Prince Edward Island conference last month engaged in an ice-breaker introduction that centered on self-identity in 140 characters.  Pairs introduced themselves to each other, and then wrote 140 character descriptions about each other, writing the results on the white boards without indicating who belonged to which description. And that was the end of it. Never referred to again, the descriptions were ultimately covered with notes from another session. But the exercise made a point: identity is elusive and morphs based on the community around it.

Or is identity something deep within that we parse out depending on the particular community surrounding us?

Ontologically, I believe that each person is created with a unique identity, one that develops over time, but always around a central core, a golden thread of unique essence.  Always in the process of becoming, the true self finds itself in community, but also in the solitary activity of personal reflection.  When we try to morph that true self into something other, we generally find ourselves frustrated and unhappy. We are at our best when our unique essence is allowed to intersect with the world and people around us without compromise. I think this may be one reason teens and young adults struggle with anxiety. Parents send mixed messages about who they should be:  busy, driven, and ambitious, but at the same time, kind, obedient, and good, whatever that means. Media floods them with information about how they should look. Schools press them to think about college and career at all times. We expect teens and young adults to be malleable into whatever forms we adults think is best for them and then we tell them they can be anything they want to be. We tease them with an idea of self-determination and then tell them what they have to be, how they have to act, and what they should be doing at any given point in time. We talk about identity, but do little to give teens time and space to discover their own.

Even in education, or rather especially in education, we tell students that they can be good writers or artists or readers, but if they want to succeed in the future, they had better be good at math and science and technology. We adults complain that students can’t think for themselves, but we train them to take standardized tests and write predictable five paragraph essays that contain buzzwords, but no originality. Is it any wonder so many young adults enter the marketplace unprepared? How can they prepare for life as an adult if we don’t let them discover their own essential golden thread of identity?

In the DigPed exercise, the element of introducing ourselves to strangers was influenced by the fact that it was an education conference. How much of my essential self did I share? Very little. And I am certain most people focused on the superficial elements of life: family, job, maybe a hobby, along with a general connection to education. The context of a particular conference influenced the kind of information shared. A gathering of dog lovers or artist or musicians would likely yield a different kind of information shared. Having to limit that description to 140 characters further influenced the depth of identity revealed. In that sense, the exercise was a failure. No one knew anyone else any better at a substantive level after the exercise. Where the experience succeeded, however, was in recognizing the limits we place on ourselves when it comes to revealing our identities. Perhaps that is why we sometimes think that identity is only a social construct. We are who we need to be given a particular context. And as we engage with more and larger communities online, those limits further constrain us until we don’t recognize ourselves anymore – if we ever knew ourselves in the first place.

If this revelation of identity is complicated for adults, imagine how complex it becomes for a generation of people who were indoctrinated to information overload practically from birth.  This group of individuals has always considered google a verb, can type with two thumbs as efficiently as with ten fingers, and may never set foot in a building called a library. Exploration happens without leaving home, unless, of course, Pokemon awaits capture outside. Even then, the screen dominates vision. The resources readily available to today’s young adults boggle the mind of adults who researched using microfiche and card catalogs.  Young minds are filled with images of worlds once relegated to National Geographic Magazine, and people can connect across oceans in seconds. With so many opportunities to explore the wide world, are we doing enough to reflect and look inward to discover the world within ourselves? We are a pendulum swing away from Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson, who eschewed popular society for inward discovery. Our Western culture reaches out and around, seeking experiences to define us. We look for our people, but how can we recognize them if we do not know ourselves? And how can anyone expect depth of young adults whose world has generally been miles wide but only inches deep? How can any of us share an identity we don’t know?

As an educator, I want to give students the tools they need to find their own unique identities but avoid telling them what those identities must be. I find, however, that goal thwarted by demands for accountability through standardized tests, writing samples, administrations looking for money, and the politics of education. These elements are part of teaching in this era, and until some massive paradigm shift tilts the education world off its axis, it is not going away anytime soon. The demand for quantitative data drives funding, and identity is not quantifiable, so it becomes unimportant in the system that wants to turn individuals into bits and bytes that can be neatly categorized into neat little boxes of success or failure, determined by whomever has the money and the power.

I think the affordances of the internet can become useful in the search for identity if students (and frankly, adults) use the tools as places of solitude now and then. Walden Pond may be a misty idea, but journaling doesn’t have to be. If identity and the golden thread of self-essence are best discovered in quietness, then we must make room for contemplation in the midst of the whirlwind of activities that make up our days. Furthermore, if we say we value independent thinking and individual identity, then we must, even in our classrooms, encourage exploration without fear of reprisal or correction. Journals and blogs can become sanctuaries for reflection, while the world we see online serves as inspiration. It is in reflection that we discover ourselves. As we then identify our own unique essences, we can then come to community, not to define us, but to teach us to see how that essence fits with the greater whole and to contribute to that whole.

Teach us to see. That is the key to both identity and community. When we see our true selves, we know what we have to share. Community cannot construct identity. Individuals who know and understand their unique identities work together to construct community. Maybe that’s where the paradigm needs to begin to shift.

O Me! O Life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Wasteland

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This image has been sitting in this draft for months, so long that I don’t remember the original purpose. I think it had to do with a #clmooc challenge over the summer, but I can’t be sure. Still, it is a powerful image that I can’t bring myself to delete, so it must be something to explore.

Fig.1 Drawing by Belgian artist Yslaire

I titled this post Wasteland when I put the image in place; perhaps it is the title of the piece, perhaps just my impression, but when I look at it my mind goes to the cruellest month  underscored by the organ and guitars of Baba O’Riley. The image, I am certain, refers to neither of these, but in my mind they are inexorably connected.

Wasteland is a place beyond hope. A place where there is no escape from monotony and tedium. In this image, the television screen acts as hypnotist, so mesmerizing the viewer that he forgets he is a winged creature, made to soar.

 

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,

http://www.bartleby.com/201/1.html

We too often allow life to put blinders on us. Even if we resist the allure of the screen (be it television, computer, or smart phone), we manage to stay in the parched shadow of the red rock, afraid to venture out into the unfamiliar until we, too, forget we have wings to fly on the fresh winds  of the exodus from the wasteland to the promised land.

Twitter: My Capstone PowerPoint

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Hopefully all the links are intact!

Presentation-EDUC7797 Capstone-May1-2015.pptx

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Twitter as a Tool: My Capstone Presentation

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I much prefer written words and live audiences to recordings, but this is good practice! I also used a new-to-me-tool to record, so be gentle in your critique. One thing is sure, I will continue to research and study and practice Twitter in the English/Language Arts classroom.

Twitter_logo_wordPart One

Part Two

#walkmyworld: Identity Non-Crisis

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As a teacher of young adults, I am intensely aware of the search for identity and significance most young people face. My texts are often selected partly because they afford an opportunity to discuss and reflect about how one transforms from a child whose parents must be right to teens who are certain their parents know nothing to young adults who take the best of what they were taught and blend it with what they learn to become independent adult thinkers. However, the more I consider the concept of identity, I recognize the transitory nature of knowing the self.

This particular learning event coordinates with my focus word for 2015, chosen because my own life is in  a transition not unlike the one from child to adult. This is the year I turn 50, an age once upon a time I considered old (and I am certain most high schools students think of 50 as one step from the grave). This is the year I complete my M.Ed., officially become an empty-nester, and embark on a career path still uncertain. So, I reflect: Who am I? Am I the sum of my beliefs? My experiences? My surroundings? All of these? None of these?

This week #walkmyworld encouraged my to consider my own identity, apart from the roles I play as woman of faith, wife, mother, daughter, educator, artist, writer, runner, coach, musician, photographer, student, blogger, and friend. I have always considered myself a modern Renaissance woman because my interests and skills are diverse. On the worst of days, I call myself a “Jill of all trades, mistress of none.” On the best days, I manage to do some pondering, some crafting, some writing, and some exercise, feeling very accomplished in the process. Either way, these are things I DO, not necessarily who I AM.

Pardon me for a moment while I consider the importance of understanding the changing nature of identity as taught by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth in the mid 50s CE: 11 “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”  Paul here sets up his argument that identity as a believer requires change over time. He uses familiar language to make his point, comparing physical change to spiritual change. The fluidity of identity must be addressed periodically throughout life in order to truly know the self beyond the activities of life.

This is the reason I chose “identity” as my word for the year. And this is what makes this particular learning event important for both students and educators. We are ever evolving as we learn and think. Projects like #walkmyworld expand our horizons and expose the participants to cultures and ideas that may not be otherwise known. For teachers, it can form an unexpected Professional Learning Network (PLN) wherein ideas from one side of the world can find a place in the other. Students who participate may develop friendships in unexpected ways. In sharing bits of our worlds, we begin to see our individual identities as they stand at the moment. When we open our worlds to others, we also enter the worlds of others, and this new information may well alter our identity, affording us the opportunity to change and grow and morph into the next “version” of self.

It’s a mind-expanding idea: identity is fluid, changed by time, experience, relationship, and ideas. Understanding that, however, eliminates the identity-confused “mid-life crisis,” because instead of fearing great life change, one may anticipate with excitement whatever is next. Who I was at 18 is certainly not who I am at (nearly) 50. The things that I do influence the way that I think. The relationships I form in person or via digital means add to the depth of how I understand the world. Every day that I learn, I grow up a little bit more. Growing up, but never getting old.

Renaissance Woman

Renaissance Woman

References

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Why Does Reading Matter?

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There is an old story of a boy, a man, and a beach littered with dying starfish. The boy is walking up and down the beach picking up starfish one at a time and heaving them back into the sea. The man watches for some time before finally addressing the boy, “You do realize, son, that your task is futile. There are far too many dying starfish for you to make a difference.”  The boy walked a moment in thought before picking up another starfish. He looked at it carefully before throwing it to its home in the sea. Turning to the man he said, “It made a difference to that one.”

Teaching language arts is like throwing dying starfish into the sea. Teachers cannot make all children love to read and to learn, but each teacher can make a difference in the life of one child at a time. And that is enough reward.  Following the journey a student makes from reading by demand and reading by choice offers satisfaction in a way nothing else really can. Good teachers do not teach because they are ill-equipped to do anything else; good teachers teach because they see the potential in others and they have a passion for helping students recognize and achieve that potential.

            The key to successfully motivating students to read is to remember that the subject we teach is secondary. “You’ve got to accept the fact that you are not basically teaching a subject,” writes Madeleine L’Engle, “you are teaching children. Subjects can probably be taught better by machines than by you. But if we teach our children only by machines, what will we get? Little machines. They need you, you as persons.”[i]

            Literature is not objective. It never has been. Literature is the story of humanity, and every human on the planet has a point of view. Authors write from a particular bias and history and experience; readers read with their own biases, histories, and experiences. Nothing, especially nothing literary, happens in a vacuum. To separate literature from its historical and emotional context denies the essence of the medium. Literature, true literature, contains some message about the human condition that an author is compelled to provide. If books were written without any purpose, world view, social paradigm, or history it may as well be written my non-senescent animals or machines.

As I pondered this idea of reading motivations, I came up with a list of 19 items. I know there are more, but these hit the highlights:

  • To escape reality
  • To discover new things
  • To learn about known things
  • To justify beliefs
  • To challenge beliefs
  • To improve vocabulary
  • To follow a character
  • To enjoy a story from beginning to end
  • To indulge in fantasy
  • To gain power
  • To understand others
  • To persuade
  • To argue
  • To discern ethics and/or morality
  • To identify
  • To define identity
  • To discover truth
  • To break monotony/routine
  • To respond to the “wild unpredictability of the universe” (96)[ii] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972)

Each of these have a place in motivating students, but I think the most important ones have to do with identity. The early models of education, from the Enlightenment through Post-Modernism, have a variety of differences in the purpose of reading, but one element is constant: man’s connection to the world as it is revealed in literature. Historically, literature has never been produced or shared without the context of what has gone before or hoped for yet to come. Common Core seems to revert to reading and writing as a purely practical science that can be measured by objective tests.. The notion that 70% of literature must be non-fiction seems to corroborate that. Fiction is relegated to the 30% of “wasted” time in Language Arts that isn’t already consumed with grammar, vocabulary in a vacuum, test preparation, and the five point essay with MLA citations. Of course non-fiction matters, but it is in fiction that we discovery our humanity, our identity, and even the motives behind our history. Madeleine L’Engle wrote,

“People have always told stories as they searched for truth. As our ancient ancestors sat around the campfire in front of their caves, they told stories of their day in order to try to understand what their day had meant, what the truth of the mammoth hunt was, or the roar of the cave lion, or the falling in love of two people. Bards and troubadours throughout the centuries have sung stories in order to give meaning to the events of human life. We read novels, go to the movies, watch television, in order to find out more about the human endeavor.” (L’Engle, 1993)[iii]

      It is humanity that makes literature meaningful. Close reading of any literary text must include linking to the human condition. And this is where context matters. It is one thing to understand  and accept the biases of both author and reader; it is quite another to understand that every work of art has its historical and emotional context.  Understanding why characters respond the way they do is often linked to the historical setting of the author. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 during the Cold War, when television was just becoming popular, and when life began to speed up after the war years. The concept of burning books came right out of Hitler’s Germany,

When I was fifteen, he burnt the books in the streets of Berlin . Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning five thousand years ago. That grieved my soul. Since I’m self-educated, that means my educators—the libraries—are in danger. And if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed. (Reed, 2006)[iv]

While what has been is important, what will be is equally so. We must continue to read the classics and study history in order to preserve our heritage. Bradbury’s fear was that television would replace books in the hearts of Americans, and in many ways, he was correct. So many people have stopped reading voluntarily, demands by school for reading are met with resistance.  The connection to our past and future selves as a culture is found in the literature we read and the context from which it comes. Since Common Core practices remove that historicity, students, no matter what constructivist models they employ, are unlikely to understand it wholly. Without that understanding, the message is quickly forgotten. When the message is lost and history becomes nothing more than dates on a timeline, no one remembers. And those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, 1905).  However, part of learning the past is in discovering identity—and it is that identity that carries a society forward.

A society is made up of individuals, and teachers are in a particularly influential position as we work to help young individuals find their unique identities.  Context is king because it provides a reference point for the reader. Readers bring different experiences and biases to the literature. Authors write with different experiences and biases. Context allows the author and reader to begin the literary journey on the same page, so to speak. The “New Criticism” and its connection to Common Core removes that mutual understanding. By eliminating context and guidance, readers can easily get lost, frustrated, and turned off. It is utterly impossible to engage students with this kind of “cold reading”,  unless the “cold reading” is an enticement or the only context the book needs to the reader’s own point of view.

My 20 year old daughter hates reading. She is all about science and certainty and facts. So when she told me she was reading a book and I HAD to read it, I was intrigued. What kind of book would motivate her to read it–and then inspire her to buy the second book of the trilogy?  Her eyes glaze over when I turn on my English teacher mode (like mine do when someone starts speaking math), so I decided to read the book cold and see whether I could figure out its appeal based on what I know about Corinne. The very first observation I made (and I really tried to turn off the teacher brain, but this assignment was on my mind and I just couldn’t) was that my own personal experiences and points of view colored how I interpreted the characters. This is going to be true of every reader. Rather that pretend that readers come to literature as blank slates, we need to validate the minds of our students as they read a text–even cold.

The second thing I observed was that the book’s primary theme was one of finding self-identity. Ontology, the theory of BEING, is the primary focus of teens and many young adults, whether they realize it or not.  We know we have existence, but what kind of existence and what does it mean? In the search for “self”, books can provide a sort laboratory where we can experiment with different personalities without committing to one in particular. We can live vicariously through the characters because we admire their strength, will, courage, perseverance, or even the excitement of their lives in comparison to our own. Eventually, if we read enough, we find a comfortable rhythm in connecting with particular kinds of characters, and at some level, we connect to our own sense of being.

Having determined that much, I started to consider how to transfer the concepts of personal world view and search for identity to canonical works. How am I like Beowulf? Last I checked, no one called me to kill off any monsters…oh wait a minute…there was this time that a bunch of people were criticizing my child and I went all Mama Bear on them….  It takes a few minutes, but eventually, most students can come up with a time when they either did something really cool for someone else or someone else bailed them out of a bad situation. Grendel comes in many forms. Move to Shakespeare. Shakespeare dealt with all kinds of real people in his plays. Othello, for example, discusses motives of jealously and manipulation that any teen who has ever had a bad break up will identify with. Thoreau and Whitman got so sick of society that they checked out. The creative part for teachers is to find that little nugget of human connection and polish it until the gold shines brightly.

Jenkins talked about how teaching with the New Literacies has to change:

 “…they should focus greater attention on what it means to be an author, what it means to be a reader, how the two processes are bound up together, and how authors exist in dialogue with both those who come before and those who follow them. In this context, young people learn how to read in order to know how to create; the works they consume are resources for their own expressive lives. They seek to internalize meanings in order to transform, repurpose, and recirculate them, often in surprising new contexts….literacy is no longer read as a set of personal skills; rather, the new media Literacies are a set of social skills and cultural competencies….” (location 1163)[v]

This has always been my philosophy. Both authors and readers bring a personal world view or bias to the literature, depending on world events, personal circumstances, and perception of self. The purpose in teaching literature in the classroom is to show students that literature is a living entity that changes with every re-read because we, as readers, change. The exciting thing about teaching in a digital age is the accessibility students have to new media and the expertise they quickly develop even as that new media evolves. The living entity of literature takes on new forms as students begin to blend their experiences with new forms of transmission and combine classic universal themes with current cultural conflicts. This requires a deeper kind of close reading, and one that is more specialized, but no less effectual.  Wyn Kelly wrote,

I expect that each of us representing four perspectives on reading— the creative producer, performer, media scholar, and literary scholar —might consider his or her approach the default position for all readers. After all, each of us was a “general” reader before becoming “specialized,” and each would also reject an exclusive position that isolated others. (location 1555)[vi]

            If we as teachers allow students to take their natural “roles”, there will be a multitude of experts to contribute to a class discussion. Creators and producers will interpret the text differently from the scholars, but both points of view are equally valid and each brings a perspective to the discussion that the other needs to hear. Common Core negates one way of reading in such a way that it labels it “bad” and then wonders why kids don’t read. To dwell on “unpacking” the literature rather than dwelling in it does our students, and ultimately our society, a grave disservice.  Kelly adds,

Similarly, closer reading of a text allows us to experience and learn more in a dynamic relationship between what the author has put on the page and what we actually take in. The text begins to have meaning for us in more varied and subtle ways, and we begin to feel that we know it better. So we judge and have opinions. Just as we begin to argue with the person we know better than before, we begin to argue with a text or with the assumptions people have had about a text. One can measure that kind of knowledge best, perhaps, through writing assignments that allow students to develop critical opinions, explore the complexity of their responses, and communicate their differences with other readers. (location 1600)[vii]

            Jenkins reassures the teacher that adherence to the original text is the first critical step in remixing. It must be understood and valued for what the author intended first, but then open to interpretation, extrapolation, re-mixing, “modding”, and other creating uses that give the literature contemporary relevance. These are the words that should accompany reading: experience, learn, dynamic, meaning, and identification. Factual knowledge is such a small part of knowing a book! Use the personal experiences and world views of the students to guide discussions rather than focus on expected (and testable) outcomes. This is where I think it’s okay to just tell the students outright what the “experts” say and what the “right” answer is—and then allow students to define the literature for themselves with evidence and logic and critical thinking. Then they know what to say on the standardized test, but they also make the literature their own.

            The current system of teaching one interpretation because that’s the one the test writers say is right leads to ” a series of lifeless exercises in which the students extrapolated the meaning of symbols, metaphors, and themes irrespective of the situated cultural understanding they may have brought to bear on the reading of the text. “[viii] Not only that. but it turns readers into non-readers because reading is boring, too much work, no fun, and pointless. No longer it is an escape from reality; it becomes drudgery. It is not about personal discovery because what is discovered is probably “wrong.” Reading is not a pleasure when it becomes a chore devoid of any satisfaction. How can we respond to L’Engle’s “wild unpredictability of the universe” when both wildness and predictability are removed from the equation?

Teachers must be creative—to both engage the students AND meet whatever standards and tests that are in place. I like the idea from a previous chapter about using “specializing” to make reading more approachable.  Encourage closer reading by allowing students to use a particular angle to anchor their interpretation. Give them a reason to scour the text for examples, proofs, or illustrations of something that interests them. Then they can bring that to the class and be the “expert”.

“Modding” adds another element to close reading. If a student is going to diverge from the “state approved” path. he must be able to support his creative decisions with evidence from the original text. The human connection is the key element to successful remixing. In order to understand the universal themes of literature, teachers must be guides who promote questions, point to history, and provide context.  CCSS proponents want to remove authority from literature by putting the uninformed student in charge of his own learning–and he had better come up with the right answer on his own. But Madeleine L’Engle would disagree.

 “To refuse to respond is in itself a response. Those of us who write are responsible for the effect of our books. Those who teach, who suggest books to either children or adults, are responsible for their choices. Like it or not, we either add to the darkness of indifference and out-and-out evil which surround us or we light a candle to see by.” [ix]

Modding is one way to offer students a way to discover that human connection. Creating new texts requires understanding original intentions and connections. Close reading then becomes connected to meaning and meaning to relevance. It’s precisely what happened when Ricardo Pitts Wiley chose to remake Moby Dick as a play with a contemporary spin.[x] The very first thing Wiley did was ask his actors to write a story about one of the characters, that human connection that cannot be determined by a standardized test.

When the goal is to mod (make meaning with) the text in full consideration of what students know, motivations that guide their meaning making, and the ways they engage with the text when meaning making, a new range of possible meanings and conceptualizations of readers is made possible. As an expert modder, the teacher’s role becomes one of guiding students to closely attend to the text to make meaning in relationship to a range of interpretive communities and reader identities.[xi]

 I’ve apparently been “modding” my entire teaching career because I have always looked beyond the “do you know the expected answer” model to the “so what” question. So Hamlet may or may not have been insane. So What? So Gulliver decided horses were cooler than people, so what? So, Sartre thinks hell is being locked up with people you hate forever. So what?  The “So What” question is the key to human connectivity, and it is in developing at connection that modding can be most effective. Altered art, rap videos, re-writing Shakespeare in 21st century “teenspeak”, and even photography assignments are all types of pre-modding experiments I have worked out in the classroom for 20+ years. No wonder my principal once wrote on an evaluation, “her teaching methods are unorthodox, but effective.”  Whatever works. For me, the students come first. I want them to see themselves in literature. I want them to recognize that, although times may change, people really do not. I want them to read closely, think deeply, find identity, and live passionately long after they have left my classroom.

The thing teachers have to remember, I think, is not that we must motivate our students to read, but that we must share our passion in such a way that students motivate themselves. When that happens, we have made a permanent difference in that child, and saved one starfish on the beach.


[i] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972, p. 156)

[ii] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972, p. 96)

[iii] L’Engle, Madeleine., The Rock that is Higher, Story as Truth. Crosswicks Books. 1993.  p 88

 [vi] (Jenkins, Jerry; Kelley, Wyn, 2013)

[vii] (Jenkins, Jerry; Kelley, Wyn, 2013)

[viii] (Connors, Sean P.; Rish, Ryan M, 2014)

[ix] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972, p. 99)

[x] (Jenkins, Jerry; Kelley, Wyn, 2013, p. 1196Kindle)

[xi] (Connors, Sean P.; Rish, Ryan M, 2014, p. 15)

Literature or Art Class?

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Why not both?

One of the unorthodox ideas I tested in the last school year was a “Through the Lens” concept. The idea was to read literature, write a short essay, create a digital art piece (based on student photography), and give a presentation that incorporated both the essay and the art. For 2011-2012, the theme was American Literature. It was an easy place to begin for me, as I had already put together a curriculum for a thematic approach to American Literature with a fellow teacher several years ago. American literature also lends itself to images that are approachable by most teenagers who have some interest in visual arts.

I began with the Transcendentalists. Who better to photograph than Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson?  The nature element alone makes for good images. All I asked the students to do was to connect the photo to some quote or poem from the readings.

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Opening with such obvious connections allowed me to also discuss photography as storytelling and somehow reaching all five senses with imagery. I used PowerPoint to let me illustrate each point, and I encourage the students to learn PowerPoint for their own presentations. The first semester I allowed them just just share their images and discuss them, but by the end of the each all students were adept at full presentations with multiple slides.

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I will teach a similar course for the 2012-2013 school year, this time centered around the work of C.S. Lewis. If that isn’t unorthodox, I don’t know what is!

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The Logical Conclusion by T.S. Eliot

Unorthodox Authors

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Sometimes being an unorthodox teacher means choosing unorthodox authors to study. Madeleine L’Engle wrote a number of children’s books, and it it for those that she is best known. However, I love her essays and poetry for its beautiful imagery and profound emotions. Her spirituality is evident, and her unique point of view is worth close examination, especially by high school students.

I choose to explore her work, Bright Evening Star, a book of essays about the Incarnation of Christ. It’s the perfect choice for the weeks leading to Advent and Christmas, because it puts the season in perspective. Asking students to restate her written images into a digital art form makes them think, not only about L’Engle’s perspective, but about their own faith as well.

Other unorthodox authors I love to use: Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, Adeleine Yen Mah, Laura Hillenbrand, and lesser known works of Thornton Wilder and Flannery O’Connor.

The classics are important, but it’s good to step outside the bounds of Spark Notes materials and let students do some deep critical thinking on their own. Add in some art projects or community service, and suddenly the unorthodox becomes relevant and effective.