Friday, December 26, 2008

Felicem Diem Natalem

Mr. B-G's English Blog is officially two years old. Two years isn't a lot of time - it feels like I've been blogging for about five. It's hard to imagine how I taught before this blog, as it's become so entwined in all I do as an educator.

This blog - and the subsequent network it spawned - serves a variety of purposes. This page is a space for me to reflect on my teaching, share the highs and lows of the profession, and network with other tech-savvy educators.

Since its genesis in December of 2006, Mr. B-G's English Blog has been seen by more than 32,500 people from across Massachusetts, the U.S., and the world. A quick look at my sitemeter profile shows recent visits from Osaka, Japan; Gostar, Iran; Rome, Italy; and Schniach, Germany. Closer to home, this site has been viewed by people in Arlington, MA; Princeton, NJ; Jackson, TN; and Los Angeles, CA.

There's been a measurable progression in terms of content and organization over the last two years. Within a few months of this blog's inception, I created a separate page for class handouts and teaching resources, and another dedicated to my journalism class and the newspaper I advise. I then created individual class blog pages where I posted student work.

New for this year was Mr. B-G's Blog Exemplar, a paged designed to help teachers and students create their own blogs. Rather than limiting my students' blogging experiences to individual class blogs that I control, I've taught my kids how to create their own. So far we've used them to post compare/contrast essays and book reviews. In a few weeks, students will publish their own short stories, followed later by an analytical essay on The Old Man and the Sea, original poetry, and Romeo & Juliet editorial columns.

I'll need to take stock at the end of the year to see if my students' writing is, overall, better than that of last year's students. My theory is that publication and greater control over the act of publishing leads to better-written pieces. Certainly the quality of my instruction and the opportunities I provide for peer sharing, editing, and revision have the greatest effect on the caliber of my students' writing, but all things being constant, my hunch is that their writing will be better because they have more ownership and control of its distribution to the masses. The fact that it's really easy to edit and revise the text of a blog post helps too.

It's hard to know what lies in store for Mr. B-G's English Blog in Year 3. While I don't post quite as often as I would like (usually 3 times per month), I do constantly add to my link lists. In addition to a place for writing, these blogs are also online bookmarks accessible to all. While I do use Foxmarks to sync my Firefox bookmarks on any computer I use, it's nice to have many of them saved in a public location for others to check out.

Over time I'd like to provide more opportunities for my students to post writing online. There's no substitute for an authentic audience that's ready and willing to give you feedback on your musings. To me, Web 2.0 tools make the writing process more "real," and give students a unique and powerful forum in which to communicate and learn.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Poetry Out Loud

Our school is once again participating in the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest. Our school-wide event will be held on Dec. 19th, the day before holiday vacation.

Click here to check out the poster I made to advertise the competition.

Last year was our first year of participating. We only had two reciters, but that didn't really matter, as all we needed was one. On a blustery weekend in March, I went with our school's winner to the Massachusetts semi-final recitation event at a local college. There my student competed against a dozen other kids from Western and Central Mass.

While he was competitive, he wasn't among those selected to recite at the state finals in Boston.

This link will take you to videos of past student performances, focusing on the key attributes that make for a good poem recitation. Click here to get in touch with your Poetry Out Loud state contact about setting up a competition in your school.

For more info on my poetry unit and other ways I teach poetry, check out this previous blog post.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Writing is Essential

A video on the writing process, produced by students at McKay High School in Portland, Oregon:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals

Thank you Andy Samberg. This gets funnier each time I watch it. (And I've watched it a lot.)



Say hi to your mother for me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Elegance in writing

Props to Bruce Schauble for this post on elegance. I also appreciated the Universal Intellectual Standards he referenced.

This year my school is focusing on (among other things) higher order thinking skills, so the above materials are timely and appropriate.

Thanks, too, for these Reading Response Moves. For those of you who haven't checked it out, Bruce's blog, Throughlines, is a must read.

I snapped the above photo in a state forest in Western Massachusetts with a Canon PowerShot SD750 this October.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Teaching with easels

Last year I bought four wooden, self-assemble easels from Joann Fabrics to use in my classroom. I had recently gone to a conference of The New England Association of Teachers of English, where one of the presenters - a former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year - used easel posters to engage a group of English teachers during a seminar.

Once the easels came in the mail, I went to my local hardware store and picked up four pieces of plywood. I set a piece of plywood on each easel, clipped easel paper onto the plywood, and voila! - I had four classroom easels for under $60.

The past two days I've used the easels to help structure discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the first two photographs, students initially wrote quotes and drew images before going back to the easels for "round two" to explain the quotes and write down insights gleaned from the images. In a "final round," students used yellow reporters notebooks to write down the main idea they extracted from each easel, along with something they felt wasn't sufficiently explained and needed to be discussed in class.

In the third image, students wrote quotes and questions. They then analyzed their quotes in the reporters notebooks, and answered questions on the easels.

The fourth image contains some of the instructions I wrote on my front blackboard. The students are to be commended for both tolerating and actually reading my handwriting.

QUOTES & IMAGES EASEL 1


Use of the easels allow students to work collaboratively in groups, share their thoughts and insights with each other, and receive immediate feedback on their ideas from peers. It also gets them up and moving around the room. Both yesterday and today, students said "This period goes by so fast." It doesn't always, but when everyone is engaged, time is a rare commodity that I just don't have enough of.

For the easel activity to work, students need to have done the reading, done their homework (in this case, one of four literature circle jobs), understand exactly what they are supposed to do and in what order, and evenly delegate each of the tasks within their groups. My students have been working in literature circle groups of four, so we ended up having five groups in each class. At times a couple of the easels were "busy" when two groups were at the same one, but overall students did a good job working with and around each other.

In the past I've done other activities where there are four groups, so each easel is occupied by only one student mass.

QUOTES & IMAGES EASEL 2


I find if I don't offer students an alternative structure for class discussions, (lit circles, easel activities, Socratic seminar) I can end up dominating the conversation. That's not what I want. I'm not here to tell the kids what I know about To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm here to see what they're coming to know about it as they read it. I want to help shed light on ambiguities and clear up misconceptions. I don't want to recount plot or show them how brilliant I am at literary analysis. I can certainly model these things for them, but if they begin to get the idea that I'm going to tell them about the book and explain what things mean, they won't be inclined to read. Why should they if I'm going to give it to them in class?

QUOTES & QUESTIONS EASEL

I've found that groupwork can be a great motivator. If students in a group are responsible for different tasks or roles, and they know that each task is vital for the group to function cohesively in class, they're more inclined to do the assignment. I always check homework at the start of class on the day it's due, and I usually try to use homework as the basis for some kind of discussion, or to lead into new territory.

I'd be curious to hear of your experiences using easels in the classroom. I'd also be happy to provide more info on how I structure some of the activities.

CHALKBOARD INSTRUCTIONS

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Our first paper

In addition to teaching 9th and 12th grade English, I also have a journalism elective. Today the first issue of our newspaper arrived, and it looks pretty spiffy.

We're currently working on adding content to our website, which can be accessed here. As of this posting, there are no photos or articles online. Our student web editor hopes to get things up soon.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What is rhetoric?

I define rhetoric as the art of using words effectively. Watch the video below to see how three college students tackle the meaning of rhetoric. How do you define it?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The dangers of plagiarism

Last week one of my students turned in a plagiarized book review. After consulting my department chair and one of our vice principals, I decided to give the student an opportunity to redo the review for partial credit.

The student had taken phrases verbatim from an online book review site and used them in the review. Our school's student handbook says instances of plagiarism should result in a zero with no opportunity to redo the work. I chose to be a little lighter in my punishment because: 1) the higher-ups gave me the green light to do so, 2) I wanted the student to do the work the right way, and 3) because I believed in making this a "teachable moment."

I hope the student never plagiarizes again, because in addition to it being dishonest, this student's other teachers might not be as accommodating. I also know that once students get to college, plagiarism is taken VERY seriously.

When I was a M.Ed. graduate student at Plymouth State University, I had an opportunity to teach freshmen composition. When I reported to the head of the PSU English Dept that one of my students had plagiarized an essay, the verdict was swift and decisive. After meeting with the university's academic integrity board, the student automatically failed my course and was placed on academic probation. A subsequent violation would likely result in expulsion from the university.

Education is the business of ideas. Academic honesty is paramount. Over the course of the year I will teach my students that plagiarism is more than copying something word-for-word and not providing attribution. It is copying someone's idea and not giving credit where credit is due.

Almost all of my students told me that taking someone else's idea and putting it in their own words is NOT plagiarism. Wrong. It is! Plagiarism is idea theft. If that idea isn't yours, and you don't attribute it, it doesn't matter if you change some words around so it's phrased in your own language. It's still plagiarism!

By the time students leave my classroom, they should know what plagiarism is, and they should know how to avoid it. Those who plagiarize in the future will do so because they're unscrupulous cheaters, not because they're ignorant.

For more info on plagiarism, check out this link from The University of Maine at Farmington.
Image from http://sociology.camden.rutgers.edu/jfm/plagiarism/plagiarism-jfm.htm, accessed 9/27/08

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What is written here

I am in the process of teaching my students how to create their own blogs. As I wrote here, students will eventually have their own individual class blogs featuring writing from a variety of genres.

As the blogs pop up, I will begin posting assignments on a new page called Mr. B-G's Blog Exemplar. Here I will provide a simplified blog model for students to imitate, post writing assignments and comment instructions, and, over time, provide my own models of the assignments I would like students to complete.

To date I've been using Mr. B-G's English Blog to muse about my own teaching, take stances on all things education related, and post things I believe other teachers will enjoy reading.

I've also used it to post class assignments. In the future, all assignment instructions will be found on my "exemplar" blog. As usual, Mr. B-G's English Teaching Resources will still be the one-stop source for my handouts and links for the teaching and study of secondary English.

It is my hope that this new page will add an additional level of organization to Mr. B-G's English Blog. Feedback, as always, is appreciated.

Thanks for reading.

Image from http://www.masternewmedia.org/images/create-new-blog-commoncraft-0.jpg, accessed 9/11/08

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Summer Reading Essay Blog Comment Criteria

I would like your summer reading essay comments to answer the following five questions:

I - Describe your personal reaction to the story. How do you feel after reading it? What do you remember? What images do you see? What concepts or ideas are in your head? What did the story make you think about?

II - Did the conversation between the two characters seem authentic? What details, specifically, made the characters seem real and natural? If the character's dialogue was not believable, what is one thing the author could have done to make it better?

III. What was your favorite part of the story? Pick a line that you liked, copy and paste it into the comment box, put quotes around it, and explain what it was about it that stood out to you.

IV - Find one thing about the essay that you found distracting or problematic. This could be anything from improper use of dialogue, misused words (your vs. you're, it's vs. its, their vs. there), run-on sentences, sentence fragments, subject/verb agreement, simple word usage, boring verbs, etc.

Everyone's essay can be improved in some way. Help each other become stronger writers by identifying something that could be done better.

V - What is one piece of advice that the author might consider for future writing assignments? This should be phrased constructively (try doing ------- next time, consider --------) or inquisitively (what do you think would happen if you -------------?)

Comments should be five paragraphs (about 25 informative, well-written sentences). Your comments should appear below the story you are responding to. When asked to choose an identity, click "Name/URL," then sign your comment with your first name and last initial in the name field. Leave the URL box blank. Comments not posted according to these instructions will not be eligible for credit, and will be deleted.

I would like you to respond to three essays.

* Please bring a printed copy of your comments to class on Tuesday, Sept. 9th, as I will check them then. Your classmates and I thank you for your valuable feedback.

Three comments = a "check"
Two comments = a "check minus"
One or no comments = zero credit

For general information about posting blog comments, please click here.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Vocabulary Quiz Stories

Yesterday I gave my freshmen and seniors the vocabulary words, literary terms, and Latin and Greek roots they'll need to learn for next week. Over the course of a 10-week quarter, students can expect to have about eight of these weekly quizzes.

The quiz consists of three components. The first is a story which utilizes 10 of the 11 vocabulary words they're assigned. The story is about 300 words long, and contains 10 blanks where the vocabulary words are supposed to go. There's a word bank, and students put the right word in each blank.

The next section involves defining and providing an example or examples of three literary terms. The final section asks students to define four roots, pick a word that contains that root, and use it correctly in a sentence.

I am creating the quiz for next week. After that, the students will take turns in pairs creating it each week. I provide students with instructions on how to make the quiz, and I make myself available before and after school to help them edit the quiz to ensure they followed the instructions. If they create a challenging, fair, and solvable quiz, the students each earn 100 for a quiz grade.

If they fail to make the quiz, they earn a zero. If they misuse a word or part of the quiz is unsolvable, the students lose 10 points for each error. The goal here is to create a coherent quiz that a student who has learned the words can succeed on, and one who hasn't will likely do poorly (i.e. a fair assessment).

Students e-mail me the quiz in electronic form, and I am easily able to: 1) edit it with them, and 2) reproduce it on paper.

The vocabulary words come from literature we're reading and a list of the most common words found on the SAT. It is common for students to mention that a word they learned for my class appeared in their biology or history textbook, or in another book they happened to be reading outside of class.

The literary terms and definitions all come from the Massachusetts Department of Education, and are terms they are likely to encounter on the MCAS test.

The roots come from the same list of common SAT words, as these "word parts" are used to comprise many of those words.

If you're interested in an example of one of these quizzes, leave me a comment and I can send one by e-mail. Next week I plan to post a PDF copy of the vocabulary quiz creation instructions on my English Teaching Resources page.

Enjoy the weekend. Go Pats!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Blogging into summer reading essays


We're just about a week into the new school year, and so far, things are going well.

My freshmen and seniors have been working on summer reading essays. I asked them to pick two characters from two books they read and have those characters meet and interact in the setting of one book. They needed to use dialogue, be descriptive, and keep it between 500 and 1000 words.

Most seem to have embraced the assignment. One of my seniors was working on an essay where James Bond meets Harry Potter. I can't wait to read it.

Students were asked to save their essays on my USB drives, which I am using to upload the essays to our class blogs. Students will then be able to read each others' work and post comments. Once the kids get the hang of reading and posting blog comments, I'm going to teach them how to create their own blogs. The idea here is that by the end of the year they'll have an electronic portfolio of writing in some of the major English genres (poetry, short story, personal narrative, analysis, compare & contrast, and research).

An added benefit of individual student blogs is they'll be in a much better position to revise, as they can take the feedback they get from comments and use them to make changes and improvements to their essays on the blog. For the past two years I've used class blogs that I control as the means for sharing student writing. These lacked a mechanism for revision, as students could not add or alter content.

Now, with individual pages, students should be able to experience the power that comes with publishing writing and the ownership of knowing they can alter and post content whenever they choose. Hopefully the blogs will spur students to write beyond the requirements for my class. If their usage of MySpace and Facebook are any indication, there's good reason to feel optimistic.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

And so it begins

Tomorrow I report bright and early for the official start of the 2008-2009 school year. The students come on Thursday. I was in today for seven hours and accomplished maybe 1/10 of what I had wanted to do.

It was almost surreal being back in the classroom and seeing how fast the time goes. I suppose this is one reason I really enjoy my job. It totally engrosses me, to the point where I wish time would stop so I could do what needs to be done. I honestly enjoy about 90 percent of the responsibilities that the job entails. The other 10 percent? A topic for a future post.

One new thing I am doing for the start of school is providing students with a "map" of my classroom. It will explain where everything is, from the electric pencil sharpener and printer to the hand sanitizer and tissues. On the back of this illustration will be FAQs about the class. It will contain some procedures, reminders about the grading system, homework, weekly quizzes, etc.

I want it to be informative and user-friendly, unlike the syllabi and teacher expectations guide we are required to distribute, which I find too dense and verbose for students who are inundated with paperwork the first few days back.

Hopefully it will answer their questions, put them at ease, and allow them to focus on their assignments, as they're going to have a lot of work to do! (And, alas, so will I.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Do you have my Chalk?

In the words of second year math teacher The Smallest Twine, if you haven't seen the movie Chalk, you need to get on that!

Filmed in the mocumentary style of The Office, Chalk chronicles the lives of three teachers and a vice principal through a year at their high school. It's one of the best movies on teaching I've seen. Why? Because it shows the profession as it truly is, and doesn't glorify teachers into superheros who do the impossible at a detriment to themselves or their family.

As you might remember from this post, I am not a fan of Freedom Writers or other films that suggest good teachers must be selfless miracle workers. Teaching is a job - a profession - not a higher calling by some divine energy. Teaching is also not a "gift." Good teachers are not "blessed" with an affinity for the job. They learn to become competent and successful over time through experience, good mentoring and support, professional development, and continued education.

It's a well established fact that individuals in the education profession need the above to become successful. Yet why is it that many mentoring programs (my school excluded - ours is legitimate and was extremely beneficial for my development) are superficial, that teacher support is undervalued by administrators, that school-sponsored professional development usually has no relevance or application in the classroom, and that teachers have to spend their OWN money to take classes that are either required or will allow them to do their jobs more effectively?

Why is it that the state will pay for police officers to take college courses and earn degrees, but not teachers? It's absurd.

Check out the Chalk trailer below, then head out to your local video store and rent it this weekend. If you share some of the righteous indignation about the teaching profession that I do, Chalk will resonate as it brings to light many of the job's absurdities.

It will also remind you of its importance, and why it's necessary to do it as well as you can.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Lessons from the Red Sox


Yesterday I went to watch the Red Sox take on the Texas Rangers at Fenway Park. This was the first game I'd gone to in a while that didn't feature Manny Ramirez batting cleanup. While explaining to my wife how David Ortiz benefited from having a premier hitter like Manny batting behind him, a fan sitting in front of me who overhead the conversation said, "What's the matter with Yuke?"

He was referring to Kevin Youkilis, the player who was batting cleanup the night we were there. "Nothing," I said. "Yuke's awesome."

"Manny sucks," was his reply.

Oh how quickly memories fade. You might recall this post from last summer about Manny being Manny. Manny certainly could be frustrating, but he was endearing, and without question was one of the most prolific hitters in Red Sox history. Just four years ago he was MVP of the World Series as he helped bring Boston its first championship in 86 years.

Now I don't condone Manny's recent behavior. He pushed a Red Sox employee to the ground. He slapped Youkilis in the dugout. He feigned injury when his team needed his bat in the lineup. As a result of these transgressions (and others shielded from the public), Man-Ram was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Pittsburgh Pirate Jason Bay. Just like that, the Red Sox were free of their idiot-savant slugger.

I think the Sox did the right thing, as Manny was undoubtedly a distraction, and negatively impacted team chemistry to the point where they've gone 10-3 since the trade. Amazing how the absence of one individual can have such a positive effect.

It's very similar - if not identical - to teaching. If students really want to be disruptive, they can, without question ruin the class experience for everyone. I feel it's important for teachers to have the authority and confidence to remove students from their classroom when they're unable to behave, just as the Sox were able to remove Manny.

Teachers need to be able to consistently draw the line and let their charges know what will not be tolerated. I once had a student yell out in class, "AIDS was invented when someone f---ed a monkey!" I told him that I just couldn't allow that comment in my classroom, regardless of context. (We were discussing Hesse's Siddhartha, and how the main character learns the art of love from Kamala the courtesan.)

He knew his comment was out-of-bounds, accepted that I didn't have a vendetta against him, and walked quietly out of the room without further incident.

There are just some behaviors that a teacher can not allow to occur. When they do, educators need to be able to pull the trigger and swiftly mitigate the situation. I am not a proponent of removing students from my classroom. I only send a handful out each year, and it is because they cross a very distinct line.

When students return to my classroom the next day, they're usually much better behaved, and we're able to talk about their transgressions and work out a plan so they don't happen again. Sometimes though, on rare occasions, every educator wishes he could execute a trade that would send a problem student away, never to return. Thankfully I've only had one or two of these students.

I think it's healthy to admit that there will occasionally be students you'll clash with, and that it is OK. The key is keeping collateral damage to a minimum while you do your best to work with what you've got. And when what you've got isn't working at all, give Theo Epstein a call. He just might be able to swing a deadline deal.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Is online reading "real" reading?

The New York Times article "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?" has made its way across the education blogosphere in recent weeks as educators, students, and parents weigh-in on the merits and criticisms of reading Internet text.

There's little doubt in my mind that novel reading and Internet reading are different. Sure, both activities involve the processes of reading, yet most of the digital reading I do is efferent reading - reading done to elicit facts or information. When I sit down to read a novel, I am reading aesthetically - becoming absorbed in the world of the text as I attempt to recreate it in my mind and experience it as the characters do.

I don't think one is better than the other. I believe they're complimentary. It's also certainly possible to find aesthetic texts on the Internet - serial novels, poetry, short stories - and there's no doubt millions of efferent texts exist in print (textbooks, newspapers, encyclopedias, manuals, etc).

What is your digital reading experience like? Does it dominate or compliment your overall reading identity? Do you agree that digital reading is the "intellectual equivalent of empty calories" or is it "cognitively demanding" and legitimate?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Weighty sentiments and a vista


As I'm sure you've probably realized, I've been on vacation. Not only a vacation from school, but also a hiatus from blogging. Between a wedding, honeymoon, week-long hike on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont, and a new house I'm still moving into, I've been busy.

Unlike last summer when I blogged rather frequently, this year has been full of adventures, commitments, and activities outside the electronic realm. This is a good thing, as one benefit is I've been jogging nearly every day for the past few weeks.

Up until the past couple of years, I'd always been in relatively good shape. I ran cross-country in high school (my best mile was 5:10) and also played recreational basketball. I continued jogging and shooting hoops throughout college, my tenure as a newspaper journalist, and graduate school.

It wasn't until after my first year as a high school English teacher that I fully understood how much time, work, and dedication the job truly required if one was to do it well. While I've definitely made significant strides in my teaching from year one to what will now be year five this fall, I can't say the gains I've made in my body have been all that positive. I've probably put on about 20 pounds since I first started teaching.

One of my goals for 2008-2009 is to find a better balance between school's demands and my own personal health. This means continuing to jog and eat well. It also means getting to bed at a reasonable hour. My natural circadian rhythm finds me wanting to go to sleep at 2 a.m. and wake up at 10. When I was a reporter, my penchant for late nights meshed well with the job, as I usually went in to work around 3 p.m. and stayed until midnight or later.

During the school year, I usually wake at 5:00 a.m. I like getting to school just a little after 6:00, as I find I'm able to accomplish a lot in the quiet morning hours. The one caveat is that I need to go to sleep significantly earlier than I'm naturally inclined. I'm the type of person who needs a full eight hours of sleep to function, although I can get by with seven. More often than not, though, the past few school years I've ended up getting about five hours of sleep each night, coming home tired, eating something because I'm hungry because I ate lunch at 10:30 in the morning, taking a nap, then eating something again.

Obviously this is not a pattern for sustainable health. This year I will strive to eliminate afternoon naps and force myself to stop whatever I may be doing once it becomes 9:30 p.m., brush my teeth, and get to bed. My afternoons will consist of something active (a jog, a swim, a game of hoops, a bike ride), and I'll eat dinner at a reasonable hour. Rather than join a gym, I'm planning on getting a treadmill so I can jog in the winter.

The key to this whole plan is efficient time management. The unfortunate thing is, though, that even if I arrive at school an hour early and stay an hour late each day, I still won't get everything done that needs to get done. This is the reality that those who don't teach are oblivious to. They think, "Oh, you only work a 6.5-hour day, and you have summers off and all those vacations." It doesn't need to be stated here, on an education blog, that the majority of teachers are not "off" during those vacations.

There's always a stack of papers to read, a lesson to create, a continuing ed course to complete, a PDP plan to execute, a new pedagogy to read about, a new administrative decree to carry out.

I have resigned myself to the fact that there still will be some late nights, and that there will be times when my school commitment causes me to miss a jog or eat take-out instead of something healthy. The key will be to limit those nights, keeping them the exception, rather than the rule.

For the uninitiated, it might seem like I don't enjoy my job. That's not true. I sincerely love teaching. It completely engages me and provides for a creative outlet, and I am dedicated to seeing that my students learn the material and hopefully better themselves as a result of being in my classroom.

I think the overall point of this post is that the job is all-encompassing, and when teachers have a true chance to tune off their edu-lives and rejoin the rest of the world - if only briefly - it should be celebrated, not frowned upon. The time away provides us with the distance necessary to see ourselves, reflect, and improve our practice.

I suppose this dispatch signals my return to the world of secondary education. In two weeks from now, I will meet with incoming 9th graders to welcome them to our high school and encourage them to join the Leo Club, a community service organization dedicated to helping children, and Spotlight, the student newspaper, both of which I advise. A week after that, the first late bell of the year will ring, signaling the beginning of another adventurous ride. It's a ride I'm looking forward to, and hopefully with hindsight and another year of experience under my belt, I'll be able to steer clear of hidden rocks and unhealthy currents.

The image at the top of this post was from my honeymoon in St. Kitts, taken from one of the island's inactive volcanoes.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Nuts and bolts

While busily scoring final exams and compiling 4th quarter grades, I received an e-mail from another member of the English Dept. This teacher, a savvy veteran with mostly 12th grade classes, was asking for information about the nuts and bolts of instruction that goes on in the lower grades.

She wanted to make sure her curriculum and expectations were aligned with students' prior English class experiences. What follows is my response to her - a rough summary of what I do with my 9th and 12th grade students. Eventually this teacher hopes to compile a working document that details our department's major writing assignments and instructional strategies from 9-12.

I'm curious to hear how other teachers approach these areas of instruction. It goes without saying that almost none of what I do is set in stone; I'm always looking to tweak, improve, and be as effective as possible.

***

Vocabulary - I assign 10 words per week, drawn from class readings and most common SAT words. Usually the students have a say in deciding which words we'll learn. They also have four roots per week, drawn from the most common SAT words, and three literary terms as relevant to class readings & assignments.

Students write sentences which they share out loud with the class. Student-created vocabulary quiz stories with literary term & root utilization questions are used as weekly assessments.
I'm thinking I might include prefixes and suffixes next year. I'm also leaning toward experimenting with vocabulary squares and other innovative vocab teaching techniques in lieu or in addition to sentences.

Major writing assignments - Many of these are available on my teaching resources page. A number of them have been updated from last year. If you're interested in the newest version (or something that is listed here but isn't there), leave a comment or fire an e-mail and I'll send you what you want.

Ninth grade (some of these are also used with my 12th grade class):

* Summer reading character/setting fusion synthesis essay (500-700 words)
* Pearl Value Compare/Contrast Narrative Essay (800-1000 words)
* To Kill A Mockingbird quote & concept analysis and expository essay (500 words)
* Old Man and the Sea MCAS Long Comp 5-paragraph essay with three embedded & analyzed quotations (500-600 words)
* Ernest Hemingway research narrative involving three sources, in-text citations, and MLA Works Cited (400-600 words)
* Poet research narrative involving a minimum of three sources, in-text citations, and MLA Works Cited (500-700 words)
* original 700-1000 word short story demonstrating the six short story characteristics (setting, plot, conflict, character, point-of-view, & theme)
* Romeo & Juliet Verona Times Persuasive Editorial Letter (300-500 words)
* Vocabulary in context 300-word original story (3x per year)
* Outside reading book review featuring summary, exposition, analysis, and an outside opinion (300-400 words, 4x per year).
Twelfth grade:

* Oedipus quote & concept analysis and expository essay (500 words)
* Siddhartha Comes to America synthesis/narrative essay (700-1000 words)
* College essay/personal narrative (300-500 words)
* Macbeth theme analysis essay with three embedded & analyzed quotations (700-900 words)
* Lord of the Flies quote & concept analysis and expository essay (500 words)
* Three-search research/interview/narrative essay utilizing direct and indirect quotations, internal citations, and MLA works cited (800-1200 words)

Grammar - In my classes, grammar falls under the broader category of writing instruction. I teach grammar when I teach and assign writing. Some convention elements are explicitly taught as they relate to the assignment or specific goals of a lesson, while others are on an as-needed basis as students' strengths and weaknesses reveal themselves.

Reading - All course selections are read outside of class with the exception of Romeo and Juliet (9th), and Oedipus & Macbeth (12th), which we reenact in the classroom in our "thespian arena" (a topic for a future post). In addition to our school's curriculum, my students also read four outside reading books of their choice over the course of the year. The selections must be at least 200 pages and of appropriate reading level and challenge for each individual student.

Homework - Assignments usually involve reading and responding to a text in some way. Homework responses are always checked on the they're due and usually serve as a catalyst for that day's lesson. Class discussions, activities, and participation opportunities revolve around nightly homework assignments - they're not just busy work. I'll give anywhere from 20-40 homework assignments per quarter, depending on complexity and time needed to complete. Students can expect to spend 30-60 minutes per night.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sayonara seniors

Today I bid adieu to my seniors in World Literature. On June 1st they'll graduate from our esteemed Western Massachusetts high school and go off into the oh-so-great-big world.

Sadly, only a couple are attending a four-year college. Most are going to the local community college, one is joining the Army, and a few others are undecided. All told, they should feel proud they've made it this far.

When the year started, I had 20 students. The roster for today's final class listed 15. Four students (who were failing) dropped out, and a fifth moved. For various reasons, most of these kids resisted the K-12 Kool-Aid we offered. Part of it lies on us. We failed miserably to identify one student's reading disability early, and as a result, he became a vocal troublemaker as he was forced to compensate for poor writing skills.

Certainly not all of them are failures of the system. Many simply lacked support from their parents, and thus in a time when they had a dire need for guidance, they got none. Our school is in the midst of creating a program for students who don't fit the typical mold. It's called "Twilight," and will start and end later in the day. I hope it will be able to help some of these kids.

Truth is, most of my students will manage to find their way, even if it takes them longer than expected. Hopefully they'll remember one of the famous quotes from Hesse's Siddhartha: "I can wait, I can think, and I can fast." If they're patient and willing to wait and work things out (and perhaps dine on Top Roman for a few years) they should be alright.

Less than four weeks of school remain. On good days, I'll have an extra prep period. On bad days, I'll be a sub. Still, it's one less period I need to be fully "on." When I'm not needed for extra duties, I'll be able to make a dent in my 9th graders' poetry anthologies. I gave them a month to create them, I figure a month to grade them is fair, right? Each anthology can take 10-20 minutes to read. That's more than 16 hours of reading, assessing, and grading.

***

Since my last post in April, I bought and moved into my first home with my fiancee. Those of you who are homeowners can remember, I'm sure, how time-consuming the buying and moving-in process can be. We still have a lot of work to do, but our furniture is in rooms and things are slowly being set up and put away in proper places.

I've also been preparing for my wedding, which is less than a month and a half away.

And as if that weren't enough news, a few weeks ago I earned tenure at my school. Three years of committed, hard work have finally paid off. While the job isn't really getting easier, I am feeling more comfortable, and I think the educational product I'm able to offer students is improving. I'm grateful my school has been willing to stick by me and help me grow as a teacher.

I think it's now time to slip away from the laptop, throw another log into the woodstove, and appreciate the ambiance of our new living room.

Happy final countdown to all.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Tyrany of the Thesis Statement

I've written about this before, but it's always nice to hear that others feel the same way - especially when their affirming voices make it into the pages of the NCTE's English Journal.

High school English teacher Alec R. Duxbury goes toe-to-toe with the five-paragraph thesis essay in EJ's latest edition, which came out a few weeks ago:

"[The] truth about the teaching of writing is avoided in schools everywhere. The error in pedagogy that governs the teaching of the essay is built on the sanctity of the thesis statement and the insistence that formula will produce quality writing. Teachers ask students to find a thesis statement first and to organize the content of their writing around that thesis statement.

Most students encounter this set of rules in the general category of the five-paragraph essay, a form that students know exactly how to produce by the time they leave middle school. As a result, it is too often a form that inspires little in students but lack of thought and engagement with their subjects. Such thesis-first writing and writing instruction has been a boon to teachers who seek to quantify the art of writing through rubrics and scoring methods.

The assessment of most thesis-first writing assignments is accomplished by checking the introduction for a three-part thesis statement, counting the number of examples, checking for topic sentences, and noting the repetition of the three-part thesis statement in the concluding paragraph. The art of writing, the gift of meaning a writer gives to a reader, is neglected by the assignment of such writing and the quantitative assessment of it.

The tyranny of the thesis statement demands that students write mechanical, lifeless prose in which they have no interest and that teachers of writing never entertain the activity that their titles imply."

Hallelujah brother! I'm a few weeks removed from reading 65 five-paragraph thesis essays on The Old Man and the Sea. Let me tell you - students disliked writing the essays just as much as I disliked having to read them. They were, for the most part, formulaic, lifeless, and predictable. This isn't a knock on my students - I asked them to write in a specific form to a specified set of guidelines, and because most of them are conscientious and willing to do what I ask, they wrote the essays with minimal complaints.

I'm glad it's April and we're onto our poetry unit.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Old Man and the Sea Essay Comment Instructions

I would like your Old Man and the Sea essay comments to answer the following four questions. Write three to four sentences for each question.

I - What is this essay's thesis? Is it clear and concise? Is it focused? Does it engage you? Why or why not?

II - Of all the examples and quotations contained in this essay, which is the strongest? Why? What made it stand out above the others?

III - What is one thing this essay does well? It could be its organization, word choice, writing style, choice of quotations, introduction, conclusion, etc. In addition to mentioning what the author does well, copy and paste an example of what you thought was particularly effective. Be sure to put the example in quotations.

IV - What is one piece of advice that the author might consider the next time he or she is asked to write a similar type of analytical essay?

Your comments should appear below the story you are responding to. When asked to choose an identity, click "Name/URL," then write your first name and last initial in the name field. Leave the URL space blank. Comments not posted according to these instructions will be deleted.

I would like you to respond to a minimum of two essays per class. The essays will be up by the end of school on Monday, March 24th. Please bring a printed copy of your comments to class on Tuesday, March 25th, as I will check them then. Your classmates and I thank you for your valuable feedback.
Six comments = a "check"
Nine comments = a "check plus"

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Captain B-G

This post is a republished blog comment I made on Dan73s's Weblog on the topic of a teacher's role in the classroom. Should we be Authorities? Coaches? Guides? Something else?

***

How does one find that balance between Teacher-As-Authority and Teacher-As-Guide? Some of best lessons occur when students actively take a role in what they are learning. I've found that the key is providing enough scaffolding and detail in my assignments so they know the parameters. Establishing what the playing field looks like is key. You explain the rules, then let them play and explore.

It's perhaps after the "game" when I revert to the TAA to share my perceptions of what occurred and how they might have "played" better. (While they're playing the game I might act more like a referee, ensuring they follow the rules.)

In my classes I've really tried to empower students by granting them access to the materials that help make me the authority. For example, when it's time to define new vocabulary words, literary terms, or roots, the students are often the ones who read the definitions or look them up in the dictionary. I even have students create quizzes and generate the questions that will fuel class discussions.

There's a constant struggle at finding a balance between empowering students (which takes time) and running the show myself. The more I can successfully delegate, the more ownership students have in what we're doing. I do, of course, still demonstrate my authority and knowledge when their understandings go astray or prove too shallow. I'll step in when there's confusion on how to interpret or decipher something. At times I'll overrule or disagree, but students are generally accepting when I do.

I've made it clear to students that I'm captain of the ship, but that the success of our voyage depends on how well they do their part. Some of the best trips occur when I give students the wheel and they take our vessel to places I might not have envisioned. And when we do stray off course, enough of the students are willing to row when I re-assume command at the helm.

The quicker students grasp concepts and ideas, the faster we can sail through the curriculum. When problems occur, we can throw out the anchor and better explore the water before resuming our voyage. By keeping a captain's log of our adventure, I'm able to see how we've reached our respective ports-of-call, and how the voyage might be smoother the second time around.

Meme: Passion Quilt


Fellow edublogger Ms. Ward tagged me with this meme (like Ms. Ward, this was my first too). The meme's task was to "find or design a graphic that depicts the one idea you hope your students leave your classroom with."

I chose the above image of Bruce Lee. While I certainly agree with the quote from the picture, my favorite Bruce Lee quote is "no way as way, no limitation as limitation." Check out this unedited "lost interview"of Bruce Lee from 1971, where he speaks about his life and martial arts philosophy.

"No way as way, no limitation as limitation" relates directly to the way I view writing instruction. Each of us has our own way of conceptualizing ideas and transmitting them to the written word. I think the more in-touch we become with the way we think and organize and access ideas, the closer we become to closing the gap between thought and expression. As Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed once said, "between thought and expression, there lies a lifetime."

At the beginning of the year, I tell my students one of our goals will be to narrow that gap, and that our methods will be largely subjective.

***

In an effort to keep this meme going, I am going to "tag" five other bloggers I enjoy reading:

1) Bruce Schauble at Throughlines
2) Mr. McNamar at The Daily Grind
3) Seth at Teacher in Disguise
4) Brad at The Lamppost Blog
5) Dana Huff at huffenglish.com

THE RULES:
  • Post a picture or create your own image that captures what YOU are most passionate for students to learn about

  • Give your picture a short title

  • Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt”

  • Link back to this blog entry

  • Include links to 5 people in your professional learning network
  • Monday, February 25, 2008

    Fun with poetry

    Today I received a hard-bound copy of Pine Tree Poetry's national anthology of student poetry from 2007. Eleven of the ninth grade students I had last year were published.

    When I do my annual poetry anthology (link leads to last year's assignment, which I might tweak for this year), one of the expectations is students will submit their favorite original poem to Pine Tree for consideration.

    Something new I plan to add to the unit is a memorization and recitation component. While part of me thinks it will simply be enjoyable to listen to students recite professionally published poetry from memory, my primary motivation is to build their recitation skills so our school can field strong competitors for next year's Poetry Out Loud competition.

    After learning about Poetry Out Loud last year, I finally managed to organize a school-wide poetry recitation competition at my school. While there were only a few who participated, we did generate a winner who will represent us against other schools at the Massachusetts semi-final event on March 8th.

    Another activity I do over the course of the poetry unit involves a poetry slam, which is different than recitation, as students read their own work, which may or may not be memorized. For a great three minute primer on poetry slams, check out Geof Hewitt's Guide to Poetry Slam. Two years ago at the New England Association of Teachers of English annual conference, I attended a poetry slam seminar led by Geof himself, a former Vermont Poetry Slam Champion. Geof was a vivid and energetic teacher, and helped me discover exciting ways to breathe life into poetry.

    Before we can do poetry, students and I must get through The Old Man and the Sea (which won't be too long now, as the novella is a quick read). The culminating activity for this unit is an essay in the style of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System English Language Arts Long Composition. While there are few things that make me want to do like Oedipus and gouge my eyes out more than reading five paragraph essays, I teach the format because it's something my freshmen will have to do next year.

    There are other (and, arguably, better) ways to teach thesis statements, topic sentences, supporting details, organization, and concluding paragraphs, but I would be doing my students a disservice (and probably engendering the wrath of my department chair and all the 10th grade English teachers) if I didn't explicitly teach this style of writing and provide students with exposure to the 10 odd prompts of which they are likely to encounter one of when they take the mandatory test next year.

    While my school definitely takes the MCAS test seriously, the administrative team realizes that one need not always "teach to the test" to succeed at the test. It's really about arming students with the intellectual arrows they'll need to shoot down the rogue test questions. Can students summarize? Can students infer? Can students synthesize? Can they read critically? Can they discern a main idea? Can they craft a thesis statement? Can they build and maintain an argument with supporting details? A test teaches skills, and there are disparate ways to impart skills. (Knowledge, on the other hand, is a different story.)

    One reason I enjoy our poetry unit (aside from the fact that I love breaking down words and studying them in their distilled simplicity) is its independent nature. Students are given a task that involves research, writing, and analysis. They are given a timeline and suggested checklist for when each component should be completed. They are then given multiple days of class time to use at their discretion as they progress through the requirements. As a teacher, I loves this, as it allows me to move and mingle about the students, informally checking in, answering questions, asking questions, and, hopefully, piquing their curiosity and interest.


    Wednesday, February 13, 2008

    Star Wars Public Service Announcement

    I've been too caught up in the February grind to post as frequently as I'd like. The upcoming vacation should give me time to write, read, and reflect. I'll also be able to tackle the 60-something short stories that need grading, and take stock of how I'm progressing through my Old Man and the Sea and Macbeth units.

    Today a friend e-mailed me the link to the following public service announcement that features our favorite intergalactic gang of bounty hunters and misfits. Twenty-nine years later, the message is still, unfortunately, much needed.

    Monday, February 4, 2008

    The Old Man and the Sea Research Project

    I've revised the Old Man and the Sea research project my 9th graders complete before reading Hemingway's timeless tale of endurance, victory, defeat, and acceptance.

    Click here for the updated requirements, which include writing a summary of Hemingway's life and literary accomplishments and researching various aspects of fishing and the fisherman's lifestyle.

    The project helps to bring to life a number of the book's key components, and allows students to see how truly incredible Santiago's oceanic feats are.

    Before students are set loose in our school's library to gather information, our librarian is going to give them a primer on Internet research, and hook them up with a free Boston Public Library eCard. As an English teacher, I am grateful to have a technologically savvy ally manning our literary depository!

    Thursday, January 31, 2008

    Short story blog assignment comment criteria

    I would like your short story comments to answer the following five questions:

    I - Describe your personal reaction to the story. How do you feel after reading it? What do you remember? What images do you see? What concepts or ideas are in your head? What did the story make you think about?

    II - Does the main character change over the course of the story? If so, what is his or her great insight or epiphany? How is this change important to the story? How would the story be different if the character didn't change?

    If the main character does not change, explain why it was important that he/she remain static throughout the tale. How was the story arc dependent on the main character's personality?

    III. What was your favorite part of the story? Did it occur in the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, or resolution? Pick a line that you liked, copy and paste it into the comment box, put quotes around it, and explain what it was about it that stood out to you.

    IV - Overall, what is this tale's best quality? It could be its characters, the conflict, the resolution, the description of the setting, the story arc, use of dialogue, etc. Use specific details and references to the story to explain why you thought this was its best strength.

    V - What is one piece of advice that the author might consider for future writing assignments? This should be phrased constructively (try doing ------- next time, consider --------) or inquisitively (what do you think would happen if you -------------?)

    Comments should be two to three paragraphs (8 to 12 well-written, informative sentences). Your comments should appear below the story you are responding to. When asked to choose an identity, click "nickname," then sign your comment with your first name and last initial. Comments not posted according to these instructions will be deleted.

    I would like you to respond to a minimum of two essays per class (6 total). The essays will be up by the end of school on Thursday, Jan. 31st.

    * Please bring a printed copy of your comments to class on Monday, Feb. 4th, as I will check them then. Your classmates and I thank you for your valuable feedback.
    Six comments = a "check"
    Nine comments = a "check plus"

    For general information about posting blog comments, please click here.

    Wednesday, January 30, 2008

    Wiki wannabe


    I just finished checking out some student wikis on Kristin's Blog. I had taken Kristin off my blogroll, but rediscovered her while reading of Mr. McNamar's struggles at his new job as an urban educator in Connecticut.

    Kristin's last post, "The Not-So-Intimidating World of Wiki," was in October, but it is current and relevant to me, as I am looking to move my classroom integration of Web 2.o tools beyond, "OK students, here's my USB drive to save your story so I can upload it to our class blog."

    Web 2.o is about control, authorship, and authority. Students aren't getting the full experience because I still hold the reigns. I suppose I do it out of caution.

    I am the only teacher at my high school who is posting student work to a blog for all the world to see. I am meaning to move beyond using my class blog pages as a place for displaying student work. I'd like each of my kids to have their own space where they upload class content and harness the connective powers of the Internet to move the discourse beyond the limitations of our classroom's four walls.

    Perhaps wikis are the answer.

    After February break, I will be taking part in a Web 2.0 professional development workshop with 20 other educators in Western Massachusetts. As soon as my principal informed me of the opportunity, I seized it and told him I was interested.

    Wikis are the next unexplored territory for Mr. B-G. I hope to use some of the examples of Kristen's students (Hannah, Madison, Brian, and Meghan) to gain ideas and structure for my foray into the wiki world. I think her students' personal philosophy statements help create a bond between them and the reader, and the option of focusing on an individual area of interest and inquiry makes Kristin's curriculum more relevant to her students, as it allows for a tapestry of learning that is rich, diverse, and, I would imagine, fun to be a part of.

    While Web 2.0 technology is slow to make its way into the lesson plans of teachers at my school, my principal is a real advocate for its use, and sees the possibilities for enriching learning. What is difficult is arranging for professional development and time for teachers to educate each other on its potential.

    Eventually, as a few of us are able to figure things out and have our students use the tools in meaningful ways that demonstrate learning, the allocation of resources should come, and we'll be able to get more teachers behind the Web 2.0 movement.

    Sunday, January 27, 2008

    The importance of ritual

    At the beginning of the month, my fiancee and I drove to Northampton, MA to catch Livingston Taylor at The Iron Horse. If the name sounds familiar, well, yeah, he's James's brother, and his live performances always rise the spirits.

    Liv's a good musician. He has a number of fun, quirky, folksy tunes, and also reaches deep for nostalgia-evoking ballads. He strums guitar and plays piano and an occasional banjo. Liv introduces most songs with an autobiographical story. He's honest, sincere, and projects a sense of love for his audience.

    I've been going to the Iron Horse to see Liv perform each January since my undergraduate days at UMass Amherst in the 90's. The tradition started with a handful of friends. As my buddies moved away, I began checking out the annual show with whomever I was dating at the time. For the past two years, the lucky gal has been my fiancee Mary Kate, but truth be told, I'm really the lucky one.

    I think traditions are important, be they Sunday rituals in the fall and winter involving a certain undefeated football team, daily routines of exercising, listening to music, or playing a game, or yearly events like catching a musician or getting away to a favorite spot.

    For the past three years, Mary Kate and I have trekked north to Vermont's Inn at Long Trail for a weekend getaway inside one of the inn's fireplace suites. This past September, my friends and I ventured to Burlington, VT for a weekend of camping, cliff jumping, and revelry in the city's pedestrian-friendly downtown.

    We even managed to catch a show at Nectar's, the venue where PHISH first performed before they made it big. We've already talked about going back this year.

    I find that as I get older and time becomes scarce, I need to schedule almost all my activities in advance. Once it's on the calendar, it becomes "real," and demands to be taken seriously.

    This isn't to say I can't roll on the spur-of-the-moment, it's just that as I've aged I've come to rely on schedules to bring order to my life.

    Saturday, January 19, 2008

    The end of slideshows

    I don't remember where I first learned of Animoto, a web-based program that allows you to upload photos and music to create a video animation, but I am excited about its potential for use in the classroom - as well as for fun with friends and family. I hope you enjoy the above images and tune.

    The Africa pictures were taken in 1998 during a safari to Tanzania and Kenya. The shot of the boys playing catch in the ocean was snapped in St. John four years ago. I took the picture of the graveyard in my hometown back in the 90's, and developed it in my high school's darkroom. I would imagine that today, with the advent of digital developing, the darkroom no longer exists.

    Despite the efficiency and affordability of computer-assisted photo processing, there's something I miss about using an enlarger to burn images onto slick white sheets of contact paper.

    A few of the Africa shots in the animation were stylized using Adobe Photoshop. The tune is a jazz-inspired version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Click here for a soulful rendition by the late Eva Cassidy on YouTube.

    Area eccentric reads entire book

    This article from today's Onion can be appreciated by all lovers of literature - students, teachers, parents, authors. Enjoy!

    Thursday, January 17, 2008

    Writing for an audience

    This morning I came across a great lesson aimed at engaging students in the democratic process called Writing Letters that Matter from The Polliwog Journal. I might tweak it a bit and do something similar with my students. I've also been considering doing a mini unit on editorial writing with my freshmen, with part of the expectation being that we will submit the editorials to our local newspaper.

    In my journalism class, students write and submit an editorial each quarter. So far, four of them have been published in the paper's Student Opinion Page. Whenever possible, I try to incorporate some type of publishing component with the writing assignments I give students. Sometimes the audience is just the other students in the room, but this alone helps provide internal motivation for them to put a bit more effort in, knowing their writing will be read and heard by others.

    Sunday, January 13, 2008

    101 Web 2.0 Teaching Tools

    While perusing teacher blogs this evening, I came across this great link to 101 Web 2.0 Teaching Tools. Some of these I have heard of and used, but many I learned about for the first time. If anyone has success or experience with any of these resources in particular, please let me know.

    Thanks to Jo McLeay at The Open Classroom for the link, which I discovered by checking out the Online Education Database.

    Friday, January 11, 2008

    "Evening common" short story assignment


    For this writing activity, we will focus on how the theme of a story can be instrumental in shaping its progression and providing an overall effect on a reader.

    To begin, think back on all of the characters we have met in the various short stories we’ve read:
    *The young couple Della and Jim from “The Gift of the Magi” (524)
    * The ghost, Berenice, and Jason from “Sonata for Harp and Bicycle” (541)
    * Doodle, his brother, and the scarlet ibis from “The Scarlet Ibis” (554)
    * Granny, her husband, and the reporters from “Blues Ain’t No Mockin’ Bird” (571)
    * Uncle Marcos and Clara from “Uncle Marcos” (577)
    * Leon, Ken, Teofilo, and the priest from “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” (590)
    * Don Trine from “The Harvest” (617).
    * The girl from the girl/granny group stories.

    Your task is to pick at least three of the above characters and write a 400-500 word short story that takes place (at least partially) in the setting of the above image of a town common in the evening. In addition to using characterization and setting to fuel your tale, you also want to shape your narrative around a specific theme.

    Here are some “theme starters” to get you going: Ambition, Jealousy, Beauty, Loneliness, Betrayal, Love, Courage, Loyalty, Duty, Perseverance, Fear, Prejudice, Freedom, Suffering, Happiness, Truth, Greed. Remember that theme is the insight, idea, or message an author is trying to convey. The theme often reveals the author's thoughts about a topic.

    Take one of the above theme starters and develop it into a message or idea that will shape your story. Examples of developed themes include “greed destroys,” “love is blind,” “loyalty is rewarded,” “never give up despite the odds,” “human nature is good,” “human nature is evil,” “things aren’t always as they appear to be (don’t jump to conclusions),” “people are afraid of change,” etc.

    As with other short stories we’ve written, keep in mind the five plot points, and remember to use dialogue to give your characters voice and to keep your narrative fresh and fun to read.

    This is a two-part homework assignment.

    Due Friday, Jan. 16th
    * Three characters selected with a two-to three-sentence justification for each
    * One paragraph on your interpretation of the town common image as your setting. Will you interpret it literally or liberally? (Think back to how you reacted to the image of the horsemen. You can make a similar or different interpretative choice.)
    * A theme selection, along with a two to three sentence explanation of why you chose what you did.
    * A rough outline of the five plot points you expect your story to take. Please write at least one sentence for each point.

    You will have time on Friday to share your ideas with classmates and further refine your story conceptions. It is OK – perhaps even encouraged – to make changes before and while you write your miniature tale, which will be due at the start of class on Monday, Jan. 20th.