25 October 2014

"New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again"

Every time I read a post from Paul Thomas, my teaching self stands up a little straighter. I read this take down of close reading, CC-style, at the end of my critical methods unit in AP Lit. Ouch.

" Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy."

Of course, doing a "Lit Crit Legends" mini-unit in an AP course is mostly about offering strategies to students for attacking the unfamiliar texts that always show up on the test. And part of our discussion centers on the artificial nature of criticism, and the parallel enjoyment someone can get from the intellectual exercise anyway.  This year, as we worked on one passage together in Tale of Two Cities, I felt the Dickens appreciation quotient double in the room that day. But I recognize that Thomas has a valid point regarding the futility of setting up a particular structure for analysis and then expecting the result to be a creative thinker.   It shows me that 1) I should be pleased that I address AP goals and skills so directly, and 2) I should feel just as disappointed as I do in stretching the reading process of my students into this convoluted and disrespectful form.

11 September 2014


Today I found myself telling a class that it did not matter what we read together, but that we practiced thinking critically about it all..they were flabbergasted. One girl said, "But, healigan, you LOVE Beowulf!" And I do, but mostly because it hardwired me to recognize a hero when I saw one walking down the hall--they liked that. The conversation happens every year, and the answer is taken differently every year. Critical thinking and writing is the skill to be practiced to create successful people. Why not read the stories that nudge the best of us out into the open?

04 September 2014


I  realized a while ago that my goodreads.com feed does not usually read like most of my friends' reads. And I cannot fathom the #bookaday crowd (yes, I know if you teach younger kids than I do, that it is all about modeling and recommendations. But I would miss my personal choices so much. I could not do it.) I don't write long reviews, though I could. Most of my reviews are aimed at the possible reader, usually a teen. I try to distill the book into a few sentences that reveal topic iced with my emotional response. Then I am done.  And the books at best take meandering paths that may never meet at a common destination. Who am I as a reader? It is changing. I feel this foreshadows another shift in my teacher profile, as usual.

Two very different books have captured the deepest part of my reader soul this summer: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. The Goldfinch, an obvious choice: I am an English teacher who loves Dickens. For the first time, those who airily told me it was Dickensian were right. What I love about Dickens is his panoramic love of the almighty Word, his placement of his characters always into the larger context of the world, the intersection of intellect, emotion and spirit than he calls out of you as you read, his utter confidence that good is absolute in the world.  No one is just a villain, a lover, a father, a demon in his works. There is a greater system at work in the world and Dickens is charging it as I read. And Donna Tartt's book also seems to be a compendium of all her experience, feeling and thought about the world. To my delight, a central theme in protagonist Theo Decker's life is one that even my least engaged student would recognize as a theme in each of my courses:  "And isn't the whole point of things-beautiful things- that they connect you to some larger beauty?" Yup, this is a book about a boy whose entire life is about protecting his possession of the most beautiful thing in the world-which may turn out to be his very existence. He loses his family, finds a new one, becomes a drug addict and an antiques expert simultaneously, and finds himself on the wrong end of a dangerous drug deal stranded in Amsterdam without a friend. But he always has his goldfinch-or at least he thinks he does. It turns out to be more important than having it, by the way. The book is panoramic, profound and full of allusions that I would never have seen 20 years ago. Yet another reason to be perfectly fine with getting older, and loving Dickens/Tartt too. 

But then we have  Cryptonomicon, a 1000-page origin story of the Enigma code, the digital computer and invention of RAM, the NSA, and all the people necessary to tell the story. Alan Turing in is the book, for God's sake. There is a 4-page description of the proper way to eat Cap'n Crunch cereal in the Philippines, very close to the illustrated iteration of the first generation of RAM and the extremely scientific connection between masturbation and effective code breaking. One of the characters invents the digital computer, calling it the compute-er. It is a wild ride requiring commitment, a comfort with the dizzying speed at which Mr. Stephenson invents words and worlds and then plops you down into an easy chair to enjoy the thorny but hilarious path to true love. Everything about this book SCREAMS epic. And yet, just like Tartt's book, there might be a writerly preoccupation with creating something beautiful, and just, and important. 

Is this why I loved both books? Probably not--it's too symmetrical. But they each seem to feed some part of me that needs to be fed. I feel as though I am a puzzle piece in the transition from a book world to a digital world. I do know that I will be referring to each of them this year as I design a track for each class I teach. Sometimes the books I don't teach are the ones that control the ones I do. 

*Read This Summer
Gun Machine-Warren Ellis
Cryptonomicon-Neal Stephenson
We Were Liars-E Lockhart
Deep Blue-Jennifer Donnelly
Identical-Ellen Hopkins
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown-Holly Black
The Tea Rose-Jennifer Donnelly
Snowpiercer-Vol 2
Mr Mercedes-Stephen King
The Goldfinch-Donna Tartt
How the Light Gets In-Louise Penny 
The Book of Life-Deborah Harkness
Hild-Nicola Griffith

Sharpe's Eagle-Bernard Cornwell
Waterloo-Bernard Cornwell
The Maze Runner-Dashner
Ancillary Justice-Ann Leckie

22 August 2014


Just catching my breath after our prep week--new website, new books, new classes, new schedule. Last year, there was no time to reflect with 6 classes, so I have to remember how to do that for this year. Here we go.

Our new school website, including a new course management tool, went live this week. I was among the presenters who introduced our "Academic Groups" pages to all the other teachers. Three meetings and many hours of play over the last three weeks set me up for Wednesday's 60 min preso to ~25 teachers plus the principal (gulp). I was on learner overload! The process was a typical tech learning curve-nothing worked, the functionality went in and out, and the vendor kept turning the site on and off as we tried out all the features. But we had fun, and learned together, and even strategized how other teachers could be soothed when this stuff happened to them. Hardest class in the world to teach? TEACHERS.

So here is what I learned sitting in a tech lab with 5 other tech-y teachers. We are all alike in our curiosity, our willingness to screw up and laugh at it, and our desire to work together. At no other time during the year will I probably spend extended time with these folks--we all had different temperaments and areas of expertise. Didn't matter this summer. What mattered was the topic at hand and how many ways we could un-code the website. How this looked and sounded reminded me of exactly how my room looks when I throw out a challenge to a class and they have to solve the problem without me. It was loud, and we were all talking at once, and at least two people were rocking more than one device at a time. Everyone announced their superior approach the group at large, whether anyone asked or not. People jumped up to run across to check someone else's screen out whenever they needed to. All of this was happening while the Tech Director had a preso up on the Smartboard and was trying to present to us. We even laughed that we were 21st century learners-which was actually a snarky comment, since most of us at one time or another has made fun of people who still call it that--14 years into the 21st century.

But as I worked the room this week noting at least three levels of comfort in the room with my colleagues at the same time, I noticed some of my colleagues were unhappy with others yelling out questions or calling out successes. And there are always adults who are consternated by my room set up-not rows, more like mini centers. So if you are 50 years old and you are used to finding a seat near the front so you can be near the teacher, what do you do when there are 10 "front row" seats and the teacher does not stand still? I needed folks to help each other, since the class was so large. I sensed that most of the class was on target, but not everyone was happy. It is a vulnerable feeling to know that you are laying your teaching soul bare to other teachers who may not get your approach. And no teacher spends time in class describing why she teaches the way she does--the whole collaborative thing is CRITICAL for our kids, so my adult learners needed to test drive collaboration themselves. I hope that they got enough to work on their own. I won't be giving a test so they know how well they learned!
outline of exhausted teacher

14 August 2014

GRAPHIC NOVELS in the ELA CLASSROOM, High School Edition

Somehow, without planning it, I have begun a graphic novel shelf in my classroom library. My Anime Club kids pushed me to read some manga, which is cool, but I found myself wanting more solid stories, so graphic novels started jumping out at me whenever I was at the bookstore. They are intense reading experiences! Most of the ones I have grown to love have required second reading just because my "print" mind cannot always decipher the sophisticated layers of story added by the art. And then so many series use different artists for each issue, so I am learning two new authors with each new episode. Kids don't seem to mind, though. They eat them alive. I have decided not to add my favorite manga to the mix though--I have so little space, and they are like cotton candy. I could not have only one volume of Death Note or Scott Pilgrim--it would spark a mutiny.
So how do I choose the right graphic novels? I started with authors whose names I knew--mostly because of movies made of their books, I guess--and so my early choices were the "classics" as far as I could decipher:  Harvey Pekar, Lynda Barry, Art Speigelman, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, etc etc. I am reading As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gilman as she draws it right now online, and some of my favorite purchases this summer have been Boxers and Saints by Gene Yang, both volumes of Snowpiercer and Templar. I have also dabbled in Warren Ellis (Crecy, Gun Machine), and a student gave me Polarity-about an musician/artist whose superpower is his bipolar-ity.  And I would not be an English teacher if I did not have Kill Shakespeare  in my room and Grant Morrison's Supergods. A few of the novels into comic books are OK-but that brings back memories of those Classic Comics that all the boys in my neighborhood read when I was a kid. The paper was flimsy, the ink smeared,  and the best parts of the story were always left out in my 12-year-old female opinion.

When I review this list though, it is heavy, really heavy on literary-type storytelling, which can be a tough sell for most kids. And some of these are incredibly dark, cynical, violent and even misogynistic (that is for another post). I don't want them in my room if I am not going to be able to accompany their reading of them with discussion of difficult themes, images and styles.  I have avoided the superhero stuff, cause the kids already read those. I did get 3 new converts to Gaiman's Sandman this year, and am thinking of adding a few issues of Lock & Keye by Joe Hill.  And shouldn't I have Matt Fraction in there somewhere? And I NEED to read Tank Girl asap.  So here is my list to date. What am I missing? What should I remove?

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
American Splendor
V for Vendetta
Locke and Key
Sandman (3 vol)
Boxers and Saints

Snowpiercer, vol 1 & 2
The Griff
Kill Shakespeare, vol 1 & 2
The Modern Mariner-Nick Hayes rocks!
Graphic Canon, vol 1 & 2

My Goodreads list, still under construction:

My beginning list of places to go for recs:

06 August 2014


  This summer has been about the reader in me, and I am finally relaxing into it. No PD, no concerted effort to read in a certain direction. I am just reading. And it is proving again that reading is a creative act. Feeling that truth in my bones is changing how I think about my teaching, even as I try to ignore August 18 looming. Right now, I am reading 4 books on 3 different platforms, so I am learning about whatever each book is about at the same time that I am learning about what difference the platform makes.
   Any Bernard Cornwell book about soldier Richard Sharpe moves fast through action and plot, so they work well on my Audible--and getting through a workout is so much easier. But reading Hild in hardback, I move at an uneven pace. I stop to revel in the mise en scene. You can do that easily in a printed book. To close a book gives one such power. I have to remember that when I am teaching Chaucer, and all they can think about is closing the book. They deserve the power.
   So what will I do with this understanding, since 75% of what my students will read this year will be decided by me? Choice is critical, I know, but the content area is British Lit, and I make no apologies for foisting Shakespeare and Swift on them. If teachers had not pushed me into reading things I would not have chosen myself, I would have missed some of the highlights of my reading life. Easy to say now--even as I remember how nonsensical I thought Bleak House was with its never-ending Jarndyce v Jarndyce. I got it, alright? Thank God I didnot live in the Victorian era with all its injustice. After 100 pages, even, and then I had to read another 700. Sheesh. Even this lover of Dickens struggled.
   But what I learned was that I could defeat Bleak House, and that sometimes the act of getting all the way through a tough book was power.  I owned that book and all that was in it, even the parts that the author did not know about, since as the reader, I had control. So I know that some of the kids in AP Lit are not going to like A Tale of Two Cities, but I am also sure they will have exactly what they need to judge the novel genre every time they read a new novel. And they will decide what they love when they read: is it all about plot for them, or does Dickens' multitasking through setting, character and theme help them see the complexity of life in a different way? And I do not think I will be able to abandon The Secret Agent after our conversation of the gray areas in corporate spy life experienced by Verloc this past year. All of a sudden, the air exited the room, a sign that something important was happening. What? Hannah, Luke, Jake all began to comment on what kind of person Verloc was, how all his insignificant choices added up to a picture of him that was... well, not what they wanted in a protagonist. But somehow, his weakness seemed to focus them on Conrad's purpose in a much more efficient way than I had planned. How we see ourselves and who we really are became the day's question, not "how did Conrad build his environment?" or "what do you think of Verloc's murder at the hands of Winnie?" It was about us. Exactly what I wanted.
   Many questions still remain to be answered in this journey to free reading PLUS planned reading. Changing my reading list so that it does not include 90% "old white guys" is an ongoing battle--I did not win this year. Reading A Tale for the Time Being, We Need New Names, and Hild energized my quest to balance the old and new. My reading lists will be changing as I wend my way through this last year of my present AP reading list. And British Lit? Well, it has the best old white guys, for sure, but the more I tip it to contemporary texts, the happier I will be. One year at a time. One book at a time (except during the summer). I am going to go read.

26 January 2014

Educon 2.6

For my third Educon, I had fewer expectations: my school district is starting to chafe, so at most I hoped for a few ideas I could implement surreptitiously. But once again, I thought so small, and Educon is so big. One of my favorites session was with Josh Block and Tim Best's kids. They answered all kinds of questions about Project Based Learning, which I have been trying to implement where I can. Doing it on your own when it is not a school-wide strategy can be daunting. But here were these kids, answering rapid fire questions from teachers they did not know all about how their course works, how their learning belongs to them at SLA. I found myself imagining my kids and how high their confidence would rise with this approach. I redesigned my British mythology research project, due to start in 2 weeks, on the way home. Kudos to Josh, Tin and all their kids.

My favorite session was the Standards and Standardization conversation with Diana Laufenberg. And here is where I remembered my own big picture--that teaching is my vocation, not just my job, and I should not let shortsighted policies ever slow me down. We did not find answers, but I met great teachers and with Diana's help, we talked around the problems that don't have answers right now. But they will. The Common Core standards are not great, but they were not spawned in hell either. I will prevail.

And finally, I was not at Educon today because I am sick. This blog post is as coherent as conscious as I have been all day. And I can't miss school tomorrow because I want to see my kids and make some changes. They recharge me. This year, I hardly tweeted, I took no pics, but I remembered who I am, and what I can control. once again, Educon comes through. Thanks. Another cup of tea is coming...

03 January 2014

BLACK SWAN GREEN: Thank God that our teen years only last so long...

I am still processing a couple of issues for this blog: great kids in a tough year. So while you are waiting I will post this short review of one of my favorite reads last year, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell.

Five stars to David Mitchell's unrelentingly real portrayal of one boy's 13th year. Jason Taylor is disturbed, eloquent, sweet, bawdy (in a 13 year old kind of way), unintuitive and unable to be anyone but himself. That last part is the trouble: no one accepts a 13-year-old who is true to himself, so he gets beat up on a regular basis. He has a rough time of it--an unrelenting stammer, a highly developed intellect which does not usually work in his favor, and a vicious internal life--he names his alter egos the Unborn Twin, Hangman and Maggot. But his talent for language (I know, ironic) and the picaresque episodes with unexpected allies put him in the driver's seat for the bildungsroman which is 8th grade. He emerges victorious, to take the challenges of 9th grade on--whether he wants to or not.

02 December 2013

Pandora's Box

 I have wanted to talk about this for a while, but have been afraid to open the Pandora's Box. Cheating is one of those things that teachers don't want to talk about--you must be a bad teacher if someone cheats in your class.  And if you do talk about it, a monstrous administrative machine rolls into action full of consequences (mostly for the teacher), extra work and infamy. I am never sure that a young person has gained anything from that experience. These days, you are likely to have the parents question your content knowledge and teaching skills if you mention the word about their child--it is a slur on their character that cannot be erased. And the embedding of the internet into every school activity has increased the possibility that someone plagiarizes unwittingly a hundredfold. It's complicated. 

    I know many who ignore it. I have heard myself saying, "I pay attention to the kids who are doing what they are supposed to. I will not waste my time on those who cheat." It is a way to get through the day, honestly. You know that certain types of students will always take the short cut. I know I do not "catch" a great percentage of them.  If I kept track of every phone in a pocket or iPad screen just to make sure everyone was honest, I would have lost my mind years ago. And no one (including me) would ever learn anything. I would be a prison guard if that was what I did with my time. But what teacher has not spent 30 minutes at least once finding the webpage that the kid plagiarized? You KNOW he cheated because he is not good enough at it to leave no trace, but honestly, some of them do not care that I could prove it. This is just the way the game is played, in their minds. Maybe they are right. But I still believe that part of my job is to help my students find their path to integrity, and I am old enough to be proud I never cheated. So I can be a model, at least.
   So what to do? I use an honor code* that students write and sign at the end of every major piece of work we do in class. I tell them  that if they cannot in good conscience sign it, then they need to come and talk about that with me.  I do not believe that the honor code stops cheaters, but it puts everyone on notice that I care what they do. And if I witness an incident that is clear cut enough to mention, then I start by reviewing my own actions—did I set them up for bad decision making? The answer is pretty much always NO. So we have to talk. And the conversation starts like this:
"You are practicing at being solid human beings. You make mistakes, I make mistakes.  So what do we do now? What do you think our path forward should be?"
I do not excuse them—everyone needs to reminded that right and wrong are always playing in the backchannel of life. But how to recover? Official handling of cheating often leaves that out.  It is usually about punishment. So the conversation continues:
"Come tell me. We will work out a path together." 
And we do. Sometimes it costs them a grade or call to a parent, but then we role play how to manage a 0 or survive the talk with a parent. Sometimes the solution is just between us. Sometimes I end up involving official channels. It depends on the student, what they need to get past it. This might be the most important interaction I ever have with that young person. I want to help them, but I also need to protect our class family life. They need to see how to build personal integrity. It is uphill all the way in this culture--high school, the 21st century, America--whichever culture you wish to consider. I know that this lesson is the one that needs to stick. It is more important than The Aeneid or Shakespeare, for sure. And I still want to find hope in the bottom of this Pandora's Box...

*I promise on my honor as a XXXXX student that I have neither given nor received help on this work.   
Signature, Date

26 November 2013

Senior World Lit: The Rules of Being Human

Everyone is responding to the 10 rules of being human, posted here. So I thought I had better add my 2   cents. My list is shorter though--the older I get, the shorter the list seems to get. ( What is the value of 2 cents these days, anyway?) Happy Thanksgiving to my "Insidious" seniors.

1. Listen to that feeling in your gut that tells you to do right. Then do right.

2.  Hang out with people who are good for you.  If they want to change you, are they really friends?
2. Don't judge people by their looks--either to their benefit or their detriment. By the time you are my age, what you look like will be the least part of what is precious in you.

3. Travel. When you can't travel, read. The world is bigger than what we can see. Write your reactions about travel down and make sure to judge the books you read.

4. I stole this one, but it is something I am still practicing: Figure out who you are, and then do it on purpose.