Saturday, November 15, 2014

10 More Reasons to Expand Your Use of Multicultural Literature

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There are at least 13 good reasons K12 students should read literature about many and diverse cultures and communities. The first three reasons are, or should be, obvious:

  • Kids are engaged and validated when they read about people like themselves - familiar faces, familiar experiences, familiar cultures. They are curious about their histories. All kids.
  • Global citizenship is unavoidable. Connected students view and engage in global conversations; the more they know about other cultures, the better the conversation. It is important for us to expose our students to different conditions and perspectives so that they develop cross-cultural understanding, not disrespect – so that they do not judge others based solely upon their own, perhaps dominant, cultural point of view (thank you to Willa Sky Freer for this phrasing).
  • Literature is a powerful medium for gaining a deeper understanding of one's own worldview through a negotiation of sameness and difference.
You may already include diverse, multicultural readings in your curriculum based on these points. Kudos! Many do not. The CCSS list of "story" exemplars is inadequate in terms of multicultural texts. Why is this?

The common definition of multiculturalism is narrow.  Multicultural means much more than race. The definition I like best is this: Multicultural literature is a representation of any non-dominant or underprivileged group.  

Let's face it. The dominant group in this country is competent white Christian men and their (less important) stable families. That does not mean this group represents the largest percentage of our population; it means that in our reality and its representations (media, literature, dreams) this group expects to and is allowed to overwhelm other groups as opinion-shapers, policy-makers, doers, users, protectors - as lead actors on the stage.  

Multicultural literature is written by a member of the wide non- pool that makes for the cultural, racial, sexual, medical, demographic, economic, familial, class and other diversities found in today's classrooms and communities. It puts non- group members and non-dominant cultures on the stage as independent, lead actors.   

More of it should be read in our schools. Why? In addition to the three reasons stated at the top of this post: 

  1. Because although Whites [currently] constitute the majority of the U.S. population, with a total of about 245,532,000 or 77.7% of the population, 93% of the population growth in the United States now comes from the non white populations. 50.4% of American children under the age of 1 belong to minority groups.   
  2. Because the US population is over 50% female. 
  3. Because we are increasingly urban, with 81% residing in cities and suburbs as of 2014.  
  4. Because there is a new Captain America, and he is not white, we have a new Muslim Ms. Marvel, we have Harley Quinn, and soon we will have Black Panther.  Watch out World for the new impact of diversity in the film, comic, and (or not) gaming and toy industries. It's time to 'Obliterate the Term Black Film', moving us slowly toward a new cultural normal.
  5. Because Obama Will Approve Immigrant Work Permits for Millions.  Or not. But Immigration (Reform) will be a battle to follow.
  6. Because 15% of Americans live in poverty. Of this, 10% are white. 22% of children in the U.S. live in families that are considered officially poor and child poverty rates are highest among black, Latino, and American Indian children.  The gap between rich and poor is at its highest and is getting larger. And by the way, the perception that the rich are smarter and harder working is at an all-time high.
  7. Because single parents account for 27 percent of family households with children under 18. Some of the trending family diversity might surprise you. Read more about The Changing American Family.
  8. Because "the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country."  Find out more about religious diversity.
  9. Because 10% of the youth population is LGBT.  LGBT youth are twice as likely as their peers to say they have been physically assaulted, kicked or shoved at school, and 92% report that they hear negative messages about being LGBT - in school.  Read more about the profile and needs of our LGBT Youth.
  10. Because about 13% of public school students are receiving special education services. Learn more about Children and Youth With Disabilities.
We Need Diverse Books is one good place to find multicultural titles.  Bear in mind that multicultural literature is best when it is authentic - written by an author from the culture or very closely connected (parent, child, etc.) to the diverse community or character(s) central to the text. Most of the resources at We Need Diverse Books, at Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature (Best Books) and at SLJ's updated An Expanded Cultural Diversity Booklist do hold to this standard. Goodreads has quite a good multicultural literature shelf. There are many lists that don't hold to this standard of authorship or to a high standard of literary value. Do your homework.

And a last note. SLJ makes the essential point that multicultural literature reading means not only giving kids novels [poems, drama] and picture books featuring a varied cast of characters but also ensuring a nuanced, multicultural view of our whole society: in other words, bringing diversity to nonfiction series titles.  So take a good hard look at your informational text selections.  Are they promoting multiculturalism as well?  

Monday, August 4, 2014

Cii-fi and (some) other Earth-Collapse Fiction and Information

Pixabay image 7214: Dandelion seeds, from Hans
Cli-fi is trending. A subset of the general category earth-collapse fiction within the realm of speculative fiction, cli-fi concerns itself with the collapse of earth-based systems due to climate change. While generally this change is man-made (anthropogenic climate disruption or ACD), especially in more recent fictions, it is not always. Climate change in fiction may be caused by random or unexplained catastrophe, intelligent extraterrestrial forces, or even by the natural evolution of the Earth or the universe. 

By and large, however, contemporary interpretations of the genre focus upon the man-made environmental changes resulting from global warming or war. Husna Haq writes in the Christian Science Monitor of "a dystopian present, as opposed to a dystopian future," and it is, in fact, the immediacy and urgency of the social, personal, governmental, and cultural predicaments found in cli-fi, compounded by the cautionary nature of the stories, that drive the genre's popularity. Survival at its most basic is on the line in cli-fi.

Luckily for educators, this fascinating genre is not solely in the domain of literary fiction. In fact, even little children are not unexposed to cli-fi and earth-collapse fiction, often sugar-coated by anthropomorphic metaphor. Consider, for example, the children's films FrozenIce Age, Once Upon a Forest and The Land Before Time. Even the picture books Two Bad Ants (Chris Van Allsburg) and Lost and Found (Shaun Tan), and the YA classics Watership Down and The Time Machine embed an environmental message in the text. By thinking a little differently about many of the texts already in the curriculum, you are able to engage students of any age in cli-fi discussions.

Additionally, there is quite large body of good fiction, print and media, accessible to today's students. Those of you who teach Earth-collapse-due-to-war dystopian fiction (such as How I Live Now or The Hunger Games) might consider branching out to cli-fi.  The conversations are no less relevant and may prove to be more appropriate for the classroom.

Teaching this material can be dicey, which is why it is probably a neglected genre. Religion, belief, politics, economics, social structure, global inequities... all of these surface in the upper middle school and high school readings. Teachers should open up discussions and analysis that address:
  • "factual" and scientific content
  • belief-based content
  • sensational elements
  • emotional appeals (which point to the author/creator's message)
  • logical appeals (ditto)
The Lists: Spoiler: No zombie, war, or plague fiction is included here, unless it also carries an environmental message.

Film for MS and HS - You will also find a list with short summary annotations on Wikipedia. For younger ages, I suggest The Land Before Time, also available in many print formats, and perhaps a discussion of how the life of the townspeople in Frozen was (and was not) changed by the freeze. Thinking forward, it would be a good idea to also ask students who see the film, What caused the freeze? What undid the freeze?
  • The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962)
  • Waterworld (1995)
  • Twister (1996) - I am throwing this in because it appears that increasingly violent, large and frequent twisters are a result of climate change (stay tuned to late summer news) - don't bother with current remake
  • The Day After Tomorrow (2004) - full version available on YouTube
  • This is the End (2013)
  • Snowpiercer (review) (2014)
  • Interstellar (2014)
  • What's Possible: The U.N. Climate Summit Film (2014) - docu-fiction?
TV media - Search YouTube for "Climate Change Documentary" to find current made-for-TV videos. You will find a comprehensive list, including cartoons and spoofs, on Wikipedia, but here are two shorts that I want to highlight:
  • The Showtime global warming documentary film series Years of Living Dangerously can be viewed by following the link
  • Twilight Zone Episode #75 (Season 3, Episode 10), "The Midnight Sun" - discussion - is available at Amazon and on DVD. I think this is a powerful introduction to the genre for MS and HS. The story is available from in other formats as well: 
    • graphic novel from the classic TV episode
    • story form in New Stories from the Twilight Zone
    • radio drama
picture books & children's books - I always suggest some picture books as a great way to introduce a topical reading unit at levels above elementary. Discussion can be engendered with humor and without the emotional baggage that accompanies a compelling work of fiction. While picture books and early readers with direct climate change warnings exist, middle and upper school readers find metaphorical and allegorical reads more compelling. I suggest:

  • The Lorax  (Dr. Seuss)
  • The Wump World (Bill Peet)
  • Farewell to Shady Glade  (Bill Peet)
  • Varmints (Helen Ward)
  • Woolvs in the Sitee (Margaret Wild)

middle school - Not all of these are directly cli-fi. Most are concerned with survival in post-collapse Earth rather than with its causation, which is more appropriate for many middle schoolers. Some upper middle school titles appear in the next lists.
  • Ship Breaker (Paolo Bacigalupi) and its sequel The Drowned Cities
  • Green Boy (Susan Cooper)
  • Empty (Suzanne Weyn)
  • The Boy at the End of the World (Greg van Eekhout)
  • The City of Ember (Jeanne DuPrau) - 1st in series 
  • Pod (Stephen Wallenfels) - a quirky short novel about earth-collapse caused not by man directly, but by an alien life form that can not abide the actions of Man
  • Life as We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer) - Earth-collapse caused by a relocation of the moon
  • An interesting take on the genre is found in Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, particularly the last two stories: "There Will Come Soft Rains" and "The Million-Year Picnic" - we learn of the collapse of Mars, of human-made Mars, and of Earth.  
high school & adult The Dying Earth subgenre is well covered by both Wikipedia and
  • The Drowned World (J.G. Ballard) - SF classic that may have started it all, although in this case the disaster is not man-made
  • The Massive (Brian Wood) - 5 volume graphic novel of post-water apocalypse world
  • Parable of the Sower (Octavia Butler) - one of our great non-white SF writers delivers the genre with power and acumen
  • Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner) - 1968 classic Earth-collapse fiction
  • The Windup Girl  (Paolo Bacigalupi)
  • Arctic Rising (Tobia Buckell)
  • Forty Signs of Rain (Kim Stanley Robinson) - 1st in the Science in the Capital trilogy
  • The Admiral (James Gilbert) - 1st in a series
  • The Carbon Diaries 2015 (Saci Lloyd) - suitable for upper middle school
  • The Other Side of the Island (Allegra Goodman)
  • Odds Against Tomorrow (Nathaniel Rich)
  • The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future (Naomi Oreskes, Eric Conway)
  • Out of the Depths (Noel Hodson) - The Future series - Kindle only
  • California (Edan Lepucki) - review 
  • Finitude (Hamish MacDonald)
  • Flight Behavior (Barbara Kingsolver)
  • Waiting for the Flood (Margaret Atwood) - prequel/simultaneous/sequel story to Oryx and Crake and part of the Maddaddam trilogy - although man-made plague is the key SF element, this middle book has a strong environmental message
  • Hot Mess: Speculative Fiction About Climate Change (Brody et all) - stories
  • Inferno (Dan Brown) - included here not because of its pandemic theme, but for its discussions of Why a pandemic is necessary, the answer to which makes the novel cli-fi
mythical/fantasy elements in YA/Adult fiction
  • Love in the Time of Global Warming (Francesca Lia Block) - not for MS
  • Solstice (P.J. Hoover) - suitable for upper middle school
  • Caretaker Trilogy (David Klass) - suitable for upper middle school
Non-fiction and background reading - Climate Change is a hot topic. Students in many cities are using it as a focus of project-based learning and research. The following list is a good one for teachers who wish some more background on the issue and its fiction. Some of the texts, and some yet to be written, are appropriate informational fiction for upper middle and high school.
Suggestions and additions always welcome.

Monday, May 12, 2014

52 Short Books for 11-CCR Students: TLDR and What HS Students Are Reading (and NOT)

image: from OpenClips on Pixabay
TLDR: Too Long, Didn't Read.  Scroll down if you want to skip this short read and go directly to The List.

A recently released study by Renaissance Learning finds that HS seniors read on average 5.2 books a year, down from 55.4 in grade 2 and 16.2 in grade 6.  There is also a decline in the number of words contained in the reading, from a high in grade 6 (419,121) to 304,252 in grade 12.

Wait a minute.  Do the math.  The books read by HS students must be longer.  That must explain the decline in the number of books read.

Nope. My quick study of the Top 20 lists for 6th and 12th grades provided in the report suggests that 6th graders are actually reading longer books, on average, than their HS counterparts, who are overwhelmingly reading fiction under 250 pages (must have small print). With the exception of The Hunger Games (which first appears on the grade 5 list, 810L) and another light read titled Safe Haven (830L), the longer texts read are found in the bottom (least read) 10. These include some zingers: Twilight (another light read but 544p 770L), Kite Runner (402p  840L), and Divergent (501p HL700L). Hardly a sterling list in terms of challenge.

Supporting my contention that 12th grade students are selecting books well below what they should be reading is the report's finding that the average ATOS book level (similar to the lexile scale) in grade 12 is 7.1 (one month into 7th grade).  The average ATOS in grade 6 is 5.3, which is not great, but at least it's not embarrassing.

I don't think too much should be made of this report, although it purports to be important (it's important for Renaissance Learning). How many of these titles are assigned and how many are choice independent reading?  The titles are all Accelerated Reader quizzed titles, which certainly directs choice and limits what titles are entered into the data.  The identity of the cohort is unclear; the HS students in the sample may not - probably do not - represent the full top-bottom range of student readers.

On the other hand, today's NPR post Why Aren't Teens Reading Like They Used To? reiterates the Renaissance report's finding that HS students are reading well below the level recommended by CCSS and other standards. It is possible to chalk the Renaissance report up as representative of the American public school student reading population.  OK through 5th grade in terms of fiction reading quality and quantity, but downhill from there.  Too far downhill in the 11-12 grades.

The essays which "pepper" the Renaissance report stress the importance of e-reading in today's classroom, suggesting perhaps that digital texts will spur students to read more.  I believe it is valid that e-reading is engaging and, for readers who use the tools, supportive of deeper reading. But a page-turner is a page-turner and a plod is a plod and long is long and a tool can not change that. What needs to change is access to better reading choices.

If we want our HS students to read more than 5.2 fiction titles a year (I am not mentioning nonfiction because the report finds it amounts to no more than 15% of their reading, despite recommendations to the contrary), we need to consider the fact that, in their/our culture of e-communication and e-research, TLDR (Too Long Didn't Read) is a message HS students send out every day.  By not reading.  By selecting short rather than longer titles.  By selecting easy reads with ATOS reading level 5-6.

This is not helping/challenging/growing our students.  What we need to offer HS students are high quality, high challenge, high engagement short books.

I have spent some time with and with good lists over the last few days.  It is possible to mine the classics and good contemporary fiction for excellent short books.  Alas, many of these probably are not in the Accelerated Reader quiz bank.  You may not have read or heard of many of them.  But it's high time HS readers were encouraged to make better reading choices, so gather up as many of these titles as you can.

My arbitrary short book cutoff is 250 pages.  Where possible, lengths are from is the backup.

Here is my list of 52 short fiction books (and one or two nonfiction titles) for 11-12 grade readers, generated by mining (for pages and lexile ranges) and other lists.  They are in lexile order, something a bit questionable, but at least this is a consistent measure in line with Common Core standards. More about that later. Only two titles have been carried over from the Renaissance report's grade 12 top 10.  It adds up to one book a week for a year.

Note: We can not really rely on lexiles to determine suitability and challenge. Examples: most of Gary Paulsen measures well over 1100L and ditto with the best of Zindel (e.g. The Undertaker's Gone Bananas measures 1050). Both novelists are great for MS, but with only a few exceptions are not suitable for HS. Ray Bradbury and Steinbeck, on the other hand, score much lower on the lexile scale than this reader would expect and are suitably complex for HS. Of Mice and Men belongs on this list, but since it is often read in grade 9 or 10 anyway, I have omitted it.

Moreover, many non-Western titles and short story collections have not been lexiled. Surprise! My list is more multicultural than most lists.

The Common Core, by the way, has realigned lexile bands with grade levels to make "stretch" reading the norm. Only the last 2 books on my list fall within the 11-CCR band.  That's absurd. A book does not have to have a lexile over 1200 in order to be great or to be an intellectual challenge for a 16 year old. I stand by all of these short books for 11-CCR.

The List, in lexile order (do you notice a pattern in the titles not lexiled?):
  1. Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue - Lester - not lexiled
  2. I See You - Shukri - not lexiled (fictional contemporary African country) - a Best Book of 2014, Africa is a Country
  3. Every Day is for the Thief - Cole - not lexiled - selected for many Best of 2014 lists (Nigeria)
  4. Citizen: An American Lyric - Rankine - not lexiled - America Book Award 2014 shortlist - poems and short pieces
  5. The Thunder that Roars - Garda - not lexiled (South Africa, Muslim)
  6. How to Escape from a Leper Colony (stories) - Yanique - not lexiled 
  7. The Strange Library - Murakami - not lexiled
  8. The Dead Lake - Ismailov - not lexiled (trans. from Russian)
  9. Family Life - Sharma - not lexiled - India/America - Named one of the Ten Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review and New York Magazine
  10. Things We Found During the Autopsy - Manickavel - not lexiled - South Indian short fiction - a Best Book of 2014, Africa is a Country
  11. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - Satrapi GN380 (Iran) or American Born Chinese - Yang GN580
  12. The Metamorphosis - Kafka 670 or The Room - Karlsson - not lexiled - find a great short film of the Kafka here.
  13. When the Emperor Was Devine - Otsuka  810
  14. Snow Country - Kawabata 820
  15. Drown - Diaz 830 (stories, Dominican Republic immigrants)
  16. If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home - O'Brien  830 or How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America - Laymon - non-lexiled (NF)
  17. Slaughterhouse-Five - Vonnegut 850
  18. Things Fall Apart - Achebe 890
  19. Ceremony - Silko 890  (Laguna Pueblo)
  20. Grendel - Gardner 920
  21. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith - Keneally - 920
  22. The Thing Around Your Neck (stories) - Adichie  920 (estimated) (Africa and United States)
  23. Montana 1948 - Watson 940
  24. Life and Times of Michael K: A Novel - Coetzee 940
  25. The Bluest Eye - Morrison 960
  26. July's People - Gordimer 970
  27. Being There - Kosinski - 980
  28. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids - Oe 1000
  29. Nothing - Teller 1000
  30. The Pearl - Steinbeck 1010
  31. Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction - Oates, ed 1020
  32. The Secret Agent - Conrad 1030
  33. Frankenstein - Shelly  1040 
  34. The First Fast Draw - L'Amour 1040
  35. Interpreter of Maladies (stories) - Lahiri 1050 (India, United States)
  36. The Heart of Darkness - Conrad 1050
  37. The Crying of Lot 49 - Pynchon 1060
  38. The Great Gatsby - Fitzgerald 1070
  39. The Time Machine - Wells 1070
  40. Bridge of San Luis Rey - Wilder 1080 (or perhaps The Scatter Here is Too Great - Tanweer, set in Karachi - not lexiled)
  41. The Bad Seed - March 1100
  42. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Spark 1120
  43. Picnic at Hanging Rock - Lindsay 1140
  44. The Bridges of Toko-Ri - Michener 1140
  45. My Life in Dog Years - Paulsen 1150  (NF)
  46. Animal Farm - Orwell 1170
  47. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Haddon 1180
  48. Hiroshima - Hersey  1190
  49. Ransom - Malouf 1200 (estimated lexile)
  50. Forrest Gump - Groom  1210
  51. Eighteen Best Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe - Poe 1220
  52. Chronicle of a Death Foretold - Marquez 1270
It goes without saying that most of these books will require more effort to read than The Hunger Games trilogy. That effort is one of the reasons that readers find Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men and Gatsby turn-offs and Percy Jackson so captivating, and it is probably the real motivation behind TLDR. Educators can give in to this, or they can combat it with titles like those above. One approach builds lists of easy, long, page-turners; the other approach builds better and better-educated readers. Your choice.

This is, of course, just one solution to our national non-reading dilemma. There are others:
  • If you really want students to be stretched, assign books and articles about fiction and authors.  That's the best place for students to meet those higher lexile texts.  Some might find these essays lead them to great novels.
  • Allow/encourage your students to read multi-culturally and diversely.
  • Celebrate the humanities as well as STEM.
  • Write and read.  Introduce students to living writers and their works.
  • Encourage collaborative reading in 11-12 grades.  What?  This means groups encouraged to read like a book club reads.  
  • Invest in great audio books for your students. Time well spent.
  • PBL: Oral histories of the reading memories of parents and seniors; Twitter reading selfies and campaigns.
Want to add a book or an idea?  Write a comment or email me directly.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

10 Ways to Use 10: The Rule of 10 in the Classroom

A recent piece in the Huffington Post, 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned For Children Under the Age of 12, has gone viral. The post (column, piece) has spawned intelligent criticism from many fronts, very good ones found in the Huffington Post and in Slate (read together, these are a terrific example of how the written word can make both argument and opinion.) Undoubtedly this is largely because of the provocative nature of Rowan's proposition, but I suspect an additional reason is the piece's construction: any post with a title beginning "10 Reasons" will be read.  There are currently 601,000,000 results for a Google search on this phrase.

Why is this?  Maybe because we are a decimal culture.  Maybe because 10 is stronger than 5 or 3, but not overwhelming like 50 or underwhelming like "a dozen." The power of 10 is as great as, but very different from, the power of 3.  

I teach both The Rule of 3 and The Rule of 10 as essential elements of literacy.  "3" is concise. It is a comfortable number of repetitions that can be changed incrementally without the reader becoming lost or bored. It is symmetrical but also edgy. In almost any array of 3, no matter how presented or communicated, one element will come first, one will be in the middle, and one will be at the end, which is both satisfying and suspenseful (variations on this are more interesting).  "3" is the foundation of the standardly taught paragraph and the 5-paragraph essay (BOO to both).  

However satisfying, The Rule of 3 is also childlike in its simplicity. It is the stuff of tales that wrap up neatly and of short-lived arguments.  It is about keeping within the frame.

On the other hand, "10" begs for busting out.  Any list of 10 is really just a tenth of a list of 100. Any list of 10 can easily be expanded. Readers intuitively understand this. A list of 10 is affirming, authoritative, solid, and, potentially, endlessly entertaining.  

The Rule of 10 is about growth and possibility, change and conflict, energy and age.  I have also always found something compellingly chilly in the combination of the loneliness digit and the emptiness digit.  Flipping them creates a neat reduction, repeating them results in a confusion of binary code streaming across a pale green monitor... 10 is the stuff of the digital age as well as The Age of Kings.

The Rule of 10 is a rule for today's students.  

So how can we make it work for us in the classroom?  Here are 10 Ways to Use of 10 at any grade level:

  • I think lists are basically boring, but if you must make lists, require 10 items.  10 favorite...  10 examples of... 10 expressions...  10 adjectives...  10 poems...  10 novels... Where once you stopped at 3 or 5, to make it easy, make it challenging with 10.  Work with ordering or sorting the list in various ways.  4 + 6 is calming.  5 + 5 is a study in antithesis.  3 + 3 + 3 + 1 is a powerful structure for making meaning and conveying emotion.  Write about choices made.
  • 10 letter words are wonderful.  There are many collections online. Study them, record them rolling off your tongue, play vocabulary games with them.  Require them.
  • A great middle school exercise to improve listening and communication is pair-drawing.  Allow only 10 lines.  On partner draws (allow 10 seconds) behind a screen.  He then gives oral directions for his partner(s) to create the same drawing.  Practice!
  • Read 10 (blog posts, articles, opinions, analyses, summaries, novels, poems).  This can also be applied to visual literacy.  Draw 10 connections.  
  • Write (draw, illustrate, record) 10 different/connected/overlapping...  
  • Memorize in groups of 10.  Old school, yes, but it worked then and it works now.  Use the same groupings from #1 to create mental collections.  Very powerful skill.
  • Model the 10-sentence paragraph (most students will quickly see how this can be expanded).  In fiction study, have students seek out 10 sentence passages that convey meaning, theme, etc.  Share them and use them as models.
  • Study The Gettysburg Address.  It has 10 sentences.  Why?  How is it organized?  
  • Apply The Rule of 10 to a longer text as a framework for analysis.  Where is the Rule found?  How does it improve or effect the overall construction?  (characters, chapters, settings, conflicts...)
  • Expand or contract something 10 times.  This is a ripple or pattern exercise that can be used for multiple outcomes: a slippery slope argument (or the reverse, which I call "up the ladder"), brain storming, visual thinking, story-telling, creative narrative, description, development of arguments, coding...  I like to start with If You Give a Dog a Donut and also to use a simple paper-chain group activity to demonstrate how 10-step growth can create a complex or straightforward product.  The math link is obvious (multiplication, division, permutation - and what is a fraction anyway?).  
And why stop at 10?  If you remember playing Crack the Whip as a kid, on the field or on the ice, you know that the longer the whip the more forceful the lash. 3 is simply not much fun. Sometimes it hurts to be at the end of the whip, but it's worth it.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

On Listening to Poetry

The New Yorker has launched a new free podcast series, The Poetry Podcast.  Each episode, hosted by Paul Muldoon, contains a New Yorker poet reading a poem that he/she has selected from the magazine, followed by a conversation about that poem.  The poet then introduces and reads one of his/her own pieces.  

What a powerful tool for the study of poetry!  In this age of poetry minimized as paired text, often read only thematically, it is important for teachers to locate and use tools that support the reading of poetry as essential, elemental, text - deserving of both a leisurely and a personal reading.  

I quote from my own Scoop of this announcement:

Muldoon writes, "the eye is not the only buyer into, and beneficiary of, the poem. The ear has been in the poetry business for much longer, given poetry’s origins in the oral tradition."  What a model for classroom reading of poetry as text!  Share this episode, in which Philip Levine reads and discusses "What did I love about killing the chickens" by Ellen Bass.  A sure winner.  Some students might want to just visualize, some to draw while listening.  The text of the poem is in the New Yorker archive:  Connections are made to Whitman, Bishop, Harte Crane, Williams, Randall Jarrell and others during the discussion of the power of the poem's structure and diction.  Levine also reads and discusses his own poem, "In another country" : You might discuss how much - what, if anything - Levine's introduction adds to a reading of the poem.  Perhaps some students should read the poem before listening to the poet. 

I would add now that a careful listening to the discussion reveals not "close reading" but a very personal closing in on what makes this poem special.  I discuss this a bit in a previous post called Close Reading and Poetry. Were Levine and Muldoon to methodically attack the poem's use of image or antithesis, the poem itself would lose its life.  

There are other apps for listening to poetry.  The Poetry Foundation currently lists 1165 Poems with "related content," which includes a reading of the poem by the poet.  I am listening to/reading Douglas Kearney's "Every Hard Rapper's Father" as I write this - a fascinating experience.  His recording brings sense to the inventive presentation of the text as well an an emotional depth that can be missed without audio.

The Poetry Archive of poets-reading-their-own-poetry is another great source. Students can create and share a favorites list and browse by theme, poetic element or form.  Did you know Margaret Atwood wrote poetry?  Try "The Immigrants" for a contemporary (and historical) connection every bit as powerful as most Holocaust YA novels.  

Poetry Out Loud is another good source of audio. Navigate to the Listen to Poetry archive of readings. Additionally, and perhaps more powerfully for the student, are the videos of the Poetry Out Loud contest winners and finalists.  This used to be housed on the web site, but is now found on a YouTube channel.  I have used this to engage middle schoolers in recitation, oral reading, and (for the feint of heart) choral reading.  It often opens the door to a poet's work.

Student readers, as soon as they can read independently or memorize effectively, can create their own audio and video recordings and discussions of poetry.  VoiceThread is a great tool for this, but there are now many, many others.  In fact, just about any "presentation" or whiteboard app will do the job. 

One interesting tweak, and a useful one for many students, is to charge them to play the role of Paul Muldoon.  Find an adult or older student reader who will select, read, and discuss a favorite poem.  You are moving toward a PBL unit!