When anxious, depressed students stare into space

Don’t assume they aren’t listening

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Photo: J.C. Gellidon on Unsplash

Last spring in my middle school language arts classes, I taught the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave for the eighth year. It’s the autobiography of Douglass, who was born into slavery. In his formative years, he experienced an epiphany: literacy equaled freedom. As a result, he taught himself to read and write. Years later, sure enough, he escaped from bondage.

As a free man, he became an outspoken leader for civil rights and suffrage and was eventually appointed United States Minister to Haiti. Douglass’ narrative is one of my favorite books in American literature for its honest and raw portrayal of the horrors of slavery conveyed with Douglass’ frank, accessible, and often poetic prose.

It’s an important book that is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1845. As a result, students find the text compelling and riveting. They are spellbound as they read of the realities of slavery often for the first time.

During the unit in which we read Douglass, one of my brightest students—let’s call her Ellen—endured a new low in her personal experience with anxiety and depression. She had battled these demons for a few years then, but did seem to sink even deeper during the month or so that we spent studying Douglass’ text.

It was a tough spring. At a time when her peers were looking forward to spring break, the April dance, and their graduation to high school, Ellen found it difficult just to get to school. She was often absent. On a good day, she was late to first period by half an hour.

As we read Douglass’ account of his life, Ellen seemed bored and detached. And, to be honest, I worried at the time about the content of the book being detrimental to her fragile state. How helpful can it be to read about the atrocities of human bondage when one is already suffering from negative emotions from all sides?

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Frederick Douglass’ master believed learning would spoil the best slave in the world. Engraved by J.C. Buttre from a daguerreotype. | Photo: public domain

When we read Douglass’ stories about his various masters and life primarily as a city slave, Ellen stared blankly across the room or at the wood grain Formica pattern of her desktop. She did not turn in assignments, and only rarely contributed to class discussions. However, she would take usually do well on the occasional reading comprehension quizzes. Even so, I could tell she wasn’t engaged with Douglass. Or that’s what I assumed.

One day at the end of class, near the culmination of the unit, she casually mentioned to me, “I wrote this poem last night.” An introspective girl, Ellen enjoyed writing poetry and it wasn’t the first time she had asked me to read something she had written outside of class.

I glanced at the title, “Master Mind, and then skimmed through the stanzas as the next group of students coasted in for the boisterous last class period of the day. I noticed Frederick Douglass’ name tucked among the lines; my interest piqued.

“Can I keep this and read it after school?” I asked Ellen. She nodded and sauntered off to eighth hour.

After school, I picked up the poem and read it again. This time, I was able to concentrate.

As I read, I began to realize Ellen had written about her own kind of slavery… to depression.

I felt bad for assuming she hadn’t been listening when, truth be told, she had indeed found connection with Douglass’ experience and words. Yes, she understood and appreciated the horrific dehumanization of American slavery that Douglass experienced, but she went further. She correlated Douglass’ oppression under slavery and injustice to her own oppression under anxiety and depression.

In no way, I’m sure, did she intend to downplay or distract from Douglass’ experience when she compared her own struggle with mental health to his struggle with state-sanctioned slavery. After all, students cannot help but be shocked at the inhumane treatment Africans suffered under the peculiar institution. When Ellen applied Douglass’ experience to her own, I believe it was an honest attempt to deal with her crisis.

And what’s more, she creatively built on that attempt and created her “Master Mind” poem to sustain and even heal herself.

In short, Ellen was doing exactly what educators want their students to do: apply classic literature to contemporary life.

Here are two excerpts from Ellen’s poem:

Master Mind

I am a slave to my own mind.

I’m tied up, naked, and afraid,

While my uninvited thoughts hold the whip,

All day, I try to please my master,

Only to be starved of my happiness.

My fear shatters all remnants of hope,

By striking me for laughter…

 

Another excerpt:

For I want to be the next Frederick Douglass.

I will escape the darkness in my head,

And I plan on writing about my struggle and the struggle of others…

I am simply bringing a different kind of modern slavery to light.

 

And to think I assumed Ellen was just filling a chair in my classroom. Yes, she was staring into space, but she was still engaged, making meaning, finding sustenance and encouragement from her identification with Douglass.

This was the ultimate text-to-self connection, wasn’t it?

Let’s not always assume that students aren’t “getting it.” They may be understanding and gaining more from a text than we ever expect.

This experience with Ellen has shown me the value of being watchful of how students are connecting with our classroom texts. From now on, I won’t be so quick to assume that students who stare off into space are not engaged.


Thanks for reading! This has been a busy summer, and I’ve skipped a couple of weeks’ worth of posts. Between a month-long trip to Greece, (click here for one of about 25 posts), moving to a new city, a new teaching position, AND delivering my daughter to NYC last weekend for graduate school, writing on my teaching blog has been put on the back burner. However, I intend to start posting weekly starting today.

Stay tuned for my next post where I write about my new high school classes, memoirs, and map-making.

 

A boy, a bird, and a bus station in Athens

Slice of Life writing is one of my favorite genres to do with young writers. Here’s a slice I wrote while waiting in a bus station in central Athens last week. It appeared first on my personal writing blog.

Marilyn Yung

Parenting looks the same wherever you live

Parenting seems to be the same around the world. Whether you live in the United States or Greece, all parents have their hands full with a four-year-old boy.

Today, I’m watching a mother, father and their son who looks to be about four at the Liosion Bus Station in central Athens.

A pigeon is swooping its way through the bus station lobby, which includes a cafe, a mini grocery, a trinket shop, and a bookstore. The pigeon flutters from one side of the lobby to the other.

The patient father follows his son casually around the lobby. The boy jumps high whenever the pigeon swoops low. He can’t reach it, much less catch it. In his green t-shirt with a tiger emblem and bright yellow shorts, ankle socks and grey tennis shoes, he reminds me of my own son many years ago.

He…

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A big fat Greek vocabulary lesson about the word “Sporades”

Marilyn Yung

GusNow, give me a word… any word… and I show you, how the root of that word… is Greek. How about “arachnophobia”? “Arachna,” that comes from the Greek word for spider… and “phobia” is a phobia, it means “fear.” So, “fear of spiders.” There you go. Read more at: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk

Gus Portokalos would be proud

You know in the movie My Big Fat Greek Weddingwhen the father, Gus, explains how every English word can be traced back to the Greek language?

Well, he’s right on that point when you look at the name for the group of islands that my husband and I are visiting: the twenty-four Sporades Islands along the east coast of Greece.  (Actually, we’re only visiting one of those islands, Skopelos.)

map Only four of the twenty-four Sporades Islands are permanently inhabited: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos, and Skyros.

When you look at the twenty-four islands that make…

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I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected

Rejection proves that my students are indeed writers

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Here’s a picture of my students posing with their first rejection letters from a youth writing contest. They thought it was funny that I wanted their picture. I just wanted them to know that a rejection letter proves that they are indeed writers.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them it’s okay to fail and
That it’s good to receive a rejection letter because
That’s what writers do: They get turned down.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them to risk it all and
Write it down now because
That’s what writers do: they deal in danger.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them to give themselves permission
To write a junky, uninspired first draft because
That’s what writers do: they don’t wait for inspiration.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them their words must work hard,
That lazy words aren’t worth their time because
That’s what writers do: they crave precision.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them to write, to rewrite, try once more
Only to receive this message yet again:
“Best of luck in your creative endeavors.”

And then I photograph my kids,
My fiery bunch of seventh-graders,
Clutching their “Best of luck” letters because
That’s what I do: I create writers.


Thanks for reading! I’m a big advocate of encouraging students to enter any and all writing contests I can get my hands on. Click here for my favorite contest of the year, the Daughters of the American Revolution American History Essay Contest. See my Student Writing Contests page for the entire list of contest I use.

Next year, I’ll be moving to a new school district where I’ll be teaching high school students. There are even more contests for older students than younger ones, so follow my blog to learn about those opportunities!

 

My top three movies for the last week of school that will let you keep your teaching integrity

Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller

Rated PG; 114 minutes long; Reason to watch: To see a movie that advocates living life to the fullest; Bonus: Great for graduating students. In fact, I show this to my graduating 8th-graders as they transition to highs school.

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Sully: Miracle on the Hudson starring Tom Hanks

Rated PG-13 for stressful moments during plane landing; Length: 96 minutes; Reason to watch: To learn about a real-life hero who remains humble and respectful; Bonus: Discusses the “human factor” and how in a high-tech age, we must always respect the individual and his/her unique decision-making abilities.

sully movie

The Walk: The Triumphant True Story starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Rated PG; Length: 123 minutes; Reason to watch: To learn about the World Trade Centers and how important and integral they were to millions of Americans and people around the world; Bonus: Your kids will have a deeper appreciation of Sept. 11 terror attacks after watching this film. My 6th-graders absolutely love this movie!

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Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more ELA teaching ideas. Happy summer!

My attempt at teaching kids how to add narration into their dialogue

Here’s a mini-lesson I created a few months ago

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Photo: Unsplash

Kids love to write dialogue, but it often ends up being just a series of spoken words… a lengthy showcase of spoken words followed by any one of the following: he said, she said, he replied, she stated.

This year, in my AOW and EOW assignments, I would occasionally ask students to start their responses with dialogue. I did this to encourage (or force, I guess, since it was required in the assignment) students to add narrative elements to their writing. Sure, it’s easy to just respond to a prompt with “The central idea of this article was…”. However, another level of complexity is added if one must start with dialogue. When one adds dialogue to the standard response, a story is automatically brought into the mix.

Once the students became accustomed to using dialogue in their responses (in effect, they’re blending genres, aren’t they?!), I noticed that the dialogue lacked narration… the additional information writers build into their dialogue to show setting, personality traits, reveal motivation, or other important details.

To show students what I was talking about when I asked them to add narration to their dialogue, I took two excerpts from two novels from my bookshelves, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. For each novel, I found a short excerpt and typed it verbatim into a Word document as published. Then I took those same excerpts and removed the narration. Here’s a photo of the handout I made for this activity:

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The handout above (sorry about the quality of the picture, by the way), contains excerpts from the two novels. I chose dialogue that possessed descriptive narration. 

Here is a picture of the back side of the above sheet:

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This back side of the handout shows the two excerpts with the narration removed.

I read aloud each passage from the novels, starting with the excerpt WITHOUT narration, and then followed with reading the respective excerpt WITH the narration. Then I asked:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do we learn when we have the narration added to the dialogue?
  • What did the reader miss out on by not having the extra information that the narration provides?
  • What else does the narration accomplish?

We basically just discuss the narration’s effect on the text. It’s a good way for kids to readily experience the benefits of narration and how it can help their dialogue work harder for them.

At the beginning of class, I put the following quote on the Smartboard from WritersDigest.com to prep them for our mini-lesson. Here’s that quote, which they copy into cursive on a sheet of paper and then turn in for points.

Conversations should never take place in a vacuum. The narration needs to firmly ground your reader in time and space…Narration anchors the reader and creates the atmosphere of the setting and the specific circumstance of the scene.—Helga Schier, PhD., Writer’s Digest

Here’s how I would change this mini-lesson for next time:

The handout needs to have one novel’s excerpts on each side. As we went over the handout, the kids were flipping the paper back and forth from the excerpt without narration and then to the one with narration on the back. It would have been more effective to have the “without narration” excerpt for one of the novels on the top half of the page followed by the “with narration” excerpt below it. Seeing the before and after versions would have helped students more easily see the difference the narration makes.

I felt like the kids understood more about narration after this mini-lesson, but it’s a topic that definitely needs another go-over because I didn’t see many practice it in their assignments. No doubt this skill should be worked on with some in-class writing assignments so kids can apply it when I’m around to help or offer support.

A few kids (the stronger writers) did add some narration, but even some of those merely added lazy adjectives or adverbs to their dialogue, a la the following example:

“No, I don’t think you understand,” Mom stated urgently.

Not quite what I had in mind!

So obviously, narration in dialogue is a work in progress and like everything else that I teach, it takes repetition and practice.


Thanks for reading again this week!  Have a great June… what I call the Saturday night of the summer for teachers! Let me know your thoughts on this post and follow my blog for more middle and high school ELA teaching stories.

The Graphic Essay: A fresh way to discuss theme with evidence, commentary, and a dash of symbolism

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I will definitely try this project again. I see potential.

This spring, I assigned  a graphic essay to my eighth-graders after they finished reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative.  I felt the graphic essay would:

  1. offer a break from traditional essay writing;
  2. help students discuss theme with evidence and their own commentary;
  3. allow students to discuss symbolism; and
  4. allow students to get creative and apply their artistic skills.

I found this idea on a blog by teacher and author Buffy Hamilton at her website, Living in the Layers. Hamilton’s post references projects created by students at North Atlanta High School, including the graphic essay project created by teacher Casey Christenson. Her students created graphic essays based around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

Usually in my classes after we finish reading a book, students write a traditional essay on a specific topic or question from the book. However, at the conclusion of reading Douglass, my eighth graders were already writing another essay on Douglass  to be included in their human rights dissertations.  So instead of writing another essay, I decided to provide some variety and offer an alternative… the graphic essay.

When I explained the assignment to them, they were eager to be my “guinea pigs” (yet again!) for this new-to-me project.  I’ve never had students not want to experiment with a new idea and I let them know that I appreciate their flexibility.

To introduce the project, I gave each student a copy of the assignment sheet. My sheet was based on Hamilton’s, which was based on Christenson’s. (Don’t you love how teachers borrow from each other?!?) Here is a photo of the assignment sheet I made:

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In class, we read through the steps and the requirements for the project. We also discussed the three theme options from which they could choose. Deciding on one of these themes was the first part of the process, as shown in step number one in the photo above.

They then were to develop a thesis statement that would argue the theme they chose. Following this, they were to cite three quotations from the book that supported their theme, and then provide a commentary or explanation of how each quote supported or related to the theme.

Students then were to select a symbol that would connect to and unify  the theme. Finally, they were to compose all these elements on an 11″ x 17″ sheet of construction paper. They could use any art materials I had in my room (markers, colored pencils, crayons, stickers).

We also decided to sacrifice an older copy of Douglass to use in the essays. Students could use the pages of the actual text in their compositions. Some cut shapes out of the pages, while others used the pages that contained their quotes used to support their chosen themes.

I also had printed off some photos from Christenson’s blog post. These photos showed some examples of graphic essays. This was very helpful as it showed my students the level of detail that was expected. Here are pictures of those mentor texts:

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Graphic essays created for Walden Pond by students at North Atlanta High School. See Living in the Layers for more.

Overall, the project went well, considering it was my first attempt. When all the essays were finished, I posted them in the room in “gallery walk” style, so students could vote for their top six. I projected the requirements on the Smartboard during the “gallery walk” so students could choose those that best met the criteria. This was needed so students wouldn’t focus too much attention on the artwork at the expense of the theme, evidence, commentary, and symbolism.

How well each essay met the criteria was an important distinction for them to make, too. One student with excellent creative execution didn’t cite any quotations. Despite the visual appearance of this student’s project, it didn’t accomplish the other goals, and as a result, students wisely did not give this student’s essay”Top 6″ status .

Here are more graphic essays made by my students:

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As you can see, some essays were more involved than others. One contained flaps that were to be lifted to reveal the commentary below, while another contained a safe with a door that opened as its symbol. One that was artistically well-executed didn’t contain textual evidence; students didn’t award it “Top 6” status.

I’ll try this project again next year at my new high school position. I really like how it capitalizes on students’ learning differences and artistic talent to discuss and argue theme and symbolism.  Thanks to Living in the Layers for the idea and inspiration


Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried graphic essays in your language arts or English classroom? Drop me a comment and share your experience. See you next week!