Movie captions and text create unique poems

A new poetry idea featuring The Great Gatsby

When text passages from a novel mingle with captions from its accompanying movie, interesting things happen. Here’s what I mean: I always watch movies with the captions on. It helps me catch every word of dialogue and also catch every nuance given through the sound effects.

One evening this summer, while watching a movie, I started to pay special attention to the words used to describe the various sounds on the screen. Y’know… phrases like indistinct chatter, tittering, skittering and other descriptors that provide sound for those with hearing difficulties.

Take a favorite novel, find its accompanying movie, grab a pen and paper, and start collecting interesting captions to pair with phrases and passages from the text. | Photo by Nathan Engel on Pexels.com

Later, when I was able to re-watch the movie, I jotted down some of those phrases to see what would happen when they were worked into a free-verse poem.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ve done this a few times now and about a month ago, I realized this might be a fun activity to do with my grade 11 students the next time I teach The Great Gatsby.

It’s a way to merge two media into one cohesive whole… a creative kind of critical thinking.

Here’s a poem I created that ends at the explosive gathering at The Plaza Hotel in Baz Luhrman’s 2013 The Great Gatsby. It picks up some of the dialogue and sounds of the tension-filled dinner party that prompted the excursion, follows the group to Wilson’s Garage, and then continues to the sweltering suite at The Plaza Hotel.

The Great Gatsby: A Conversation with Catherine Martin | Clothes on Film
The poem below ends at this intense gathering at The Plaza in Baz Luhrman’s 2013 film, The Great Gatsby. It’s in chapter 7 of the book.

You’ll notice lines directly from Fitzgerald’s text in black below with lines from the captions in brackets.

The Lighter Strikes

[Lighter strikes]
A simple admission from Jay to Tom:
"I'm right across from you."
From Tom to Jay:
"So you are."
[Exhales lightly]
[Sighs, breathes deeply, lighter strikes]
"Who wants to go to town?"
[Lighter striking]
"You always look so cool."
And they stared together 
At each other, 
Alone in space.
[Sizzling.]
And Tom Buchanan saw.
[Engine revs, horn honks, tires squeal]
[Sighs]
Hot whips of panic 
[Coins clink]
"There's something very sensuous about it... 
Overripe, as if...
Funny fruits...
Fall into your hands."
A crazy idea: 
A swell suite.
[Knife splintering ice]

That’s one example that can serve as a mentor text of sorts for students. I like the mix of interesting, present tense verbs that add movement and “punch” to the lines of dialogue and description from the novel.

Five things I like about this activity:

  • It requires critical thinking to link captions with the novel text to encapsulate a scene and its most critical moments.
  • It’s a low-stakes activity that gets students playing with word choice and sound while cross-referencing to the text.
  • Students can present their poems to explain their choices and thought processes.
  • It makes viewing a film more accountable and meaningful. We’re not merely watching for entertainment, but we’re searching for interesting connections with the accompanying text.
    • To make this happen in a classroom, I envision pre-selecting some key scenes from the movie to replay for the class. As they watch, they should be writing down interesting captions they see. To connect their captions to the novel, guide them to the chapter (use this post) where they can re-read and select passages and phrases.
  • This activity could be used with any movie/book combination. For sure, the 2013 Gatsby aligns particularly well with the novel. I’ve broken down the movie to match the book’s chapters in my post, The Great Gatsby 2013 Film Chapter Breakdown.
Marilyn Yung of ELA Brave and True

Note: I have not tried this with my classes yet, but plan to in December when we read The Great Gatsby together.

However, I plan to explore this poetry form further. For example, this year in my British Literature classes, I’ll be pairing films with our readings to demonstrate how the foundational texts of Western culture resonate in contemporary stories and their movie adaptations. One idea: Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus will be connected to Limitless starring Bradley Cooper. Writing a “captions and text poem” to join these two media should be fun.

Thanks for reading again this week! Feel free to leave a comment and/or share your own experiences with finding innovative ways to add more poetry into literature studies.


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Also… the twenty-year observance of Sept. 11 is right around the corner. Here’s an innovative activity that combines texts and artifact photography into memorable poems.

My next post will be a round-up of Great Gatsby posts I’ve published this summer. Be sure to bookmark my site to find ways to make this great American novel fresh and new for you this year!


My Teacher Pay Teachers store contains a handful of items you may find useful. Check it out on TpT at Marilyn Yung | ELA Brave and True.

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Love teaching. Make it memorable.

A New Text Pairing for The Great Gatsby

Leslie Odom, Jr., self-improvement, and the American Dream

Need an informational text to pair with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? A text that offers real-life tips your students can apply to their lives? Earlier this month, I discovered a non-fiction book that adds contemporary relevance to Jay Gatsby’s Jazz Age motivations while also serving as a way to further engage students on a personal level with the novel. Here it is:

Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning by Leslie Odom, Jr.

If you’re unfamiliar with the author, Leslie Odom, Jr., maybe you just missed the memo (lol), so here’s a quick CV:

  • Tony Award-winner for Best Leading Actor in a Musical;
  • Grammy Award-winner for principal singer on the Hamilton cast recording;
  • recording artist with a Billboard No. 1 ranking debut album;
  • television performer on Law & Order: SVU, Grey’s Anatomy, CSI: Miami, plus others.

Yes, Odom’s career is that impressive. With that being the case, Odom’s positive life advice and personal experiences can inspire students to better their lives and accomplish their dreams, not to mention introduce them to the genre of self-improvement reading.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Self-improvement was a central tenet of the fictional Jay Gatsby. In chapter 9, readers learn about his youthful aspirations when Gatsby’s father, Henry Gatz, upon traveling from Minnesota to his son’s funeral, shows Nick Carraway his son’s tattered copy of Hopalong Cassidy. Inside the back cover, young James Gatz (Jay Gatsby’s birth name) had years earlier written his daily schedule and “general resolves.”

The schedule lists “Rise from bed 6 a.m.; Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling 6:15-6:30; Study electricity, etc. 7:15-8:15; Work 8:30-4:30; Baseball and sports 4:30-5:00; Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5:00-6:00; Study needed inventions 7:00-9:00.” The general resolves, listed next, include “No more smokeing (sic) or chewing; bath every other day; read one improving book or magazine per week; save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week; be better to parents.”

This to-do list spells out just how aspirational and destined for greatness the young James Gatz felt himself to be.

Failing Up inside page spread
Even though the book runs 194 pages, it’s a quick read. The tone is conversational and the pages feature ample spacing between lines.

This endearing glimpse into the future Jay Gatsby’s psyche provides readers an intimate look into his underlying, integral impulse: the drive to be better.

I think young James Gatz’s desire to — and I’m being general here — be a better person is one we all share. It’s also central to the notion of The American Dream, where hard work, preparation, perseverance, and a desire to provide for the next generation serve as touchstones.

Odom’s Failing Up, in essence an autobiographical account, resonates with similar messages, even ruminating on the American Dream itself, as in this excerpt:

“For me, Hamilton was my first real brush with the American Dream. I’d gone to Hollywood a decade earlier in search of it. All these years later, I could see that every triumph and every failure, every lesson learned along the way, was available for me to access and use to ensure that I made the most out of this moment. A Broadway musical about the Founding Fathers — a piece of art in part about slave owners and their American Revolution — bought me freedom. The American Dream had a new spirit and a new context for me now.”

Leslie odom, jr. | failing up chapter 8, page 167

Reading about how Odom accomplished his goals and his ultimate starring role in Hamilton may provide a current-day connection to Jay Gatsby that students can relate to.

Here are two additional benefits of adding this book to your Gatsby unit:

  • Its brevity makes it an easy add-on to your unit.
    • Even though it’s 194 pages in length, those pages flash by. The reading is very conversational. You won’t find overly complex vocabulary and, for our self-improvement purposes, that’s fine. In addition, the book can be read cover-to-cover or you can pull individual chapters or excerpts for mini-lessons.
  • It’s written by an accomplished, relevant celebrity of color.
    • Many students will be familiar with Odom. Reading about his childhood in Philadelphia — including elementary school troubles and pre-teen aimlessness — will be relatable. His many failures, hard work, initial aversion to risk, and ultimate successes should have appeal and value.

Bonus lesson idea: Inferencing skills

Failing Up by Leslie Odom, Jr.

As an extra bonus, each of the book’s nine chapters can potentially provide practice in inferencing. Since some chapters’ central messages are not explicitly stated in the titles, divide students into groups and have them read to identify the central message Odom offers. For example, chapter two is titled “The Big Break,” but its central message is prepare for success. Another: chapter three is titled “What You Own,” but one of its central messages is to make the most of whatever gifts you’ve been given. Your students should have fun parsing out Odom’s tips.

I’m glad I spent some time with this book. After all, I came to this book in a round-about way. My daughter ordered it a few years ago. I remember at the time thinking it looked interesting, but didn’t take the time to read it then. However, this summer, spurred on by an end-of-the-year mini-unit on Gatsby, my mind returned to it. I’m so glad it did. I hope Leslie Odom Jr’s. Failing Up makes an intentional, informational text pairing for you — one that helps your students connect in a new, personal way to The Great Gatsby.


Marilyn Yung

By the way, I’ve been on a Gatsby kick lately. I’ve been collecting resources, thinking about the book like literally ALL THE TIME (because it’s that kind of novel!), making a Jazz Age documentary viewing guide, and breaking down the 2013 film chapter by chapter.

If you teach Gatsby, you need to become a subscriber (sign up below) because more posts are on the way!

Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment below or via my contact page. I’d love to hear from you!

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One more Leslie Odom, Jr.-related post… a poetry article in the Wall Street Journal that delves into song lyrics, rap, and Hamilton. Pretty awesome!


ELA BRAVE AND TRUE by Marilyn Yung | Love teaching. Make it memorable.

Teaching 9/11 Twenty Years Later

Check out these posts on teaching 9/11

If you’re needing a round-up of resources for teaching 9/11, you’re in a good place. In this post, I’ve compiled links to all my 9/11-related articles. Hopefully, one of these will give you some ideas as you make plans to remember 9/11 in your classroom this year.


It’s hard to believe that Sept. 11, 2001 was twenty years ago.

Imagine: today’s high school seniors were born at least a full two years after the attacks. By then, life was returning to “the new normal,” and that horrible day, while still fresh for many, was a distant memory for others.

Teaching and remembering 9/11 is important and with the twenty-year anniversary right around the corner, I’ve assembled all my 9/11-related posts to help you in your planning.

And I get it.

Sept. 11 comes right after the school year begins. Heck, you’re still trying to get started with procedures and getting your required curriculum off and running. However, in some capacity at least, plan to observe 9/11. Know that you can accomplish a lot in just one class period.

After all, student interest is high on 9/11. In addition, it’s important to dispel the myriad conspiracy theories that circulate continuously on social media. It’s sad to me that some students know more 9/11 falsehoods than truth. However, in my experience, once students learn more about the attacks AND the events that precluded them (the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1993 attacks on American military personnel in Somolia, the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000, and others), conspiracy theories begin to disintegrate in plausibility.

Here are all my 9/11-related posts in one place to help you some posts to check out that will help you plan at least one class period’s worth of lessons to remember 9/11.

9/11 Poetry Lesson Plan: The Stories the Artifacts Tell

Many students can tell you the facts of 9/11. However, they may not understand the momentous loss of life and its accompanying grief, especially now twenty years later. This project weaves a one-word summary of an info text into an acrostic poem that describes a victim’s or a survivor’s personal artifact. From shoes to I.D. cards, artifacts link a general knowledge of the attacks to a single human life.

Top 9/11 Resources to Teach 9/11

This post contains mostly print sources that I’ve used over many years to teach Sept. 11 to middle schoolers.

A Sept. 11 Artifacts Poetry Display

This post includes hallway photos from a colleague who used my “The Stories the Artifacts Tell” poetry lesson plan.


Thanks for reading this week!

To be sure, I’m busy searching out new ways to observe 9/11 in my high school ELA classroom this year. In addition to writing acrostic poems discussed in this blog post, I also would like to try out a new webinar and/or podcast I’ve discovered and/or play ever-so-quietly the reading of victim’s names from the Ground Zero memorial service during my classes. I think letting kids experience the sheer breadth of life lost that day by hearing the names read aloud over the course of three hours might be effective in demonstrating the loss of life endured.

I’ll be writing soon about those ideas. To be notified when that post publishes, become a follower or subscribe by requesting a Treasured Object Poem handout below.

Please feel free to add a comment below to share how you observe 9/11 twenty years later.

As summer winds down, I’m starting to plan for the fall semester, setting and scheduling my syllabi for my classes and also planning a brand new poetry class I’m excited to offer during my last hour of the day. Plan to read lots of posts this fall about that experience!

Need a new poetry lesson?

Enter your email below and I’ll send you this PDF file that will teach your students to write Treasured Object Poems, one of my favorite poem activities. I know your students will enjoy it!

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I’ve been on a Gatsby kick lately! Here’s a recent post:

The Great Gatsby 2013 Film Chapter Breakdown

Happy summer!

A New Lesson for The Red Badge of Courage

Explore literary impressionism in Stephen Crane’s classic

Need a new angle for teaching The Red Badge of Courage? This spring I taught the Civil War classic for the second time. And while I wanted to incorporate the changes I discussed in My first attempt at teaching The Red Badge of Courage, things were definitely different this year.

Like no kidding, right?!

Besides the obvious differences — COVID-19, remote learning, etcetera — my students in my novels class this year shared a totally different mindset. Last year, the majority of the students in my class were non-readers with a major case of senioritis. Their primary goal: just to pass the class, get the credit, and graduate.

However, this year, it was totally different. The majority of the students in the class were proficient readers and writers. Yes, they also suffered from senioritis, but they were intent on finishing strong in their final semester. So because I knew I could trust them to work hard and take the project seriously, I knew I wanted to try something new and creative.

It’s a good feeling when you know you’re working with students who are willing to experiment with a new approach to a novel. #creativeteacher

Color pigments
Photo by thom masat on Unsplash

And I did have a new approach that I wanted to experiment with using The Red Badge of Courage and here it is: I wanted to introduce my students to literary impressionism by helping them notice Crane’s use of color and by creating a collaborative visual representation of the novel.

And why would I want to do this, you ask? What would be the educational goal? There are several:

  • To enable students to make cross-curricular connections among fine arts, history, and English Language Arts. We build relevance for the texts we read when we know their effects have impact and importance outside the English classroom.
  • To avoid yet another traditional literary analysis essay. Students write at least one analysis essay (both high stakes and low-stakes) every two to four weeks in my classes, plus others throughout the year. That’s plenty.
  • To help students notice the literary moves an author makes in order to convey meaning.
  • To introduce seniors to something new. Students are more engaged when they encounter an idea they haven’t considered before. (Sounds a little obvious, right? But I really think many students have heard about things like tone, characterization, and plot so many times by their junior and senior years, that they largely just zone out and disengage. Literary impressionism should be a new topic.)
Author Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane | Wikimedia License here

Creating a visual representation of the colors used in a novel sounds like an attainable goal, right? Well, let’s just say — like so many areas of the most unpredictable school year ever — I’m not totally happy with the results of the project. (For a quick reflection of what I would do differently next time, look for the bulleted list at the bottom of this post.)

I am happy to report, however, that the results of our colorful literary impressionism project did mirror the assessment made by a scholar on the subject, but more on that later.

Some background to start

Stephen Crane was a big fan of color, including how it could be used in a story for various effects. Even some popular Crane titles show his interest in transferring color onto the written page. Think of not only The Red Badge of Courage, but also The Blue Hotel and The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky. He was also influenced by certain techniques of painting. In fact, he adopted the methods of well-known French impressionists into his writings.

Without further ado, let’s start at the end. Here’s a look at the final product: the visual representation of The Red Badge of Courage.

The Red Badge of Courage Color Analysis Bulletin Board
I made this bulletin board with some ancillary explanation so other students could see what my novels class was up to. Many students were intrigued. Many were not. (sigh) Most could see a faint pattern in the use of color with the darker hues having more prominence in the middle to second half of the book.

The assignment in detail

After reading the book independently over the course of three weeks, answering some text-based questions, and discussing it briefly as a class, I first showed students an example composition I made at home in my kitchen. I figured before I assigned this project to students, I should try it myself.

Here’s a photo of my “trial run” with the sticky note that tallied the colors used in the chapters I chose. (I ended making another one at school alongside the students at school.)

A teacher-made color symbolism collage of The Red Badge of Courage
Before assigning this project to students, I tried it myself.

I then asked students to choose two consecutive chapters and make a list of all the color words they encountered. They could do this on a sheet of paper or a sticky note (as I did in the photo above), just so they could keep track of the words.

The rest of the directions were given to students on a handout that I also uploaded as a Google Doc on Google Classroom. For a free PDF of this sheet, click below.

In brief, I asked each student to analyze two consecutive chapters of the novel to notice the colors used and then create a collage to reflect those colors. Then, using their lists, I asked students to create a collage, approximating the same proportion that they occurred within the two chapters of their text.

In other words, if they had six mentions of black, two of red, two of orange, three blues and one gray, obviously black would dominate. In fact, there would be three times the amount of black as there would be each of red and orange, twice as much black as blue, and six times as much black as gray.

It was a rather loosely prescribed process and I allowed students to use whatever they wanted for their materials. They could use markers, colored pencils, magazine cut-outs, or crayons. I had even purchased some acrylic paint available, but no one used it. Students also had free reign for how they wanted to arrange their compositions.

I supplied each student with a 11″ x 14″ canvas-covered board on which to work. I also had glue sticks and liquid glue for them to use.

This was key:

I told the students that since this was a first-time project and one that I had never known to be done before, I was totally open to their ideas and suggestions for how to proceed. I also told them were few rules other than those outlined on the sparse assignment.

When arranged on the bulletin board, each student’s collage was a loose representation of the colors in their two chapters. I also asked students to include brief passages of text to support the tone of each chapter. Their text passages did not have to include color words; I left the choosing of their text passage up to them.

And then I let them work. And work they did.

High school English class bulletin board showing the class' color collages of The Red Badge of Courage

This collaborative collage project illustrates how Crane author utilized color in a very conscious way to add meaning to his novel. I think that’s a worthwhile concept to show to students and it did require some extra time to explore on my own before presenting the assignment to my class. (And obviously, I’m no expert on literary impressionism or Stephen Crane. I’m learning, too!)

How I prepared for this project

If you do a little reading up on Crane, you find out quite a bit about his purpose and approach to the novel using literary impressionism. This handout printed from A Handbook to Literature outlines some basics about literary impressionism. Download this sheet here.

Literary impressionism background
“Impressionism” from A Handbook to Literature.

There’s a bits-and-pieces feel to The Red Badge of Courage. Students feel it as they read vivid and brief accounts and descriptions of battles, fallen soldiers, and misunderstood orders. Those bits and pieces are part of Crane’s literary impressionism.

It can be said that Crane used color to demonstrate a detachment from Fleming’s civilian life, his family, and even his personal worth that the soldiers felt as he entered the new world of soldiering. One way these detachments can be seen is in the seeming indifference that the natural world holds for man. I feel that Crane revealed this indifference to heighten the fear and apprehension that permeates the story as Fleming continually doubts his capacity for courage.

Scholars have noted this separation between nature and man in the novel as well. “(Crane) uses devices of flatness of his own (literary devices)… to express the human subject has no more significance or import than the nonhuman subject,” writes Iris Ralph in “Stephen Crane and the Green Place of Paint.” It’s that kind of detachment that adds to the fear Fleming feels as he begins his journey as a soldier.

Note: Citations for articles appear at the end of this post.

This idea of flatness, of independent planes of color, is central to impressionistic painting; subsequently, it paved the way for Cubism. Below is an example by the neo-impressionist painter Georges Seurat that you may be familiar with. Seurat used “pointillism” (small dots) to show this concept. At left is the entire picture, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” At right is a detail that shows the dots that together create the impression of the image.

One scholar sees a direct connection between pointillism and Crane. In a journal article “Stephen Crane and Impressionism,” Rodney O. Rogers writes:

” ‘The question of how French impressionist painting influenced Crane’s writings has been one of lasting interest… The standard approach to the question notes similarities between stylistic techniques in Crane’s writing and impressionistic painting… R. W. Stallman goes farthest of all when he calls Crane’s style “prose pointillism” because “it is composed of disconnected images, which coalesce in blobs of color in French impressionist painting, …’ “

Rogers, Rodney O. “Stephen Crane and Impressionism.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 24, no. 3, 1969, pp. 292–304. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2932859. Accessed 12 July 2021.

To further prepare for this project, I located the following online articles to learn more about literary impressionism and Stephen Crane.

An article published in 1960 about The Red Badge of  Courage and color by Claudia Wogan
“Crane’s Use of Color in The Red Badge of Courageby Claudia Wogan in Modern Fiction Studies Vol. 6, No. 2
Despite being published in 1960, this article contained some interesting points that I knew I wanted to share with students. In the article, Wogan writes, “The opening paragraphs of almost any Crane story are heavily splashed with color…” She goes on to comment on the purpose and effect of Crane’s impressionistic use of color: “This use of color to create the impression of a large painted canvas contributes significantly to one of the underlying themes of the book — the indifference of the world of Nature to the affairs of men. It is against this background that the story of Henry Fleming is enacted.”
Another page of Claudia Wogan's article
Wogan’s 1960 article contains a rather limited table of color words she collected from the novel.

Another article below, “The Color of War: A Computer Analysis of Color in The Red Badge of Courage” by William E. Newmiller, builds on Wogan’s article. However, by using up-to-date software programs, Newmiller was able to assess in greater detail Crane’s use of color words throughout the novel. Where Wogan noted a mere eleven uses of the color white, for example, Newmiller was able to include additional words that conveyed whiteness, such as whiter, whitest, whitish. Being able to account for these variations of the word white allowed Newmiller to get a broader picture of Crane’s color use in The Red Badge of Courage.

An article by William Newmiller about color symbolism in The Red Badge of Courage
Newmiller’s article alludes to Claudia Wogan’s research, but builds on her work with the help of technology that has developed since Wogan’s piece.

In this article, Newmiller makes some interesting points about color symbolism that have the potential to get students thinking about the irony present in the story. For example, “The heavy use of red early in the book and culminating in chapter 13 — the “reddest” chapter in the book — sets off the central irony upon which the book hinges: that Henry’s red badge represents courage only to those who don’t know the true nature of the wound.” Some students detected this irony on their own and we briefly discussed it, but if my scheduling had been better, we would have been able to process it (and other color associations) more deeply. Unexpected uses of gray and yellow in the book also sparked some comments, as well as black, which exerts the strongest presence in chapters 15-16.

Besides articles, I also watched several videos and settled on this one as being one to use in class the day I passed out the directions sheet. This video was a good one to better familiarize my students with impressionism.

Was this project successful? Hmmm.

While it’s debatable whether we totally hit the mark on this project, overall I think my students’ work accurately reflects Crane’s use of color in the novel. For example, in his journal article, Newmiller writes, “The resulting color map shows a fairly even use of color words throughout the book, but slightly more color words appear in the second half than in the first half. Interestingly, the last tenth of the book contains 16.9 percent of the color words, suggesting that color grows in importance as the novel reaches its conclusion.” My students’ color compositions, when viewed as a whole on the bulletin board, sufficiently captured Newmiller’s observation. As one’s eye proceeds across and down the board, colors grow in vibrancy and darkness as Henry Fleming’s tour of duty reaches its climax.

To reflect

I think this was a good first attempt at teaching color symbolism and literary impressionism. I’m not sure if I’ll have a whole class read of the novel again next year. I may offer a lit circle option instead.

Regardless, noticing and reflecting on color and literary impressionism provides a great way to provide reading purpose. When students read, consciously keeping an eye out for colors and how those colors influence or reflect the story, their reading is more intentional.

Close-up photos of some of the compositions follow below:

A student's color collage for The Red Badge of Courage
Eva A.
A student's color collage for The Red Badge of Courage
Ella D.
A student's color collage for The Red Badge of Courage
William B.
A student's color collage for The Red Badge of Courage
The composition I made at school alongside students.
A student's color collage for The Red Badge of Courage
Ty P.

Things I’ll change for next time

Reflecting helps me to clarify my practice. Here’s what I plan to do differently the next time I approach this project.

  • Utilize the William Newmiller article more. Perhaps have students reflect on Newmiller’s ideas as they pertain to their two chapters.
  • Spend more time talking about color symbolism and how those expected symbols (red for courage, black for death) were either supported or refuted by Crane.
  • Collaborate with the art teacher to make more cross-curricular connections. This project could coincide with an art unit on color or collage.
  • Ask that text passages blend in with the composition and allow no more than two quotations, so they don’t overpower the color composition.
  • Allow more reflection after the project with students. A written reflection could serve as a final assessment.
  • Suggest that students not use recognizable objects as colors. For example, don’t cut out red lips from a magazine when you need the color red. Just find a solid red shape. The lips convey too much meaning and are distracting.
  • This is definitely a project to do early in the semester when Christmas break or summer break isn’t right around the corner. Tackle this unit early in the semester.

In summary

Overall, I’m happy with how this project turned out. While I know I missed the mark in a few areas, I think students learned more about literary impressionism and how writers use color to convey meaning. I also think they gained a greater understanding of how visual art can influence other realms of knowledge.

In addition, I think this project could translate to other books. (Great Gatsby, anyone?!) After all, there are many ways you can approach and analyze any novel. Creating a visual representation like this one is just one of them.


WORKS CITED

Newmiller, William E. “The Color of War: A Computer Analysis of Color in The Red Badge of Courage.” “Stephen Crane in War and Peace,” a special issue of War, Literature, and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities (1999):141-46.

Ralph, Iris. “Stephen Crane and the Green Place of Paint.” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, March 2011, pp. 201-230.

Rogers, Rodney O. “Stephen Crane and Impressionism.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 24, no. 3, 1969, pp. 292–304. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2932859. Accessed 12 July 2021.

Wogan, Claudia C. “Crane’s Use of Color in ‘THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE.’” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 1960, pp. 168–172. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26277201. Accessed 12 July 2021.

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JSYK…

I’ll be taking a break here and there from my weekly posting during the the month of July.

Be on the lookout am updated posts on my 9/11 poetry project titled “The Stories the Artifacts Tell.” This will be the twentieth anniversary of the attacks that changed contemporary American and global life in innumerable ways. Never forget.

Thanks for reading!

Love teaching. Make it memorable.

“A Sea of Troubles” offers text pairings for greater relevance

But facilitating lessons in civility is the cherry on top

Read any of these texts in your classroom?

To Kill A Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, Romeo and Juliet, The Handmaid’s Tale, Night, Farewell to Manzanar, 1984, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Animal Farm?

If these books are on your classroom shelves, A Sea of Troubles: Pairing Literary and Informational Texts to Address Social Inequality by Elizabeth James and B. H. James will provide concrete ways to combine these classics with innovative informational texts to build relevancy and timeliness into the books you assign.

A Sea of Troubles book cover

In the preface, under the subtitle “The Purpose of This Book,” the authors write:

“The specific image of a sea of troubles, from Shakespeare’s most famous speech, still resonates today. Scrolling on one’s phone, absorbing the injustice and calamity around us, can feel isolating and overwhelming. What is the individual to do? How do we not get dragged under? … as English teachers, do we simply suffer those troubles and carry on as usual, or do we, within the context of the work of an English course, take arms? … What if we could use the texts in book rooms across America and reimagine an English classroom that very purposefully tied beautiful, compelling literary arts with the real world around us, pairing those literary texts with informative nonfiction that could enhance our understanding of those texts and of our current besieged world?”

A Sea of Troubles | Elizabeth James and B. H. James

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of current day connection that I want for my students. After all, it’s always my goal — an absolute need even — to make the literature we read relevant, significant, and practical… to make it personally matter to my students.

Students listening to teacher
Photo: Unsplash

Essentially a book of lesson plans that shed light on social inequality themes in classroom literary favorites, I would venture the strategies can be adapted for other texts as well. Chapters also include detailed plans for activities, discussions, essay prompts, student-written mentors, and lists of resources.

Below I’ve provided a few chapter titles from the book plus one informational text (there are others) utilized by the authors in the lessons and activities.

  • “Syntactical Othering and The Merchant of Venice” (paired with the TED Talk “Racism Has a Cost for Everyone” by Heather McGhee)
  • “Systemic Racial Injustice in A Raisin in the Sun” (paired with “The Case for Reparations” Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic)
  • “Abuses of Power in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (paired with “What Power Does to Your Brain and Your Body” by Hilary Brueck in Business Insider)
  • “Genocide and Ethnic Internment in Night and Farewell to Manzanar” (paired with “Facing Criticism Over Muslim Camps, China Says: What’s the Problem?” by Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy of The New York Times)
  • “Gender Inequality and The Handmaid’s Tale” (paired with “Few Women Run the Nation’s School Districts. Why?” by Denisa Superville in Education Week)

Hmmmm. So much to ponder! The titles alone reveal how curated literature pairings can foster deeper thinking and discussion.

But there’s more to this book than what it touts on the cover.

True, while the book does provide text pairings for greater relevance, it also underscores the need to teach civility, to engage students in controversial yet collegial discussions. For example, in an intertextual comparison between To Kill A Mockingbird and The Handmaid’s Tale, the authors write:

“Students (male and female) need stories that explore the female experience, and Scout Finch’s idyllic childhood just isn’t enough. This may be potentially divisive. Do it anyway. We need a generation of students who can talk to each other and make headway, particularly on topics such as the Equal Rights Amendment, the wage gap, sexual assault, and abortion.” 

Indeed, teaching civil discussion skills is needed now more than ever, given that many teens 1) are more comfortable texting than talking and 2) are increasingly dependent on social media where anonymity fuels misunderstandings and hostilities.

However, to prevent classrooms from becoming tinder boxes of controversy, the authors suggest teachers explicitly tell students, “This unit will not have a political agenda. This unit will strive to turn down the noise and immediate, visceral, knee-jerk reactions, and get us each to a place where we can understand both sides of an argument about which we may feel very strongly.”

Authors Elizabeth and B. H. James are both high school English teachers. Teachinglit.org has more information.

I think that sort of directness will be needed when using this book, and I’m glad the authors have addressed and provided it. To make our literature selections relevant for living in today’s world, we must also provide the scaffolding that allows our students’ “civility skill sets” to develop so civil discussions can result.

Yes, A Sea of Troubles performs the task touted on the cover: it shows how to use innovative text pairings for greater relevancy in contemporary times. However, its untouted task, facilitating lessons in civility, is the cherry on top.


Thanks for reading again this week! Please leave a comment below on my Contact page. Have a great July!

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Create context for Gatsby with “Cosmopolis” documentary

This “Cosmopolis” viewing guide builds prior knowledge for Gatsby

Before you even mention to your students that they’ll be reading The Great Gatsby in your classes, know that they will have probably at least heard of it. But that’s about all.

Even though The Great Gatsby is arguably considered the great American novel, don’t think for a minute that young people know much about the 1920s or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or even – gasp! – the 2013 movie by Baz Luhrman. Your juniors would have been about eight years old when it was released, so if you bring up that there’s a movie, plan to see a lot of blank stares across your classroom.

That being the case, you will no doubt need to spend a few days acquainting your students with all things Jazz Age. Here is one fantastic video resource — free on YouTube no less — to put in your planning notebook for the next time you teach The Great Gatsby: “Cosmopolis” from New York: A Documentary Film, the behemoth eight-episode historical saga of New York City.

Episode 5 of season 1, “Cosmopolis,” was released in 1999 by director Ric Burns of Steeplechase Films.

Here’s the quick summary blurb about “Cosmopolis” from IMDb:

“Episode five tells the African-American experience, the birth of the new media industries and the incredible convergence of human and cultural energies, ending with construction of the world’s tallest building.”

New York: A Documentary Film | Cosmopolis (Episode 5)

“Cosmopolis” covers the years 1914-1931 and runs over two hours in length. However, for our purposes with Gatsby, watch only the first 35 and half minutes, which covers New York City history through 1927.

Watch “Cosmopolis” (Season 1 Episode 5) from New York: A Documentary Film

Yes, this documentary first aired in 1999 and even though it’s not new, it’s still riveting and engaging. In fact, I use this same documentary series for two other units, 9/11 (Episode 8) and Triangle Fire (Episode 4), and it has yet to disappoint. My students have always found the series worthwhile and interesting.

What makes “Cosmopolis” perfect for The Great Gatsby? It begins and ends with this passage from the final pages of the book:

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.”

Chapter 12 | THE GREAT GATSBY | F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

The narration of this delicious quote from the book is absolutely magical and bookends the entire discussion of the Jazz Age. In addition, Fitzgerald receives a lot of attention throughout “Cosmopolis.” Some basic biographical information is included as well as ideas about how his views and attitudes were integral to not only his various short stories and other novels, but also to the prevailing notions of his peers in the Big Apple.

I can’t recommend this documentary highly enough!

“Cosmopolis” provides informative and engaging information on the following topics:

  • World War 1 and its aftermath
  • Prosperity following the war
  • Passage of the 19th Amendment
  • Prohibition
  • The Red Scare
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda
  • The Harlem Renaissance
  • The influence of jazz on American culture
  • New technologies such as radio, motion pictures, and skyscrapers

There’s even this teacher’s guide you can download from PBS. Here’s a photo (below left) of two sheets from the guide for student use that contain reading passages and questions based on the era covered by “Cosmopolis.”

The other sheet in the photo (below right) provides more reference materials, vocabulary, and paired texts (stories, poetry and essays). In fact, there are materials like these for each episode of New York: A Documentary Film.

Worksheets from New York: The Documentary video.
Print out the Cosmopolis pages from this New York: The Documentary Season 1 teacher’s guide.

This information on these student pages supplements the episode, but doesn’t serve as a viewing guide per se. That’s why I created my own viewing guide to use next year when I teach Gatsby for the second time to my junior American Lit classes.

My 34-question viewing guide with key provides more than just something for students to follow along with as they watch. It contains not only basic fill-in-the-blank questions, but also encourages critical thinking with questions that will get your students pondering and discussing the broader implications of the video’s finer points.

I’ve divided the guide into the eight scenes of the “Cosmopolis” episode. Since the critical thinking questions are scattered throughout the guide, I would suggest stopping at the conclusion of each scene to talk through some of the questions with students and/or discuss briefly some of the talking points in the video before continuing.

But it’s really your call.

You might want to suggest that students fill out the guide as they see fit. Some will want to follow along question by question, stopping at each scene; some will prefer to watch and fill out later. I hope that the guide will allow this kind of flexibility.

Full disclosure: I have not used this guide yet. I created it during summer break and intend to use it during the upcoming school year.

This guide is available below for purchase from my TpT store. Scroll through the slideshow below to see sample pages from the guide.

If you purchase this viewing guide from my TpT store… THANK YOU! And please let me know how it works for you either here in the comments, on my Contact page, or on TpT.

In summary…

During my first attempt at teaching the novel, I know I didn’t provide enough prior knowledge and students missed out. There are SO MANY historical and cultural allusions sprinkled throughout the book that to stop and teach, explain, and discuss at every question stopped the flow of the story and interrupted the magic of Fitzgerald’s prose. If I had simply provided more guidance up front with “Cosmopolis” my students would have had a better Gatsby experience.

How about you? What are your go-to Gatsby prior knowledge resources? How do you teach the novel before even turning to page 1? Leave a comment below and share your experiences with the rest of us.


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Have a great summer!

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Click the link below to read about one of my favorite projects from the 2021-21 school year.

“Song of Myself” Video Project Reveals Walt Whitman’s Importance Today

Race, Class, and Music in The Great Gatsby

Musical Allusions in The Great Gatsby

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

If you’ve ever taught The Great Gatsby, you’ve no doubt had discussions with your students about the myriad musical allusions that are sprinkled throughout the novel. In May, during an abbreviated unit on Gatsby, I found myself a little unprepared to discuss the significance of the various musical selections Fitzgerald included.

Yes, I could have explained one reason for all those musical allusions: to set the novel directly in the Jazz Age. But I wasn’t able to discuss at any great length the significance of the selections beyond that, especially since it was my first time teaching the book.

Because I posted a few weeks ago that I would be writing soon about the music of Gatsby, I knew I had to follow through. However, in researching for the post, I found this awesome article, “Race, Class, and Music in The Great Gatsby” that I’m reblogging below in this post. The article is written by Carrie Allen Tipton, Ph.D., a musicologist and writer for The Avid Listener blog hosted by publisher W. W. Norton and Company.

Tipton goes “below the surface” to offer insights about music Fitzgerald chose to insert into his novel. I hope you’ll enjoy the analysis she provides and find it useful. I know I will next year when I teach Gatsby again probably in December. (I’m still fine-tuning when exactly I’ll teach the book next year; I think I’ll move it from May to December.)

One thing, however, the article doesn’t outline are the exact locations for the musical allusions. I’ve done that for you below.

Musical allusions in The Great Gatsby chapter by chapter:

Ch. 1 and Ch. 2: No musical allusions
Ch. 3: Vladimir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World
Ch. 4: The Sheik of Araby (1921) by Ted Snyder (music), Harry B. Smith and Francis Wheeler (lyrics)
Ch. 5: The Love Nest and Ain’t We Got Fun
Ch. 6: Three O’Clock in the Morning
Ch. 7: Mendelssohn’s Wedding March
Ch. 8: Beale Street Blues
Ch. 9: The Rosary

So without further ado, I think you’ll find this article an excellent one to add to your Gatsby unit — for your own research or for teaching — to better equip students with an extra dash of cultural literacy and to increase their understanding of the book’s themes.

The Avid Listener

Carrie Allen Tipton (Houston, TX)

Warner Brothers film trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013), featuring multiple musical excerpts (starting off with André 3000 and Beyoncé performing “Back in Black”).

The Great Gatsby turned ninety last year. What does its antihero—floating dead on a bloody mattress in the pool outside his nouveau riche palace, a casualty in some indirect sense of the American dream—have to say to us? Does his tale offer any relevant cultural critique to a nation nearly a century removed from its publication? We must think so, because we keep revisiting it: in English classrooms, in the iconic1974 Robert Redford film, inJohn Harbison’s opera of the late 1990s, and inBaz Luhrmann’s 2013 film. The musical dimensions of these iterations loom large; Gatsby, shot through with references to the popular music of the jazz age, invites sonic treatment in a…

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“Song of Myself” Video Project Reveals Walt Whitman’s Importance Today

Students find personal connection with video poems

Here’s what you’ll find in this post: 1) links to an award-winning documentary project that features Alabama residents reciting “Song of Myself”; 2) videos from the Whitman, Alabama project and a description of the assignment I created inspired by the Alabama project; 3) a reflection of how I’ll change this project for next time; 4) the handout I used with my students available for purchase

For the backstory, start reading in the next paragraph. To cut to the essentials, scroll down to where you see this picture:

The Backstory

What does it mean to be an American? How was the American identity formed? Those were two essential questions I discussed with my junior (grade 11) English students last year during my unit on Transcendentalism and the American Identity. In this unit, we discussed how the works and philosophies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman broke tradition to sever the reliance on European cultures and customs to create a new national American identity.

During that unit in March, I looked for a creative way to help my students appreciate the contemporary relevance of the poetry of Walt Whitman, the final writer we studied in the unit. Whitman’s major work was his Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry that, among other works, included his 52-verse poem “Song of Myself.”

According to this article on the Library of Congress webpage, “The publication of the first slim edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was the debut of a masterpiece that shifted the course of American literary history.” Based on that assessment, as an English teacher I can’t overlook the influence that Whitman made on the shaping of the American identity. After all, that was the notion that had compelled me to include Whitman in our Transcendentalism unit in the first place.

Indeed, Whitman’s poetry pervades not only American history, but our contemporary and pop culture as well. According to this 2017 article from the University of Rochester Newscenter:

“His (Whitman’s) impact on American literature over the past century and a half is incalculable. Virtually every American poet has at some point engaged Whitman directly…

Whitman always addressed his poems to readers in the future, and American poets have talked back to him continually—arguing with him, praising him, questioning him about the diverse and democratic American future he promised. The list of American poets who have carried on this non-stop debate with him is endless: from Langston Hughes and Muriel Rukeyser to William Carlos Willams and Robert Creeley, from June Jordan to Yusef Komunyakaa to Marín Espada. American poets have viewed Whitman’s radical poetics as essentially intertwined with the national character, a kind of distinct and distinctive American voice.”

University of rochester newscenter

Of course, with resources like this article, I could easily show students last March that Whitman resonates in our culture.

However, because I still desired for them to make a personal connection with his work, I kept researching for ways to do just that. Beyond knowing, for example, that Whitman shows up in the TV series Breaking Bad, or in a Levi’s commercial, as the Newscenter article later explains, how can students relate to Whitman on a personal level? That’s what I was really trying to find out and what I hoped to provide for my students in some type of creative assignment. So I kept looking for ideas online.

And then I stumbled upon something amazing: “Whitman, Alabama.”

One winter weekend, I unearthed an interesting website called Whitman, Alabama that featured the work of American journalist and filmmaker Jennifer Crandall and her production team interviewing and recording ordinary Alabamans reciting verses from Whitman’s infamous “Song of Myself.” (If you’re wondering why Alabama was chosen, Crandall explains here.)

Crandall’s background led her to explore the American identity through the lens of Alabama citizens. Part white and part Chinese, her website reveals her desire to explore themes of identity and connection.

According to Crandall’s website, the Whitman, Alabama project is an “experiment in using documentary and poetry to reveal the threads that tie us together — as people, as states, and as a nation.” The more I looked at the Whitman, Alabama website the more I realized how Crandall’s concept could dovetail nicely with the essential questions of my Transcendentalism and the American Identity unit.

From the website, we understand Crandall’s goal with her documentary series: “inviting people to look into a camera and share a part of themselves through the words of Walt Whitman. The 19th-century poet’s “Song of Myself” is a quintessential reflection of our American identities.”

Bingo, I thought. This is perfect.

Intrigued, I clicked a few of the “Song of Myself” video links on this page of her site and was instantly mesmerized.

And then I knew I’d found my assignment: My students needed to make their own Whitman, Alabama-style videos!

These gems from Crandall’s series speak for themselves. For sure, the variety of the project’s participants represents Whitman’s love of the diversity of the American people. Crandall works with young couples, an airline pilot, a musician, an actress, a plumber, young families, a judge, and others, to reflect the full gamut of American society.

Below are links to the three videos I showed my students during class to introduce the project. While there are many more online to watch either on the Whitman, Alabama website or YouTube, I thought the three videos below would work well as mentor texts to capture the overall flavor of Crandall’s project.

This is the first video I showed to my students. It’s probably the most well-known of Whitman’s verses from the poem with these memorable opening lines:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Take a look:

Beautiful! Students loved hearing this woman read the poem with such expression! Here’s the next video I showed in class:

Wasn’t that precious? This video engaged my students even more. It was fun to watch this little girl and her grandmother interact and laugh spontaneously with the film crew as they started and stopped to reshoot verse 46.

Here’s the last of the three videos I showed my students. It features a mechanic reading verse 39. This one really appealed to many of the boys in my classes, especially those who, like the subject in the video below, were unfamiliar with the influence of Whitman.

This video was the perfect one to end on. It seemed to totally captivate everyone in the room, and I even found myself tearing up at the mechanic’s sincerity and honesty. Here he is minding his own business, working hard at his job, and — oh, yeah — reciting poetry by some dude named Walt Whitman.

I think what I love most about the Whitman, Alabama project is its spontaneity and the demographic variety of subjects Crandall and her team showcased. That diversity explains why Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is the jewel of 19th-century American poetry: the poem that began as a personal expression of Whitman’s life evolved into an expression of what it means to be American, whether we live in Alabama, Oregon, Kansas, or Maine.

“Song of Myself,” the poem that began as a personal expression of Whitman’s life evolved into an expression of what it means to be American, whether we live in Alabama, Oregon, Kansas, or Maine.

So, you can probably guess the assignment I created. I asked my students to make a video of someone they knew reading a verse from “Song of Myself.”

And now for the results… here are three videos made by my students!

This first one is probably my favorite because it’s recorded outside by a student (Riley V.) and her grandmother. Riley chose verse 1 from “Song of Myself.” (used with permission)

Below is another student’s (Aliychiyah L.) video using verse 17. (used with permission)

Below is the final video I’ll include here. It features Ashley C’s. father reading verse 51. (used with permission)

Nearly all of my 26 juniors (except for two) eagerly turned in this assignment. While these three videos captured the essence of the assignment, many others did as well, and that’s a huge plus. The project’s inherent spontaneity lends an honesty to each video and also assures student success.

Reflection time

However, like any assignment, there are always things I want to do differently next time. Here’s my list as it looks right now:

  • Require readers to be doing something related to their job or hobby. This might cause them to relax a little and read more naturally. Even just having someone hold a coffee cup will help them loosen up.
  • Avoid the “person talking against a wall” syndrome. Encourage kids to go outside. Even merely angling the chair the reader is sitting in will add interest.
  • Adhere to deadlines better to better avoid more than one student choosing the same verse. This year with COVID, I literally had no late work policy and kids turned things in largely at their convenience (or so it seemed at the time). Many of those late students didn’t tell me their verse choice until it was too late and I had a handful choose the same verse somehow. While there’s nothing really wrong with that, I wanted to cover more of Whitman’s monumental poem than we did.
  • Advise kids to read their verses in their entirety before making their choices. Whitman is known for writing about sexuality and the human body, so to avoid an awkward situation, students really need to take their time choosing and, again, let me know their choice so I’m aware and can make changes if needed.
  • Encourage students to memorize their verses. Actress Curtia Torbet reads Verse 38 in several modes of expression and gives a breath-taking reading your kids will enjoy. See it here.
  • And last but not least: Next year, I’d like to diversify the authors within this unit. Could there be a way to also work in Langston Hughes’ “I Too Sing America”? What about women transcendentalists, such as Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott? I’m sure I’ll have this figured out for next time.

This project will no doubt change in more ways by next year. I guess you could say it’s a work in progress… much like America itself, come to think of it. However, based on this initial experience, I know this project will have another “go” next year.

What I love about this assignment:

  • It connects to my essential questions: What does it mean to be an American? How was the American identity formed?
  • It incorporates video and poetry!
  • It offers students a break from the traditional essay, and
  • It demonstrates the essence of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

So thank you, Jennifer Crandall and team, for capturing “the quintessential reflection of our American identities” through Whitman’s poetry. Your idea inspired this project at my small rural high school, and while there are changes to be made for next time, I am beyond excited about this first attempt.

I’ve made a PDF of the handout I used for this assignment available at this link on my TpT store. If you use this handout and/or have your students do this project, please let me know how it goes by leaving a message on my Contact page.

Thanks for reading again this week!

Have any thoughts or ideas or suggestions for this project? How do you demonstrate the relevance of pivotal 19th-century writers like Walt Whitman? Leave a comment below or on my Contact page.


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Coming next week: Musical allusions in The Great Gatsby


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Switch up sketchnotes to engage distracted students

Hybrid sketchnotes differentiate for all listeners

I love sketchnotes. They’re engaging, colorful, and creative, and allow me to make illustrative connections while I listen to a book. But here’s the thing: I’m not a very good listener.

Woman daydreaming while looking out a window.
Daydreaming while attempting to listen to an audiobook is a problem for some… including me.

I need to carefully concentrate on the words I’m hearing or my mind wanders to whatever’s going on in the hall, outside the window, or just inside my head.

So even though I’m a huge fan of sketchnotes, sometimes I need a more passive kind of sketchnotes… sketchnotes that keep me engaged, but still able to focus on the text so I can create meaningful notes and doodles that will ultimately aid understanding and retention of the content.

And here’s the thing: some of my students have this same issue.

In playing around with this problem, I thought of a blogger-friend of mine named Janis Cox. Cox journals while she studies the Bible. And her journaling looks very similar to my definition of differentiated or hybrid sketchnoting. Here are two photos of her Bible journaling from her Instagram account (@janis_cox):

To create her Bible journaling, Jan interacts directly with the text, illustrating and embellishing specific scripture verses right on those pages in her Bible.

As I looked at Jan’s work, I asked myself, “Why couldn’t this be done in the classroom?”

So, during the last couple of weeks of school, I decided to try out Jan’s style of journaling– I now call it differentiated or hybrid sketchnoting –with my juniors’ final end of the year unit on The Great Gatsby.

To create a style similar to Jan’s, I photocopied the first two pages of each chapter of the novel and had students take their sketchnotes directly on the photocopied text.

Blank photocopies of the first two pages of chapters from The Great Gatsby
I provided each student with a copy of the first two pages of The Great Gatsby for their differentiated sketchnotes.

This accomplished three things:

  1. It caused students to more directly and intentionally interact with the text.
  2. It prompted their thinking and sketchnoting. When the words of the text are your canvas, it takes some of the load off of the “What do I sketch?” problem, and allows you to listen better.

When the text is your canvas, you listen more directly and interact more intentionally with the text. #sketchnotes

When I have the text as my canvas, I find myself better processing the author’s actual words and plot action. I can illustrate and doodle if I like or zoom into words, phrases, and dialogue.

So with these thoughts in mind, I’ve outlined below four ways I differentiated sketchnoting for my students. In addition to the traditional sketchnoting sheets you can download free at Spark Creativity (Thank you, Betsy Potash!), I suggest you meet all your student listeners and offer them a photocopied sheet of the text as well.

Four Ways to Differentiate Sketchnotes

1. Spot drawing sketch notes

Spot drawing sketchnotes allow students to draw at certain spots across the text to illustrate the words on the page. Spot drawing sketchnotes appear most like traditional sketchnotes, but these still encourage interaction with specific passages and words within the text.

Use spot drawing sketchnotes with students who may need limited guidance on what exactly to draw, but are still able to sketch and listen simultaneously.

2. Word focus sketchnotes

Word focus sketchnotes

I call these word focus sketchnotes. These allow one to listen to the text because all they need to do is draw dots around certain words and phrases in order to make connections with the text. Word focus sketchnotes take most of the load off of the “What do I draw?” problem that I see some students struggling with during traditional sketchnoting.

Here are two ideas to consider with word focus sketchnotes:

  • Make sure to give students a couple of minutes (while you take roll, for example), to skim the pages to locate unique words and important phrases before the reading starts. If students don’t have some time upfront to skim the pages, they’ll do that instead during the reading and miss out on the text.
  • Have students consider the use of color as they listen. Then supply a stash of markers, colored pencils, and crayons so they can load their sketchnotes with color. Some chapters may be loaded with color symbolism. For example, Chapter 3 in Gatsby uses yellow words and tones extensively and symbolically.

However, if a student still would rather only listen and leave all the drawing for later, the next style, symbol sketchnotes, might work better for them.

3. Symbol sketchnotes

Symbol sketchnotes

Symbol sketchnotes let the listener focus solely on listening so they can leave the drawing for later. After the reading, the listener summarizes the chapter with a symbol that best represents that chapter. For chapter 1 of Gatsby, the green light is the object I chose to symbolize that chapter.

True, choosing a symbol takes some analytical thought and that will happen when the student has some time to think after the reading. Allow students time to do that during class or at home.

4. Blackout poetry sketchnotes

Blackout poetry sketchnotes

Another way to differentiate sketchnotes is to borrow a technique from blackout poetry. Again, this style of sketchnotes requires some time beforehand so students can read ahead to locate the words they want in their blackout poem. However, during the read-aloud, students are free to listen well since the black lines, for the most part, require minimal concentration.

An idea to make this work better: beforehand, have students draw rectangles around the words they wish to appear in their poems so when the read-aloud begins they can listen closely.

To sum it all up

I hope these “hybrid sketchnotes” ideas will help you switch up your sketchnoting for next year. After all, sketchnoting isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Some kids grasp the concept and love it and others can’t stand having to do all that drawing while they listen. These alternatives should appeal to the former while serving the latter.

Thanks for reading again this week! I’m interested in your thoughts about sketchnoting and these alternatives. Feel free to leave a comment below or on my Contact page.


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Three MORE articles to pair with The Great Gatsby

Bookmark these nonfiction texts for your next Gatsby unit

Well, we did it. Last week, my students and I finished our abbreviated unit on The Great Gatsby. It was a whirlwind, but we made it through chapter 7 in the book just before watching the 2013 Baz Luhrman movie.

I even managed to treat my two classes to Martinelli’s sparkling apple and peach juice and seasoned pretzels as a kind of mini-Gatsby bash on the first day of the movie.

First Chapter Friday bulletin board shows the covers of all the books I read the first chapters of this year.
This is my bulletin board that shows all the books I used for First Chapter Fridays over this past school year. Our last book was The Great Gatsby.

Full disclosure: No, I don’t normally recommend reading only part of a book, but this last minute Gatsby unit wasn’t in my original plan.

I taught it after a sizable number of students said they wanted to keep with it after listening to chapter one during our First Chapter Friday ritual.

Recently on this blog, I’ve been previewing lesson ideas and resources to use the next time I teach The Great Gatsby, which will probably be around December next school year. Here are those other Gatsby resources:

This week, as promised, I’m previewing below three additional articles to pair with The Great Gatsby. I plan to use one or more of these next winter when I teach the novel again probably around Christmas break.

Three MORE articles to pair with The Great Gatsby

1. The Great Gatsby: What It Says to Modern America

This 2011 BBC News article by Tom Geoghegen touches on several themes in the novel. For example, Geoghegen writes, “‘The novel is not really about the end of the American Dream but the opening up of it,’ says Keith Gandal, a professor at City University of New York.”

“Gatsby’s failure to enter the highest class in social terms and move into that class isn’t about money but the Wasp elite pushing back in the 1920s against ethnic Americans.

Not only do they close ranks against outsiders like Gatsby but they destroy him and escape punishment for it, says Mr. Gandal, which is a very modern theme.

Tom and Daisy just skip off and that resonates more than anything else.

There’s a sense [today] that it’s the super-rich on Wall Street who made this happen. I’m sure that resonates terrifically with middle-class Americans.”

The Great Gatsby: What It Says to Modern America by Tom Geoghegan

Even though this article is ten years old and speaks to the 2008 recession, this discussion point is still timely.

Money can provide the means to escape accountability as Tom and Daisy prove after Myrtle’s death.

2. What The Great Gatsby Got Right About the Jazz Age

This 2013 article in Smithsonian Magazine will help you create historical context for the novel, which stems from Fitzgerald’s purpose for writing it.

Times Square, New York City
The rise of media technologies, including radio, led to the celebrity culture that The Great Gatsby reveals. | Photo by Clément Falize on Unsplash

Writer Amy Henderson, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery, cites Fitzgerald biographer Arthur Mizener:

“Fitzgerald wrote his agent Maxwell Perkins in 1922: ‘I want to write something new. . . something extraordinary and beautiful and simple.’ Like today, newness was fueled by innovation, and technology was transforming everyday life. Similar to the way social media and the iPhone shape our culture now, the Twenties burst with the revolutionary impact of silent movies, radio and recordings.”

Amy Henderson in What the Great Gatsby Got Right About the Jazz Age

Technology was changing the culture of the country, including introducing the idea of “celebrity.” Much like the Internet has transformed modern society, motion pictures, air travel, and radio transformed the America of the 1920s.

3. The Great Gatsby‘s Copyright is Expiring: What to Know

Use this article to talk about copyright law with your students. You could even ask students to invent ideas for sequels, prequels, and other adaptations of Gatsby since legally they are able to do so since Jan. 1, 2021. Writer Annabel Gutterman writes in TIME in this piece from January:

“…Gatsby enters U.S. public domain on Jan. 1. Literary works are protected from replication for a certain number of years, depending on when they came out. When the copyright for Fitzgerald’s classic novel of greed, desire and betrayal expires, anyone will be able to publish the book and adapt it without permission from his literary estate, which has controlled the text for the 80 years since his death.”

The Great Gatsby’s Copyright is Expiring by Annabel Gutterman in TIME

That means that students can create all sorts of Gatsby spin-offs. Here’s an example by author Dick Heese that might spark some creativity:

The Great Gatsby But Nick has Scoliosis by Dick C. Heese
This Gatsby spin-off is also a parody. Find it on Amazon at this link. In it,

According to product information found on Amazon: “Through the use of throw-away references to Nick Carraway’s scoliosis, he (Heese) reimagines the American classic to include the narrator being afflicted with a curved spinal structure. Nick’s mild deformity does nothing to change the original plot of the novel in any capacity. Undoubtedly, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s estate is ruing the release of their copyright into the public domain.”

The expiration of a copyright is a big deal. Get your kids thinking about what that could mean — for better and for worse — to readers, authors, and their family members.

To be sure, many popular early 20th-century literature selections will be seeing their copyrights expire over the next few years. This NPR article, Party Like It’s 1925 on Public Domain Day, discusses this issue and contains links to lists of more books that are now “free for anyone to use, reuse, build upon for anyone — without paying a fee.” Other notable books with expired copyrights: Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

So there you go…

Three MORE articles to pair with The Great Gatsby. I hope one or more of these comes in handy as you plan your next teaching of this great American novel brought to us by Scott (and Zelda).

Feel free to leave your ideas, experiences, and comments about your own Gatsby units, including how you incorporate nonfiction texts into your lessons. Have a great week!


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