My Novels class is currently reading (or supposed to be reading — wink wink) this classic novel by Norman Maclean. I’m reading it again alongside them and this morning I arrived at page forty. It’s only 110 pages long, so it’s a quick read.
If you haven’t read this novella, do; it’s a breath of fresh air in this time of social distancing. (And sidenote: If you’re not into fly-fishing, push through the long, tedious paragraphs about casting, fish psychology and other specific aspects of the sport; however, don’t dismiss these purposeful passages either. Maclean uses fly-fishing metaphorically to tell his story.)
Based between Helena and Missoula, Montana, much of the action takes place on the Big Blackfoot and the smaller Elkhorn. The story shows the struggles of a young Montanan named Paul Maclean through the eyes of his older brother, Norman. The brothers share idyllic childhoods as the sons of a Presbyterian minister. In telling about his brother’s adult life that revolves around journalism, betting, alcohol, and fly-fishing, Norman shares his own struggle to take care of those we love but don’t ever quite understand.
That’s all I’ll say for now, but know that this novel takes you out on great northern rivers, along Montana roads, into dark and dusty speak-easies, and into Presbyterian church pews where a message of love and forgiveness is extolled.
These articles are intended to round out the ideas presented by the novella
This winter, my junior English students have just finished reading The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and are beginning to develop their cumulative essays on the novella. To prepare for that, and to build more background knowledge about the novel and Ernest Hemingway, last week students broke into groups and read one article.
After reading the article as a group (however they wanted to accomplish the reading — whether one person read the entire article or each took turns — was fine with me), they gave a short presentation to the rest of their class and discussed the four to five major points or ideas their respective article discussed.
It was a “jigsaw” style of reading the articles. My hope is that students will find the articles helpful as they determine and then develop their individual topics for their essays, which require the novel plus one other source to reference.
Here are links to the articles I gave to each group:
Fassler focuses on the recurring motif of the lions on the beach laced throughout the book. What do these memories mean to Santiago? This article interestingly dwells on the idea of memory and how our earliest memories never really leave us throughout our lives.
Reimann brings up five points of discussion in this article. The most intriguing one to me was that “some things are meant to remain a mystery.” In the book, Santiago debates the idea of whether killing the marlin was a sin or not. In fact, Hemingway never resolves this issue for the reader and this question is one that remains with the reader long after finishing the book. I like how Reimann gives validity to the idea that authors aren’t required to tie up all the loose ends in their work. Sometimes bringing these questions to light is enough.
This is actually Chapter 14 from the book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, a fun read that examines literary techniques and quandaries (such as the prevalence of implied symbolism) in an easy-to-read style. This is the longest article; give it to your most advanced readers. The book discusses scenes from the book that are highly symbolic. Students will get the author’s point that symbolism, while highly subjective can also be quite obviously implied by authors. What readers do with those symbols is what makes reading fun, spiritually challenging, and most of all, an individualized experience.
Our presentations on these articles were informal and I required that listeners take notes on the four to five major points that each group discussed about their article. I wanted them to write enough notes to be familiar with each text in, so the articles could be accessed later as students delve into their chosen topics more deeply.
Thanks for reading again this week! I’ll keep you posted on their The Old Man and the Sea culminating essays. With all the recent snow days, it has taken us longer than I initially planned to finish this short novella. Up next: more Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Frost.
Do you have any ideas for other articles to pair with The Old Man and the Sea? If so, please leave a comment and share your ideas.
Now that the new year has started, I thought I would write a short post about the units I’m starting with my juniors and seniors next week.
My junior classes will begin Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea on Wednesday and my senior classes will start Beowulfon the same day. (In addition, my Composition class will begin brainstorming ideas for their I-Search papers on the same day, while my Novels classes begin their independent reading books.)
These lit units are the first ones of the school year for both grades. Last fall, we wrote memoirs, poetry, short story analysis essays, and a variety of pieces for Writer’s Workshop. We also wrote poetry and entered writing contests, such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
Of course, we also read. Between nonfiction articles for Article of the Week assignments and various books we “tasted” on First Chapter Fridays, we did expose ourselves to new reading. Still, in-depth and extended study of selected literature was not on the menu.
I’m excited to experience these literature studies with my students. I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea before, but not Beowulf. And to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t read this foundational text before. In fact, I’m not sure how I missed reading it until now.
I’m fairly well prepared to get started with these new units, but at the same time, I know that teaching them will be challenging and probably dominate my planning time.
It’s quite a handful to create daily lessons for two new texts. Compound that with the fact that at my small rural high school, I’m the only English teacher for juniors and seniors. That has its positives (I have autonomy and choice when planning), but it also has its negatives. For example, while I do have a general curriculum to follow, I do not have unit specific materials beyond the textbooks and novels.
As such, I’ll be creating and designing lessons as I go. Thank goodness for ready-made unit plans, which provide me a basic framework that I can tweak and adjust for the future.
I’ll update you on how these new units progress in some future posts.
Thanks for reading again this week! What are you gearing up for now that the holidays are over? Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog to catch those follow-up posts.
Last spring in my middle school language arts classes, I taught theNarrative 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?
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:
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…
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.
In the game of middle school student research, pictures are winning and words are losing. I have noticed increasingly that students, when they are researching a topic for a writing assignment, spend a lot of time not reading articles. Many spend their time looking at pictures. Or watching videos. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve noticed students scrolling down full screens of thumbprint images. Here’s a typical conversation we would have as I walked around the room and noticed students doing their research with Google Images.
Me: “What are you doing?”
Student: “I’m doing my research.”
Me: “What are you trying to find out?”
Student: “What gray squirrels look like.”
Me: “So why don’t you Google gray squirrels?”
Student: “I did.”
Me: “But Google it in web search and find articles.”
Student: “But I Googled it here instead and now I’m just looking at the pictures to find out what gray squirrels look like.”
And that got me thinking because the student had a point. I think. It made me wonder whether perusing images could be more authentic research than reading. So I had a debate with my selves: my old school self and my new media self.
Old school self: No, reading is better.
New media self: But couldn’t the result of reading simply be ingesting and recording what someone else has written about what gray squirrels look like?
Old school self: Yes, true, but don’t forget that in looking at all these images, you are just looking at what someone else has decided for whatever reason is a gray squirrel.What if some of them you’re looking at aren’t actually gray squirrels? How do you know they’re gray squirrels?
New media self: Well, in an article, how do we know the author actually knew what he was writing about?
Old school self: That’s why we choose authoritative sources. “National Geographic,” for example, instead of answers.com.
Authoritative sources. There’s really the issue. It seems kids don’t know how to locate authoritative sources. Looking at images is easier. And then they get stuck. Scrolling endlessly through mind-numbing screenfuls of tiny images.
True, an exhausting variety of visual information, whether it’s the printed word, the image, or the video, simply comes with the Internet territory. So why not use it all to benefit our research? Perhaps.
The thing is this: I’m just afraid middle school students will take the path of least resistance and over-rely on images for the bulk of their learning every time they need to do research.
Your thoughts? Am I over-reacting or noticing a troublesome trend?