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.
I wrote the post below the week after the cathedral fire last spring; it pays tribute to the children’s book, Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans. By the way, I still have not located the copy of the book mentioned in the post. Darn.
Thanks for reading! If you’re a Madeline fan, please leave a comment!
The classic children’s book caused me to feel and understand the tragedy of the fire when I wouldn’t have otherwise
Photo: Ldorfman; Ldorfman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D I don’t possess any personal connection to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. I’ve never even been to the City of Light. I don’t have a selfie to post or a brochure or keychain from the grand gothic masterpiece that was nearly destroyed by fire last week.
At least, the book supposed to be here. I vaguely remember stowing it away in a box several years back in the attic for safe-keeping with other beloved and well-worn children’s books my daughter and son read with me in recliners and on couches some twenty years ago.
My resources, my reservations, and my main reason to teach this book again
Right now, at my new teaching position at a rural high school in Missouri, one of my junior/senior level electives classes is reading The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. If you’re unfamiliar with The Red Badge of Courage, it’a a Civil War novel first published in 1895 that explores the effects of war on a young man named Henry Fleming.
According to this Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide, “The Red Badge of Courage is a profile of an inexperienced young soldier undergoing his first experience of battle. ‘The youth’ in the novel, Henry Fleming, makes a journey of self-discovery. But what he learns, and whether he learns, from his experiences is a point that is still debated.” In other words, The Red Badge of Courage is a novel that focuses on the psychological effects of war as much as it focuses on warring itself.
Before I started the unit, I consulted a private teachers’ Facebook group to get some ideas. Instead, I learned that many teachers aren’t crazy about the book. At all. For example, the sentiments below are actual teacher opinions about Crane’s novel.
I need suggestions for an alternative text to Red Badge of Courage. I tried to read it/listen to it and it was AWFUL.
It is suggested to do Red Badge of Courage, but I tried to read it and listen to it on audio, and I just couldn’t. It is not interesting…
This is the only required reading that I did not complete in high school. I. Could. Not. Stand. It.
Red Badge of Courage. Gag me with a spoon.
“Ouch. Really? Is it that bad?” I thought when I read those comments.
Yes, it is dry and monotonous at times. Those chapters where Fleming waits for directions, waits for battle, waits for any indication of progress in the war, do get long. However, as we learn from Fleming, that’s part of the war experience. The Civil War experience, to be exact. And yes, the Civil War was a long time ago, so maybe the book’s monotonous chapters and the book’s antiquated language and style (it was first published in 1895, after all) turns off these teachers.
And those teachers can have their opinions, for sure. But this little book–there are 24 chapters each about five pages in length–has merit if you look for it.
After all, there’s a reason it’s never been out of print: the book is not merely an account of war, but an account of how untested people deal with self-doubt, confidence, fear, and ultimately, courage.
Since this is the first time I’ve taught the novel, I realize I’m just “feeling my way.” In other words, I don’t pretend to have this figured out. In fact, my first experience with teaching the novel leaves much to be desired. However, I thought I would still share the handful of resources I’m currently using or plan to use in the next couple of weeks or so. Plus, I’m secretly hoping that, if you’ve taught this novel before, you’ll share some tips and ideas in the comments below! (See what I did there?!) Here are the resources I’m using, listed in no particular order:
I currently use these writing prompts as bell work assignments. Journal prompts can become tiresome, though, so we don’t do these everyday. Students respond by writing a paragraph. We discuss them briefly as a warm-up to listening to the next two chapters of the book.
This unit plan is a fairly standard one and is aligned with Common Core State Standards. The focus is definitely on reading comprehension and vocabulary building. Writing exercises are scant and only require limited creative or analytical thinking. Although this unit plan is a full 67 pages long, I’ve only used about ten of those so far. I will, however, use its summative activities as part of a final assessment, to which I’ll add a reflective essay requirement.
Taking Fire is the definitive collection of modern war stories, told by the men and women who fought on the front lines of Afghanistan. Illustrated with real combat footage shot on helmet cameras and handy cams, this series plunges viewers into the heart of the action, giving a visceral experience not witnessed in news reports or traditional documentary portrayals of war.
Taking Fire follows the experiences of rookie recruits of the 101st Airborne division. Shot with helmet cams and other video cameras, viewers watch the daily activities—from mundane chores to real-life skirmishes—of these young men. It’s not difficult to see that these activities are similar to the experiences of Fleming, referred to as “the youth” in Crane’s book.
As we watch Taking Fire, it’s easy to appreciate a modern-day connection to The Red Badge of Courage. The soldiers in Afghanistan looking for land mines, waiting for action, and fighting boredom share the same concerns and emotions as Fleming does in the novel. They experience the same fears, the same guilt, the same self-doubts that Henry does. I love how Taking Fire has given The Red Badge of Courage a shove into current day concerns and emotions.
Stephen Crane’s characterization of Henry, the young recruit, rings as true today as it did during the Civil War —and we have Stephen Crane and the Discovery Channel, as well— to thank for that. Because it relates so naturally to The Red Badge of Courage, I have decided to watch twenty minutes of a Taking Fire episode about every other day in class…after we listen to our audiobook. (Let’s be real: saving the video for after the book is also partly a reward for digging into the book and its antiquated language and verbose descriptions.)
I also like the idea of comparing a TV series to a book… an important learning standard that requires students to access literature through various media. Noticing similarities and differences between the written page from more than a century ago to a contemporary high-tech televised war experience should lead to some rich discussions and critical thinking opportunities.
And yes, there is The Red Badge of Courage, the movie. It was made in 1951 and was filmed in black and white. I’m not planning on showing it because Taking Fire seems a better, more relevant fit.
Yes, I have occasionally read chapters aloud and have asked students to do a sort of reader’s theater activity while I read (where certain students read especially memorable lines). However, most of the class seems to enjoy the audiobook version more. Here’s the link to the audiobook on Youtube.
I hope to design an activity where students, at the completion of our reading the novel, explore the diary of an actual Civil War soldier. This will be a good opportunity for students to access and use primary sources, as well give them additional insights into the lives of young soldiers. Perhaps these diaries can be correlated to the experiences of Fleming as an additional part of a reflective summative assessment. There are numerous websites for this type of work. I plan to explore these other sites as well to find more diaries and journals:
I have a membership to LitCharts, and printed out the study guide to the novel at the beginning of the unit. The study guide includes a plot summary, detailed analysis, theme discussions, quotes, and character notes. Having this on my desk as we read, listen, and discuss helps me teach better and with more confidence. That’s because I occasionally struggle with comprehending as we listen, since I must also be continually surveying the room, making sure people are following along, staying off their phones, and participating. Having my LitCharts study guide handy is a good thing.
When you teach a novel for the first time
It’s always difficult to teach a novel for the first time, and as I wrote earlier, I don’t claim to be an expert on The Red Badge of Courage. In fact, for me, the most difficult aspect of teaching a novel for the first time is facilitating whole-class discussions. It takes me at least two to three teachings before I am able to spur meaningful discussions that blossom organically during a class period. This is my main deficiency with this particular text, at this point, and I’m aware of it. But I trust that better discussions will evolve with time. Next semester’s class will definitely have a better Red Badge of Courage experience.
To sum up this post, despite the fact that The Red Badge of Courage doesn’t receive much attention or respect from some teachers, and despite the fact that it’s my first time teaching it, I think I’ll stick with this book. It’s one I want to spend more time learning how to teach. I believe this book’s exploration of self-doubt, confidence, fears, and courage merit readers’ attention.
Thanks for reading again this week! I’ve taught Chasing Lincoln’s Killer in the past, so I’m game for Civil War-era books, but have you ever taught The Red Badge of Courage? Got any tips or ideas? I’m game for your thoughts. Follow my blog, like this post and leave a comment about your experiences with this novel.
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.
I started this Triangle Fire bulletin board in May. I’m not usually that organized.
At the end of the school year last May, my seventh-graders started our Triangle Fire unit, a study of the 1911 tragedy in New York City that killed 146 young, mostly female immigrants. The fire had unknown origins, but rickety fire escapes, locked doors, and empty water buckets resulted in the worst workplace disaster by fire in our nation’s history until 9/11. The owners of the factory were eventually exonerated.
The positive of this horrible tragedy? The New York Factory Investigating Committee, which was established to enforce regulations throughout the metropolis.
We study this unit at the beginning of my students’ eighth-grade year and then transition into a study of 9/11… its own workplace fire tragedy. Even though the catalyst for 9/11 was terrorism, it’s arguable that some lives that were lost could have been saved if Triangle Fire-era building codes had not been relaxed during the planning stages and design of the towers.
Last spring, my seventh-graders (now my incoming eighth-graders) watched portions of New York: The Documentary that dealt with the era of first wave immigration, the early 1900s. Watching this doc set the stage for the study we will continue in a couple of weeks.
As we watched the documentary in May, I asked the students to choose one word to summarize the excerpt we viewed. While we discussed their words, and as students defended their word choices, it occurred to me that I should keep track of these words for fall. I quickly started jotting the words down on a sheet of notebook paper.
Hallelujah! For once, I had my act together!
In addition, I knew I had some previously printed photos of New York immigrants, which were primarily of Eastern and Southern European descent. I had printed and saved these photos from the DAR American History essay contest of 2015.
I also knew I had a packet of postcards that my daughter had purchased for me when she toured Ellis Island a few years ago with a group from college.
I compiled the list of words, the printed photos, and the postcards and placed them in a folder and left it on top of the pile of binders and books in my closet over the summer. I wanted to leave it someplace where I would easily find it this week, which I did (score!).
I also had made a mental note in May to order some kind of New York City street map poster. I found this subway map that looks vintage, but actually shows the current layout of today. This poster was purchased for around $6 on Amazon. I love it!
So over the past few days, I assembled all these pieces together and designed the board as I went, adding in some black paper positioned diagonally as a background. Just this morning, I decided to photocopy the front and back covers of two texts that we use during the unit, as well as an article, and a poster of pre-9/11 NYC that I already owned. I arranged all the pieces together and then encircled the board with white lights.
I think it turned out pretty good. It’s a lot to look at, a lot to take in. That’s probably my only concern, but overall, I think it tells a story AND builds on my students’ knowledge from May.
I also like using the very last days of the school year to build prior knowledge for fall. It sends the message to students that even though school’s almost out for the summer, they’re still going to learn and I’m still going to “always be planning.”
It saves so much time during the hectic days before school begins to know how I’ll decorate the first thing students see when they enter my classroom.
Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.
Flying Lessons was included in a list on the AICL blog of Best Books for 2017 by native writers or illustrators. It was the only book listed under the heading “For Middle Grades.” The specific Best Book status was for the short story entitled “Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains.” The author, Tim Tingle, is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Like other authors mentioned on the blog, Tingle’s story is honored for its accurate portrayal of native people, their traditions, cultures, and beliefs.
Flying Lessons & Other Stories contains ten short stories and poetry by ten diverse writers, including Kwame Alexander, Grace Lin, Walter Dean Myers, and Jaqueline Woodson, among others.
Ellen Oh, co-founder and president of We Need Diverse Books, edited the collection of stories. This organization, according to its website, exists to advocate “essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” In the words of Walter Dean Myers, as quoted in a section of the book entitled “Why We Need Diverse Books,” young people need to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they rea.d
So far, I’ve read only a few selections from the book: Tingle’s story, Tim Federle’s “Secret Samantha,” Jacqueline Woodson’s “Main Street,” and the collection’s namesake, “Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani. I feel that the book will be good for reading aloud during class, and also a source of mentor texts that contain effective examples of realistic dialogue, descriptive settings, and captivating opening lines. I’ll be reading more stories from the book over the next week.
I struggle to find engaging short stories for middle school students. Since I usually start the school year off with memoir writing, I feel that this book will provide relevant, contemporary storylines and characters that my students can identify with.
One regret: I do wish the book had a more interesting cover. Because of its text-only design, I already know I’ll have to really talk up the book to get my students to check it out. Books with photographs or colorful pictures or illustrations always get more attention.
As I work more with the book in my classroom, I’ll relay to you how my students receive it. In fact, having a few of them write a short review will be beneficial for them and you.
It’s fun to add new books over the summer when I actually have more time to read. Thanks for checking out this post. Follow my blog for more book reviews as I discover new reads!
I have a black-and-white poster of The Outsidersin my classroom. One year, I decided to photocopy my picture, cut off my head, and snuggle it in between Darry and Steve. And then I laminated it, so it’s never comin’ off! My students don’t always notice it right away, but when they do, they crack up to see me with the Greasers.
Obviously, you can tell I love The Outsiders. So imagine my excitement when I found out just yesterday that a new museum, located at the bungalow-style house where author S. E. Hinton’s Curtis brothers lived in the 1983 movie The Outsiders, will open in late summer or early fall!
The Outsiders House Museum is located at 731 N. St. Louis Ave. and will be open by appointment 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Owned by House of Pain hip-hop artist, Danny O’Connor, construction crews have spent several months restoring and preparing the house for its new life. Inside, visitors will tour the house, see book and movie memorabilia, and browse a retail shop for serious fans, of which there are thousands… including every single student at my middle school.
Seriously, what is it about students and The Outsiders? I asked teachers this question: Do you still teach The Outsiders and why? Here are some of those teachers’ comments, including several that shared content areas they address with the novel.
“Yes, because it is a classic and because we have the opportunity to discuss tolerance, stereotypes, and other points of view.”
“Because I can teach all the elements of fiction, character development and nearly all figurative language with this read that every student can relate to their own lives and how they treat others no matter what side of town they are from.”
“Yes, because my students LOVE it. I was thinking of giving it a rest, but the majority told me it was their favorite book this year, and when a book touches kids like that, I have to keep it in the repertoire.”
“Absolutely! We really focus on symbolism of eye colors, colors of hair, and numbers. Characterization done by a biased point-of-view. And stereotypes.”
“The last few pages are well-written, especially when Pony has his epiphany that he can be the voice for the voiceless. That idea is powerful, and this coming year I want to do a project connected to that idea.”
“I found that kids of all cultures could relate to it. The last time I taught it, I was at an all-girls school, and I liked the fact that it was (written by) a female author. We also did a writing project in which my students rewrote a scene from the book as if all the main characters were girls.”
“I moved to a new school in a new state and hadn’t taught The Outsiders since 1995. I was absolutely AMAZED how it spoke to my 7th graders in 2018. They were engaged from page one and did a wonderful job discussing the themes in the novel: empathy, peer pressure, socio-economic pressure, the concept of family. Most exciting to me, I believe for about ten or so students, this was THE book, the one that caused them to see themselves as readers. My heart melted to watch this happen.”
“It has become iconic. The references to the novel appear all over in pop culture. Stay Golden is what we want for all.”
“Yes. My 7th graders love it! Students who have shown no interest in reading will finish the book before the class. They become invested in the characters and show true empathy.”
“I have been teaching this to my 8th graders for nine years. EVERY year we start out with eye-rolls and “This book is sooooo old!” And EVERY year we finish reading the last chapter out loud together and—without prompting—they ALL say that last line TOGETHER. I swear I tear up EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR.”
So even though the book was first published 51 years ago and the movie came out 35 years ago (can you believe it?!), The Outsiders is still a winner. If you don’t teach The Outsiders, think about doing so for next year. There’s a wealth of lessons and unit plans available for you to adapt to your teaching style and curriculum. If you already teach The Outsiders… well—all together now—Stay Gold.
Click like and leave a comment to share your experience with The Outsiders. And it’s okay to have a different opinion, since some teachers just don’t care for it. Share your ideas either way!