Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why Does Dystopian YA Literature Always Stereotype and Categorize Kids

Cliques. Are they real, or simply a creation of YA writers and Hollywood directors? It's not surprising to find people sorted into groups in most genres of teen entertainment. In fact, Grace, Ed Rooney's secretary from Ferris Bueller laid it out for us in one classic line:

So, why is it that writers and filmmakers always seek to fit characters into the standard groups that are supposed to make up high school? Is society that cliche? Or are the cliches actually valid, which is why they seem so common. Katy Waldman of Slate Magazine suspects there are significant forces at work in a world where "Everybody Knows Where They Belong." From the Sorting Hat of JK Rowling to Suzanne Collins' Reaping, much of the entertainment for young people is grounded in categorizing people. The latest work Divergent from Catherine Roth is only the latest to follow the archetypal story form.

The studies of societal divisions, especially in regards to high school cliques, are endless. But the question is: are they valid, and what can or should we do about it?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Jonathon Livingston Seagull Flies Again - Is It a Farce?

Anyone who has grasped with the metaphysical in the contemporary age is familiar with a little book from Richard Bach known as Jonathon Livingston Seagull. The small, simply fairy tale of less than 10,000 words was first published in 1970, and became an instant hit with its message of aspiring to greatness and believing in the power of believing. The book is a classic in the spiritual, self-help world. Books like JLS or any of its variations from The Celestine Prophecy to the Course in Miracles to The Tao of Pooh all derive from the basic premise of Norman Vincent Peale in his book from an earlier era, The Power of Positive Thinking.   JLS has flown into our consciousness again with the recent publication of a "Part IV."  Of course, not everyone loves Bach or his philosophy or his silly little tales. In fact, some people criticize books like JLS as the origin and inspiration behind the oversimplification of American thought in the last twenty years. Heather Havrilesky cites the story of "no ordinary bird" as the reason behind the decline of American society. Like all pieces of art, the story of Jonathon is not for everyone, but it does have value in the story it tells and the feelings it evokes. While it is certainly not the answer to our prayers, it also isn't the cause of the alleged "decline" of America, or of American thought. It's a story with a message that might give people a bit of an escape, or a shred of hope, a hint of optimism, or ....

Friday, February 28, 2014

English Majors Are Sexy to Employers

Despite the dis by President Obama, humanities majors have always been great assets in the American economy. Anyone who can read and understand complex materials and then write clear, concise, and, most importantly, correct is perhaps the most in-demand of skills. English majors are hot hire these days, according to Bruna Martinuzzi. Martinuzzi is a consultant on leadership skills for Clarion Enterprises, which she founded. So she should know about the value of strong communication skills. Martinuzzi's knowledge and insight about the value of the English degree is validated by so many successful people with humanities background, including Mitt Romney.

The reality is English majors are not hurting in the employment category, despite criticism from people like David Brooks of the New York Times. He, more than most, should appreciate just how valuable the study of the humanities is. English majors - at least the ones who graduate from pretty good schools - are in high demand because of their reading and writing skills, as well as their generally strong qualities of emotional intelligence. Clearly, the success of any society will depend on the skills of its citizenry.

Let's just not forget that the skills in the appreciation of the arts are foundational for any civilization.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Teaching Grammar Doesn't Work

Those in the know - or at least those who seek to remain current in their field - have long understood that teaching grammar the traditional way, with worksheets and practice sentences, has no positive impact on a student's ability to write well. The drill-and-kill method, and even the practice of diagramming sentences, does not actually "teach" kids grammar. Of course, it does teach something. It can teach students to do well on standardized tests like the ACT, SAT, and state assessments.

Having gone to Catholic school - where diagramming sentences is "religion" (sic) - and having taught ELA in Asia where standardized tests of grammar skills are the gold standard of education, I understand grammar. To this day, I help chair our grammar program at my school, where grammar is taught the traditional way. However, I have long asserted that we should not expect the program will create better writers. Teaching writing - teaching composition - will create better writers. And the only "grammar exercise" that has a positive impact on writing is the practice of sentence combining.


Of course, the ACT and SAT still rule the day on college admissions, and teaching grammar skills will help students score higher. In fact, an English teacher and any school would be negligent not teaching grammar to prepare kids for these tests. It's really not that difficult. And some people believe there is a "Better way to teach grammar." Obviously, that depends on your goal and your definition of teaching grammar.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Shout Out to Young Adult Literature - YA Rocks

Beyond Goodnight Moon and all of Dr. Seuss and the Easy Readers and the comics, it was the books that connected with us in our awakening - our coming of age - that mostly likely inspired our passion and love of reading. As we prepare to celebrate Dr. Seuss' 110th birthday and honor Read Across America Day, writer and YA Lit fanatic Jen Doll explains and honors the YA genre with "The Thirtysomething Teen: An Adult YA Addict Comes Clean."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dr. Seuss Is Turning 110 - Celebrate Reading

Next Sunday, March 2, marks the centennial birthday for one of the most important men in American history - Theodore Geisel, aka, Dr. Seuss. Long before JK Rowling captivated a generation of young readers, a mild-mannered man with a knack for silly, yet inspired, rhymes ignited a love of reading for children as young as ... well for children. This week, William Porter of the Denver Post offers an engaging look at "100 Years of Dr. Seuss." (Yes, I know he's actually turning 110 - but no matter).

So many of us in the English world would love to develop a lifelong love of reading in children, and no one did more than the man who "introduced  millions of children to the joys of reading and the magic of wordplay."  It was the "spirit of playfulness" that permeates his work which made it so endearing. But it's so much more than that, especially when you "Consider the opening lines of The Cat in the Hat." 

Consider the opening lines to "The Cat in the Hat," the 1957 chronicle of a brother and sister's misadventure with a gangly, anthropomorphic feline sporting a red-and-white top hat:

The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold, wet day.
I sat there with Sally,
We sat there we two.
And I said, "How I wish
We had something to do."

Mood, setting, conflict, ennui. Just like Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," except that something actually happens.

"Geisel's works also endure because of his gift for creating rhymes that are fun to read aloud and easy to remember, but are not cloying or irritating," Robinson said. "That's no small feat. I think it's this combination of playfulness and lyricism that makes Dr. Seuss' works stand the test of time."

It's a wonderful, endearing legacy.  This week, on either Friday the 28th or Monday the 3rd, teachers across the country should honor the godfather of literacy by Celebrating:

Friday, February 21, 2014

Is Dead Poet's Society a Terrible Ad for the Humanities?

It's doubtful that any English or humanities teacher of the past thirty years doesn't like the classic Robin Williams vehicle Dead Poet's Society.  In fact, one could reasonably argue that the movie influenced more than a few young people to pursue a career in the liberal arts. I mean, what teacher out there doesn't want to be like Mr. Keating? Who hasn't envisioned inspiring kids with those poetic artful monologues? What student doesn't want to feel so inspired to "live deliberately" and jump up on a desk, saying, "Oh, Captain, my Captain"?

The movie is truly inspiring and truly encapsulates what all humanities teachers seek to be. We all want to create that love of the arts, especially in the STEM-happy world that public education has become. (Though we should all be focusing on turning STEM to STEAM).  And now, the biggest company in the world has appropriated some of Keating's most magical words in a new commercial to sell us ever more exciting technology and media. Is that wrong? Kevin Detmer of The Atlantic seems to think so.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

In Search of the Great American Novel

The GAN.

It's an elusive beast that is the Holy Grail of American literature ... and American English teachers/professors. It is the Great American Novel.

We've talked about it in class, we've claimed numerous titles to be it when we are teaching them, we've even tried to write it ourselves. The list of the top contenders is long, but familiar. And the usual suspects are tough to refute. Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a strong favorite, which was given great support by Ernest Hemingway who noted, "All American literature begins with one book ..." Of course, Hemingway is just as likely to be credited with the accomplishment with his book The Sun Also Rises even though it's set in Europe.  Hester Prynne's early feminism certainly makes a claim in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and few would challenge the weight of the story about Ahab and the White Whale in Moby Dick. (Fewer would claim to have actually read the book with authority to declare its value). Probably second to "Huck" is the modernist tale of corruption and loss of innocence in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a story which has been given resurgence thanks to Baz Luhrman and Leonardo DiCaprio.  And, in a more contemporary vein, high school English departments would raise mutiny if a list excluded Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird or Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Thus, the debate carries on. And it just got more concise with a book about the books.

Scholar Lawrence Buell has attempted to codify the discussion in his monolithic new critique, The Dream of the Great American Novel.  Critics have already started to weigh in on the value of Buell's work.  And that is obviously Buell's goal in the first place - kick off the discussion again, and place his research at the center of the debate.  One of the claims is that the novel has been written and re-written. And its most recent incarnations come from the two sharpest writers of the most recent generation, Jonathon Franzen and David Foster Wallace. It seems possible that Franzen wouldn't necessarily dispute his anointment. Though he could be as likely to "not show up" for the discussion. It is, anyway, a discussion that should continue, perpetually and forever, as America and American literature continues to reinvent itself, always in search of that elusive "green light."

How to Talk to People - Saying This, But Not That

In a cult classic from the early 90s, Pump Up the Volume, Christian Slater's character explains to his friend that, despite his voice on the radio, "I can't talk to you." Communication is tough, and it's one of the standards in English instruction that is often underserved in the classroom. Occasionally, I play the game Catch Phrase with students in an activity I call "Communication Skills." I also focus on language choices for the students in all their writing, asking them to combine sentences and think about the concept of le mot juste- the right word.

Communicating comes more naturally for some than others, but it is a skill that can be taught, learned, and refined. These are the thoughts from numerous authors of books around the idea of "Say This, Not That." One of the more interesting and well written approaches comes from California therapist Carl Alasko. Alasko offers great advice when you "have something to say" but don't want to trigger an argument. Many of us can use advice on how to be more tactful. And, we would certainly be more productive in delicate discussions if we were mindful of these few bits of advice:
  • Have a plan
  • Bite your tongue
  • Avoid the unanswerable
  • Don't blame, abuse, or punish
  • Fend off fights

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Benefit of the Humanities Degree

The Common Core and PARCC testing and PISA or TIMSS have begun, little by little, to steal away or divert attention from the magic of the liberal arts education. Despite warnings from as far back as Charles Dickens' Hard Times, America has begun to myopically focus on a utilitarian foundation for secondary and education. Educating for job skills has replaced educating for the cultivation of the human spirit. And that has put the study of arts and the humanities at risk. In fact, some in our government believe that student loans should only be available to STEM-majors, and those English and philosophy students can pay for the luxury of studying the humanities. Yet, for as long as I've been teaching - in fact, for as long as I've been around - I've known countless successful business leaders and community icons who began with a humanities degree. And that is the heart of Caroline Gregoire's list of "Irrefutable Evidence of the Value of Humanities Degrees." While I might have expected it from the likes of Jon Stewart or Conan O'Brien, who knew that businessman and multi-millionaire investor Mitt Romney began his adult life with a bachelor's degree in English?