Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!



“Secondary Literacy Instruction Non-Negotiables”

I got this handout at a training several years ago, and it’s one of the very few that I’ve ever liked. I keep this with a handful of other useful such things for when I do lesson planning. Everything on here is pretty sound. I recommend it for any middle or high school teacher looking for a firm curricular foundation for big picture planning.

The bit at the beginning about “70% non-fiction to 30% fiction” has always been controversial, but that’s meant to be understood as covering a student’s entire schedule, meaning that the burden does not fall on an English teacher to strike that balance–the readings in history and science classes, for example, will comprise a lot of that 70%.

That part about quarterly research projects is a tad ambitious, too, but I try to have smaller research-based assignments and mini-units throughout the year (source evaluation, internal citation, etc.), with one big project towards the end of the year. Right now, in fact!

Non negotiables

Non negotiables

Some Funny Student Writing

Last month I taught a lesson on parallelism as a rhetorical writing tool. At the end, I assigned students to come up with some examples of their own, based on templates I gave them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • There should be a woman in tears, running from the past; a man in love, chasing the girl; and a person in agony, awaiting the end.
  • It is not nice to play with dead bodies, to talk with them, or to dance with them.
  • Kermit the frog abuses his fame, ignores his children, and denies his dependence on PCP.
  • There should be a cat in labor, birthing the kittens; a dog in heat, attracting the males; and a centipede in solitude, contemplating the electoral college.
  • Obama created life, destroyed the housing market, and ate my parents.
  • Mr. Huston was a huge fan of showing the “relevant” episodes of The Simpsons, spoiling the Star Wars episodes, and disappointing the sociopaths of fourth period with bad jokes :)

Forcing Students To Revise Their Writing

My college classes this last semester had some of the best writers I’ve ever had in English 101. I felt very lucky to get to work with them. But there was one thing about those two classes that irked me to no end throughout our first two big essay units: no matter what I did, they wouldn’t revise their work.

I marked specific things on their papers and told them what to do to improve them, but much of that advice was ignored on subsequent drafts. And when I gave general feedback about writing style and missing elements, nothing in the next draft reflected that at all.

Few things are as frustrating for an English teacher as seeing their careful commentary on student work completely ignored by those students.

I even integrated some basic revision exercises into our classwork to remind them of (introduce them to?) the mechanics and mindset of revision. I labored the point that first drafts are never good enough–that strenuous attention to perfecting work is a must in any endeavor.

Finally, after the midterm, I decided to launch a nuclear attack on the subject, and after returning the first draft of their third essay project, I gave them these directions:

For the revised draft due next week, you must take the first draft and revise it as follows:

Choose any two or three of the five articles given below. Incorporate an analysis and discussion of each of them (as per the original directions) into your existing essay draft. HOWEVER, you may not add any new paragraphs–that total must not change–nor can you just add new sentences to the ends of existing paragraphs. The new material must be smoothly integrated into the existing essay–the commentary from the first draft must be revised to also address the new material.

There must be new material in *every* paragraph of this revised draft.

BUT, this new draft must also be no longer than the original first draft–this means that some material from the first draft must be condensed and/or eliminated, and what you add will have to be succinct.

Yes, that’s a cheap, sneaky way to micromanage their progress, and I hated doing it, but it did get results. The next drafts were substantially different, and they were even better. Now I just have to hope that as they go through future classes, and the rest of their lives, they keep the lesson in mind and continue living it.

Why Don’t Students Like School?

UntitledAs I prepare to start another school year, it might be helpful to review my notes on one of the best education books I’ve ever read, Why Don’t Students Like School?


1.  People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.

a.  Be sure there are problems to be solved

b.  Respect students’ cognitive limits

c.  Hook students on questions that will lead to the factual answers a lesson provides.  Don’t rely on trivial connections to their interests.

d.  Puzzle/dazzle students to get interest AND later to help review material, even during ongoing learning.

e.  Alter student work to match individuals’ ability; don’t give everyone the same thing.

f.  Change things up to redirect lost attention.

g.  Keep track of what works and what doesn’t


2.  Factual knowledge precedes skill.

a.  Teach the touchstones of Western Civilization’s culture.

b.  Teach the core concepts of each discipline deeply over time.

c.  Be sure that the knowledge base is mostly in place when you require critical thinking.

d.  Shallow knowledge is better than no knowledge at all.

e.  Students must read A LOT.

f.  Make opportunities for incidental, ancillary knowledge acquisition.

g.  “Start early” (level the playing field for students with poor home environments–somehow!)

h.  Avoid lots of lists–knowledge must be meaningful.

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“Relatable” Reading

There’s a popular trope among students (and many teachers) that the things people read should be “relatable,” meaning that stories should reflect the ideas, cultures, and even ethnicities of the readers. That, we are told, is what gets people interested, and helps them to enjoy and benefit from reading.

Hogwash. Balderdash. Baloney.

If the point of reading–of education in general–is only to wallow in a celebration of ourselves as we are, then what’s the point?

Some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had–and certainly the ones that have mattered the most and stuck with me the most–are those that challenged me by presenting things that were not relatable. (I still remember sitting in some waiting room about a dozen years ago and passing the time by perusing a copy of Latina Businesswoman Magazine; it was a joyous glimpse into another world.)

There might even be an almost inverse relationship between the power of a text and the degree to which it resembles the life of the reader.

The pandering instinct behind the push to present more relatable texts to students is only going to stunt their minds further. After all, even for the selfie generation, staring at themselves eventually becomes boring.

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Three Thoughts About Education Today

  1. Combining two big current trends in education: student grades are subjective and counterproductive…and teachers should be increasingly evaluated by them.
  2. At some point, some panel of school “experts” must have sat down and decided that the solution to America’s education problems was obviously to give teachers more regulations and paperwork. Was there a time in the past with higher achievement and more paperwork? I don’t remember Socrates having to file regular evidence collections and data reports.
  3. No matter what educrat “experts” claim, there is no Grand Unification Theory of education. No matter what they try to saddle us with, it will always come down to each of us implementing what works in our own ways. I read professional development stuff and suspect that our leaders are dreaming of a future filled with TeacherBot 5000s.

Teachers as Curators

An old dichotomy has it that teachers are “the sage on the stage” or “the guide on the side,” (though I think it’s really a bit of both), but especially in the digital age, we’re also curators. For an English teacher in particular, a lot of our job now entails being a gatekeeper of media materials.

We’ve always taught students how to evaluate such things (as credible sources in a research unit, for example), but more and more I find myself actively showing young people how to be critical consumers of mass media. From web sites to classic movies to whatever’s on Netflix, the little tangents in class are now frequently spent in comparing and contrasting things, noting on what criteria various things succeed or fail, or modeling some other process of sifting the timeless from the ephemeral in the electronic world.

It doesn’t hurt (or help?) that practically any given day in my classes will consist of bits of various media squeezed in to help illustrate things, make connections, and extend ideas.

Today, for instance, my speech & debate class watched this video about vocal fry. Classes that are starting Huckleberry Finn just got a posting on our class web page about free audio resources online to help them understand the dialects. This was after our last class, where they annotated this article about free speech controversies in American schools, and which I supplemented with another post on our web page with ancillary resources, including this NPR interview with President Obama’s recent thoughts about banning unpopular speech in colleges (he’s against it).

The illustration at the top of that free speech article, though? I pointed out that that little boy looks like Danny in The Shining. Only a few kids got the reference. I briefly summarized the movie and recommended it, for those who like horror. Other great but obscure-to-kids-these-days movies I’ve name-checked and given a thumbs up to in recent classes: Animal House, The Sound of Music, The Iron Giant, Seven, Galaxy Quest…and Dude, Where’s My Car? (They don’t all have to be masterpieces.)

I see myself doing more, not less, of this in the future. With an ever-greater abundance of choices, with an ever-greater past body of work behind them, and with increasing consolidation and dumbing-down of mainstream media, such cultural literacy and evaluative skills will be more important to them than ever.

What this also means, though, is that teachers need to be constantly updating their own reserve of media resources. That’s the professional development of the 21st century.

How I Do A Semester Review

Last week my school district had semester exams–we’re halfway through the year! The week before, my classes spent a day doing this review of the semester’s units.

I put up six poster-sized sheets of butcher paper around the room, one for each of the major units we’ve done so far. In the center of each, I wrote the theme (Romanticism, logical fallacies, Revolutionary rhetoric, literary analysis, etc.).

I broke the students into groups of 4 or 5, assigned them to a poster, and gave them ten minutes to create a mind map on the poster, using markers I’d asked them to bring. They could use our textbook, online notes, whatever.

After ten minutes, I spot checked each poster, gave some quick editing advice as needed, and checked off that they were all contributing seriously (I’d told them that relevant illustrations were fine, but random nonsense like “buy my mix tape” was not).

Then they rotated to the next station, where they could edit what was there and add on more. Each team cycled to each station accordingly. Each student in each group had to contribute to at least one poster as a “scribe.”

By the end of class, they had produced mind maps like these below. I also posted these to our class web pages to help them study for the test.


Two Imperatives in Teaching Writing

As the new school year starts and I assess what my new students need, I find myself growing ever more convinced of the wisdom of these two great axioms of educating:

  • Nobody ever became a good writer before they were a great reader.
  • It is far better for students to write five 1-page papers than to write one 5-page paper.

Friends, instruct accordingly.

Teaching Metaphors

I find that most students, at first, want to call any old description a metaphor.  After I give a definition and examples, when I ask for their own examples, they give me things like, “The dog is old.”

“What two things are being compared there?” I ask.  They pause, then say, “Dogs and old.”

To help alleviate the confusion, here’s little graphic:


“More Analysis, Less Commentary”

This was the advice I wrote in the margin of a couple of dozen college papers I returned to students last night.  I put the directions for their recent assignments back on the projector and showed them again that they both called for evaluating an author’s evident strategies, based on things like structure and style, for effectiveness.  Nothing in their assignments asked for personal reflection about the topics of their texts, and yet, that’s the majority of what I got.

Coincidentally, I just read this excellent essay by Mark Bauerlein, which perfectly echoes my experience.  In short, students need to be guided to write analytical work, not fluffy reactions.  Amen.


At one point in the discussion, Coleman paused to note a problem in the teaching of writing in English classrooms: the dominance of “personal writing … the exposition of a personal opinion … the presentation of a personal matter.”  Continue reading

Me Quoted On Writing

A couple of months ago, a student at my school came in and asked my opinions about student writing.  I thought she was just writing for the school newspaper, but a couple of weeks ago her story ran in the local paper, the Las Vegas Review Journal.  It’s quite good.  She got some good material from a couple of other teachers, and put it together very well.  Alas, she spelled my name wrong, though.  Here’s my contribution:

However, technology cannot be blamed entirely for the decrease in writing quality over the past 20 years.

Jamie Houston, an English teacher at Las Vegas Academy, argued that technology does not affect composition as much as it de-emphasizes sustained focus and this shift in emphasis is part of society’s penchant to prefer visualization to the written word.

“School has always been like going to the gym because you do things that are repetitive, simple and uncreative, but not remotely realistic,” Houston said. “You are never going to do a pushup in the real world. You do pushups because they develop real-world muscles.”

“No one is ever going to put a gun to your head and say, ‘Quick, what’s a gerund?’ School develops thinking and communicating for the untold realms of the real world and for new technologies and innovations that haven’t even been invented yet.”


Voluntary Martyr Teachers

In my first few years of teaching, I tried to be one those Hero Teachers–the guy who stays at work ten hours a day, who goes in sometimes on Saturdays, who takes tons of work home and grades while he tries to unwind at night.

During that third or fourth year, a scary thought hit me: what if I only did half as much work?  Would I get half the results from students?  Would they only learn half as much?  I tried cutting back on the intensity of grading papers and fancy detail of planning classes and, even after several weeks, it was obvious: my extra efforts had made no difference at all.  It was a sobering epiphany, and much of the next several years were heavily influenced by it.  I didn’t stop caring about the quality of my work, but I did try to trim anything extraneous that didn’t seem crucial.

I’ve seen a lot of teachers who think that unless they’re beating themselves to death, they aren’t doing a good job.  Some of them are convinced that we have to read and grade every line of every paper in copious, minute detail, or we’re cheating children.  Now, I’m all for feedback and revision, but except for that, so much of the time we spend grading and planning is frankly wasted.  There’s a law of diminishing returns that applies to teaching as much as anything else.  After a point, ongoing work is fruitless, or even destructive.  The goal of anyone who would do their job to maximum effectiveness is to find the point at which energy stops yielding results, work up to that point, and then clock out.

Some of us may have a Puritan streak to us that demands that visible suffering and sacrifice are requisite virtues in a teacher, but that’s baloney.  What matters is student learning.  Achieve that, and you’ve done your job well, regardless the hours you stayed late.  The time and energy you might have wasted being a volunteer martyr can be better spent on your students during the day, anyway.  Or you might even put more into enjoying your life, which will also increase your productivity at work.  This is one case where it truly does help to work smarter, not harder.


Notes on “Educating the Saints”: An Expansive Philosophy of Education

Below is the text of Hugh Nibley’s classic 1970 essay “Educating the Saints” (copied from this online source, with fair use in mind), including my notes on what we can learn from it, as teachers and students, about education.  I submit that, though Nibley was writing for and about Mormons, this is the best work of fundamental values in public education ever written, and should be required reading for anyone who would be a good teacher, in any capacity. 

I’ve put in bold the segments of Nibley’s text that seem particularly pertinent and powerful, followed by my 21 notes in brackets and italics.  My notes are meant to interpret the ideas in the essay into general classroom policies and strategies.  Looking back on these notes about a decade after I made them, when I was still a new teacher, I’m pleased to see that my work has largely been consistent with the ideas here, as I understand them. 

Nibley uses Brigham Young as his model for effective education techniques, and well he should: Young took thouands of poor, illiterate, disparate immigrants and made them the foundation of a society whose descendants are disproportionately well-educated.  Though one would benefit from simply perusing the bold and italicized sections, reading this whole essay would be valuable to anyone; reading it from my source will also allow you to enjoy Nibley’s 200 footnotes!

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