Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > Authors LitBits Guest Blogger
1 2 Previous Next

LitBits

19 Posts authored by: LitBits Guest Blogger

 

This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch Professor at Montgomery College.

 

“I think she’s a gold digger,” quite a few of my students once said during a discussion of Nora Torvald in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House. When I asked how the students made this interpretation, they unanimously responded that Nora asks for money for Christmas. A reminder of the reason why, which occurs later in the play, only brought the response, “But we didn’t know that at the time.”  Since backstory and exposition in drama take place through dialogue rather than through a speaker or narrator as in fiction and poetry, students often do not notice when characters drop "hints" in their lines.  Subtext, which often appears in dialogue in drama (as does almost everything else) can be particularly difficult to discern and interpret, even if it may seem far more obvious than a hint to some readers.  After this class meeting, it became clear that students often expect strictly linear and explicit references in a literary text, including plays with their sometimes lengthy blocks of dialogue and monologue.  This experience inspired me to create an exercise to help students track implied meanings in plays as outlined below.

 

1. Select a key piece of information revealed through subtext, such as hints about a character’s past or the foreshadowing of a character’s actions.

 

2. Write an outline of the play’s act and/or scene structure either on the board or on a handout to distribute and place the moment when the audience learns the full truth in the structure. You might want to include a section for events before the play’s action begins.

 

3. Have students break into pairs or small groups and ask each to answer a question such as:

  • When does the character first mention or hint at X?
  • When does the character first take a similar action or make a similar choice?
  • When does an action or event take place? (Sometimes it may occur before the play’s onstage events)
  • When does the audience first learn of X, and when does it occur? (These answers may also involve events prior to the play’s beginning)
  • Why does a character do or say X, and when does the audience learn of the reason(s) why?

 

4. Instructors can decide whether pairs or groups should answer the same question or different questions, depending of course on the lengthy and difficulty of the text. As for the above example from A Doll House, I have all groups answer the question about Nora’s interest in money as a first use of this exercise that is an example of the last bulleted suggestion.

 

5. Students can either place their answers on the handouts the instructor provides, or the instructor can chart the answers on the board. To provide support for answers, students should include specific page, act, and/or scene numbers.

 

Having students do this activity while the class discusses the first play of a course or unit introduces subtext in drama and the importance of close readings of dialogue.  Alternatively, instructors could choose to use the activity only for a long and/or complex play, which may require multiple uses of the exercises during class time or for homework.  Revisiting these steps for more than one play can then gauge student progress with reading subtext in drama throughout the unit or course.

 

For a more-tech savvy approach to the activity, professors can make use of a plot-mapping software program like Plotist for a more impressive presentation or if a class is taught in a computerized classroom.  A simple chart or outline in Word or on the board can work fine, too.  The key is for instructors to use what is most comfortable for them and their students in consideration of available resources.  After using this activity at least once, instructors might just find that students no longer accuse Nora Torvald of being a gold-digger.  Mine, thankfully, no longer do.  

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov, Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

When students are first asked to write about literature, they often feel like strangers in a strange land. They are expected to analyze a work, incorporate quotations with in-text citations, and finish with a Works Cited list. It’s a tough task and a minefield of new rules. 

 

In a recent post, I speculated that song might be a good starting point for teaching students to integrate quotations into their writing.

 

I put that theory to the test by asking first-year composition students to explore a theme in song, comparing and contrasting two or three songs with similar themes.  When I gave the assignment, I introduced the idea of quoting lyrics. Using Usher’s “Confessions, Part II,” suggested by a class member, I demonstrated and they practiced.

 

Before the next class, students chose a theme, picked songs, and wrote a thesis statement and outline. Together, we looked at a couple of thesis statements, familiar territory for the students by this point in the semester. Then we began Works Cited pages. Because complete information is not always provided on lyrics sites and YouTube videos, students often had to search for the songwriter, producer, release date, and the name of the album. In an era when databases offer perfectly formatted article citations at the click of a mouse, citing a song is hard work. I walked around the classroom helping students search for information and format citations.

 

Students left class with a Works Cited page and returned with completed papers.  This particular class has struggled with the transition to academic writing, and results were mixed. However, every student succeeded to some degree. Certainly, all are much better prepared to tackle the research paper that is their next assignment.  All students identified a unifying theme in the songs they wrote about, and many developed their topics in creative and interesting ways. One student argued that while rap music is often singled out for objectifying women, other genres do the same thing. She used examples from pop and country music to illustrate the point. Another student compared songs that depict or refer to actual incidents of police violence against African Americans. Still another compared Tupac’s “Me and my Girlfriend,” in which the girlfriend is a gun, to a song about a flesh-and-bone girlfriend.

 

Because popular music often contains profanity, we had discussed how to handle the issue within the papers.  I told the class to go ahead and quote the profanity if they thought it was necessary, but I also urged restraint since they were writing an academic analysis. Restraint is exactly what I got. From music rife with ear-scorching profanity, my students culled the poetic and the profound, using profanity sparingly, if at all.

 

My students also amazed me with letter-perfect rendering of artists’ names. Every semester, I read at least one paper referencing “Hemmingway” or “Steinback,” but in writing about the artists they listen to every day, students had no spelling problems. I was the one who had to double-check to make sure that there was really no third e in The Weeknd, no apostrophe in Lil Jon, and no er at the end of Uncle Murda. My students were right every time.

 

What I was really looking for in these papers, however, was the successful integration of quotations, and students did well with this task. Only two papers contained “floating quotations” that were completely unattached to any sentence.  In all other papers, lyrics were introduced with a signal phrase, or better yet, embedded in the writer’s sentence. I had also shown students how to quote lyrics in the same way that they will, in future classes, quote poetry, with virgules marking the space between lines, and verb tense or pronoun form changed within brackets, if necessary, to make the lyric flow smoothly into the sentence. Only a couple of students did these higher-level tasks with complete success, but these tasks are also difficult for students in the next-level class, Literature and Composition.

 

Letting students write about popular music only sounds fluffy and easy. In fact, this assignment requires high-level skills and a bit of grit, but students are willing to put in extra effort because it’s a topic they value. Just last week, I pre-checked the Works Cited pages that students had prepared for their research papers. Those pages exceeded my expectations. For my students, music proved to be an accessible entry point to quoting and citing, and I will make this assignment a permanent part of my first-year composition class.

This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch, Professor at Montgomery College.

 

“It’s only a movie.” I will never forget that response from a student during a class discussion. While watching a film can be the most passive engagement with a literary text, I realized during that class why helping students become more active in the process needed to be more of a priority in my teaching. Creating a single exercise that would change perhaps a lifetime’s habit of passive watching into the active viewing and close reading of films would of course be too impractical. What I instead developed was a classroom activity to introduce, or, perhaps more accurately, more closely examine the three basic elements of film form: shot, take, and editing.  In my classes, a felt pen or two and a whiteboard are the only materials I use to draw some basic storyboards.  The storyboards do not have to look like they are ready to pitch to a Hollywood mogul to teach the elements. They just need to get the basic content across and let the students fill in the rest with their own movie-watching imaginations. One thing that helps accomplish this goal is to keep the frames all roughly the same size to imitate viewing a screen. The steps in the activity are as follows:

 

  1. The exercise begins with a long shot to establish a setting, just as many films do, particularly if the setting is new in the film. I usually make it of a city because I find tall buildings fast and easy to draw, but any setting is fine if an instructor is comfortable drawing it. 
  2. To establish a scene, the next step is to draw a couple of quick medium shots to settle in on a single location within the larger setting. In my classes, this is usually a park depicted as an area with some trees and a few quick figures in a couple of frames.
  3. The next step is to focus on a figure or two to establish the characters in the scene also in a medium shot. Drawing balloons with a line or two in comic-book or comic-strip fashion can introduce dialogue, which often occurs after establishing setting, scene, and characters.
  4. The last frames I draw are close-ups to show the complete the sequence of long to medium to close-up shots and also to discuss how close-ups also represent building intensity in a scene. I also draw an extreme close-up just of a character’s bloodshot eye and a bead of sweat (this is the quickest to draw) to show extreme intensity.  Two regular close-ups can also work, and it can be useful to discuss how editing one close-up after another suggests the height of dramatic tension.
  5. On that note, discussing the length of takes while working through the shots can help explain their role in the narrative. Establishing shots, for example, tend to be much longer takes than close-ups, which reflect and underscore the building and rising of dramatic tension.

 

For those not inclined to draw the frames themselves is the option of using a page or two from a comic or graphic novel, both of which use storyboarding with balloons for dialogue, on an overhead. The frames vary in size, making the visual effect slightly different from film, but if Fellini thought enough of it to spend hours chatting with comic writers and artists, these examples should work fine. An option for the technologically adventurous instructor is the use of free Storyborder software for a dazzling presentation. Of course an instructor could of course use scenes from a film on DVD or streaming video. The key is to use whatever makes the instructor comfortable with illustrating the three elements.

 

After using this activity, I refer back to its frames/shots while discussing a later film in a course and/or prepping students for an exam.  It seems to be a good idea to provide a little extra reinforcement of the concepts of shot, take, and editing for a reminder to view films closely rather than watch them passively. One advantage of the software or comic approach is ready access to the exercise if instructors suspect their students are engaging in a little too much escapism and not enough analysis. Over the years, I have found students performing more of the latter and less of the former with the help of these steps and a couple of felt tip pens.        

Today's featured guest blogger is Shane Bradley, Administrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College.

 

Anyone reading this old enough to remember the song “Where the Party At” by Jagged Edge? The year was 2001, and I’d just finished what I call my “Middle School Odyssey” – teaching ELA to seventh and eighth graders – and had joyfully made it home to high school English.

           

I began my high school stint teaching ninth graders, and everybody knows there’s little difference between eighth and ninth graders. So, the odyssey continued. My students urged me to include music in my lessons, and eager to get them involved, I complied. Fridays found us listening to their favorite songs and talking about what we heard.

           

When one of them played “Where the Party At” that fall, we listened happily, tapped our fingers, and bobbed our heads. Several students sang along with the lyrics, and two were so moved that they broke into dance.

           

Music is an inescapable component of our lives. We listen to it in the car, from our phones, around the store, at the gym. Our students wear their Beats headphones like old people wear shirts: part of their wardrobe. What I realized early on was that while music takes us places our ordinary, soundless existences can’t, those words, those structural patterns attached to the music also stick in our heads, becoming part of us. With that in mind, I decided to keep “Where the Party At?” as a teaching tool for my high school students.

           

I try to play the song in my American Literature classes during the first weeks of a new semester. We enjoy the music, but most students don’t sing along because they’re too young or too cool or both. Because I also begin most semesters with a review of what a sentence is, how it functions, and the ground rules for clear academic writing, the refrain in the song – “Where the (da) party at?” – serves as an appropriate example.

           

“Grammatically,” I ask, “what’s wrong with the song?”

           

Silence.

           

“There are three key issues in the chorus that we want to avoid in our writing. Can anyone identify them?”

           

“They end the sentence with the word at,” someone shouts.

           

“Yes, and why is that wrong?”
           

“No object of the preposition,” another student says. “Sounds bad.”

           

“Good. What else?”

           

“They don’t say the word the; they say da.”

           

“Yes, and while saying da may not be that big a deal, do we want to write da in the place of the word the?”

           

“No,” they laugh.

           

“There’s one more,” I say.

           

This one always takes a moment, but someone finally realizes and blurts out, “Hey, there’s no verb in ‘Where da party at.’ It needs an is.”

           

Music may brighten our students’ days, help them study, and keep their workouts and practices on pace, but it also tattoos on their impressionable brains habits that drive English teachers nuts! Whether we’ll admit it or not, the music our students like doesn’t cultivate the most effective written academic communication.

           

Instead of beating them over the head with all the bad habits popular music creates, I try to help them recognize the influence music has on our culture. I play another hit from my past, “Run Around” by Blues Traveler from all the way back in 1994. Remember the first lines? “Oh, once upon a midnight dearie, I woke with something in my head.” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” – “Once upon a midnight dreary.” Honestly, they don’t get that reference any more than they know Poe is responsible for the raven on Baltimore’s helmets.

           

By the end of the semester, we’ve listened to and discussed a variety of songs inspired by the literature we read. Here are a few:

 

  • “Ahab,” MC Lars (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  • “Tom Sawyer,” Rush (Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer)
  • “Anabel Lee,” Stevie Nicks (Edgar Allan Poe, “Anabel Lee”)
  • “Richard Cory,” Simon and Garfunkel (E.A. Robinson, “Richard Cory”)
  • “Thieves in the Night,” Blackstar (Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye)
  • “Firework,” Katy Perry (Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”)

 

           

And while some of the songs might be a bit of a stretch, like Katy’s Perry’s “Firework,” and listening to the songs does require us to read all or part of the works referenced, students do appreciate our efforts.

           

To my surprise, some of my students are familiar with the band Iron Maiden, and any Internet search of their songs (“Flight of Icarus” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example) will reveal a strong literary influence. Like the band’s music or not, there’s no mistaking that the members either paid attention in high school or spent a lot of time with their noses in books.

           

When my students want to know where “da party at,” they know it probably won’t be in my classroom, but what they do know is that we’ll listen to Jagged Edge, laugh, bob our heads, and talk about literary influences on the culture. The odyssey continues.

 

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov, Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

Halloween gives us a good excuse to scare up some literary wickedness to treat our classes. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” work well as paired readings, allowing students to examine literary evil as it unfolds under evening stars and morning sun.

 

One element your students can explore through writing or discussion is setting. Both stories are set in small villages, but from there, the differences are quite literally night and day. Hawthorne’s dark, tangled forest provides a perfect setting for Goodman Brown’s “evil purpose” of attending a witch-meeting. The dark facilitates illusion, and Hawthorne never allows the reader the comfort of certainty. The snakelike staff carried by Goodman Brown’s fellow traveler seems to “twist and wriggle,” but Hawthorne casts doubt, writing that the movement must be “an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.” Similarly, a natural depression in a rock holds a substance that might be “water, reddened by the lurid light . . . blood . . . or, perchance, a liquid flame.” Jackson’s story, on the other hand, takes place at 10:00 a.m. in the town square. What could possibly happen in broad daylight with all 300-some villagers present, chatting and hoping to “get home for noon dinner”? Even the rocks with which the villagers eventually stone Tessie Hutchinson are first presented in the guise of innocent play, as three of the village boys build “a great pile of stones” and protect them “against the raids of other boys.”

 

Going a bit deeper, students might be asked to discuss or write about how and whether the characters perceive the evil that exists in each story. In “Young Goodman Brown,” the title character feels guilty about his overnight journey away from his wife Faith and about straying from his religious faith.  However, he never recognizes his most profound mistake: losing his faith in humanity. Hawthorne suggests that the witch-meeting may have been a “wild dream,” but of course it makes no difference. Dream or no, Goodman Brown is doomed to misery because he can no longer see the good in anyone.  In “The Lottery,” the characters are completely blind to their own wrongdoing as they draw lots and stone Tessie Hutchinson without a qualm, even urging her to “’[b]e a good sport.’”  It’s tradition; they do it every year. How could it be wrong?  

 

These bitter stories can be made sweeter with treats that provide a playful reflection of elements in each story. Candy corn recalls the saying “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” from Jackson’s story, and gummy worms stand in for the staff that resembles a “living serpent” in Hawthorne’s story.  You might also re-enact the drawing in “The Lottery” by making a “lottery box” (any small box will do) and putting in exactly as many folded slips of paper as you have students, with a black spot on one of the papers.

 

I did this recently with my first-year composition students, using only “The Lottery” because it was readily available in The Brief Bedford Reader. As I passed around the box of folded papers for students to draw, an undercurrent of tension flowed through the laughter in the room as students made joking comments such as “It’s been nice knowing y’all” and “Prepare to die.” When the winner revealed herself, I told her that because of her, the class would have corn. I then handed her a bag filled with individually wrapped packets of candy corn and asked her to pass them out to her classmates.  As the students enjoyed candy, we watched a short adaptation of “The Lottery.”

 

Films are a good addition to this assignment, whether you link them online or show them in class.  I found two short films on YouTube, each less than 10 minutes long.  “The Lottery,” is reasonably faithful to Jackson’s story. “Young Goodman Brown” departs from Hawthorne’s story with a modern setting (and nudity that you will want to preview), but is faithful to the original tale in the protagonist’s reaction to woodland depravity that may never have happened.

 

Halloween is the perfect time for tales of terror, and the implications of these two stories are particularly terrifying. Hawthorne’s story suggests that even a “good man” can become blind to the goodness in humanity, while Jackson’s implies that people who participate in atrocities against others are not monsters but ordinary people--people just like us. Those thoughts are scarier than a graveyard at midnight, more horrifying than a host of brain-eating zombies, and ideal for discussion in a literature class as October draws toward its close.    

photoToday's featured guest blogger is Bill LeachLiberal Arts Program Chair and Professor of English at Florida Institute of Technology

 

Torn from the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in honor of her novel’s 200th anniversary this year.

 

Recently, I asked students in my literature class to write an essay analyzing the symbolism in William Stafford’s poem “Traveling through the Dark.” I was shocked when one student suddenly bolted from the room never to be seen again!  What could be so frightening about poetry analysis that would drive someone into a state of panic and withdrawal?

 

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge….”  Victor Frankenstein

 

Many first year students are not familiar with the concept of ‘analysis’ as it applies to literature, and sometimes faculty need reminding that students can get apprehensive when asked to write an analysis. So, in the beginning of the semester, I take the element approach to help students see how the various parts of a story or poem are interconnected to the whole.

 

“I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eye-balls were starting from their sockets…The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and…still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.”  Victor Frankenstein

 

For example, to help allay fears and to make the practice of short fiction analysis more enjoyable, I’ve bestowed on my students the title of ‘Literature Detectives.’  I divide them into four or five ‘Squads’ and ask the squads to fill out a Surveillance Report. The Report asks them to:

 

  1. Identify the target (protagonist)
  2. Identify the threat (antagonist)
  3. Describe the conflict between the target and threat
  4. Describe how the conflict gets resolved and identify where the climax occurs

 

This activity is a fun way to introduce plot analysis which should be the first step in close reading.  Then the squad members write what they believe to be the major themes of the story and present their findings to the class.

 

After learning how easy and fun it is to analyze plot, students then dive deeper and look at elements of symbolism, setting, point of view, etc.  I’ve also designed a separate Report for analyzing poetry based on the elements approach that works equally as well.

 

Practicing analytic skills in group presentations helps prepare students for writing analysis essays on prompts such as the symbolism in “Traveling through the Dark.”

 

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.  With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful.  Beautiful!—Great God!”  Victor Frankenstein

 

Through the element/group approach, the quality of student writing has grown dramatically, producing more satisfaction in the study of literature from the student perspective.  I am very proud of their creations just as Victor Frankenstein was of his:

 

“…more, far more, will I achieve…I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”

This week's features guest blogger is Phillip Chamberlin, professor at Hillsborough Community College

 

“I lost six friends and neighbors—all under 25 years old—to suicide. And since then, I’ve lost about five friends to heroin overdoses and suicide. It’s just like this cluster of death that surrounds me, surrounds my neighborhood. It’s kind of a desperate thing.” –John Ulrich, college student from Boston

 

The young man quoted above stands on his apartment building as he gazes into the lens of the camera. He’s about to recite his favorite poem, “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. His personal connection to the poem is obvious, as is his passion.  The rhythm of his performance varies greatly from that of the author’s, but no matter—it’s a valid reading, and he’s moved by the poem, and so are we.

 

This video and many others like it are featured in the Favorite Poem Project, a project founded by Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, that features compelling videos of ordinary people introducing and then reciting their favorite poems. The website describes the participants as being “Americans from ages 5 to 97, from every state, representing a range of occupations, kinds of education, and backgrounds.” Most of the people on camera are quite ordinary—they may have interesting stories, but rarely are they overtly eccentric. Because the participants are not famous poets or academics, they could perhaps be called outsiders. But that would be missing the point: In the world of poetry, there are no outsiders.

 

I teach at a community college that serves a population almost as diverse. Some of my students are younger than sixteen (as participants in high school dual enrollment programs) and some are older than sixty. Some have never had a day of employment, and others are changing careers. Some have disabilities. Some are multilingual. Some are already avid readers, and some avoid reading as much as possible. Some even write their own poetry. Others think they hate it.

 

In my experience, these Favorite Poem Project videos have had a welcome role in many of my courses, at least the ones that discuss literature (whether in depth or as part of a brief overview). In elective literature classes, which tend to be full of students already passionate about reading, they work. In prerequisite composition classes, which tend to include a population of students with a much wider range of skills and academic preferences, they also work. Whether I teach in traditional classrooms or in online environments, they work. Students invariably find something intriguing and relevant in these ordinary people, their favorite poems, and their interpretations.

 

Sometimes I assign specific videos, like the Jamaican-American photographer who finds himself surprised by his connection to New England poet Sylvia Plath, or the construction worker who finds inspiration and comfort in the words of Walt Whitman, or the law student who responds enthusiastically to the world view of Wallace Stevens. Sometimes I encourage students to select videos on their own.  Either way, assignments involve viewing, ruminating, responding, writing, and discussing.

 

In face-to-face classes, sometimes I assign groups of students to present a video to the class—that is, they respond to a response and continue the conversation. In online courses, these videos serve as the basis for at least one of our weekly discussions. Even when students don’t respond favorably to a video, something interesting happens: They begin to see poetry in a new light. And to be honest, sometimes I do, too.

 

Imagine where instructors could take these activities to make them even deeper, more involved, more challenging. Instructors could even ask students to create their own videos. (They would need to be brief enough to be digestible for contemporary audiences yet deep and meaningful enough to be worthwhile—a worthy challenge.) Or, instructors could ask students to base an extended essay project about these poetry fans and their responses. The essay project itself could have a multimedia component. The possibilities are exciting, and resources like the Favorite Poem Project will continue to keep poetry relevant for students from many different walks of life.

This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch, Professor at Montgomery College.

 

Teaching drama may pose the most difficult challenge of the literary genres for instructors.  Plays have speakers like poems, plots like fiction, and scenes like films, but without the benefit of stanzas, narrators, and shots to help guide readers. While plays from the Renaissance and earlier often have prologues to help set initial scenes and introduce characters, readers are largely left on their own to navigate the worlds of plays and the characters that inhabit them.  One of the puzzling facts about plays for students new to them is that they are written from the point of view of the stage rather than of the audience. As a result, trying to visualize character movement through dry stage directions like “walks up stage” can be quite difficult when a reader does not know which direction is “up.” While following the movement and action of characters on, say, an Absurdist stage that simply contains two characters, a tree, and a stump may not pose a particularly difficult challenge, most plays ask quite a bit more of readers. As even an experienced play reader will admit, keeping track of the placement of scenery and props, as well as characters and their movements, on a busy stage, not to mention a stage with scene changes, all while trying to read the dialogue can be a daunting task.

 

To help students visualize stage space, I often use a small group activity early in the semester or drama unit.  It will require some willingness on at least one student per group to do some drawing, although not anything fancy, and students do not seem to mind a little shared artistic responsibility.  For materials, each group only needs a piece of paper and a pencil (obviously easier to erase than pen).    

 

  1. Assign the specific scene/set for the groups, generally after some warm-up about the play or even after the play has been discussed if issues with reading stage space arise.
  2. Have students sort out who is doing the close reading of the setting and character movements and who is handling the drawing before pencil gets to paper. As is the case with much small-group work, the delegation of roles will be the key to success. Equally important will be the need for students to be open to the interpretations of others to make this a group effort.
  3. Once the basic set design is drawn with props, an instructor can ask to have each group show their work. It might be a good idea to make sure every group is on the right track before moving on to the last step.
  4. Where are the characters? Now that the groups have drawn a set for a particular scene, have the groups do some blocking of the characters during a key passage. Simple diagrams or stick figures should do just fine. You can also have them use arrows or another indicator of characters’ movement in the scene. Interpretations may vary, and they can also be included in the drawing up to a point. A picture full arrows and lines would probably defeat the purpose of visualizing the stage.

 

Variations could be using space on the board if the room and class size can accommodate it, and, time and tech permitting, students could use a free drawing program like SVG Edit  that works right in a browser with no need to download software. How many sets the students draw depends on the complexity of the play’s staging, as well as how much difficulty students in a class are having with navigating dramatic texts. As a result, all the groups could work on the same set if it is complex or challenging, or each group could work on an individual set for plays with multiple locations. Classes can also revisit this exercise during work on an individual play for reminders and clarification and/or use the exercise for each play covered. In addition, having students map out the stage space can also be the springboard for student interpretations of setting and directions. How far up is “up”? The answer is up to students’ productions of plays taking place in their own minds, a realization that can be a rewarding teaching and learning experience.             

 

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov, Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

This summer, teaching a hybrid literature and composition class, I developed a lesson in carpe diem poetry that was close to pedagogical perfection. Because it worked (and because not everything does), I share it with you. The lesson incorporates poetry and song lyrics and requires students to read, watch, listen, and write.

 

The first part of the lesson presents a definition of carpe diem along with a clip from the film Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) shows his students pictures of long-dead students and advises his own students to “Seize the day, boys . . . make your lives extraordinary.” 

 

After viewing the introductory film clip, students move to two classic carpe diem poems: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” I ask students to look at the formal structure of the speaker’s argument in Marvell’s poem and to contrast the formal structure with the intimate nature of the poem, in which the speaker argues that a specific “coy mistress” should make love to him. I also point out the more general, advice-giving nature of Herrick’s poem, in which the speaker cautions young women (“virgins”) to marry before they are past their expiration date.

 

Next, students listen to four contemporary songs and decide which two are carpe diem songs. I specify that a carpe diem song (1) alludes to the idea that life is short, and (2) names a specific thing that should be done because life is short. The songs students choose should contain both elements.

 

For the lesson, I chose songs I had heard in Zumba class or on Sirius XM’s Chill radio during my morning commute.  I had planned to link to music videos on YouTube, but on one video, I was stopped by a “potentially offensive” YouTube warning. Mindful of my still-in-high-school dual enrollment students, I decided that I would link the audio version of that song and let students find the video themselves if they wished. 

 

Another dilemma arose when I discovered that the song that had given me the idea for the lesson had no clean version available. I took the problem to my students and asked them if profanity in music offended them. They reacted just as I might have if an adult had asked my teenage self if I was offended by Mick Jagger’s onstage gyrations.  I included the song, prefaced with a warning that I had not been able to find a clean version. I then asked myself if this issue was the same as that of the video with the YouTube warning and decided that it was not. Some of the works of literature assigned in class also contain profanity, so these lyrics add no new element.

 

I have listed and linked my song choices below, but the assignment is endlessly adaptable to your own musical tastes and preferences. 

 

  1. “Bad, Bad News” by Leon Bridges, a song about seizing the opportunity to make “a good, good thing out of bad, bad news.”
  2. “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull featuring Ne-Yo, Afrojack, and Nayer, a song that riffs on the theme of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” This is the song with the YouTube community warning; judge for yourself. 
  3. “Havana” by Camila Cabello featuring Young Thug, a song about a heart divided, chosen because of its wildly entertaining video.
  4. “Dead Soon” by Autograf, featuring Lils and Bonsai Mammal, a song that justifies seizing the moment with the lyric “If we don’t see another light / Then at least we had tonight.”

 

My students responded well to this assignment; all accurately identified the carpe diem lyrics (songs 2 and 4). When I asked myself if a 100 percent success rate meant the exercise was too easy, my answer was “not in this case.” Carpe diem is a fairly easy concept to grasp, recognize, and remember.  What really sold me on the assignment was not the success rate, but the ease with which students quoted song lyrics. My students find it challenging to make a point about literature and support that point with a concise quotation from the text itself. But doing the exact same thing with song lyrics seemed to be easy for them, perhaps because song lyrics are woven through their lives in a way that literature is not.  This accidental discovery suggests that one good way of helping students understand how to integrate quotations into their papers is to let them start with song lyrics. While I should probably seize the day and get to work on that, it’s a task for another day.

Today's featured guest blogger is Bill Leach Liberal Arts Program Chair and Assistant Professor of English at Florida Institute of Technology

 

 

What do alien abductions, cops chasing robbers, and binge drinking zombies have in common? They’ve all been subjects of one-act plays written by student groups in my introduction to literature classes over the years.

 

I’ve always been a fan of introducing creative writing opportunities to students as a method of reinforcing the elements of short fiction, poetry, and drama.  Many of my ideas are not really mine at all. Our university uses The Bedford Introduction to Literature, edited by Michael Meyer, and there are gems of writing ideas embedded in the text just waiting to be mined. These ‘Creative Responses” are sprinkled throughout, such as writing your own 55 word short story or writing a three minute phone call or email conversation between two characters based on the brief play Reprimand. These ideas can be incorporated as journal entries, test questions, and group activities.

 

I introduce group work early in the semester, which allows group members to get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and provide a sense of commitment to the group for completing the tasks assigned. Toward the end of the semester, I introduce the groups to the project of writing a script for their own one-act plays. Years ago, I started this activity by asking the groups to write an alternate ending to the play Am I Blue by Beth Henley, which deals with many issues young adults face today. This activity also works in writing an alternate ending to Death of a Salesman. Studying original plays and writing in groups takes up a good chunk of classroom time, so I searched for shorter activities because of the premium associated with classroom time.

 

That's when I stumbled across the website 10-Minute-Plays.com. The site not only provides multiple examples of short plays, but it also provides students easy to follow directions on how to compose their play, which reinforces the concepts of plot structure.  Here’s an example of directions from the site:

 

Page 1:  Set up the world of your main characters (exposition)

Page 2:  Something happens to throw your characters’ world out of balance

Page 3-4:  Your characters struggle to restore order

Page 5:  Just when your characters are about to restore order, something happens to complicate matters    

Page 6:  Your characters either succeed or fail to restore order

 

The brevity of the 10 minute play allows students to work with the structure of drama, introducing conflict and providing a resolution just as longer, traditional plays do. In addition, the shortened format saves on group and classroom time, allowing for more in-depth discussions of other genres such as short fiction and poetry.

 

The students really enjoy the activity and work well together writing the scripts and even acting out the parts. It is a fun way to end the semester, and student feedback shows it to be something they learn from and remember.

 

As a caution, though, instructors need to be involved in the brainstorming part of the process, guiding students toward appropriate topics. If not, you may find yourself in the middle of many dramatic renderings describing drunken zombies fighting aliens!

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Shane Bradley, Administrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College.

 

A student in my Composition and Literature course told me that she had trouble relating to Emily Grierson in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” She just “didn’t get” the story.

 

“She’s an old woman from a weird family. And she killed somebody.”

 

“Is Emily Grierson really that far removed from the average person?” I asked. “To somebody, each of us is old. And if we really think about it, aren’t most of our families weird in some way?”

 

A collective murmur of agreement engulfed the classroom.

 

“Okay, I may be old to my little brother,” she conceded, “and you’re right about odd families. Mine is definitely strange. But I’ve never killed anybody. I’m not a villain.”

 

“But have you ever been angry enough, hurt enough to at least think about killing another person?”

 

The tendency to expect our students to regurgitate what we tell them about the literature, instead of helping students make personal connections, abounds in education. While this approach to the literature is not completely without merit, demanding broad acquiescence to our ideas and beliefs is one way we rob students of their ability to relate to the literature on their unique terms.

 

Of course this method does not mean students have free reign to interpret works any old way. No, “A Rose for Emily” is not a happy love story. Emily Grierson’s life is not one held in high regard for our emulation; her life, however, does represent elements of humanity that most of us face, problems with which we find ourselves wrestling, on a regular basis. Don’t we, after all, want to teach the literature in a more personalized way?

 

When I was 18 or 19, relating to the death of an old woman who had been sleeping with the corpse of the lover she murdered was a stretch of my imagination. The same applies to our students now until we allow them to struggle with their own lives and experiences in terms of the broader human condition: everybody ages, most of us fall in love, we hurt when we’re betrayed, we seek some form of revenge.

 

Our students experience an inherent longing for acceptance and validation, and it’s that same longing that compels Miss Emily to take Homer’s life. Is she a bad person? No worse than the rest of us. Does she give in to her momentary desire for some aberrant sense of retribution? Yes, but we’ve all probably at least considered doing the same thing.

 

Each person who reads the story can relate to the struggle to overcome momentary urges that, while at the time may seem perfectly acceptable considering a vulnerable emotional state, ultimately carry with them legal or moral repercussions that will result in a far greater struggle in the long run. That’s a key lesson our students should know.

           

As we provide students the freedom to relate to characters, not only the protagonists,  but the antagonists, too, in ways that make those universal struggles relevant, we empower students to move beyond a read-the-story-and-answer-the-questions mentality that permeates our profession. Sure, students may answer the assigned questions that accompany the readings, but do they actually care about how they’ve responded? Or, do they simply do the work in order to meet the requirements of the assignment? That’s really the core of our struggle as educators – creating relevance.

           

In the end, more students have something in common with Emily Grierson than they do Homer Barron. Homer may be the one who gets the poison, but Emily, like all of us, struggles with and succumbs to her desire to become whole after her fall. Once we give our students the autonomy to relate to the villain in the same ways we encourage them to find common ground with the characters we deem morally or ethically “good,” we help them realize that each of us has the potential to be the villain and commit a crime as egregious as murder. From Emily Grierson’s mistakes, though, we can all learn how to better manage our urges and begin to recognize each other’s basic humanity.

Today's featured guest blogger is Tammy Powley, Professor at Indian River State College. 

 

Wouldn’t it be great if the first day of your creative writing course started with an inspirational talk given by a famous author like Amy Tan? That and similar questions came to mind when I received department approval to develop my college’s first  creative writing course. This began my web journey as I looked for video resources to help supplement and inspire my creative writing students, and now Amy Tan greets my students during their first week of class. Throughout the semester they also hear from Billy Collins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, and many other authors.

 

Amy Tan arrives thanks to TED.com, which it a site best known for commenting on technology, education, and design, but in “Where Does Creativity Hide?” Tan examines how she personally creates, where her ideas might originate, and how life events affected her writing. Tan is a wonderful presenter. She is funny and easy to understand. My students watch this 22 minute video, and then I ask them to reflect, to examine their own approach to creativity. This is one of the earliest writing assignments in the course, a very simple response, but it starts them thinking and writing. This site also offers videos by some entertaining and thought-provoking poets, for example What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali and “The Danger of Silence” by Clint Smith. So, while TED.com is full of presentations from technology gurus, there is also plenty to glean from this site for creative writers and liberal arts studies. An added plus to this site is the inclusion of a transcript for each TED talk, and I have found the hyperlinks I use in my  course shell are also accurate and not prone to change, an issue that can come up whenever using free  content.

 

YouTube is more popular with Internet readers than TED.com and full of possible content. It requires a different approach when researching for curriculum, but I feel it worth considering since many educational institutions and similar organizations have free resources through this site. A few videos I have discovered useful over there for my writing students include “Write What You Know” presented by Nathan Englander and “Revising, Rewriting, and Overcoming Obstacles” by Sinead Moriarty. Writing instructors, however, should be prepared to spend more time culling through content on YouTube because there is the added task of determining if the person who posted the video is actually the owner of the content. Additionally, if the channel owner changes something (and it has been my experience that this occasionally happens) then links could be disabled at some point. Therefore, it is important to check links regularly for a course to ensure they still work.

 

Finally, one of my favorite video sources is  but not necessarily available to everyone on the World Wide Web. It is a database called Films on Demand, and many colleges and universities subscribe to it. The information available through this database seems to be endless, and I especially like that I am able to combine content from it with a book or e-text. For example, in one assignment I ask students to examine the basic ideas concerning plot and structure, and I bring in Edgar Allan Poe as an example. We look at his story “The Cask of Amontillado” and watch one of the film versions of the story provided through Films on Demand. This brings in more writing opportunities as I ask students to answer another response question: Did you feel the tension building, and were you surprised at the end? Then, they are given an opportunity to rewrite the story and bring it into the twenty-first century but keep the original sequence of events.

 

By combining videos with traditional curriculum sources such as handouts and textbooks, I am able to layer my learning strategies and provide a method for visual learners to engage in what may seem like abstract ideas to many of them. TED.com, YouTube, and Films on Demand are three resources that can help writing instructors create an engaging and encouraging environment, whether a course is taught  or in a traditional face-to-face setting.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen KolbaDigital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida. 

 

“I was not excited to read this book,” says a student, holding up a copy of Morgan Parker’s There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé before our Introduction to Literature class starts. The poetry collection is the first book we’re tackling this semester. “But then she quoted Kendrick Lamar right off the bat, and I was like, I know this! I know what song this is from.”

 

My student is referring to Parker’s epigraph, a line from Lamar’s “A.D.H.D.”: “The president is black/ She black.” Already, my student has access to one of the cultural conversations that the poems exist alongside. I know this. His words play over in my head, and I think, this is why I start my poetry units with contemporary poetry.

 

Many of my Introduction to Literature students are nervous about poetry. It’s the kind of literature that they oftentimes see as locked behind a gate and only with the right key or code can they unlock a poem’s “secret meaning.” They view poetry as an elevated form of writing, in contrast with prose writing, which they view as “casual” (a terribly vague word that, when I press for greater specificity, usually means accessible or colloquial or language that’s familiar). While I question their use of the word casual, it highlights students’ relationship with poetry. That it’s prose’s buttoned-up, stuffy counterpart, guarding a lock box filled with the secrets

 

However, contemporary poetry offers students the opportunity to redefine their relationship with the form. If they can understand how their own positioning within history and a culture (a familiarity with the allusions Parker makes to Lamar’s body of work, or references to the Black Lives Matter movement) allows them to read, interpret, and understand a poem, then they might be more prepared to turn to poems from other periods. When they gain confidence reading contemporary poetry, they’re positioned to be better readers of older words. They’re less intimidated by poems from other time periods if they understand that at one point, someone was able to read that poem not because they had unlocked a secret code, but because they had the cultural context to do so.

 

Perhaps here is where teachers might worry that this method invites students to dismiss older works because they come from a different context. However, I get sort of excited when a student says, “I don’t get it because the poet’s references aren’t relatable to me.” These kinds of comments offer a perfect segue into a discussion about what it means to be an empathetic reader and why poetry and literature matter. I’ll ask the student (and the rest of the class): “What if I assign a poem written yesterday by a person with a completely different gender, race, socioeconomic status than you? And the experiences they relate in this poem are nothing like what you’ve ever experienced? Is it not worth reading? Or trying to understand?” The student, as well as a few others, will say: “I would try to understand.” And so I prod further: “Why would you try to understand?” At which point, they’re a little bit cornered: “Because it’s good to hear and try to understand different perspectives and experiences.” We enter a discussion about how reading poetry from other eras can help humanize experiences that are different from our own, which then will usually spiral into a wider conversation about how poetry and literature can make us better people.

 

By unlearning some of the expectations that they have of poetry—that it’s inaccessible, it’s too formal or lofty for non-English majors—students can gain more confidence in their ability to read poetry, which will in turn make them better and more enthusiastic readers.

 

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Lisa DuRose, Professor at Inver Hills Community College

 

“These characters and what they represent are things that I normally don’t read about, but these stories compel me to look at the reality that some women face.”

 

My student, quoted above, echoes what many others tell me about the works we read in my Introduction to Literature course: these selections are not their usual reading material and these characters have little in common with the protagonists they’ve encountered in some of their favorite works. At this point in the semester, students have been unsettled by characters who face poverty, mental illness, and death.

 

This week, however, we venture into a terrain that is even more emotionally challenging. We are reading a collection of short stories by contemporary author Bonnie Jo Campbell entitled Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Campbell’s stories often feature strong working class women who mitigate dangerous terrain—troubled relationships, economic hardships, and addiction. Campbell’s first person narrators, however, often present the greatest opportunity for critical analysis. In some instances, these narrators are processing through sexual assault and molestation, and readers are drawn into each woman’s effort to sort out the traumatic details of these violations. 

 

Although we know that posts about sexual assault and harassment swarm students'Twitter feeds, we may be reluctant to engage students in substantial discussions about these highly charged topics for fear that we are ill-prepared to deal with the emotional impact they may have. However, those of us who teach literature understand that the tools of our discipline provide a framework for such discussions. Through the lens of literary devices and critical approaches, we can create a space that allows for both analytical understanding and social empathy, even as we venture through the most emotionally vulnerable themes. 

 

In the case of Campbell’s stories, I ask students to consider how the author’s choice of narration allows readers to glimpse the thoughts of protagonists who have suffered through sexual assault. To aid in their analysis, I provide students with ample background information: my video interview Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell: Difficult Topics in Literature, a critical essay I’ve written about Bonnie Jo Campbell's Sources of Inspiration, and several reviews of the short story collection. These resources coupled with Campbell’s writing style—which is both lyrical and plain spoken—move my students toward a critical space that invites exploration rather than judgment.

 

Applying literary techniques to Campbell’s story “Playhouse” has led to complex discussions about the roots of sexual violence and the often complicit social responses they prompt, especially among family members. In this piece, Janie, the narrator, gradually discovers that she was gang raped three weeks earlier during a party at her brother’s house. She “feels sick and weird” (15) and her brother hasn’t returned her phone calls. The story opens with Janie returning to her brother’s house and learning that her brother, who recalls more about that night than Janie, is inclined to chastise his sister’s behavior and excuse the actions of his friends, one of whom he calls “a decent guy” (31). As Janie struggles to piece together her memories of that evening, the reader glimpses the emotional nuances of her discovery—experiencing first confusion, doubt, guilt, and then a sort of sickening knowledge. However, even as the events of that night become more lucid, she still struggles to identify the violation. After she tells her brother that she thinks she’s been raped, she second guesses herself: “The word raped feels all wrong, and my heart pounds in a sickening way” (31). When she says the word again, “it feels even more off-kilter, like I really am a drama queen, creating from thin air a victim and perpetrators and accessories” (31).

 

Students are quick to comment about how upsetting this story is, but I’ve noticed that when they are asked to frame their responses around questions of literary techniques, they are able to articulate a deeper understanding of the stories and the theme. When students are asked to apply a range of critical responses—including feminist, Marxist, and reader-response—their interpretations are even more enhanced.

 

Since many of Campbell’s protagonists live in poverty, students learn about the connection between sexual assault and poverty through Callie Marie Rennison’s New York Times article “Who Suffers the Most From Rape and Sexual Assault in America,” which explores how “women in the lowest income bracket are sexually victimized at about six times the rate of women in the highest income bracket (households earning $75,000 or more annually).” 

 

For some students, these topics are highly personal; a few will identify themselves as victims of sexual violence, often commenting about the realistic depictions in these stories. In every case, these revelations have enhanced the level of respect and community in the classroom.

 

These are difficult topics to discuss, but such conversations are already happening outside of the classroom. When we include them in a literature classroom, we can provide a framework that not only enriches our students’ knowledge but stretches their capacity for empathy.

Today's featured guest blogger is Howard Cox, Instructor at Angelina College.

 

 

My epiphany came one day when I was teaching Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in a sophomore literature course.  In Chapter VIII of the novel, Jake and his friend Bill are taking a stroll along the river Seine.  Bill, who evidently has decided to avoid hangovers by never sobering up, had previously suggested that they stop almost every ten feet for a drink.  After looking down the river at Notre Dame, the bridges over the river, and the islands covered with trees in the river, Bill remarks, “It’s pretty grand,” and “God, I love to get back.”

 

A few moments later, Jake, being considerate of his friend asks, “Want to have a drink?”  Bill says, “No, I don’t need it.”

 

The point I make about this exchange is that the beauty of the cathedral at night, the river, and the scenery is intoxicating enough in and of itself.  Alcohol isn’t necessary.

 

My students, many of whom already have extensive experience with alcohol, don’t get this.  My aha moment came when a student asked about part of the description that says, “Down the river was Notre Dame squatting against the night sky.”  “Why does it say squatting?” she asked. “How can a church squat?”

 

I explained that Notre Dame was a Gothic cathedral built in the Middle Ages with flying buttresses.  “Viewed from the right angle,” I said, “it looks like a giant toad squatting on the river bank.”  Blank looks were on every face.  “It’s a kind of awe-inspiring sight,” I offered.  “Have you ever seen something so amazing that you just kept staring at it?”  Crickets chirped in response.

 

I was a getting a little exasperated when inspiration struck, and I happened to be in a classroom with a computer hooked to a projector.  A couple of minutes later I had a southern view of Notre Dame, about four feet tall, up on the screen.  Comprehension began to creep into students’ faces.

           

“Yeah,” one said, “it does kind of look like a frog.”

           

“Definitely squatting,” said another.

           

I had learned an important lesson.  Our students, who have smart phones with more computing power than the spacecraft that went to the moon, often don’t bother to Google images of things they are unfamiliar with, any more than they look up new words on Dictionary.com.  Seeing something, though, is often key to understanding the point an author is making.  Incorporating this into a lecture yields surprisingly positive results.

           

The following week I was teaching Wordsworth in a British Literature course.  This time I was ready and was able to quickly reference online photos of Tintern Abbey and the River Wye.  It may not have helped any students to understand the themes in the poems we were discussing, but it definitely helped them to understand the inspiration for the poems and the places being described.

           

In recent semesters I have added props to the online visuals I have been using.  When discussing fiction dealing the American Civil War, I pass around a replica revolver, a Minie ball, and a kepi cap.  There is something about touching and holding an artifact that brings the literature to life for many students.  For a British Literature class on the Medieval Period I recently acquired a broadsword replica.  When I discuss how medieval swords were purposefully made to look like crosses, it is much easier to make the point when you have one to display and for the students to touch.  After a serious intellectual discussion about swords in that class, we took ours outside and sliced a watermelon with it.

           

My experience with using props and visuals has been overwhelmingly positive, but there are some legitimate concerns that some instructors may have:

 

  1. Cost: You can find anything for sale online these days, but I was surprised to find good quality replicas were available for not much money at all. The most expensive prop I have is a revolver replica that was $80.00. 
  2. Time constraints: It does take time to display visuals, and to have students interact with props.  Some advance planning is always involved, but I don’t find this to be any more burdensome than planning, say, a group activity, for example.  I often arrive a little early to pull up online visuals on a classroom computer, and to make sure the projector is working.
  3. Safety: Replica firearms are impossible to fire, but some states do have regulations concerning their display and use. Sword replicas are sold without sharpened edges. The only danger from either of these props is dropping one on your foot.