In an effort to use more collaborative learning activities in my classroom, I have redesigned much of my Composition II course. The poetry unit has benefited the most from these new classroom activities because so many students are baffled by poetry, even if they find certain lines beautiful. It’s weird! How do you even read it? Why does it look like that? I’m so confused! If you’ve ever heard those cries of frustration, then you, too, know that most students wouldn’t pick poetry as their favorite part of English class. Now that my classes are working on their poetry paper, I’m hearing less of “I have no idea what to do!” and more of “This was easier than I thought,” which suggests that the in-class activities have made an impact. Most recently, my students spent a day “walking through” six different poems in our Poetry Gallery:
The concept of a “gallery” in a writing classroom isn’t new: almost any assignment can be modified to accommodate different “viewers,” who walk around the classroom, stopping to look at a paragraph, a paper, an image, or a poem, in this case, and leave comments on or next to it. It’s a good way to get students out of their seats, which helps shake-up the regular classroom routine, but it also gets them to think about (and write about) lots of new ideas, all in the span of one class period.
For this activity, I recommend using four to six poems. (I used six, but having fewer would have allowed more time at the end of class to discuss them.) Print them out, and tape them around your classroom. Tape two or three sheets of paper next to each poem, so students have a place to leave their comments.
To organize students, I used a random number generator app and then put them in six groups, enough to match the number of poems we used. Each group had two to three people, so it would be easier to have discussions about each poem. The groups came up with team names that they used to distinguish their answers on each piece of paper. They also took turns writing down their responses.
To begin, each group was assigned a poem as a starting point. After five minutes or so, or once everyone was finished, they rotated clockwise. I put questions on the overhead projector, and groups used these to form their responses to each poem:
The poem’s meaning:
The poem’s language:
Once everyone had read and responded to each poem, the rotation brought them back to their starting point. The groups looked over all the notes everyone had left and then circled their favorite responses to each question. Each group had a chance to discuss their poem, but everyone was welcome to offer up their own interpretation.
I selected the six poems based on a shared theme (breathing, food, and writing) with another poem on the list, so students could begin making comparisons and thinking about how each poet treated a similar subject. Interestingly enough, one student observed that each of the six poems, to her at least, seemed to be about our souls: What do we need? What hurts us? What fulfills us? Her comment sparked a class-wide discussion, in which other students began pointing out subtle references and examples they hadn’t otherwise thought of, such as Alice Jones’s nod to the spiritual nature inherent in breathing, thanks to the word “transubstantiation.
All in all, this interactive, discussion-based activity worked well to conclude our readings for the poetry unit. As my students have begun working on their close-reading of a poem, I have noticed that many of them have selected the poems we spent time discussing and analyzing in class, even if they initially thought one of them didn’t make sense, like “The Joy of Cooking.” Contrary to previous semesters, this group of students seems to enjoy the puzzle-solving nature of poetry, which gives me encouragement to keep finding new ways for them to interact with this baffling, beautiful literary form.
We all know those first few words of The Waste Land: I don’t think T. S. Eliot had in mind that what may make April—National Poetry Month—“the cruellest month” for teachers is the struggle to keep things fresh. I teach high school juniors; by the time they reach my American Literature course, National Poetry Month is no surprise. As elementary students, they listened to teachers read from illustrated books of accessible poetry. As middle schoolers, they wrote simple rhymes, carrying them around on Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day.
Students are often eager to write poems—but writing, feeling-through and feeling part of poetry are not the same.
Nowhere are possibilities of poetry clearer than when pen is physically pressed to paper (or finger to keyboard) while the mind roves over a startling combination of images, headlines, and phrases. The aforementioned childhood exposures to poetry are simply a preamble, a whetting of the cleaver-like intellect, as Henry David Thoreau calls the mind.
For Emily Dickinson, poetry was a chance to “dwell in Possibility.” So, as I refresh my National Poetry Month assignments, I’ve considered the potential of allowing students not just to write or read but to dwell in the possibilities of poetry, to use their words not as a direct line to an audience but as a series of lines thrust large and widely into a world, into spaces, times, and ideologies beyond them. I want students to understand that poetry is a constantly living organism, an ongoing conversation—and they are very much an essential part of it.
For my high schoolers, I’ve found the most edifying possibilities include being able to find one’s self in a poem—particularly one that is playful, unexpected, and a puzzle-piecing together of sundry parts. I like to think of a poem as a Frankensteinian creature that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be yet and, thus, a very adequate reflection of the young writer. And it’s okay: students, like poems, are works-in-progress, not final pieces. People are this.
Therefore, one of the most effective National Poetry Month writing assignments I’ve created involves words, images, and history (personal and national or global). It is an assignment designed to engage students with themselves and their world alike. It is also an essential practice at lateral thinking, a key method of nontraditional problem-solving used by scientists, technicians, and poets, among others, to force the mind to make connections where, on first appearance, there are none to be made.
We start with a few timed exercises, as well as some at-home preparations. In advance of the in-class writing, I ask students the class before to bring next time:
Then, in class, I time out five minutes of free-associative writing. First, they have to write anything that comes to mind when they see their selected headline (even better if they’ve never actually read the story attached to it). Then, I time them for another five minutes and they have to write a response to their selected image.
Next, I go around the room and distribute, at random, a line from a famous poem, something we’ve read in class that year. It could be a line from Anne Bradstreet, Langston Hughes, or Tony Hoagland. For another five minutes, I ask them to write freely—the only caveat that they have to start with the line they were given.
By now, we will have discussed Gertrude Stein and free-association; they will understand the value of “messy,” Cubist-style work more disassembled than assembled. They will see the value of poetry not as answer but as a point of departure.
After these exercises (about 15 minutes of writing without overthinking or intervention), I ask students to reread what they’ve written. Can they identify any surprising links among their three separates exercise responses? Does a particular word or theme keep emerging? Does something surprise them?
Now, using these ideas, assemble a poem. Revise freely (or not), but combine the three task responses.
This work vitally force students to find timeless connections, recurring patterns of human behavior, interests, desires, and tendencies throughout their lifetimes and beyond. They are given a week to keep working, at home, on their poem. It is not long before I have students remarking, “I never knew I felt so lonely until I picked this image and saw how it fit with the line from Georgia Douglas Johnson,” or “how strange I keep talking about the color ‘orange,’ as if that means something to me. Maybe it does.”
The best part of this exercise? I do it, too. It gives me space to write and the students enjoy when I share my work alongside theirs. It makes them feel like we are all in this moment of assimilation together, all backstroking our way through some beautiful yet unpredictable waters, part of a growing conversation about human experience. And there’s nothing cruel about that.
“But why do that?” students often ask when we discuss plays. Sometimes due to the opaqueness of subtext or even with the seeming (at least to experienced readers) transparency of dialogue and action, characters’ motives can puzzle readers. Without a narrator to provide the thoughts and feelings of at least one if not all characters, drama requires recognizing some different textual clues from fiction. Characterization in both genres, though, in works from the modern period to the contemporary, as well as quite a few before it, relies on a psychological approach based on motivations. Getting students to recognize what drives characters, who in the early stages of reading a play may seem like random blocks of dialogue on the page with little to differentiate them, can be quite challenging. Another challenge for instructors is to prevent a literature class from becoming Psychology or Method Acting 101 in the process of teaching characterization in drama.
To help students better understand characterization in drama, I developed a small-group classroom activity that instructors can use at any point in the discussion of a play or as part of a review for a paper or exam. The starting point is for the class to identify an important moment or moments in the text that have serious rewards or drawbacks for a character or characters. This added warm-up can help students from only looking for dialogue and directions related to the one character in question. After assigning a moment and character(s) to the groups, the activity proceeds as follows:
1. Students list the reasons/motivations why a character makes the decision and/or takes the action with support from dialogue and direction in the play, usually two or three reasons will suffice.
2. Students also consider and list the character’s goals for the decision and/or event. The instructor may need to remind students that these goals may be quite different from the actual outcomes for the characters.
3. A simple flow chart presented on the board can help students follow the logic of the character’s motivations and goals. Distributing hard copies of the chart to the groups to use can also help keep them on task. On one side are the motivations that lead to the action and/or decision in the middle of the chart. On the right side are the character’s desired outcomes. A sample chart is below:
4. Once groups have completed the charts/provided answers, each group does a mini-presentation for the class of motivations and goals. To frame the discussion of characterization within the larger context of the play and other dramatic elements, some questions to ask of the class as a whole can be:
Each small group can work with the same character and event or with different ones, depending on the number of characters and complexity of the plot as well as how challenging the students find characterization in this text. It can also be helpful to review with students that what other characters say and do towards or in response to a character are also part of characterization. This discussion during the warm-up can help the small groups and whole class to avoid just looking for and discussing the assigned character as if he or she were along on the page and stage. Classes can also revisit this activity during work on an individual play for clarification and/or use these steps for multiple plays in a unit or course. The ultimate goal is for students to start asking “But why do that?” as they read, discuss, and write about plays as part of their regular engagement with them. With practice, students can answer that question for themselves, both within the plays they read and within their own reading processes.
Today's guest blogger is Daniel Lambert, an educator, writer, editor, proofreader, and photographer. He teaches English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College as well as an online Literature course for Colorado Technical University. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award in 2017 from CTU and is the recipient of The Shakespeare Award for poetry from the City of Torrance, California.
I first met Ray Bradbury in 1995, after joining The Southwest Manuscripters (a writing club based in Southern California). The prolific science fiction writer (who preferred to be called a “fantasist”) delivered yearly addresses to the Manuscripters, because they were the first club to invite him to speak, in the days when he was an obscure wordsmith, making a penny per word for his stories.
Based on the content of Bradbury’s presentations, I knew he hated the idea of college professors pontificating on the “hidden meanings” of his written work. Nevertheless, I wanted to ensure that future generations would continue to read his work, so I started teaching Bradbury ten years ago. I am careful to allow students to explore Bradbury’s themes without interfering with their critical reading process by interjecting my own ideas. I like to think Ray would approve.
I first taught Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in English 28 (a developmental course designed to prepare students for first-year composition) at East Los Angeles College. Although I have read science fiction since grammar school, I did not read Bradbury’s novel until after I began teaching composition. When I did read it, I was struck by the timeliness of its themes. In the era of 9/11 and the Patriot Act, Bradbury’s focus on censorship, political paranoia, and human rights seemed eerily relevant.
For my developmental English course, I asked my students to write a three- to four-page review of Fahrenheit 451. I gave my students the option to answer a variety of optional questions, including the following: “Which social trends do you observe in our society that are also present in Bradbury’s novel?” This question gives students the opportunity to explore Bradbury’s 21st-century dystopian setting without falling back on the novel’s major theme (censorship). My students have taken me up on this challenge over the years, and have addressed everything from online education to the “dumbing-down” of America in their reviews of Fahrenheit 451.
After teaching Fahrenheit 451 for several semesters, I began to use the novel in English 102, a second-year composition course. Instead of requiring my second-year composition students to write a review of the novel, I asked them to address the positive and negative effects of technology by analyzing Fahrenheit 451 as well as Bradbury’s short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” published in 1950. The story depicts a “house of the future” that does everything from making its owners’ breakfasts to singing them to sleep. There is only one problem: the house’s occupants are gone. Bradbury strongly suggests their absence is due to the fact that a Neutron bomb or ERW (Enhanced Radiation Weapon) has been detonated; such a weapon kills people but leaves structures intact. Both Fahrenheit 451 and “There Will Come Soft Rains” teach a similar lesson: technology is a double-edged sword; its benefits depend upon the intentions of those who use it.
Eight years ago, I began teaching Literature 201, an online literature survey course, for Colorado Technical University. For the first few sessions, I used Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. When the class was revised to focus more heavily on short fiction, poetry, drama, and emerging literary genres (such as blogs), I decided to introduce Fahrenheit 451 into the course. I believe Fahrenheit 451 demonstrated to my online Literature students the kind of far-reaching accomplishments an author could achieve in a novel: Bradbury addresses contemporary issues (such as nuclear war) as well as enduring questions (such as the quality of education and the effects of the media on public opinion) in fewer than two hundred pages.
I currently teach six English courses at three institutions. I use Fahrenheit 451 in four of my classes. Ray Bradbury did not write Fahrenheit 451 as an attempt to predict the future, but instead to ask the question all speculative fiction authors should ask: “what if?” I believe his prediction of such technological marvels as the drone and virtual reality are incidental to his core themes of censorship and the importance of human individuality. These themes are not only timely, but timeless.
Which works or authors have helped to shape your composition pedagogy? I look forward to your comments.
Poetic language is often the most evocative of all the literary genres. With just a few words, deep emotions and entire landscapes can come alive on the page. For students with limited experience reading and analyzing poetry, though, the challenge can be especially daunting. The short length—often less than a page per work—looks like an easier proposition than working through a lengthy story or play. After an initial reading, the work is over so quickly, and any deeper meaning rushes past the student. To help students slow down the reading of poetry and better visualize the images and emotions of speakers, I devised an in-class exercise for students early in a poetry unit or to help with a particularly difficult work.
Thanks to the Internet, access to paintings and other images for classroom use makes this exercise possible with a couple of points and clicks, but a hard copy of a work on the overhead can work just as well as a digital one. The most important element is for the painting to have a direct visual and/or thematic connection to the poem as the class works through these steps.
1.) Show the painting to the class as a whole, and ask them to provide brief answers to questions that ask them to engage the work, keeping in mind the thematic connections to the poem. Some areas of focus could be:
The idea is certainly not to turn a literature class into an art history one by having students consider all of these possibilities. Instead, select a few questions that you think best relate to the subject and themes of a poem for class discussion.
2.) Break the students into small groups and have them share answers about the painting, emphasizing the importance of subjective interpretation.
3.) Share the poem with the class as a whole on the overhead or by having students look at their own copies. Some moving back and forth between the poem and the painting to underscore the connection between the two in the exercise might be needed.
4.) Have each group look at a stanza in detail, or the entire poem if it is short, comparing/contrast their answers and discussion about the painting with the assigned stanza. Have each group consider how the poem reflects or challenges their previous answers and discussion, and why?
5.) Have each group report back to the class as a whole and welcome cross-talk between and among groups as interpretations share, question, confirm, and challenge what the group members interpreted.
One poet whose works lend themselves to the exercise is Blake since his poems and paintings appear in the same work. With a little creative zooming, or covering the poetry and painting can be kept separate in the first step. Another option is to use a painting that inspired a poem, such as Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Anne Sexton’s poem of the same name or Marcel Duchamp’s and X. J. Kennedy’s Nude Descending a Staircase. If a direct pairing is not possible, as is most often the case, a little savvy searching for paintings on the Web can yield rewarding results for the activity and student engagement with
Classes can revisit this exercise as an instructor sees fit to aid the visualization of words and images in poems as well as refresher just before an exam. Working through all of the steps is also not always entirely necessary. Sometimes I find that reminding students of some of the connections made about colors, patterns, and subjects can help keep foster ideas and discussion. When it comes from students’ own engagement with the challenge of poetry and not from lectures or notes, the results are so much the better for them and for the instructor.
This week's guest blogger is Krysten Anderson, Assistant Professor of English at Roane State Community College
For many students, studying literature isn’t a priority in college. Depending on their degree path, some students will never have to take a survey course, while others might encounter literature only in Composition classes. Knowing that most students will not end up as English majors, explaining literature’s importance can be a tough sell. Helping them see the relevancy of studying fiction, poetry, and drama can be tricky, unless they’re made to consider the value of literature early on, and especially if they come to that realization on their own.
Every semester, I like to start the first day with a discussion: What are your expectations for this class? While the course syllabus will certainly cover my expectations of students, it’s less clear to them what their expectations of the class are (or should be), which is why I like to pick their brains on day one. If I can understand what they’re worried about or what topics they’re unfamiliar with entirely, I can then address those fears and blind spots as we move through the semester together. This time, however, I added a twist: Instead of simple discussion, I wanted to begin with a debate. To add another challenge, I wanted to change students’ minds in just two minutes.
On the first day of class, I put a topic on the board: Should students have to study literature in college? Naturally, the consensus was “no,” but I wanted them to really think about the question and address some long-term (and seemingly unrelated) outcomes of studying literature. To help lead them to their yet-to-be-discovered revelations, I put students in groups of four. If there was a group of five, one student would serve as the “moderator.” Once settled in their groups, I explained that we would be working for two-minute intervals, but I didn’t reveal that they would be switching sides at some point.
Here are the rules of the debate. After the second step, I recommend explaining each upcoming step as they move through the process.
Once we had finished, it was time to process their answers. I opened a blank Word document, created two columns (“For” and “Against”), and turned on the overhead projector, so students could see the responses from each group. As I began typing out their answers, it was startling to see the volume of creative and practical reasons they came up with for studying literature. Likewise, it was surprising to see how few responses made up the opposing side, the side many professors might imagine would be inundated with reasons not to study literature. Even if students professed to be “bored” with it, and even if they “didn’t have time” to read it, they couldn’t deny the “life lessons” and “comfort” that literature could offer them.
Despite the nature of teaching, it’s not every day that we’re able to see students struggle with holding an opposing belief; rarer, still, is witnessing students changing their own minds about a deep-seated opinion. As professors, we want to instruct students to “think critically,” but commanding that to happen won’t always make it so. Perhaps the simple act of self-doubt is the best way for students to come into knowing, and it’s even more powerful because they arrived there themselves.
On the first day of my Introduction to Literature course, as soon as we’ve finished our introductions and reviewed course policies, I distribute the first assignment, a poetry analysis. Although we’re still just getting to know one another, students are quick to react. “Poetry?” asks the bubbly guy in the corner, who just won a prize for memorizing everyone’s name. And from the look I his face, I can tell he’s not thrilled. He has not selected this course to be enraptured by poetry.
This student, and most of his classmates, enter my Introduction to Literature course to fulfill a general education humanities requirement. We’ve just learned, from class introductions, that the room is filled with a wide variety of backgrounds--from high school students to a retired military personnel to retail managers—and an even wider swath of career interests: nursing, finance, neuroscience, teaching, family counseling, physical therapy, etc. Few identify as English majors. Even fewer declare a love for poetry.
This setting is ripe with urgency. In their entire college career, this may be the only course where these students read poems, where they get the rare opportunity to be startled by their own humanness and consider, in the words of the late, beloved poet Mary Oliver, “their one wild and precious life”
Because of this sense of urgency, I always begin the course with an analysis of a poem, a recently published poem, far from the scope of Shmoop.com and Sparknotes.com study guides. This assignment works as a formative assessment tool, a way to determine how much knowledge of poetry students already possess; however, the assignment also provides me with a chance to slow down the pace of students’ typical reading experiences and ask them to really consider the way a poem works. Designed as a sort of “tell me what you notice about this poem,” the informal assignment gives them a low-stakes chance to practice a skill they will use throughout the course: paying close attention to language. Like the students themselves, the short papers produced from this assignment are varied in knowledge of poetic devices and sophistication of analysis.
After this initial assignment on a poem, we devote several weeks to the study of fiction, and after that, we launch into a three week unit on poetry. As such, by the time we delve into poetic devices and look at the contours of a poem’s design, the first poem students encountered in the course is slowly fading from their mind. After the poetry unit, we launch into the study of drama and by then, that first poem is a distant memory. All of this memory loss works perfectly when the course nears completion and that first poem reappears in a portion of the final exam that now asks students to perform a much deeper analysis, apply poetic devices with sophistication, and convincingly demonstrate how a variety of critical approaches could open up the poem to varied and rich meanings. This final summative assignment allows students to return to the poem that may have caused trepidation at the beginning of the course, but this time they are equipped with more tools and experience.
The assignment has consistently worked well at demonstrating the confidence and skills students have gained in the course. Many of them are impressed with their evolution as they’ve gone from providing a surface-level description, to conducting a close reading of a poem. In their final reflection of the exam, they often remark on their growth:
At first analyzing poetry was definitely not my strong suit at the start of this class, but recognizing the specific diction, syntax, imagery, and audience each poem contained aided me in combining everything I could figure out about each poem in order to find the overall theme and meaning. After this class I feel better prepared for writing essays about literary texts since I was able to develop a better understanding of different techniques.
Digging deep into this poem and all the poems we did in this class was enjoyable as it allowed me to be free with my thoughts and build on them as I continued to read.
I appreciate that the students feel more confident and less weary of poetry at the end of the course. And though I realize this new found appreciation for poetry will not convert any of them into English majors or, heaven forbid, poets, I do hope that they learn, as Mary Oliver advised that “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy.”
Metrophobia sounds like it should be the fear of cities, but it is in fact the fear of poetry, and many of my first-year literature and composition students have it. It’s my job to effect a cure.
I have no illusion that this class of mostly non-English-majors will form a poetry circle or a Billy Collins fan club. But I do know that my students need poetry. Like all forms of literature, poetry provides a frame of reference for understanding life, and it does so concisely and memorably. If, at some crucial point in their lives, my students remember a poem, write a poem, or seek out a poem, my job is done.
When I teach poetry, I teach the usual components: terminology, figurative language, and rhyme. I expose my students to a wide range of poetry, dispel the myth that poetry means whatever the reader wants it to mean, and teach them to analyze based on what the poem actually says. But I also try to include extra elements that I hope will make it stick. Here are my top four:
I will never know if my students actually make poetry a part of their lives, but the fun lies in trying to make poetry accessible and memorable.
What are your tricks of the trade? Please comment and let me know!
My wife bought a wooden sculpture at a thrift store. Unusual, gaudy, frighteningly top-heavy, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. More precise adjectives than the three in the previous sentence I cannot provide, for doing so might undermine this post.
On the second day of my high school EN 101 (Composition) course, she delivered her prized sculpture to my classroom. I’d asked her to let me take it, but with a laugh, she told me that wasn’t going to happen as long as I was riding my bicycle to school.
“And be careful with it,” she instructed as she relinquished the piece. “It’s fragile.”
Okay, there’s one more adjective.
Fifteen students looked on as if I’d just been handed a stuffed meerkat or a bowl of balut, exotics we don’t see often in rural South Carolina. Silently, I placed the sculpture on the table, stood back, and allowed raised eyes and fresh brains to scrutinize the curiosity before them.
“Your assignment is to describe this.” They moaned, already bored with another mindless descriptive assignment. “But there’s one caveat: Use no adjectives, adverbs, or proper nouns.”
“In fact, no talking at all. Study it; take a closer look. Touch it carefully, but do not share your ideas.”
For twenty minutes they scribbled, scratched, annotated, erased, and synthesized. At last, I asked for their descriptions.
“This was hard,” a student said. “I didn’t realize how much I depend on adjectives.”
I shuffled the stack and prepared to read. “The thing looks like a leaf. It has veins and is shaped like a triangle.”
“Good metaphors,” I said.
“Somebody used the word thing,” a student added. “We can do better than that.”
“It reminds me of a feather,” another writer imagined.
“But what kind of feather?”
“I can’t tell you,” the author quipped. “That would mean using adjectives.”
“She has a history,” I read. “Once a tree, somebody cut her down and carved from what was left of her an object that resembles the leaf of a willow. The wood is the color of river sand. Through the leaf runs a rod, like rebar, and it holds the sculpture to a base made of wood. She longs to once again be a tree, to feel wind in her leaves. She longs for her past.”
We listened to the description devoid of adjectives, and in our minds a picture emerged. Students looked at each other in surprise, for they weren’t sure one of their own had the ability to create such an image, much less an archetypal story.
The years have taught me that students want to be challenged, that they thrive on the intensity that comes from having to create without sufficient tools – in this case, adjectives. What this deprivation promotes, though, is the necessary push beyond that which is easy to that which requires innovation.
Our students will usually venture to the boundaries we set, but if we make those boundaries too narrow, we deny students the opportunity to test their imaginations.
What was the sculpture? A leaf? A feather? A tree long dead turned into an object of curiosity? No matter, for if given the chance, our students will help us see the world around them in a new light. All we have to do is provide the initial motivation and a gentle nudge. Then, and only then, might those ubiquitous descriptive assignments become extraordinary.
“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:
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.
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.
“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:
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.
In a previous edition of The Story and Its Writer, we included a page illustrated and written in 2009 by Michael Kupperman titled “Are Comics Serious Literature?” In the first panel, a cowboy answers in the affirmative, but in the next panel another cowboy answers, “I SAY THEY AIN’T.” A violent fistfight ensues — a series of pictures illustrating “SOK!” “POW!” “BAM!” “BIF!” and “CLOP!” – as the first cowboy beats up the second. In the last panel, the winner says “NOW WHO ELSE SAYS COMICS AREN’T SERIOUS LITERATURE?” Kupperman is spoofing the comic book style he’s using to make his point, but in the process he shows his reader that supposedly childish graphics can answer serious questions.
Instructors and students who enjoyed the page-long story “Are Comics Serious Literature?” will be happy to learn that in May 2018 Kupperman published a new book, All the Answers, in which he again asks a serious question and answers it brilliantly. It’s a graphic memoir, the same genre as the true-life stories told so well by Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi in the recent tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer. In All the Answers, Kupperman tries to solve the mystery of his father Joel Kupperman’s lack of emotional support during his entire life. Joel Kupperman, currently living in a nursing home in the last stages of dementia, was a college professor of philosophy when Michael and his younger brother were growing up in rural Connecticut in the 1970s and 1980s. The family had a secret — the boys were never told that their father had been a world-wide celebrity. In the decade of the 1940s he had been a child prodigy star on a popular weekly radio quiz show out of Chicago called “The Quiz Kids.” Joel Kupperman refused to talk about or reveal anything about his past life to his children. This emotional withdrawal had crippling consequences for his family.
In a recent conversation, Michael Kupperman told me that it was painful for him to return to his memories of childhood and create All the Answers, but it was even more difficult, as he said, “to sell my pain to a publisher” in order to come out with his story. “The Quiz Kid experience went, along with the rest of my father’s childhood, into a kind of locked box. It was understood that talking about it would cause him pain, so we didn’t bring it up. It wasn’t until I started really examining it that I started to see what it had done to him – and through him to me and the rest of the family. His generation and the generations surrounding it were not about talking about stuff and dealing with trauma.”
Kupperman feels that his earlier work, such as “Are Comics Serious Literature?” involved what he describes as “the absence of meaning.” His readers could decide if his drawings were funny or not, but as an artist he was “committed to the painstaking parody and reproduction of pop culture.” It was only when Joel Kupperman began to suffer from dementia that Michael realized he had a very limited time left to ask his father about his earlier career as a Quiz Kid. Joel continued to be evasive, but Michael’s questions were answered when he discovered five scrap books created by his paternal grandmother documenting Joel’s ten years as a radio celebrity, from the ages of six to sixteen. His father had hidden the scrap books behind a shelf at home in his library. The photographs and mementos taped onto their yellowing pages became the source of the richly detailed visual world of the 1940s that Kupperman meticulously creates in All the Answers.
As a precocious child, Joel had the ability to perform complex — if trivial — math problems in his head, and in the process remain unflustered while on the air in a coast-to-coast live radio show. As an adult he was very modest; he never considered himself a genius because he possessed this talent. His mother had been his tireless publicist, continuously pushing him to meet prominent people who admired his plucky performances on the radio. His fans were as diverse as the movie comedians Abbott & Costello and the industrialist Henry Ford. Michael Kupperman believes that his father was promoted as a celebrity by the national radio networks and used as a non-threatening American symbol of the Jewish race to fight anti-Semitism during World War II. His memoir is more than a personal story about his difficult relationship with his father; it is also about the country’s fascination with celebrities and our long history of religious intolerance. I entirely agree with what Jake Tapper said about All the Answers on CNN: “Poignant and funny and sad.”
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?”
“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:
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.