Tag Archives: Literacy

David Bowie’s Top Songs? According to…?

With the surprising passing of David Bowie just a few days ago, I have come across a number of tweets from websites and publications proclaiming “The 24 Best David Bowie Songs” or something similar.

While I understand that these lists are the opinion of the publication or of a David Bowie fan, I find that this ‘these are his best songs’ reaction resonates for me as a high school English teacher because of the nature of ‘English class’ in high school.

Allow me to back track a little: how could there ever be a list of ‘David Bowie’s best songs’ — or any other artist, for that matter — when music is so very personal? For me, as a teen in the 1980’s, I was surrounded by David Bowie’s music, and while I liked some of his songs to a certain degree, it never really spoke to me in my gut (or soul or heart or whatever that place is when a song explodes inside you.) At that time, the music that made my cells thrum was Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, The Grateful Dead, and Santana to name a few.

The amazing group of friends I had in high school were a group for reasons other than our music tastes, which included my 60’s / Deadhead list, while others listened to death metal, ska, punk, new wave and indie rock. I can remember wishing that David Bowie spoke to me in my gut / soul because I sensed that he was an ‘important musician’, but for whatever reason, whatever my mixture of genes, background knowledge, upbringing, emotional sensibility, teen headspace, etc., David just never found a place in my heart. And that is okay.

And so, when I read about ‘David Bowie’s 24 Best Songs’ today, I remember that wishing his music spoke to me and then remember that it’s okay for not everyone to love his music.

How does this connect to high school English? I wonder what effect limiting students to reading only what have been deemed ‘the best or important novels’ will have on them? Kelly Gallagher, in his book Readicide, explores the idea that we, as teachers, should remember that while these core texts in English may be important, creating lifelong readers is more important.  Neither Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell nor other promoters of reading would suggest that we ignore these important texts, but Gallagher fears that force-feeding ‘classic’ texts that only speak to some (if not only a few) students will undermine or even kill a students’ desire to read for the rest of their lives. Woah.

If I, as an English teacher, am worried about students being exposed to proper syntax and grammar, as well as building their vocabulary, Stephen Krashen’s seminal meta-study, The Power of Reading, submits that free-voluntary reading is the most efficient and powerful way to build those elements of language arts. After having read these amazing works by respected authors and thinkers, I confess it has given me much to think about.

(To go one step further, Jim Trelease and Dr. Stephen Layne also write about how reading aloud to students at all levels (including PhD students) is also a very powerful tool for exposing students to the beautiful intricacies of the English language. But that is perhaps for another post…)

Penny Kittle  echoes Gallagher’s idea and worries that if students are only exposed to academic reading in a boot-camp setting, they will turn off reading, and that is a much
greater problem than whether or not they were exposed to the ‘right’ or classic texts.

David Bowie’s music never took up a place inside my soul. That is okay — even though he is ‘one of the most important musicians of all time’. How would I feel, I wonder, if I had been forced to listen to his music, to dissect it, to analyze it, to discuss it, for weeks at a time, over multiple years?

Is it more important that I be able to critically analyze any piece of music or just David Bowie’s?

Kittle goes on to wonder whether we can balance students’ interests and needs with our responsibilities and goals.

 

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Part II: I love comics — but is this one safe for class?

Just because something is created in the comics (aka sequential art) medium, does that change the gravitas of the content? Would a serious topic be diminished presented in comics format? 

Sometimes, comics versions of stories are seen as lesser or substandard. For example, many ‘classic’ novels have been presented as graphic novels, such as: Macbeth, Hamlet, The Odyssey, Frankenstein and Beowulf.

  

And many fine original stories have appeared as graphic novels, such as: I, Witness, A Bag of Marbles and The Outside Circle, to name a few I have recently read. But again, they are considered less than traditional novels. 

But the following comic got me wondering about what degree the comics medium might diminish or inappropriately intensify a topic.

Consider the following comic from fusion.net: a victim of rape and her story as told to Jen Sorensen by Anonymous entitled “The phone rang. It was my college rapist”.

(Note: some may find this content disturbing.)

   
      
          

  

  
  
  
  
  
  
  

Should I have included the disclaimer “some may find this content disturbing”? Isn’t that the point? I asked a number of women colleagues to read this comic along with the question of “Is this comic ‘too much’ for high school students?

My colleague, Angie, who works in the field of guidance counseling, suggested that this comic is a reality for some high school girls already. And that the topic of sexual assault needs to come out of the shadows and into the forefront of conversation. But, as my colleague Annette and I spoke, I had the feeling of ‘but they are still young adults’. 

Where is the line?

Macbeth, as a contrast, explores murder (of a leader, of a male best friend, of women and children, of innocent civilians) as well as mental illness and suicide, and this text is part of the fabric of high school English courses. 

I wonder if a concern might be whether the offending or disturbing act is overtly depicted versus merely suggested. Lady Macbeth, for example, dies offstage as does Lady Macduff and her entire household; the rape and subsequent phone call of this comic are depicted more directly by the artist.

But violence is shown quite clearly and in brutal fashion in such war films as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. 

Is war violence somehow safer than sexual violence for classroom discussion? 

And yet in Canada, it goes without saying that a woman must face the possibility of sexual assault throughout their lives (1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in North America — www.sexualassault.ca

So, as a dad to three young girls, do I want them addressing difficult  topics such as those found in this comic in high school even if it makes them uncomfortable.

If it will forewarn them of very real dangers, I say “Absolutely.”

I love comics – but is this one safe for class?

I love graphic novels and comics. 

While I admit to being a lifelong fan of comic book heroes and their adventures, I am always on the lookout for comics and GNs that tell non-superhero stories –particularly ones aimed at young adults. I do this because I want to find new reading material for my high school students — but am also looking to change the minds of teacher colleagues who may think that comics and GNs are only about Batman, Superman or The Hulk – not that those are bad! 

I digress.

Two excellent examples of recent non-superhero graphic novels that I have read (and tweeted about as @mistercooke on Twitter) include: 

  • The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings: after being sent to jail for murder, a young First Nations man strives for redemption through an exploration of his own culture.
  • A Bag of Marbles by Joseph Joffo, Kris, and Vincent Bailly:  a Jewish family living in Paris must make the heart-breaking decision to send their children away as the Nazis rise to power.

   

I would love to get both of these books into the hands of students and teachers to show that powerful, disturbing, beautiful, humane, transcendent stories can also be told through the medium of comics. Or as comics guru Scott McCloud says “sequential art”.

I have discovered, in my own practice, GNs can be light reading, entry point reading, a gateway to other reading or a challenging reach book, depending on the reader, as there is a literacy unique to comics that some are more familiar with than others. 

Indeed, I love comics and graphic novels because the visual nature of comics adds both an immediacy and a new layer of complexity that both invites me in and challenges me as a reader.

But could this immediacy be dangerous?

I discovered a longer comic today that presented a difficult conundrum for me as a teacher: can this visual nature of comics and GNs be too immediate? Should some subject matter be left to the reader’s imagination? 

What is that comic, the content of which vexed me so? It shall appear in my next post, posted post-haste.

Reading Aloud to students is the Swiss Army Knife of Effective Literacy?

In his book, In Defense of Read-Aloud, Dr. Steven Layne quotes another professor, Brian Cambourne, who, in a position statement, explores the notion that reading aloud to students is the “Swiss Army Knife of Effective Reading and Writing Pedagogy”. Cambourne discovered in his research some of the following benefits of reading aloud to students (p. 17, In Defense of Read-Aloud, Steven Layne — Quoting Position Statement by Brian Cambourne):

  • Demonstrates power of stories
  • Provides insights into how reading works
  • Shows how to search for meaning
  • Demonstrates how to make connections and inferences
  • Develops new vocabulary and syntactic awareness
  • Stimulates imagination
  • Exposes students to a range of literature
  • Helps distinguish different genres
  • Encourages a lifelong enjoyment of reading
  • Helps learner-writers identify and transfer the literary devices authors use in their writing

It is interesting for me to read this because, in my experience, reading aloud to students is typically seen by both high school teachers and students as an activity that is the purview of elementary schools. Indeed, parents and administrators might further echo what Layne himself has encountered, that they see reading aloud as not “real teaching”.

Furthermore, I have had conversations with teachers who feel that they have been “reduced to” reading aloud to their high school students, due to perceived disengagement and laziness.

Layne, a university professor in Illinois, explains that he reads aloud to students wherever he is teaching: from kindergarten classrooms all they way up to graduate courses.  And as my mind began to question whether this book is just someone’s personal theory, I discovered that Layne’s excellent book is, as Regie Routman states in the introduction, “grounded in solid extensive research that definitively shows the positive effect of reading aloud on student engagement, thinking, and reading achievement” and, in addition to quoting research, is filled with testimonials of educators from all levels of the education system — K to PhD. —  who explain how they use read- alouds in their classrooms.

This gives me pause.

My question for my teaching practice is now: it time for me as a high school teacher to explore, as Regie Routman suggests, making “reading aloud a cornerstone of every teaching day regardless of the age level, subject matter, or discipline we teach”? Is it time to weave this Swiss Army Knife into my practice, possibly on a day-to-day basis?

If so, I now have so many questions…

Exploring The Orenda — Part 2

From amazon.caExploring The Orenda — continued…

How can I activate and provide background knowledge for myself? What questions do I have before reading?

  1. What is the book about? What is the basic story?
  2. Why is it so “award-winning“?
  3. Have I attempted challenging reads before? Have I overcome any?
  4. What predictions are bubbling to the surface before I attack the text 6start reading?
  5. Re: Predictions: Being that this is not a Middle Grades book or a Young Adult book, what challenging narrative devices can I predict that author will employ?

What are professional reviewers saying about this book?

gam-squareI found this review from the Globe and Mail from September, 2013 by Charles Foran:

Joseph Boyden mines Canada’s bloody past for surprising spirituality

From this Globe and Mail review, I can expect:

  • alternating narratives: more than one story intertwined
  • the multiple stories focus upon characters named Bird, Snow Falls and Crow
  • these characters each narrate different events and, therefore, offer differing versions of those events
  • the story involving the Huron and the Iroquois
  • the reviewer likens the story to the real-life martyrdom of Jean de File:Brébuef-jesuits04jesuuoft.jpgBrebeuf
  • the reviewer calls this story “epic” and “worthy of Herodotus”
  • The title, The Orenda, means “native life”
  • the setting of this story is out in the bush

I also read a review from The National Post:

The reviewer, Donna Bailey Nurse, explored ideas such as:

  • The Orenda explores what forces led to the decimation of Canada’s First Nations cultures.
  • A question that arises from the book: are First Nations peoples, by allowing missionaries into their villages, partly to blame for the devastation of their own culture?

“Much more controversial is the idea that First Nations, by allowing the missionaries into their villages, are partly to blame for the devastation of their culture.”

  • The Jesuit priest character embodies this threat:

“…it is his faith that poses a deeper threat to the clan’s survival, the way he uses their own language to attack their beliefs.”

  • this book is violent and graphic:

“This is a very violent work, full of the most grotesque descriptions of ritualized torture that I’ve ever encountered… I’ve never read anything like it and, to be honest, some of it I could not get through.”

And so, with this framing of the text in mind, I endeavor to read Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda…

Exploring The Orenda — Part 1

Exploring The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

Picking up the book:from amazon.ca

Confession: I am not drawn to books I “should” read — although, to contradict myself,  the book Echo by Pam Nunoz Ryan was recommended as a “should” read, which I read and loved.

Reflection: Perhaps placing obstacles or challenges in front of my thinking, hurdles for my brain to jump over, is good — provided they are appropriate challenges. A medical textbook, while obviously a challenge, would be far too difficult for.

The cover of The Orenda is, to be frank, not inviting to me. The art seems a bit abstract and unhelpful.

The stickers on the cover that say that is was considered for prizes such as The Giller and The Canada Council for the Arts are, for me, intimidating. The CBC Canada Reads program says that this book is a winner, an important FNMI book by an important FNMI author — what if I don’t feel the same way? What if I don’t think it is “good”? (What is “good” anyway?)

Better to remain silent and be thought a

Worse, what if I don’t get it? (Perhaps I should heed Abe Lincoln’s advice and should not be admitting this.)


So, I will attempt to go back to basics, to walk the walk of a proficient reader:

What doattack the text 6es a proficient reader do when faced with potentially challenging text? How do they ‘attack the text’?

Activates and Provides Background Knowledge: What do I already know before I start reading this book? What do I need to know before I start reading? (See below.)

Asks Questions: What questions do I have before I start reading? (See below.)

Set a Purpose for Reading: Why am I reading this book? (Still stuck on the “I should read this because it is an important book by an important author” — as opposed to “This book really touched my heart / soul / life and, knowing you, I think you would really like it.” Perhaps only semantics, but it would seem separated by a chasm. And I can feel the difference.)

How can I activate and provide background knowledge for myself? What questions do I have before reading?

  1. What is the book about? What is the basic story?
  2. Why is it so “award-winning“?
  3. Have I attempted challenging reads before? Have I overcome any?
  4. What predictions are bubbling to the surface before I start reading?
  5. Re: Predictions: Being that this is not a Middle Grades book or a Young Adult book, what challenging narrative devices can I predict that author will employ?
  6. What are professional reviewers saying about this book?

I think I will start with #6…

Building Background Knowledge with Oobleck? Part 3

From my last post about Bartholomew and the Oobleck by Dr. Seuss, I left off with a qFrom amazon.cauestion:  if I am reading this book to my daughters (or any other book), I wondered about how much I point out certain ideas or concepts so as to deliberately build their background knowledge.

While on Twitter, I discovered Mem Fox’s Ten Read-Aloud Commandments for parents. Although the ‘commandments’ are geared towards parents of young children, elements of the list are applicable to reading aloud to teenage students, I should imagine

For reading to my girls at home, Fox’s Commandment #9 states:

“Never ever teach reading, or get tense around books.”

From this commandment, I think I take that it is my job to simply to expos664px-In_the_evening_they_were_read_aloud_to_Cornelia_(The_Works_of_J._W._von_Goethe,_Volume_5)e them to a lot of ideas and words and characters and stories with animation and enthusiasm and positivity, and if they ask for clarification about something organically, then I can explain or elucidate.

But if they don’t ask, I infer that Fox is saying don’t make the reading aloud about learning; instead make it about enjoying reading for the sake of enjoying reading.

So, then, if my girls just listen to stories for the sake of listening to stories, how is their background knowledge being built indirectly?

In a different article (Building and activating students’ background knowledge: It’s what they already know that counts), Fisher and Frey go on to suggest how wide reading indirectly builds background knowledge:

“Reading is an excellent, indirect way to build background knowledge. Through books, readers meet people they otherwise would never have met, visit places and times that they would not have otherwise been able to visit, and interact with ideas that shape their understanding of the world.”

In Deeper Reading, Kelly Gallagher quotes David Sousa:

“…much like a tree growing new branches, tree-576847_640everything we remember becomes another set of branches to which memories can be attached. The more we learn, the more we can learn and retain.” (34)

Gallagher continues:

“The more branches I grow, the easier it will be to add new ones.” (34)

Gallagher also notes:

“…reading comprehension is tied closely to what the reader brings to the page — to what the reader knows before reading.” (26)

If this is true, then hopefully, when faced with challenging reading, my daughters may have the story of Bartholomew and the Oobleck bubble to the surface.