History, Language Arts, Life Lessons

Life Lessons From Critical Literary Theory, New England Wampanoags, and ‘Fish Is Fish’

A Brief Introduction to Critical Literacy/Literary Theory

I’ve recently been investigating the idea of critical literacy through Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents The driving force behind new emphases on critical literacy is the need for individuals in the twenty-first century to be able to approach texts critically–basically, drawing their own conclusions about the world instead of eating up what someone else says.  I’m sure there is a much more refined way to define the need for critical literacy, but that’s the gist.

Anyway, interestingly enough, the ideas behind critical literary theory are concepts I encountered frequently as an undergraduate in the History department at Allegheny College.  We were constantly encouraged to question–whose history?, to examine events and assumptions about events from multiple perspectives.  And that is basically what literary theory does–it considers texts through different “lenses.”  For example, if I were to examine To Kill A Mockingbird through a socio-economic (or Marxist) lens, I would ask: Who has power here?  Who doesn’t?  How do power and class relate?  How does class affect the experiences of various characters–of Tom Robinson, Bob Ewell, Atticus Finch? What about Helen Robinson, Mayella Ewell, and Maudie Atkinson?  How are their very different lives affected by their socioeconomic status?

Similarly, if I were to examine that same novel through a gender (or feminist) lens, I would consider:  Which female characters reinforce society’s gender assumptions? Which rebel against them?  How do these female characters reflect the reality of women’s lives at this time? Is Aunt Alexandra a stuck-up b*tch–or is she a woman trapped by society’s expectations? Does she strive to be the perfect Southern lady not because she lacks other ambition, but because it is the only ambition society allowed to her?

To summarize: Critical literary theory asks readers to examine texts from multiple perspectives–from the point of view of author, reader, societal observer, social commentator, language analyst, and even psychologist.  There is more than one way to see.

On To A More Personal Note

While we might learn to practice a critical evaluation of the texts we encounter, I wonder how often we apply our critical eye to our personal lives.  All too often, we see only what we want to see.

There is a children’s book by the name of Fish is Fish by Leo Lionni.  In the book, a tadpole, having become a frog, returns to the water to tell his fish friend of all the wonders he has seen on land .  The fish tries to join the tadpole and finds that he can’t survive on the land—he must stay in the water.  He only realizes this after he leaps onto the shore and flops around, gasping for air.  Oh what will become of our fish!? (SPOILER ALERT:) Though there is a moment there when it gets pretty intense, Frog comes to the rescue, and our fish makes it in the end.

But none of that is important.

On To The Important Part Of The More Personal Note

The key here is what goes on in the fish’s mind while the tadpole describes the sights he has seen on land.  Everything looks like a fish.  There are fish birds, fish cows, fish people… so on and so forth.  Check it out for yourself:

Now, what does this have to do with critical literacy?  Well, as I said above, critical literacy (and in literature specifically, critical literary theory) expects readers to consider texts from multiple perspectives, to not simply accept at face value that which is written as truth.  Because again: whose truth? (Side Note: That’s a-whole-nother topic that I’m sure you’ll be hearing about in the future as I work my way through my unit plan for Avi’s Nothing But The Truth.)

All too often we see things through our eyes alone, from our perspective alone, and sometimes that means we don’t see things as they really are.

Case In Point:  My senior thesis at Allegheny College focused on Native American women in Puritan New England.  In the course of my research, I read a number of documents written by New England Puritans, describing the culture and customs of the natives around them.  Of particular relevance here are their descriptions of native religion.  Though there were a number of cultural groups in New England at the time (Massachusett, Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Narragansett, etc.), they shared many customs and beliefs.  These native groups believed in two main spirits — Keihtan, their creator-god, and Hobbomock, a mischievous spirit who could help or hurt.  After creating the world, Keihtan pretty much checked out–he (she?) didn’t get involved in human affairs.  Hobbomock, on the other hand, was within call, and so spiritual leaders most often worshiped/prayed to Hobbomock. Instead of seeing this very different belief system as something unique to native culture, Puritan observers associated Keihtan with their Christian God and Hobbomock with their Christian Satan.  Thus, the natives were devil-worshipers.

Now, I realize this might seem irrelevant, because the Puritans landed in New England a good four hundred-some years ago… but this is a phenomenon that has occurred on a number of cultural fronts.*  (I’m pretty sure it’s even an educational pedagogy called schema theory.)  When presented with new knowledge, an individual interprets that new knowledge in light of what he/she already knows.  Everything is translated to meet our expectations.  We see what we expect to see, and oftentimes, we reject what doesn’t fit.

So, how is this personal? Well, all too often we see what we want to see in people, what we hope or expect to see.  We don’t see them as they are.  Mrs. Bluebird might really wish Flounder had wings, but alas, Flounder is a fish, and a fish is a fish.  Flounder will never fly.  Did Flounder hide this from Mrs. Bluebird? No, not so much.  After all, can you really hide being a fish?  No,  it wasn’t Flounder’s fault.**  Mrs. Bluebird chose to see what she wanted to see (what she expected to see).  She disregarded the rest.  A little critical analysis could have saved Mrs. Bluebird a good deal of time and heartache.***

Oh well.  Lesson learned.

Yours truly,

Mrs. B.

*Check out Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s Indians and English: Facing Off In Early America if you don’t believe me.

**Then again, rarely are things completely one-sided.  There may have been just the slightest bit of subterfuge early on in the game on Flounder’s part.

***That said, a little critical analysis could have saved history a good deal of pain and suffering as well. But if that were the case, we might not have America… or the field of genetics.

Education, Language Arts

A Summer Reading Flowchart

An Excellent Flow Chart from Teach.com:

Summer Reading Flowchart: What Should You Read On Your Break?

Summer is right around the corner, which means most schools will be letting out and students will be busy with family vacations, summer camp and a myriad of other activities. With research finding that children who do not read over the summer may lose up to three months of reading progress, it’s important to encourage your students to pick up a few books during the hot months ahead.

To help encourage high school students to find a book of their choice, we’ve compiled a list of 101 books to kick off your learners’ summer reading. Interested in finding fiction vs. non-fiction books? Would you like to find classical or contemporary fiction? Intrigued by survival books? Tales of war? We have them all and many more to choose from! Follow our chart of top picks and peruse the different categories until you find something that’s a perfect fi

Education, Language Arts, Middle School, Uncategorized

Thoughts on Summer Reading

Thoughts on Summer Reading

In my early explorations of my predecessor’s desk this past year (he left in rather a hurry), I came across the summer reading assignment he had used the previous year.  While I don’t remember the exact details at present, he asked students to complete “author studies” using classic novels.  Students had to read two classics and write some sort of essay, due at the start of school.

As summer rolled around this May, I had to come up with a summer reading program for my rising seventh and eighth graders.  To be honest, I can’t remember what “summer reading” entailed in middle school.  The first year that I actually recall my summer reading assignment was the year I entered high school, 2001.  We had to select a book from a list provided–I chose to read Emma by Jane Austen.  I am guessing I recognized Jane Austen’s name as the author of Pride and Prejudice, which I assume I recognized as a romance.  And who doesn’t like a good romance?

Apparently, me.  Or at least, the rising ninth-grade version of myself.  That book dragged on.  I, who can consume a book in a day, who used to play hooky just so I could stay home and read all day, hated reading that book.  I just couldn’t get into it.  The characters confused me; the comedy was lost on me.  I couldn’t tell Jane Fairfax from Frank Churchill. (That may be an exaggeration. I am pretty sure I was aware of gender differences at the very least.)  The point is: I wasn’t ready for it.

I have come to believe that you can’t appreciate a book until you are ready for it.  There have been numerous occasions in my own life that I have purchased a book, which has then sat on my bookshelf for weeks, months, sometimes even years.  Then, one day, for whatever reason, it catches my attention.  When I read it, it speaks to me.  It connects to my life, it offers some sort of wisdom.  Simply put, I am ready for it.

Leaving middle school, I was not ready for Emma.  Though an avid reader (literally, I consumed printed material), I just wasn’t ready to read that novel on my own, and I hated it.  I can’t even tell you what it was about, except that Jane Fairfax was a pain in the ass and Harriet was an idiot.  (And that’s only what I recall after Googling the names of Emma’s characters.)  And it wasn’t just Austen’s style.  Just one year later, a sophomore in high school, I picked up the novel Pride and Prejudice, and I LOVED it. I loved the witty humor, the romance.  I’m pretty sure I read it twice.  That year, I also really enjoyed reading Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and Homer’s The Odyssey.  Not exactly the lightest of reading.  But that didn’t matter, because I was ready for it.  And even if I hadn’t been, it was a class venture–we had classmates and a teacher to rely on, to help interpret what we were reading.  There were supports for those who needed it.

Summer reading doesn’t really work that way.  You’re on your own.  More than that, you’re on your own when you’re supposed to be done with school! Most kids don’t want to read A Tale of Two Cities over the summer.  Frankly, most simply won’t.  They’ll use SparkNotes to get whatever information they need for whatever silly report you’ve assigned, and they’ll BS their way through it.  It’s not only a waste of their time, but a waste of YOUR time when you have to read all those essays! And really, do YOU want to do that during YOUR summer break?  I would think not.

At least, I think not.  So this year for summer reading, I decided to do something different.  They can read whatever tell them to read next school year.  This summer, I just want them to read, PERIOD.  So I instituted the following Summer Reading Program:

So far, I’ve had some positive responses! I’ve had a student email me, two or three parents respond, AND one even called the principal with praises!  Considering MMS is cutting a middle school position, we have a new principal unfamiliar with our work, and I was the last hired, any praise I can get is a good thing right now!! (Though I have to admit it’s my multiple certifications that are keeping me around, commendations can’t hurt.)

Anyway, I don’t know if it’s the “right” thing to do, letting the students select their own books this summer.  Maybe I’m expecting too little of them.  I know I run the risk of students selecting novels below their reading level, opting for the “easy” way out.  Then again, I doubt assigning a weak reader a book way above their reading level without the supports available during the school year is any better.  I guess it’s my hope that the students will select the books they’re ready for, whatever subject and level that may be.  They can read a little, write a little, and enjoy their summer.  We can worry about the classics next fall.



Ms. Making Things Up As I Go


A Book Which People Praise And Don't Read - Mark Twain

Curriculum & Planning, Education, Language Arts, Middle School

Help, I Think I’m Sinking!: The Overwhelming Nature of Language Arts

A Relatively Short Introduction

For those of you who haven’t read my highly engaging Who Am I and Why Should You Care? page, I am a 24 year old Language Arts teacher at a private school in Pennsylvania.  I received my bachelor’s degree in History (with a minor in Environmental Science) and went on to earn my teacher certification (Social Studies concentration) and M.Ed. in Middle and Secondary Instruction.  As a result of  the competitive job market in Pennsylvania and my own broad range of academic interests, I added certifications in 7-9 Science, K-12 Environmental Ed, and 7-12 English.  The way it worked out, I landed my first real teaching job in a middle school Language Arts classroom.

While English was not my first choice of certifications, it has proven to be my favorite.  I LOVE teaching Language Arts.  The thought of teaching Social Studies (which I may have to do next year in addition to Language Arts as a result of budget cuts) or Science (though I enjoyed it during my field experience) are rather distressing to me now.  I would be happy teaching nothing but Language Arts forever.  Well, maybe not forever.  I have strong intentions to apply for doctoral programs in Literacy/English Education in the near future — but that kind of  makes my point anyway.  I love Language Arts/English Education – reading about instructional practices, student learning, reading, writing, literature, multiple literacies, “new literacies,” “critical literacies” — basically, find anything you can attach the word literacy to, and I’m interested.  I actually READ all those articles NCTE sends out in their emails, or in Voices from the Middle (great journal, by the way).  Considering I barely perused the NCSS bulletins and journals, I feel it is a good indication I am meant to be a Langauge Arts teacher.  I think I may have actually found my calling (or at least, the field of my calling — I have ambitions, you know).

Anyway, I think you get the idea by now – I ❤ Language Arts.

And Now To The Main Idea: The Overwhelming Nature of Language Arts

The more I read and learn about all the awesome things teachers are doing in Language Arts classrooms across the country, the more overwhelmed I feel.  I have the next two and a half months to plan for a year’s worth of curriculum for my 7th and 8th grade classes – I have literature units to develop, grammar to incorporate, writing to teach… not to mention things like literary elements and figurative language and poetry and public speaking and vocabulary and diagramming…  The list goes on.  This is to some extent the drawback to working at MMS (My Middle School).

SOME BACKGROUND: About the time I joined the team, there were some major changes in administration.  Unfortunately, there hadn’t been a lot of structure before I arrived, and the emergency team they pulled together (though performing admirably in light of the circumstances) didn’t have time to worry too much about curriculum.  While the new principal has made it clear he plans to address this issue this summer, I am still left with lots to plan with little guidance.

Sure, I have the PA State Standards and (what I prefer) the Common Core State Standards.  Trust me, I have become incredibly familiar with both of those documents.  That said, Language Arts is still incredibly broad–something I have come to love about the subject, and something that has begun to fill me with a terrible anxiety.

When I completed my field experience, the school district in which I was placed had a very clearly defined curriculum for the seventh grade Life Science course.  It provided teachers with not only Essential Questions and Understandings, but even activities, projects and assessment tools.  We had a textbook to follow and specific content to cover.  It was very neat and tidy.  While it allowed for some creativity in the means of instruction, the bones of the course were packaged to-go.

Similarly, when I student-taught in middle and high school Social Studies classrooms, though not provided with such a detailed curriculum, I could work from the textbook, selecting chapters to meet various standards (like in Government and Economics) or working chronologically through U.S. history as in the Advanced Placement course.  There was an inherent structure to the system that made it much easier to keep afloat.

Language Arts at MMS? No such luck.  Now, I don’t know if this is a shortcoming of MMS or a challenge presented by the subject itself.  As I don’t have experience with Language Arts outside of MMS, I don’t know if the situation I have found myself in is normal.   (You tell me — is it?)  Without a school board-stamped document telling me what I’m supposed to teach, I can, in theory, teach anything I want any way I want.  While right now I bear that freedom as a heavy curse, I’m trying to think of it more as a blessing.  I am not curtailed by board designed and enforced curriculums, by standardized and high-stakes testing.  I have the freedom to explore new ways of understanding literature and texts, of responding to readings and other forms of media in new and creative ways, of incorporating multiple disciplines and practical literacies.  I very literally have a blank slate before me, 180 empty days, and it is completely up to me to fill them with meaningful and engaging activities.  (As I started that sentence, it sounded really great; as I finished it, the anxiety again set in).

William Kist pointed out in “Middle Schools and New Literacies: Looking Back and Moving Forward” (Voices from the Middle 19, no. 4) innovative teaching and “new literacies” classrooms “seem to flourish at the middle school level,” and he provides a variety of reasons for this phenomenon: teachers of this age group are more willing to explore, the structure of these schools is more conducive to interdisciplinary work, and middle school kids just require that extra motivation that innovation brings.  Middle school is the place to be trying new approaches and rethinking traditional English education.  Middle school is, simply, the place to be.  And for me, working in a private middle school without the need to worry about PSSAs and Keystone Exams, there is literally nothing stopping me from experimenting with the new techniques I’ve been getting so excited about.

So if I overlook the pennies in my piggy bank (or lack thereof) and the daunting task of planning ahead, perhaps teaching Language Arts next year at MMS is better luck than I’d first imagined.


Ms. Only Slightly Less Intimidated

Some E-Cards
And THAT piggy bank is getting full.