Saturday, October 3, 2009

TSS - Tales from the Classroom

Well, it is taking me longer than I expected to get into a blogging routine now that school has started. Some of the blame can be attributed to the new "extra-curricular" activities that I have added to my schedule: I am now the faculty advisor to the Student Council (and Homecoming is NEXT weekend!!), I serve on the Academic Committee (which I truly enjoy, but meets for two hours every other week), and I also serve as the faculty advisor for the newly formed Academic Honors fraternity. It seems that if I am not grading papers or writing lesson plans, I am planning for one of these meetings. I know that I will be able to juggle it all - but unfortunately the regular blogging has taken the backseat.

In an attempt to prove that I have not fallen off the face of the earth -- and that I truly do take blogging seriously -- I thought I might post about the books that I am currently reading with my students.

In British Literature we have just finished the study of Beowulf (in fact the students will take the test on Monday, which means I will have 35 tests to grade on Tuesday). Students learned that characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon time period included the Heroic Ideal (bravery, loyalty and generosity) - Comitatus (the loyalty of subjects to their king AS WELL AS the loyalty of the king to his subjects) - Wergild, which literally means "man-price" (they truly believed in an eye for an eye .....except towards the end of this era they learned that revenge does not promote peace, but only promotes more revenge) - Wyrd (sounds like "weird") which means fate. Interestingly, monks were the scribes for this ancient tale and they included many references to the Almighty God, which provided an interesting paradox to the accepted belief of "wyrd". Students enjoyed discussing this aspect of the novel, as well as the three separate battles: The battle of Beowulf vs Grendel (the descendant of Cain); Beowulf vs Grendel's mom (she only attacked out of the accepted custom of "wergild"); and Beowulf vs the Dragon - which ultimately led to our hero's death, but ensured his legacy for generations to come.

In my 9th grade English class we have just started Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I found it interesting that we began this novel during Banned Books Week. I always introduce this novel by setting up the time periods: both when the novel was written (1960 ---4 years prior to the Civil Rights movement) and where the novel takes place (small town Alabama in the 1930s). Unfortunately, these 9th grade students have not studied US history in much detail (that comes in their junior year), but I am able to set the stage fairly well: the United States is in a constant state of racial tension. We discuss WHY the author chose to tell the story from a young child's point of view - and as flashback rather then present day. We also discuss the 1776 Declaration of Independence that claims that "all men are created equal" and then we discuss the case of Plessy vs Ferguson in 1896 which upheld the Jim Crow laws that "separate but equal" is constitutional. I explain the "true" conditions of separate but equal and students if they think this is fair. I try to instill that the highest court in our nation did not dispense justice at this time --- in the hopes of setting them up to understand the injustice that occurs in the courtroom in this story.

At the beginning of the year these students were asked to brainstorm "prejudice" as a part of the Ideas trait of writing. In that exercise they were able to brainstorm many, many different aspects of prejudice. This will serve them well when we discuss one of the major themes in the book: "Prejudice" vs "Tolerance" In Macomb County, Alabama prejudice exists in MANY areas, not just with regards to skin color. We will also track the themes of "Courage" vs "Cowardice" --- "Justice" vs "Injustice" ---- and "What it means to be a girl/woman". The students realize that this book is a Bildungroman -- that is, a coming of age story -- and in the protagonist's life, that includes learning what it means to be a Southern woman in the 1930s. Since Scout's mother died when she was only 2 years old, there are many other female figures in her life (and male figures for that matter) who help shape the woman she is to become.

In my 8th grade class we are beginning to study William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. In previous weeks I have read a short comic book version of the play to them, and they have seen the 25 minute animated production of the play. Last week we began Act I scene i and dissected each and every line: what does it mean --- what is the character feeling -- why does he/she feel that way --- how might they say their lines given that emotion --- how might they react to one another on stage --- how might they be standing on stage --- etc. This past Friday I divided the students into 3 groups (6 students per group) and instructed them to block and practice this first scene. While they started off rather stiff and uncertain, in the end all three groups had done a wonderful job of interpreting the scene. AND...they had fun!!! They left the classroom laughing and talking about next week's blocking. I was more than thrilled!

In my 7th grade class we have just started Natalie Babbitt's modern-day classic, Tuck Everlasting. This comes on the heels of studying the elements of a fairy tale - and fractured fairy tales (on a separate note, students will be writing their own fractured fairy tales while we read Tuck Everlasting). The ultimate question that students will answer at the end of the novel will be, "Is Tuck Everlasting a modern day fairy tale" I am trying to teach these students to read closely - so they are learning to concentrate on the actual words that the author uses to tell the story as well as how the author chooses to develop the characters. Babbitt uses many similes and metaphors when she tells this story, and students will learn to not only recognize these types of figurative speech, but they will also try to discern WHY the author chose that particular comparison. It is always interesting to see how the students grow and mature in their analysis skills when we read this book: they begin looking at me with totally blank stares and most of them end the novel study with a keen understanding of writing style.

While I have read each of these literary works a minimum of 5 times, I always try to re-read the selection before each class. This usually only requires skimming, but never-the-less skimming of four different works does take time --- and this results in time taken away from blogging and outside reading.

Not to fear, however.....the 24 hour read-a-thon is just around the corner and I am striving to have all lesson plans done in advance -- and no grading required that weekend. I hope to read for several of those 24 hours, and hopefully be able to post book reviews shortly thereafter.


  1. Sigh. I so love To Kill a Mockingbird. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a real treat too. I envy those students.

    You sure are a busy lady. Hang in there.

  2. Its a wonderful mix! So nice to be able to read different genres....


  3. I was feeling like your students were all kind of lucky to have a teacher that gives them such great books to read. Except those poor British Lit students!

  4. I love how you talk about the books and your teaching with a passion. And those are all truly wonderful books!:)

  5. I really liked this post. Thanks for sharing what you are doing in your classroom. I really find it interesting to read about what kids in high school are doing since I am at the other end with first graders. I also wrote about my kids in my class this week for my Sunday Salon.

    Have a good week and good luck grading all those papers!

  6. What a great selection of books! Your students are lucky to have you!

  7. I'd love to in one your classes; such great books. The students are lucky to have you Molly.

    No need to apologize for "having a life" :)

  8. Molly, I could sit now and writing a comment about every point in your post. Why don't you live just round the corner so that we could get together at the end of each day over a pot of tea and just talk ourselves hoarse? If ever there was a kindred spirit? But, I will have to confine myself to a few questions.

    I'm interested in which translation of Beowulf you use. If it's the one in the picture then I don't know it. Earlier in the year I read the Seamus Heaney version aloud to The Bears (it has to be read aloud) and we loved it, but I think that might be hard for younger students. I had a translation that a friend of mine made for my eleven year olds and they turned it into a tape-slide sequence for him. We had a wonderful time with it; it formed the basis for a whole half-term's work in every subject you could think of.

    Then there's the Harper Lee. I am horrified to think of 1960 as history - I was there!!!! I really do have to read this book at some point. It just isn't part of the British conscious in the way it is in the US.

    I've written about AMSND in my response to your comment on my blog so no more here.

    But the thing that I would want to talk about most is the 7th graders writing their own fairy stories. This is my research specialism, the way in which children structure their stories and how much is innate and how much developmental.

    We could be at it for hours. A second pot of tea at the very least!

  9. I'd love to hear the discussions of these books in your classroom!

  10. I love hearing about what's happening in your classroom! You've got a lot on your plate, Molly. Don't fret about the blogging....this is supposed to be fun!

  11. Ditto on Table Talk's recommendation of the Heaney translation of Beowulf, if only for you to check out:

    I loved the dual translation format and Heaney just rocks:)

  12. What I wouldn't have given to have someone like you as a middle or high school teacher. I was ripped off! I didn't get to read any of these classics, and I feel totally inept. So even though you have been busy and haven't been able to dedicate your time to the blog as much, these reading projects more than make up for it! Brava to you!

  13. Wow--so many different things going on in your classes! Reading through your course summaries really makes me want to be in school again (even though I hated English in high school!). I love that you're also teaching the history in conjunction with the books--I think sometimes as readers we fail to understand the circumstances in which books were written.

    And yay for the read-a-thon! So glad you'll be able to participate again.

  14. You sound really busy, Molly! I hope you are enjoying your extra duties. :-)

    I really appreciate you sharing your class experiences with us. Your post is bringing back memories. I remember reading Beowulf in high school. And To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorites.

    I hope you have a great week, Molly!

  15. As a retired teacher of reading this past June after 37 years, I SO appreciate your post. ...and I would love to be in any of your classes but mostly your 9th grade to see once again the young minds take in Harper Lee....have a great year and thanks for the lovely post.

  16. I'm so glad you find yourself "reaching" some of your blank starers! That must be so rewarding. I'm amazed you have any time to read or blog ... you've got a lot going on!

  17. Molly, a friend told me about this today, it's a link to a fairytale generator based on Propp. I haven't had time to play with it much but I wondered if it would be fun to use with your 7th graders. Let me know if they enjoy it.

  18. Your students are very lucky to have you for a teacher, Molly!


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