July 2015 - Room 213

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The Literary League Goes Back to School

I am super excited about joining up with the other members of the Literary League to give you some inspiration for back to school.

A little about me: This September marks the twenty-fourth time I've gone back to school as a teacher, always to the same school, the same classroom and the same subject: English.  That sounds incredibly boring as I write it, but it has been far from it.  Despite all that sameness, I've had so much variety in my career, whether it be the grades I've taught or the ever-changing mix of students who populate my classes.  I've taught every grade level, but the last few years I've settled into teaching academic and general grade twelve, grade ten pre-IB and grade eleven IB. Each group has its challenges and rewards, that's for sure! In all of my classes, regardless of the level, I like to focus on learning as a process. Content and texts are tools that I use to hopefully inspire them to be lifelong, independent learners.

My favourite novel: I always have such a hard time picking just one, because I've had so many books leave their mark on me, starting with my early obsession with the Anne of Green Gables series. If I were forced to pick one, however, I would have to choose Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible because of her beautiful prose and amazing narrative technique.

My favourite novel to teach is definitely To Kill a Mockingbird. As with all of the novels and plays that I use, we start with an inquiry question that focuses the students on a bigger reason to study the text, beyond being able to plug in answers to chapter questions.  With Mockingbird we explore what we can learn about tolerance, a question that we apply to all of the texts we study during the semester.  Students still do literary analysis, using reader's notebooks and lots of cooperative learning, but we do so through the lens of what we're learning about being more tolerant.  In the end, the students do an inquiry project where they have to be a hero for a mockingbird in their community. This takes their learning off the page and into their own lives - it's one of my favourite projects ever. If you'd like to check out my inquire unit, you can find it HERE

A first day activity: My back to school activity serves multiple purposes: it allows students to get to know each other and make up some class rules as they get out of their seats. I also get them to stretch their creative muscles a little too, as they show me a bit about their skills as an English student.  

Enjoy whatever time you have left and good luck with back to school!


First Days of School Blog Hop!

I am excited to be linking up with some awesome ELA educators for this "first days of school" blog hop/giveaway--and also very excited that my first day doesn't happen until September!

I'm going to re-share some things that my followers may be familiar with, not because I'm being lazy, but because they have been proven to work for me time and again.  I start every class, every year in the same way because I've found a formula that works for me.

First off, I'd like to share my digital syllabus.  A syllabus is a very individual thing, as we all have different information to give to our students, but if you're interested, you can use this as a starting point and adapt it and make it your own.

Why do I use a digital syllabus?  I want to use much less paper, so the information is going on line, on our course website. If there is someone who doesn't have internet access, I will print it off for them. Secondly, I wanted to create a syllabus that they will actually read, not just shove to the back of their binders, as I know they have in the past.  We all know that this generation is much more likely to read it if it's on a screen! You can read more about this in my previous post.

On to my classes: I never jump into the curriculum on the first few days of the semester, because I want to spend time creating the classroom climate. I want my students to think, explore new ideas, debate and discuss, and in order to do so, they need to spend time getting to know each other and my expectations for them.  It can be like prodding cattle to get teens to open up both their minds and their mouths, so I think it's important to devote the time to creating a safe place where they can feel free to express themselves.  If I don't have that, then it's awfully hard to do the other activities I want to do with them throughout the year.  I'd recommend that you carve out as much time as you can to create the climate you want in your room. If you'd like to check out the start up activities that I have used for a number of years, you can check out these blog posts here.  

Enjoy checking out the other tips on this blog hop and have an awesome year!


A Celebration Sale

English Teachers on TpT Come Together for American Author, Harper Lee

Sale! July 14th Come Together for American author, Harper Lee!

It's a big day in the literary world: Harper Lee's much anticipated - and controversial - new novel, Go Set a Watchman is hitting the book shelves. To celebrate this momentous event, several TpT ELA sellers have joined together to have a one day celebration sale.  You can check out my store for 20% off, as well as those of these fabulous sellers!


On heroes and humans

When I heard that Harper Lee was publishing a new book, I was so excited.  To Kill a Mockingbird has been a favourite of mine since I read it for the first time thirty years ago as a student; it became more beloved when I began to teach it, mostly because of the wonder that is Atticus Finch.  

For the past week, I've been checking the calendar, watching it inch ever closer to July 14th, the day when Go Set a Watchmen will be released.  I envisioned myself running to the book store to get my copy and promptly devouring it.  

And then, I read something that shook me to my literary core:  Atticus is an aging bigot in the new book.  WHAT???? 

I was shocked.  Totally.  How could that be?  How could this literary hero, whose virtues and lessons I have been extolling for two decades, be a racist?  How could there possibly be a bridge between the Atticus of Mockingbird and this new alien creature??

I've just spent some time reading about this "scandal" on the Internet. People are, like me, shaken.  Many say they do not want to read the book. They don't want to see this dark, new Atticus.  Many are asking, How could Harper Lee do this? Some even suggest that the elderly Lee was taken advantage of by her publishers. However, a Time Magazine story cites Lee's lawyer as saying his client is "hurt and humiliated" that people would think she was duped and that, instead, she is “alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to ‘Watchman.'”

A story in  The New York Times states that, with Lee, "there was never a discussion of toning down Atticus’s racist remarks to preserve his moral image." Her publisher, Jonathan Burnham states that "Harper Lee wanted to have the novel published exactly as it was written, without editorial intervention.”  He adds that “By confronting these challenging and complex issues at the height of the civil rights movement, the young Harper Lee demonstrated an honesty and bravery that makes this work both a powerful document of its time and a compelling piece of literature.”

As I read all of these articles, still filled with indignation over this turn of events, I realize that I have often pointed out to my students that dear Atticus is not a saint.  He brushes off the presence of the clan in Maycomb, and he is far too accepting of Mrs. Dubose's racism. He is not a crusader for civil rights, who demanded to take on Robinson's case; instead, he says he'd "hoped to get through life without a case of this kind."  He was kind and wise, but he was not perfect.

Still, I love the old Atticus and wonder if I can meet this new one.

It is Daniel D'Addario's review in Time that sealed the deal for me: I will read WatchmanD'Addario wrote that in the new novel, "Jean Louise learns that she cannot write off her father—his good and his bad—just because of the views he’s always held, or because he’s a figure from a past that’s receding too slowly. It’s only by striving to see him with the eyes of an adult that she can come to understand what she stands for. Painful though it may be, that’s the reader’s task too."  That, in a nutshell, is the very essence of Mockingbird--we must be willing to crawl in someone's skin to understand, to know.  And so, as hard as it may be, I'm going to practice that favourite Atticus lesson, and walk around in his skin for awhile.  

I have no doubt that Lee knew what she was doing and that she still has much to teach us.  And, if we need to take a closer look at Atticus as a flawed human, rather than a hero, I'm ready to do that.  I look forward to hearing what others think when they read it.  If anything, this new and possibly disturbing book will lead to lots of good discussion.  


Somewhere between before and after

On June 15th, we took possession of our new home, just blocks away from the one we lived in for twenty years.  We've been looking for a few years now, waiting for the perfect house, one that is in the same neighbourhood and, most importantly, at a price that would allow us to do any necessary renovations.  Our 'hood is an old one--there are no new houses, so when you buy, you either have to renovate or pay through the nose for one that has been "done" already.

So it finally happened.  We found a much-loved house that was stuck in 1987 and took possession of it two weeks before our move-in date.  The plan was to put in new floors (dusty rose carpet isn't really my style) and paint out the beautiful solid oak trim.  "No problem", said the contractor, "We can get that done in two weeks." The kitchen guys assured us that the cupboards we ordered would be there about five days after we moved in. Take-out for a few days?  We could do that.

After years of watching HGTV, I should know that nothing is ever that simple.  There were no emergencies, nothing hidden in the walls, yet the picture above was taken on July first, move-in day.  The floors on the main floor were still in boxes, because Earl (our excellent but oh-so-slow painter) was still painting out that trim.  Then he had to do the walls.  And he was doing such a good job we didn't want to hurry him along.  The charm of having no kitchen wore off quickly and an email saying that the new one was a week behind, sent me into a tailspin.  It's now going to arrive a week from today.  I hope.

My husband got creative and hooked up the sink from the laundry room in our "kitchen" and life got a little better.  Every time I feel like complaining, I think about how many women in the world would do anything for the set up I have right now. First world problems, I whisper to myself pretty regularly.

As I type, I'm watching CNN on my TV that's on the floor in front of the still dismantled fireplace. There's a lot of "make do" happening, but we're in a rhythm and the three teenagers have been pretty good not to complain (too much). Today is Earl's last day.  Everything will be painted and we will be able to start putting some things back together. Paul, the carpenter who is juggling multiple jobs, will return eventually to put our fireplace back together, and soon my kitchen will be in place.  The "after" will happen, and these two weeks will be a blip that we will laugh about some day.

Until then, I will keep reminding myself that I am so very lucky; these inconveniences have been pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, after all!


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