After the Dam by Amy Hassinger

Last night, I finished reading Amy Hassinger’s novel, After the Dam. It was delightful. Everyone who can read should read it.

It is the story of Rachel Clayborne, who in the first chapter loads herself and her baby in the car and drives all night to her grandmother’s farm—without mentioning it to her husband.

It is also the story of a dam—a dam that, when built, submerged an entire town and that generations later is under pressure and in danger of failing. This dam is a symbol of and a parallel to the novel’s protagonist, whose current life as a wife and mother has submerged a previous life, and who is under similar pressure and in similar danger.

Amy Hassinger is a friend and one of my former teachers. I worked with her during my final semester in the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s low residency MFA program. She was an instrumental hand in the late stages of what would become my first novel.

Amy is an attentive teacher and, as After the Dam demonstrates, an attentive writer. The novel’s structure makes it near-impossible to put down. In somewhat-Morrison-style, Hassinger employs shifts in time and perspective (at all the right moments) to apply tension yet delay its release. Also in Morrison-style, the novel is built of memories—the memories of several characters—memories held up like a dam against the oncoming flood.

CATE Conference 2017: Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature

cate2017logo-teal_-768x202

Two Fridays ago (February 17th),  Liz and I attended the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Conference in Santa Monica, CA, where we led a workshop on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

We had a group of 25-30 English teachers from around the state, all of whom were very nice and very engaged (and a bunch of them bought our book, which was super nice).

[We also had a really really great time! And we would have stayed the whole weekend but, you know…babysitters and kids and all that {thanks, by the way, to Liz’s mom, Ellen, for watching our kids}. And we really really want to thank the people behind the CATE Conference for having us! It was great! Thank you!]

The workshop was based on our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature, and began with the rationale for using quality literature to meet the common core standards (and that common core in the English classroom does not mean more informational texts and less imaginative literature). Our premise is that by building units around quality works of fiction, drama, poetry, and creative nonfiction, you can meet all of the common core literacy standards (including the informational text standards).

We then moved on to an activity for introducing close reading (or critical reading) in the classroom. The purpose of the activity (which can be found in Chapter 2 of Method to the Madness) is to help students…

…recognize and identify significant choices made by an author

…analyze and evaluate the effects of those choices (that’s the “So what?”)

…use the appropriate academic language (literary terms) when discussing those choices

…prepare a text for analysis by annotating it.

The activity also helps students recognize that literary terms work together–specifically, in this case, diction and imagery combine to create a particular mood, or atmosphere.

Our next activity was centered on a short story by George Saunders (whose first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was recently released). The story is titled “Sticks”. It’s just a two-paragraph story, but there’s a lot packed into those two paragraphs. The story was included in Saunders’ 2013 collection, Tenth of December, but “Sticks” is actually an older story that was first published in 1995.

Here’s a picture of Liz reading the story in the workshop:

20170217_102154

Liz and I have been using “Sticks” in the classroom for about a decade. It’s a great teaching tool precisely because it is so short while being so meaty.

For the workshop, we read the story aloud and then put the participants into groups of four. The groups had five minutes to annotate the story and identify as many literary techniques and devices as they could (they were also given a list of these).

At the end of the five minutes, each group was given a piece of poster paper, on which they were instructed to write a statement about the story. The statement had to make a declarative claim and also had to incorporate at least one literary term.

Each group then shared their statement and supported it using specific evidence from their annotated story.

After the workshop, we had a short autograph session, and we got to browse around the exhibition hall for a while (and also pick up swag).

At the KQED booth, we got a selfie stick (I never thought I would ever own a selfie stick) plus a free tutorial on how to use said selfie stick.

Here’re two photos, one demonstrating my selfie abilities pre-stick, and one post-stick (and post-stick tutorial [hey, I just realized: sticks is a motif in this blog post]):

We were supposed to then post the picture on the right on social media with the hashtag on that card. But we’re getting old, and it was already a big day.

Trump’s Ed Sec Pick Thinks She Knows How to Fix Education. But She Doesn’t.

The President’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, faces a Senate confirmation vote this coming Tuesday. As it stands, she’s one vote away from being rejected.

DeVos is a billionaire (let’s be clear: not the I-built-a-tremendous-business-and-I’ll-run-this-government-department-that-isn’t-a-business-like-a-business kind of billionaire. She’s more the I-married-the-heir-to-Amway kind of billionaire) who has little to no experience that would prepare her for the position she is nominated for…

…other than the fact that she and her husband have donated gobs of money in their home state of Michigan in support of school vouchers (which, once distributed, are mostly spent on charter or private schools) and of the deregulation of charter schools, allowing for an influx of for-profit schools (which, in turn, make gobs and gobs of money [in some cases, gobs of Title I money] that were diverted away from public schools).

In Michigan, it didn’t work. The DeVos family began tossing their gobs in the early 90’s, supporting candidates who supported school choice. Public money went to vouchers. Charters were expanded. Regulations were loosened. And…

From Politico: “Despite two decades of charter-school growth, the state’s overall academic progress has failed to keep pace with other states: Michigan ranks near the bottom for fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading on a nationally representative test, nicknamed the ‘Nation’s Report Card.’ Notably, the state’s charter schools scored worse on that test than their traditional public school counterparts, according to an analysis of federal data.”

The failure of school vouchers in Michigan is not an anomaly.

In an article for Slate, Dana Goldstein reported that “Recent studies of voucher programs in Louisiana and Ohio found that students who use vouchers to attend a private school score, on average, lower on standardized tests than demographically similar students who do not use vouchers. In New Orleans, two years after winning a private school voucher, the average student had lost 13 points of learning in math.”

Goldstein also points out that “Trump’s voucher plan could be a windfall for companies hoping to make money from our public education system.” In this scenario, families (often low income ones) become the middle men, piping federal funds into corporate hands but not always getting what they’re promised.

Diane Ravitch served as an Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush 41. In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, besides noting that there is no substantive evidence for the success of school voucher programs, Ravitch details eleven alternative solutions.

They are:

  1. “Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.”
  2. “Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.”
  3. “Every school should have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign language, mathematics, and physical education.”
  4. “Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.”
  5. “Ban for-profit charters and charter chains and ensure that charter schools collaborate with public schools to support better education for all children.”
  6. “Provide the medical and social services that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.”
  7. “Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.”
  8. “Insist that teachers, principals, and superintendents be professional educators.”
  9. “Public schools should be controlled by elected school boards or by boards in large cities appointed for a set term by more than one elected official.”
  10. “Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.”
  11. “Recognize that public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good.”

Career educators could tell you (if anyone ever cared to ask them) that these solutions would have lasting positive effects not only on American education but on all areas of American life.

But: in all likelihood, if DeVos is confirmed, the focus will be on a single solution, and it would seem that she has been nominated for one reason and one reason only: belief in a policy idea that the President likes (and that, it so happens, has already failed).

Sean Spicer Statement on Size of Inauguration Crowd (Orwell Version)

Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary, 1/21/17:

“Let’s go through the facts. We know that from the platform where the President was sworn in to Fourth Street holds about 250,000 people. From Fourth Street to the media tent is about another 220,000. From the media tent to the Washington Monument another 250,000 people. All of this space was full when the President took the oath of office. We know that 420,000 people used the DC Metro public transit yesterday, which is actually comparable to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural. This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period. Both in person and around the globe.”

From 1984, by George Orwell:

“It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another. Most of the material you were dealing with had no connection with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connection that is contained in a direct lie. Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version. A great deal of the time you were expected to make them up out of your head. For example, the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at a hundred and forty-five million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was was no nearer the truth than fifty-seven millions, or than a hundred and forty-five millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot.”

Teaching Native Son by Richard Wright (Part One)

[This post was originally published here, on the website for Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature.]

For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of teaching Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, to high school seniors.

I did not choose this book. I “inherited” the senior IB English classes from an excellent, veteran, and now retired teacher (and good friend), Susan Halseth. I also inherited from Susan her reading list, and teaching the books with which she filled her syllabus, Native Son included, has been a delight.

The intent of this post is simply to share some of the strategies and lessons I’ve used the past couple of years to teach Wright’s novel.

PUTTING NATIVE SON IN CONTEXT

With any novel, a good place to begin is helping students place the book in its larger context (where and when).

With Native Son, I start with something rather informal. I write the years 1919, 1929, 1939, and 1945 on the board, spaced out a bit. Then, maybe in a different color, I add in, chronologically, the year 1940, labeling it as the year that Native Son was published. Then, in pairs or groups, students identify and discuss the significant historical events that surround the novel (respectively: the end of WWI, the beginning of the Great Depression, the beginning of WWII, and the end of WWII).

This is a great way to help students make connections between the literature they are reading in their English classes and the content they have learned in their past or current History classes.

GROUP RESEARCH PRESENTATIONS

After this initial discussion of the novel’s context, we move on to something more formal.

Students are divided into groups, and each group is assigned one of the following research topics (each of which includes subtopics):

The Red Scare (in U.S., first and second)

            -Communism

            -Marxism

South Side Chicago

            -Segregation/ghettos/housing policies

            -Hyde Park

The Great Migration

            -The Black Belt

            -The Harlem Renaissance

NAACP

            -origins

            -NAACP in the 1930’s

Scottsboro Boys

            -who were they and what happened to them

            -similar cases or incidents

Richard Wright

            -literary career

            -ties to Communism

Naturalism (literary movement)

-origins

            -characteristics

            -major authors

Each of these topics will help a student reading Native Son to better understand the novel, and each group will spend a day or two (or three) researching their assigned topic and preparing a 10ish minute presentation to the class.

[Note: my students use Google Slides when preparing presentations. Here are some benefits of that: 1) All group members can be working on the same presentation file simultaneously, so everyone has “something to do.” 2) Students don’t need a subscription to Microsoft Office to work on the PowerPoint at home; they just need the internet, and there’s a smartphone app available for free. 3) When the group presents, I’m not seeing the presentation for the first time; I have been able (because the presentation was shared to me) to “check in” on the progress of the presentation as it was being developed, and I’ve been able to give feedback while the students were working on it. 4) No more, “I forgot my flash drive; can I present tomorrow?”—it’s all in the cloud.]

As each group is conducting their research and preparing their presentation, it may be necessary to give the group researching naturalism a bit of extra guidance and support, as it can be a complex topic. For an accessible definition of naturalism, see the quiz below.

Another group that may require extra attention is the group of students researching housing policies in South Side Chicago. This will be a key topic when it comes to helping students understand the naturalist view of Bigger’s character and his actions. In fact, in the third section of the novel, Bigger’s defense lawyer, Boris Max, makes an argument that housing policy is in part responsible for Bigger’s situation.

South Side Chicago in the 1930’s was segregated, but it was not segregated because of explicit segregation policies; rather, segregation was the result of housing policies such as redlining and contract selling—policies that were in place in many American cities and the effects of which are apparent today.

In fact, the city that I and my students live in was redlined, and students have access to a map (from the website of data artist Josh Begley) that shows the housing zones in Stockton at the time in which Native Son is set:

redlining-stocktonmap-stockton-redlining

These maps allow students to make a personal and authentic connection to the novel, as many of them live in or around the redlined areas, and they have first hand experience of the effects of those policies today.

ORAL PRESENTATION RUBRIC

Below is the rubric that I use to score the student presentations (which they are given beforehand). It is a version of the rubric that I use for all such presentations. I made it a few years ago, and it was specifically designed to eliminate things that bothered me about student presentations, such as…

…students going up to present without any idea how they will begin or how they will end.

…the sense that the group copied down information they don’t understand and now are asking the audience to do the same.

…the sense that one or two students did all of the work and then gave the other students slides or cards to read.

…students reading slides instead of talking to the audience.

…the sense that some students, while presenting, are seeing (or reading) these slides for the first time.

Another thing that I like about this rubric is that it requires students to practice citing sources parenthetically and correctly formatting a works-cited page.

oral-presentation-rubric

After the presentations, during which students take copious notes (we use Cornell Notes) and are encouraged to ask questions, the class is given the following open-notes quiz:

NATIVE SON CONTEXT PRESENTATIONS QUIZ

Richard Wright was a naturalist writer.  Naturalist fiction explores the effect of external forces—particularly a person’s environment—on a character’s psychology.

As a result, characters in naturalist fiction often feel a lack of control as a result of their environment.

Discuss the extent to which external environmental forces are driving the actions of Bigger Thomas.  Refer to as many of the following factors as possible in your response:

  • South Side Chicago
    • Segregation/ghettos/housing policies
    • Hyde Park
  • The Red Scare
    • Communism
    • Marxism
  • The Great Migration
    • The Black Belt
    • The Harlem Renaissance
  • NAACP
  • Scottsboro Boys
  • Richard Wright’s own life experiences

In the next post on teaching Native Son, we’ll focus on the effect of Wright’s choices regarding point of view and on themes and motifs in the novel.

Testimonials from Workshop on Teaching Literature in High School Classrooms

On January 9th, we (Liz and I) led a workshop at the University of the Pacific in Stockton on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

 

The workshop was based on our book, and focused on the following:

 

  • The rationale for using quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, and literary nonfiction) in the middle and high school English classroom.

 

  • Strategies and activities for introducing and implementing close reading, using George Saunders’ short story “Sticks” and the lyrics of Billie Holliday’s “Gloomy Sunday” as examples.

 

  • Increasing the quantity and quality of rigorous student writing.

 

We will be conducting a similar workshop at the 2017 CATE (California Assoc. of Teachers of English) Conference, February 17-19 in Santa Clara, CA.

 

The following are some testimonials from our wonderful participants:

 

“Very engaging! I wish more teachers would attend! As an administrator, it is enlightening to see solutions to bringing critical thinking to the classroom through literature.”

 

“So many great things in this workshop. I want to try everything TOMORROW!!! Thank you so much!”

 

“Extremely informative and useful. I found and will implement at least three strategies (close reading, on-demand writing) that I will use right away. Thank you!”

 

“This information needs to be shared with our curriculum director!”

 

“Thank you for all of the methods that I can use in the classroom. As a new teacher with no experience, this information is extremely helpful.”

 

“Really effective and simple strategies. As a first year teacher, I would strongly urge my undergraduate peers to check out this presentation and the Method to the Madness book.”

 

“Informative and entertaining, with plenty that will be useful in the classroom.”

 

“Thank you. Workshop went by quickly and had great, engaging, purposeful information.”

 

“We were offered many examples/useful samples of student work and activities. We can use this material in the classroom for planning—especially how to increase writing.”

 

“Y’all are amazing.”

Upcoming Events

Here are a few upcoming events:

On January 9th, Liz and I will be conducting a professional development workshop for middle and high school English teachers.

The workshop is based on our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literatureand will be held at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA (flier below).

The registration form is here.

capture

 

Also, Liz and I will be discussing and signing copies of Method to the Madness at Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, CA as part of their Teacher Appreciation Day on January 19th.

We will be there from 4 to 6 pm, but teachers can receive 20% off any purchase (plus special treats and gifts) all day.

We’d love to see you there!

 

Finally, we will be presenting a workshop at the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Convention.

The workshop is titled “Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature” and will take place at 9:45 on February 17th (the first day of the conference).

http://cateweb.org/convention/cate-2017/

cate2017logo-teal_-768x202

Things one could get done by the time Frodo finishes saying goodbye at the end of the last Lord of the Rings movie

Things one could get done by the time Frodo finishes saying goodbye at the end of the last Lord of the Rings movie:

 

-Write a blog post.

 

-Take up flash fiction.

 

-Learn a foreign language.

 

-Re-watch the first two movies.

 

-Re-organize your sock drawer.

 

-Re-organize all sock drawers, everywhere.

 

-Delete all social media apps from your phone and then twenty minutes later re-install them.

 

-Read a choose-your-own-adventure novel.

 

-Write a choose-your-own-adventure novel.

 

-Have a mid-life crisis and then reflect on it.

 

-Google Elijah Wood to see what he’s up to these days.

 

-Discuss with wife what Elijah Wood is probably doing right now, right this second.

 

-Call up Elijah Wood and invite him to come have dinner and meet your family.

 

-Find out he can’t make it; he’s still saying goodbye at the end of the last Lord of the Rings movie.

Calling Out My Fellow White Males

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking hate groups and hate crimes since 1971.

The SPLC has verified 1,094 “bias-related incidents” in the period from November 9th (the day after the election) to December 12th of 2016.

The majority of these incidents (29%) were “Anti-Immigration” in nature.

A white male, for example, told a woman who he thought was Mexican that, “I can’t wait until Trump asks us to rape your people and send you back over the biggest damn wall we’re going to build. Go back to hell, wetback.”

20% of the incidents were Anti-Black.

In Massachusetts, a white male called a 14-year old boy riding his bike in front of his house a nigger.

10% of the incidents were Anti-Muslim.

In Washington State, two white male students pulled the hijab off of another student. They were each suspended for five days. When asked why they had done it, one responded, “We won.”

Listen: (that’s right; I’m stealing rhetorical strategies from Vonnegut)

Listen: Not all Trump supporters are racist/sexist/xenophobic/bigoted/fill-in-the-blank. Of course not. And not all white male Trump supporters are [insert same].

But listen: that racists and sexists and xenophobes and bigots feel emboldened and/or validated by Trump’s election is undeniable.

37% of the bias-related incidents from November 9th to December 12th referenced Trump by name or a slogan of his campaign or “his infamous remarks about sexual assault.” (In case anyone’s forgotten, his infamous remarks about sexual assault were that if you’re famous, you can just grab them by the pussy.)

46% of the incidents occurred in the days immediately following the election.

At Baylor University, a white male shoved a female black student off of the pavement. He told her “No niggers allowed on the sidewalk.” When a bystander asked the man what he was doing, the man responded, “I’m just trying to Make America Great Again.”

Here’s another interesting statistic: of the 1,094 bias-related incidents from November 9th to December 12th, only 4% were “Anti-Woman” in nature.

BUT: Of the 37% of incidents that referenced Trump and/or his campaign, 82% were Anti-Woman.

Two white males in Virginia yelled at a woman crossing the street that “You better be ready because with Trump, we can grab you by the pussy even if you don’t want it.”

In New York, a white male told a girl taking the subway to school that it was now legal for him to grab her pussy.

So here’s a message to my fellow white males.

First: if you are a white male who harbors hatred toward those who deviate from either “white” or “male” (or both) and who allows said hatred to manifest itself in either word or deed, then you are a horrible, horrible human being who either…

A) will remain a horrible, horrible human being until your lonely death…

or

B) will someway, somehow (in Ebenezer Scrooge fashion) come to see the errors of your ways, appropriately revising them and thereby becoming either less horrible or not at all horrible.

Listen: the truth is that you really just hate yourself. Rightly so! And now that you have been so informed, kindly redirect said hatred appropriately.

For the rest of us: it is contingent upon us not-horrible-horrible white males to resist and reject the words and actions of our (horrible, horrible) brethren. It is the right thing to do, and the American thing to do.

We must also be aware that when that resistance and rejection is quiet/silent/unheard, it in fact (or in effect) does not exist.

We must also call things as they are. One of Trump’s selling points was his lack of political correctness. People are tired of being politically correct.

Let’s extend that to bigots. Let’s call bigots bigots. And likewise call racism racism, sexism sexism, and homophobia homophobia.

And let’s call the Alt-Right what it is: white nationalism. Changing the name masks the connotations.

Listen: Donald Trump won the election. That is a fact. But what is also a fact is that despite his victory the majority of Americans did not vote for him.

Here’s another fact: the future of our country—the future generations of voters—are more tolerant, more inclusive, and value diversity more than their ancestors.

The bigots are outnumbered, and they are running out of time. This country is leaving them behind. Rightly so. But they are going kicking and screaming, and for the next four or eight or however-many-years-it-takes, they will fight.

And it is important that we—the non-horrible, non-deplorable white males—engage in that fight and stand beside our fellow (non-white and/or non-male) Americans who (for the next four or eight or however-many-years-it-takes) are most vulnerable.

I’m not saying it’s up to us to ride in and save the day. I’m saying that we need to realize we have a dog in this fight, and to show up for it.