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

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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:

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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.

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:

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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.

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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.

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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/

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Borges at Disneyland

I read a lot of Borges.

My critical thesis in grad school was on Borges’s influence on the fiction of John Barth.

There’s a framed illustration of Borges in the hallway of my house, surrounded by pictures of my family. The Borges picture is bigger than the other pictures.

See:

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In Borges’s fiction, there is a finite number of possibilities–a finite number of things that can happen to an individual–so what separates, or sets apart, each individual is the particular things that happen to each of them, and to Borges these particulars are limited by time, so that if everyone was immortal, then all things would happen to all people, and all people would therefore become one person. Each individual, for instance, would at some point write Hamlet, so each individual would be Shakespeare (or would have lived the particular events of Shakespeare’s life), but each individual would also be Justin Bieber, having also lived the life of Justin Bieber.

Because of this worldview, characters in Borges’s stories (for example: The Immortal, Shakespeare’s Memory, Borges and I) often blend into one another (or, to put it another way, using Borges’s common motif of the mirror: characters become reflections of one another).

And that’s what I kept thinking about when we took our kids to Disneyland.

Everywhere I looked, I saw a reflection of myself (or, to put it another way: everywhere I looked, I saw my own life being lived by hundreds and hundreds of other men).

For example, here’s a picture of my kid eating a churro. I’m not in the picture, but there’re at least four other versions of me that are in the picture. Can you spot them?

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And, of course, it’s not just me. The lives of my wife and of my kids are repeated over and over, as well. Some of those repeats are in this picture, too.

Take, for another instance, the picture above of Borges in my hallway. Next to Borges is a (much smaller) picture of me and my wife and my mother and my kids with Mickey Mouse. What the picture does not show is that we had waited in a long line of families (dozens of families) all of whom took that same picture, and that same long line had formed dozens of times over the course of that day, as it did and as it will do on all other days, including today, such that thousands of thousands (millions?) of families have the same picture with Mickey Mouse hanging on their wall (though probably not next to a picture of Borges).

So we are all at the same place having an individual experience that thousands of other people are also having on the same day and that thousands and thousands (millions!) of other people also have had or will have on each day prior and each day after the day that we had it.

Yet: it’s an incredibly individual and magical experience. Or at least Day One is magical.

Most of the people who are on that day living the same life as you are living either Day One or Day Two (for some, there is also a Day Three, but for almost all, there is Day One and Day Two).

And because you are at Disneyland and not at California Adventure, then you and most of the other people who are also living your life (specifically, the ones with strollers and giant, over-stuffed diaper bags) are living Day One.

All of you individually planned a trip, and all of you are on Day One of that trip. Day One is Disneyland. Day Two is California Adventure. If there’s a Day Three, it’s back at Disneyland (which means that, everyone who is living Day One will encounter some people who are living Day Three, but it’s easy to tell the people living Day Three from the people living Day One: the people living Day Three are the people who look like they are trying to recreate the magic of Day One, quickly, before driving home, but failing).

It was pretty much the same when I was a kid, except that Day Two was Knot’s Berry Farm, or later Universal Studios, because when I was a kid California Adventure was the parking lot.

Anyway, Day One is magical. For everyone, but especially the kids. And the kids don’t know and probably wouldn’t care if they did know that thousands of other kids who are living an alternate version of the same life are also having an independently magical experience. Each of the dozens of kids who are lined up to meet Princess Aurora has the individual and magical experience of meeting Princess Aurora, and that experience is unaffected by its repetition for dozens in front and dozens behind (plus hundreds and thousands and millions who have done and will do the same on a day that at Disneyland always looks the same and that repeats itself into infinity)

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About Day Two:

Day Two is pretty awesome, but perhaps less magical. Day Two is about strategy and efficiency. Everyone living Day Two has lived the magic of Day One and is now going to get their money’s worth, because this s-word is expensive.

Day Two begins at the rope line. Everyone living Day Two has read on Pinterest that they need to get there (to California Adventure, where, as mentioned, Day Two is lived) before it opens and to line up at the rope line.

Some people who are living Day Two have read on Pinterest that as soon as the rope drops they need to speed walk straight to the line for the Cars Fast Pass.

Other people are living a version of Day Two in which the thing to do is to speed walk past the Fast Pass line and directly to the Cars ride itself.

A few people are living a version in which the thing to do is to go do something else other than Cars precisely because everyone else who is living Day Two is going straight for Cars, but this way of living Day Two basically means foregoing Cars altogether, and Cars is pretty awesome.

We lived the version of Day Two in which we went straight to the line for Cars. It was pretty awesome. We were glad we lived this version because the people who lived the version of Day Two in which they got into the line for the Cars Fast Pass had to wait a long time for that Fast Pass, and the Fast Passes were mostly for late that afternoon, and pretty soon they were gone altogether.

Anyway: everyone who is living Day Two has a strategy with which to conquer Day Two, most of those strategies meant to outsmart everyone else who is also living Day Two and who have the same or similar strategies.

The rest of Day Two is basically a contest to see who in the family first gets to the point that they’ve had so much fun they could kill someone.

And then the next yous arrive and you go home.