Category Archives: Literature

Today, We Celebrate Shakespeare!

Portrait of English playwright, William Shakespeare
Portrait of English playwright, William Shakespeare

In 1564, William Shakespeare was born on this day. In his life, Shakespeare wrote at least 38 plays and over 150 short and long poems. Shakespeare’s plays can be divided into three main categories: the comedies, the histories, and the tragedies. The following from NCTE and ReadWriteThink.org provide more resources on Shakespeare’s plays.

Comedies

Histories

Tragedies

As author Ben Jonson wrote of him, Shakespeare is “not of an age, but for all time.”

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You Mean She’s Alive?

This post is written by member Lindsay Illich. 

I get this question from students often when I share a poem in class by a living writer. For some students, poems are historical, discrete things that come to them by way of textbooks,  anthologies, or riddles of dead writers come to haunt them. Or worse, poems are inflicted on them as assessment instruments in standardized tests where students are asked to dissect the poems’ meanings (you can read about Sara Holbrook’s horror after discovering two of her poems were used on standardized tests in Texas). It does not always occur to them that the poet might be a contemporary who could be writing poems on this very day, or even right now.

The poems writers are sharing right now are beautiful and devastating, shimmering in their perfect singularity. Poets ask us to consider what it must be like to love a brother who is an addict (Natalie Diaz), to see a flower that might have been planted by the hands of Eric Garner (Ross Gay), to love someone more than all the windows in New York City (Jessica Greenbaum), or to be getting an MRI to monitor the spread of your cancer (Leilla Chatti). Not only do these contemporary poems and poets show students how poetry is uniquely suited to address emotional complexity, but also they demonstrate how it is poems build invisible bridges that connect people across time, space, and experience.

Poems overcome our separateness.

“Good Bones,” a poem by Maggie Smith, garnered a worldwide readership after it was published just after the Orlando Pulse shooting. Although the poem was not written in response to the tragedy, its sentiment resonated. Many felt that it gave a collective voice to how hopeless we feel in the face of violent tragedy. The poem was named poem of the year by Public Radio International and was featured on the April 9 episode of the CBS TV series Madam Secretary.

So where do you find these alive poets? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Subscribe to the “Poem-A Day,” sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, and get new (and some old) poems delivered to your email.
  2.  If you have the resources available to you, request institutional subscriptions to a few print poetry journals (like Gulf Coast, 32 Poems, or Prairie Schooner).
  3. Follow online poetry journals like Waxwing or The Shallow Ends on Twitter, where they post links to newly published poems.
  4. Finally, find some poets you like and follow them on Twitter. Poets love poems; they will share links and even pictures of poems daily (you should start with @KavehAkbar, a prolific lover, sharer, and writer of poems).

Another reason to read and connect with contemporary poets is to offer your students the opportunity to ask writers questions about their work. After reading a poem by Adrian Matejka, my students wondered why the poet identified with the boxer, Jack Johnson. It occurred to me that with Twitter, we could just ask him. So we did, and he graciously replied.

Yes, the poet is alive, and students will love her work if you share it with them. And, perhaps, reading the current work of living writers will serve as reminders to students that writing as a way of expression is a thing that people do, that even they could do.

Lindsay Illich is an associate professor of English at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. Her first book, Rile & Heave, won the Texas Review Press Breakout Prize in poetry. 

Reaching Toward a More Accepting and Equitable Society: The Work of the Language Arts in These Times

This post is written by members Wanda Brooks, Jonda C. McNair, and Kelly Wissman.

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In September of 2016, we published the first issue of Language Arts under our editorship. In this open-themed issue, we included an article exploring various genres of talk in writers workshop conferences and a reflective piece on the potential of Twitter in the classroom. Our November issue, “Diverse Books,” welcomed a range of voices advocating for more inclusive texts, including an essay by Rudine Sims Bishop, one of the field’s most widely cited children’s literature scholars, and a carefully argued take on research and policy related to diverse books by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.  Our third issue, “Tweens,” featured artwork by and an interview with beloved author for tweens Tom Angleberger. Celebrated author Rita Williams-Garcia’s reflection on her trilogy for tweens also graced the pages, alongside renowned researchers Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston who wrote about the importance of choice and high-interest literature to promote classrooms as engaged reading communities. Our recently published “Viewpoints and Visions” issue includes articles on culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies across grade levels and contexts.

As Co-editors, we are honored to serve in this capacity and to maintain the longstanding tradition of publishing high quality scholarship focusing on language arts teaching and learning related to children of preschool through middle school age.   Within these times marked by profound political unrest and widening inequalities, we believe that the language arts have a central role to play by helping us reach toward a more accepting and equitable society.

Our collective vision for the journal entails three main goals. First, we emphasize children’s literature in a number of ways such as routinely featuring art from picturebooks and novels on the cover of the journal, publishing interviews with notable children’s book authors and illustrators, and having one themed issue annually devoted to some aspect of literature for youth. Second, we try to make even more central the words, experiences, and insights of children as they use language and literacy to navigate, make sense of, and leave their marks on the world.  For example, in classrooms and homes today, young learners are harnessing the tools of digital media to navigate the realm of popular culture while creating their own multimedia productions.  As editors, we embrace these deeply creative and increasingly complex practices of literacy by highlighting the literary, artistic, and analytic work taking place across multiple modalities and contexts. We also prioritize children’s voices and the written and multimodal artifacts young people create. Third, we aim to embed issues related to diversity and social justice throughout the journal. We also feature in the journal perspectives and research that explore the challenges and possibilities of envisioning and enacting “education as the practice of freedom” (hooks, 1994) and the vital role that the language arts may play in this endeavor.  From schools to community sites, from homes to homeless shelters, from street demonstrations to prisons, literacies can profoundly mediate and transform experiences and our understandings of them.

It is our hope that as you engage with the pages of Language Arts that the ideas contained within will inspire you, open up new avenues of thought, and perhaps even provoke a change in a classroom practice or plant the seeds for a fresh way of thinking about literacy, assessment, young children, and the possible role of the language arts to help us realize the democratic promise of education. We invite you to correspond with us on the direction and vision of the journal and to support us in our efforts to make more central the voices and perspectives of students and their teachers as they engage in this important work of the language arts.

We also invite you to write for Language Arts! Please consider adding your voice and perspectives by writing a Feature Article emerging from research you have conducted in school, family, or community settings. You might also consider writing a shorter, more conversational, piece for our Perspectives on Practice column. Visit our website for a description of upcoming calls for manuscripts, including, Reimagining Writers and Writing; Changes in Children’s Literature; Youth Culture(s) and Childhood; Life Lessons: Autobiographies, Biographies, and Memoirs.  Click here for the full calls: http://www.ncte.org/journals/la/call and here for manuscript submission guidelines: http://www.ncte.org/journals/la/write

Reference

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY:                   Routledge.

wandabrooksWanda Brooks is an associate professor of Literacy Education in the College of Education at Temple University.  She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses related to reading theories and literacy instruction.  Her research examines the literary understandings of diverse middle school youth who read African American children’s literature. 

 

jonda_mcnair_photoJonda C. McNair, a former primary grade teacher, is a professor of literacy education at Clemson University in South Carolina. She specializes in literature intended for youth with an emphasis on books written by and about African Americans.

 

kelly-wissman_headshot-6Kelly Wissman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Literacy Teaching and Learning at the University at Albany-SUNY. Across her scholarship and teaching she explores how children’s literature, writing, and the arts can create more humanizing and equitable educational spaces. 

Diversifying Our Professional Literature

This post is written by member Rose Peterson. 

rosepetersonI cracked the cover of the school’s grammar textbook, frantically hoping to find something I could salvage for the next day’s required weekly grammar lesson. I located the section on capitalization, a skill that had proven to be a struggle for my students. I was stunned by the answers to Section 12:

  1. Arctic
  2. Irish, Norse
  3. Scandinavian, Celtic
  4. Icelandic, pro-Norwegian

Textbook bias was no longer a distant problem when I looked from the brown faces of my students down to the whitewashed answers in my grammar textbook. In today’s public schools, black students represent approximately 26 percent of students, 50 percent of students here in Milwaukee, and 99 percent of students in my classes, but the majority of curricular materials continue to cater to white audiences. I firmly closed the cover, and thus began my journey of creating meaningful work for my kids from scratch.

The next logical step on this journey was turning to professional literature. While there is something to be gained from everything read, I find reading professional literature to be stickier now that I am teaching in an urban setting. I get excited about what teachers elsewhere are doing with their kids, and I leap to implement those ideas in my own classroom, forgetting that my kids are still learning how to “do school,” to write one-paragraph journals in 10 minutes, to be quiet for longer than 15 seconds at a time. Everything requires serious adaptation. It is exhausting enough to be an urban educator at all—to remain patient in the face of serious behavioral issues, to attend countless IEP meetings and expulsion hearings, to withstand district pressure about failure rates—but creating, or at least adapting, appropriate curriculum on top of the unique everyday strain is the added weight that drives urban teachers back into the comprehension questions in textbooks.

Nonetheless, my frustration is just a glimpse of the reality my kids experience daily when they try to reconcile their experiences in black communities with the white world that dominates the media. They, too, must adapt everything. Nothing is ready-made for young black kids other than the way of the streets.

As the critically conscious, culturally compassionate NCTE members we are, we have done a great job of advocating for adding diverse texts to our classroom libraries, for offering kids alternative realities to those the world may project. What we sometimes forget, though, is that while we fill gaps in young adult literature, many cultural gaps are ever widening in professional literature. We have authors like Sharon Draper, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson bringing diverse experiences to classroom libraries across the country. Where are equivalent champions of diversity in the realm of professional literature? There are no Penny Kittles or Kelly Gallaghers or Jeff Wilhelms or Donalyn Millers of the hood.

There may be the occasional book—For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, or classics by authors like Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings—but other than that, the genre is sparsely populated. We see a handful of rotated lessons, the most popular of which relies upon Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. While the album is truly brilliant, this heavily used lesson concept is not enough. First, as any other teacher, urban teachers have dozens of weeks to fill, and a single album is not enough material to engage students for an entire school year. We need more ideas and inspiration for relevant, culturally responsive curriculum than a single album. Secondly, while this lesson is intended to be relevant to urban students’ lives, my kids do not even listen to Kendrick Lamar. They listen to Lud Foe and Bless Team and Lil Boosie. Well-intentioned as it may be, this “social justice lesson plan” ends up being yet another thing urban teachers have to adapt.

I am not in search of a copy-and-paste curriculum; I am in search of inspiration and ideas that come from a place of understanding about black urban students to help me teach them in ways that help them reach their potential instead of assuming they’re already there.

I want to know it can happen. I want to know I am not crazy for believing in my kids. I want to believe that independent reading and writing workshop and multigenre research projects and self-guided learning can work with my urban, black kids. I want to know I am not the only one struggling to figure out how. In order for this to happen, we must diversify our professional literature just as we have diversified our classroom libraries to reflect the experiences of teachers in diverse environments.

Black kids already know that this world is not kind to them. As their teachers, the least we can do is ensure that our professional literature helps us make our English classrooms welcoming and relevant to their lives.

Rose Peterson is a first-year English teacher at an urban high school in Milwaukee. Follow her @therosepeterson.

Making a Deep Connection

This post is written by member Aaron McNabb. 

aaronmcnabbAs an educator, selecting a book to read for class can be a difficult task. There are so many questions to answer: is it a good fit for my students? What themes do I want to teach? Will my students connect with the story? This barely scratches the surface, and of course there are many other questions that a special education teacher must ask.

Getting struggling readers interested is challenge number one. I wanted a book that students would connect with, that has a strong protagonist, and that is ultimately an interesting story. Fortunately, I found a book that meets many of the criteria I had in mind: The Other Side of the Sky, a memoir by Farah Ahmedi.

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Ahmedi experiences unimaginable challenges that many of us in the western world would never encounter. She becomes disabled after stepping on a landmine, and then lives under Taliban rule. During the war between the Mujahideen and Taliban, she loses her family in a mortar attack. To save her life she seeks refuge in Pakistan, but unfortunately, living in a United Nations refugee camp is nearly as dangerous as living in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Ultimately, she comes to the United States, but that brings on a host of other challenges.

I prefaced our study of the book by making sure that students in my class had a solid background on the history and culture of Afghanistan and Pakistan. An understanding of the Taliban, Sharia law, the September 11th terrorist attacks, and UN refugee camps was going to be necessary to understand the book. To become acquainted with the setting and historical context, we read articles about these topics, looked at maps, watched video clips, and examined pictures.

It was eye opening for my students to learn about Sharia law, particularly about how women are treated under such circumstances. According to Ahmedi, after the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, women were required to wear chadaris (or burqas) while in public. The students were shaken to learn that women were denied education, were not allowed to drive, and were not allowed to leave the house without a male escort.

After class one day a student expressed to me how lucky she felt to have access to an education. This wasn’t just a comment to appease me; this struck a deep nerve in her. It’s these exchanges in a classroom that make teaching so worthwhile.

While reading the book, my students marveled at Farah Ahmedi’s resilience and connected to her struggle. One student was a childhood cancer survivor who missed critical years of literacy development in kindergarten and first grade. She was a struggling reader, but Farah’s story brought out a confidence I had not yet seen. She started participating in readings and discussions for the first time all year.

On January 28, President Trump signed an executive order that banned refugees from entering the Unites States. The following Monday students came back to school and were shocked by the news. Coincidentally, we were reading about the vetting process that Farah was experiencing while trying to seek refugee status in America. We discussed how people like Farah were being barred from entering the United States. Emotions ran high in my class, but it was a pleasure watching the passion and connection these students were making between the real world and the memoir they were reading.

We finished the book several days later. Over the course of the reading, students formed a strong emotional attachment to Farah and her story. They wanted to know more and more about her and started asking me questions I could not answer. We looked her up on the Internet and found her website. Ultimately we discovered that she does motivational speeches to students across the country. This was the beginning of our effort to bring Farah to our school. We are fundraising now and getting closer to the goal.

Aaron McNabb is a seventh-grade special education teacher. He teaches English in a pull-out and inclusive model at the Amesbury Middle School in Amesbury, Massachusetts. This is his ninth year working with students with disabilities.