A Classroom with a View

Reflections on Teaching High School English


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Talking to Teens about Mental Health through Literature

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Image credit: pebbled on deviantart

TW: mental illness, suicide, sexual abuse

Recently my school has seen an explosion in the number of students who report struggling with a variety of mental health challenges, but especially anxiety and depression. I have had more students than ever being hospitalized, more than ever missing a significant amount of school due to anxiety-related school avoidance, more than ever requiring a non-traditional classroom experience. I’m still a relatively new teacher, but my veteran colleagues agree — our kids are struggling.

They’re not alone. I’ve heard my anecdotal evidence echoed by the anecdotal evidence of other educators across the state and region. This past fall, the New York Times ran a significant article titled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” describing precisely this phenomenon.

Regardless of its causes (which I don’t pretend to fully understand and I’m sure are numerous and complicated), as a teacher, I see its effects every day in my classroom. It is in this context that I just concluded my unit on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a unit which I teach through a lens of psychological criticism and trauma theory.

I’m sure you’ve read it (I hope you have). Its highly original 17-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield tells the reader about a weekend in his life when he got expelled from yet another prep school (his fifth), ran away to NYC, and hid out in a “pervy” hotel, all leading up to a mental breakdown that lands him in a psychiatric facility. Teaching this text through a lens of trauma theory means that I frame it for my students around the original trauma that sets Holden adrift, the loss of his little brother Allie to leukemia.

In the lead up to this unit, I worried about whether teaching this text in this way would be triggering for any of my students, if I was running the risk of re-traumatizing them by discussing subjects like the loss of a loved one, suicidal ideation, and child sexual abuse, which I already know some of them have experienced (and I’m sure many others have that I don’t know about). In some cases I contacted home to give parents advance notice. I geared myself up for complications, difficulties, a resurfacing of a painful past or present.

Here’s what happened instead.

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Letters of Recommendation

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Whew! I have finally finished my senior recommendations for the 2017-2018 school year. 🙌 As a junior year English teacher (core subject + most recently completed academic year), I get asked to write these a LOT — been working on this bunch off-and-on since August and I’ve written close to 30. ✍️ It takes a lot of time and thought to make each one personal and special. 💖 Not to mention it is hard to find the time to write them in between lesson planning, grading, emailing parents, checking in with guidance counselors, running off copies, and all the other tasks that fill my days. 😵

So in writing all these letters of rec, what have I learned? A few things:

  • On a logistical level, using a digital letterhead and digital signature (rather than printing, signing, and scanning) is a huge time saver.
  • Say no if your letter won’t be helpful. Fortunately I haven’t had to do this yet, but I do talk to students, especially during their junior year, about how integrity and character are important, and if they make a poor choice, I may have to include that in their letter of recommendation OR opt to not write them a letter at all for fear of harming their chances of admission.
  • It helps to brainstorm first. I usually start by grabbing a sticky note and jotting down anything I associate with a student — qualities and character traits, stories, assignments they did for me in the past. Then I try to see if there are commonalities/overriding themes emerging, which is important because…
  • I like to write letters with some kind of a theme. Maybe it’s just because I’m an English teacher and I appreciate cohesion in writing, but I try not to submit letters of rec that are just a jumble of random thoughts and observations, but rather well-thought-out narratives about students’ identities.
  • It’s probably clear by now that for me, writing a good one takes time. About 30-45 minutes each, on average. I really try to keep it personal and write a unique, original letter for each student rather than copying and pasting language from a previous letter. Every student is different, so every student deserves a different letter.
  • The best ones include a personal story. Without that, I feel like I’m just spouting off facts about the student’s academic record or extracurriculars that an admissions committee could simply read on the student’s resume. To that end…
  • I’ll probably try to write more of them over the summer. Or maybe even take a professional day to work on them at the beginning of the year. That way, my memories of that group of students are still fresh and I alleviate the struggle of finding “free time” to write them during the school year.

Regardless of how much time and energy this process takes, I still enjoy it. When my students ask me to write them a letter of recommendation, my response is always, “I would love to say all the nice things about you!” And it’s true. Now I’m done just in time to start getting requests for next year!


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The first month, in 10 words

So I’ve been teaching full time for a month now. I don’t have much extra time or energy to expend on blogging at this point in the semester, but I thought I’d try to capture how I’ve been feeling/what I’ve been thinking about this past month in 10 words. Here we go, in roughly chronological order.

Literally me. Source: Kappit

  1. NERVOUS
  2. Unqualified
  3. Comfortable
  4. Harambe?!
  5. Sick
  6. Stressed
  7. Connections ❤
  8. Tireless!
  9. Exhausted…
  10. Content


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What I learned about teaching from publishing my first article

I consider myself a teacher-scholar. To me, that means I remain curious, open-minded, and pursue my own intellectual growth in the same way that I want my students to.

And now I finally have the publication credit to back that identity up! Over the past year and a half, my Digital Writing grad class has worked to prepare a scholarly webtext on sonic rhetoric (i.e. composing with sound) for Kairos: A Journal of Technology, Rhetoric, and Pedagogy. This month, that webtext has been published at last as “Navigating the Soundscape, Composing with Audio.”

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A view of the homepage. We hope our webtext will serve as a pedagogical resource for other teachers looking to teach their students about sonic rhetoric.

 

Even though I was a student myself when this project began, I actually learned a lot, especially from my professor, Tanya Rodrigue, about good teaching practice. Here are a few of those lessons:

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No classroom woes + wild decorating urges = cutest desk in the teacher’s lounge

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I’ll admit, I’m bummed not to have my own classroom this year. What’s a new teacher to do with all of those wild decorating impulses? As it turns out, make a Target run to set up the cutest desk in the whole teacher’s lounge!

(Not pictured: obligatory mug of black tea and large cozy sweater.)

Now that’s a place I won’t mind working for long hours after school.

 


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Transmedia Storytelling in the Classroom: Best of (Part 3/3)

At this point in my series on transmedia storytelling, I’ll step down off my TRANSMEDIA IN THE CLASSROOM IS GREAT soapbox to share with you a few of my favorite transmedia series. If you’re reading any of these works with your students, consider exposing them to some (or all) scenes from these fantastic online adaptations:

  1.  The Lizzy Bennet Diaries (Pemberley Digital)/ adapted from Pride and Predjudice by Jane Austen: The transmedia series that launched a storytelling revolution. If you’re looking to get into transmedia, this is for sure the place to start. Lizzie is a 20-something grad student with a mountain of student loan debt and a vlog to share her strong voice and perspective. (Relatable much?)

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    Source: Wikipedia

  2. Emma Approved (Pemberley Digital)/ adapted from Emma by Jane Austen: Lucky for me as a Janeite, adaptations of Jane Austen’s works are very popular! EA was Pemberley Digital’s second transmedia story and perfectly refashions Emma, a heroine whom Austen once famously remarked nobody but herself would like, as a lifestyle and matchmaking coach who gets it wrong a LOT before she learns to get it right.
  3. The Autobiography of Jane Eyre (KalamaTea)/ adapted from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Jane is the artistic and principled live-in tutor for the Rochester family. Although unfortunately plagued by production difficulties toward the end of the series (namely with the actor playing Rochester), I think it still stands up. It’s also one of the most naturalistic transmedia stories I’ve seen.

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    Source: theautobiographyofja.wix.com

  4. From Mansfield with Love (Foot in the Door Theatre)/ adapted from Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: Another Austen classic, this time tackled by a British production company. FMWL’s heroine Fanny is rather more spirited than her textual counterpart, probably a necessity for making this story work in the modern day. The real star of this production? Its acting and the realistic relationships built between the characters.
  5. Green Gables Fables Adapted from Anne of Green Gables (and the rest of the Anne series) by Lucy Maude Montgomery: Most transmedia series last for just one season; GGF is the exception to that rule, capturing elements of the first three Anne books in two seasons. Not as slick and polished in terms of production value as some of the other series on this list, since it was created by college students — but GGF is utterly charming and full of heart, just like its source. You’ll fall in love with Anne, Diana, and Gilbert, and the rest of Avonlea all over again.

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    Source: YouTube

  6. Frankenstein, MD (PBS Digital Studios presented by Pemberley Digital)/ adapted from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein has here been transformed into ambitious young medical student Victoria Frankenstein, who vlogs about her experiments in the lab as a way to document what she believes will be her future greatness. I love the gender-bent casting here, and actress Anna Lore does an excellent job portraying a Victor/ia that is ambitious, arrogant, and just disdainful enough of friends and colleagues in her search for scientific breakthroughs.
  7. The March Family Letters (Cherrydale Studios presented by Pemberley Digital)/ adapted from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: A wonderfully inclusive reimagining of Alcott’s novel, in which Beth identifies as asexual (ace), Laurie is a POC, and uptight Meg must come to terms with her sexuality when she finds herself attracted to Joan (fka John in the original). I think Alcott would love it.

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    Source: marchfamilyletters.ca

  8. A Tell-Tale Vlog (Shipwrecked.)/ adapted from “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe: Okay okay. I admit: ATTV is not technically transmedia since it’s told exclusively in vlog format. Nonetheless, I had to include this ridiculous/hilarious webseries on this list. It shows the dreary Poe’s slog to write “The Raven” while he is annoyingly haunted by a sassy ghost named Lenore, who puts up with none of his nonsense. Shipwrecked. is currently in production for a new webseries, Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Dinner Party, which of course includes an actual murder and promises to be as funny as it sounds, featuring other literary guests like Hemingway, Dickinson, and Wilde.
  9. The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy Adapted from Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie: My newest find, NAPW proves that even speculative or fantastical texts can be successfully adapted into transmedia set in the present day. Neverland is almost like a regular town, except that it sits on a magical hotspot, meaning there are a large number of fairies hanging around. One of those is Tinkerbell, and the camera often cleverly acts as her POV. I’m obsessed with this adorable rom-com, in which man-child millenial Peter must work through his immaturity if he wants to win back the heart of childhood friend Wendy. It enters its third season this fall.

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    Source: indiegogo.com

By no means an exhaustive list! There is so much good stuff out there. What transmedia stories are you hooked on?


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Transmedia Storytelling in the Classroom: Applications (Part 2/3)

In my view, transmedia will soon be a powerful presence in the high school English classroom, and deservedly so. These modern retellings of classic texts are fun and imaginative, and students struggling to connect with, say, Victor Frankenstein on the page of Mary Shelley’s novel might better connect with modern-day medical student Victoria Frankenstein in her vlogs.

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Source: itsokaytobesmart.com

That brings me to the first application of transmedia stories: they could serve as partner texts in a text set.

A text set is a carefully curated selection of multiple texts that relate to each other in various ways, e.g. thematically, generically, etc, always centered around one key or core disciplinary text. It might be composed of a novel, a short story, a YouTube video, and a critical essay, for instance.

In Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core (a fantastic resource, by the by), Cynthia Shanahan proposes that the strategy of asking students to read multiple texts is a beneficial one in many ways. Text sets meet the demands of the Common Core for exposure to many kinds of texts; they encourage students to make intertextual connections between texts; they also foster creative thinking, in that students are less likely to understand one interpretation as the “correct” one.

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Text set… sort of. Source: Creative Commons

But perhaps the most important use of a text set in my mind is to increase reading comprehension of complex disciplinary texts, for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by pairing them with more accessible texts. These supplementary texts might be more accessible because they rely on a lower lexile level or a more engaging mode like video. I can personally vouch for the efficacy of this approach, having incorporated some key frames from No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels: Macbeth in a Macbeth unit with my sophomores this spring.

Here’s where transmedia texts come in. If my students are struggling to get through Frankenstein, a very difficult text that is narrated in epistolary form through multiple frames(!), I might decide to add a transmedia text into the unit to create a text set. In this case I could use PBS Digital Studios’ gender-bent transmedia adaptation, Frankenstein, M.D. Frankenstein, M.D. reimagines Shelley’s classic novel for the modern era, complete with female protagonist/med student Victoria Frankenstein.

 

Not only does the serial vlog format — like a biweekly online TV show — make the plot easier to understand, it also prompts viewers to perhaps ask new questions of the original text, for example, about the function of female characters who so often end up dead.

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A crucial scene from Frankenstein, M.D. Source: jadedskeptic.blogspot.com

As a teacher, I wouldn’t necessarily need to assign the entire transmedia series. I could select certain episodes of key scenes to view in class. I would be willing to bet that plenty of students would be hooked enough to finish it on their own.

Application #2: genre model for multimodal composition

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Source: luna-maries-diary.tumblr.com

And not only would pairing transmedia adaptations of classic works of literature be an effective strategy for fostering reading comprehension and engagement, it would also be, I believe, an amazing framework for a digital composition assignment. Students could read a text like The Odyssey and be asked to individually or collaboratively create a modern transmedia adaptation of the text. This idea isn’t so different from the final senior project at my school, Book to Film, in which students make a tw0-minute movie trailer based on a book.

My friend Anne over at Habits of ELA actually composed a transmedia blog and vlog based on the novel Luna for a Young Adult Lit courseIf you’re curious what such a composition could look like, check out her entire blog here. It’s a great model for potential student work.

 

Asking students to compose transmedia texts based on a core text requires them to build several skills, depending on what forms of media they decide to incorporate. They’ll likely have to perform genre analysis on a handful of digital genres that will probably be new to them using the principles of rhetoric. Then they’ll attempt to incorporate those digital genres in their own writing, experimenting with genre conventions (digital literacy is so darn important). They’ll also need to think critically about issues of adaptation, particularly for older canonical texts.The list goes on.

What other applications can you envision for transmedia texts in the English classroom?

In my next post, I’ll round out this series by sharing with you a long list of some of my favorite transmedia series based on classic literature.