The Fun Begins: Fall 2019 Syllabi

There’s just about a week left before classes start. I’m teaching two classes this semester: a survey of medieval and early modern literature, and a class on children’s literature. I’ve taught both these classes before, but I’ve completely revamped both syllabi.

For the medieval and early modern survey, I’m trying to actively resist the canon (I disappointed myself by using enough texts that exist in the Norton that I could justify assigning Volume A). The three times I taught this class before, I used the most obvious texts, working from the Norton instead of thinking about what I wanted to accomplish in the class. This time, I worked the other way around. It was far more challenging to plan and prep this way, but I sincerely hope it will be worth it!

I’m also not following chronological order. I loosely organized the syllabus around genre, supported by themes or topics I want to discuss. I’m going to rely heavily on a timeline during my lectures so that students leave with a sense of the history. But one of my weaknesses as a teacher is emphasizing history at the expense of literary analysis, so I’m also hoping that this rearrangement helps.

For my children’s literature class, I reorganized by reading about a million Middle Grade books over the summer. It’s been fun! I’ve taught this class only once before, and while I was very happy with how it went, I had a few self-criticisms. Most of them stemmed from the fact that I was trying to teach the historical development of children’s literature as opposed to its current state. While that is a worthy goal, it doesn’t fit my students’ expectations or needs – many English majors at Lehman are also education majors. So maybe I’ll get my department to give me a topics elective where I can teach that… For now, I’m focusing on recent texts.

This one was also a challenge to plan. I mapped out the genres and issues I wanted to cover, helped by a few textbooks and teaching guides: 

Then I requested a shitton of books from the library, and read or skimmed as many as I could. I tried to find books which can do double-duty in helping me teach genre and issues. I actually managed to find one book – The Witch Boy – which does triple-duty: we’ll be talking about fantasy, graphic novels, and gender that week.

Both syllabi are below. I’m hoping to blog now and then about the individual lessons and assignments throughout the semester.

English 335: Critical Approaches to Childrens Literature


English 301: British Literature, Origins to Early Modern


Summer 2019 Twitter Book Club: Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones

Whether you’re like me and can quote whole passages from books by Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, and Diana Wynne Jones, whether you’ve never read a single book by these authors – join us for a Robin-Tamora-Diana Twitter book club!

The Rules:

  • Leave a comment below to let us know you’re joining!
  • Choose any book to start with. We’re not going in any order or even reading them all together. Make your own plan, or choose your next book as the mood strikes!
  • Tweet about your reading!
  • Engage with other people’s tweets about the books. Again, you can jump in on conversations on books you haven’t (re)read yet too – no need to be in sync with others, just read and discuss, discuss and read!
  • Use the hashtag #yafantasy2019 so we can find your tweets.
  • Try to thread your tweets when possible. If you start tweeting about The Hero and the Crown, for example, reply to your own tweets as long as you’re still discussing that book. Start a new thread for a new book, or for a brand new idea when you think it’s necessary.
  • Avoid big spoilers! Let your book club people (us) know what moment in the book you’re talking about, but keep in mind that some people are reading the books for the first time and don’t want to know major plot points or the endings.
  • Have fun!

Some Ideas for Tweeting:

  • Live-tweet as you read. Share your reactions to the story, the plot, the characters, the writing – anything! When you like something in the book, when you hate something that happens, when you’re excited, when you’re surprised – emote!
  • Ask questions about things that confuse you in the books.
  • Share theories about the books – fan theories, academic theories, feminist theories, queer theories, magical theories…
  • Make connections between the books and your own life.
  • Tell us what your first experience reading the book was, and if/how the Summer 2019 read differs.
  • Make connections between the books and other books.

The Books:

Robin McKinley:

  • Beauty (1978)
  • The Door in the Hedge (1981)
  • The Blue Sword (1982)
  • The Hero and the Crown (1984)
  • The Outlaws of Sherwood (1988)
  • Rowan (1992)
  • Deerskin (1993)
  • A Knot in the Grain (1994)
  • Rose Daughter (1997)
  • The Stone Fey (1998)
  • Spindle’s End (2000)
  • Water (2002) with Peter Dickinson
  • Sunshine (2003)
  • Dragonhaven (2007)
  • Chalice (2008)
  • Fire (2009) with Peter Dickinson
  • Pegasus (2010)
  • Shadows (2013)
  • The Door in the Hedge and other stories (2014)

Tamora Pierce:

  • Song of the Lioness:
    • Alanna: The First Adventure (1983)
    • In the Hand of the Goddess (1984)
    • The Woman Who Rides Like a Man (1986)
    • Lioness Rampant (1988)
  • The Immortals:
    • Wild Magic (1992)
    • Wolf Speaker (1994)
    • The Emperor Mage (1994)
    • The Realms of the Gods (1996)
  • Protector of the Small:
    • First Test (1999)
    • Page (2000)
    • Squire (2001)
    • Lady Knight (2002)
  • Daughter of the Lioness:
    • Trickster’s Choice (2003)
    • Trickster’s Queen (2004)
  • Legend of Beka Cooper:
    • Terrier (2006)
    • Bloodhound (2009)
    • Mastiff (2011)
  • Numair Chronicles:
    • Tempests and Slaughter (2018)
  • Circle of Magic:
    • Sandry’s Book (1993)
    • Tris’s Book (1998)
    • Daja’s Book (1998)
    • Briar’s Book (1999)
  • The Circle Opens:
    • Magic Steps (2000)
    • Street Magic (2000)
    • Cold Fire (2002)
    • Shatterglass (2003)
  • Circle Reforged:
    • The Will of the Empress (2005)
    • Melting Stones (2008)
    • Battle Magic (2013)

Diana Wynne Jones:

  • Chrestomanci:
    • Charmed Life (1977)
    • The Magicians of Caprona (1980)
    • Witch Week (1982)
    • The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988)
    • Conrad’s Fate (2005)
    • The Pinhoe Egg (2006)
    • Mixed Magics (2000)
  • Dalemark:
    • Cart and Cwidder (1975)
    • Drowned Ammet (1977)
    • The Spellcoats (1979)
    • The Crown of Dalemark (1993)
  • Howl’s Castle:
    • Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
    • The Castle in the Air (1990)
    • House of Many Ways (2008)
  • Magids:
    • Deep Secret (1997)
    • The Merlin Conspiracy (2003)
  • Derkholm:
    • Dark Lord of Derkholm (1998)
    • Year of the Griffin (2000)

CFP: Sharing Spaces in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Kristi Fleetwood and I are organizing a session at NeMLA 2020. Below is the CFP for our session.

NeMLA’s 51st Annual Convention, March 5-8, 2020, Boston, Massachusetts

The collection Children’s Geographies explores children’s places from playgrounds, social networks, schools, streets, villages, etc. Peter Hunt’s “Unstable Metaphors: Symbolic Spaces and Specific Places” differentiates between the internal/personal of the “space” and the external/reality of the “place.” Drawing on these ideas, this panel seeks to continue the discussion of children’s spaces and places by asking how children exist in the real world and the fictional world, in addition to how their literature serves (or doesn’t serve) as a distinct place of its own.

Children’s and Young Adult literature are often treated as their own cohesive categories. However, the spaces of children’s and YA literature are shared by many genres and cultures, and children’s and YA literature themselves share space with adult literature. The readers of these categories frequently overlap, despite publishers’ marketing. The conventions of the books divided by readers’ age also overlap when they share genres (for example, children’s historical fiction and adults’ historical fiction share generic conventions, although those conventions may manifest differently).

This panel aims to put these various elements of children’s and Young Adult literature into conversation, exploring the spaces that they share in order to deepen our understanding of how children’s and YA literature function on the page and in real life.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • shared spaces in children’s literature
  • shared spaces between children’s and adult literature
  • shared spaces between genres of children’s literature
  • What happens when we consider distinct cultures in children’s literature in relation to each other?
  • How do children carve out their own spaces in a world where adults ultimately control all spaces?
  • How do gender, class, race, and other social influences affect how children navigate their spaces?
  • Where are children allowed authority?
  • Where are children allowed a voice of their own?How does movement between places and spaces affect the role of the child?

Submit 250-word abstract to the NeMLA website by September 30, 2019.

Revising Syllabi and Assignments: Picture Books

It’s the end of the semester, and I’m waiting for final papers to come in so I can do some grading. So, naturally, I’m looking at my syllabi for fall…

I’m teaching two classes in Fall 2019:

  • English 301: British Literature, Origins to Milton
  • English 335: Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature

I’ve taught both these courses before, but I’m making drastic changes to both syllabi. I have a lot of thoughts about even just the name of the 301 course (origins? okay then). But I’ll save that for another post (maybe). Here I want to focus on one aspect of the 335 syllabus: the picture book assignment.

The last time I taught the class, in Fall 2018, I had students write two essays, an annotated bibliography, and a picture book. There was an essay that explored a children’s book award and one book that won the award; an annotated bibliography of children’s books focusing on either a genre or a time period; and a traditional literary final paper.

I thought of the picture book as a “small” assignment, and was astonished when students told me they were spending lots of time on it. I had envisioned it as a fun end-of-semester activity. I emphasized many times that stick-figure drawings were fine – as long as the picture book achieved its purpose of demonstrating that students had grasped some of the concepts we had discussed throughout the semester.

But I had erroneously been counting on students understanding pedagogical strategies.

Sure, I could know in my own mind that I would not grade the quality of art or construction of the book (beyond that there was some art and that the book was held together somehow).

But for students, when I ask for a picture book, the assignment is monumental. Coupled with their final paper, which I assigned to overlap with this “fun” assignment, they were understandably very overwhelmed.


Doing this assignment also made me aware of benefits I hadn’t even thought of. I had done creative assignments before, but they had been obviously smaller. In my early British literature surveys, I ask students to write a short poem or create a composite digital image (among other options) related to one text or theme of the course. But the picture book assignment – which I had designed based on other professors’ assignments I had seen – was actually far more complex and beneficial than I had realized.

I had left the picture book assignment for the end of the semester last fall because I had planned to read picture books with my class throughout the semester. I teach the class once a week, for 2.5 hours each session. I had planned my syllabus chronologically, providing a historical overview of the development of children’s literature. I intended to discuss one Middle Grade book each week, and then read and discuss one picture book each week. The idea was not to require students to buy picture books – we could have “reading circle” where I or a student would read the book aloud and show the pictures.

That didn’t work, for a number of reasons. First of all, doing a chronological study necessarily foregrounds white colonial children’s texts, and I was not happy with the way that turned out. We also had so much to discuss about each Middle Grade book that we didn’t get to the one-a-week picture book. Instead, we did a few focused activities using four or five picture books twice during the semester, and I set aside time in class for students to workshop their picture books at multiple stages.

For Fall 2019, I’m planning to do a unit on picture books at the very start of the semester instead, with students creating their own picture books at the end of that unit. I’ll assign the picture book in place of the first essay, and I will incorporate more direct instructions and limitations, thus allowing students to approach it the same way I intend it (or, more accurately, intending it the same way I know students will approach it).

Below are some samples of the books my Fall 2018 class made (used here with their permission). They show some great skills:

  • rhyming
  • image and text
  • page-turners
  • silliness
  • dealing with common fears
  • …among others

Textual and Emotional Complexities for a (formerly-Orthodox) Jewish Medievalist

This past weekend, I attended and participated in the wonder that is ICMS Kalamazoo. Thousands of medievalists descended on the campus of Western Michigan University for our annual session of conviviality of all kinds, including intellectual, social, emotional, and nonsensical.

I presented twice this year: Once on a traditional panel of 20-minute presentations, and once on a roundtable, semi-informal talks on a particular question followed by general discussion among the presenters and the audience. The roundtable was an amazing experience, centering the identities of the speakers and audience members as we talked about what we do. I loved how the session ended: with an affirmation that the “default” identity of scholars has for so long been “Christian white male,” and that our acknowledgement of biases (based on religion, cultural identity, gender, sexuality, etc.) does not mean we’re more biased than the “default” Christian white male – just that we’re aware of our biases in a way he isn’t. And calling out the inherent bias in the “default,” traditional mode of scholarship is a large part of why we assert our own identities so much.

That session wasn’t live-tweeted, at the request of the presenters, because of the sensitive and personal nature of the talks. It was hard enough making ourselves vulnerable to the people in the room! But I do want to share my remarks, so I’m posting them here, lightly edited.

In a tweet that got a lot of attention a while ago, a medievalist joked that people who grew up religious have a leg up as medievalists. My reply: “depends which religion.” The tweet referred to Catholic terms, for sacraments or other practices, that show up in medieval literature that isn’t explicitly religious. Growing up with ultra-Orthodox Jewish religion did not give me a leg up in understanding Catholic terms. But the religion I grew up with does sometimes give me a leg up in my studies. It also adds a lot of complexity and complications to my study, in both textual and emotional spheres.

So first, here’s a few examples of when it helped me:

In a class on animal studies and Middle English literature, we talked about the way insects can be viewed as a category separate from “animals.” Having grown up with the idea that eating a bug is a sin with such severity that it would give me the equivalence of seven other sins, I was at least primed to consider bugs as “not-animals.” Not only that, I was able to draw on halachic discussions, conversations about Jewish law, that I had grown up with. When I was a teenager, someone discovered that the New York reservoir doesn’t filter out all organisms – it allows a non-harmful number of organisms to remain in the water. But some of the organisms are non-kosher “bugs,” and an argument raged in haredi communities about whether microscopic bugs can even be considered non-kosher. So in this seminar on medieval ideas about bugs and fleas, I explained the halachic concept of “able to be seen by the naked eye,” and I recounted the way people in my community sat staring at glasses of water to try and see these bugs – because if they didn’t see the “bugs,” they could drink the water.

In that same class, I mentioned that we would always check figs before eating them, opening them up and spreading them out to see if there were any bugs inside the fig. Someone did a quick search and found information about wasps that die inside figs and then decompose, fertilizing the fig. That added to a great discussion about the connections and interactions between humans, non-human animals, and plants.

The thing is, bringing these things up in class was emotionally complicated for me. I have bitter associations with these concepts. They were stringencies that made my life unnecessarily complicated – for example, I couldn’t refill my water bottle from the college’s water fountains, because they weren’t filtered according to rabbinic stringency. The knowledge that my Jewish upbringing gave me, the knowledge I was able to bring to class to enrich discussions, was always emotionally loaded.

We also talked a lot about decomposing bodies in this class. At one point, we talked about how people in the Middle Ages thought that uncorrupted bodies were signs that the people were holy and sainted in life. I joked (bitterly, to myself) – Christians in medieval Europe, and Jews in twenty-first-century Brooklyn believe the same thing… There are stories still told and fully believed today, about great rabbis whose graves were desecrated, and the bodies were intact years after burial – interpreted as signs of their greatness. This wasn’t solely an academic discussion for me – it was viscerally connected to things I had grown up with, and things I had consciously left and distanced myself from.

Before I left that whole world, I encountered emotional complexities involuntarily as well. When I started grad school, I was still religious and living with my parents in Boro Park, Brooklyn. I moved out and left religion that January, after my first semester was over. In my Old English class that first semester, when I was still visibly religious, I was once assigned a passage from Aelfric’s Preface to Genesis. I translated it as usual. It happened to be arguing that the Old Testament book of Genesis proves the Trinity, because God says, “let us make man in our likeness” – plural “us,” singular “likeness.” I had fun with the translation, as I always do – I love the puzzle of grammar and translation, and the fact that this one was focused on a bit of grammar itself was added fun! This kind of exegesis is also very familiar to me – Rashi, an eleventh-century Jewish commentator on the Torah and Talmud, often uses grammar to make a theological point. The moment it became not-so-fun for me was when I read the lines aloud in class and my professor’s immediate comment was, “I’m sorry for making you read heresy.” I hadn’t cared about the “blasphemous” content of the text – it was an academic exercise for me. And while I appreciate his thoughtfulness in trying to spare my religious sensibilities, it lifted me out of the academic dissociation (which had been a good thing!) and forced my Jewish identity back into the room, where I didn’t want it.

During that semester, I also became painfully aware of how little my deep and broad knowledge of Torah and Judaism would help in the sphere of mainstream medieval studies, centered as it is on Christianity. We were reading the Old English Judith, and the class turned to me, as a Jewish person who has extensive Jewish education, to clarify where in the Torah the book of Judith appears. I said, with great certainty, that Judith and Maccabees are books that do not exist in Hebrew – they exist only in the Christian Bible and as oral Jewish history. I was half-right. These books are not part of the Hebrew Torah (there are 24 books which I can still recite by heart). But they do exist in written Hebrew versions. They just weren’t accepted as canon in the Jewish Torah.

Being surrounded by medievalists means that I find out more about my own heritage. I grew up in ultra-Orthodox Boro Park and attended a Bais Yaakov all-girls school, where I often did not get a historically-accurate account of Jewish history or theology. In an attempt to portray haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism as the one true version of Judaism that has its roots at Mt Sinai, the community often flattens out the many twists and turns that Jewish theology and Jewish law took through the ages (this is something I discuss in my dissertation about haredi children’s literature).

Bais Yaakov schools also often bowdlerize Torah and commentaries to avoid uncomfortable discussions about sex (among other things). So when I was in twelfth grade, I learned “Adam yadah es Chavah,” Adam knew Eve, as “Adam married Eve” – no mention of sex. I knew enough by that point to recognize that this “knew” referred to “carnal knowledge” (I read books from the public library against my school’s rules…) But I wasn’t always so aware and sophisticated… So I often retain wrong knowledge of Torah and commentaries.

Recently, I discovered another verse in Genesis that had been censored in Bais Yaakov. Rashi has a controversial explanation for Adam’s request for a mate. As we had learned it, Adam saw that every other animal had a mate, and he felt lonely and asked God for one of his own. But according to Rashi, Adam tried to have sex with every single animal, realized that none was compatible, and only then asked God for a mate. We usually read Rashi’s commentary on every word in every verse – we only skipped the comments where he translated words into “la’az,” the French vernacular. But we had apparently skipped this comment of Rashi’s, where he talks about Adam’s bestiality (or, possibly, the haredi-published edition of Torah we used in school leaves out this comment). I found this out because I read medievalist blogs – this one in particular was on Karl Steel’s blog, where he was writing about medieval posthumanism and the various ways in which medieval people wrote about human-animal interactions.

Again, while this is a “cool” moment of discovery for many people, for me as a formerly-ultra-Orthodox Jew it’s tinged with bitterness – this is my own heritage (I mean, not just that I’m Jewish, but according to my uncle, who traced our genealogy, I’m actually a direct descendant of Rashi), but that heritage was stolen from me by omissions from the text we supposedly knew very well. It’s being given back to me by medievalists – and by my own studies in medieval literature. In a more direct incident, my paper for a class on “Medieval Conversions” with Steve Kruger focused on Hebrew chronicles and liturgical poetry of the Crusades. I recognized some of the poetry from the times I went to services on Tisha b’Av, when the Book of Lamentations is read along with liturgical poems commemorating Jewish tragedies throughout the centuries.

My dissertation is no longer medieval (I’m writing about contemporary haredi children’s literature). But I’m working on an article I hope will be ready for submission this summer, an extension of that seminar paper examining twelfth-century Hebrew chronicles and poetry about the Crusades, when many Jews in Europe were slaughtered by Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. It’s a difficult process for me – these atrocities happened to my ancestors, and I often break down in sorrow as I read the texts.

But the rhetoric in these texts, about the martyrs who gave their lives rather than convert to the “horrible impure” Christianity, is far too similar to what my parents and grandmother said to me, when they told me not to associate with goyim, and when they told me that I owe my faith to my ancestors who suffered to hold onto their own faith. But at the same time, studying these texts gives me release – I can reclaim my heritage through academic study. I also finally have that “leg up” because Biblical references are embedded throughout the texts, often unexplained, and I can recognize them – I can recite many verses of Torah and Talmud because of my twelve+ years of school, and I grew up with many of them as part of my everyday language.

So being a Jewish medievalist, especially an ex-Orthodox medievalist, is emotionally very difficult. But davka because of the very things that make it difficult, it’s also emotionally great.

Using PowerPoint Projects to Teach Essay Skills

When I teach literature, my focus is on enabling students to make strong arguments about the literature and writing strong essays based on those arguments. Although I of course have specific things I want my students to learn from each text, my goal for the course as a whole is that students learn how to make any argument they want about any text.

This semester, I found that my students were able to engage in classroom discussion about various aspects of each text. But when it came to writing essays, they struggled with moving beyond summary into analysis. Their first essay of the semester was a close reading, and it went fairly well. But for the second essay, when I asked for an analysis of one of the texts we had discussed, the essays were almost entirely summary.

For a short-term solution, I set aside half a session of our once-a-week class for an in-depth lesson on the difference between summary and analysis, methods for understanding when an assignment requires one versus the other, and strategies for formulating a thesis (and an essay) that provides an analysis rather than a summary. I allowed students to revise their essays once more time for a new grade, and that worked in the short-term.

For the long-term, I added activities for future texts that would support and enforce the lesson on analysis. Since this is a Writing Intensive class, and since our class meets in a computer lab, I was able to build all of this into the lessons without adding extra homework for my students (almost all of whom work and have families).

One of these activities was a collaborative PowerPoint presentation, based on Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In a stroke of luck, technology on campus was down on the first day of our discussion, so I had to revert to old-school material. It was frustrating at first to rush out and print worksheets instead of having everyone logged on to BlackBoard and Google Slides, but it actually worked in our favor!

Here’s how the two-week activity went:

Each of my lessons begins with a “Write Now” – a term I borrow from my years as a middle-school teacher. In regular classrooms, students write on papers which I collect. In computer classrooms, students write on BlackBoard’s Discussion Board. The immense benefits of this are that I can read their responses in real time, they can read each other’s responses, they can refer back to their responses all in one place when writing their papers, and – perhaps most importantly – we can use their responses immediately in that day’s lesson.

The “Write Now” assignments range from open-ended prompts like “choose a quote from the book and free-write about it” to more specific questions that guide students to more complex ideas, often asking students to consider theoretical underpinnings that we had previously discussed, like gender theory or the functions of various genres, in conjunction with the text.

For The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I asked students to respond to one of three questions:

  1. This book is narrated in the first person (the narrator is the main character, using “I”). How does this choice affect the book? How does it affect the way the story is told? How does it affect the way the reader experiences the story?
  2. Junior is an amateur cartoonist, and this book has little drawings and sketches sprinkled throughout. How does the addition of images affect the way the story is told? Do the images simply illustrate what’s already said in the text, or do they add something else (content, mood, interpretation, etc)?
  3. The tone of the book (especially in the beginning) is very sarcastic. Why does Junior’s voice start out so cynical? How does the cynicism and sarcasm affect the way the story is told? How do they affect the way the reader experiences the story?

Since we didn’t have access to computers for this activity, I printed the questions and students wrote answers by hand. It detracted from my ability to see what was going on, but the next activity I had planned for the day – a “jigsaw” activity – allowed me to continually check in and ensure students were on the right track.

A “jigsaw” activity allows students to become experts on a single aspect of a larger discussion, and to then teach the aspect they are experts in to their classmates.

To start, I divided the class into six groups of three. Each group was assigned one question to consider. I asked them to start by discussing their own initial responses to the question, and to then move on to asking questions of each other’s responses, whether they agree, disagree, have more to add, etc. Finally, I asked them to make sure that they had citations from the book to support their answers.

Each topic was discussed by two groups. The second stage of the activity was combing the two groups who had discussed each topic for a broader analysis. At this stage, I asked students to make sure that each student was able to convey the group’s discussion and conclusions to their classmates who had not discussed this topic at all.

For the last part of the “jigsaw” activity, the class divided into groups of three, consisting of one student per topic. They each taught their topic to the others, which naturally led to a discussion of overlapping themes and connecting thread. (And where it didn’t naturally happen, I nudged them along…) Finally, we came back together for a full-class discussion of everything they had learned during this process.

For the PowerPoint activity, I had pre-created a Google Slides presentation and pasted the link on BlackBoard. Since we did not have access to computers, I printed the slides out for each student. After our mid-class fifteen-minute break (it’s a 2.5 hour class…), I asked students to jot down as much as they could for each slide, which was based on their previous discussions and/or questions from the Discussion Guide at the back of our books. They were not formally paired or grouped for this part of the lesson, but I encouraged conversation and collaboration. I asked them to each draw one sketch as well as writing bullet points.

Due to technological limitations, I had to improvise the next steps. I collected all the notes my students had written down, and I added them to the Google Slide presentation myself, consolidating only when points obviously repeated each other. I also took photos of some of the sketches and added them into the appropriate slides.

I then organized the first slide, which had been titled “Title and Cover.” There were enough details from my students’ notes to warrant dividing that first slide into two separate ones.

I left the rest of the slides a mess of bullet points, no organization at all.

In the following class, I divided my students into groups and assigned each one a slide with the mission of organizing it all. By the end of it, we had a full set of notes on most of the topics I wanted to discuss for this book.

After all that, I assigned the final essay of the semester… A joy! But I pointed out that we had been practicing all the skills that would help them do well on this final essay: note-taking, formulating analyses, organizing those analyses, and creating outlines.

We finished it all with one final slide. During the second week of our discussion of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, we had focused on the two basketball games between Wellpinit and Reardan. The question I had posed to the class was: How do these two scenes function within the text as a whole? In groups again, students discussed the two scenes and wrote a one-sentence (and in one case, a two-sentence…) “thesis.”

We’re off for spring break now, and I’m looking forward to reading my student’s drafts when we get back in May. After this, I’m hoping that my students will have improved in the areas of analysis, thesis, and organization.

Grief and Glory: Use of Hebrew Crusades Chronicles and Piyuttim to Deter Adolescent Conversion

Way back in 2015, what feels like a lifetime ago, I wrote a seminar paper titled “Affective Use of First Crusade Chronicles and Piyyutim to Stem Adolescent Conversion” for a class on medieval conversions. In 2017, I presented a revised version of that paper at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds.

My work has since shifted in multiple ways, and that paper doesn’t fit into my dissertation anymore. But I’ve kept it simmering on a back burner, always intending to do something with it. Now, after a Twitter conversation with someone who encouraged me to write and submit this to journals, I’m working on it again.

The paper I presented at Leeds needs a lot or work and revision – essentially a whole rewrite – to make it journal-submission-worthy. I’m sharing it here as I begin to revise, rewrite, rework it.


The first few sections of the paper lead you through my thought-process and research process because I was still working through these ideas at the time and was far from being able to write decisively and authoritatively. Hopefully, returning to this all after having it rattle around my brain for two years, I’ll be able to write it more seamlessly for publication!

I ’m going to begin with three introductions. First, about how this paper fits into my work more broadly: This paper is really only tangential to my dissertation topic. My dissertation focuses on educational and pedagogical moves in medieval British literature. [Edit: no longer true. My dissertation no longer focuses on medieval British literature, but on contemporary American Haredi literature.] There is a consensus in childhood studies and in medieval studies that various constructions of childhood existed based on differences in class, gender, religion, etc. I’ll be arguing that the ideologies of education and of childhood are dependent as much on differences in the formal conventions of literary genres as on the lived differences of medieval children. This paper is focused on a different geographic area (Ashkenaz) and doesn’t deal directly with educational texts. But it does focus on the ways in which adults try to teach or influence young minds, and that is the focus of my dissertation. [This part is still true.]The argument of this paper is based on an exploration of how these texts may have been used to influence young minds, how adults thought certain moves and associations would affect teenage boys’ decisions.

So now for a brief introduction to the texts and the events they commemorate, with an acknowledgement that this is not my main area of study and I may at times gloss over some of the more important aspects in order to get to my point of interest… In 1096, as Crusaders headed to Jerusalem during the First Crusade, they passed through Europe and killed many Jews who lived in the area called Ashkenaz, particularly in the cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. This tragedy became an integral part of Jewish history – in fact, growing up in a twentieth-century Jewish home and attending Jewish schools, I thought the Crusades were only about the Christians killing Jews – like a precursor to the Holocaust. The Hebrew chronicles and poetry written in the twelfth century to commemorate the tragedy of course also focus on the Jewish victims, with only brief mention of the main purpose of the Crusades – as one would expect from texts memorializing the massacres of Jewish communities.

Susan Einbinder argues that the martyrological poetry was aimed at least in part at an audience of potential converts after the threat of the Crusades had passed – medieval Jews converted to Christianity at times voluntarily due to a variety of factors including social, economic, and political factors. William Chester Jordan claims that adolescent Jewish boys were the group most vulnerable to voluntary conversion to Christianity in the twelfth century. Einbinder draws on that argument to suggest that aspects of the poetry do show signs of being directed at adolescent males rather than (or, in addition to) adults – the poetry sets up the extreme cruelty and evil of the Christian Crusaders in contradiction to the pure and valiant martyrdom of the Jewish teens, which adults hoped would convince teens to align themselves with the pure and valiant (the Jews) rather than the cruel and evil (the Christians.)

The third introduction is about my personal connection to the topic. When I read Susan Einbinder’s argument that the piyyutim, the poetry, were perhaps used to persuade teenage boys not to convert from Judaism to Christianity, my first reaction was – I was baffled. If adolescent boys were at risk for conversion because of the suffering and degradation they experienced as Jews and because of the perceived release from suffering that conversion could bestow – how, then, could poetry which agonizes over the suffering and deaths of the previous generation convince young boys to remain Jewish? If the poetry keeps telling them how bad it is for Jews, wouldn’t that serve to convince them to leave rather than to stay in the Jewish community?  Einbinder does address that, but from my own childhood and adolescence, I could find an answer – I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, where the Holocaust is invoked often to prove that Jews are the most persecuted people in the history of the world, and there is an expectation that this reminder will engender Jewish pride and a sense of belonging and obligation rather than a desire to leave – in fact, when I left religion, my mother said to me, “you’re demeaning the sacrifices your ancestors made in order to keep the faith.” So, I could begin to see that perhaps stories of ongoing persecution could be used as a means of convincing people to remain part of the persecuted group. Whether or not it works is a different story… But it does indicate that it is thought to be effective.

As I continued to read about the chronicles and the piyyutim, and as I read the texts themselves numerous times, I had another question, this time about the glorification of the martyrs, especially the young martyrs. It would seem that these figures, the young adult males who sacrificed themselves, would be the point of identification for boys in the following generation, boys who are ostensibly the target of anti-conversionary uses of the texts. But the point can’t possibly be to convince these teenage boys to martyr themselves? I began to read about the ideas of martyrdom, and about the uses of these texts in later generations, etc. And again, this is addressed in the scholarship, which emphasizes that the martyrs were not an ideal to emulate. But another memory from my own childhood and adolescence surfaced: the many times I had heard the phrase, “it’s wonderful to die al Kiddush Hashem (in sanctification of God’s name), but it’s much more difficult and much more beautiful to live al Kiddush Hashem.” So again, I could see that rhetoric being employed with the Crusade chronicles and piyyutim as well – the boys would see the impossible choice the martyrs had, and the adults hoped that this would inspire them to live according to God’s principles.

These personal conclusions were borne out as I continued reading. I think it’s important to make this connection, to acknowledge that the kinds of arguments scholars see being made in medieval texts are still used today. And here I leave the personal behind, and get to the analysis of the Hebrew texts themselves…

Both sets of texts grapple with theological ideas like whether the victims of the Crusade massacres were sinful and being punished or were in fact holy and being tested – the resounding conclusion is that they were holy and passed an extremely difficult test set by God, and that this heralds hope for an immediate redemption rather the absence of God’s help seen during the massacres. But these complex problems are dealt with not via theological reasoning but via strong emotional expression: expressions of outrage and despair at God turn quickly into expressions of hope and blessing, making the jump via emotionally-charged language rather than rational explanation. If we accept Einbinder’s claim (as I do) that this body of poetry was utilized to dissuade teenage boys from converting, then it would seem that emotional rather than theological argument was the preferred strategy for preventing young converts. While the prose chronicles are less forceful in their emotional expression and do include some theological reasoning, they also use emotional language. (Of course, the prose wasn’t used the same way the poetry was, as part of the liturgy, and wasn’t as widely read as the poems. But there is of course reason to include them in an analysis of rhetorical attempts to dissuade conversion.)

The reason this matters a lot to me is that Einbinder bases her argument on the following factors: first, “the stylistic features and some of the motifs in Hebrew martyrological poetry suggest that its textual matter targeted an audience characterized by a high level of linguistic sophistication and a high susceptibility to images of vulgarity and pollution” (12). That’s in her introduction, a brief overview of this point. Later, in the chapter where she lays out the full argument, she writes that “young men experiencing the characteristic frustration and volatility of adolescence could see in conversion a powerful way to rebel” (25). This assumes that medieval teenage boys were in essence the same as contemporary teenage boys – frustrated, volatile, wanting to rebel – an assumption I think is made too quickly.

Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, in an essay about madness, conversion, and adolescent suicide among Jews in twelfth-century England, defines adolescence according to a mix of contemporary and historical views: first, there’s the “radical changes associated with puberty,” which in contemporary thought is linked to hormonal changes “causing emotional and personal changes accompanied by a growing awareness of the self and a projected self-image,” at times linked to an identity crisis and defining oneself vis-à-vis others. He also says that adolescents tend to “wrestle with ideological issues rather intensely,” and that adults tend to interpret all of this as “impulsive and incoherent” (73).

The problem with all of this is that it assumes that once the category of adolescence is proven to be applicable to medieval youth (as Einbinder acknowledges that it is an often-contested category), contemporary ideas about adolescence are mapped onto medieval adolescence. While the consensus among medieval childhood scholars is that there was in fact a category of adolescence during the Middle Ages, the characteristics associated with that stage in medieval minds could be different than the contemporary ideas, and could vary widely between Christian communities and Jewish communities. While I saw no reason to discount Einbinder’s and Shoham-Steiner’s assumptions, I did want to check their accuracy. After analyzing the texts for evidence of attitudes toward adolescents via the ways in which adults spoke to or attempted to influence adolescents, I concluded that (according to these texts, at least) these assumptions could be accurate. The ways in which the chronicles and poetry attempt to influence the minds of these adolescent boys indicate that the medieval Jewish Ashkenazic idea of teenage boys does focus on their volatility, and does view their “intense wrestling with ideological matters” as simply “impulsive and incoherent.”

Eliezer bar Nathan begins his chronicle with the technical details of where and when, referring to the Torah in the midst of this very briefly in order to say that ״כל הצרות האמורות בכל התוכחות הכתובות בעשרים וארבעה ספרים, כתוב ולא כתוב עבר עלינו ועל נפשנו״ (Haberman 72), “All the misfortunes related in all the admonitions written in the twenty-four books, those enumerated in Scripture as well as those unwritten, befell us and our souls” (Eidelberg 79). In this way, the chronicle of simple historical facts is already set up as an attempt to explain the events theologically, not only to describe them. And yet for the next while in the text, events are described and no explicit theological reason is given for the troubles plaguing the Jewish communities.

Later in the chronicle, there are two clear instances of a kind of explanation. The second one occurs during the narration of a failed attempt by the bishop of Mainz to save some of the Jews by relocating them to the villages of Rheingau, where Bar Nathan says that fleeing was futile, ״כי בעוונותינו ניתן רשות למשחית לחבל״ (Haberman 75), “for because of our sins, the slayer had been given permission to injure” (Eidelberg 84). This is a common explanation for tragedy, but again, doesn’t seem suitable for an attempt to win young boys back to the faith. The first instance, though, is a perfect strategy for playing on emotions of pride in saying that ״וזה הדור נבחר לפניו להיות לו למנה, כי היה בהם כח וגבורה לעמוד בהיכלו ולעשות דברו ולקדש שמו הגדול בעולמו ועליהם אמר דוד ׳ברכו יי מלאכיו גבורי כח עושי דברו״ (Haberman 73), “this was the generation that had been chosen by Him to be His portion, for they had the strength and the fortitude to stand in His sanctuary, and fulfill His word, and sanctify His Great Name in His world. It is of these that King David said: ‘Bless the Lord, ye angels of His, ye mighty in strength, that fulfill His word’” (Eidelberg 80).

Though the boys susceptible to conversionary efforts would not have been part of this generation chosen for their strength, the chronicle’s narrative shifting between communities, community leaders, and brave young individuals does have the potential to inspire a fierce pride and to create an alignment in the young readers’ minds between themselves and these brave chosen ones. (Others have read this shifting between leaders and individuals differently, but this explanation does work here in the context of adolescents…) And although the chronicle does not do this very much, some of the poems make a clear connection between the word בחורים meaning young men and the idea of נבחר, the chosen ones. בחורים does literally mean chosen ones, and the juxtaposition of these words in some poems (particularly אדברה בצר רוחי “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi”) provides strong suggestion that the young men are the best and bravest.

One of the anonymous poems, אדברה בצר רוחי “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi,” uses the explanation of the people’s sins as well, but the nuances there are different.

על התורה אשר בקדושה נחקקה, כלו לומדיה שנתגזרו להפסקה ברית מילה חמחודה וחשוקה, שבתות ומועדים וכל יום צרה וצוקה

חסין יה, שוכן מעלים! מקדם על עקידה אחת צעקו לפניך אראלים, ועתה כמה נעקדים ונכללים – ומדוע לא הרעישו על בני עוללים!

ואנו אין להרהר על הרדומים, כי הם לחיי עד ערוכים ומחותמים: אבל עלינו, כי למאד חויבנו אשמים אשר עברנו מצוות תמימים (Haberman 62 and Carmi 373)

On the Torah which was enacted in holiness, her learners died because they were ordered to stop the precious and desirable bris milah, and the Shabbos and holidays and every day of tragedy and distress.

Almighty Lord, dwelling on high, in days of old the angels cried out to you to put a halt to one sacrifice [akeidah]. And now, so many are bound and slaughtered – why do they not clamour over my infants?

But we must not question the fate of the dead, for they have been destined for eternal life. We must question ourselves, for we have been found very guilty; we have transgressed the precepts of right. (Carmi 373)

There is a clear separation here, again not atypical of explanations of tragedy, between those killed, or sacrificed, and those left to mourn. Those killed are pure and holy – they have sanctified god’s name. Those left to live with the horrors must do a personal accounting of their sins and acknowledge their part in bringing suffering upon the nation. Two stanzas before the line confessing guilt, the poet talks about the holiness of the Torah and those who study it, and claims that the holy students died because they were told to stop practicing bris milah and observing Shabbos and holidays. It suggests the martyrs acted with steadfast refusal to leave their faith and implies that those who survived might not have been strong enough and instead brought god’s wrath on the entire community.

While that does not seem effective in inspiring good feelings in the youth and would rather inspire resentment at being called sinful, most of the other rhetorical constructions in both the poetry and prose ensure that the young readers would be identifying with the martyred heroes and not with those too weak to resist. The next stanza in this poem does that: ״חי עולמים, בצל כנפיך אנו בורחים, כי נשארנו עגונים ואנוחים מבלי להשתתף לתלוי שוחחים – פגר מובס, יבושו כל אליו בוטחים!״ “O everlasting God, we seek refuge in the shadow of Your wings. We have been abandoned, alone and suffering, because we refused to bow our heads before the crucified one, a corpse trampled underfoot. Let all who put their trust in him be put to shame!” (Carmi 373). Although the poem calls out the survivors for having sinned, the rhetoric negates that and instead places them in the category of those who sacrificed their lives for god – “we have refused to bow…” As Einbinder points out, the poems tend to ignore the individuals who did convert or were forcibly converted, while the prose chronicles do mention them (Einbinder 20). But the chronicles, particularly Bar Nathan’s, even as they relate conversions taking place, go to great efforts to present these converts in a heroic light as well. There is the instance of Master Uri and Master Isaac with Isaac’s two daughters all killing themselves after having been forcibly converted (Eidelberg 84), where it is obvious that the conversion was not a result of weakness and that they were spared from death not because they were unworthy of being martyrs. Their suicides make it clear that they are just as holy and above suspicion as those killed by the Crusaders. Their suicides, of course, are their acts of martyrdom.

The chronicle also mentions those who converted, or who were converted forcibly, and did not martyr themselves. Again using language evoking vivid images of vile putrefaction, the chronicle says, “שסופם מוכיח על תחילתם, שלסוף לא חשבו את יראתם עי אם לטיט ולצואה” (Haberman 73), “the later acts of those thus coerced are testimony to this beginning, for in the end they regarded the object of the enemy’s veneration as no more than slime and dung” (Eidelberg 81). Rather than leave an opening for the vulnerable teens to say, “but these people converted and made it!” the chronicle states clearly that even those who escaped dying, which the teens might connect to their own potential escape from hardship and degradation, knew by the end that their new environment was associated with “slime and dung.”

A technique which does tie fierce pride and community to faith-based identification is the relating of events to significant moments in the Jewish calendar or week. The connection is made between the calendar day when the Jews began to prepare themselves to receive the Torah and the day when the community of Worms began to seclude themselves and prepare to sacrifice themselves. The destruction of Cologne as ״ויהרסו בית הכנסת ויוציאו את ספרי התורות ויתעוללו בהם ויתנום למרמס חוצות, ביום נתינתה, אשר הרעישה הארץ ועמודיה יתפלצון״ (Haberman 76), “the foe destroyed the synagogue and removed the Torah scrolls, desecrating them and casting them into the streets to be trodden underfoot” happened “on the very day that the Torah was given, when the earth trembled and its pillars quivered” (Eidelberg 85), drawing a distinction between the holiness of the Jews on that day and the profanity of the Christians. A few times, bar Nathan mentions that the destruction began or the first person was killed on Shabbos or as Shabbos was about to begin, implying an inherent holiness to the action further imbued by the holiness of the day. As the youth admire the heroism and bravery for its exciting qualities, the overt connection to religious faith and bravery would (or would be hoped to) strengthen the affective bond of the youth to the Jewish faith.

Though the lack of theological discussion is obvious, a staple of lamentations – that of crying out to god and either pleading for redemption or accusing him of ignoring those pleas – is employed in the chronicle to serve a kind of theological purpose. Exclamations like ״העל אלה לא תפקוד בם. ועד אנה תביט בוגדים ותחריש״ (Haberman 76), “O God, will You not punish them for these acts? How long will you look on at the wicked and remain silent?” (Eidelberg 85) do raise the question about why god stands by and does not protect the Jews, but at the same time they answer that question with the implicit expectation of eventual salvation. Twice bar Nathan uses the sentence ״העל אלה תתאפק יי״ (Haberman 75 and 80), “Wilt thou restrain Thyself for these things, O Lord?” (Eidelberg 83 and 90), with the expectation obviously being that he will not. The poetry as a general rule employs more anger and accusation in these anguished cries, but the prose embeds answers within the questions.

Both of these match the functions of each set in terms of influencing young men. Even with the chronicle’s craft in evoking emotion, it is more logical than the poetry and it is understandable that the author would want to at least gesture toward a level-headed answer. If dissatisfaction with being a part of a community which suffers so much was a possible impetus for conversion, giving the youth a place to express anger at their situation was vital, especially when the speaker of the poem was one of the leaders of the community. For a few moments, everyone, both the scholarly old and the rash youth, could be united in their anguish and could acknowledge that believing that god will make things right does not take away the pain of the moment. Validating that emotion for adolescents would be more crucial in convincing them to stay with the battered community than any theological reasoning.

Playing on the emotions of the reader in relation to family, closer to home than the general community, the texts also set up the youth as a link between generations past and future. The examples of this are interestingly divided neatly, so that the prose chronicle contains more descriptions of fathers in this context and the poetry more descriptions of little children, especially younger siblings. Bar Nathan recounts many stories involving sons and fathers. One is skillfully crafted not only to showcase Jewish familial pride and legacy, but at the same time to juxtapose Christian expectations with that.

״וקידש מר שמואל ב״ר אשר את השם לעיני השמש וגם שני בניו אשר עמו. לאחר שנהרג, הוא ובניו, התעוללו בהם וגררום וירמוסם בטיט חוצות, ויתלו את בניו על פתח ביתו כדי להתעולל בו״

(Haberman 77)

“Samuel, the son of Asher, sanctified God’s Name for all to behold, as did his two sons who were with him. After he and his sons were slain, they [the Crusaders] defiled their bodies by dragging them through the muddy streets and trampling them. Then they hanged his sons at the entrance to his home in order to mock him” (Eidelberg 86).

The Crusaders intend this action of hanging his sons at his door to be an insult, displaying their own power and the sons’ degradation and therefore the shame brought upon the father. To the Jews, however, this would have been a symbol of great pride, albeit a somber pride, since the sons followed the father’s lead and martyred themselves for god’s glory, never succumbing to pressure. This works as a method of showing young teenagers how their dedication to their faith could bring their parents joy and pride even among grief.

The poetry plays on another aspect of adolescent pride by addressing the reactions of younger siblings and children more generally. אדברה בצר רוחי  “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi” describes how ״צעקת ילדים איך גדלה! רואים אחיהם נשחטים בחלחלה, האם קושרת בנה פן בפרכוס יחללה, והאב מברך על השחיטה לכללה״ “the children cried aloud! Trembling, they see their brothers slaughtered; the mother binding her son, lest he profane the sacrifice by shuddering; the father making the ritual blessing to sanctify the slaughter” (Carmi 373). Since we’ve accepted that medieval Ashkenazic adolescence is similar to the contemporary idea, I’ll venture to say this: Teens usually can’t resist the idea of having an effect on their younger siblings, and the image of the little ones being so affected by their own sacrifice could have a strong impact on the way they behave. Obviously, they’re not expected to die in order to have this effect on their younger siblings. But as a ploy to get adolescent boys to think about themselves as role models or exemplars for their younger siblings, this moving description of children watching their older brothers die is very powerful.

There’s a lot more to be said about how the texts, both the poetry and the prose, attempt to influence teenage boys. Einbinder includes a question of whether the poetry was effective in these methods, whether it did stem the tide of conversions. There seems to be no real way of drawing direct correlations between the literature and the trends of conversion, and therefore no way of knowing whether the perceived efficacy of these methods worked, whether the way the writers thought teenage minds worked matched with the way teenage minds actually worked. (I know a few rabbis who would love to know which methods work – the director of Agudath Israel loves to call the current trend of youth leaving Orthodox Judaism a “hemorrhage,” though I’m fairly certain he has not read Shatzmiller…) However, it does seem important that the modes of persuasion are similar to some of the modes still used today in some Jewish communities. My work on medieval British literary modes of education and patterns of thought about how children’s and teens’ minds work, etc., suggests (at least so far, as I’m still toward the beginning of my work) that they differ greatly from contemporary modes and patterns.

Afterword:Reading this through again now, it seems so obvious to me that my dissertation shifted from medieval British Christian texts to contemporary American Haredi texts.

Sorted: Educators’ Praise as Evidence of Their Ideologies

According to one theory about the Hogwarts Houses and the Sorting Hat, students are not sorted by what they are best at. Rather, they are sorted by what they value most. Most of the characters in the series contain multiple traits from each of the four houses, but the house they are sorted into indicates which traits they value most.

As I continue to work on my dissertation’s central question (what is education, according to different cultures?) I have been asking what each system of education values. It stands to reason that the traits praised by educators are the ones they see as the goal of education.

My own report cards from elementary school provide an interesting window into this question. I was usually an excellent student, with some notable exceptions. But what exactly each teacher praises is telling.

Some teachers who wrote my report card comments value academics, self-discipline, and effort. Some don’t mention academics at all, and instead focus entirely on personality. Most are a mix of the two. 

Many talk about my contribution to the class, and many mention a wish that I provide nachas to my parents – as if the purpose of my excellence is to benefit my parents and community, not primarily to help propel my own future.

My favorite of these is my eighth grade Secular Studies report card. Mrs. Mitnick was my favorite teacher in elementary/middle school, because she so obviously valued intelligence and academic success for personal benefit. And her comments reflect that. Thank you, Mrs. Malky Mitnick ❤

Below are images and transcriptions of my Jewish Studies and Secular Studies from Pre-1-A through 8th Grade (missing a few).

Pre-1-A: Esther Shaindel is doing very well scholastically and is a pleasure to have in class.
Jewish Studies Grade 1: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a sweet and smart girl. She enjoys learning and participates nicely in class." Term 2: "'All good things wrapped in one.' Esther Shaindel is one gem of a student. She makes every day a happy day." Term 3: "It was a pleasuring [sic] to have Esther Shaindel as a student. She was a great asset to the class. May you continue to see much nachas from her. Have a happy and healthy summer."
Secular Studies Grade 1: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel shows great interest in learning and is doing very well. Keep up the good work!" Term 2: "Esther Shaindel's enthusiastic attitude is a big asset to our class! She continues to do very well! Keep it up!" Term 3: "Esther Shaindel was a great pleasure to teach this year! Her enthusiasm and fine midos should always stay with her! Have a wonderful summer!"
Jewish Studies Grade 2: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is doing very nicely. She adds so much to our class. Esther Shaindel is really a pleasure to teach! Thank you for all your cooperation at home." Term 2: "Esther Shaindel is a gem! Shep nachas! K"ah! [kein ayin hara, no evil eye]" Term 3: "It was a pleasure teaching Esther Shaindel this year! May she continue to be a source of Nachas! Have a nice summer!"
Secular Studies Grade 2: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a very sweet girl. She is well behaved at all times. She is a fine student." Term 2: "Esther Shaindel is a fine, well-behaved child. She is doing above average work. Shep Nachas!" Term 3: "It was a pleasure to have Esther Shaindel as a student this year. Good luck in 3rd grade!"
Jewish Studies Grade 3: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a good girl and excels in her studies!" Term 2: "Esther Shaindel continues in her excelling studies!" Term 3: "Esther Shaindel is a dear girl and an excellent student! May you continue to see much nachas from her!"
Secular Studies Grade 3: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is doing good work in a most conscientious manner. Keep it up!" Term 2: Esther Shaindel continues to be a very good student in all areas." Term 3: Esther Shaindel is a lovely girl and has been a pleasure to have in class. Have much nachas and a nice summer."
Jewish Studies Grade 4: Term 1:  "Esther Shaindel works hard and succeeds thank god in her work. She has a good heart and is always ready to help her friends." Term 2: [blank] Term 3: "It was very pleasant to teach Esther Shaindel. May it be god's will that you see much nachas from her."
Secular Studies Grade4: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel's good work is a reflection of her fine attitude and effort." Term 2: "Esther Shaindel continues to do her work in a most conscientious manner." Term 3: "It was a pleasure having Esther Shaindel in my class. Have a nice summer."
Jewish Studies Grade 5: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a bright student and has added nicely to our class discussions." Term 2: "Although Esther Shaindel went through a difficult stage this term she was still able to pull through with good grades -even without the effort. I would like to see her new attitude and behavior match her intelligence." Term 3: "Have a wonderful summer!"
Jewish Studies Grade 6: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a bright student, who excels in her studies. She is a clear thinker and grasps new ideas readily. I hope to see improvement in completion of her homework assignments. Term 2: [blank] Term 3: "It was a pleasure having Esther Shaindel in my class. Have a wonderful summer!"
Secular Studies Grade 6: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is doing wonderfully in all areas! A pleasure to have!" Term 2: "Esther Shaindel continues to enhance general discussions with her participation. Well done!" Term 3: "Esther Shaindel has done superbly in all areas! Have a wonderful summer!"
Jewish Studies Grade 7: Term 1: [blank] Term 2: [black] Term 3: "Esther Shaindel's quick wit, sense of humor and midos tovos really added to our class!"
Secular Studies Grade 7: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a tremendous asset to our class. Her effort and participation are truly a pleasure." Term 2: "Esther Shaindel continues to do nicely in her schoolwork. She is a pleasure to teach." Term 3: "Esther Shaindel has added to our class tremendously. She has been an absolute pleasure to teach. Have a nice summer!"
Secular Studies Grade 8: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a confident and intelligent student. She performs her best academically and is a strong participant." Term 2: "Esther Shaindel continues to succeed scholastically. She appreciates challenging work and handles her responsibilities maturely." Term 3: "Esther Shaindel was a consistently diligent and cooperative student. Her maturity and knowledge enhanced class discussions."

Announcing: The Bais Yaakov Project!

I am overjoyed to announce that I am part of a brand-new project, The Bais Yaakov Project. The website is still being built, with support from The CUNY Graduate Center’s New Media Lab, and will hopefully go live in early 2019.Bais Yaakov Project CFM

The Project:
The Bais Yaakov Project is dedicated to the collection, preservation, and digitization of historical material related to the Bais Yaakov movement from its founding in 1917 to the 1970s. The Bais Yaakov Project has no affiliation with any Bais Yaakov school or educational organization. It begins as a collaboration by two Bais Yaakov graduates interested in this history, but we hope to expand to include others who share an interest in the movement.

The People:
Dainy Bernstein is a Ph.D. candidate in medieval and children’s literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She attended Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, Bais Yaakov High School in Boro Park, and Yavne Seminary in Cleveland. Her focus of study is education and childhood as represented in literature.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. She attended Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, Bais Yaakov Academy, Michlala, and Bais Yaakov Seminary. Her book, Sarah Schenirer and Bais Yaakov: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, is forthcoming from Littman Library. An exhibit of Bais Yaakov material, and a concert of Bais Yaakov songs through the decades, will accompany the book launch, to be held at the Center for Jewish History on March 17, 2019.

The Public:
We are presently collecting and digitizing historical material in preparation for launching the website in early 2019. We are also interested in the loan of physical objects for display at the CJH exhibit.

Items we are looking for include:

  • Yearbooks and autograph books
  • Textbooks, newspapers, and other school publications
  • Photos and videos of Bais Yaakov events
  • Report cards and diplomas
  • Notebooks
  • Family archives of Bais Yaakov students or alumnae

All items will be treated with the utmost care and returned to you.

If you have any such material, or are interested in our project, please contact Dainy Bernstein or Naomi Seidman

All inquiries welcome! Comment below or email me and/or Naomi.

Please share this call for materials widely – the more people we reach, the more material we’ll get for the website. 

Separate images for easier sharing:


Comics as a Tool for Summarizing and Understanding Essays

Sherman Alexie’s essay “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me” includes a paragraph about paragraphs:

I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph… I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside the paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs. Our reservation was a small paragraph within the United States…

As the first assignment in The College of Staten Island’s English 111 Essay Sequence is a reflective narrative, this essay was perfect for my students to read and discuss. Not only is it actually a reflective narrative so that we could analyze the components of this genre; it also explicitly addresses the form of writing! I used this paragraph to discuss how and why we use paragraphs, the function of this element of an essay, when to start a new paragraph, etc.

I assigned Alexie’s essay for the week after my students had written a first draft of their reflective narratives. Last week, we had read two reflective narratives from the textbook Language Awarenessand we had discussed the genre and the essay assignment. They had submitted a first draft (with encouragement to “make it a shitty first draft“) on Tuesday, which gave me enough time to read and comment on their drafts before Friday. One of the major issues I noticed in their essays was a tendency to write their whole essay as a single long block of text – or at the most with an introduction, a very long body paragraph, and a conclusion. So in fact, the Alexie essay was perfect for this moment, when they would read my comments and prepare to revise their drafts.

And because Alexie talks about reading Superman comics before he could read text, I was led to thinking of an exercise that incorporates comics…

We started in class by zeroing in on the paragraph where Alexie talks about seeing the world in paragraphs. I asked students to define a paragraph in simple writing terms, and we then analyzed each of Alexie’s “levels” of paragraphs. We talked about how his reservation could be a paragraph of the “essay” of the United States, how his house could be one paragraph of the “essay” of his community, how each of his family members could be a single paragraph of the “essay” of his family… We talked about the comparison of a paragraph to a fence, and concluded that a paragraph break sets boundaries within the essay, marking the end of one idea and the beginning of another.

Alexie’s essay is particularly suited for this discussion because all of its paragraphs fit the standard description. Many other narratives include dialogue or single-sentence paragraphs for effect, and that would confuse the issue with unnecessary complications at this stage.

After that discussion, we focused briefly on Alexie’s use of the Superman comic, the way he vividly describes a single panel of the comic (Superman breaking down a door) and refers to this image at the end of the essay without actually mentioning Superman. We talked about how a comic strip functions similarly to an essay with paragraph breaks, with each panel serving as its own paragraph. (You could also argue that each panel is a sentence within the “paragraph” of a page or something similar, but I kept it simple for now.)

And then I assigned a group exercise:

There are eight paragraphs in Alexie’s essay. In groups of three, draw a comic strip consisting of eight panels – one for each paragraph. Discuss each paragraph with your group, figure out what the main point or main idea of each paragraph is, and then choose: images; text above the image; speech bubbles; and/or thought bubbles.

The class was at first delighted, then worried, about doing this exercise. But as soon as they started, they began 1) having fun and 2) really understanding the essay.

I circulated while they worked, helping them think through some of the paragraphs. I also had to nudge them along, reminding them of the goal of the exercise, as some groups got caught up in agonizing over how to draw a specific detail or whether their images were recognizable as what they were supposed to be. (Many weren’t! but that was fine because the purpose of the exercise was not to showcase artistic skills…)

The results were magnificent (see images below). In each of my two classes, I asked students to display their comics as a gallery on the desks at the front of the class, and invited them to circulate and read their classmates’ comics. They engaged in a lively gallery visit, chatting and picking up the papers to discuss with each other.

We briefly discussed how this exercise helped them understand the essay better. I explained that I had essentially asked them to write a summary of the essay, but since they were using images rather than words, it was far easier to cut out the unnecessary details. If they had included more details, they would have immediately seen that the images were cluttered. When they write textual summaries, it’s sometimes harder to see how many extra details wind up in there.

This exercise was set aside for a while after this. We switched to talking about their essays, reading one student’s essay together (I got permission before sharing their draft with the class) and talking about specific details to focus on while revising. I pointed back to their comic strips as we discussed how to incorporate reflection within each paragraph, rather than first telling the story and then writing a “here’s what I learned” section. After all, their comic strips contain almost exclusively narrative even though Alexie definitely reflects – because the reflection is embedded within the narrative, and the narrative is dominant in this genre.

To end the day, I asked my students to try drawing their own essays as comic strips. I emphasized that these would be different from the comics they had drawn from Alexie’s essay because their own essays were still in the process of being written and revised. “Start anywhere,” I advised them. “You don’t have to start at the beginning. Just choose an event or a moment and start drawing. You’ll reorganize the panels afterward, once you have something on the paper.”

In both classes, though they struggled to start, within ten minutes the class had fallen silent and the air was filled with intense concentration. I let them work in silence for a while, sitting at my desk so as not to disturb (after first circulating to make sure they were each confident about what they were doing). We’re in a small classroom, so I was able to continually scan the room and make sure they were all working.

Finally, I interrupted them and asked: Is this helping? The unanimous answer was yes. How? I asked. Their responses, with additional analysis from me:

  • Drawing each event or moment as an image forces them to remember details about the event or moment that they can now transfer to their writing. While they struggled to see how each event could be expanded in writing, drawing it made that very clear.
  • Drawing each event or moment as an image also made it very clear when a new paragraph was needed. In text, it’s easy to smash multiple moments together and not see how they each need their own fully-developed paragraph. But when you try to draw the story, sequencing it as a comic strip forces you to see each moment separately, and you can begin to separate the many individual moments and ideas.
  • Sequencing the story as a comic strip made some of them realize how disorganized their storytelling was in their essays. A number of them had jumped back and forth chronologically in their drafts, often repeating themselves because they had written essentially as a stream of consciousness… This exercise helped them see how often they doubled back on themselves, and made it clear that they need to cut and paste parts of their essay for better organization.

A few students commented that when they think of “telling a story,” they think of images more than text. I asked them if they meant comics, or if perhaps they were thinking of movies. They agreed that it was movies they were thinking of. I suggested that this is another method they can use when revising: think of your essay as a movie (with a voiceover if necessary – they enjoyed that) and make sure it makes sense that way.

I wrapped up for the day by pointing out that this drawing method is something they can use to annotate as they read for next class as well.

The whole exercise was a fun activity, took a lot less time than I had expected, and was immensely beneficial.

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(Images out of order – I’m not that expert at this! But it gives you the general idea, I hope.)