Spring 2020: English 301 & English 336

English 301: British Literature, Origins to 1660

Last semester, I tried something new with my early Brit Lit survey class. I assigned texts completely out of chronological order. Some of my friends were very skeptical, warning me that my students would be confused and wouldn’t walk away with an understanding of the history. I found that not to be the case. Partly that’s because I assigned a timeline infographic towards the end of the semester, which forced students to remember that they’ve been reading the texts out of order and to actively move them from the syllabus’s arrangement to a chronological arrangement.

But actually, I’m not too bothered if my students don’t know exactly which texts fall into the early medieval period, the later medieval period, or the early modern period. My thinking on this has changed quite a bit. I used to think it was essential that students understand the sweep of history. I used to think it was essential for them to understand the historical context within which the texts were written and read. And don’t get me wrong, I still think that’s important, and I spend a good deal of lecture on contextualizing this for my students. But the majority of my students are preparing to teach at the middle-school or elementary-school levels. It doesn’t really matter if they know these details. They need to learn how to analyze texts, they need to be aware of the multiple conversations and controversies that surround texts in general (not necessarily the texts I’m teaching them).

I was very satisfied with the results of the timeline exercise and I’m going to repeat it in the spring semester.

I wasn’t entirely sure of the success of my organization of texts by genre, starting with poetry. But my students in fall 2019 told me it worked well. So despite my slight misgivings about starting with poetry, which I thought caused my students to struggle unnecessarily at the very beginning of the semester, I’m sticking with it. I am, however, devoting more time to that section and beginning with a clear look at how to do close readings and analysis.

I also added a secondary reading: the first chapter of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s book The Dark Fantastic. Sure, the book is about contemporary fantasy. But it contains a lot of theory that will be very useful grounding for our discussions of many texts.

One more change I made to the syllabus this semester was to add poetry by Meir of Norwich. I had attempted too much last semester and had to cut King of Tars. I taught Silence for the first time last semester, and I had to take weeks away from King of Tars because my students were really struggling with Silence. I’m keeping them both on the syllabus this time, and will be more prepared for Silence than I was last semester! (Yes, I blame my students’ struggles with that text on this being the first time I taught it. I can prepare them better now that I now what to expect.)

Here’s the syllabus:

2020-01-15_English-301_Spring2020_Syllabus


English 336: Critical Approaches to Adolescent Literature

For this syllabus, which I’ve taught once before (as opposed to 301, whose spring 2020 section will be the 5th or 6th time I teach it), I completely changed everything. Last year when I taught this course, I was very concerned with covering as many genres and issues as I could. This worked fine, but not great – not least because I was still focused on providing a historical overview of the YA category, how it developed, etc. This time around, I decided – screw that. Again, most of my students are going to be teaching. They would be better served if I gave them the cutting-edge YA books, the books published within the past few years, instead of books which are no longer representative of the market. As with the 301 class, I will make up for this through a non-essay assignment: Each student will create a reading list of their own, centered around three themes or topics. One of the requirements will be that they need to include one book from at least 3 different decades. (They will not be required to read these books, just to gather a bibiliography.)

I was still struggling with how to choose from the wealth of books published in the last few years, though. After chatting with some authors and professors of YA literature on Twitter and Facebook, I discovered one thing that made my whole syllabus fall into place. Dr. Nabilah Khachab asked me if I have a theme for the course, and I said no – the course just tries to give as broad a view of YA lit as possible. As I continued considering books, I realized that of course – I need a theme! And not only that, I already have a semi-theme embedded in my course description! So I leaned into that (the voices of YA, the possibilities that YA offers to marginalized voices) and that helped me choose my books, arrange their order, and get it all done.

Because this is a combined section, with both English majors taking this as an elective and non-English majors taking it as a required General Education course, I am not assigning secondary readings. I had originally planned to assign chapters from Disturbing the Universe, Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction, and The Dark Fantastic. Instead, I’m just going to create PowerPoints and lectures from each text, and provide that to my students.

Here’s the 336 syllabus:

2019-10-08_Eng336_Spring2020_Syllabus

Data-Mining Olomeinu Magazines

Over the past few months, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole that’s hard to dig myself out of – and I don’t particularly want to.

My dissertation is about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children’s literature, with a focus on the decades of 1980-2000. My initial idea was that I would focus on four publishers (Artscroll-Mesorah, Feldheim, Hachai, and CIS), and I would study the children’s and teens’ books they published during those two decades. I knew I wanted to include analysis of schools and educational settings as well, but the main focus was going to be on the books.

Then I read more, and even more, and things shifted slightly, and then again – and before I knew it I was more focused on literacy and the world of the Haredi child reader during these decades.

My intended brief look at Olomeinu magazines turned into a full-blown intense study, as I uncovered and discovered more and more fascinating details about the magazine, its connections to various religious and literary factors, and the people involved in running it from 1960 onward.

So while I’ve continued to read about things like portrayal of the Holocaust in children’s literature, character focalization in children’s literature, history textbooks across the world, etc. – I’ve also been doing lots of intense study of the Olomeinu magazine.

I’m more focused now on discourse analysis. To that end, I’ve been gathering data in a spreadsheet, noting as much information as I can about each issue. The more I work with the magazine issues, the more I notice details I should have been noting all along – which means eventually I’ll do a second and third run over all these, making sure I have all the info I need from each issue. Meanwhile, here’s my working document:

screenshot of an Excel sheet showing data for individual issues of Olomeinu magazine
[yellow rows note issues I’ve cataloged but have not yet scanned; blue denotes issues I have PDFs of but haven’t yet cataloged; green denotes issues both cataloged and scanned/downloaded]

Despite its messiness and clunkiness, this spreadsheet is a major improvement from what I had been doing before. At first, I was trying to track features across issues, so I had columns labeled with recurring features like “Mommy’s Favorite Stories” and “Mitzvah of the Month.”

two-page spread, with “Mommy’s Favorite Stories” on the left side (December / Teves 1999)
two-page spread, with “Mitzvah of the Month” on the left side (February / Adar 1976)

That proved to be cumbersome and impossible, because new features were constantly being introduced from year to year, and some features had their names tweaked over the decades – and that is important to consider in my study!

So I switched to simply documenting the features of each issue, leaving the patterns for later. My next step – which I haven’t figured out exactly how to do yet – is to tag each feature with topics. I want to track topics like the Holocaust, Israel, and chagim. I also want to track their sub-topics: how many pieces on the Holocaust focus on faith, Nazi brutality, Jewish suffering, etc., for example? Is there a trend over the decades?

Another aspect of my examination will be on a more granular level. I started working with issues I was able to download from chinuch.org, and supplemented that with a collection lent to me by a friend. I scanned all the issues I had in physical copies (I still don’t have a complete set!) and ran them through OCR so that I could copy the text over into various other documents. Again, I’m not entirely sure yet how I’ll accomplish this next bit, but I want to think about the words used in each issue, each year, each decade…

I started playing around with this using a word cloud program (partly for fun, partly to motivate me to finish the tedious task of cataloging all the individual issues). I just pasted the text – minus Hebrew words – into the program. That means that words like “Olomeinu” (which appears at the bottom of every page) are over-represented. When it’s time to do this “for real,” I’ll clean the text before running it through a program. Some basic results:

word cloud created from the text of the February / Adar 1976 issue of Olomeinu
word cloud created from the text of the January / Teves 1977 issue of Olomeinu

I’m far from done, and I’m of course considering the historical contexts in addition to this granular examination. But I’m excited about the insights this level of analysis will yield! (Also, I get to play with cool toys ūüėČ)

Going Maverick: Writing Textbooks and Superheroes

Once again this semester, I’m teaching composition at a new campus. Ah, the life of an adjunct!

This time I was given a required textbook with writing instruction and readings, as well as a required sequence of essays. I have used chapters from that textbook before. I like the premise of the book, and I like a couple of its chapters. But I don’t like its overall structure. In my opinion, it doesn’t teach the basics of writing. It talks about the complexities of entering academic conversations, and it talks about broad rhetorical moves – but it does so in mostly theoretical terms, without specifics.

The department’s handbook stipulates that we may provide a few additional texts, but that the majority of assigned reading should be from the book. I see the point of that, of course, for a number of reasons – not least the financial burden of making students buy a book they won’t use for most of the class!

And since I picked up this class exactly four days before the first session, I was perfectly okay with just finding texts from the book.

The slight hitch in that was that the department didn’t have copies of the textbook to give new adjuncts yet, and they were relying on the company rep to give adjuncts electronic access. By the time I spoke to the director and was officially given the class, though, it was past 5pm on Friday, which meant that the company rep was out of the office and I didn’t get access until Monday morning – and I needed to have my syllabus all ready to go by Tuesday morning. So I used an old edition of the book, along with the freely-accessible online table of contents of the new edition, and slapped together a syllabus. I never did get a physical copy of the book, and I’m not able to print directly from the ebook, but I’ve been making do.

For the first few weeks of the semester, things were going okay. My students were quiet and didn’t really respond to my efforts to draw them out during class discussions. But we began to read texts and break them down; we read a couple of chapters about critical reading and about how texts position themselves in broader conversations; and a few students began to have ideas of their own in response to the texts we read.

I thought, at first, that the lack of engagement and participation was due to the early morning class (8am, dear lord – how many times have I said never again to early morning classes and yet went with it when one was offered to me later…), or the difference in campuses (this is my first class in a community college), or just the combined personalities of the students – which often is a major factor in determining how the class goes.

It wasn’t such a big deal for the first month. I wasn’t enjoying class as much as I usually do, but that’s not always a possibility. I assigned a lot of groupwork to avoid the excruciating silences during full-class discussion, but even during groupwork there was barely any interaction.

By the time I was receiving drafts of their first paper, students began to miss class more often, come to class without reading or without the text – a few students hadn’t even gotten the text by a month and a half into the semester. It felt like I was letting them down, but I was out of ideas. I suspected that these things were all connected to a lack of interest, and perhaps a lack of motivation. I was frustrated and resigned to not getting through to my students.

But one week the frustration bubbled over and I said, screw it, I’m redoing the syllabus and forgetting about the writing chapters of the textbook. I’ll use a couple readings from the textbook, but then just forget about it and use all of my own materials and sequences I’ve gathered over the past six years of teaching college composition.

We had already started working on the second essay. Students had submitted topic proposals; started doing research after a library visit; and were supposed to submit a first draft that week. I sent around an email – followed up by a second email to make sure everyone got it – telling them NOT to write that first draft, that we would be rewinding and going over some basics first.

I also decided to do some silly exercises at the start of each class to get students up and moving and talking to each other.

Both of those decisions turned out to be very excellent decisions.

The activity I did – just for fun – was this:

1. Write down five superpowers you would like to have.
2. Assign a value from 1 to 5 for each superpower, based on how much you value it.
3. Talk to your classmates and negotiate trades based on how much you and/or your classmates value each superpower. Make at least 3 trades.

I chose this activity for two purposes:
1. to get them all up and moving, to get the blood pumping and wake them up; and
2. to get them talking to each other, which might help conversations about classwork.

The effects of the activity were immediately obvious. When we all sat down to begin the lesson, students were more relaxed and slightly more alert than usual.

Despite the fact that by that time students had started doing research, based on strategies given to them by the librarian and by the textbook, I went over the skill again, this time using my own tried-and-true methods. I emphasized the need for a research question, I went over the need for establishing a “so what” at the start of research, etc. I used a worksheet I “stole” from UC Merced and revised a bit to fit my purposes. We went through the two filled-in rows together, discussing how it helps to have all this in mind before beginning research and before settling on a thesis.

 


 

I then divided the room into quadrants, with each one assigned one of the remaining four topics and research questions. Each group filled out the underlying problems and significance columns, did some quick little research on their phones, and wrote a potential thesis statement.

Each group shared their thesis statement, and I asked some questions about their process and reasoning. More than the theoretical discussion of how research is a conversation, this hands-on work allowed the students to see how research is a conversation (which the textbook’s end-of-chapter exercises did not effectively do).

Once we had done this exercise, I asked students to think about the topics they had chosen for their second essay (based on the readings from the textbook about various food-related topics), and phrase their interest as a question. Their homework for the following class was to fill out the remaining columns and revise (or write for the first time) a potential thesis statement.

I reminded them to bring their superpower papers with them to class the following session. At this point I had literally no idea what I would do with it. I thought maybe I could use this as an extended role-play game. Superheroes and role play are so not my jam – but if it gets my students energetic and talking and alert and engaged, then so be it!

Prepping for the following class made me see how I could actually incorporate the superhero activity into the lesson itself, though…

The pre-class activity (with the same two purposes of getting students up and energized and getting them talking to each other) was this:

Once the pairs of students had negotiated teams and settled down in pairs, I went over a handout about the five elements of a paragraph (which I got from my colleague Sarah Hildebrand):

I then asked each team to write:

  1. A thesis statement claiming that their team is the best.
  2. A paragraph structured according to these five elements that supports the thesis and includes “textual evidence” by citing events or situations from existing superheroes.

While previous sessions groupwork – using the exercises from the textbook based on readings drawn from newspapers and blogs, etc., were subdued and failed to engage students – this activity generated animated conversation from students whose voices I had barely heard all semester.

I circulated among the groups, as I always do, answering questions and guiding students. I know virtually nothing about most superheroes, and I made that clear – which led to my students excitedly telling me about their favorite superheroes and explaining things in ways that allowed me to say “yes! Put that in your paragraph!”¬†

So seriously – screw the textbook. Maybe I was following the rules too closely and I was never expected to just give up my personal methods. But whether or not that is expected of me, I’m not doing it anymore. My students are learning. They will be able to do well on their essays and their final exam. I saw major leaps and bounds of improvement in students writing – students who I thought were listless and not putting in effort.

I feel like – two months into the 3.5-month semester – I was finally getting to know my students.

Lessons in Club Creation: A Group Activity

In my composition class this week, my students read an essay by Gabriela Moro, “Minority Student Clubs: Segregation or Integration?” Over the past week and a half, we’ve discussed how to summarize and respond to an author’s argument, in preparation for their first essay assignment (a textual analysis). But as much as I tried getting discussion going, no matter how provocative I got, my students were not responding. They were willing to answer questions, they were okay with listening to me talk and with writing things down when I asked them to. And they were okay with working in groups. But in full-class discussions, when I wanted them to talk to each other, I was just met with a wall of silence. Not antagonistic silence – just silence.

So I decided to plan this week’s lesson around groupwork with only short breaks for full-class discussion.

I started, as I always do, with a “Write Now” asking them to plan a student club. The prompt was brief: Plan a student club, thinking about its mission and activities. I gave them a shorter amount of time than usual (I usually allow 15 minutes for free-writing to start class, and this time it was just about 7 minutes).

Then we got down to business.

I asked students to get into groups of four, share their club ideas with their group members, and write a mock-application. Pretend you’re actually trying to apply to Student Affairs, asking for permission to create your club. And pretend you’re actually trying to convince your fellow students to join your club. What is the purpose of the club? What do you plan to do in this club? How can you write that up into a mission statement? They did not need to explicitly engage with the debate of the text – minority student clubs – but I did encourage them to do so if they wanted to.

After a half hour of planning, during which I circulated and prodded them to think more deeply about purpose, I explained to them what tabling at a club fair would look like, and asked them to pitch their clubs to me and to their classmates. I used the first group (who I knew had a solid proposal) as an example, asking them questions in the role of a student. By the end of this activity, students were actually calling out to ask each other questions! I was so proud of my rowdy little bunch.

The club ideas they came up with weren’t too bad, either.

The board showing the instructions (on the left) and the club names (on the right). Shy Beauty is a club for introverts who like makeup; 0-800 is a club promoting financial literacy; Financial Friends is a club working to earn textbook money in fun ways; Environmental Warriors is a club whose long-term goal is to get a garden on campus; Great Social Sports is a club designed to get students out, active, and socializing through table games and active sports; Cultural Activists is a club where each club member gets a chance to lead an outing that teaches other club members about their heritage and culture.

My purpose for this class was mostly just to get students comfortable with talking in class. The content of the essay was not the main point of the class, to be honest – but we managed to come back around to it after they got thinking about the purposes for their clubs, and tying those thought processes to what Moro says about the uses and effects of minority student clubs.

When I tried to get them to discuss that in a full-class discussion, they went silent again. Work in progress!!

Synthesizing Class Discussion and Essay Assignments

In my class on children’s literature this week, I assigned their first essay of the semester: a close reading paper (loosely defined). The assignment:

Choose one item from Freak the Mighty. Track that item through the text. Find two or three moments in the text where that item has a significant role or comes under discussion by the characters or the narrator. Write a 2-3 page paper analyzing the item within the context of the text. 

For my first few semesters of teaching literature, I didn’t spend a lot of time teaching students how to write. They learn that in Intro to Literary Studies, right? That might be the idea behind sequenced courses. But in reality, we know that just because students took a class on writing, that doesn’t mean they can thenceforth write brilliant papers on command. As with any skill, it requires practice.

So for a while I amended my syllabus and started devoting one-hour sessions to peer review and revision sessions. But that didn’t work either – I needed to teach them how to write before asking them to write. And I then needed to give them a chance to revise. And I foresaw my literature class turning into a writing class…

After months of talking to my mentors and colleagues, I was able to construct my syllabus and assignments so that the “talking about the book” portion directly teaches about essay-writing. And so far, I am more than pleased with how it’s working.

Here’s how it went down this week:

The text for this week (a 2.5-hour long class that meets once a week) was Freak the Mighty. As I always do, I started class with a “Write Now” – a prompt on the board that students come to expect. It works well as an opening activity because 1) I can direct students to thinking about specific points I may want to raise, and 2) it allows latecomers to catch up.

This week’s prompt was:

Many objects and ideas are repeated throughout the text (knights, books, bionic bodies, remembering, etc.).
1. Think about an object or idea that you connected with / that made an impression on you, either intellectual or emotional.
2. Find a passage (a few sentences) in the book about that object or idea, and copy the passage onto your paper.
3. Free-write about the object and passage. Why is this object significant? Why did you choose this passage?

After about ten minutes of quiet writing, I asked students to put that sheet of paper away. We went on with the lesson, talking about multiple aspects of the book with a focus on realism as a genre, and dis/ability studies.

For the last hour of class, I assigned groupwork. Each group of 3 students chose one character from the text and tracked that character. The instructions were to first find a few key passages where that character talks, acts, or is talked about, and note the citations and some impressions of characterization. Then, each group talked about what they had found and tried to answer whether and how the character changed and/or our perception of the character changed.

I circulated among the groups for half an hour, guiding and correcting and making sure students stayed on track. We then came back together as a class and each group shared their results. I asked each group to structure their “presentations” by beginning with a thesis (their conclusion/argument about whether and how the character changed), following it up with evidence (the passages they cited), and finishing with a conclusion (a repetition of their argument to remind us what they just proved).

Two groups who had chosen to focus on Gram came to very different conclusions, so I started with those groups.

One group argued that Gram changed from being apprehensive about Max to being affectionate and loving. For evidence, they used the moment at the beginning of the novel when Max says Gram touched him with a light, feathery touch; and the moment at the end of the novel when Max says Gram hugs him really tight.

The other group argued that Gram did not change, but Max’s perception of her did change – that Max thought she didn’t love him and was terrified of him at first, but ultimately came to accept her love. They argued that through examining the character of Gram, they were in fact able to gain more insight into Max’s character. For evidence, they used the same moments as the previous group…

I began with these two groups because I knew they had different theses (from my rounds during groupwork), and I wanted to use that to demonstrate that the same text can be used to argue completely different things. Later, the same thing happened with two groups that had tracked Max’s levels of confidence throughout the novel.

Each group presented their findings, and I insisted on the structure: first the thesis; then the evidence; then the conclusion.

In the last 15 minutes of class, I distributed the essay assignment sheet. In addition to the essay prompt above, the sheet includes a “WHAT” and a “WHY section:

WHAT: A close reading asks you to narrow your focus to ONE aspect of a text. 
 
WHY: 1) Trying to analyze an entire text can be daunting. Narrowing your focus and analyzing a single aspect of the text helps you get at some ideas more easily. 2) Any larger analysis of a text needs to use concrete evidence from the text. Having the skill of close reading will help you do that. 

After the prompt, I provided an example:

Example:  Books. You might track the dictionary that Kevin makes for Max and the blank journal that Kevin gives Max. Looking at the significance of each scene, you might conclude that the dictionary demonstrates the pair’s thirst for knowledge and the journal demonstrates the pair’s desire to be remembered and to have an impact on the world. You might then note that the first gift (a dictionary) helps Max learn words, and the second gift (a blank journal) invites Max to write his own words. Your thesis might then be something like this:  

‚ÄúKevin and Max are both seen as outsiders in the world they live in. They both want to be remembered and leave an impact on the world. Kevin‚Äôs two gifts to Max, the dictionary and the blank journal, indicate that given the right tools, anyone is capable of expressing themselves and leaving their mark on the world.‚Ä̬†

Your essay will then analyze these two gifts, and make a case for how each represents a step in learning self-expression, etc.

I pointed out to my students that they had already used the skills necessary for this essay: they had tracked characters and analyzed them, and the essay asks them to track objects and analyze them. And they already had some ideas of which objects seem significant to them, from their “Write Now” exercise.

Students were excited at this and pulled out their free-writes from the beginning of class. Wheels started turning, and students asked me about specific ideas and potential thesis statements.

It was the most productive essay assignment session I’ve ever had.

Syllabus Hunt

On the first day of my English 101 class, I had my students do an activity I called “Syllabus Hunt.” The goal was simple: get students used to looking for information in the syllabus.

This was the earliest possible class: 8am on the very first day of the fall semester. Every student is required to take English 101 in their first semester, and this is a community college, so I was 99% sure that all my students would be entering a college classroom for the first time the morning of my class. I asked them if this was true, and all but one student said yes – they had never been in any college classes and had never seen a college syllabus before.

Assuming students know how to read a syllabus and what kind of information they should expect to find there is always a bad idea, in any level class. But going over the syllabus, reading it section by section, is a monumental waste of precious time. It does nothing to propel the class along, it’s boring, it puts students (and professor, usually!) into a stupor.

Confession: there were at least four goals I had in mind for this activity. Yes, the first goal was to get students used to looking for information in the syllabus. The second was to set the tone for the semester, by showing students that their minds would need to be active, that they should not get used to being passive recipients of knowledge. The third was to get them talking to each other, because discussion in English 101 is so important. And the fourth was to begin giving them practice in citing, as well as using citations to find information.

The activity accomplished all of these goals.

I tried this activity in my upper-level class the next day, and it worked okay, but not as well. That might be because students in an upper-level course have all seen syllabi before; it might be because I had other groupwork that accomplished the other goals in that class; it might be because that class is a 2.5-hr evening class rather than a 1.5-hr early morning class… Whatever the reason, I didn’t attempt it in my third class of the semester the next day, another upper-level evening class.

Here’s how the activity went:

  1. First of all, I went over the course info and course description with them. We took a brief look at the reading and writing assignment schedule, and spent more time on it afterwards. This activity was really all about the policies and resources.
  2. I had prepared four scenarios and put two scenarios on each half-paper, forming two “groups.”
  3. Each student got one half-paper at random. I asked them to put their name at the top, and to add their email if they were comfortable giving their email to a classmate.
  4. They then read their two scenarios and tried to find the page on which they could find the answer. They were instructed not to write the answer, just the citation for the page where the information can be found.
  5. Once everyone was done, I asked them to get up, mingle in the center of the room, and find someone from the opposite group with whom to switch papers.
  6. With a new paper in hand, they sat back down and used their classmates’ citations to look up and write down the answers to what to do in each scenario.
  7. Finally, we reviewed the answers as a class and I took questions on the whole syllabus.

And okay, a fifth goal: They now had a classmate’s contact information, so if they miss class or are confused about an assignment, they can ask a buddy or form a study group and save emailing me for a second or third option…

The two sheets of paper, Group A and Group B, with scenarios whose answers can be found in the syllabus.

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

Eng335_Fall2019_Syllabus-1

English 301: British Literature, Origins to Early Modern

2019-05-15_English-301_Fall-2019_Syllabus

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‚Ķ

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.

English-335-picture-book-assn

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