Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Breaking Bread: The Rhetorical Power of Food in Life and Literature #SOL15

Join other slicers in the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge by visiting the Two Writing Teacher's Blog. Thank you, TWT team for your vigilance and contribution to feeding our hearts and souls this holiday season. 

As we recover from our turkey hangover and finish consuming the holiday leftovers, my thoughts turn to food in literature and in personal narratives. 

A couple of weeks ago a student in my Communication 1101 class presented a persuasive speech about the importance of family dinnertime. This is something I've pondered for many years. 

Long ago a student (a sophomore) wrote an essay about the ways dinnertime in his home had changed over the years. He talked about a time when his family ate together and shared stories about one another's day, a time when the family talked about world events, a time when the family discussed and solved personal struggles. For this student, time changed the dinner dynamic as his siblings graduated and left home, as he and his parents became busier, as schedule conflicts precluded them from breaking bread together. In time, the student wrote, each--he and his parents--went their separate ways, grabbing a microwave or fast food meal. 

At the time I vowed that I would make sure my family sat down together at the dinner table and shared a meal at least four times a week. Dinner together became a routine we seldom missed. Often a neighbor kid joined us. 

Many years have passed since that student sat in my room, but his impact on my life, on my belief about the importance of eating together remains as clear and strong now as ever. 

Returning to the value of the family dinner, I coached my student in Comm through her research and speech preparation. Together we looked at ways students could influence their parents and family members to eat together. 

Monday, after listening to a student in speech present his name tag, after hearing this student talk about food and connect it to his grandmother, I shared with the class some thoughts about food and literature. In my remarks, I mentioned that we English teachers often offer cursory discussion about the role of food in literature, and in this context I suggested that student tell stories, write stories about their food memories. 

Following the Thanksgiving holiday, food narrative rings relevant. 

Food related topics make good speeches in both my general speech class and in Comm. In fact, a student in my night class gave her argumentative speech on Brominated Vegetable Oil, which is in Mountain Dew. After my student argued that BVO can cause thyroid problems and is a substance that has been banned in and removed from other products, I stopped drinking Diet Mountain Dew. 

In literature, food functions symbolically. 

My student's name-tag reminded me of Robert Frost's "After Apple Picking" and Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry Picking." I shared a snippet of a memory about picking blackberries with my father in the blaring heat of Missouri summers and soaring humidity. "I hated picking blackberries," I told my class. "Cocooned in long sleeves and pants, my hands gloved, and my head covered with a ht to ward of chiggers, I thought I'd suffocate." 

Then I said, "I miss those times. I wish I had known how important those moments were and how I'd long for them now. Write those stories so that you remember them. Think about using those moments to build your speeches." 

We picked blackberries as necessity. We couldn't afford to buy them in the store. We weren't Joad family poor, but we were close. I gorged myself with blackberries and sported a stained mouth and gray lips that confessed my deed as my words denied eating from the bucket. 

Food, more the absence of it, plays a significant role in The Grapes of Wrath. The Joads gorge themselves with peaches and pay a horrific, painful price for that gluttony. 

The literature in which food functions symbolically is too numerous to name, but in addition to those I'm mentioned, I think about some others: 

  • "Old King Cole": Blackbirds baked in a pie never made much sense to me as a child, but the sinister tone resonates now.
  • The Canterbury Tales: Chaucer's narrator begins his journey breaking bread and toasting his host at the Tabard Inn.
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth:  The bloody dagger scene in which the guests toast Macbeth as his descent into madness worsens epitomizes family dysfunction at the dinner table. 
  • Beowulf: Our first work of English literature offers a reminder that forces beyond our control disrupt the celebratory atmosphere of food fests when Grendel crashes the Hrothgar's party. 
  • Angela's Ashes: Frank McCourt's memoir of poverty in Ireland offers yet another Dickensian reminder that in the land of plenty, many have little.
  • Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: One of my favorite lines in literature is "The funeral baked meats did scarcely furnish forth the marriage table." 
  • Like Water for Chocolate: Magical realism at its finest with women redefining the kitchen as a place of female power rather than as a place of confinement. 
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe: Is it possible to tell a southern story w/out food as a central trope? 
  • The Importance of Being Earnest: Eventually students have an epiphany about food as a symbol for and replacement for sex. 
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Of course I can't omit the Mad Hatter's Tea Party
For more food moments in literature, take a look at "10 Great Meals in Literature" from THE TELEGRAPH.

In literature, food functions to convey ideas. Food connotes power struggles. It defines class, perhaps most successfully in the works of Charles Dickens. Writers create mimesis and verisimilitude with food scenes. This is the case in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. 

We define and understand human relationships through the fundamental human behaviors of eating and drinking. Both are necessary to our psychological as well as our physical well-being. Our identity is inextricably linked to our food experiences, and through food and our discussions about food in our classes, we can validate the diversity our students bring to the table of learning. 

We can talk through and learn through food. We can reclaim the kitchen in the classroom when we make food an invited guest. 

Let's get cooking! 

Amish Breakfast Casserole I made for my family Thanksgiving morning and for students in Comm 1101 at the end of the trimester a couple of weeks ago. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Story Shorts from #NCTE15: #SOL15

When I first attended the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention, I'd already taught many years. I traveled to Philadelphia thirsty for knowledge and camaraderie with like-minded English teachers. I've now attended the past six NCTE gatherings, and while I'm not as idealistic and excited as I was, I'm still grateful for the stories shared and created each November.

This past NCTE presented me w/ many responsibilities. First, I was part of the Folger Shakespeare Library team of presenters. I presented with Peggy O'Brien to a crowd of around 200 teachers. I missed the Allison Bechtel keynote because it was right before my session, and I had helped w/ setup. We moved tables, rearranged chairs and placed handouts prior to presenting. I also worked in the Folger booth on Friday and presented WILL lessons, a mini, one-on-one segment of the session, on Saturday.

"Getting Started with Shakespeare's Language," my session w/ the Folger Shakespeare Library
My Saturday began w/ an 8:00 a.m. session with two fabulous teachers, Lee Ann Spilane and Paul W. Hankins. The star of our session was the spectacular Melissa Sweet, author of Balloons Over Broadway and illustrator of many award-winning picture books, including The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. Both Lee and Paul are amazing teachers and presenters. Melissa makes me want to write picture books, something I'd never thought I'd consider. All three inspire me to be a better teacher and person.

W/ Paul W. Hakins, Melissa Sweet, and Lee Ann Spilane
Saturday afternoon I chaired the panel for which I'd written a proposal. The three presenters are ladies I've worked with in the past, my colleague and friend Debbie Greco, Ami Szerence from California, and Cherylann Schmidt from New Jersey. I always learn from each of them.

I've uploaded my session schedule for those who want to peruse the online program and grab the handouts from each session. 

Of course, NCTE affords opportunities to embrace my inner fangirl. I managed to get pics w/ Deborah Wiles and Kwame Alexander, and I had a conversation w/ Jason Alexander at the Nerdy Book Club party.

W/ Newberry Award winning author Kwame Alexander
at the Nerdy Book Club party.

Deborah Wiles, author of COUNTDOWN and REVOLUTION. 
NCTE typically falls on or around my birthday, November 19. Getting to celebrate with friends from around the country and hear their wishes for happiness means much to me. Throughout the weekend in Minneapolis, friends asked about my big day.

Leading up to NCTE, I was feeling very stressed. My schedule has been full, and we had just two days w/ students in our new trimester before I headed out to the conference. Getting away from the normal pressures had a decompressing effect on me. That's the best gift of all. 

I did face some challenges during the conference. I broke my toe Saturday morning when my alarm startled me from a deep sleep and I forgot where I was and which side of the bed I was sleeping on. I rolled and crashed onto the floor, hitting my nose on the bedside table and smashing my toe. 
My friends worried more about my mishap than did I. I know my gift of gracelessness well and have several scars on my face to prove it. Undeterred, I hobbled around and looked for the humor in my klutziness. The worst part of my toe mishap is not being able to go to the gym. I can't bend my toe or put pressure on it, but it is improving, albeit slowly. 

While my Folger session drew a huge crowd, my other two sessions were poorly attended. I blame NCTE for this. As Dana Huff writes in her reflections about NCTE, our organization has created a rock-star following for some in our profession. Admittedly, I get a little star-struck, too, which is why NCTE SHOULD NOT schedule popular teacher-author sessions so that they conflict w/ other presenters. We, too, work hard on our proposals and presentations. I have presented at the past five NCTE annual conventions and have not repeated a presentation. Each proposal has been unique. Each one showcases new and tested lessons from my classroom. How can I and the other teachers who present only occasionally compete against a lecture hall featuring those who travel the nation and command speaking fees for their appearances? These stars among us need their own time-slots, similar to those afforded keynote speakers, or they need to be scheduled opposite one-another. 

This NCTE I attended a session that frankly was quite insulting in that a speaker in it was woefully unprepared. It's the first time I've witnessed a teacher who had not prepared at all. I finally walked out, even though I had wanted to stay and ask another speaker on the panel why she has her students research topics w/out considering the credibility of the resources. In yet another session, this one a round-table, a presenter had canceled at the last minute, so there was a fill-in speaker. He, too, was not well-prepared, but he did know his book. These two sessions were the worse ones I've ever attended at a conference of any time. I felt as though I'd wasted my time, and had I paid my own registration fees, I'd have felt as though I'd wasted my money. 

When I attend NCTE, I'm looking to be fed, to be rejuvenated, to find collegiality, to renew old friendships and make new ones. I'm not looking for discord. I'm pretty good about following education news. I found the PEARSON PROTEST troubling. The rebel in me at first thought, "oh, look, social activism at NCTE, how cool." A moment later I began pondering and questioning the objective. As presented, and as I witnessed it, the protest looked like it was aimed at Pearson. I've since read that the protest's purpose was to raise awareness about the corporate takeover and incursion into public education. Seriously? I doubt those attending NCTE annual convention are unaware of the corporate influence and money-grabbing policies of Pearson, an organization I've criticized openly and often, an organization I've boycotted for a number of years. 
Pearson Protest: Not all in the photo participated in the protest.

While standing in line at the UPS store later, I spoke with the teacher in charge of planning the CATE conference. She asked what I thought of the protest, and I shared my concerns that I worry about collateral damage. She, too, shared her worry that the protest will undermine support for the conference she is planning. A friend who teaches in California posted on FB her concern that the protest will mean a loss of funding of registration fees and an inability of many teachers to attend the CATE conference. 

I understand the need to push back at Pearson, but I don't understand a preaching to the choir protest. It doesn't take much courage to protest among those who share a dislike for Pearson's role in sucking the financial life out of the public education coffers.  

This year I missed my opportunity to attend ALAN. Boo! Typically, my district holds classes through Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, but this year we have the week off. I did not realize that until I had my flight book and convention planned. Maybe next year. That seems to be my mantra. 

Finally, I missed meeting some important people I want to meet. I'm thankful for the books publishers share w/ conference-goers via give-aways, displays, and discounts. The authors themselves give, and give, and give. I'm in awe of the way they embrace teachers and students. We are lucky to live in a time when writers embrace social media and accept our friendship requests and honor us with their words. 

HAPPY THANKSGIVING. Thank you for stopping by and sharing this and your own corner of cyberspace with me.

The Slice of Life Tuesday story challenge happens each Tuesday as a gift from the team at Two Writing Teachers blog. Thanks, Stacey and all on the SOL team for all you do, for all you give. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Too Little Time on Tuesdays #SOL15

In preparing to write this post, I noticed I have not blogged since October 20. Yikes! I've thought about blogging often. I've planned many posts. I've written in my head. I have not transferred those thoughts, plans, or mental etchings onto the virtual page that is this blog. 


Simply, I have too little time on Tuesdays. 

In truth, I have too little time most days this fall. 

Even when I plan the post in advance and set a goal of writing prior to Tuesday, something invariably interferes with these best laid plans. 

Take the past two days for example. 

I had planned to write today's slice Sunday evening and again Monday evening. However, I underestimated the amount of time I'd need to edit the state DKG newsletter, a responsibility I agreed to accept last July. To date I've completed two installments. I've had quite the learning curve. 

First, I haven't published a newsletter before. I worked on my high school newspaper and occasionally wrote for my college one. I was the newspaper advisor one year in the mid 1980s, but that was at a small school that printed the paper on copy paper. 

I still remember much of what I learned about news and feature writing from my high school journalism teacher and have found that information useful as I've embarked on my new service. Still, the task has been ridden with obstacles. 

Since I use a MacBook Pro, I needed to find a publishing platform for my computer. I purchased Publisher Plus from the Apple store for a nominal fee. 

Next, I had to figure out how to use the program. It works on a grid, and I'm still learning it. For example, when I work on a page, here's what I see: 

The page layout is in the middle. This shot is of the November edition I just finished and is the first page. The font appears pretty small, so I either sacrifice visual acuity for seeing the layout for a complete page or vice versa. I still don't know how to insert frames around text boxes. 

Sometimes the margins get mucked up or a sentence gets chopped off. This happens if I alter a page. It happened several times w/ this issue, so even though I'd already devoted around 20 hours to the work, I still had to fix errors after exporting to a Pdf file. 

The first issue earned criticism for numerous problems, including distribution. I now have help w/ that, but I'm still having problems w/ proofing well. I attribute this to my own busy schedule and vision problems. I also received an unpleasant email after the first issue because I inadvertently omitted two stories from one chapter. This time I was told that the newsletter is too long. I was not given a length and have taken my guide those other newsletters sent to me. 

Since I want to see my own chapter represented in the newsletter, I've found myself writing stories, too. All this eats away at the limited time I have available. 

I'd like to say I'm enjoying this work, but I'm not. Maybe in time I will when I get better. I try to represent myself well and strive to perform tasks such as the editing of the newsletter in a way that represents both myself and the organization I represent well. I fear neither is happening right now.

The newsletter is only one time-sucking obligation in the way of blogging. I'm also teaching a night class at Idaho State University from 7:00-9:30 p.m. I have office hour obligations, so I arrive at 6:00 p.m. so I can try to get home by 10:00 p.m. Tuesday night. I'll be teaching the class on Tuesday nights during the spring semester, too. 

Additionally, I have a new prep at my school this year. I'm teaching AP Literature and Composition. While I enjoy all my teaching duties, having a new prep makes me feel like a newbie all over again. 

Thus, while I plan to slice each week, finding the time in a schedule with the slices of the pie already cut thin has been a challenge. I'm hoping that after NCTE in Minneapolis I'll be able to carve more time out of my schedule and discover ways to renew my commitment to blogging. I have lots of lesson ideas and student brilliance to share. 

Next week I'll share my NCTE15 convention schedule. It includes three sessions and exhibit hall work. Hope I'll see many friends there and that they'll carve a little time for catching up out of their convention pie. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"Threaten Them with an Essay" #SOL15

I sat in a meeting yesterday and listened to some of my colleagues discuss how to encourage students to register for college when we have our first "Focus on ISU Day." Our local university has declining enrollment from students in our county and the one directly to our west, so to increase enrollment for the 2016-17 year, we will take seniors to the lab and have them complete the admissions application. 

A colleague asked, "What do we do with students who insist they aren't going to college?"

In all seriousness, the question engendered this response: "Make them write an essay explaining why they aren't going to college." This response was echoed. 

One person said, "Threaten them with an essay." 

"Can we not punish students with writing?" I asked. 

How often have we English teachers used learning as a gavel rather than as a gift? 

Is it any wonder that the words "I hate reading" and "I hate writing" buzz in a cacophony of noise among many students. 

On this National Day of Writing, I have a simple wish. I wish students will see in their teachers the joys of reading and writing. For that to happen, we must stop with the threats. We must cease using writing as punishment.