Friday, December 16, 2011

"The Art of Slow Reading" by Thomas Newkirk

"I am a slow reader. There, it's out." Thus begins Thomas Newkirk's excellent book The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement. 

I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I read Newkirk's confession for I, too, am a slow reader, a reality that seems to surprise my students and others. After all, aren't English teachers suppose to be fast readers? Aren't we suppose to devour books at the speed with which others scarf fast food? Isn't our value as a teacher somehow measured by the sheer number of books we read each year?

I've long lamented the snails pace of my reading life, and it just seems to get slower as I get older. I like to savor books; I like going slowly and even going back when I sense I've missed something.

Among the gems in Slow Reading, here are some of my favorites:

Chapter 1: "About Slowness"
  • "To read slowly is to maintain an intimate relationship with a writer" (2).
  • "Reading is the making of a deeper self" (3).
  • "In all good writing, even informational texts, I am in the presence of a teller, a narrator, a guide" (5).
Chapter 2: "The Speed Curriculum"
  • "The standards movement has...failed in its primary mission--to focus, to direct attention to essentials, to concentrate effort" (30).
  • Teachers are not powerless against "technological determinism" and its "alterations of cognition" that "challenge traditional practices in reading" (36). 
  • "We an reclaim resourceful modes of reading, born in times of scarcity. We can learn to pay attention, concentrate, devote ourselves to author. We can slow down so we can hear the voice of texts, feel the movement of sentences, experience the pleasure of words--and own passages that speak to us" (41).
Chapter 3: "Reading goes Silent: Performing"
In this chapter Newkirk challenges readers to heed "sound cues." Readers should heed the role punctuation plays in cuing readers. An interesting analysis of silent reading suggests that readers can recapture in silent reading the skills used by ancient, oral readers of "sacred texts."

Newkirk invites teachers to use methods honed in British secondary schools during the 1970's:
  • Teachers, learn to read orally in ways that convey textual meaning to students. "Provide a model of the way good writing can sound, the rhythms and emphasis" that interprets meaning. This teachers students an "internal performance" techniques (61-62)
  • Teach excerpts of great literature for oral reading. Students may not be able to handle all of Crime and Punishment, Newkirk's example, but exposure to snippets from classic texts at a young age prepares students for the reading they'll encounter later. 
Chapter 4: "Learning by Heart: Memorizing"
  • Memorizing creates a storehouse of prior knowledge, and "reading is highly dependent upon prior knowledge" (75). 
  • "We need information to be internalized, to be part of our long-term memory, if it is [to] be useful" (75). Availability on the internet and via reference books isn't good enough to give students ownership of information. "My ability to write is totally dependent on the ability to make these memory scans," writes Newkirk (76). 
  • "Memorization is also a pledge of allegiance, an act of loyalty and deep respect, of affiliation" (76). 
  • By memorizing, we are "claiming a heritage" (77).
I am increasingly convinced that the marginalizing of memorization has had a detrimental affect on student writers. Students simply lack the prior knowledge they need to generate ideas for writing.
To promote memorization, Newkirk suggests students: Memorize proverbs. Memorize canonical sentences. Copy out passages. Learn and tell jokes.
                                                                                                                                                              Chapter 5: Making a Mark: Centering  

Take notice. That's the theme of chapter five and Newkirk's challenge to readers. "Much of what we read, virtually all of it, drifts into the background. We are left with 'what we notice,' with what strikes us as significant, central, memorable..." (94). So how do readers take notice? Newkirk offers some of my favorite ways to focus students, to encourage them to notice what's in a text:
  • text code
  • annotate
  • find key words (diction)
I have already used the following teaching idea from Slow Reading, and attest to their effectiveness at generating discussion:
  • Pulled Quotes: Think about the ways magazine articles draw readers into a text by hilighting a quote from the article. It's a hook. I used this with the opening letters in Frankenstein
Chapter 5 may be the book's most important one. In it, Newkirk reminds us to read the opening passages of a text carefully, for in these pages we learn the kind of reader we will be and the roles writers invent for us as readers: "In effect, openings teach us what kind of viewer we will be" (100).

As readers, our challenge is to adopt "an attitude of suspended conclusion" (John Dewey qtd. by Newkirk 105). This makes me wonder whether having students predict endings serves them well. Does predicting ever de-center students' reading?  

Chapter 6: "The Pleasures of Difficulty: Problem Finding"
  • "I am convinced that a crucial measure of intelligence--and by extension, reading skill--is this ability to work through this inital discomfort of situations that don't make sense, when our habitual patterns of understanding don't do the job" (120).
In recent years I've met many students who have "learned helplessness," students who see themselves as unable to work through difficult reading material. I am challenged to find ways of guiding students through the hard stuff in books.  

Chapter 7: "A Writer's Choices: Reading Like a Writer"

Newkirk offers some fabulous teaching ideas I'm looking forward to trying: "The Great Type-Out" in which students actually type a few pages of text, mark it up, and discuss the writer's craft in a written response (143). "Wrecking a Text" will hook students by its name alone; it's a modification of fractured classics (150).

Chapter 8: "Opening a Text: Elaborating"

My students had an epiphany when I showed them Montaigne's annotations and asked them to follow Montaigne's lead and annotate a writing circle response in such a way that they, like Montaigne, included more detailed information in their annotations than in their original responses. "Often Montaigne used is additions to add greater emphasis and imagery to the points he is making" (Newkirk 178-179).

 
Each day teachers ask students to open a book. The Art of Slow Reading challenges us to take time as we lead students in "opening a text." Enjoy the read, and don't forget to take your time.




Monday, November 21, 2011

What's In a Name Tag: Artistic Expression and Social Justice for LGBT Students

Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable. W. H. Auden

I attended session L.04 "MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES OF INQUIRY IN A SOCIAL JUSTICE CLASSROOM: USING MULTI-MODAL TECHNIQUES WITH AND FOR LGBT YOUTH" during NCTE and want to share some of the projects I acquired during the session. The subject of this post is "Name Tag Project."

The idea is for students to create a nametag that represents them. Here's the procedure:

1. Use a notecard or "real" nametag.

2. The student's name should be the focus of the nametag.

3. Add words and images that reveal something about oneself on the perimiter of the nametag. Think about arrangement when adding details. For example, a student may want to create a "found poem" for his/her nametag.

4. Other considerations: think about a theme for the nametag, consider adding 3D elements to the nametag, be unique and creative.

The images below show some examples the presenters used during their session:




I'm planning to use this project in my speech classes early in the trimester as an introductory presentation.

I can also see this project as a way to prepare students for class interviews of other classmates or characters. For example, teachers may want to have students create nametags for characters in a novel; next, students can interview one another about the various images and words on the nametag and what each reveals about the character, citing textual evidence for their responses.

Thank you, Jamie Rhein, for this artistic way of expressing ourselves.

I'm interested in hearing other variations on this idea.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NCTE 2011: G.41: Teaching the Hero's Journey: Understanding Our Past, Creating Our Future

If you are attending the NCTE Annual Convention in Chicago, I hope you'll include the panel on which I am participating in your schedule. Here is the data from the convention program:


Session: G.41 - 9:30 am to 10:45 am 11/19/2011Format: Panel
Room: Chicago Hilton/Continental Ballroom, Salon B, Lobby LevelTopic: Literature
Level(s): Middle (6-8), Secondary (9-12)
Title: TEACHING THE HERO'S JOURNEY: UNDERSTANDING OUR PAST, CREATING OUR FUTURE 
What transpires when teachers and students read and write through Joseph Campbell’s hero archetype? This session will examine designing a course based on the hero journey, creating a Ning collaboration among students in an urban and a rural school, and offering students YAL based on the hero archetype. 
Presenter: Glenda Funk, Highland High School, Pocatello, Idaho , 'Class Lines: Writing Beyond Borders'
Dana Huff, The Weber School, Atlanta, Georgia
Ami Szerencse, Schurr High School, Montebello, California , 'Class Lines: Writing Beyond Borders'


For our part of the presentation, Ami and I will share many resources from our Ning collaboration. Here's a list of documents:

1. Form and Blog posts (Teacher and Student Topics with supplements)

2. Student Responses to some posts.

3. Student Collaboration on Tracing the Hero Journey in Epic Poetry

4. Grading Rubric for Student Posts

5. Student Reflections

6. Books Students are Reading  (so far this school year)

7. Successes and Challenges 

8. Forum Simulation, an interactive activity replicating responses to a discussion on Ning.

Additionally, Ami has created a delightful Animoto video showcasing our Ning, and I will present a Prezi tracing our collaborative journey using the archetypal monomyth.

I will also spend a couple of hours working at the Folger Shakespeare Library booth. Stop by and introduce yourself and pick up some goodies from the library. Sign up for Bard Notes and enter to win something fabulous from the Folger. Plan now to apply for TSI 2012, which will be next summer in Washington D.C.

See you at the convention.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How Much Time Is Too Much Time?

Question: How much time is too much time? 


If I’m baking a cake and leave it in the oven too long, I render the pastry inedible. I was thinking about this as I recalled a time when I was 10 and left a cake baking in the oven while I went for a bike ride. Boy was I in trouble! 


Another time I burned custard. It actually looked like a black charcoal bricket when I removed it from the oven; I was a junior in high shcool when that happened. My father seethed and the house reeked from the fumes. 


Nowadays, I rarely overcook anything, but when I was a budding bride, I had a couple of disasters. One of the skills that keeps me from destroying every meal is a well-developed sense of timing.


This year, however, my timing feels off. I think two factors contribute to my planning clock's loss of synchronization: trimesters and the absence of deadlines for student work. 


The past two years my district has moved toward a "no zero" policy for student work. Last year I participated in a book study on A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades with other teachers in my building and will participate in another one on the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) theory of grading. 


I like the idea that all busy work needs to exit the grade book, but I worry about how I and students will manage removing the artificial construct called deadlines. Theoretically, the idea appeals to me in ways similar to the leisurely pace of baseball. Some kids need the flexibility and assurance they can complete a task, which omitting deadlines creates. Others manipulate the system by putting off until the end of the trimester much work from earlier dates in the semester. 


As an English teacher, I need time to carefully consider and respond to student writing; that doesn't happen when I'm buried by a stack of papers that come in the day of finals. I'm particularly worried about students completing oral presentations before the end of the trimester. And past experience has taught me that given extra time offers no guarantee that a student will finish the work, even when given an extension into the next term. 


Western culture tethers us to the clock, as the return to normal time from daylight savings time this past weekend illustrates and as the buzzer in most competitive sports confirms. Should we ignore the clock and the calendar when it comes to student work? 


Sometimes, too much time is too much time. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

"There Is No Such Thing as a Five-Paragraph Essay," says Kelly Gallagher


 

In his new book Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts  (Stenhouse 2011), Kelly Gallagher challenges a staple essay form taught in middle schools and high schools from coast to coast: The Five-Paragraph Essay.


Thank you, Kelly!

I devote too much time proding seniors to consider the three parts of an essay--introduction, body, and conclusion--when composing essays rather than defaulting to the five-paragraph formula.

Before teachers sharpen their red pens, they should consider Gallagher's argument: When one searches the plethera of real-world writing in books, in magazines, on blogs, on web sites, in journals, and most everywhere else, the five-paragraph essay is as elusive as the proverbial needle in a haystack. Writes Gallagher: "in the real world, there is no such thing as a five-paragraph essay" (232).

Examples of collumnists who eschew the five paragraph essay include: Rick Reilly, Leonard Pitts, George Will, and Fareed Zakaria, offers Gallager.

"If our goal is to develop lifelong writers, and we recognize that the five-paragraph essay doesn't exist in the real world, then why are we still hammering it into our students' heads?" asks Gallagher (233).

Gallagher counters teachers' responses that students "need the structure of a five-paragraph essay" by suggesting we teach students that essays need a beginning, a middle, and an end. Translation: introduction, body, and conclusion.

This, of course, makes more sense than the artificialness of a five-paragraph essay.

I'm a bit more cynical in my thinking about why many teachers teach the five paragraph essay: it's easy. All one need do is direct students toward what to do for each paragraph: Put your thesis in the first paragraph; make your first point in the second paragraph, your second point in the third paragraph, and your third point in the fourth paragraph. Summarize in your fith paragraph. Now you have an essay.

For teachers who are mandated by their districts to teach the five-paragraph essay, particularly as part of state-mandated testing, Gallagher suggests teachers spend approximately a week on the formula.

So, once again, thank you, Kelly, for vindicating those teachers who have long railed against the five-paragraph essay as a formula of a world other than the one in which we live.

I actually received a scolding many years ago by an administrator for telling students not to use the formula, the consequence of a well-intentioned colleague who complained because I refused to teach this contrived formula while she taught nothing but it.

Perhaps our reliance on formulaic writing helps explain why so many students find writing both meaningless and tedious.

It's time the five-paragraph essay go the way of the Whooly Mammoth: to extinction.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Flipped Language Arts Classroom


The Flipped Classroom

Today I received via Accomplished Teacher an article titled"How YouTube is Changing the Classroom,"which describes the innovative Flipped Classroom. For those who need a definition, a flipped classroom reverses the traditional teaching model in which a teacher presents a lesson in a whole-class setting, and students complete assignments at home. In the flip students watch short instructional videos at home and return to school for a workshop in which they complete projects and write papers. 
I watched part of the video about the five-paragraph essay and found myself succumbing to auditorium whiplash, but I did find the podcast interesting. 
I also found The Flipped Classroom Network Ning, devoted to promoting the flipped model and supporting teachers using it. 
I've long thought about how instructional videos and podcasting can help alleviate my own frustration from explaining and reteaching concepts to students who don't pay attention, who are chronically absent, who are in the kid clink down the hall, etc. And while I have created a few instructional videos, I'm far from accomplished. 
Moreover, I'm not much of a lecturer and don't want to adopt a lecture format to my teaching practice. Thus, I'd like to know who is using or has used the flipped classroom model, particularly in English. What advice do you have for novice flippers? What do you like about the flip? What doesn't work?

*The infographic offers an excellent explanation of a flipped classroom model:

Looking forward to your comments and advice. Thanks for reading.

**A slightly different version cross-posted on the English Companion Ning.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Time to Talk: Telling Whoppers in Class


Once upon a time…
So begins many memorable stories.

Once upon a time, I attended a workshop where I learned a writing strategy I adapted to my speech classes: WHOPPERS.
To write a WHOPPER, simply constructs a story around a famous person, a place, and a thing. The student then composes a whopper, which I characterize  to students as a big fish story:

“You know how your father describes the minnow he caught in the American Falls Reservoir? Eventually, as dad tells and retells his fishing tale, the fish mutates into a twenty pound rainbow trout.” This elicits lots of nods, smiles, and “that’s right” responses from students.
To illustrate the concept further, I offer another example: “And that three-point buck your uncle tagged turns out to be a five-point buck he chased down Scout Mountain.” Even the girls know this story!

Adapting WHOPPERS to speech:

Since anecdotes and illustrations offer excellent supporting details in speeches, I asked students to create a whopper and to share their tall tales with the class. What a great success. Labron James figured prominently in several of the boys’ stories. Of course, in their WHOPPERS, L J failed to outscore my students. We had shark tales, stories about hanging out with celebrities in Hawaii, and a story about a road made out of Pop Rocks that Elmo tinkled on. Hey, boys like bathroom humor, and the story amused us all.

I haven’t assigned WHOPPERS in many years, but as we watched an animated version of three Canterbury Tales in my senior English classes, I recalled a time I assigned whoppers in conjunction with the C Ts. After all, the pilgrims’ stories, in their imagination and in their telling, constitute WHOPPERS, with each pilgrim attempting to out-tell the others. Remember, the Summoner responds to the Friar’s tale by having a host of Friars fly out of the devil’s booty when the devil lifts his tell.

Whether we call these stories "tall tales," "yarns," or "stretchers," as does Huck Finn, there's power to construct meaning in telling tales.  
At the end of the day, after listening to students’ hyperbole, my mouth ached from smiling so much, and my students experienced the power of “Once upon a time…”

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Of Peculiar Children and Fringe Geeks: Bridging YA Lit and Social Commentary

Two distinctly different genres bookended my summer: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins, a book I read on my Kindle in early June and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, which I finished just before returning to the classroom in September.


Aside from their obvious genre differences--Geeks is social commentary and Miss Peregrine's is YA literature--both books possess haunting similarities.



Both books focus on the lives of marginalized children and the ways they negotiate their worlds. In her insightful analysis of "the cafeteria fringe," students who don't fit into the school culture, Robbins examines the lives of eight individuals in various school settings. Each exists on the fringe of the popularity grid, including a cheerleader who finds herself at odds with the mean girl crowd in which she runs.


Similarly, Miss Peregrine's Home tells the story of a group of children who live in a time warp off the coast of Wales. Jacob's relationship with his grandfather's secret past propels him to investigate his family's secret past. When he arrives at the home Miss Peregrine runs for "peculiar children," he discovers that society's notions of peculiarity include character traits and skills others might label gifts.


This theme that children's quirks make them the most gifted, and ultimately the most successful adults lives on the pages of both books. In Geeks we meet the Band Geek, the New Girl, the Loner, the Gamer, the Nerd, the Overachiever, and others. In Miss Peregrine's the peculiar children include a levitating girl, an invisible boy, a contortionist, and others.


Both books remind us that we should embrace one another's quirks, that what makes us unique doesn't just make us special but capable and successful in managing life's mazes.


Both emphasize the importance of point of view when considering ways children experience the world. Jacob, whose peculiarity is his ability to "see" monsters, narrates Miss Peregrine, while Robbins allows each student a voice in reconstructing their experiences in reportorial style.


“Adults tell students that it gets better, that the world changes after school, that being ‘different’ will pay off sometime after graduation,” writes Robbins. In contrast, Riggs, through the character of Jacob's grandfather, suggests that even in the adult world, we find the peculiar among us. 


Even Robbins's inclusion of a lesbian teacher, Regan, contradicts her premise that adolescence ends and life gets better. That's not always true, at least not for the adults who live on the fringe of the teachers' lounge in our schools, especially in our era of homogenized curriculum. 


The message that life gets better after high school needs rewriting, reconstructing. "If the alternative is to wait and just hope...I say that's no alternative at all," says Millard, one of Riggs's peculiar children while he awaits a particular escape from danger. 


Children need the epiphany Jacob experiences in Miss Peregrine, the one some of the cafeteria fringe Robbins writes about come too late in their school journeys. "I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was," says Jacob. 











Sunday, August 21, 2011

"LIE" by Caroline Bock: A YA Novel with Multiple First-Person Narrators


*The review portion of this post is on my book blog: Hanging by a Book. The lesson plan portion is all new to this post. It's after the trailer.


The attacks were such an established pastime that the youths, who have pleaded not guilty, had a casual and derogatory term for it, "beaner hopping."
---The New York Times, front page story 
after the murder of a Hispanic immigrant on Long Island


Author Caroline Bock opens her YA debut novel LIE (St. Martins Griffin: August 30, 2011) with this news snippet. The objective, journalistic style offers a stark contrast to Bock's use of multiple narrative voices to construct a fictional narrative touching on the nature of hate crimes and other issues relevant to teens. 

Reading LIE is like slowly peeling an onion by its translucent layers of skin. Readers learn "the truth" in snippets and from ten distinct voices. Complicating readers' search for the story is the absence of the most important voice, that of the accused, Jimmy Seger. 

The novel opens with Skylar Thompson narrating. She has been interrogated by Officer Healey about the events of "last Saturday night," specifically Skylar's boyfriend Jimmy's role: "Was Jimmy Seger the Mastermind?"

Bock complicates Jimmy in myriad ways, including his friendship and romance with the grieving Skylar after her mother's death. To what extent does Skylar really know Jimmy? How can Skylar reconcile the complicated moral code by which Jimmy lives and protects his friends with the "morality" which also makes him a bigot? 

LIE raises many questions, and it's the ten first-person narrators these binaries create that give voice to the issues. Yet the silences Bock constructs also speak volumes: Why don't we hear from Jimmy? What motivates teens to create a bubble of silence, one in which "everybody knows, nobody's talking," as Skylar's BFF Lisa Marie Murano chants throughout the novel. 

Innocence has no place in LIE, as Bock deftly critiques the pedestal on which school administrators and coaches place student-athletes, from whom they then attempt to distance themselves and the school when those students are laid low. Readers hear this in the adult voices Bock interjects into the narrative. 

Bock even challenges the American pastime, baseball, in her symbolizing of the Louisville Slugger. 

She further critiques the iconic great American road motif and its symbolism of freedom and the Westward journey that leads to fulfillment of the American Dream. The LIE (Long Island Expressway) ends abruptly, but it's also the scene of the crime in LIE

LIE debuts just in time for the anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attack, which plays a subtle role in the narrative and suggests how we should and should not define heroism. 

Readers may find reading LIE a bit slow-going at first. Try peeling an onion by its thin skin to see what I mean. Ultimately, LIE voices the questions with which teens find themselves challenged, and the pace quickens, like a speeding car on the LIE, propelling the rider to the abrupt ending. 

LIE is worth the trip. That's the truth. 

*Book Trailer:


Lesson Plan Ideas:


Readers Theater:

If you are a teacher looking to incorporate more oral reading into your classroom, LIE offers an excellent opportunity for a readers theater activity:

1. You need at least two (maybe three) copies of the novel.
2. Split the novel into parts. There are ten narrators. When you split the novel, number the sections, which will make keeping the order easier.
3. Assign parts. Okay, with ten characters and a class of 30, you'll want to assign more than one student to some characters.
4. Have the students "cut" the sections. This will be complicated by the dialogue in some sections, but it's very doable, especially if in the cutting process some parts get reassigned.
5. The performance can take several forms:
    One: Practice and present a traditional readers theater.
    Two: Create a news broadcast and edit the "scenes" to create a traditional news segment.
    Three: Record the scenes in documentary style.

Class Debate:

In my last post, I offered a lesson for teaching the refutative speech. Rather than focusing on a policy issue, LIE offers an opportunity for debating a value question: Should friends remain loyal to their friends regardless of the circumstances?

Narrative Voices:

Focus on the multiple first-person narratives in LIE. One way to do this is with body biographies, another is with students explaining character choices from the specific character's point of view, either in writing or in an oral presentation.

As a fan of multiple narrative voices, such as Faulkner uses in The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom!, I'm excited about a YA novel that introduces students to a difficult narrative form. Why did Bock choose to tell the story from ten points of view? This question would make a provocative fish-bowl discussion.

Definition Essay:

The definition essay is my favorite expository mode, and LIE raises questions about many terms on which students could write extended definitions: loyalty, moral code, hate crime, heroism are just a few.

*Do you know titles of other YA novels with multiple first-person narrators? I'd like to hear about them if you do. Thanks for reading and sharing.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Time to Talk: The Refutative Speech in the LA Classroom


Flickr CC Image

Writers of argument recognize the importance of offering refutation for the opposing position. Teachers of the argumentative essay also know the difficulty of getting students to respond to opposing arguments. The refutative speech, which is based on policy debate, offers a lively introduction to refutation in argument.

A common problem with student counter-arguments is the absence of direct clash (disagreement). Clash results from identifying the central point of disagreement and identifying a weakness in the opposing viewpoint.

The most common way to refute an argument resides in testing the inductive and/or deductive reasoning. For deduction, test the syllogisms and enthymemes. For induction, test the examples, analogy, causation, authority, or statistics used to argue a point. Also evaluate the argument for fallacies.

Refutation Approaches:

1. Argue the evidence: Accuracy, sufficiency, relevance, timliness, bias, completeness are all potential points of clash. The source's credentials and statistics also offer potential for clash.

2. Argue the reasoning: Faulty generalizations, analogies and comparisons, cause/effect relations, and deductions may present flaws in an argument.

3. Deny the argument with credible evidence that shows the falseness of an argument.

4. Identify inconsistencies in an argument.

5. Minimize the argument by showing its insignificance.

6. Use "reductio ad absurdum" to show the logical conclusion of an argument is unacceptable. Analogies work well for this.

7. Deny inherency. When arguing policy issues, what we should do, an opposing position might be that fixing what's wrong needs only a minor adjustment, the system is moving toward resolution of the problem, etc.

8. Address dilemmas. Boiling an argument down to competing alternatives, neither of which is acceptable, is an effective form of refutation.

9. Argue differentiation. First show specific differences in your position. Next, through direct comparison, show the strengths in your position.

10. Turn the Tables: Argue that the opposition actually supports your position rather than the one s/he claims to support. This method of refutation is a form of concession.


4-Step Refutative Process:


Both systematic and clear, this four-step process guarantees clash with the opposing argument.

1. State the position you are refuting.
2. State your position in a concise sentence.
3. Support your position, using reasoning and evidence to support your claim.
4. Explain how your position is superior to or trumps the opposing argument.

When arguing against a position, having more than one response is important. Three is the magic number. Thus, when a speaker (or writer) advocates a policy for requiring students to take online classes, ideally the refutation consists of three refutative arguments.

For example, an argument for decriminalizing drugs might be refuted in three ways:

[refutation S1] I have three responses to the argument that decriminalizing drugs will reduce crime.

[refutation S2] Drug use leads to crime, so decriminalizing drugs won't reduce crime. (Cause/effect argument)

[refutation S3] It's true that studies connect crime to drugs, but this isn't caused by laws against drug use. Rather, its the byproduct of addiction and an addicts driving need for the next fix. The number of crimes committed to acquire drugs is minuscule compared to the crime committed from the influence of drug use.

*At this point, its appropriate to present supporting evidence. Again, three is the magic number. Some sources include Drug Watch International, JAMA, The Drug Policy Report, et al.

[refutation S4] Impact (consequences): Since decriminalizing drugs won't decrease crime. The behavior associated with drug use will result in other threats to society as demand for now legal drugs escalates.

The next refutative argument:

[refutation S2] Decriminalizing drugs will not eliminate the black market. (argue reasoning and causation)

[refutation S3] Advocates of decriminalization still support restrictions to drug use by minors, pilots, pregnant women, and felons. Thus, demand for a black market would persist, as would crime.

*Offer evidence to support. The Shipmann Library of Drug Policy is a potential source.

[refutation S4] A black market creates an environment for crime and other criminal tendencies. Thus, the argument that legalizing drugs reduces crime loses its impact.

The third refutative argument:

[refutation S2] Decriminalizing drugs may increase crime [Turning the Tables]

[refutation S3] Legalizing drugs removes the criminal deterant, leading to increased use and addiction. This will result in increased crime.

*Offer evidence to support the argument.

[refutation S4] Since decriminalizing drugs will increase use, addiction, and, consequently, crime, the argument for legalizing drugs has the opposite effect of its intent.

In-class Refutative Speeches


Students work in pairs to present refutative speeches, which proceed as follows:

Speaker 1. Argument in support of a position (2-3 minutes)

Speaker 2. Refutation against the position (5-6 minutes). This includes a constructive argument separate from the original proposition.

Speaker 1: Refutation against the second speaker's constructive argument. (2-3 minutes). It's important that the speaker only argue against the second speaker's constructive and that s/he present two or three refutative points (see above format).  This results in direct clash with the opposing position

By practicing direct clash in speaking situations, students learn both to support and refute a position. Thus, rather than writing essays that offer a cursory nod to an opposing position, they learn to clarify their thinking and build strong, clear analysis.

Works Cited:

Communication 101 Principles of Speech Course Supplement, 4th ed. Department of Communication & Rhetorical Studies, Idaho State University. Fall 2011. pp. 104-108

*Special thanks to Nancy Legge, PhD for her excellent work on the refutative speech, the Comm1101 supplement, and commitment to maintaining academic standards in education. The information in this post is adapted from the Comm 1101 supplement, including the sample refutative argument, although this method of refutation is one I used and taught during my competitive debate years. :-)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Problem with the One Week Workshop

During the summer months, teachers around the country often seek professional development opportunities. To this end, many turn to the one-week workshop to fill gaps in their content and/or pedagogical knowledge.

One-week P.D. serves a vital function, and I've been fortunate to attend some terrific summer sessions ranging from one to four weeks. Note: I'm not talking about summer classes from which one earns university credit, although workshops often offer credit opportunities.

The College Board encourages current and new AP teachers to attend their workshops, theoretically so that AP teachers will be prepared to teach AP classes when school commences in the fall.

So what's the problem? Simply, a one-week workshop is no substitute for an advanced degree or a graduate-level course in rhetorical theory or rhetorical analysis.

Recently, as the summer draws to a close and teachers return home from their AP workshops and begin preparing for the coming school year, I've seen an increase in the number of online inquiries from teachers seeking assistance in preparing to teach AP, particularly the AP lang and comp class.

Teachers who acknowledge doubts about their preparation and who seek help in online forums certainly deserve accolades. I admire their willingness to say "help, please." Their willingness to take advice from other teachers shows a desire for excellence in their teaching.

At the same time, I'm troubled that some teachers enter the AP lang and comp class not knowing the meaning of rhetoric, even as they ask about the difference in rhetoric and style. Most English teachers focused on literary analysis rather than rhetorical analysis in their university coursework.

Unfortunately, rather than actually preparing teachers who lack a background in rhetoric and / or communication studies, the one-week AP workshop diminishes the worth of those teachers who do have substantial knowledge in rhetorical studies, whether through an advanced degree or grad-level coursework.

Put another way:  The one-week workshop doesn't sufficiently fill gaps in knowledge about rhetoric. It merely gives the false impression that a teacher has sufficient knowledge. The one-week workshop (read: The College Board) is guilty of what Tom Newkirk calls the "deskilling" of teaching in Holding Onto Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones. 

At this juncture, I feel compelled to offer a little self-disclosure: I do not teach AP lang and comp. I do, however, have substantial grad-level coursework in rhetoric and communication, including courses in argumentation theory and rhetorical criticism.

I don't blame teachers for wanting to teach AP courses and for grabbing the opportunity to do so; after all, AP students are generally more motivated and easier to teach than reluctant learners and students with poor reading and writing skills.

However, I do hope these teachers will seek to improve their knowledge by taking grad-level courses in rhetoric and argumentation.

I hope they realize a one-week workshop is no substitute for intensive, long-term study at the graduate level with a professor devoted to "the art of persuasion, beautiful and just."

I hope teachers realize that identifying chiasmus, litotes, synecdoche, etc. is no substitute for constructing essays using Neo-Aristotelian Criticism, Fantasy Theme Criticism, Cluster Criticism, Pentadic Criticism, Generic Criticism, etc. Sonja Foss's Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice is a good source for learning more about these methods of critiquing rhetorical artifacts, which, incidentally, aren't limited to nonfiction texts. In communication studies, pretty much anything has rhetorical value and, consequently, is subject to critique, including architecture, fashion, music, art, speeches, etc.

And while these methods of rhetorical criticism may not be necessary for one to teach the AP lang and comp class in its current incarnation, it certainly behooves teachers undertaking such an endeavor actually to know something about this communication field--something more than one learns in a week.

Revised: 8-22-2011

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cheating Teachers: A Crucible of Character

At the end of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, John Proctor refuses to nail his verbal confession that he's guilty of witchcraft to the church door. When questioned about his refusal, he shouts: 


"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" 


Those educators involved in the litany of cheating scandals have blackened the name of our profession. They have sold the soul of teaching, and now many defend their failure of character and refuse to own their choice to cheat. Their refusal to do the honorable thing and resign testifies to their poor character. 



As have many teachers, I have followed the Atlanta testing scandal and have given it much thought. Similar cheating scandals have occurred in Washington D.C. during Michelle Rhea's tenure, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, in New Jersey, and in New York. And these are the ones we know about. I wouldn't be surprised to learn standardized test cheating is both systemic and epidemic. 


The rationalizing, the efforts, however well-intended,  to explain how and why cheating occurs bothers me. 


Writing about the Atlanta scandal, Maureen Downey says this on the ajc blog: 


"I think some of their motivation was less self-serving; they wanted to fulfill Dr. Hall’s vision that low-income children from single parent homes and tough neighborhoods could and would succeed at levels comparable to suburban Atlanta peers and that such performance could be achieved system-wide by adopting best practices and by working harder and smarter.


The APS teachers, principals and administrators wanted to prove that the faith of the Broad and Gates foundations and the Chamber of Commerce in the district was not misplaced and that APS could rewrite the script of urban education in America and provide a happy, or at least a happier, ending for its students."


Is Ms. Downey really saying educators cheated for the students? 


Vicky Davis, writer of the Cool Cat Teacher Blog, is quoted in the Huff Post as explaining teacher's cheating:

"[Teachers'] funding and their lives and their money is based on that. When the stakes are extremely high and it's very competitive but you add in the fact that the teachers feel that they don't have control over the results, some will cheat."


As an article in Education Week notes, many see these cheating scandals as a byproduct of our testing culture and cite them in calling for an end to testing:


 “If the stakes are so high that the teachers don’t even believe the measurement itself, they’re going to try to cheat," says Yang Zhao.


Nationwide teachers have questioned the educational benefit of high-stakes testing. This lack of faith in the
tests doesn't create a cause-effect scenario in which all teachers will cheat on the them. That's because the vast majority of teachers possess honorable character that prevents them from cheating. 


Rather than attempting to explain the why behind the cheating scandals, educators should acknowledge that  the decision to cheat constitutes a test of character. Those who cheat fail the character test, their students, and their profession.  They have nailed their name to the door and they need to leave the profession on their own. If they choose not to leave, educators throughout the country should call for their dismissal and the revocation of their licenses as loudly as we call for an ending to high-stakes testing. 



Friday, July 29, 2011

On Being Human: What Shylock Teaches Us in "The Merchant of Venice"

Montana Shakespeare in the Park traveling company mounted two plays on the quad at Idaho State University this week: Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice. I've been thinking about Shylock's "Hath not a Jew Eyes" speech in III.i for a couple of reasons:

1. Our local paper carried a vitriolic anti-gay rant in yesterday's paper ("The End Is Near"). The letter write is upset because of a planned Pride Pride parade and efforts by some local residents and the ACLU to keep the city council from beginning meetings with prayer.

2. A local writer, who recently switched careers from broadcasting to public relations, was interviewed by a local reporter and asked to defend her contribution toPocatello Pride. She posted on FB her thoughts. Here's the thread:


I can't believe I have to defend our donation to the Pocatello Pride event on the news. I didn't have to defend any of the other hundreds of contributions we've made to organizations in the community.
19 hours ago ·  · 
  • 3 people like this.
    • Drew Schnoebelen That is absolutely ridiculous. You should have said THAT to them when they asked you to do so.
      19 hours ago ·  ·  1 person
    • John Stosich Next time donate to the Boy Scouts...you would never have to defend that in the Media??? Sounds like Foxnews
      18 hours ago · 
    • Mark Russell Rapp Ludicrous. When will acceptance & tolerance abide?
      18 hours ago ·  ·  2 people
    • Todd Blackinton I'd like to point out that KPVI was not the organization asking the question. First, it's not a question that has to be asked. Second, Brenda would have de-friended me.
      18 hours ago ·  ·  7 people
    • Eric Forrest Well along the lines of "you only get what you can handle", maybe that's why you got it, you're the champion. Everyone will see the folly of past generations because Brenda stood up for what's right!
      17 hours ago ·  ·  2 people
    • Carolyn Olsen One of the many reasons I admire you so much.
      16 hours ago · 
    • Doug Long Ignore the ignorant. No need to defend loving thy neighbor Brenda.
      15 hours ago · 
    • Matt Smith Thank you for your stance and action. (inaction is still action) YOU are a ripple of change. And thank you all for your words of support and encouragement.
      13 hours ago · 
    • Glenda Cowen-Funk That was one nasty letter in the Journal today. I'd like to hear the reporter's defense for asking such a homophobic question. I'm thinking about rewriting Shylock's "I am a Jew" speech from "The Merchant of Venice" so that it is applicable to LBGTs.
      11 hours ago ·  ·  3 people
    • Susan Groseclose Stephens We are all Gods Children! He doesn't love one of us more than the others!
      about an hour ago · 


The world is full of hate, and after a former gay student's suicide in January, I admit to being a bit incensed. Whatever one thinks of the complicated Shylock, his remarks ring true for all humanity. All we need do is complete a little code switching, like this:

Hath not a Gay person eyes? 
Hath not a Gay person hands, organs, 
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; 
fed with the same food, 
hurt with the same weapons, 
subject to the same diseases,
heal'd by the same means, 
warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as all others
If you prick a Gay person, do they not bleed? 
If you tickle them, do they not laugh? 
If you poison them, do they not die?
And if you wrong them, do they not revenge? 

If they are like us in the rest, 
they will resemble us in that.


"Shylock" from Park's Shakspearean Twelfth-Night Characters. Hand-colored print, ca. 1830. Shelfmark ART 231747. 

Critics of teaching Shakespeare as having no relevance to teens, especially minorities whom the critics claim can't see themselves in the Bard's characters, need look no further than Shylock's reminder that we all share in one commonality: We are human beings, and each person deserves the same humanity we expect from others. 


*Image of Shylock and a lesson plan on "The Making of Shylock" available from The Folger Shakespeare Library.