Category Archives: Amber Counts

Keeping Students’ Emotional States in Mind as We Recommend Books

I came to respect The Great Gatsby as a work of literature only after rereading it in college, but prior to that time, the feelings I associated with it could best be described as loathing and resentment. I can imagine the gasps as I type this. Gatsby is, after all, a beloved American novel which almost every American student has read, or “read,” by the time they graduate high school. Someone who reads this post will want to tell me all about how it’s his or her favorite book and that maybe I just don’t understand it or realize the literary genius it represents. Some of you will fondly remember the teacher who thoughtfully guided you through the text. I can only assure you that I fully understand it, and I liked my junior English teacher well enough.

So why didn’t I like one of the greatest American novels of all time? It comes down to two reasons, and a lot of us are already doing our best to address the first:

  1. The book was assigned to me to read. I had no choice – at a time in my life when I craved I read it because I was supposed to, but I resented the time it took me away from the books I really wanted to read. This website is a testament to the work that we’re doing to provide students with at least some choice. For more information on how to provide choice in a variety of classroom settings, I encourage you to peruse the wonderful posts on this site as well as the publications of Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller.
  2. Here’s the part that many of us are still developing: we talk with students and recommend books – often based on what they’ve enjoyed reading previously – and try to match students with their interests. We need to go further with our talks. Had my English III teacher spoken with me enough to understand even a little about my background, she would have known that being the poorest kid in the class and having another eviction notice on my apartment door made me reluctant (“angry” might be a better descriptor here) to spend my time hanging out with the likes of Daisy. I was surrounded by Daisies who worried about what seemed trivial to me. I worried about not eating; they worried about whether or not their nail polish would match their prom dress. I didn’t feel like maturely comparing my situation to the text; I wanted to escape via literature! I didn’t want or need to read a book at that point in time so fixated on money and superficiality. The assigned book caused me psychological distress that I still remember almost thirty years later. If this seems overly dramatic, imagine how texts were typically taught in the 1980s and still are in some classrooms today. We drudged through the book for at least a month, and I listened to conversations about wealth daily. Not cool.

Many of us get to know our students fairly well through book talks, conferences, class discussions, and casual conversations. A growing number of ELA teachers begin the course with writing assignments that shed light on a student’s favorites as well potential

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Mrs. Davenport’s class created picture frames that represent how they view the world.

emotional triggers, such as Mary Davenport’s frame activity, in which students decorate construction-paper “frames” and write brief, introspective pieces around the borders about the experiences that shape how they view the world. Davenport often gleans background information about her students that helps her recommend books to them, as social and emotional factors are every bit as important as reading (or dare I say it: Lexile) levels. Finding safe ways to learn about her students’ lives has allowed her to match readers with books they enjoy, and that is our mission: to expand our knowledge base about our students’ lives, without prying or making them feel vulnerable, so we can get the right books into their hands.

I would love to help teachers who are less experienced with conferring with students, and improve my own craft, so please share your strategies for getting to know your students’ emotional needs (as they relate to reading) in the comments.

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Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition, PSAT Team, English 4, and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She wants her students to know that language is power – one that she hopes they will be able to wield for Good. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

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How a Bullet Journal Baby-stepped me Back to Writing

I know that it is most important to write when dealing with the very adversity in life that makes us run from writing. I know that. And yet, I have not written much in the past year. I dabbled a bit while writing with my students – mostly during poetry club – but I enjoyed neither the process (it felt forced) nor the products (I lacked the passion to see the potential in my pieces). I felt worse than I did prior to embracing workshop as a teacher because now, I knew better. I felt like a fake. I could hear myself encouraging students to write as a form of catharsis, but I wasn’t walking the walk. It is hard to admit that I felt this way for almost the entire school-year.

I remember how great my muscle memory was in marching band. Even when I didn’t feel well, even when I was not in the mood to play “If My Friends Could See Me Now” one more time, even when I was completely distracted by the cute tuba player in my peripheral vision (we’ve been married 27 years now), my finger knew which holes to cover and keys to hit. I knew when to breathe. I knew when my foot should hit the yard-line. Luckily, that same type of “muscle memory” applies to teaching. Though I secretly struggled, I engaged my students in writing and offered them choice, whenever possible, in their medium of expression, topics, genres, etc.

This is how one of my students came to show me her bullet journal. For several years, I have assigned some variation of a “senior autobiography project.” Students have wowed me each time with introspective pieces and astounding creativity. I do assign some parameters because I want students to include writing, of course, and their final entry requires them to find a major theme in their work (and life), but some of the project types I have received include:

  • a video game walkthrough with text pop-ups and a voice-over
  • scrapbooks (with written pieces)
  • a choose-your-own adventure video game to solve a mystery (and get to know the student)
  • memory boxes
  • a bird’s nest constructed of rolled-up notes and pictures (the theme was written on a beautiful paper bird)
  • a full CD with 12 original songs that capture elements of the student’s life
  • PowerPoints
  • videos
  • infographics
  • traditional journals
  • and recently, bullet journals

I check in with my students at the mid-point to see what format they are considering for their project and to see what written pieces they’re thinking of including. One of my students told me that she was crafting a bullet journal. I had to ask her what that was. I know; I was slacking on my Pinterest-perusing! She looked at me with the most somber expression and said, “Mrs. Counts, you have GOT to check out bullet journaling! You would LOVE it! I know you would!”

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Instead of travel dreams, students could set post-graduation goals or high school bucket lists!

So…several Pinterest-hours later (they have got to start counting that as professional development), I had several pages in my writer’s notebook: travel dreams, reading list, spring-cleaning list, weight-loss goal cough, mood trackers, a list of what I could do if I’m bored or feeling down, a gratitude page, and a list of things I can control. They’re just lists, but I was writing, and writing is never really just a list. The mood trackers have allowed me to gain insight into patterns and how different events affect me. Thinking about what I can control empowers me to do those things and let the others go. My spring cleaning list – well, that’s still not done, and neither is my summer list, but I can reflect on that and set new goals, too! I also create to-do lists for my classes, take notes during training courses, and even have an expanding summer Netflix binge-watch list!

I have always thought that a lot of my best lesson ideas come from my students, so when Screen Shot 2019-07-11 at 10.10.11 PM

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Mood trackers are a valuable self-assessment tool.

I teach creative writing this fall, I plan to incorporate some of the bullet journal ideas into the course. I would love to look at possibilities together and let students choose what areas to explore in their lives. My student’s suggestion got me writing again – first by lists, then by taking ideas or phrases from those lists to create something new. I know that magic can work for some of the more reluctant writers in my class.

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I take “real” notes in my journal, too. I even glued in my annual non-winning convention door prize ticket for laughs 😀

I know that none of these ideas are new. Most of us already use writer’s notebooks with our students for quick-writes, pieces modeled on mentor texts, and much more, but some of the bullet journal templates are quick, non-threatening, adaptable, and fun! Please comment with any fun resources you find on the topic. I’m off to add to my Netflix page…

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Students can visualize concepts before writing about them. This small entry in my journal has somehow reminded me to do these things daily!

 

 

 

 

 

A few resources:

 

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She wants her students to know that language is power – one that she hopes they will be able to wield for Good. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

A Happy Little Lesson

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 2.12.33 PMOkay, I stole the inspiration for this post’s title from the late, great Bob Ross, but if the tree (or daffodil) fits, then I’m good with sappy wordplay. AP Literature can feel dark at times because many of the texts we read deal with death, loss, and desire. That’s why I look forward to the beauty and humor found in our texts and with each other in our class. The Romantic literary era provides wonderfully rich, dark, gothic themes, but it also provides opportunities for students to think about how they connect with nature and beauty. Often, it reminds them that they’re not taking time to relax, reflect on beauty, or enjoy some downtime away from small screens.

  1. We began by reading William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” – a wonderful poem for traditional analysis. More importantly, it serves as a great mentor text to think about those places upon which we reflect when we’re feeling down. Here’s Wordsworth’s poem:

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” by William Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

  1. We analyzed the poem together, noting its craft and themes. We discussed a variety of ideas: the few visible stars in our city’s night sky compared the multitude of stars that can be seen in the country, how the simple experiences in life can be the most profound, and the importance of having a “happy” or safe place.
  2. We talked about the genre of poetry as a vessel for this beautiful message, and we discussed how we might capture the same beauty in prose. The word “prose” still scares many of my students, so we talked about what that meant. One student asked if prose is similar to the personal narratives they wrote for standardized tests when they were younger, so we also talked about the test-genre and its relationship to more authentic writing. (Incidentally, there’s an idea for a whole other blog post!)
  3. I shared two prose pieces about happy places of my own, and the students analyzed the craft in those. We discussed the literary devices present and their effects in the piece. They talked about the song lyrics woven into “Funkytown” and how the diction becomes darker as I leave my “happy place” – the roller rink. They talked about the sibilance in “Whither Thou Goest” that correlates with the river that winds like a snake below the mountain, the color imagery, and biblical allusions. It is always magical when we write with our students, and the fact that I shared myself with them made them feel more comfortable to write honest pieces of their own.
  4. Ultimately, I challenged them to write about a literal or figurative “happy place” of their own. It could be a physical place or a state of mind. I challenged them to play with language. There was no length requirement, but they were to label 5 different literary devices they employed.
  5. Just as I weaved song lyrics through one of my pieces, some students incorporated poetry, lyrics from a musical, and even lines from a movie into theirs. Others preferred more straight-forward, concise prose. Some wrote very poetic prose. In every case, however, their voices shone! The results were some of the best writing I’ve read from them all semester.
  6. The next step is to discuss how they can use their voice and their writing strengths in their academic writing. I once heard an AP Literature teacher say that there was “no time to have students write their own poetry in the course” and that worse yet, he’d “have to read it.” I have always felt sorry for that man. In my experience, it is the best way for students to find and hone their writing voices, learn about literary devices in an authentic way, and for teachers to foster a love of writing in their students. With the next mentor-inspired text, I will have them analyze their own writing.

Here are a couple of student samples from this assignment, unaltered by me, used with their consent:

By Jake (3/3/2019)

            I do not feel at home in Texas. The land is flat, the weather is tourettic; these gargantuan skies transmogrify from benevolent baker to dekiltered, frenetic assailant mile by mile, hour by hour, even. I take it back: I appreciate the tumult above the flats of Texas. It compensates for the, well, flatness. I could go on and on about how I would rather adore the rapturous peaks of my birth state, Colorado, how each and every inch stirs within a kindred connection that I experience nowhere else in the country. I could go on and on about how the saltine winds along the coasts of Washington corrode my worries into a whelming paste, yet these are, regrettably, far away places. I frequent these happy places, sure, but my memories elapse more time than that which I have spent in these places. Music allows me to carry these places around with me, wherever I may roam.

          “Bat Out Of Hell” by Meat Loaf forever holds a motorcycle to Colorado, as I was truly deafened by Meat’s foghorn vocals and personality for the first time in a balmy summer night’s drive through some valley whose name escapes me. Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er” speaks to me of foot-slicing clamshell beachfronts, Dad trying his damndest to deafen me with Led Zeppelin in the rental car, and whiling hours drowned on that driftwood deck. I find the King in me whenever I pick up that there hairbrush in the bathroom and belt, belt as freely as the mighty Mississippi River flows. “Patch It Up,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Steamroller Blues,” and “Fever” purr and yelp around the room, terminally ill with suave, when I’m feeling up. “If I Can Dream,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “American Trilogy,” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” croon and boom through the hallways when I’m feeling like the sky above. I am as much myself while belting Elvis to pictures on the wall and motes of dust as I am writing poetry to no one in particular.

            However, if my musical mind is a mountain, Elvis Presley makes up little more than the babbling brook rushing between the rocks that I scrub off my worries in. Meat Loaf is the foothills, the base upon which rests my musical perspective. Sturgill Simpson is the renegade wind that whistles through the hills, tossing me hither and thither as I make my merry way up the mountain path. In the forest of rock n’ roll, the wind takes on more of a Led Zeppelin flavor, rustling the Beatle pine needles. The rocks upon which I scrape my hiking boots are the bones of the bands that built the tastes I enjoy today. Bands like Nirvana, Styx, and Deep Purple, which once shone me the colors with which I view the forest today, yet get trampled nowadays in my search for the more exotic indie elixirs. If my musical mind is truly a mountain, then surely for every stone this metaphor turns over lie another taunting ten.

            Then music, unlike any physical happy place, must surely forever evolve, must be at the whim of the beholder and drive the behest of the spirit, must sculpt the mountains of the mind and scythe paths for one to meander, to sprint, to cower, praise, sleep upon, to stray from. Well, it holds this precedent to me, at least. Music has also upheld the standard upon which I interact with other people. What sets music apart from any happy place is that music builds the places into the palaces of peace that they are in my mind.

By Lung (3/4/2019) *Lung is an English-language Learner!

          On Jan. 20th, 2019, I experienced a phenomenon when the world stopped spinning, and the universe halted to a finite. I have had many perfect memories in my life, but not as unrivaled as this one. I’ve never felt more desperate for time to stand still and for picture-perfect moments to last. I lived only in that moment: cherished and content and peaceful.

            It was my two year anniversary with my boyfriend who is more like my partner in crime than a lover. He took me to Gussie Field Watterworth Park in Farmers Branch, Texas to share a “treasure” that he found. Although I was skeptical about going to a park on an evening when the weather dropped as low as 32 degrees, I still followed him, ready for an adventure. When we arrived at our destination, I opened the passenger door only for the harsh wintry breeze to slap me into regret. I scanned the scenery to recognize that we were the only people insane enough to occupy a park when the weather could freeze a person whole. The flowers have wilted into brown garments, and even sheets of ice were floating lazily on the pond. I was soon disrupted of my thoughts, when he grabbed my hand and pulled me into the middle of one of the many trails toward what looked like a box from afar. As he stopped and let go of my hand, I was face to face with a tiny wooden cabinet covered in a peeling paint of baby blue. It contained many books of different genres on its mini shelves, and I looked up at him in surprise. Knowing he wasn’t one to read but to kick soccer balls, I was even more astonished when I saw how his eyes twinkled like stars by the sight of books. After we both grabbed a book, we sat down on one of the wooden benches to enjoy each other’s presence and read silently as I drowned in peace.

            Soon after, when the sun began to set, the sky was tinted with an array of pink, orange, and yellow. The clouds boasted with mystical colors and the pale glow of the moon was beginning to show. Hand in hand, we walked back to the wooden box to return the books to their shelter. As we placed them onto a shelf, he pulled my shivering body into his jacket and wrapped his arms around me. As I placed my head onto his chest, from deep inside my chest, through every cell of my body, the warmth welcomed me like an old friend. There we stood, under the glorious paint, two kids ready to face the world. Then I realized, it really was a treasure.

Polysyndeton

Personification

Hyperbole

Imagery

Simile

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

NCTE: Sparking Hope, Equity, and Voice

Like so many educators who attended the 2018 NCTE conference, I am still reeling from the wealth of information and inspiration provided by some of the brightest and most compassionate people in the world. I listened with awe and determination as strong speakers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elizabeth Acevedo stressed the importance of what we do as ELA teachers, and I carry with me a renewed sense of urgency about literacy instruction that empowers all students. No – not “empowers” – even that word has been transformed, as I now understand that it’s not my place to give them power; rather, it is my job to help students recognize and harness the power they already possess.1

The universal message of the conference did not so much present new ideas as it did combine them and clarify that we cannot wait any longer to act. We must reach each of our students where they are, provide them with the representation they need and deserve, and encourage them to add their own voices to the world. We have embraced diversity, equity, and representation in a variety of ways, but the time for the best practices to coalesce into purposeful change across schools is at hand.

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My book haul from NCTE 2018 – I can’t wait for my students to read these!

As I walked through the exhibit hall, admittedly searching for free books to take back to my students, I heard two main ideas – to quote Kylene Beers and Bob Probst – “again and again.” By absorbing the voices around me over the four days of the conference, I was able to discern what teachers, who attended a wide variety of sessions, thought. One of the most common ideas expressed was that NCTE presenters were “preaching to the choir.” Of course, this is true to a great extent. Teachers who love learning, who support choice, who engage their students in meaningful instruction, who believe in the power of writing workshop: these are the teachers most likely to attend the conference, and, more specifically, the sessions that explore these ideas. Teachers who believe in the humanities love the young humans we teach, and we will always seek to improve for their benefit and the benefits to society. This is no way diminishes the power of these workshops or their presenters, for they offer the keenest insight and carefully collected research to support best practices in teaching, and though I admittedly enter sessions predisposed to agree with much of what I hear, I always leave with new ideas scrawled in the margins of my notes. Like many others, I always leave feeling renewed, reinvigorated, and inspired, and I wish every ELA teacher could feel this way.

This brings us to the second most common idea expressed throughout the exhibit hall lines: how do we take these ideas back to our schools and inspire those who weren’t at the conference? I heard several teachers – both in sessions and while milling about – who said things like “I wish [so-and-so] from our department could hear this.” The truth is: we all know teachers who need to hear the messages from the conference, and the difficulty lies in how to offer the essence of what we have gleaned in a palatable manner. Some ideas are not well-received by teachers entrenched in established practices, and we must balance the urgency with which shifts need to occur with the tact and professionalism that our well-meaning colleagues deserve. I had the opportunity to speak with Amy Rasmussen about The College Board’s stance on shifting away from a focus on the canon to include more contemporary and diverse texts, and she offered an analogy that I wish all could hear: we don’t expect doctors to ignore research in favor of the practices they personally prefer, and when one of their primary research-based organizations like the American Medical Association or the New England Journal of Medicine offers guidelines, those are adopted as best practices. Can you imagine if they didn’t? We’d still have doctors bleeding us for pneumonia.

So, as I continue to synthesize all I learned at the conference and develop my own lines of inquiry, I leave you with these questions: why don’t we expect all ELA teachers to follow the research and vision of NCTE? Why can’t we confidently return to our campuses as ambassadors of ELA and NCTE and share what we’ve learned with our peers? Will we let the established system and soft bigotry continue to deny true equity to our students, or will we carry the spark of progress back to our campuses? I, for one, plan to stoke the fire.

1 I would love to offer due credit to the speaker who discussed the problematic idea of “empowerment,” but I cannot find the connection in my notes. If you can offer proper attribution, please add it in the comments.

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

Assigned Reading Works as well as Assigned Flossing

Every few months, I notice a meme recirculate with some variation of “Judging teachers on their students’ test scores makes as much sense as judging farmers on their crops without accounting for drought, freezes, or disease.” Still reflecting on my students’ lackluster AP scores as I sat down in the dentist’s chair this morning, I considered this meme. Then, like most teachers I know, I still wracked my brain trying to figure out what I could do differently to help my students score higher on that exam. As I mused, and chastised myself for taking their scores harder than I should, I endeavored to distract myself a bit by trying to remember the other meme out there that connected the professions of dentistry and teaching based on clients’ results. Ultimately, I looked it up when I got home, and it reads: “We don’t blame dentists when we don’t brush properly and we get a cavity. So why do we blame teachers when kids don’t pass because they don’t study?” Or read enough prior to twelfth grade, I thought.

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.57.38 PMMy cleaning ensued – painfully, I might add, as my technician was unnecessarily rough, and I wanted to ask her if she remembered that a person was attached to those teeth, but I found it too difficult to ask such questions with someone’s hands in my mouth. I waited for the post-cleaning check-up with the dentist, knowing the only question I had for him was about the dark staining I’ve been experiencing lately despite my careful brushing and (sometimes) flossing regimen.

During the 3 minutes he spent with me (I see why he earns the big bucks compared to me, I thought cynically) he responded to my question with one of his own.

“Do you drink a lot of tea?”

“Well, I guess so. I gave up soft drinks a couple of years ago, and tea became my go-to beverage.”

“Well then, that’s why your teeth are stained. You should expect that if you drink tea. It’s the worst thing you can do to stain your teeth. It’s worse than drinking coffee for stains.”

I didn’t hear the rest of what he said because it devolved into chastisement. I didn’t Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.55.01 PMexpect him to congratulate me on the steps I’d taken for my overall health in giving up on sodas, and I didn’t expect him to have sympathy for how hard that habit must have been to break, and I didn’t even expect him to think logically about how much less acid was wearing away at my enamel now that I don’t drink soft drinks, but I also didn’t expect to feel as though I had done something so very wrong.

That’s when my English teacher brain went back to thinking about what we do (or fail to do) for our students. I thought about how many students have been made to feel “less than” when they want to read a YA book instead of a classic text. Just as my dentist was so set on his vision of how I should live solely focused on the effects on my teeth that he forgot about the person attached to them, how many well-meaning English teachers are so hyper-focused on their well-chosen texts that they forget about their students’ needs? How many forget or do not understand what can be gained with YA or self-selected books?

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.58.46 PMMy teeth will continue to stain, I guess. I’ll brush with baking soda once a week to combat that. But I’ve gained better health and energy. I’ve lost the migraines I used to get when I drank colas all the time. And if we allow our students to read what they want and need to read, they might lose content knowledge of some of the classics that we read (or fake-read) in high school, but they will gain an authentic love of reading. They will find connections with characters in their books. They will connect with each other as they enthusiastically discuss their books. They will feel empowered and in control of their lives as readers. Their reading levels will improve. And yes, the test scores will follow.

Prescribing all the texts our students read, even when doing so comes from a place of good intentions, works as well as prescribing flossing. Everyone does that at least twice a day, right?

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

The Jury Has Reached a Verdict

One of the most important aspects of teaching English, particularly to high school seniors, involves empowering students to communicate effectively so that they can self-advocate and positively shape their lives. Whether our students are college-bound or not, chances are that at some point, they will need to sign a rental or purchase agreement or contract. They will need to decode the fine print in credit offers. They will need to contact employers using appropriate tone and content for their purposes.

Many of us make these real-world connections in the classroom, and one of my colleagues, Mrs. Davenport, even gives her students the opportunity to play a “Game of Life” that she developed which features the very real and important texts that our students will one day read and write. Last May, I spoke with my students about the legal difference a comma can make. For example, if a will states that property should be evenly divided between X, Y, and Z, each person would receive 33 1/3%. However, if it states that the property should be evenly divided between X, Y and Z, X would receive 50% while both Y and Z would split the remaining 50% for 25% each. While that would work out well for X, Y and Z would not be as prosperous. We also talked about very real court cases in which commas changed the ruling one way or another.

So like many of you, I already stressed the importance of precise language, but then I was summoned to jury duty. On what would have been my first day of summer vacation, I watched as 260 people narrowed down to 30. After answering questions in the jury pool, my heart sank as mine was the 12th name to be called to the jury. I never win a door prize, but this: I won.

scalesThe case involved a relationship between a land developer and a property seller that began with a pretty standard contract. The dispute arose when, after failing to close on the property according to the original contract, the pair entered into some form of verbal agreement. In short, the developer continued to spend his own money to develop the property but the seller cancelled their partnership without warning. While the jury held sympathies for the developer, and it was clear that there was some form of verbal agreement, we repeatedly returned to the language in both the original contract, in the text messages between the parties, and in the charges as supplied by the judge to reach our verdict. Given how the jury felt, we would have reached a very different decision. However, the specific language gave us no choice but to dismiss the charges against the landowner because any verbal agreement they shared was not specific and did not contain precise terms. Therefore, it was not enforceable.

Millions of dollars were on the line in this case, and it all came down to a handful of words. It became clear through this process that it does not matter whether it is a contract dispute or the murder trial taking place down the hallway (I’m glad I wasn’t selected for that jury!), the very precise way that charges are written changes everything. Our students often fail to see the real-world consequences they might face in the future as a result of not being able to follow language precisely. Now, I have yet another story to share with them. I would love to hear from you – how do you help students understand the power of language in shaping their lives?

 

Vindication of Choice in the AP Classroom

Every May, my panic that I have not taught my students enough for the AP® Literature exam, pride and concern as I send my “little ducklings” to fly alone into the exam room, and eager anticipation of the memes flooding Twitter from the East coast testers (which I never, ever re-tweet), is quickly followed by the nervous energy of my students as they visit my classroom after the test.

Of course, human nature dictates that they want to relive every moment and consult with their peers about how they answered different questions, but my duty to the College Board prompts me to remind them not to discuss specifics about the exam itself. Instead, I urge them to talk through their feelings and reflect on what they might feel good about, such as writing 3 complete essays. Each year offers its unique triumphs and hair-pulling challenges. “The Juggler” poem a couple years back stumped even my most adept analyzers, but they did have fun crafting juggling metaphors for the remainder of their senior year. Thus, I have come to anticipate the perplexed reactions to one or more of the essay prompts on the exam. A safe question I often ask to avoid specific test-discussion is: what book did you choose to write about for the Q3 essay?

While I’ve learned that it is difficult to gauge how students actually performed on the exam based on their immediate self-assessment, I know that over-confidence – “it was easy” – is almost as bad as total pessimism – “I only wrote 2 of the 3 essays and the multiple choice was killer.” But that one question about book choice tells me a lot. It tells me about their overall confidence level, sense of preparedness, and even what level of enjoyment they experienced during the test. Yes, enjoyment. As my course moved away from a model in which I assign specific texts (so we can experience them together) and toward choice (so students can shape their own experiences, with support), my students have increasingly come back talking excitedly about which book they wrote about on the exam.

This year, because my students brought friends from different, more traditional, AP® classes with them to eat lunch in my room after the exam, I could hear the difference in the way they spoke about the books they referenced on that Q3 essay. My students said things like: “I thought I was going to write about Wuthering Heights because it fits so many prompts, but when I read the prompt, it screamed The Handmaid’s Tale to me. I’m so psyched that I got to write about that!” Another student enthusiastically described how he wrote the “best essay [he’s] ever written, and it was about Frankenstein.” Students went on to discuss the variety of books they wrote about, from The Art of Racing in the Rain to Les Miserables. Students from the other class sullenly and universally explained how they wrote about Beowulf because it was the text they had “been taught” the most thoroughly and therefore “knew the best.”

And there it was. A vindication of choice in the AP classroom. Scores will not be made available for a couple of months, so maybe all those passionless (and I’m going to guess, formulaic) essays about Beowulf will be strongly written and score higher, but what about the passion for reading? My students chose to read those rich texts, and when push came to shove during the exam, they chose to write about them because they saw the value in the book – not because someone told them of the book’s value.

Choice continues to be a source of contention in many English departments, but I cannot understand why. Choice does not mean that students cannot read from the canon. In fact, my students always choose both canonical and contemporary works “with merit” through the course. Teachers can set parameters for choice by offering text sets that connect by literary era, theme, heroic journeys, archetypes, and so on. Choice can be applied to shorter text selections instead of novels. So much has been written on why choice works by bigger fish in the English sea than me, so I will just leave you with this: my students were joyous when they spoke about writing the 3rd essay on a mentally exhausting, hand-cramping exam, and it is because they chose what to read and experienced the autonomy of deciding which of their books they felt they could write their best essay on. Since my goal is to create readers and writers, I could not ask for better evidence that choice helps them toward this goal.

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