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Practicing What We Teach, One Letter at a Time – A Guest by Amy Menzel

I’m not always ready for Monday, but I was ready for this one. I had spent a lot of time reading Penny Kittle’s Book Love over the weekend and was anxious to get back into the classroom and spread my love of all things literary. Wouldn’t you know it…my seniors weren’t.

Now, it was “senior skip day,” and I knew that, so maybe I was less prepared than I thought. I thought, “Hey, I’ll be able to give more individual attention to students Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PMwho need it.” Meanwhile, they thought, “Hey.  I’m here.  What more do you want?”

It’s not so much that they thought this that bothered me, but that they said it. They actually said,  “You should just be happy we’re here.”  To my face. And they meant it.

A small part of me died right then and there. Likely from overheating because my blood was boiling. It took me a while (and eleventy-seven deep breaths) to calm down. Somehow I made it through the day without exploding, but barely.

That afternoon, I sat at my desk as the building got quiet. When only the sounds of the custodian’s sweeping and my continued deep breathing remained, I opened a new Google doc. “Dear Students,” I began, and channeled my frustrations and feelings through my fingertips.

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I made 140 copies, left them in a neat stack in the middle of my cluttered desk, closed my door, walked to my car, drove away, and hoped for a better day.

I felt better that I wrote about it (duh, say many researchers). And I felt better having calmly and clearly expressed my expectations. I also had a student voice echoing in my head from last semester: I’ve never had a teacher take the time to write to us before.”

Of course, we write to students all the time; we write our syllabi, our assignments, our writing prompts. But I do think there’s a difference when we address a note, a discussion to our students. It’s more personal. I forget about this.

It’s also a way to practice what we teach.

Back in April, Lisa talked about the importance of English teachers being readers. She closed her impassioned post, “We must be readers…otherwise, we are in the business of false advertising.” The same is true of our work as writing teachers.  We must write.

This is a lesson I learned (or finally appreciated) during my participation in the UWM Writing Project back in 2010. One of the core principles of the National Writing Project, the program of which the UWM Writing Project is an affiliate, is that, “Knowledge about the teaching of writing comes from many sources: theory and research, the analysis of practice, and the experience of writing. Effective professional development programs provide frequent and ongoing opportunities for teachers to write and to examine theory, research, and practice together systematically,” — emphasis mine.

I learned a lot that summer, but the most significant lesson I took away was the importance of practice. Each of us teacher consultants prepared and presented a teacher inquiry workshop and the number one rule for these presentations was to have your participants write early and often. It changed the way I teach. Still, I find that I need to remind myself to write more often.

Now, I know it’s the end of the year. So you may be thinking…

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But I’m all about embracing the constant reflect-and-revise nature of teaching. So allow me to publically commit to writing to my students more–early and often starting next school year.

Dear fellow teachers,

Are you with me?

Sincerely,
Amy Menzel

Amy Menzel teaches English at Waukesha West High School in Waukesha, Wisconsin. She hopes her unbridled enthusiasm for all things literary haunts her graduating seniors for decades to come. In the best possible way, of course.


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Care to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.

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A Call for Real Opportunities to Learn — Not More Test Prep

Natl Literacy Trust Survey 2016

Of course, this data caught my eye.

My friend Gary Anderson posted it on Facebook with this link to the National Literacy Trust Findings from their Annual Literacy Survey 2016: Celebrating Reading for Enjoyment.

I had just spent the day working with teachers in Clear Creek ISD as they launched their two week STAAR Academy, a series of summer school-like classes designed to immerse students in authentic reading and writing — not the typical mode of tutorials often offered in the hope of helping students pass their state mandated English exams.

Billy Eastman, Clear Creek ISD High School ELA and World Languages Coordinator, is a visionary who believes in his teachers and in the students they serve. He knows that when students choose books they want to read, experience learning in an environment that validates their personal lives and learning journeys, and are given space and instruction that allows them to write about the topics that matter to them, students grow. They grow in confidence, and they grow in ability.

Thirty-five teachers met with me in a two hour institute this morning. We read and talked and wrote and talked. We built a community of teacher-readers and writers. We engaged in learning — all with a central goal:  How can we create a space for all students to advance as readers and writers?

Then, teachers planned. In teams they designed lessons intent on engaging students as real readers and writers — not just students reading and writing for a test.

After lunch, teachers facilitated similar community building activities with the roughly 250 students attending the academy.

With generous funding by his district, Mr. Eastman was able to provide books, lots of new high-interest YA literature, in which students could choose a book they want to read. This is the first step in “celebrating reading for enjoyment” and all the benefits that come with it.

As I visited the 12 classrooms this afternoon, I witnessed students writing and talking about their reading lives.

“I like stories okay,” one boy said, “but I don’t like to read.”

“I’m not really into reading,” said another.

“Reading isn’t my thing,” another boy said.

I asked one young man if he liked to read, and he told me: “Yes, I read a lot.” He had just selected Scythe, the new book by Neil Shusterman, and I could tell he was eager to get started reading it. He’d already read Unwind and quickly told me how much he enjoyed that series. The other three students in this boy’s small group were less enthusiastic about reading anything, but they were willing to try. One chose Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King, another Boy 21 by Matthew Quick, and the other Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez.

As I observed every classroom this afternoon, I noticed a few things:

  • The ratio of boys to girls in most every classroom was at least 4 to 1.
  • Boys want to read books that look “tough.” The cover has to captivate them.
  • Girls will choose books with male protagonists more often than boys will choose books with female protagonists.
  • Few students choose historical fiction — they seem drawn to realistic fiction and dystopian.
  • Many students chose books teachers might deem too difficult for them. (One of the most popular book choices offered today was All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.)

For the next nine weekdays, students will read their chosen books and spend time engaged in their community of learners. They will practice the moves of real readers and writers as teachers practice the routines of readers-writers workshop and read and write beside their students. Besides the obvious benefit for students, teachers will engage in the kind of professional development that truly matters, the kind that gives hands-on experience with students as they practice the art and craft of teaching.

I am excited for the outcome. I am excited that teachers are excited. I am honored to be a part of Mr. Eastman’s vision for his district.

So what does this have to do with the National Literacy Trusts’ Annual Survey? A lot.

As I read through the report this evening, I found nothing startling or surprising. Of course, there are advantages to reading for enjoyment.

But then I shifted my thinking and began questioning the why and the what. Why does the data say what it does? Why are their gaps in enjoyment between boys and girls? Why are their gaps between age groups? What is happening in schools that might be causing these gaps? What is happening in students’ lives that might be causing these gaps? What can change if we approach reading and writing instruction differently? What should change?

I challenge you to read the report and ask yourself similar questions. Then, I challenge you to take the next step:  follow Billy Eastman’s lead. Whatever your sphere of influence, how can you allow a space for reading for enjoyment? And if you haven’t done so yet: How can you change the model of instruction in your classroom, in your school, or in your district so all students have the chance to become real readers and writers who enjoy what they read and write?

Don’t all students deserve similar opportunities to learn — not more test prep?

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in the fall). She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy because it keeps her focused on her own improvement. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she’d love it if you follow this blog!

Using Poetry to Explore Current Events and Controversial Topics

I suffer from a constant urge to bring current events into the classroom.  I love talking about issues current or past  in conferences or small groups with students, whether it’s Tom Brady’s Deflategate or Professor Henry Louis Gates arrested for trying to break into his own home, or the U.S.’s relationship with Cuba.

 

Recently I’ve moved towards making current events more central to what and how I teach, by presenting issues, giving time for questions (of which there are many, most of them excellent, some of them unanswerable), and then providing a creative writing opportunity.  So there!  Writing workshop accomplished!

 

When Donald Trump first instituted a travel ban, I invited students to take on one of the following four characters in a poem:

  1. A Customs Agent at an airport who has to tell a passenger who recently arrived in the U.S. that she is no longer welcome into the country
  2. A business professional from Iran who had to cancel or change a trip
  3. A U.S. Citizen who is concerned about relaxed immigration policies
  4. One of the protesters who showed up at an airport with signs
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Google employees protest a travel ban.

I was amazed at how quickly students took to writing and sharing their character-poems.  Here’s what helped:

 

    1. This was an exercise in imagination, not a rehashing of politics and policy.   Certainly I want them to explore their own feelings about politics, but I want them to do so through the lens of another person.  This may be one of a few times when I tell students it’s not all about what they think!
    2. I presented a range of options with some ambiguous interpretations.  I wanted students to be able to go into a right-wing or left-wing comfort zone  by writing the protester point of view or the concern point of view, but I didn’t want to limit the interpretation.
    3. Students gravitated towards complexity.  Student poems about the Customs Agent often played with the tension between following orders and doing what seems right.  Student poems about the citizens afraid of terrorism considered the best approaches for addressing that fear.

 

 

 

 

I am sure I am not the only one out there who is struggling to think of ways that current events can shine a light into our classrooms and make our work even more productive.  

 

What are you doing to teach current events in Reading and Writing Workshop?

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Her favorite section of the New York Times is the wedding announcements, though the national section is pretty good, too.

 

Summer Reads to Stay Up Late With

Teachers, we are SO close.

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The end of the school year is nigh.  Perhaps it’s this week, maybe it’s next, but either way, it’s nearly time to treat yo’self with what all teachers love to do in the summertime:

Take 84 naps, and then start binge reading.

This is what I did when my school year ended a few weeks ago, and after several days of excessive sleep, I started staying up late to finish books guilt-free.

Please forgive me for what I’m about to do to your Amazon carts while I gush over the titles that’ve kept me up until the wee hours, and their friends on my TBR list:

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The Circle by Dave Eggers – This book was so plausible that it creeped me out.  It’s the tale of an ambitious college grad who lands a job at one of the tech industry’s premier companies, The Circle, who so slowly ingratiate their surveillance, social sharing, and health-tracking apps into her life (and others’) that it seems like no big deal at all–until it is a big deal.  This one kept me in suspense until 2 am, when I breathlessly finished it.  Similar titles on my TBR include The Handmaid’s Tale, Dark Matter, and The Dinner.  Creeptastic!

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A Twist in Time by Julie McElwain – I’ve been anxiously awaiting this title since I read the first book in the series, A Murder in Time.  Now that it’s here, I’ve already devoured half of its 600-page bulk, most of that on my wedding anniversary, no less.  Kendra Donovan is a modern day FBI agent, a genetically-engineered genius who’s an outcast even amongst her fellow elite criminal profilers…or so she thinks, until she’s transported through time to the 1800s and really feels like an outcast.  Now, she’s stuck there solving murders without the help of forensic equipment and techniques readily available to her in the 21st century…or any hope of getting home.

I think McElwain’s writing is a great blend of period-accurate details and modern, funny asides, and the story only further serves to suck me in.  If you, too, find yourself craving a tale of time-traveling modern women, check out Outlander or the National Book Award finalist News of the World.

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Textbook by Amy Krouse Rosenthal – I’ve been wanting to read this book since I read Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, but then got even more desperate to do so when I read Rosenthal’s heartbreaking essay in the New York Times, and then about her subsequent death.  It’s impossible not to read this book through those lenses, and while it’s amazing on its own, it’s even more powerful as a magnum opus.  I also want to check out similar memoirs like The Rules Do Not Apply, Hallelujah Anyway, and Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things

 

 

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Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentzler – I read this one in two days over Memorial Day weekend, largely ignoring our company to finish it that Sunday.  I was sucked in on page one by the beautiful writing and the premise–a teen dealing with the fact that he sent a text message that led to the deaths of all three of his best friends–and I asked my friends if they’d read it.  “I did,” Amy volunteered.  “It ripped my guts.”  And boy, did it.  This was one of the first YA reads I’ve picked up lately that I really just couldn’t put down.  I’d love to see how The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, A List of Cages, and The First Time She Drowned can measure up to this book.

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Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers & Bob Probst – Lisa has been so effusive about this book that I just had to go ahead and start reading it, even though I’ve been trying to wait until everyone else in the Book Love Summer Book Club dives in.  But it’s so darn readable, and such a great refresher of a lot of the research I’ve read and loved.  I always enjoy Beers and Probst for helping synthesize their wide reading into a crucible of new ideas.  Other fabulous pedagogical reads on my TBR list this summer are Joy Write, No More Telling as Teaching, and Write What Matters.

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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – This book hit home for me, and at quite a short length, I read it in one day–about half of it while on a treadmill!  It’s the memoir of a neurosurgical resident who, near the end of his grueling training, finds out he has advanced stage cancer.  My husband is entering his fourth year of orthopedic residency, so I read this book with a blend of horror at its possibilities and admiration for its author’s poise and eloquence.  My gushing over it led to lots of our resident friends reading it with similar amounts of waterfall-like tears.  After reading it in an afternoon, my hubby asked for some more books like it, so I ordered him Being Mortal, The House of God, and The Buddha and the Borderline.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – I listened to this now-famous (in teacher circles, anyway) book on audio, and found myself driving or walking in circles so I could hear more faster.  What impressed me most about this book wasn’t its nuanced treatment of the topic of police shootings, or its awesome one-liners, or its many layers of issues faced by its narrator, Starr.  No, what impressed me most was how authentic to Angie’s life and personal history it seemed.  After reading Between the World and Me, I learned a great deal about the roots of African-American empowerment and efforts for equality.  Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, James Baldwin, and more had been strangers to me before that book, but I saw them come up again and again in The Hate U Give.  

This terrific book definitely broadened my worldview, and to help it grow more, I’d also like to read American Street, All-American Boys, and Allegedly.

What’s kept you up late reading lately?  What’s next on your TBR?  Please share in the comments…so we can all go broke buying books!!

Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life…and in the new knowledge that she has ANOTHER baby girl on the way!!  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Uncovering the Bonds We’ve Built With Books – A Guest Post by Karry Dornak

I live for a good mentor text, and I have started to experience somewhat of a “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon” because I find them everywhere.Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PM

Most recently, while scrolling through Facebook.

An article titled, “Dying, with a Lifetime of Literature” sounded powerful, so I clicked the link.

I immediately knew this piece would appear in my classroom.

The piece, written by Lynette Williamson, a former English teacher of thirty years, documents her diagnosis with ALS while sprinkling in allusions to literary works that stuck with her and appeared at various times after her diagnosis: quotes from Toni Morrison, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and even a connection to Kafka’s cockroach from The Metamorphosis.

I wondered, about myself and my students, “If we dug deep enough, which literary scars would we find hiding in our own skin?”

To start this excavation process, we created our own “ideal bookshelves” (based on the book My Ideal Bookshelf by Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force and referenced in Book Love by Penny Kittle). I get overly and outwardly excited when we talk books in our classroom, so, to spare my students another one of my emotionally-charged nerding-out moments, I stifled my excitement when I overheard their conversations about books! “Oh, remember this book?” “Oh yeah, that’s a good one – I need to add it to my shelf, too!” “You’ve never heard of this book? It’s so good! It’s about…”

And sure enough, at the end of the period, students were handing me their ideal bookshelves, my first peek into the connections they have forged with books.

The next day, we read “Dying, with a Lifetime of Literature,” together. I asked, “What is she doing as a writer?” And we agreed that she is referencing pieces of literature to tell her story. Then, to press the issue, I said, “We all superficially agree that books teach lessons (hello, thematic statements), but have we looked at that personally?” I told my students to visualize two timelines: one is everything they’ve read in life. The other runs parallel and is their life story. Where can we make connections or intersections between these two parallel timelines? What has happened in your own life that you could connect to a character’s?

To support this idea, I shared with my students the part of Mechanically Inclined where Jeff Anderson explains the “linguistic data pool theory,” where “all of a student’s visual and aural language experiences flow into that student’s personal pool of data” (17). I thought it fascinating to consider that what we read leaves marks on our schema and manifests itself at times and in ways that we may not even be aware.

At this point I’m sure my students are thinking I’m taking this idea way too far. So I snapped out of it, and we got to work.

And, true to my “Baader-Meinhof” tendencies, when I start thinking of an idea, possibilities appear everywhere. My instructional specialist, Stephanie, had recently shared with our grade level team an idea from Cult of Pedagogy (“16 Ways to Use Google for Student Projects”).

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One idea is the e-book, which had just the right amount of simplicity and polish for our needs. I instructed my students on how to set up their e-books (using Google Slides, go to File, Page Setup, then change the dimensions to 8.5×11). Once the Slide is the right orientation and size, students can add images of books plus insert text boxes to type their own versions of Williamson’s writing.

For students who struggled to get started, I encouraged them to start the same way she did.

Hers: “When I was diagnosed with ALS….”

Mine: “When I lost my mom in 2009…”

A student’s: “When I heard the news that I would be going to study abroad in the States for 6th grade…”

I continued drafting my own “literary touchstone,” as I was now calling the assignment, in front of my students while they, too, drafted theirs. Writing together is powerful – students are able to see both my thoughts and my emotions while writing. The best writing is raw, real, and should be shared. After all, if these books had never been shared with us, look at all of the touchstone moments we would have missed out on.

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To foster sharing, I created a Padlet. Students were able to share the link to their Google Slides presentation directly to that Padlet for other students to see. I make all of my Padlets require moderator approval, which means I have to approve the post first. This feature also allows me to not approve posts whose authors wish to keep their work private. I can still see the post, but others cannot.

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This experience (the words “activity” or “assignment” just don’t do it justice) touched on so many things I hold valuable in the classroom: conversation, nurturing book love, experimenting with writing, sharing, and publishing.

Experiences like these don’t happen in my classroom every day, but I hope that now that I am seeking them out, the Baader-Meinhof effect will continue to work in my favor.

Karry Dornak is living the dream teaching sophomore English at Klein Collins High School in Spring, TX. She is energized by research-based practices, innovative ways to teach and learn, and coffee.


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Care to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.

Guest Post: A Different Take on News That Is Fake (It’s Not…It’s Manufactured Via a Profit-Making Monopoly)

A few days ago, my husband posted the following on his Facebook page. His message ties to my post yesterday, and it sparked even more of my thinking about the importance of critical thinking. You may find it does so, too.


“You can see the skies. They look like they’re upset about what mankind has been doing, and they’re threatening the Earth with storms. The clock says it’s daytime, but dark night is strangling the sun.”  No Fear Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 2, scene 4.

All this fuss and vicious finger pointing about fake news. Sheesh. Let me suggest, my friends, without being too obnoxious, it isn’t fake at all, rather, it is manufactured.

Well, yes, manufactured.

It starts with a “mined” or “harvested” raw resource (supposedly the facts or the “truth” [air quotes]), then it goes through various refinement processes until finally there’s a “bombshell of the day” or “breaking news” or “blockbuster movie or TV series” product at the end of the value chain designed to get and hold our attention across multiple channels and media. But, when the news and/or entertainment finally hits the airwaves (the shelves of our eyes and ears) there are two things to try to keep in mind:

  1. The owners of the bulk of news and entertainment makers and distributors devolve into a VERY small group of companies–a monopoly of sorts–that are controlled by 20 to 30 so Billionaires, that make ALL the decisions on what/who gets reported and not reported, filmed and not filmed, bullied and not bullied, even elected and not elected, etc. (Please see the list of companies below.)

  2. The content of news and movie/TV entertainment is extremely curated and molded. Why? Because the goal no longer is to keep news and entertainment separated. It is unnecessary since there is no external moral code to dictate what is right and wrong, good and bad, virtuous or vice. Today, those considerations are dictated by who is in charge of controlling the minute by minute, hour by hour, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly newsfeed, entertainment and educational narrative in order to make . . . MONEY!

Manufactured news must be carefully designed to inform and entertain in order to fuel the “attention to profit” revenue engine.

Buying this?

If so, may I suggest to never forget the money trail IS the only thing that matters at the end of the month/quarter. It seems, today, that there are NO altruistic incentives in news or entertainment. Either the media outlet makes a profit or they’re gone. And, the political, moral views of those who control the content are intricately tied into the “profitable” audience that pays for a certain point of view or worldview to win or triumph.

And the battle lines are drawn very profitably by these news and entertainment media manufacturing monopolists.

The funny thing is that unless we are willing to see behind the curtains (there are multiple layers of curtains) there is a assembly line or “value chain” that narrows down ideas, slants perspectives, and cherry-picks management teams to promote, or hold to, a certain bias, then we are most unwittingly duped no matter what political or moral side we’re on. We’ll argue until we’re toxically bloated that we’re right, but there’s ALWAYS another story behind the story behind the story that may undo our “I’m right and you’re wrong” arguments.

Consider this:  All those thousands of TV channels we thought represented diversity and fairness, uh, no. . .

What I’m going to share is quite eye-opening (at least I think so). All we hear about is how horrible Rupert Murdoch and Fox News are, but let’s look at the top companies (unranked) that own 90% of the media (including News Corporation aka Rupert). It seems fair to me that any and all could read through this and be able to conclude that there’s more to the “facts” than we’re being told when it comes to who/what controls what we see, hear, and read every day in news and entertainment. And, all of which, today, in my opinion, are manufactured one and the same:

  1. Comcast ($55 billion…ish) owns or has it’s hands in . . .ready?

NBCUniversal; twenty-four television stations and the NBC television network; Telemundo; USA Network; SyFy; CNBC; MSNBC; Bravo; Oxygen; Chiller; CNBC World; E!; the Golf Channel; Sleuth; mun2; Universal HD; VERSUS; Style; G4; Comcast SportsNet (Philadelphia), Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic (Baltimore/Washington, D.C.), Cable Sports Southeast, Comcast SportsNet Chicago, MountainWest Sports Network, Comcast SportsNet California (Sacramento), Comcast SportsNet New England (Boston), Comcast SportsNet Northwest (Portland, Ore.), Comcast Sports Southwest (Houston), Comcast SportsNet Bay Area (San Francisco), New England Cable News (Boston), Comcast Network Philadelphia, Comcast Network Mid-Atlantic (Baltimore/Washington, D.C.); the Weather Channel (25 percent stake); A&E (16 percent stake); the History Channel (16 percent stake); the Biography Channel (16 percent stake); Lifetime (16 percent stake); the Crime and Investigation Channel (16 percent stake); Pittsburgh Cable News Channel (30 percent stake); FEARnet (31 percent stake); PBS KIDS Sprout (40 percent stake); TV One (34 percent stake); Houston Regional Sports Network (23 percent stake); SportsNet New York (8 percent stake).

They also own: Comcast Interactive Media; Plaxo; Universal Studios Hollywood; Wet ‘n Wild theme park; Universal Studios Florida; Universal Islands of Adventure; Philadelphia 76ers; Philadelphia Flyers; Wells Fargo Center; iN DEMAND; Music Choice (12 percent stake); SpectrumCo (64 percent stake)

(Note: Some of these companies/titles have or will change hands, but no new hands have shown up during the past 20 years. It is still the same group of Billionaires and companies incestuously fleshing it out for profit.)

  1. Time Warner ($29 billion…ish)

One of the largest media holding company with the Warner Brothers Television Group; Warner Brothers Television; Warner Horizon Television; CW Network (50 percent stake); TBS; TNT; Cartoon Network; truTV; Turner Classic Movies; Boomerang; CNN; HLN; CNN International; HBO; Cinemax; Space; Infinito; I-Sat; Fashion TV; HTV; Much Music; Pogo; Mondo TV; Tabi; CNN Español the Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Turner Classic Movies, CNN and Headline News and CW.

TW also owns: Warner Brothers (which owns DC Comics); Warner Brothers Pictures; New Line Cinema; Castle Rock; WB Studio Enterprises, Inc.; Telepictures Productions, Inc.; Warner Brothers Animation, Inc.; Warner Home Video; Warner Premiere; Warner Specialty Films, Inc.; Warner Brothers International Cinemas

  1. News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch) the largest market cap at $40 billion…ish

Owns Fox Broadcasting Company; television and cable networks such as Fox, Fox Business Channel, National Geographic and FX; print publications including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and TV Guide; the magazines Barron’s and SmartMoney; book publisher HarperCollins; film production companies 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Blue Sky Studios; numerous websites including MarketWatch.com; and non-media holdings including the National Rugby League. FX; SPEED; FUEL TV; Fox College Sports; Fox Movie Channel; Fox Soccer Channel; Fox Soccer Plus; Fox Pan American Sports; Fox Deportes; Big Ten Network; National Geographic U.S.; Nat Geo Adventure; Nat Geo Music; Nat Geo Wild; Fox International Channels; Utilisima; Fox Crime; NEXT; FOX History & Entertainment; the Voyage Channel; STAR World; STAR Movies; NGC Network International; NGC Network Latin America; LAPTV; Movie City; City Mix; City Family; City Stars; City Vibe; the Film Zone; Cinecanal; Elite Sports Limited; BabyTV; STAR India; STAR Taiwan; ESPN STAR Sports; Shine Limited. Hulu.com (32 percent minority share). HarperCollins Publishers; the New York Post; the Daily News; News International (the Times; the Sunday Times; the Sun); News Limited (146 newspapers in Australia); Dow Jones (Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, SmartMoney, Factiva, Dow Jones Newswires, Dow Jones Local Media, Dow Jones VentureSource). Fox Filmed Entertainment; Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment; Twentieth Century Fox Television; Twentieth Television; Fox Television Studios

  1. General Electric media holdings keep changing, but it sorta includes television networks NBC, MSNBC, NBC Sports, Telemundo, 27 television stations in the United States and many cable TV networks, including the History Channel, and Sci Fi Channel. It also owns the popular web-based TV website Hulu. (Sorta means they co-own a lot of things with other media behemoths)
  2. Disney ($55 Billion)

Owns the ABC television network; cable networks including ESPN, the Disney Channel, SOAPnet, A&E and Lifetime; 277 radio stations, music- and book-publishing companies; film-production companies Touchstone, Miramax and Walt Disney Pictures; Pixar Animation Studios; the cellular service Disney Mobile; and theme parks around the world. And, don’t forget they own Marvel Studios now!

They also own dozens of cable networks, and with the Disney channel they control millions of kids’ eyeballs — and moms’ pocket books.

  1. Viacom owns 160 cable channels including MTV, VH1, CMT, Logo, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, TV Land, Spike TV, Tr3s, BET and CENTRIC

They also own numerous studio brands including Paramount Pictures, Insurge Pictures, MTV Films and Nickelodeon Movies.

  1. Bertelsmann ($20 billion…ish)

Owns Random House (with over 200 imprints in 15 countries, including the Ballantine Publishing Group, the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, Broadway, the Crown Publishing Group, the Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, Pantheon, Random House U.K., Transworld, Sudamericana, C. Bertelsmann, Karl Blessing Verlag, Goldmann, Siedler Verlag, Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag, Plaza & Janes (50 percent), Grijalbo Mondadori (50 percent), the Knopf Publishing Group, the RH Adult Trade Publishing Group, RH Audio, RH Children’s Books, RH Direct, Inc., the RH Information Group, RH International, RH Large Print, RH Value Publishing, and Waterbrook Press; Gruner + Jahr (285 print titles in 20 countries)

  1. We mustn’t forget Social Media:  Facebook with over 1.5 billion people who primarily get their news and entertainment from the Facebook feed they unwittingly created for themselves, warmly cocoons them within a pleasant “me, me, me” echo chamber.

(Source: Freepress)

Getting the picture (pun intended)?

I’m a Cinephile, lover of movies, and I’m going to share some stats on movie gross earnings vs product costs that provide some perspective on how what we see/hear is manufactured to keep our attention in order to make a profit.

This daily, highly-touted, data-set got underway in the mid ’70’s when the first summer Blockbuster hit the big screen. It went like this:

Da…dum

Daaaaa…dum

Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum (faster and faster)

It was Spielberg’s, Jaws, and it grossed $470 million on a production budget of $7 million; 67 times the initial investment.

Another more recent example:

Beauty and the Beast, the 2017 metaphor of love, sacrifice and atonement, grossed $900 million, but cost $300 million to make; a 300% return.

It used to be that we’d only hear about the “box office” earnings at certain times of the year, but now we hear about how big, or bad, the “weekend box office” will be, or was, year around. (WARNING: They’re just marketing to us, but now it’s designed to cocoon us in a world of news and entertainment that gets us hooked.)

Don’t believe me? Well, here is a stat to chew on:

Only 2 to 3% of us go to movies in theaters, but 90% of us watch them or TV series (we’ve heard about) in our own homes on DVD, network TV, or streamed TV.

Ready for some more hype that hooks us into the “manufactured media” consumption loop?

Manchester By The Sea grossed $72.6 million, but cost $8.5 million. (BTW, what in the heck was that Oscar-winning movie supposed to achieve???)

La La Land, an absolutely delightful look at the quest for fame and love, grossed $442 million worldwide on a production budget of $30 million.

Historical Hype? (no ranking order)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (and who didn’t like this laugh fest?) is the highest gross earnings to cost movie: $369 million against $6 million.

Star Wars grossed $775 million against a $40 million budget.

Mrs. Doubtfire grossed $441 million against a $38 million budget.

Slumdog Millionaire grossed $378 million against a budget of $15 million.

There’s Something About Mary grossed $370 million against a $31 million budget

The Hangover grossed $467 million against a budget $36 million.

The Passion of Christ grossed $612 million against a budget of $35 million

The reality is that these movies, based on these numbers, are portrayed as making a profit at the Box Office.

They didn’t.

Movies, in MOST cases, only become profitable after they hit DVD and TV.

NOW, go back to that list of news and entertainment companies and note how many of them own the advertising networks, the movie studios, the news stations, and the TV networks and subscriber channels. And remember that without the TV outlets 2/3’s of their profits disappear.

See the cross-channel, total-immersion system?

Manufactured — end to end — news and entertainment designed to monopolize our eyes, ears, minds, hearts–and pocket books.

And the vast majority of it has NOTHING to do with facts or truth. Well, okay, the weather and sports seem to be based in truth most of the time (unless you think there’s a conspiracy in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, etc. haha)

And on that sports analogy…from the Witches in Macbeth:

“Fair is foul and foul is fair.”

Sources: SLATE, Hollywood’s Profits Demystified; Freepress, Who Owns the Media?; CNBC, Entertainment, Most Profitable Movies of All Time

Curtis Rasmussen is a lover of great movies, great marketing, and people who don’t fit in. He practices reaching across the aisle to befriend people of the opposite persuasion, politics, or affiliations. Curtis is a marketing strategist and writer who lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Amy, his dog Jag, and his youngest child of seven, Zach. 

Thinking Differently to Do More Thinking

I think most teachers would agree, no matter our content, our number one goal is to help students develop as critical thinkers. And in a world where technology rules much of their lives, impatience governs their actions, and emotions overcrowd the adolescent brain, this can be daunting.

We must keep trying.

Every day we see see headlines spouting fake news, and more and more we see headlines shouting “This news is fake.” We see sites on how to spot fake news, and analyze fake news. We have access to lessons on fake news — Google “lessons on fake news, and you’ll find 5,250,000 resources. We even see the hashtag #fakenews (a fabulous lesson on paradox btw).

A few months ago I read this article at Forbes. Then clicked through and read this one at BuzzFeed. I shared them with my students. We had an interesting discussion, but one comment left me thinking:  “So, basically, everyone’s making stuff up. How are we supposed to believe anything?”

If we are not helping our students find answers to this question, we are doing a disservice to our students — and by extension a disservice to ourselves. What kind of world will we grow old in if we do not help the students in our classrooms today, determine fact from fiction, identify bias, value diversity of thought, be open to new ideas, support their opinions, and seek to understand before passing judgment?

First, we have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones and seek to understand other perspectives. (If you haven’t seen Outside Your Bubble, it’s an interesting starting place.)

Plato

Next, we must school ourselves on rhetoric. And then, we must weave it more overtly into all aspects of our instruction.

As English teachers, we have a prime opportunity:  let go of the nine weeks novel study where we focus on characters, conflict, plot, and theme. Bring in speeches and essays and news articles that invite discussion about the use of language. At the very least balance the study of both.

A few weeks ago a group of teachers from a neighboring district visited my classroom. They observed as my students and I read two blog posts about the Fearless Girl and the Raging Bull statues: Seriously, the guy has a point, and an opposing view, No, the Wall St. Bull Sculptor Doesn’t Have a Point. The discussion was rich. The thinking was richer.

At the end of the class, I chatted with these teachers. We talked about the routines in my workshop classroom, the book talks I conducted, the way I transitioned from one thing to the next. Then, the conversation turned to novels. One teacher asked how long I spend on novels. I don’t. I responded. My students read novels in book clubs where they facilitate the discussion. They talk of plot and themes and author’s craft. They bring meaning to the text, based on their experiences reading the books. (I am not opposed to novels. I am opposed to spending too much time on them.)

I hesitate to challenge anyone on what they do in their classrooms. I do not know their students. I do not know their routines or their motivations, the goals they hope to accomplish as they instruct their students, or the limitations put on them by mandated curriculum.

I do challenge the idea that studying a novel for “a long time” like this teacher told me, is a valuable use of the limited time we have with our students. Our students’ need to navigate the language of their world is too great to spend week after week with a book “they really like” that “I read to them.” We must put the focus on the needs of the reader and not the book.

What our students need right now — what our country needs right now — is critical thinking around a wide variety of texts. We need a focus on how language works to persuade and to manipulate and to cause outrage. Really, that’s our best, and maybe, our only hope.

As we go into summer (I’ve got three days left), I hope we will think about how we might shift our thinking about the needs of our learners. As we read by the pool, vacation with family, attend conferences and trainings, work our part-time jobs, I hope we will think about language and how it can either make or break the communication that is so vital to a society, a society that will thrive on diversity, respect individuality, and foster empathy and productivity.

Teacher friends, that is our job. And I think it’s our duty.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy keeps her focused on her own learning. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Heinemann

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