The texture of time during a pandemic is such a strange thing. It inches by, and yet, I feel like I blinked and it's progress report time. This blog post will cover:
Welcome to Poetry Land
What makes something a poem? I challenged you to start thinking about this in class on Tuesday. One of the best parts of the genre of poetry is the diversity of subject, matter, form, voice, language, length, and structure. That being said, there are three characteristics of the genre that I want us to think about as we begin studying poems.
1. Concentrated Meaning
No matter the poet or the poem, part of the job of poetry is to concentrate a lot of meaning into a small amount of language. If short stories are atoms, poems are just the nucleus: the dense hard center of gravity and meaning.
2. Lines (and other structural choices) as meaning
Poems are usually organized on the page differently, into lines and stanzas. Even if they aren't, the choices of the author of how to visual organize meaning and when to break language into a new line are part of the meaning of the poem. Structural choices create meaning in poetry.
3. Attention to Sound
Sound also creates meaning in poetry. Rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and all the sound devices in poetry land are there to help poets fine-tune meaning and emphasis.
Paragraph Debriefings: Consider the Claim
Our writing objective as we embark on our poetry unit is to strengthen our claims. We will be writing a claim for every dialectical journal we do, basically a claim per school day. So let's take a look at a couple of examples from our Butler analytical paragraphs.
Claim Example #1
Gan has a moment of realization and rapid maturity during and after the Lomas Incident.
I can tell from the rest of this student's paragraph that they did have some insight on Gan's character arch as it connect to the "Lomas Incident." But I can't really tell that from the claim. Here's a way this claim could be revised to help build a stronger paragraph:
Claim Example #1, revised
In Octavia Butler's short story "Bloodchild," the main character Gan's transition into adulthood begins when he sees his own future violently played out in the Lomas incident.
Breaking it down, the first green section identifies the author, title, genre: boom, boom, boom. Done.
The second blue section focuses on character arch and movement. It takes the word "maturity" from the first draft and makes it a little more specific. It's also a callback to the first line of the text. This is our abstraction.
The purple is our concrete evidence: according to this student writer, the purpose of this scene was to incite Gan's development as a character. Octavia Butler uses this scene to force Gan to grow up.
Claim Example #2
In Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” the first person point of view exposes Gan’s naivete to the harsh realities of his life and allows the reader to better understand Gan’s struggle to accept that he must sacrifice his happiness in life to ensure the happiness and security of his family.
I chose to share this claim because it's an example of a strong claim. It's also an example of analyzing POV for those of us who are still confusing character perspective with POV. Notice how the concrete comes before the abstract in this claim.
AP Essay Rubrics
So, about the grading of your paragraphs. I used the AP rubric for Question #2 to help me evaluate them. Here's a link to the rubrics. On the HUB, I scored you on a scale 0-6 as described on rubric, and I also notated "Row A, B, or C" in the comments to let you know where you lost points. Basically, here's how it works:
Row A: You need a stronger claim. Worth 1 point.
Row B: You need stronger evidence and abstractions. Worth 4 points.
Row C: Your idea needs more sophistication. Worth 1 point.
It's the beginning of the year, and we are just embarking on our analytical writing adventure, so the grading scale that matches the rubric is pretty generous:
As we become stronger analytical writers, the difficulty of the grading scale will probably increase. Like on video games. As your character gets stronger, the bad guys get harder to beat.
The Blind Assassin
The votes are in, and we're all reading The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood for our Unit 3 novel. Good choice, classes. If there are any very committed students out there who are thinking: "This novel looks too interesting to be helpful on the AP test. WHERE'S THE GREEK TRAGEDY?!" I want to mention that the Iliad has only been referenced by the AP Open Response (Question 3) 3 times since 1971. Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, is the darling of the College Board. Her works have been referenced a total of 20 times, and 3 of those were for The Blind Assassin.
You're going to need to get your hands on a physical or digital copy of the novel by Monday, October 19th. Let me know if you come across any difficulties with this by Monday, October 12th.
In the meantime, watch the trailer below for Margaret Atwood's Masterclass. She says a lot of great things:
"It was dark inside the wolf." (authorial plot structure choices!?!?)
"The main rule is: HOLD MY ATTENTION."
"Fail. Fail better."
Preach it, Margaret.
Hello class! This week we'll again be debriefing dialectical journals and learning from each other different ways to strengthen our analytical writing. Here's what's on the docket for this post:
Debriefing our Setting Dialectical Journals
Thank you so much to the anonymous students whose work we are learning from today! Just two student samples today. Let's check out the first one:
How does the setting function in the story?
“She had met Mrs. Peters the year before at the country fair, and the thing she remembered about her was that she didn’t seem like a sheriff’s wife. She was small and thin and didn’t have a strong voice.”
This setting shows that Mrs. Hale thinks Mrs.Peters personality is timid because of the way she looks. She thinks she doesn’t fit to be a sheriff's wife.
The effect of my noticing is showing how Mrs.Hale views the people around her or just her views in general. I think it contributes to the story because you gain more insight while reading the story.
There are some important guiding principles that we can learn from this student example. Adding on to the guidelines discussed in our previous debriefing, here are three more guidelines:
1. Only the author's words in the concrete column, only your words in the abstract column.
Quite a few of us were confused by this, partly perhaps because of my language (what did you notice) in the first column. I tweaked my words a bit (what did you notice in the text). What I mean by noticing is: what text leaps out at you? What strikes you as meaningful? In the dialectical journals, it's important to isolate our concrete noticing/hunting text skills and our extracting meaning/abstraction skills to be able to strengthen them and distinguish between the two skill sets. In the student example above, the student's words are added to the concrete. Some students also stuck extra quotes in the abstract column. Just keep it clean: concrete for column for the author's words, abstract column for yours.
2. Avoid general language.
In the student example above, the student literally writes "her views in general." General language is abstract, but it serves us no purpose. With generalizations, we can end up saying nothing at all. Other common culprits were the words: "things," "something," and "aspect."
3. Avoid talking about yourself.
Every piece of analytical writing can be strengthened by removing the language "I think" or "I believe." Remember from AP Lang about ethos, the credibility of the author? The "I think" undermines your authority as the analyzer. You sound wishy-washy. Best to just say it is how it is. Assert yourself when you analyze. In a related point, the general "you" should also be avoided. You can refer to specifics about the experience of the reader, but best to stay away from the assumptions and generalizations that come with an unqualified "you."
And now let's look at an exemplary student example:
How does the setting function in the story?
“the cupboard—a peculiar, ungainly structure, half closet and half cupboard, the upper part of it being built in the wall, and the lower part just the old-fashioned kitchen cupboard. As if its queerness attracted him, he got a chair and opened the upper part and looked in. After a moment he drew his hand away sticky.”
This quote is used to characterize man’s ability to glance over details that may be of importance. The dichotomous, queer structure of the cupboard serves to represent how men can only look to half of their story, their own perspective, while women can unveil the other half. The men are drawn to the queerness of the cupboard, yet are blind to the ultimate clue in the case: the bird’s cage. Ultimately, it’s the women whose alternative perspective allows them to open the cupboard and find the birdcage. The setting serves to characterize the gender divide throughout the plot.
This student addressed how the setting reflected the characters (structure of the cupboard as a reflection of the men's limited perspectives) AND how the setting enhanced the theme of gender divides in the cultural landscape of "A Jury of Her Peers." Like many of your DJ's, this one earned a "Well done!" in the comments section.
Callback/Review of Our Last Debriefing
Before we move on to discussing the structure of your analytical paragraphs, I want to reiterate something I mentioned in our first debriefing from last week: at this level of writing, paraphrasing is our enemy.
Paraphrasing is when you rewrite the author's words. There is no inference, no extracted meaning, no climbing the ladder of abstraction, no depth. And without any of these things, there is no analysis. Paraphrasing is still the number one most common problem with our DJ's, especially the substitution of paraphrase for abstractions.
POV versus Characterization
I've only graded about 1/3 of the Saunders POV Dialectical Journals, but I've graded enough to realize that some of us are confusing characterization (especially character perspective) with POV. The POV (point of view) of "Puppy" is 3rd person limited that switches between two character experiences: Marie and Callie. Most of the tension and conflict in the story comes from the difference in how these two characters perceive the world, and Saunders choice of POV is vital in unfolding the thoughts of these two characters. Characterization and POV are related, but not the same.
Here's an example of a DJ that did a good job of addressing the function of the POV in the text:
How does the point of view function? How does it affect plot, meaning, character perspective, and/or character motivation?
“So her mother could go right ahead and claim that she was spoiling the kids. These were not spoiled kids. These were well-loved kids. At least she’d never left one of them standing in a blizzard for two hours after a junior-high dance. At least she’d never drunkenly snapped at one of them, “I hardly consider you college material.” At least she’d never locked one of them in a closet (a closet!) while entertaining a literal ditchdigger in the parlor.”
The short story is told from a third person limited perspective, namely shifting between the inner dialogues of Marie and Callie. As demonstrated in the quote I have selected, the narration is delivered in a manner that conveys Marie and Callie’s voices. In this quote, the reader feels the resentment that Marie feels towards her mother and how she has channeled it as a mother to give her children everything that she grew up without. This reveals Marie’s motivations and it reveals how Marie views the world; she feels anger at bad parents, or what she perceives as bad parenting. because of the third person perspective, there is some distance between the reader and Marie. As a result, the narration maintains a degree of objectivity-the reader feels the bitterness that Marie regards her childhood with, but the story is not presented through this lens of resentment as it would be if the short story were told through Marie’s first person perspective.
Writing Our Analytical Paragraphs
Thinking back to our discussion of the ladder of abstraction, we climb the ladder of abstraction when we write our dialectical journals. We collect our concrete evidence, then we make our abstractions as we consider what it means. In analytical paragraphs, we begin with our highest, most perceptive, most insightful, most original rung on our ladder of abstraction: our claim.
Claims (and theses) must be abstract or they are not claims. After you state your claim, you climb back down to provide the concrete text evidence that supports your claim. Then you end with your conclusion, climbing back up. In an analytical paragraph, we climb down, then we climb up at least one time.
Your paragraph should be at least five sentences long in order to give you enough space to develop the kind of depth that expected. Try to keep it ten sentences or less. Actively explain how your quotes support your claim. There should be many, many more of your words than Octavia Butler's words. Try to select small, meaningful quotes. Stay away from long meandering quotes. And use at least 2 quotes. Not more than 3.
Unit 3 Novel Choices
Which short story did you like the best? "Puppy," "Lusus Naturae," or "Bloodchild?" Next week, you will be voting on which novel we'll be reading, so use your vote wisely! Research the three books and cast your vote.
As you can see from the cover, Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Prize and is a NY Times Bestseller. Here's a link to a review at the Guardian, where they don't have a paywall. I have never read it before, so we would all be experiencing this book for the first time together.
Even though Margaret Atwood is most famous for A Handmaid's Tale, she's written so many other amazing novels. I read The Blind Assassin so long ago that I only have a vague remembrance of the plot, but I do remember it blew me out of the water. Here's another Guardian review to help you make your choice. It also won the Man Booker Prize in 2000.
As we discussed in class, Octavia Butler received the MacArthur Genius Award for her work. Kindred uses time travel to explore themes of slavery and social justice. Walter Mosley said, "In Kindred, Octavia Butler creates a road for the impossible and a balm for the unbearable," which sounds pretty good to me right about now. Here's a link to a review on Medium.
Hey guys! This week's blog post will cover:
Hemingway Dialectical Journal Debriefing
Not bad for our first dialectical journals! After reading some of our DJ's there were a few pointers I wanted to mention to help everyone strengthen their DJ's for the next time around.
#1: Summary is not analysis.
Here is an example of a student response that struggled with this distinction:
“No. I have never had confidence and i am not young”
The younger waiter says to the other that he has everything he does. The older waiter says he does not and admits he has no confidence. He sees the world as an empty place and understands that the calm setting of the cafe is where he feels safe
This student's response is a paraphrase of the quote. For our purposes, paraphrase and summary are considered concrete. An example of abstract analysis for this quote could be:
Unlike the younger waiter, the older waiter's sees the world through wisdom and pain of experience. The older waiter's self-awareness of his failings ("I have never had confidence") allows him the sensitivity to understand the younger waiter's viewpoint on life. This younger waiter himself, on the other hand, is incapable of understanding the reality's of others.
#2: Adjectives are essential to describing a character.
Below is an example of a student analysis for the first row that could have benefited from adding adjectives:
“You should have killed yourself last week”
Waiter #2 reveals that he has a deep annoyance with the deaf man’s presence. The words he uses when talking to or about the deaf man shows that he’s more interested in himself than making a haven for a loyal customer. Waiter #2 expresses his want for the deaf man to not exist because he believes his time is more important than the old deaf man.
This response could have been improved by the addition of one more sentence including adjectives, for example:
The waiter is self-centered, content, and brashly innocent of the inner turmoil experienced by the deaf man.
#3: When you analyze a character's motivations, you must explain actions.
Below is a strong student example of motivation analysis with the actions in bold:
"I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe," the older waiter said.
I think this quote is telling because it reinforces the assumptions I made above. The waiter likes a clean, well-lit place because he knows the hell of being trapped in his mind and feeling deeply lonely. Because he shares that with the old man, it’s why he is sympathetic. It’s why he works the night shift. It’s why he wants to give people a sanctuary.
Notes on Setting Analysis
The challenge with analyzing setting is getting beyond the surface level identification. As you think about the setting of "A Jury of Her Peers," think about how the characters are affected by the setting: the challenges and advantages that the setting creates in the story. Think about the cultural dimension of setting, the values of the place and time that a story unfolds. Those abstract columns in our DJ's become more challenging for many of us when we analyze setting. I encourage to spend some extra thought thinking about how the setting functions in the story. What does it do to the plot and the character? How does it work?
A Bit About Susan Glaspell
Susan Glaspell lived and worked at the turn of the century. She wrote at a time when women's voices were part of a civil rights movement. Exactly one hundred years ago in 1920, the 19th amendment finally gave women the right to vote. I've been grading many of your AP questionnaire's, and I'm surprised and delighted to see how many of you enjoy reading nonfiction, and how many of you have been using your critical reading skills (honed and sharpened by AP Lang, no doubt) to stay informed about the social challenges and movements and calls for change of 2020. Here is link to an insightful article by the New York Times that discusses the struggle for women's right to vote. It's worth checking for the pictures alone.
When Susan Glaspell was born, she wasn't a voting citizen. When she died in 1948, that had all changed. Her life was lived out during one of those hinge moments in history, when something important changes. And, turns out, she was also a great writer. "A Jury of Her Peers" is something that we don't see too often in Literature classes (at least not often enough for me): a murder mystery. Ooooooo.
Accessing our Norton Textbook
Although "A Jury of Her Peers" is widely available online, grammatical errors and all, I want us to try to access the short story through our new online textbooks. I will be sharing with you the process to get signed up for my class in Teams today, and (by mandate of the big HISD AP Lit guy) ONLY IN TEAMS. So if you aren't able to come, we'll schedule another Teams one on one or something to get you access to the book. Our next short story, "Puppies" by George Saunders, is available behind The New Yorker paywall, but otherwise the book is our only source. As it should be: Saunders is a living, breathing writer with bills to pay, and his work should be tied to his income.
Next Week's Content Hour
Y'all, I've been ruminating on the best way to use this time, and for now, I think we will use the next (and possibly the next) content hour for optional summer essay workshops with your peers. I wanted to find a way to meet with all groups of students individually about their essays, but logistically, it would take quite a while. Instead, I will give individual feedback on your essays themselves when you turn them in in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime, if you are interested in feedback for possible revision, come to next Monday's content hour and we'll set up some writer workshops. I want you to know, that I'm in a writer workshop group with some other writers (including a screenplay writer: I'm learning so much!) and it has helped me continue to grow and see my work through different eyes. Plus, when I read someone else's work, I also end up learning. So I'm very pro-workshop groups, even if (and sometimes especially if) there's no teacher looming in the background.
I loved my university library. I used to browse the different stories and gather different random books that happened to catch my eye. That's how I first came across Lady Chatterly's Lover by D. H. Lawrence, surely one of the sexiest books out there that's labeled a classic. It was in just such a dusty book browsing sessions that I first came across S. I. Hayakawa's book Language in Thought and Action. Even if this book had been the only thing I took away from college, it alone would have made all the investment of money and time worthwhile. It changed the way I understood the world.
In this blog post, I will borrow heavily from Hayakawa's thoughts about abstract and concrete. And we will use these concepts as the underlying theory to all the reading and writing we do in this class. In this blog post you will read about:
Abstract and Concrete
Hayakawa talks about abstract and concrete in his chapter "How We Know What We Know." He presents a concept called the ladder of abstraction, because like so many other things in life, a thing is never simply "abstract" or "concrete:" it's a spectrum. Below is a page from Hayakawa's book depicting an example of the ladder of abstraction with Bessie the cow. On the right are pairs of words, abstract and concrete. Although, what we now know because of Hayakawa is that the concrete words are actually just more concrete than abstract words, and vice versa. Compared to a mile of land, the concept of "Texas" is abstract.
All the levels of abstraction on the ladder are important. The ability to move up and down the ladder is the hallmark of meaningful language. On page 93, Hayakawa says, "A preacher, a professor, a journalist, or a politician whose high-level abstractions can systematically and surely be referred to lower-level abstractions is not only talking but saying something." Take a politician, for example, who is always talking about "freedom." The concept of freedom is a pretty high-level abstraction. The key between meaningful and meaningless language is whether the politician can move down the levels of abstraction successfully without contradicting reality. Maybe the politician moves down the ladder by defining freedom as the freedom to get help when you're sick, no matter what. Or maybe they define freedom as the freedom of a landowner to shoot someone who walks on their property. In my experience, politicians mostly never bother with the lower levels of abstraction at all.
How does all this apply to the literature we will be reading? Allow me to quote Hayakawa again:
The word of good novelists and poets also represents this constant interplay between higher and lower levels of abstraction. A "significant" novelist or poet is one whose message has a high level of GENERAL usefulness in providing insight into life, but they give their generalizations an impact and persuasiveness through an ability to observe and describe actual social situations and states of mind.
These concepts also relate to your analysis of literature. Moving from a claim to textual support is moving down the ladder of abstraction. Drawing or writing conclusions based on evidence is moving down the ladder. One way to understand all the analysis you will be doing in this class and maybe all your other classes, is to see analysis as moving up and down Hayakawa's ladder.
In the spirit of empathy and roadblock acknowledgement discussed in our first class and blog post, our summer reading assessment will be optional. It will be an extra major grade if you do it. If you don't do it, it will be excused. For your assignment, you will choose one of your summer reading books. The assignment has two parts. First, you will create a collage to represent character, setting, and plot. Generally speaking, this exercise of finding specific photos is an exercise in moving down the ladder of abstraction. Here's my example:
You have all the freedom when it comes to how you will create this collage. It can be with images from magazines or photos printed out and glued. If you choose the digital route like I did, I have some tool suggestions in the assignment under the Plans tab in the HUB. In the second part of the assignment, you will explain how the photos and the literary elements relate. So you will be moving up and down the ladder of abstraction. Here's my example:
In Uprooted, the main character Agnieszka begins the novel as an Eastern European peasant in a mountain village. Her culture and her style is represented by the black and white photo in the lower left corner. This image is the only literal representation of Agnieszka because her journey is a story of finding the strength within herself that she always had. Her settings change, and the people surrounding her change, but each of these changes only teaches Agnieszka how to find more strength and magic within herself.
I chose the three images of the setting to mark the progression of Agnieszka’s character as she travels through these places. She begins in a village, the serfdom of a power magician named the Dragon. The Dragon takes Agnieszka as tribute, and Agnieszka is forced to live in an environment that is completely unnatural: a castle on top of a hill. There she learns of her own magic and by the end, Agniezka builds her own home for herself in the magical and treacherous woods. The stream represents the literal stream from the story, but it also represents Agniezka, because she is a channel between the magic and the history of the land and the present.
The plot line that I chose to illustrate is the story of Agnieszka’s best friend Kasia being taken by the forest and planted into a tree. Agnieszka rips her out and tries to save her, as seen by the face in the tree and image of tree roots in the upper left corner. The middle image is an image of Baba Yaga, who becomes a kind of mythical mentor to Agnieszka and the source of the power she uses to save Kasia. The title Uprooted has meaning on many levels but one is a reference to this story: a girl uprooted from her home and devoured by a tree. Agnieszka herself is uprooted by the dragon, and the whole novel explores the question of how to create your place in the world when your home and a part of yourself has been violently severed.
The image, the character, the setting, and the plot explanations will be worth 25 points each. The project is due Tuesday, September 22.
Please read the Hemingway short story "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." This short story was another thing I read that had big implications on my life. I'm not really sure why, but I can trace decisions I made, like working the night shift at Waffle House during college and then running a bagel shop, to the feelings this short story stirred up in me. Also be prepared to share three different quotes that you think reveal something about character.
Students, class, I am so excited to welcome you to your 2020-2021 senior year! One of the best things that has happened to me recently was signing into my new gradebook and seeing names of students who I taught as Freshman Pre-APers. This year, you guys, it’s your year. Soon (maybe in November!?) you’ll be voting and shaping the future of our world. I can’t wait.
But first, it’s me and you (and you and all your other senior teachers) here in our online classroom. You can go to my About Me page to learn some more about me. In this, my first blogpost and also our syllabus, I will be covering the following topics:
In our first virtual teacher orientation meeting of the school year, Principal McDonough taught me a new thing about basketball referees. When chaos happens on the court, referees are trained to focus on their primaries. I did a little Google research, and I can attest to the fact that this is true. According to referee.com, focusing on your primaries means going back to the basics to focus on fundamentals.
This year, in this class, we will all focus on our primaries together. And while we’re focusing on our primaries, we will be flexible with each other. I will be flexible with you, and you will be flexible with me. We will all be ready to revise our strategies at the drop of pin: our strategies, but not our goals.
And, finally, none of us will be afraid to try new things because none of us will be afraid to make mistakes. As Sir Ken Robinson says in his TED talk on Creativity in the Classroom, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.” Right now, in our minds, let’s just decide we are all prepared to be wrong. Writing is a creative endeavor, and I certainly know from experience how fear of mistakes can paralyze a writer.
So we’re focusing on our primaries, and bringing flexibility to everything except these, our core goals. Great. What even are our primaries?
I’m so glad you asked, because the primaries for this class are some of my favorite primaries of any class I’ve ever taught. We will be teaching and learning the AP curriculum for Literature and Composition. Basically, it all comes down to this:
We will be reading literature.
We will be writing about literature.
We will be writing literature.
Our curriculum comes from the College Board, and you can find it here at the AP Central website. That first document, the “core” document of the course, is 178 pages and absolutely unnecessary for any of you to read. But it’s there for you if you want to for whatever reason. What you do need to know is that I’ve read it, and I’ve crafted our course to be aligned with the objectives of AP, the same entity who writes and distributes the AP test. So everything checks out.
Remembering our flexibility mindset, here is a draft of what I generally expect us to cover this year:
9/8-10/9: Short Fiction and Literary Argument
10/12-10/30: Poetry and Literary Argument
11/2-11/20: Novel and Literary Argument
This rhythm of short fiction, poetry, and longer works will be repeated at least one more time throughout the year, possibly two more times. Analytical skills pertaining to different aspects of character, setting, structure, and figurative language will be woven through each of the units, but the literary argument/analytical writing component we work on together every step of the way. Which is good, because 55% of your AP Lit exam is written analysis.
Y’all, this list is longer than I’m comfortable with. In general, I’m more of a paired-down, less stuff, empty walls, clean desk kind of a teacher. I like making more room for essentials and clearing enough space to create. I love my copy of Marie Kondo’s tidying book. I’m big into this Thoreau quote from Walden:
“Our life is frittered away by detail...Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let our affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand...Simplify, simplify!”
But it turns out that the reality of online schooling means that quite large bits of our lives will be frittered away with the details of websites, passwords, and the like. And I realize it has to be even worse for students, multiplied by all your classes. Flexibility will also serve us well here. Flexibility and communication.
What are our tools?
Our new world calls for new norms. Let’s start with what you can expect from me:
And now, what I expect of you:
In an effort to create boundaries where none exist, that is, between home and school/work, here are a few norms for all of us:
First Day Action List
ead this blogpost (almost done!)
All of the class codes for everything are in the HUB. If you are feeling anxiety about your summer reading, please don’t. Take some deep breaths, go for a walk, and know that next Wednesday’s blog post will deal with all of that. See you in Teams!