C.H. Spurgeon, Rachel Peden, Katrina Kenison, and Me

bassThis is the story of an invisible community, where one voice at a time leads us to connect with others, in a chain back in time.

It starts with Katrina Kenison, who edited the annual Best American Short Stories series in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I love the essays she’d write as a foreword to each volume–usually loving little slices of the literate life, crisp and juicy together. For example, consider the paragraph from her essay in the 2001 volume, below. Isn’t it perfect?

Actually, her very best such essay was the one that started off the 2004 volume. I’ve used that essay a number of times with students, as a model of style and form–it seamlessly weaves a meditation on books with an illustrative anecdote, written in a way that creates comfort while it also demands engagement and action. I don’t have a copy handy just now, so I can’t provide a quote, nor is it anywhere online that I can find, but this book–along with all the volumes she edited–is worth tracking down just for her essays alone.

(She’s written other books, but I wish she’d compile one just collecting all these essays. What a treat that would be!)



In the 2004 edition essay, however, Kenison mentions several older books that she’d found in a used book shop that was about to close. She tosses off titles with brief reveries about the contents–tiny taglines meant to offer whisps of joy found between those covers–and I’ve long wanted to find some of them myself.

This year I finally did. One in particular stood out to me, Rachel Peden’s Speak to the Earth. As I recall, Kenison called Peden “a naturalist of the first order.” Sounded good to me.

No library in southern Nevada had a copy, so I used the interlibrary loan program available at the university where I work part time to borrow a copy from whomever had one to share. Continue reading


Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!


Written English As a Foreign Language to Native Speakers

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ELL students–English Language Learners (also known as ESL, or English as a Second Language). They have a certain set of needs in writing instruction. In fact, students have slightly differing sets of needs depending on what their first language is: some language backgrounds make learning to use plurals harder; others create a tough time with verb conjugation, for example.

This has nothing to do with anyone’s intelligence–it’s just a matter of learning to think and communicate those thoughts in a new way. What shocks me, though, is just how often I see native English speakers make the same kinds of mistakes in writing that foreign language students make. What accounts for this?

For a young American today, written English is practically a foreign language. Students very likely have little more engagement with written English than they would with any other world language, and it shows in the kinds of errors they make in writing.

Continue reading

“Secondary Literacy Instruction Non-Negotiables”

I got this handout at a training several years ago, and it’s one of the very few that I’ve ever liked. I keep this with a handful of other useful such things for when I do lesson planning. Everything on here is pretty sound. I recommend it for any middle or high school teacher looking for a firm curricular foundation for big picture planning.

The bit at the beginning about “70% non-fiction to 30% fiction” has always been controversial, but that’s meant to be understood as covering a student’s entire schedule, meaning that the burden does not fall on an English teacher to strike that balance–the readings in history and science classes, for example, will comprise a lot of that 70%.

That part about quarterly research projects is a tad ambitious, too, but I try to have smaller research-based assignments and mini-units throughout the year (source evaluation, internal citation, etc.), with one big project towards the end of the year. Right now, in fact!

Non negotiables

Non negotiables

Ode to Catch-22, from Stone Reader

My favorite scene from the 2002 documentary Stone Reader. The combination here of the elemental score, the slow and colorful visuals, and the simultaneously awakening and valedictory narration make this a truly beautiful bit of the filmmaking art.

I copied and posted this clip online because nobody has much from this great movie anywhere, and I want to spread awareness of it. I encourage anyone seeing this to appreciate this celebration of literacy and to purchase the complete documentary–it’s really a wonderful film.


The Classics Matter

Some teachers may say that the canon of classics is obsolete.  They may say that basic things aren’t as important as creativity.  They might degrade the value of memorizing facts.

But if you’re a college student and you go on Wheel of Fortune and pronounce “Achilles” incorrectly, millions of people will laugh at you.

Stardust and Ink

A while ago, I found this passage among some notes I jotted in a journal.  I was scribbling some thoughts down about the nature of being a compulsive reader and writer.  Pretty melodramatic stuff, but I like the general sentiment:

You read and write. You have ink in your veins and stardust in your soul. You don’t need to stop and smell the flowers because you’re growing a garden in your heart. Yes, you’re giving up some of the typical twists and turns of life. Don’t care. You have speed. A speed so electric, so immediate and eternal, it’ll pull tears out of your eyes and make an hour feel like being awake for weeks at a time.

This life of outer stillness and inner intoxication will thrill you whenever you think about it and nurture you through the rest. Think about it often. And don’t leave the covers closed for too long.

Five Recent Articles on Literacy

It seems that as technology becomes an ever-increasing mainstay in more areas of our lives, the effect on our already-faltering literacy has been similarly stark, and it becomes a continually obsessive interest of written commentary.  Or maybe I’ve just been paying more attention over time. 

Here are a few things that seem especially relevant from recent weeks, which have caught my eye:

Thomas Spence, writing in the Wall Street Journal, about fixing the huge gap in literacy between girls and boys:

The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment over the last decade or two. Boys spend far more time “plugged in” than girls do. Could the reading gap have more to do with competition for boys’ attention than with their supposed inability to focus on anything other than outhouse humor?

Dr. Robert Weis, a psychology professor at Denison University, confirmed this suspicion in a randomized controlled trial of the effect of video games on academic ability. Boys with video games at home, he found, spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially. Hard to believe, isn’t it, but Science has spoken.

Lindsay Johns, in Prospect Magazine, on why black students should be taught the Western Canon, as opposed to focusing on “diversity literature:”

Dead white men, the pillars of the western canon, remain supremely relevant to black people in the 21st century, because their concerns are universal. At its best, the canon elucidates the eternal truths at the heart of the human condition. It addresses our common humanity, irrespective of our melanin quotient. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens—all male, all very white and all undeniably very dead. But would anyone be so foolish as to deny their enduring importance? Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Boccacio’s Decameron or Pico’s Oration On The Dignity of Man are as germane to black people as they are to white. There is no apartheid in the philosophical musings of Cicero, no racial segregation in the cosmic grandeur of Dante and no ethnic oppression in the amorous sonnets of Shakespeare. These works can, if given the chance, speak as much to Leroy in Peckham or Shaniqua in the South Bronx as they can to Quentin in the home counties.

[Incidentally, in my experience, multicultural books aren’t promoted by actual minorities as much as they are by white teachers who are trying to “help” minorities.]

Carlin Romano, in The Chronicle of High Education, bemoans the detrimental effect on college reading assignments and literary scholarship by having a generation of students now entirely raised on digital technology:

Continue reading

Further On Entertainment Technology Versus Literacy

I can’t get out of my mind how glibly so many among us brush off the loss of literacy as we become more plugged in as just another in a series of history’s trade offs when new technology arises.  We lost a lot of memory when books became popular, goes one mantra. 

But here’s why that analogy doesn’t work—the “loss of memory” was a tradeoff for the higher literacy that was then available.  Books had always been around, but only within the last several hundred years have they—and literacy—become common, so it wasn’t an introduction of a new ability, but rather a spreading of a resource that had been restricted before.

Moreover, the skill sets mentioned here are not equivalent.  We may have traded some memory for literacy, but the fundamental, underlying skills of the mind—deep, focused thought; concentration; engagement with language—was always there. 

Only now, with electronic entertainment, has that changed.  We are losing those basic skills and trading them for…what?  My students, when we talk about this, are quick to say that the new skill set is computer skills.   Really?  Relatively few people are skilled at designing, programming, or repairing computers.  The vast majority of users are merely playing games. 

The assumption which has successfully underpinned all education for thousands of years is that the skills we practice in school are transferable to infinite activities in the real world.  We even teach the way we do with a faith that these skills will prepare students for the unknown, unexpected innovations of the future–a faith that has always been rewarded. 

But what is the transference value of computer skills?  What basic cognitive functions do games and applications stimulate that will ready children for a wide variety—including those of a currently unknowable nature—of skills for the future?  Other than stronger thumbs, I can’t think of any.  Certainly no major brain function is trained by computers nearly as well as by traditional learning and books.

We’re trading an egalitarian, literate culture for an elitist, technological culture.

The “it’s just another change and we’ll adapt” mantra is a flaky one at best, as this change has no precedent.  We’re exploring a dark, mysterious land, and we must proceed with far more caution, or we might just end up blindly hitting a wall or going over a cliff.

You Are Not a Gadget…Or A Passive, Vacuous Techno-Consumer

“It has become appalingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”     –Albert Einstein

Einstein was mostly talking about the bomb, and how we don’t have the maturity to handle such a powerful weapon wisely.  His thought applies equally well to that other insidious invention of the last century, electronic entertainment.

I was thinking of this again this week as I read a brief new essay at City Journal, Adam Thierer’s even-handed, thoughtful review of the new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier.  Lanier writes persuasively, Thierer agrees, about the need for caution and analysis in our application of online technology, but he also singles out some of Lanier’s major themes and disagrees with them.  In this, Thierer’s review is faulty: when he tries to rebut Lanier’s points, he falls into a trap of contrarian clichés, asserting blindly that Lanier is wrong:

Indeed, Lanier and other Internet critics—including Neil Postman (Technopoly), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), and Mark Helprin (Digital Barbarism)—are guilty of a form of hyper-nostalgia about some mythical “good ol’ days” when all was supposedly much better. But despite the hand-wringing and occasional “techno-panics,” we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.

It’s interesting that Thierer uses Neil Postman as one of his references as a promulgator of the “mythical ‘good ol’ days,'” when much of Postman’s most popular book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, establishes quite firmly that general literacy and attention spans used to be significantly greater than they have been since the introduction of mental-labor saving devices during the 20th century.  Thierer commits his greatest fallacy, though, when he asserts that “despite the hand-wringing and occasional ‘techno-panics,’ we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.” 

This is patently false. 

Thierer seems to base his claim in the fact that technology critics predict dire consequences, yet we’re all still here, therefore the prophets of doom are wrong.  But nobody ever said that turning over more and more of our intellectual autonomy to electronic toys would completely destroy us (except, of course, for The Terminator, The Matrix, and pretty much everything Michael Crichton wrote), but that it would result in a world increasingly sterile in its mental acumen.  Is there any way to deny that that’s exactly what’s happened?

This week I watched an episode of PBS’s Frontline, from just last month, called “Digital Nation.”  It’s a stunning documentary about how the minds and lives of young people have been fundamentally changed by their sudden and total immersion in an electronic entertainment technology climate.  Continue reading

The Las Vegas Children’s Book Festival


The Las Vegas Children's Book Festival, November 7, 2009

Yesterday, for the second year in a row, my wife and I took the kids to the annual Children’s Book Festival, sponsored by Target and part of the city’s larger Vegas Valley Book Festival. 

We agreed that out of all the local events we go to, this is our favorite. 

It’s held in the beautiful Centennial Plaza, which is hidden away downtown across the street from the federal courthouse, somehow all but invisible from the surrounding areas.  Parking was close, easy, free, and convenient.  Dozens of booths offered kids free books from charitable contributors, as well as private authors hawking their own excellent work, and crafts, gifts, and other activities thrown in for more fun.  Kids can get some free books, get their faces painted, and dance to the music piped in for the performers on a nearby stage. 

We got our gift bags and made the rounds, starting with a couple of free snow cones, and meeting some characters in costumes as we went.  My wife quickly found copies of the two volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia that we’re missing being given away.  There was an area off in one courtyard for the “grown up” authors and readers, where authors were doing readings and autographs.  The kids made bookmarks and coloring books at an arts and crafts booth.  A booth sponsored by UNLV gave away posters for their sports teams.  (I got three basketball posters–one for the boys’ room, one for my classroom, and one for my garage.) 

At the end of our tour was a stand giving out Hebrew National hot dogs.  We passed a great reproduction of the liberty bell on our way over.  As we sat by a water fountain in the shade for our lunch, a local children’s orchestra started playing.  The toppings available for our dogs even included jalapenos, and these were the sweetest ones I’d ever tasted.  


Two random children (possibly crazy people). Also, a big red dog.

I told my wife, “This is the kind of world I want my kids to grow up in,” then it got better: I noticed that the woman sitting next to us was wearing a T-shirt that said “Rearden Steel.”  I told her that I’m also a fan of Atlas Shrugged, and asked where she got the shirt.  She gave me a web site.  Here it is: www.johngaltgifts.com.

There were people there of many different races and ages, but clearly we all shared a love of reading.  There were plenty of people with multiple tattoos and piercings, but you know what?  I didn’t hear a single person swear.  Not once, the entire time.  Clearly, this cross-section of our diversity was the cream of the crop, the exceptions to my “judge a book by its cover” rule, and it made me happy that so much variety could exist when literacy and civility are the norm. 

Total cost of three hours of perfect family fun: zero dollars.

The weather was pleasant, the plaza was never crowded, and everything was spotless.  I hope this festival remains a secret.

Except for you.  I hope to see you there next year.  I’d like to enjoy this oasis of joy with my friends’ families. 



Whither the Classics In Mass Market Paperback?

51M7DGGWF0L._SL160_AA115_I own a mass market paperback copy of The Grapes of Wrath, but only because a teacher who was retiring a few years ago left it on a table in our work room with a note saying that his books were free for us to take. 

I own a mass market paperback copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, but only because I found it left on the floor after a meeting once, and nobody responded to my email asking the rightful owner to come pick it up. 

I own a mass market paperback copy of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but only because I bought it a year before Oprah picked it for her book club, after which it has only been available as a more costly trade paperback. 

That last one, I think, is the key to understanding why so many great classics are no longer 41AJfNSRUQL._SL500_AA240_available in mass market paperback and, indeed, haven’t been for some years.  The cheap, durable, accessible mass market paperback started going the way of the dodo, as I recall, in the mid nineties, just as things like $5 cappuccinos at Starbucks were becoming trendy.  See where I’m going with this?  As our society’s appetite for overpriced luxuries reached its fever pitch, we also acquired a tolerance–even a demand–for fancy, expensive versions of things that had previously been more common and affordable. 

Try this: go to Amazon.com and search for “Sound and the Fury mass market paperback.”  Look at the years next to the entries that come up.  Sad.  Continue reading

On the Permanent Value of Books

An excerpt from one of the best essays I’ve read in a long time, “Where’s the Bailout for Publishing?” by Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter:

A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection.The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas. An important lesson of serious reading is that ideas need not be correct to be important.


The online text, by contrast, proposes to the reader that ideas are little more than the stuff that dreams are made on. As Miller notes, if you dislike any aspect of the text—the font style or size, say, or the columnar arrangement—you are free to alter it to your liking. The text loses its fixed-ness. It ceases to represent anything permanent or unchanging.


Democracy is not alone in its need for the book. It is no accident that the great Western religions rely heavily on sacred texts—texts, moreover, that believers are able to touch and feel and carry about. The weight and heft of a Bible, its solidity, itself implies eternity. Matthew Brown of the University of Iowa, in his pathbreaking study of early American devotional texts, has pointed out how their form— “short and tubby, as thick as a brick” —formed a part of the aesthetic experience of the reader. One did not only read God’s word; one touched it. Many of us are old enough to remember when families routinely kissed the Bible. It is difficult to imagine lavishing the same loving attention on the computer screen.


I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Amen and amen.

“Email English” Example

Perhaps I don’t do Facebook or Twitter because I’d obsessively demand proper grammar and punctuation at all times.  Shorthand conventions be darned; all written communication should conform to professional standards, I say! 

This morning I got the following email.  The author sent it to a girl’s math teacher, and copied it to me because she wanted her daughter to be able to come in to my class late. 

Mr. ________,

__________ is coming in to take that test when you two decided would be a good time.  Please give her a pass to Mr. Huston class she was worried about getting into his class.

Oh dear.  Awkward phrasing in the first sentence gives way to an outright atrocious second sentence, such as it is: a run-on with a missing possessive. 


On her signature line, I noticed that she works at a school.

On Teaching Literacy

A parent of a student recently sent me this survey as part of her masters’ program, and asked for my input.  Following up on my last post (and trying to make up for the deficit of education-related posts this summer), I thought I’d share some of my meager thoughts here.  Perhaps they’ll be of interest to someone.  My replies to the questions are in italics.


Upper Elementary through Middle School and High School


What grade do you currently teach? 10th–Sophomores

What grade have you taught? All grades 6-12 (and college)

What subjects have you taught? English I-IV, English R/W I-II, Composition, Forensics, American Literature Honors, Modern Literature (college: English 101 and 102, World Literature)


1. What aspects of literacy do you hope that your students have been exposed to prior to your level? These could include activities, state objectives, or materials (pieces of literature). By high school, the most important aspects of literacy would be reading fluency, genre awareness, basic literary terms (setting, plot, figures of speech, etc.), and, ideally, some memorization of literature.


2. What Reading deficits and disabilities do you encounter most? Comprehension, fluency, willingness to engage difficult material.

A. What are your most used remedial tactics for these problems? Reading aloud to them is the best overall intervention, as well as guided practice using strategies like making predictions, evaluating an author’s methods of narration, and identifying themes and encouraging students to analyze and apply them.


4. In regards to phonetic awareness skills, what theories of practice do you support and/or not support?

C. Do you see phonics facts like Math teachers see addition/subtraction/multiplication/ division facts; that if a student does not master these early, he or she will continue to have difficulties? Yes; for example, early training in Latin and Greek word roots is essential to development of advanced vocabulary.

B. How do students at your level need to use their phonics skills? Primarily for decoding difficult new vocabulary; at another level, for tracking complex sentence structures in difficult texts.

C. Do you see any outside influences that detract from phonics skills; such as popular language among peers or media influences? TEXT MESSAGING!


5. What are you feelings about parental involvement in Literacy? Describe your ideal situation. I’m unsure about this: we might be able to instruct students without parental help, but certainly not against parental illiteracy. Have you read Freakonomics? The best statistical predictor of student acquisition of literacy is a language-rich home environment, established by the parents’ own habits. As such, if schools are going to advocate for improving their communities, I sometimes wonder what we could do to “reach out” to parents better; offer more classes and activities that involve them in reading with their families, perhaps (maybe sponsoring family/community book clubs?).


6. What are your personal theories on literacy instruction; its practices and goals for you level?

A. What reading programs have worked best for you? Describe what element(s) of the program were the most beneficial.

B. How do you approach multi level reading groups? At the high school level, this is difficult. For independent reading projects (which I try to do quarterly), I encourage individual students in the library to select books of an appropriate difficulty level; I’ve even offered different reading lists to different groups of students based on their ability.

C. What are your best/ favorite reading comprehension instruction techniques? See my answer to 2A.

D. What are your major checkpoints/milestones throughout the year, and how often do assess; such as beginning, mid-year, and end of year? For literacy, I would my “major checkpoints” would be the tests I give on each our quarterly in-class novels(Huck Finn, Ender’s Game, etc.), which focus on comprehension of major aspects of writing (plot, character, style, etc.); and, for their independently-chosen novels, a report that focuses on summarizing those things, and responding to the text in various ways, including evaluating it and illustrating scenes from it. So, each quarter should have at least these two differing major assessments of their literacy, as demonstrated by how they’ve interacted with two differing texts.


7. What proportion should be given to literal questions vs. high order thinking questions? This might sound like a cop-out, but I say “lots of both.” Heavy doses of questions and activities that hit all six areas of Bloom’s taxonomy offer the best means of making the most of a text. I’ve found that if I offer “question starters” to students based on all six levels and have them finish the questions with material from their reading, then trade papers and answer each other’s questions, they usually impress me.


8. What proportions should be given to reading materials such as short story, novels, and nonfiction? Before the 20th century, fiction was often seen as little more than a toy, but I would argue that it should predominate in our humanities studies. Reading fiction invites students to track character and plot development over time, as well to grapple with understanding narrative devices such as metaphor, theme, and satire, which are more rarely used in fairly direct non-fiction works. In addition, literate fiction can convey much the same factual information that non-fiction can, but with a greater artistic care and narrative craftsmanship that helps improve student interest.


9. List which written works you would consider classic, whether they are novels, short stories, novellas, or an author in general, for your grade level. Contemporary “young adult” literature is often touted as increasing student interest; my experience does not bear that out. Besides that, I’m an inveterate classicist, and prefer assisting students in studying the Western canon as much as possible. That being said, I also think it’s worthwhile to introduce students to superior, worthy materials in the world of current literary criticism, such as Harold Bloom. These two approaches reinforce each other quite well.


10. How much time do you devote to independent reading in your planning? How much would you with complete freedom? As implied in my answer to 6D, I use both assigned class readings as well independently-chosen works. However, the essays, stories, and novels used for class are obviously covered in greater depth. The “outside” readings are mostly offered to help spur lifelong reading interests. To that end, (I should append this to my answer to 6B), when I give lists of titles to be used as a guide for independent reading, I try to mediate small “book club” discussions in class based on groups arranged as per same/similar titles/authors/subjects. This works quite well. “Complete freedom” in a classroom only results in anarchy—titles for independent reading must always be approved by me before they begin. If a title is inappropriate or below their level, I try to redirect them to options that are more suitable.


11. Summarize the reading skills necessary for a student to be fully ready to pass your grade level. For the sake of space, I might refer you back to my answer to 6D.


12. How would you describe a student that is a fluent reader of any age? “Rare.” Ha! Sorry. Seriously, such a student can identify favorite genres, even specific titles and authors that interest him/her. He or she would likely have a library card. He or she would also likely be able to give examples of books that he/she “liked more than the movie version.”


13. How do you avoid being in a vacuum in your field? Um, I suppose by not getting inside a vacuum. Sorry, but I don’t know what you’re driving at here.


14. Do you have any comments or input that you think are necessary for Reading teachers of levels beyond yours are important to know about the students’ prior training, skills, or anything else? One important thing I can think of that hasn’t been covered yet is this: promoting lifelong reading interest is important and worthy, but not something that we can ultimately control. As such, expending too much energy on stimulating student interest is unproductive. We might want students to love reading as much as we do, but if there doesn’t seem to be much hope for individual students, or even whole classes, to attain that characteristic, we shouldn’t let it be a barrier for us. We need to be able to continue immersing them in the literary canon and reading skills that form the core of our civilization without feeling that we must “convert” students to our love of the subject.