Sunday, May 7, 2017

Why I Like To Teach Controversial Literature

When I was in 7th grade I read the novel Go Ask Alice. I was a naive young girl who grew up in the plastic bubble of suburbia. For me Go Ask Alice was a cautionary tale and to this day I've never tried drugs because of that book. The events that the main character went through scared the you know what out of me.

Five or six years ago I read the book 13 Reasons Why with a book club that I was in with some fellow teachers. I wanted to read the book because I had seen several students reading it and the plot intrigued me. After reading the novel I put it in my classroom library and added it as a choice when I did literature circles.

Although the book was on the best sellers list many years ago, the book is drawing a lot of attention (both positive and negative) because of the Netflix series. Some people think that the show romanticizes suicide and will give kids bad ideas. Yes the suicide scene in the show was shockingly graphic. I had read the book twice and I was taken aback. In the novel she took pills and in the show she slits her wrists. I read somewhere that this show was giving kids that are bullied instructions for killing themselves. I'm sorry but that's nonsense.

Maybe Hannah didn't know how to tell her parents. Maybe she thought that since they had financial issues, she didn't want to be a burden. Who knows? Maybe we can ask the author. Maybe like Go Ask Alice, 13 Reasons Why is a cautionary tale. Maybe the critics should focus more on anti-bullying and getting help for sexual assault victims. Did Hannah's friends turn on her? Yes. Did Hannah have a lousy guidance counselor? Yes. The reader/audience knows that she could have turned to Clay but she felt like she couldn't trust guys and to be honest you can't really blame her.

Many teachers are saying that they won't teach the novel because it's about suicide but these same teachers teach Romeo and Juliet which is in essence a play about suicide and death. What's the difference? Romeo and Juliet felt like they couldn't talk to their parents (just like Hannah). Just like Hannah, Romeo and Juliet killed themselves and didn't think about all the people they left behind. Not to mention all of the other people that died because of them (Tybalt, Mercutio, Paris and Lady Montague.)

Life is messy, sometimes friends suck. sometimes you have a teacher that's not trained to be a guidance counselor (in the book at least), and sometimes you feel like you have no one turn to. This doesn't mean that every kid that is bullied is going to pull a Hannah. Maybe it will be a cautionary tale and the depressed/bullied individual will be able to look around and realize that they do have someone they can trust and turn to. Maybe reading a book like this in class (even as independent reading from your classroom library) will help a student in need. I always find that teaching young adult books that deal with these types of issues bring up good class discussion. You never know when discussing a "controversial" topic that's in one of these books can help a student in need.





P.S. I have a friend from high school whose daughter has been bullied for the past 2 or 3 years. She attempted suicide and was hospitalized for many months. She's now in counseling and doing better. This friend watched the Netflix series with her daughter and she wrote on Facebook that she thinks that every parent and teenager should watch the series. The world isn't perfect, please stop being scared of "controversial" literature.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Holocaust Remembrance Day


Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. I'm not going to post a lot of statistics or photographs that will make you cry. I'm not a historian and there are plenty of sites for you to find that sort of information. I will tell you that I am the granddaughter of 3 Holocaust survivors and because of this fact I find it extremely important to teach about The Holocaust.

In a few years all of the survivors will be gone and as educators it is our responsibility to pass on their stories to the next generation. I have been lucky enough to meet many survivors over the years at The Jewish Heritage Museum. If you're in the NYC area you should definitely pay a visit to this museum. It's in Battery Park in lower Manhattan.

As an English teacher I find it very important to teach Holocaust Literature. In my school it's on the 10th grade curriculum. My students learn about World War II and the Holocaust in Global Studies so when we get to our Holocaust Literature Unit they already have some background knowledge. Sometimes they've already read The Diary of Anne Frank in middle school but that depends upon the school that they went to. I love to teach the memoir Night by Elie Wiesel because it's a real account and the narrator is about the same age as my students so I think they can relate to him.

A few years ago I had what my school calls a "repeater class." It was a 10th grade English class but the students all should have been in 11th or 12th grade. I decided that instead of using the memoir Night with them that I'd teach the fictional novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. I taught the novel and showed the film and my students were really affected by the ending. I won't spoil it in case you have yet to read the book or see the film but it's a Holocaust book so you know it's sad. You can pick whatever memoir or novel suits your fancy but I think it's important to teach our students about this devastating time-period in history


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Shakespeare's Birthday

Every year on April 23rd (Shakespeare's accepted birthday) I write on the board next to the date "Happy Birthday William Shakespeare". Every year I get made fun of for this and I don't care. It's one of those things that I love to do.

Have you ever read a book and the language was so rich that you could read it several times and get something different out of it each time? That's how I feel about Shakespeare. I've probably taught Romeo and Juliet eight times but it never gets old. I could teach Hamlet every year and never get tired of it. When a story is that good, it never gets old.

I've worked with some teachers that refuse to teach Shakespeare. I've worked with other teachers that will use the Shakespeare Made Easy books. Those books are great for certain classes but I would never completely abandon the original language. Yes it's difficult, yes the play might take twice the amount of time to teach as another literature unit but I think it's worth it. I always say that no child should graduate from high school without having read at least one Shakespearean play.

The language is difficult but that's why we have footnotes, online summaries and nerdy English teachers like myself. Once you get past the language the stories are universal. Romeo and Juliet are two teenagers that want to be together but their parents say no. Hamlet is a kid that's upset that his dad died and his mom re-married quickly. Othello is about an interracial couple and all the problems that society has with them. Macbeth is about a guy that is greedy for power. I could go on but I think you get the point.

Here we have a man who wrote plays over 400 years ago with themes that still apply to our world today. How many authors can we say that about? I love many modern authors but I highly doubt people will be reading their books in 400 years. So for that reason and that reason alone I will always say Happy Birthday William Shakespeare every April and I don't know the birthday of any other author despite the fact that I'm an avid reader.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Poetry In The Classroom

Many students today dislike poetry. I know that I often hear grunts, groans and other sounds of displeasure when the aim on my board has the word poetry in it. I don't usually have an isolated poetry unit because I fear for my life. LOL just kidding. I don't have an isolated unit because I teach poetry all year long.

I incorporate poetry with every novel and play that I teach. I always find poetry that relates to the theme, the time-period, the genre, etc. Sometimes I'll do an isolated poetry lesson or two but I only do that if I don't want to start a new unit. (Example I end a unit a few days before Spring Break and I don't want to start something new.)

When I teach the play A Raisin in the Sun, I incorporate numerous poems including the poem by Langston Hughes that inspired the title of the play. When I teach the book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas I use poetry about The Holocaust. Before teaching any Shakespearean play I start with some of Shakespeare's sonnets. Without fail I always have a student that has never read Shakespeare and I like to read a few sonnets as an introduction to the language. Those are just a few examples of how I incorporate poetry into my literature units.

When I do teach isolated poetry lessons I try find "fun" poems that I think my students can relate to. One poem that I sometimes use as an isolated poetry lesson is the poem "Barbie" by Marge Piercy. It usually brings up some interesting discussion in class about gender inequality and the affects of bullying. I have a free PowerPoint lesson for the poem in my TpT store for this particular poem.

I always need to teach poetry lessons when I'm preparing students for exams such as the New York State Regents exam and the AP Literature exam. Both of those high stakes exams include poetry. I have another blog post about analyzing poetry. Click here to read that blog post.

I know that April is National Poetry Month and that many teachers dedicate some time this month for teaching poetry. I love poetry so much that I teach a little here and there all year round. I find that teaching a day or two of poetry here and there is tolerated more by my students than spending a full 3 or 4 weeks on poetry. I always get a student here or there that loves poetry as much as I do, but for the most part students aren't into the complexity that poetry sometimes presents. I hear comments like "Why can't the author just say what they mean?" Maybe your students are different than mine but I can only speak from my experiences.







Saturday, February 25, 2017

Losing Weight While Teaching


I've struggled with my weight my entire life. I've tried every diet out there...Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Atkins, 21 Day Fix, Whole 30...you name it. I'd lose weight, I'd gain it back and then I'd gain it back and then some. Twice in my life I've gotten down to a size that I feel comfortable with (21 and 32) but both times I stayed at that weight less than a year.

When I started teaching I poured all of my energy and time into work. I stayed up until all hours of the night grading papers and writing lessons. I had no time for sleep or the gym for that matter. All I did was work. You don't need me to tell you how stressful teaching is and like many of us I'm a stress eater.

Early in my career I got 4-5 hours of sleep a night and sometimes less. Any doctor will tell you that to lose weight you need to sleep. I'm not a coffee drinker so I started drinking diet coke daily. I would even drink it before teaching. (The thought of having soda at 7 am now grosses me out but I did that for a long time.)

When I was 28 I was at my heaviest and I met a guy who was an athlete and we started dating. Through his encouragement I started going to the gym. At first I went one day a week (one of the weekend days) and then I went twice a week. After 6 months of working out I stopped losing weight so I joined weight watchers. At that point I was going to the gym 4-6 days a week. I was on the program for 3+ years and I was going to the gym on a regular basis. I was down 94 pounds on my 32nd birthday.

Shortly after that I sustained a serious knee injury and I had to stop working out. I was still following weight watchers and my first week out of the gym I gained 8 pounds. I was weighing and measuring my food and I gained weight. That led to discouragement and then I was completely off the program.

Fast forward a few years and I had some serious health issues that I'm not going to get into. After I was better I went to the doctor and to my shock and utter dismay I weighed even more than I had in my late 20's. Here I was 36 and I had tried and failed every diet I had heard of. My doctor basically told me I'd be dead in 10 years if I kept gaining weight.

Fear is exactly what I needed. So I started seeing a nutritionist. I had blood work done and my nutritionist designed a diet that fit my needs. A nutritionist is not covered by my insurance so I only went to her once a month. I cut out soda which was huge for me. I cut back on carbs and I ate more protein and vegetables. I started working out again slowly. It's much harder to lose weight in your 30's than it is in your 20's.

This is what I have been following for the past year and a half:
  • I eat at least 60 grams of protein every day 
  • I eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day (I don't have more than 2 servings of fruit a day.)
  • I drink 6-8 glasses of water a day
  • I eat complex carbs (brown rice, whole wheat bread, etc) but I don't eat carbs with dinner or after dinner.
  • I take vitamins daily
I have a major sweet tooth and I eat sugar free Popsicles and sugar free jello when I have my cravings. They taste pretty good. When I'm in the mood for chocolate I have sugar free pudding.

I try to avoid drinks that are high in sugar but every now and then I'll have some juice to satisfy a sugar craving. It's better for me to have a glass of juice that has vitamins in it than a piece of cake or some other sugary treat.

I eat Oh Yeah protein bars after the gym because they are high in protein and have only one gram of sugar. I also eat almonds as a snack (raw almonds not the salty ones).

I go to the gym every Saturday and Sunday. When I have the energy (it varies) I go during the week. Some weeks I have way too much work and other weeks are better. I know myself. I know that if I go home after work I'll never go to the gym. So I keep my gym bag in the car. Also going straight after work is better because the gym is less crowded and if I work out too late I have problems falling asleep.

I'm far from perfect. Every now and then I indulge but I need to do this for my health. I love to cook but with a job that takes over all of your "free" time you can't always cook. I have a few solutions for that:
  • I cook a lot of meals that only take 20-30 minutes. I find tons of these recipes on Pinterest.
  • I cook a lot on the weekends. I have a lot of containers and I portion out meals. This way I have lunch or dinner ready to go. This also saves money because when I'm too tired to cook I won't buy take out. 
  • I use a crockpot. It's very easy to throw some ingredients in my crockpot in the morning and dinner cooks while I'm at work. There are a ton of healthy slow cooker meals online.
  • I make grilled chicken in bulk. I have mastered the art of throwing together a salad in 5 minutes. As long as I stick to a vinaigrette dressing and I avoid fattening things like croutons this is an easy fix for dinner or lunch.

I save money by cooking. I have co-workers that eat out daily. In NYC that's easily $10 a day. I have a Brita pitcher at home. Buying a filter every couple of months is cheap enough. Now that I primarily drink water this also saves money. Sometimes I'll add a slice of lemon or lime to my water.

I've lost 73 pounds in the past year and a half. I still have a long way to go but I'm not giving up on myself.

Things I need to work on: drinking more water, sleeping more and my sugar addiction.

I accept my flaws and I keep going.




Saturday, February 11, 2017

Literacy Letters

When I was a kid I used to write letters. I guess it started when I was 11 and in sleepaway camp. I made friends that didn't live nearby and calling them was expensive. We didn't have email or text messaging back then. In some ways I miss letter writing. Now when I check my mail box it's either junk or bills. I used to love getting letters in the mail.

Last year I was talking to a friend of mine that I used to work with. She moved upstate and sometimes we chat on FB messenger or text about what books we're teaching and we'll share ideas, handouts, etc. We were both teaching Macbeth so we decided to do literacy letters. I had my students start. They each wrote a handwritten letter to a student about the book and then they shared a little about themselves. I read the letters before mailing a nice big envelope upstate to my friend's school.

It took time but I remember the day I got a big envelope and started handing letters out in my classroom. The kids were so excited to get handwritten letters from other teenagers.

We wrote back and forth a few times. Suddenly I started hearing that my kids were playing X-Box against her kids and they were friends on Facebook and following each other on Instagram. One of my students was concerned that a boy talked about owning guns in his letter (he was into hunting). I tried explaining to her that deer hunting was popular upstate. Being an inner city kid is very different from a kid from the country. I meant for my students to discuss literature and although the conversations took on a life of their own I found this assignment to be a success that I'd like to try again sometime.



Friday, January 20, 2017

Kindness Matters

Every year I do an anti-bullying unit. Sometimes I find relevant articles about teens who have been bullied, sometimes I show YouTube videos about bullying, a few times I've shown the film Bowling for Columbine because it discusses the possibility that the boys who did the shooting were picked on and bulled in high school. Many people teach anti-bullying units in October and just last year I learned about Pink Shirt Day which is in February.

Certain books that I've taught also lend themselves to discussing bullying in school. One book that I've taught 8 or 9 times is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. In the young adult novel Speak the main character Melinda is bullied because she called the police at a party and a lot of people got in trouble for underage drinking. The novel traces Melinda through her entire freshman year and it deals with not just bullying but depression, rape and suicide as well. Another popular book that deals with bullying in schools is the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I haven't had a chance to teach this novel yet but I'm looking forward to it. I think it will bring up meaningful classroom discussion.

Whenever I start discussing bullying in school I always have one student (or more) that says, "bullying doesn't happen in this school." Sadly they're wrong and I can list a few examples I've witnessed over the years.

Kids have always been cruel but it's gotten progressively worse with technology and social media. When I was in high school I remember seeing a senior knock some books out of the hands of a 9th grader. I heard some name calling but it wasn't anything horrible. I don't remember what year it was but I remember in the beginning of my career there were two seniors that broke up and apparently the girl had texted the boy a naked photo. He printed out many copies of the picture and posted them all over school with some words I won't be using in my blog but I'm sure your imagination can fill in the blanks. Her parents pressed charges and it would have been worse if they both hadn't been 18. The girl ended up transferring to another school to finish her last few months of high school. In NYC there are so many schools it's easy to transfer.

The 2010-2011 school year was the worst school year for cyberbullying that I ever witnessed in my career. A group of students (no one knows how many) started a Facebook group where students were prompted to post pictures and make fun of people in the school. Many girls were bad-mouthed for being easy (that's not the word they used) and other people were called ugly, gay, fat, etc. I'm sure there was more, I never saw the page myself. What I do remember is that there were 26 fights in my school in one month because of that Facebook group.

The worst of these fights happened right before Christmas Break and resulted in a security guard and an assistant principal getting injured. I had students arrested during that fight. I didn't witness it because I was teaching when we went into lockdown. The principal involved the police and they were able to trace the computer where the Facebook group was created. That one student took the blame for everything even though everyone knew it was more than one person that created that group. He was just the unlucky one whose computer was used.

Two years ago a similar incident happened on Instagram. One of my students created an account and she posted pictures of people in the school making fun of them. She was suspended for about a month but I don't think her punishment was harsh enough. I saw some of the printouts and she wrote some awful things and encouraged others to do the same.

How can we as teachers foster kindness in our classroom? We can show films, read books, read articles and hold discussions. The truth of the matter is, we have to lead by example. I go out of my way to be nice to everyone even if they're mean to me. I work in a poor area and many of these kids view kindness as a weak trait. I find that sad but I'm not changing who I am. I will always treat others how I want to be treated.

I created my Kindness Quotes Task Cards so that I could force students to think critically and analyze an array of quotes about being a kind person. I hope that these quotes foster a positive learning environment. I hope that the discussions that come out as a result of these task cards are meaningful. I've always enjoyed using quotes in my classroom.

The Kindness Quotes Task Cards are free in my TpT store.



I know that many teens today face bigger challenges than my generation did. We have to do everything in our power to try to lead them down the right path. Hopefully we can show them being kind isn't a sign of weakness and they should choose kindness.






Thank you The ELA Buffet and Desktop Learning Adventures for hosting this blog hop.