Archive for March 14, 2012

Getting to Know Literary Theory

I’m a dork and have really dorky jokes, especially when it comes to my classroom.  Sometimes I go out of my way to think of the funniest way to “package” a concept or an assignment or a text to a class.  I do this really because I find it witty; the kids find it lame. 

Introducing literary theory is one such package.

I’ve set it up to resemble an online dating profile and tell them they are finding their literary soul mate.  Finding a connection to the way they read is like finding their soulmate:  it makes their lives easier, it completes them as readers, it makes them happier. 

I begin by reminding them of the survey they took about their reading styles and interests.  Then I give each student a piece of paper with their name that details which 1-2 of the lenses they naturally do and which 1-2 they are opposed to.  Sometimes this is nice because it provides students with a justification for why they struggle with certain activities in an English class.  Most students see those as deficiencies and then block out the positive things they do as readers or see them as unimportant. 

Then I distribute descriptions of theories (also featured to the right).  They form groups with people who have the same theory and begin studying and identifying basic tenets or qualities of the theory.  Then they present their lens to their peers.  I think the study and presentation is important.  Some students will hear a lens they are more interested in and want to switch into that group.  This is also helpful for students to understand what types of questions they need to be asking themselves when reading from that lens.  The more they understand it the stronger reader they will become.  Presenting also allows me the opportunity to correct or provide more information about each theory. 

To practice and test out the lenses I give the entire class the same passage from a text and provide them questions to help them analyze the passage from their lens.  Since this is early in the implementation of critical theory it is important to provide them a lot of assistance.  When composing the questions I keep using the language of the theory and ask about specifics.  As experienced readers English teachers can read from all of these lenses, so, while it might be a bit time consuming to draft questions for 6 different groups it usually goes pretty quickly. 

Then, the students present out their interpretations from their lens.  It is amazing for students to see how the same passage can be interpreted in so many different ways.  As stated yesterday, it really helps to substantiate our work as students of literature.  It also helps them see there isn’t one set interpretation to any text, making them feel more confident in their analysis and reading skills.

Tomorrow I will provide several suggestions to continue using critical theory in your classroom through multiple activities.  I will also provide a variety of resources for particular texts.

Introducing Literary Theory

Literary theory is a great way to help students more closely engage with their reading; however, literary theory sounds overwhelming unless it is introduced meaningfully.  I like to indirectly introduce literary theory the first day of school by asking students to complete a critical approaches survey (also provided to the right.  This questionnaire asks them to evaluate what they like to look for when analyzing a text and what they think is important in a story.  When taking the survey I encourage the students to be as particular as possible and avoid labeling everything as important.  They need to be able to distinguish between important in reading and important to them when they are reading.  I tell them this is about them being true to themselves as readers and accurately reflecting their beliefs.  The survey has three parts: 

1.)    “ Statements about Literature:” this section asks them to read bold assertions about reading and asks students to label if they “strongly agree” all the way down to “strongly disagree.” 

2.)    “Elements of literature:” the students are given a variety of elements (like symbols, power, and text-to-self) to rank in order of importance.  If a lot of students place a 6 next to symbols then it informs how much and in what way I teach archetypes and motifs in the classroom).

3.)    “Focus:”  this section provides students with a variety of “tasks” people complete when reading.  They check only the things they tend to do when reading on their own without any teacher assistance. 

I then analyze their answers using an critical approaches survey key to determine which lens I think best captures each students’ reading interests.  Each question is coded to match one of the primary critical lenses we will utilize during the year:  Marxist, Gender, Archetypal, Reader Response, Historicism, and Psychological.  The survey is set up to make identifying the connections students have to particular lenses easy.  I always keep the answer key folded up next to their responses and a quick skim of the “Statements about Literature” section will eliminate a variety of lenses.  Then, if there is any question about which lens to assign students I use their ranking of the elements to help me even further.  Students typically fall into similar groups:  usually those who respond favorably to the Marxist theory also reflect interest in Historicism.  Students who respond favorably to the Psychological lens often closely identify with the Gender lens. 

This first step isn’t even really an introduction to literary theory.  It is about them thinking about what interests them as a reader and a student.  Then I analyze their results and determine the 1-2 lenses it appears they most closely identify with.  Tomorrow I will be posting on how I distribute their literary theory lens and how I introduce them to the concept of critical theory.  Even if you don’t teach literary theory this survey is an excellent way to get to know your students as readers at the start of the year.

Literary Theory-Overview

Raise your hand if you have heard “you’re an English teacher and are reading into this symbol too much” at least once this week.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.  It is the bane of our existence…what we constantly hear and defend tirelessly to our students who struggle to apply any sort of meaning to any sort of text let alone a 180-page novel written in the 19th century.  We always give the same response:  “We are scholars of literature and it is our job to evaluate in this manner.”  Or “we are engaging in an investigation of the text.  Exciting, huh?”  Or on really trying days “too bad.” 

However, if looking for a way to avoid these comments there is an easy fix:  literary theory.  I wasn’t exposed to different schools of criticism (like gender theory, Marxist theory, or Formalism) until I was sophomore in college.  And if high school students are introduced to it is usually only the higher-level students in an AP class.  But, while literary theory is appropriate for all ability-levels, I think it is especially important to struggling readers.  This opens them to an entire world of critics, situating the English teacher contextually.  Also, it gives them a focus to their reading.  For those who aren’t strong readers it is overwhelming to read a novel because they aren’t sure how to interpret it.  There are so many things to analyze:  plot, symbols, characters, themes, etc.  It is overpowering.  Giving them a specific critical lens from which to read narrows down the field of analysis, making it easier for them to make meaning of a text. 

It also gets them off our back with their pesky questions about reading into the text too much. 

This week I will be providing you tools to identify natural lenses of critical theory your students naturally use when reading, ways to introduce it to your students in an accessible way, and activities and resources to use with your students.

Documentaries: Week in Review

           Friday Dialogue from                

                                      Your Two Favorite Educators 

As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit discuss the role of documentaries in the classroom, Michael Moore and unfortunately Justin Bieber.  

1.  What is the greatest obstacle to using documentaries in the classroom?

What does Emily say?Emily:  I don’t know about your school, but one problem I would definitely encounter is getting them approved.  While I know there are good documentaries from years ago, one asset of the documentary is to provide timely and interesting material.  Unfortunately for my students, my district has a one-year acquisition policy, which means I need to know 1.5 years ahead of time what I’m going to teach.  This limits the incorporation of meaningful and timely documentaries for my students.

Aubrey: Quick approval is a problem but we don’t have to wait a year.  I couldIs Aubrey right? see where that could be both difficult and disappointing. I have to wait more along the lines of 3-4 months.  It is important with documentaries to be able to show them in a timely fashion.  They do need to be treated in the same way we treat current events.

2.  What is your favorite documentary?

Emily: It certainly isn’t Food Inc. or any documentary about the food service. Those documentaries make me rethink my Arby’s addiction and I don’t want anything to get in between me and my Arby’s.  I do really like Inside Job.  I think the material is insightful but still accessible.  Plus, I really like Matt Damon’s narrative voice.  

Aubrey: Roger & Me.  My whole family is from Michigan, so  when that movie came out it was all my dad could talk about.  Sure, I’ve seen lots of other documentaries that I’ve really liked including Mad Hot Ballroom, Born into Brothels and Food Inc. None of them will ever usurp Roger & Me. Michigan is Michigan and old school Michael Moore is the best.  

3.  If you could make any documentary what would it be about?   Keep in mind that Arby’s is off limits.

Emily:  Well, Arby’s would make a great subject.  But, in all seriousness, I’dWhat does Emily say? like to see a documentary made about the reality of teaching.  While I find Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere really eye-opening to the general public, they have a very clear agenda, which I don’t fault.  If anything, I appreciate the awareness drawn to critical issues in education; however, I think they are often so narrow and focused that the full picture isn’t actually presented.  I’d like to see a documentary about the real life of an English teacher because my life is awesome.  Working 15 hour days and all weekend is amazing.

Aubrey: I think the documentary American Teacher is a step in the rightIs Aubrey right? direction but I often wonder if something like this documentary makes a difference.  I’m not sure any schools locally have screened this film, whereas I know Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman were screened in a variety of schools and districts where I live and teach.  

4.  Do you qualify Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never as a documentary of merit?

Emily:  Are you kidding me?  Of course it is.  So is Glee: The Concert.  Those pieces show real life and inspire Americans to be all they can be.  Okay, teasing aside, yeah, I think they are of merit but remember that i have Bieiber fever, so I’m biased.

Aubrey: Okay.   All of what you have said is so clearly and unmistakably wrong that even though I wrote that question I refuse to respond.  Gross.  Being all you can be never works out.  Don’t you teach American literature?

Documentaries: Oscar Nominees

One of the best ways to introduce documentaries into the classroom is simply by having students examine those that have been nominated for Oscars.

Between two categories, documentary feature and documentary short, there are ten different films from which to choose.  This week we’ve focused on how to implement smaller elements of documentary films in order to still allow for critical engagement without usurping too much classroom time.

Today’s post will focus on how to use the trailers of those Oscar nominated documentary features and shorts.  While we will only highlight a few, you might choose to peruse the list and choose several other trailers based on your needs in class.  There are two ways to think about implementing this type of assignment.  You might partner trailers with texts that you are teaching or you might simply do a smaller study of documentary films as non-fiction texts.  Either way have students consider documentary trailers as condensed, “mini” versions of the film itself.  You might ask that they SOAPSTone the trailers, answer questions and even create their own.

You might also consider using any of the Oscar nominated documentary features or documentary shorts.  Documentary Feature Hell and Back Again as well as Documentary Short Incident in New Baghdad would work in conjunction with teaching The Things They Carried, Catch-22 or All Quiet on the Western Front.   Documentary Short, The Barber of Birmingham would be a wonderful way to compliment a unit on speeches of the Civil Rights Movement or To Kill A Mockingbird. Below are three Oscar nominated films, their trailers and some ways for incorporating them into the classroom.

Saving Face

An HBO Documentary and winner of a 2012 Oscar for Documentary Short, Saving Face will air today at 8:30 p.m.  HBO offers a short synopsis of the film.  Consider using it as an introduction to having students view the trailer.   Also consider having students examine the resources for the film HBO lists.  Many of them are ways to get involved and build knowledge about the documentary’s topic of violence towards women in Pakistan.  Consider the questions below as a way to have students engage in viewing the trailer.

HBO Documentary Films: Saving Face Trailer by HBO

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. Describe the overall argument of the trailer.  Offer an argument from the point of view of the women, the doctor and the filmmaker.
  3. Examine the text used in the trailer.  How does it add to the message?  Consider thinking about subtitles too.
  4. What is most noticeable about the trailer?  What elements draw in an audience?

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

An Oscar nominee for best documentary short, this film outlines the March 2011 tsunami in Japan.  The trailer, included below, has much to offer.  In fact, it’s one of the best from the Oscar Nominees to use this year.  It is both beautiful and heart wrenching.  You might consider having students read director Lucy Walker’s interview from Cinema Without Borders. Consider the questions below as a way to have students engage in viewing the trailer.

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. What effect does cutting between real footage of the disaster and first person interview have on the audience?  Explain.
  3. Identify elements of both beauty and terror.  Why would a filmmaker have those two in such close proximity to one another?
  4. How does the filmmaker use emotion and humanity to reach an audience?
  5. Pick two images from the trailer that stand out.  Explain their significance.


This film, Oscar winner for best documentary feature, offers students a story about overcoming in spite of circumstance.  This would be a good partner to teaching Hope in the Unseen.  Consider having students read the Los Angeles Times interview with former NFL player Ed Cunningham, one of the producers, as a precursor to watching the trailer.

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. Explain why the trailer begins with the coach listing the “troubles” of his team.  What effect does this have on the audience?
  3. Identify the primary themes present in the documentary’s trailer.
  4. In the final scene of the trailer, the coach argues that, “You think football builds character.  It does not.  It reveals character.”  Explain what the implicit argument is in such a statement as it relates to the trailer for this documentary.
  5. Explain what is important about the footage, music and text.  How do they work together to create an overall feel for the film?  Explain.

Documentaries: Corporate Sponsorship

If part of our task is to challenge students to weigh pros and cons, especially in their writing, discussing the idea of sponsorship and documentaries can be a powerful tool.  Have students examine just this concept via some of the trailers and shorts below.

Begin with Morgan Spurlock.  My recommendation?  Start with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.  Now I know what you’re thinking.  It’s ninety minutes.    The same length as Food Inc. which I’ve already admitted I struggle to show in its entirety.  So, instead use the trailer, a Spurlock interview and some source material from the film’s website as a starting point.  This week is about making documentaries work in the classroom.  Sometimes spurring a class discussion and allowing students to explore on their own offers some well needed exposure without overtaxing your classroom time.

Have students begin by examining some of the following resources.  Spurlock gave an interview with Forbes Magazine detailing his thinking in creating a film about product placement.  Or consider having students use Ebert’s review of the film itself as a warm-up.  Better yet have them watch Spurlock’s interview with Tavis Smiley.   At around 11 minutes it’s a good way to see him in action and hear his point of view.  Questions below can be used to accompany the interview.

Watch Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

  1. What is Sprulock’s argument against product placement in TV programming?
  2. What Spurlock’s purpose in creating the film?
  3. Identify Spurlock’s argument about schools and advertising.  Defend, challenge or qualify his point of view.
  4. Spurlock argues that modern films rely on product placement because they need money to fund their creation.  Explain the moral/ethical dilemma in such decisions.
  5. Is entertainment that’s a “commercial” such a bad thing?
  6. Identify one question that should be posed to Spurlock that Tavis Smiley omits.  Explain your reasoning.


Then have students watch the trailer.  Ask that they consider examining it as a condensed version of the film. Several examples have been included below.

  1. Identify how Morgan Spurlock incorporates humor.
  2. Describe how Spulock’s pitches appear.
  3. Describe the trailer.  What stands out in the way it is produced?
  4. Identify the purpose of the trailer itself.  How might this differ from the film?
  5. Identify Spurlock’s argument.  Defend, challenge or qualify Spurlock’s point of view in regards to marketing.


If you’re looking to give them even more exposure to documentaries sponsored by businesses have them checkout GE’s Focus Forward, an initiative to highlight great ideas and filmmakers.  Included below is an example documentary from Focus Forward.  Ask that students consider whether or not big business sponsorship changes the purpose of any documentary.


 Heart Stop Beating 

Heart Stop Beating | Jeremiah Zagar from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

  1. What message does the film convey?  What seems to be its purpose?
  2. Identify two elements that strike you from the film itself.  Explain what make them interesting/remarkable.
  3. What has been omitted from the film that you as a viewer would like to see?  Explain your reasoning.

Documentaries: Resources

Finding documentary resources can feel an insurmountable task. To find appropriate and engaging content can take hours.  It can also be difficult to determine how you will assess students’ interaction with these films.  Simple viewing questions can only go so far.

Today’s post will offer some resources for both of these areas in the hopes that you will be able to gain a foothold on how to implement short documentaries into your classroom.


Reading in the Reel World-John Golden

A must-have text if you want to implement better viewing and critical thinking strategies.  Golden argues that documentaries are non-fiction texts.  As such, students should SOAPSTone them as well as create their own essential questions while watching.   He also explains and models using levels of questioning to use in tandem with documentary viewing. A sample chapter is available via NCTE.


This website is a treasure trove of all types of documentaries.  The best part is that they have an entire educator’s resource center.  You will want to look specifically at the short films.  To get to them, search “short documentaries.”  Some of my favorites include:


Utopia Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall

A good piece to teach consumerism and personal folly.  Use this 13-minute documentary to teach argument and purpose.   Most definitely have them SOAPSTone the piece and create their own essential questions.  Consider having them tweet those questions while watching.

Watch Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall on PBS. See more from POV.


Trash Out

This is a good documentary to use when discussing the death of the American dream.  Consider having students use at the end of The Great Gatsby as Nick is watching Gatsby’s house stand empty or as a stand alone to teach argument in regards to how we see accomplishment and loss.

Watch Trash-Out on PBS. See more from POV.


An offshoot of SnagFilms, it’s a great resource for documentaries from National Geographic, PBS, and a whole host of other resources.  There are some simple lesson plans posted but for the most part you’ll want to create your own following Golden’s ideas of how students should interact with documentaries in writing.

The New York Times Learning Network has also partnered with them and has created some useful documentary “film festivals” that are worth a look.  The9/11 documentary lessons are especially helpful if you’re teaching Bush’s speech at Ground Zero or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

You’ll want to examine their documentary shorts specifically.  Titled Media that Matters, they have a range of films short documentaries between 5-10 minutes in length.  Some of my favorites include:

Alienated: Undocumented Immigrant Youth

A great short film that profiles one young woman specifically who works as a nanny/housekeeper.  It’s perfect to partner with The Jungle and the later chapters of Fast Food Nation.

Young Agrarians

A short film about young people/students involved in organic farming.  It would be a perfect pairing for anything by Michael Pollan or as a supplement to Fast Food Nation.  You might also use it to teach AP Language students the synthesis essay about locavores.

Night Visions

This documentary short focuses on one soldier’s experiences after his tour.  The short would serve as a good companion to The Things They CarriedAll Quiet on the Western Front and Catch 22.

Documentaries: Overview

Every year I try to have students watch all of Food, Inc.  It isn’t an innovative way to end our study of Fast Food Nation.  It’s not even a documentary on a new topic with vastly new information.  But I’ve told myself that in this world of grade level calendars and common assessments, it’s important.

And yet, every year I get within twenty minutes of the end and “run out of time.”  I panic at the amount of time we’ve spent “sitting.”  Every year, when pressed by students if we will watch the end my responses are numerous.  We have to start our next book.  We need to prep for the upcoming battery of spring tests.  We don’t have time.

Teaching in classrooms that have state tests and rigorous curriculum standards put many demands on our time.  With these expectations, it can be difficult to “find” ample time for film.  That being said, documentaries are a powerful way to teach students rhetoric, argument and bias.  They can be the cornerstones of research projects and an important way to build student knowledge on a range of topics that they would otherwise ignore or neglect.

For the last several weeks we’ve highlighted resources like Good Magazine and Brain Pickings in response to suggestions for expanding student knowledge.  This week we’ll focus on how to use documentary shorts fit into classrooms. And while it’s clear that this isn’t unchartered territory, the goal is to use smaller aspects of documentaries as a weekly staple in the Humanities classroom.

Monument Presentations: Week in Review

           Friday Dialogue from                

                                      Your Two Favorite Educators 

As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit to break down the Common Core and monuments.

1.)  What are your reactions to the standards of the Common Core? Good, bad, or ugly?
Aubrey: To be honest, they don’t bother me.  Now this is probably because I teach in a state that refuses to adopt them.  This also was probably evident when I asked you a year ago what the common core standards were.  We just don’t talk about them.  Ever.  From a philosophical stand point I think standards, especially when it comes to writing ability, are important.  

Emily:  I, too, like the standards.   Sometimes when I read Walt Whitman’s poetry I feel like he is able to put into words what I can’t.  He captures my thoughts in a way I can’t.  I feel the same way about the standards.  I think they are clear, cohesive, and strong.  I have tried writing “standards” for my students and revising them for districts for years.  None are as cogent as these. Read more

Monument Presentations: The Proposal

Statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial (237.00.00)The Common Core stresses student’s ability to work independently.  This is met through the final component of this project which is an actual application of all the skills practiced throughout the week.  The premise of the assignment is for students to work in groups and determine one person or event that they feel deserves commemoration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  We open by discussing the symbolic significance of having a monument located here as opposed to other places Read more