Tag Archive | teaching

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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It took me four reads before I finally fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel, The Great Gatsby. I might not have ever read it again after the last time (a couple years ago my book club had a ‘year of classics’) had it not been for the fact that I am teaching grade twelve this year. Often referred to as the quintessential American novel, its place in literary canon is certainly undeniable, but I just never bought in. The Great Gatsby  is my daughter Mallory’s favourite novel and she was understandably flummoxed as to why her English teacher geek of a mother never really liked the book. Now we’re on the same page. If you believe that a classic is a book that never runs out of things to say, this book certainly qualifies. I guess I’m just late to the party.

how-whimsical-2006-great-gatsby-book-coverNick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, moves from the mid-west to Long Island’s West Egg to take a job on Wall Street. Across the bay in East Egg lives his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, an old Yale classmate of Nick’s, a man so “enormously wealthy” he’d brought  “down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest.”  Nick comments “It was hard to imagine that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that.”

Despite their wealth, Daisy and Tom don’t seem particularly happy and on his first visit with them Nick discovers that Tom is having an affair.  When it comes to the Buchanans, all that glitters is not gold.

Next door to Nick’s little house, and directly across the bay from the Buchanans,  lives Gatsby. His mansion is “a colossal affair by any standard.” Gatsby throws lavish parties every weekend  – huge glittering affairs attended by the who’s who of New York and “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”  On the first night Nick attends a party at Gatsby’s he is “one of the few guests who had actually been invited.” Soon after meeting his charming and enigmatic host, Nick finds himself drawn into a compelling love affair between Daisy and Gatsby, a love affair that had actually begun five years earlier.

The Great Gatsby operates on two very distinct levels: as a love story and a social commentary on the decadence and decay at the heart of the American Dream.

Gatsby’s single-minded devotion to Daisy, his desire to wipe out the present and reclaim their shared past drives him to create a sort of fantasy life. Everything Gatsby does is for Daisy and Nick remarks on his “extraordinary gift for hope,” his “romantic readiness such as I have never found in another person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” But Nick also acknowledges that perhaps Gatsby wants “too much” of Daisy and cautions him  that “You can’t repeat the past.”

On another level, Fitzgerald’s novel captures the glittery, frenetic 20s. A generation of young men had returned from the Great War, Wall Street was booming and in Fitzgerald’s version, anyway, people cared about little else except having fun.   Underneath the façade, though, there is rot and corruption. No one works except for Nick. They just drink and laze about. Nick sees it and when the veil is pulled back he tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd….You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

The Great Gatsby is a beautiful novel, I see that now. I am sorry it took so long to believe in the dream.

 

 

 

Two books for summer school

Every year for the past seven, I’ve transitioned from regular school to teaching a month of summer school. Why, you might very well ask? Mostly for the money – although this summer my paychecks hardly seemed like incentive enough.Obviously I can’t cover a year’s worth of curriculum in three and a half weeks, so it’s mostly trying to teach grade nine and ten students reading and writing skills that will help them be successful next year. We read some short stories and poetry and this year we read Lois Lowry’s The Giver (Grade 10) and Todd Strasser’s The Wave. I’d never read either of them, but I knew they were accessible, high interest and short enough to get through in the limited time we had.

the_giver_1.jpg.CROP.promovar-medium2The Giver takes place in a community that values Sameness. On the surface it might even appear like a Utopia. Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a family unit lives with his younger sister, Lily, and his mother and father. None of them are biologically connected.  His life is structured around school and volunteering and ceremonies that mark the important moments in the lives of the citizens. He is apprehensively waiting the next ceremony. His mother tries to calm Jonas’s nerves by telling him

“Well, it’s the last of the ceremonies, as you know. After Twelve, age isn’t important. Most of us even lose track of how old we are as time passes, though the information is in the Hall of Open Records, and we could go and look it up if we wanted to. What’s important is the preparation for adult life, and the training you’ll receive in your Assignment.”

Feeling apprehensive is unusual for members of this community. Their lives are not complicated by hunger,  disease or even bad weather. Everyone has productive work to do. They share their feelings as part of a nightly ritual. They apologize immediately if they say something even remotely offensive to another member of the community. They start taking a pill as soon as they acknowledge “stirrings” of a sexual nature. The Elders make all the decisions and “Rules were very hard to change.” The very old, the very weak and those who commit crimes are “released.”

At the Ceremony of the Twelves, Jonas gets his assignment. He is to be the Receiver, which means he will work with The Giver, the community’s most important citizen. He alone holds all the memories and he will transfer them to Jonas. Suddenly the only home Jonas knows seems less like Utopia and more like a nightmare.

The Giver is a great book – suitable for all readers and filled with lots of opportunities to talk about what it is to be human, free-will and the value and importance of memory. I really enjoyed it and would definitely use it in the classroom again.

Todd Strasser’s novelization The Wave is less literary, but offers lots of opportunities to51MDeY-2CjL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_ talk, too.  The book is based on the true story of  California history teacher Ron Jones’ social experiment. (He’s been renamed Ben Ross in this book.) The year was 1969 and Ross had just shown his senior class a film about the Holocaust. When one of his students asked how the Germans could have just sat back and let the Nazis do what they did, Ross tried to think of a way he could illustrate the power of a fascist movement. He came up with “The Wave” and began to teach his students about discipline, community and action. Although the experiment was meant to be short-lived, it grew to include a salute, slogans and even a secret police force before it was finally dismantled due to complaints from parents and colleagues.

Virtually every one of my grade nine students really enjoyed reading The Wave. It was easy to read, so it’s perfect for struggling readers, plus it offered a lot of food for thought.

 

My ideal bookshelf – the 2015 edition

So last year, I invited my grade ten students to contemplate their reading lives in essays and bookshelves inspired by My Ideal Bookshelf. The project was such a huge success that I decided to do it again this year, and once more the results were terrific.

My colleague, Jenn, and I made a display in the main hall at school.

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I’d like to share some of the art and excerpts from some of the essays my students wrote. Thanks again to Thessaly and Jane for inspiring this project.

Paige A

Paige: My top three novels (Anne of Green Gables, A Monster Calls, Charlotte’s Web) may never have been considered anybody’s favourite, even though two are classics. To me, these books have meaning and memories attached to them. Some memories are happy and some sad. No matter what, though, I would never want to forget these books and certainly don’t regret reading them.

Destiny

Destiny: As my reading expanded, so did my desire for more of a challenge. I would ask around for new books, but the ones my mother suggested didn’t spark any interest and my sister Dominique, three years older than me, scared me away with her grumpiness and nobody else I knew liked reading. I suppose Dominique must have been in a pretty good mood one day to give me her favourite book, Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris and I have always been grateful. This one book that she loved so much was like a glimpse inside the head of a stranger I called my sister. It was then, as I was reading, that I realized maybe we weren’t so different after all.

Adara

Adara: I can remember when I was little, perhaps seven, I used to rush to get ready for bed just because if I did it quickly enough my mom would read to me and my brother. I would get some pjs on, grab my blue, fuzzy penguin blanket and pillow and settle in to hear her read a few chapters of Pawn of Prophecy. I used to get so disappointed when I didn’t get ready in time, but when I did it was some of the best times of my life. My mom has the perfect reading voice and I would get lost in the book and the sound of her voice. Every once and a while I ask my mom to read, just so I can hear that voice again.

Tatum

Tatum: Grade seven was my first taste of reading for enjoyment. Teachers practically shoved sappy novels down my throat: unrequited love, boy meets girl, the whole lot. But I hated the thought of romance; I liked gore and cussing. I thought I could only get that thrill from games played in the dark, but a fellow student taught me better. My first whiff was The Maze Runner by James Dashner. Sure, I’ve read many other books, but only because I was forced. But this time it was legit. I could not put this book down. This was my first taste of what was soon to be have an addiction because, as you know, one book is not enough.

Ben

Ben: The Green Mile was one of the saddest books I have ever read. I never knew Stephen King could write something other than a scary story. I really grew attached to some of the characters and finding out they died not long after the book ends was really heartbreaking. I often get really attached to characters in stories and if they die, it hurts a little.

Pierrette

Pierrette: My bookshelf is a collection of stories that represent who I am. From childhood stories to books I read on repeat like The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, each book means something different to me and represents a unique part of my reading adventure. As someone who dreams of being an author I hope that, even if my writing never reaches these great heights, my work will make someone pick up another book, fall in love with reading, and truly think about things in their lives.

Parker

Parker: A very important book to me is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins because it is the first book I bought with my own money. Everyone told me that it was an amazing series and I knew I had to buy it. That was the first time I wanted a book so badly that I bought it myself and it was worth every penny. After finishing it, I loved it so much that I bought the other two books in the series.

Valerie

Valerie: My mother was my gateway to the world of books. I remember the nights she would arrive home exhausted after working all day and finishing classes in the evenings. Somehow she always managed to read to me and my brother before bedtime. I never questioned this time because I adored it far too much; however I did wonder why those moments were so important to my mother. I no longer ask myself that question as I am fully aware of the gift reading is in and of itself.

Chloie

Chloie: Every year I reread The Art of Racing in the Rain just to remind myself of how impactful reading can be, and to refresh my memory on this more beautiful way of seeing the world. I don’t think I will ever be able to pinpoint exactly why this book is so lovely, but it is the only book on my shelf I love enough to destroy. All my other novels are perfectly kept, no bends or scratches; that’s how I like it. But The Art of Racing in the Rain has pages folded down from my favourite parts, notes written in it and all my favourite quotes highlighted.

Ceilidh

Ceilidh: Teddy Bear Picnic was the first book that came to mind when I thought of an ideal bookshelf. I selected this book because when I was younger it was the one book I picked every time. My mother would use one of my stuffed bears to read it with and I loved listening to her use a fake voice.

Selda

Selda: I actually didn’t like reading books, but my brother loves reading. He gave me a few books when I was nine years old. He said if I read them, he would give me chocolate for each book I finished. That was a good idea. After a while, I loved reading books and he didn’t give me chocolate anymore. All kinds of books should be on my bookshelf: horror, drama, history, liberal education, love, comedy, tragedy. Books are amazing for me because I can live in my own world when I read. They are valuable like gold or silver.

Makenzie

Makenzie: Being a teenager isn’t easy and books have become a great way for me to relieve stress and broaden my perspective and understanding on a lot of things. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time  changed a lot of my views on mental illness and other disabilities. I’ve learned more from this book about happiness and self-worth than I ever would from a therapist. I suppose that is what books are – my therapists. I know no matter what I’m feeling or questioning, there is a book to help me find the answer. Whether it be through some magic time portal, someone’s true-life story or a cheesy young adult novel, I know there is something out there for me.

The importance of a classroom library

Kelly Gallagher is one of my teaching heroes. Gallagher teaches high school English and works with teachers across North America to help them help their students improve reading and writing skills. I’m a big fan of his.

In his book Reading Reasons Gallagher says:

Far and away the most important factor [to students reading more] was the establishment of a classroom library. I brought interesting books to my students. I surrounded them with a variety  of high-interest reading materials. I now have 2,500 books in my classroom, and I am convinced that developing this “book flood”…is the single most important thing I have done in my teaching career.

I started building my classroom library last year and in August I took advantage of Bookcloseouts.com’s amazing YA sale and my 20 or so books grew to this:

I buy books from Scholastic, second-hand shops, yard sales and take donations from whomever has books to give away. (A student I don’t teach but who hangs out in my classroom sometimes, offered me a whole raft of Goosebumps books, which I gladly took and which were practically brand new!)

I believe that the most important job I have as an English teacher is to create a culture where talking about books is commonplace. I don’t think my job is to tell students what books mean – like they’re baby birds with their mouths open and I am the mama bird who drops the worm of knowledge into their waiting beaks. I do think I have to give my students the vocabulary necessary to articulate their feelings and I do think I have to give them the opportunity to read widely from texts that are entertaining and challenging in equal measure.

 I think high school kills a love of reading for many students. Let’s face it, a non-reader isn’t going to make it past the first 50 pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I love Lee’s book, but even I have difficulty slogging through them. Mr. Gallagher suggests that “all students like to read, they just don’t know it yet.” I think most students did like to read, then we get them and we start acting like there is one right answer to be coaxed from a text, and we start testing them all the time about the one or two texts we do cover. (And it would be naive to think that students are reading those texts – the same ones I actually did read 30-odd years ago.)

Building life-long readers is the most important thing I can do in the classroom and one way to start is by putting books into the hands of students. Mr. Gallagher believes we can build readers, too. He suggests the following building blocks:

1. Access to high – interest reading material.

2. Time and a place to read

3.  Teachers model reading

4. Teachers stop grading everything.

5. Teachers provide a structure to their reading program

and finally

6. Students must want to read – they must see what is in it for them.

I think Mr. Gallagher is on the right track or, at least, he’s preaching to the converted. My upper level students read for 30 minutes twice a week.  I read when they do – no hardship for me. I wish they could read more, but lessons are only an hour long. My Writing students are required to log their reading and should be aiming for 100 pages a week. I want them to read a lot because I believe the cornerstone of improving their writing is to read, read, read. The only ‘assignment’ they have to do based on that reading is a book review – not report, review. Otherwise, we spend a few minutes each week talking about the books we’re reading, sharing excellent writing and one day we even did Book Speed Dating – which was a lot of fun.

I love my small, but mighty – and certainly growing – classroom library because it’s, well, in my classroom. There’s never an excuse for a kid to not have a book (or graphic novel, or newspaper or magazine or comic book…) Better still, when I see them deliberating I can actually help them select  something to read and if I do a good job, one book will almost always lead to another.

In a perfect world, all students will have been exposed to books from a very early age. I was. My kids were. But I have students who haven’t grown up in a house where people read, where there haven’t even been any books to read. These are the students who must be taught how to hold a book so the brand new spine isn’t broken, the cover torn, the pages folded. These are also the students who, with luck, will discover the delights hidden between the covers.

According to Scholastic, survey results indicate that classroom libraries increase reading by 60%. The paper goes on to say that “teachers can promote better reading performance by reading to children daily and by having them interact with booksthrough the extensive use of classroom libraries.”

We can’t just tell them reading is important. We can’t just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk.

One book at a time. One kid at a time.