Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Language to Object: Reading "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" by Emily Dickinson in the Aftermath #SOL17

In the aftermath of yet another uniquely American trope, a mass shooting, I found myself thinking about Emily Dickinson's poem #754, "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--." The poem's words haunt me, especially the last two lines:

For I have but the power to kill, 
Without--the power to die--

In one of the most poignant critiques of Dickinson's #754, the poet Adrianne Rich contends, "The poet experiences herself as a gun."

Think about that for a moment. In the Nineteenth Century Emily Dickinson, a poet most revered for the ways she redefined American poetry through her use of unusual punctuation, through her free verse structures, and through her themes of nature, love, and God, constructs an extended metaphor of herself as a gun.

My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--
In Corners--till a Day
The Owner passed--identified--
And carried Me away--

Not only is the speaker in this poem literally a gun, she also possesses power equal to that of a gun. Again, Rich offers an interpretation I find most satisfying in her description of the poem as one "about possession" and "about the danger and risks of possession." 

In Rich's reading, we find a sensual subtext. Our speaker and the gun are one, but the hunter has the power to carry both away.

The poem progresses with this gun-woman and the hunter roaming the woods and experiencing physical awakenings that rival the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. For the hunter, the woman becomes a protector from his enemies. 

That is, the woman's power far exceeds that of the hunter. Remember, she is the gun. She makes the choices regarding its use. The final stanza clarifies this enigmatic point: 

Though I than He--may longer live
He longer must--than I--
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

In the wake of yet another mass shooting, another suicide by mass killing--for the killer almost always ends up dead, leaving men scratching their heads and pondering his motives--I'm reminded of the power of art as I read #754.

As a poet, Emily Dickinson's art lives on. Today a poem reminds me that it is our artists who own the most power. "This woman poet also perceives herself as a lethal weapon," argues Rich. 

Will we continue to allow an object, a gun, to "have the power to kill, without the power to die"? Or will we embody our power, the power of art and of women who know language is more powerful and love a superior protector. 

Emily Dickinson speaks to us from the Nineteenth Century. A gun will never die, but we can give art more power to live. A gun is nothing more than an object that once possessed has the ultimate power to kill, and in Dickinson's imagination, the gun and its possessor are one, inextricably linked in a uniquely American pattern. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Tipping Points in Teaching: A Reader Response to "Purple Hibiscus" #SOL17

Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere. 

Reading the opening sentence of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's first novel, Purple Hibiscus, transports readers to an earlier novel by another Nigerian writer; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe also resonates with common post-colonial themes in its critique of religion, language, violence, traditionalism, family life, etc. 

Nevertheless, it's the idea of tipping points within the novel's circular structure that concerns me as I write this post. As does Achebe, Adiche draws on "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats to signal readers her characters will reach a limit, and so our narrator, Kambili, a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl, returns to Adiche's opening idea that "things fall apart" near the novel's end: 

The next day was Palm Sunday, the day Jaja did not go to communion, the day Papa threw his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines. 

In the interim, readers learn that both Kambili and Jaja, as well as their mother, have endured physical abuse from their father, Eugene, for many years, but on this Palm Sunday, these characters reach a tipping point. Their lives consumed with fear and silence and secrets, "the center cannot hold." 

The novel resonates with the normalcy of abusive relationships. As one of my students noted in our discussion Monday, we expect Papa to react with violence each time Kambili or Jaja break one of his rules. We've witnessed violence beget violence. Each incident moves readers toward numbness. My student said that the normalcy causes him to begin not caring. I understand his impulse to detach from these characters. We know that abusive relationships embody cycles, and breaking the cycle poses untoward challenges for both victim and abuser. 

At some point in a novel and in life characters and people reach a tipping point, a moment when change is inevitable. This happens in Purple Hibiscus. Our narrator tells us that "things started to fall apart" that Palm Sunday, but Kambili is an unreliable narrator. Her family was on the brink of anarchy long before Palm Sunday, and readers witness Kambili's lost innocence in the ceremony of ritualistic violence.

Today I'm wondering at what point things fall apart for teachers. When do we pass through the ceremony of innocence in our careers? We experience the "turning and turning in the widening gyre," as Yeates describes the movement toward chaos, almost daily, more when we feel overwhelmed by the demands of our jobs. It's during these difficult fall days I ponder: At what point do "the best lack all conviction"?

When Eugene exacts his most violent act against Kambili she curls onto herself: 

I closed my eyes and slipped away into silence.

Silence permeates Purple Hibiscus. Kambili struggles to find her voice. I see this silence in my colleagues. I sense a tipping point when a colleague shares: "I feel like it's never enough." 

Indeed, our profession demands more than expertise in our curriculum and knowledge of pedagogy. We must be all things to all students. Sometimes we're asked the same for and from colleagues.

We talked about efficacy in our most recent PD, but our discussion did not center on what I deem the most important element of efficacy: mastery. Instead, we focused on the cause du jour. Later I learned a colleague had also marked mastery on the handout we'd been asked to read and discuss. During both exchanges--the one during PD and the one with my colleague--I thought about Kambili's silence. I thought about the consequences of silence, both in literature and in our collective teaching life. 

There was so much I wanted to say and so much I did not want to say.  

The Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge
originates with the team at Two Writing Teachers.
Head over to their blog to enjoy more slices from
the community of writers. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Teaching Argument Refutation Using the Twitter Thread [Lesson Plan: Part 1]

As part of the dual credit Communication 1101 class I teach, students must construct refutation for two of their three speeches. Idaho State University, our partner in the Early College Program, requires students to follow a tightly structure method of refutation. 

This 4-Step Refutative Method poses significant struggle for some students. First, they have little experience addressing positions in opposition to their own. Second, they often get confused about the format of their refutation and the necessity of identifying the methods they use to respond to counter-arguments. Finally, students sometimes think their job is to build an argument agains their own position rather than reconstruct their own argument. 

In my early days of teaching the course, ISU required four speeches of students. I wrote about the refutative speech in an earlier post.  This is a common approach to teaching refutation, as an online guide from the University of Pittsburgh shows.

I use a couple of activities to teach refutation, including an improvisational game; however, recently I've notices an uptick in Twitter threads that incorporate not only the characteristics of good argument but that also embody almost all the characteristics of refutation I require of students. 

To see what I mean, let's first take a look at the 4-Step Refutative Method my students use in their speeches. Since students use a traditional outlining structure, I'll stick to that here. Refutation is part of the third contention in the outline:

III. Statement of opposing argument.
      A. Method of response to the opposing argument.
      B. Research supporting the student's position and that clashes w/ the opposition. 
      C. Impact statement. 

Sometimes students name the position they're refuting in the transition leading to their response. The outline may take on a slightly different structure when students take this approach. This is fine as long as students have all four parts and construct their speeches in such a way that the audience can follow their reasoning. 

Twitter threads also follow the 4-Step Refutative Method when the write of the thread seeks to construct a cogent response to a position s/he wishes to refute. Adam Khan used this method in his response to Sean Hannity's tweet Saturday about the bogus Russian uranium deal. Here's Hannity: 

Guess;Mueller and Media working hand in hand Media to be tipped off. Mueller was FBI Director Who knew of Russian crimes before Uranium one

I've typed Hannity's tweet exactly as he constructed it. As Twitter users know, to respond to a tweet, either when agreeing or disagreeing, one retweets and comments. That results in the response appearing on top of the first tweet, making the original tweet take on a form of hanging indentation. 

A thread will appear in reverse order in its original form. When a Twitter user wants to construct a thread, s/he generally numbers the tweets to aide others in seeing the chronology. This is important because it's common for a thread to be interrupted by others chiming in. Fortunately, this did not happen with Khan's thread.

Khan's response to Hannity does not give his refutative method, but I'd call this initial response denial of Hannity's claim. This is the first tweet in the thread.

But Khan hasn't finished building his response. His second tweet reads:

2. Obama locked down the contract-didn't give Russia a Nuclear Export license-so Putin just can't take the uranium, which is of poor grade. 

Khan implies something important in this tweet: Claims that we sold uranium to Russia are overblown in their impact. He minimizes Hannity's claim, and her offers supporting evidence to support his contention. I particularly like the use of Forbes here because it's a publication that tends to lean a little conservative in its stance. 

Here are screen shots of this and the rest of the thread, which contains eight tweets, and my analysis of each:

I'd characterize the third tweet as an impact statement. That is, why does Khan's response to Hannity matter? What's the ultimate consequence? 

3. The work Mueller and Comey put into nailing Mikerin mean that any Russian attempts to bribe officials will be met with consequences.

Again, Khan offers evidence to support his claim. This time he turns to the Department of Justice for official word on the Mikerin sentencing to emphasize the hardline stance the Obama White House took on this issue. 

But Khan hasn't finished with Hannity, although he could have ended his twitter response after the third tweet since it offers a sufficient counter to Hannity's conspiracy theory. Instead, Khan drives his point home by employing one of my favorite methods of refutation. He turns the tables on Hannity.

4. Mueller's extensive experience with Russian schemes to influence U.S. NatSec is precisely why he was picked to lead this Russia probe.

It isn't clear what source Khan uses here, but it's probably the Forbes article. 

The next two tweets pre-empt a possible Hannity response: 

5. Did Mueller alert CFIUS members reviewing UraniumOne deal about Mikerin? Based on how the contract is structured, it would appear he has.

6. If Mueller didn't alert CFIUS officials, it's possibly because he wanted to quietly trap anyone he suspected of involvement with bribery

Khan recognizes the short attention span Twitter users have as they quickly scroll through their feeds, so he does something every teacher does and something every high school debater does: He reminds us of an earlier tweet and his evidence by retweeting his second tweet in the thread. Again, we see what looks like hanging indentation. 

7. UraniumOne deal happened during US-Russia "reset"-if Putin had any larger plans, contract's language thwarts that

This reminder of the language of his earlier tweet is something I want my students to do in their speeches. That is, I want them to remind students of their logic and reasoning. I want them to use language to connect the dots, so to speak. Often they refer to ideas in their classmates speeches to reenforce their own arguments. That's when I know authentic learning is happening.

To end his twitter rant with a real impact, Khan reminds his followers of the need to attend to our dealings with China as well as Russia. This final tweet signals followers to pay attention to Russia but also to notice what's happening in the Donald Trump White House. 

8. If anything is begging to be looked at more closely, it's why Trump nixed TPP, giving China regional supremacy.

That retweet of himself is from August, but it's a potent reminder to follow the money. And that's how to flip an argument on Twitter and in the classroom.


To reteach the 4-Step Refutative Method, I'll give students a handout with the twitter thread. Next, I'll ask students to turn-and-talk to a partner about the methods of refutation Khan employes. We'll then discuss these methods, as well as the evidence to see if it says what Khan says it says. This is important. Finally, we'll talk about Khan's sources since I expect students to use quality sources of information. 

Since Khan's thread obviously leans left, it's important to give students a chance to talk about how Hannity might respond. The Russia uranium deal reappeared last Sunday when The Hill published a lengthy news article on it. Since that time, the issue has become a favorite diversionary talking point in Trump's tweets and on right-wing talk radio and news shows, such has Sean Hannity's.

As a final classroom talking point, I'll emphasize to my students Khan's retweeting Hannity's claim. I'll draw their attention to this as the only acknowledgment of Hannity's position. This matters because some students think refutation is about offering lots of evidence in response to the opposing position. 


As a baby-boomer, I recognize the clipped nature of a tweet. I acknowledge its inherent limitations as a platform for constructing essays and fully-fleshed arguments. However, my students use Twitter. It is a ubiquitous part of their days. They read the claims of many and give little thought to whether or not the tweet passes the CRAAP test. As a twenty-first century educator, I must find ways to use the tools students love while also teaching them how to construct academic rhetoric that echoes Aristotle's use of ethos, pathos, and logos. 

Wish me luck. I'll let you know how it goes in my next blog post and, of course, in a tweet! 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Because Nice Matters #SOL17

Google image labeled for
noncommercial reuse.
In our often unkind world, a gentle reminder that small acts of kindness matter can make all the difference in the lives of both students and teachers. Our student government chose BECAUSE NICE MATTERS as the all-school theme this year. 

During our student advisory time Monday, we were tasked with showing a short video created by student government and introducing their peers to this week's focus on the theme. We'll have three week-long theme focuses this year, one each trimester. 

At the end of the video, students were given a "kindness" task to complete. Today's directive asked students to introduce themselves to someone they don't know. In a school of over 1,500 students, this should be an easy task. However, new students often struggle to find a niche in our school. This reality makes me sad, but it is a reality. 

As someone who was once new to Highland, I experienced my own challenges getting to know my colleagues. When I first started at HHS in 1989, only the men spoke to me. I felt like the student in the old film Cipher in the Snow for a long time. All but one of the women in my department refused to speak to me. Years later, I learned why: They thought I'd be one in a long line of debate coaches whom they saw as not doing what they needed to do. I had to prove myself. Only after I stopped coaching did I learn this. It was during a conversation with my department head. She apologized after confessing. 

My early experiences as a new person in my school and community have heightened my sensitivity for new students. Over the years I've tried to offer them words of encouragement and have tried to help them find their place in the school community. 

Jacqueline Woodson's Each Kindness illustrates the importance of showing kindness to new students. Woodson tells the story of a girl who found herself isolated and bullied in her new school. When the teacher demonstrates the ripple effect a small act of kindness has on the world by having students drop a pebble in a pool, the narrator realizes she has no act of kindness to share with her classmates. Her lack of kindness to the new student haunts her, and she looks for an opportunity to rectify it. That opportunity doesn't come. I reviewed the book in this space back in 2012 and return to it often as a reminder that each kindness mattes.

I read Woodson's book to my group of advisory students. One commented, "That's something she'll have to live with all her life." Yes, we have to own our failure to practice kindness. I know this is something I fail at often, and I told my students this. I shared a story from my college days when a friend called me out for it. She was right, and I admitted this to students Monday. 

These days I'm appalled by the meanness I see in the comments on social media and seeping from DT's Twitter feed. I'm appalled by the ad hominem attacks that spew from his mouth. Since the last election cycle, I've thought often about my own failure to be nice all the time, especially since I don't want to be anything like DT. Hate and vitriol also produce ripples. 

"Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world," writes Woodson. Imagine the force of those ripples when we all drop a pebble of kindness onto someone every day. 

The Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge
originates with the team at Two Writing Teachers.
Head over to their blog to enjoy more slices from
the community of writiers. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Me Too: Every Woman's Story: #SOL17 #MeToo

Where do I begin to tell my "Me Too" story? 

Do I start with the boy who stood on his porch every day as I walked home from school in seventh grade so he could cat call, "You have really big boobs. You should be in Playboy"?

Maybe I'll tell about my boss at Tastee Freeze who wanted me to kiss him on my 16th birthday: "Give me a birthday kiss," he said over and over, even while his own child stood near the ice cream machine, even as my classmate, a co-worker, told me it was no big deal and she had done it. 

That story about S. D. G. climbing on me in the back seat while our friends made out in the front might be a good starting point to this narrative. I felt embarrassed walking into the dorm with blue velour threads all over my white sweater and one earring missing. I showered and cried. The phone rang. S.D.G. didn't mean it. He didn't know "no" meant "no." He wanted to make it up to me w/ dinner and a movie 30 miles away. NO!

I could start with the first story I recall. It's about a relative who liked to have children sit on his lap as he used one hand on top and the other down south. I'm not the only one who whispered, "stop." I felt embarrassed about getting caught. I thought I had done something wrong. Over. And. Over. And. Over. Until caught happened that day I lay in the bedroom napping at the relative's house and two someones walked in and chased him away as I tried pushing him away with my hands and my "NO," still a whisper. 

We so called "full-figured" women are asking for it, we're told. Maybe that's why a co-worker thought he could grab and grope. It was in the lounge. There were colleagues present. He was subtle. I walked away, a smile on my face.

On a trip to Kansas City the guy I was dating thought it was okay to persist, to hound, to cajole, to insist. I was sick with a fever. I'd driven him to K.C. for reasons I no longer remember. The rest of that memory isn't so easily dismissed. Some trips are like that.

"I don't know a woman that hasn't happened to," my gentle husband said when I read this post to him. His words made me cry. I released tears I've let build up from these memories, these "me too" moments. 

Me Too. It's a single story almost all women share, but we are not the sum of this one story. We contain multitudes of stories. Stories of strength. Stories of accomplishment. Stories of survival. These too are part of our "Me Too' moments. 

*Learn more about the origin of the #MeToo hashtag in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein Sex Scandal and the hashtag's creator, Alyssa Milano, on Know Your Meme.

It's Tuesday, and that means Slice of Life Story time.
Join the community of slicers at the Two Writing Teachers blog.
Thank you, TWT, for fostering a community of writers.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Collegial Conversations through an All-Staff Read #SOL17

Every good rowing  coach, in his own way, imparts to his men the kind of self-discipline required to achieve the ultimate from mind, heart, and body. Which is why most ex-oarsmen will tell you they learned more fundamentally important lessons in the racing shell than in the classroom. --George Yeoman Pocock

Our principal at Highland, Brad Wallace, speaks often about grit and persistence. Brad is a reader. Brad lives and breathes the power of words. He reads more than any administrator I've known, and he wants all the teachers in my building to read with him. I get giddy thinking about this reading mission. 

Brad models reading, so I felt a tinge of pride when he called me during the summer to talk about books and get my input about the book he'd choose for our staff to read. In fact, we're reading two books: Formative Assessment and The Boys in the Boat. 

I knew some of my colleagues would not share my excitement about reading and chatting about a book that isn't specifically pedagogical. I shared this with Brad, so when he mentioned TBItB, I mentioned that my husband had read and loved the book. I also know men often prefer nonfiction.

We had our first staff discussion about Part 1 of the narrative this past Friday during our fall inservice. We gathered in the choir room as our building was hosting the state math and science conference. That meant I had to venture to a part of our cavernous building I'd rarely entered. I saw one of my colleagues try a wrong entrance as she mistook the band room for the choir room.

If Brad decides he no longer wants to occupy space in the big office, he should teach English because he knows how to facilitate a book discussion. I'm sure Brad considered the possibility that some teachers would not read. Indeed that was the case. Even so, Brad set up our discussion so that even those nonreaders among us could participate in the discussion.

Since our building growth plan centers on Individual and Collective Efficacy, Brad had us define Efficacy based on passages in the book. We broke into small groups to do this so that our conversations would be more intimate and inclusive.
Our second round moved beyond self-efficacy to collective-efficacy. We were able to examine the relevant passages in the book and fill in the gaps for those who had not caught up with the reading as we focused on the specific lines Brad chose. 

As we neared the end of the discussion, Brad asked us to read a page about developing self-confidence. Self-confidence comes from accountability, initiative, and collaboration. These ideas transported me back to ninth grade and a lesson from my speech class. My teacher, Nydia May Jenkins, taught us that self-confidence comes from learning to do things well rather than vacuous praise. I shared my memory with my group. 

I'm in my 37th year teaching, and this is the first year I've read a book that is not specific to eduction as part of an all-staff read. 

I've worked for many administrators over the years. Most articulate expectations to staff, but with Brad we have authentic conversations about student growth and staff goals, and these conversations are grounded in reading. Brad goes beyond voicing the importance of literacy, he rows with us into the book, and he's not the only one. Three of our four administrators love reading. I'll be writing about my AP Lit and Comp class's discussion of Purple Hibiscus, which our assistant principal Jena Wilcox will be reading with the class.

It's Tuesday, and that means Slice of Life Story time.
Join the community of slicers at the Two Writing Teachers blog.
Thank you, TWT, for fostering a community of writers.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Considering "Citizen" in Response to Las Vegas #SOL17

Google images labeled for noncommercial reuse. 
We have all the answers. It's the questions we do not know. --Dostoyevsky

I revisited Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric after a student suggested I write about Sunday evening's massacre in Las Vegas. 

My husband and I said "I do" to one another in Las Vegas at the Little White Chapel, and we visit LV at least once a year. The city holds a special place in our hearts. We grieve for Las Vegas and her citizens. 

This world we live in makes little sense to me these days. My fragmented thoughts can't form words, and I find myself numb. Each act of man's inhumanity to man contributes to my desensitization. That scares me. 

How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? 

Rankine poses this question as she writes about the Rodney King riots, but her inquiry points to an absence of empathy in our world. 

Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign? 

Change one word--riot--and it's easy to apply the question to the LV massacre, and before that the Arianna Grande concert killing, and before that the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, and before that the Sandy Hook slaughter. Of course, these bloody events stand out for their massive carnage, yet other shootings fill the blank spaces between each.

In an unintentional ironic twist, Sunday's edition of "60 Minutes" featured an interview with Congressman Steve Scalise, the NRA supported Republican Majority Whip who was critically wounded during a baseball practice this past June in Alexandria, Virginia. 

The "60 Minutes" story was a piss-poor piece of journalism, a fluff piece that focused on Scalise's wounds and recovery. No discussion of his support for NRA policy positions. No discussion of gun violence in the U.S. and the government's failure to treat it as a health crisis. 

Before it happened, it had happened and happened, says Rankine of the riots. 

She could easily say this about mass shootings. Still, we narrate the same fiction: Guns don't kill people. This latest carnage will likely make little difference in public discourse. We'll hear the platitudes and pretend public safety depends on arming of citizens. Pretend that the only defense against a bad man with a gun is a good guy with his finger on the trigger. If the near fatal shooting of a Congressman won't change the narrative, certainly the gunning down of country and western concert-goers won't alter the story arc. 

We're told authorities have no answers for why a 64-year-old white man toted 42* guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition into a hotel and massacred Jason Aldean fans. We're told the gunman had no prior legal problems, had no ties to terrorists. These "facts" make the gunman's actions no less terrifying. What label do we stick on a man who killed 59, maybe more, revelers from the thirty-second floor of a casino if not terrorist? Does not an act of terror merit that label? Certainly lone-wolf, a euphemism, diminishes the citizen victims. 

The insidiousness of our national denial reeks. Perhaps white America will in time live the reality Rankine explores in Citizen as she describes the lived reality of black people

And where is the safest place when that place must be someplace other than in the body?...When you lay your body in the body entered as if skin and bone were public places, when you lay your body in the body entered as if you're the ground you walk on, you know no memory should live in these memories becoming the body of you. 

I wonder: Will mass violence in public places define my students' teen years? Will they recall their homecoming in conjunction with the Las Vegas massacre? Will the collage of memory form from the shrapnel of a lone gunman's final violent act against innocent citizens? 

*Last edit: 8:50 MST to reflect 42 and not 10 guns.

**Dedication: For Ashley Nicole Hitchcock and Cade Brown, Citizens of Las Vegas. Ashley is one of my favorite Highland graduates, and though I've not met Cade, I know him through Ashley's stories. 

The Slice of Life Story Challenge is
sponsored every Tuesday by the team at
Two Writing Teachers.