Category Archives: literature

Review of The Great Books Core Sequence

I recently had the privilege of attending a Junior Great Books Training Core Sequence (courtesy of our building/district). The primary focus of the three courses is learning about and practicing the Shared Inquiry discussion, which is a Socratic-style model for discussing literature and other texts. I might post my notes here, but after taking 3 courses over 2 days, there’s a lot of them. That said, here’s a quick summary of the basics.

  • Shared Inquiry is all about students interpreting a text and sharing their interpretation – and the evidence they find to support that interpretation – with their classmates
  • Every SI discussion begins with a single interpretive question – an open-ended question that asks students to provide an interpretation of the text
  • In a SI discussion, the teacher’s role is to come up with a genuine interpretive question and facilitate the discussion with authentic follow-up questions that are raised by genuine interest in the response
  • Both teacher and student focus the SI discussion on the text – the text is the one thing everyone has in common, and a good text can more than adequately lead a discussion into other realms without students bringing in personal beliefs or experiences
    • This does not mean you avoid connecting texts to personal experience. There are other times that are perfect opportunities to discuss evaluative questions, such as “Do you think X is right or wrong?”
  • Shared Inquiry is not a curriculum in and of itself – just part of a larger picture. This sort of discussion will fit in perfectly with whatever else you are doing in your classroom.

My overall perception of this program is overwhelmingly positive. I’ll admit that I’m a little biased – I am a big fan of the Great Books series (though I don’t have a GB bookshelf…yet). However, this training actually had little to do with the literature. Rather, it was a great introduction into the style of Socratic questioning and discussion. As a young teacher, this is the sort of training I wish I’d had in my teacher preparation courses. I feel more confident and competent to lead text-based discussions, and I have resources to share with other young teachers who might want the same. Definitely glad I took the time out of my summer to attend.


Whale Rider Teaching Resources

A couple of posts ago, I made a call for resources on teaching The Whale Rider, by Witi Imahaera. Unfortunately, my impression is that few people are teaching this novel (not all that surprising), thus don’t have a lot of resources. In fact, in searching, I found many more resources for teaching the film than I did for teaching the novel. I think the sources I’ve found should help spark some ideas as I plan for this unit.

I did notice, however, that several recent hits on my blog came from people looking for resources on this novel, so I thought I’d share what I’ve found, hopefully to provide resources and/or inspiration for others. If you find other resources, please feel free to share them – I’ll gladly post them up here in an edit or follow-up. 

Teaching Resources

  • By far the best resource I found is the Heinemann Teacher’s Guide [pdf] for the novel. Includes teaching strategies, activities, and a few lesson plans. Though I wish it was longer, this is a nice resource.
  • Another great resources for those teaching the novel: Rowan Pita at English Online shares a unit plan for teaching the Whale Rider, including assessments and activities related to the novel.
  • The Trinity College Library has a nice list of resources about the author, the novel, the film, and Maori culture that is worth checking out. Most of the links are to reviews and articles about the book/film, but those could easily be used as additional sources in a unit.
  • Fiona Murray, Winifred Jackson, and Brian Finch at Massey University College of Education [pdf] produced a brief guide to teaching the film. However, this guide discusses themes, motifs, and main plot points that apply to the novel. There are also a couple of additional resources mentioned.
  • Though it focuses on the film, Cambridge Park High School’s Whale Rider Curriculum Unit [doc] is so nice, I had to include it in this list. Focusing on the cultural and gender issues in the film, this unit seems like it could be easily adapted to the novel.
  • Sarah Mornston shared her Antigone/Whale Rider Unit on Curriki, which includes a number of activities and documents she uses in her unit, several of which focus on gender issues in both works.
  • MediaEd – Teaching Whale Rider. Another film resource, this site notes a couple of main themes and images.

Hopefully those of you out there who are teaching this novel will find these resources helpful in trying to build your unit. Best of luck!

Ideas for “The Whale Rider”

First of all, thanks to ggratton and Tammy Gillmore for the tips on short stories! On top of their suggestions on the post on Short Story Mentor Texts, I discovered a couple of sites that might be helpful if you’re looking for short stories to use in a high school classroom:

Now that I have abundant short story resources from which to select mentor texts (I’ll be sure to share what stories I’ll be using as we get closer), I’m beginning to put together our first reading unit of the year. We’ll be using The Whale Rider to review basic literary elements such as plot, character, etc., and begin touching on symbols, motifs, and most importantly, theme. Part of my planning for this unit will involve Shared Inquiry, which I’ll be learning about at the Great Books Training I’ll be attending next week. I’m also hoping to figure out a couple of ways to begin integrating technology a little more completely by using SurveyGizmo or Google Docs for reading quizzes, and possibly trying out Animoto for Education (more on this another time). However, apart from those two elements, I’m struggling to come up with purposeful activities and meaningful assessments for this novel.

Since the last request went so well, I figured I may as well ask again: if you teach the novel, The Whale Rider, what sorts of objectives, assessments, and activities have you found work really well?

Short Story Mentor Texts

As I’ve been reading Write Beside Them, I’ve been very impressed with Penny Kittle’s use of mentor texts in her classroom. She seems to use great works of literature, both traditional and contemporary, to help demonstrate certain concepts or skills she wants her students to develop. She has even suggested a couple of mentor texts specifically up to the point I am at in the book – notably, Rick Reilly, one of my all-time favorite columnists and sportswriters.

One of our units is a Reader’s Workshop unit in which students select a novel of their choice that they will read and they use that book to compare to other texts and complete assignments on. Popular texts this past year included the Twilight books, Harry Potter, the Maximum Ride series, and other popular YA titles. Our focus in the unit is to help students dig a little deeper into conflict and resolution, as well as develop comparing/contrasting skills on a deeper level (we introduce symbols, motifs, and themes in previous units).

The problem I ran into is that I just didn’t use enough texts to compare their books to. After reading Kittle and listening to her describe how often she uses these texts, I realized I need a better sampling of good mentor texts that will help students better understand the concepts we’re studying. Since I don’t have a lot else to do, and since I feel like this unit can be infinitely better, I’m trying to get some ideas now (we won’t do this until late mid-semester).  A couple of writers that I am already looking into using are Sherman Alexie (my personal favorite), Ray Bradbury, and possibly Jonathan Swift (I’m itching to get “A Modest Proposal” into the class somehow).

Unfortunately, I don’t have a very broad background in short stories (our genre of choice for this particular unit), so I decided to reach out to my “other” professional learning community and ask for your help:

What short stories could I use to help students understand different types of conflict? What stories would provide opportunities for in-depth comparison with the books they choose? What short stories have you used with success in your own classroom? I’m open to any suggestions you might have.

More on Book Trailers

TPretty cool that I was thinking about this book trailer idea a while ago (here). Right around the same time (I promise I had no idea), an article was published in the journal, Educational Leadership, advocating a great, yet simple and probably obvious modification: have the kids make trailers. Derp.

I like this idea because, as the article notes, students are engaged in both the reading and in the technology. Ideally, the connection between the two would help cement the skills we’re trying to teach. I’m thinking this would be a great culminating project for our Reader’s Workshop unit. We could have students make a 2-minute trailer for the book they chose and we could teach them to use either Windows Movie Maker or Adobe Premier Elements (depending on what is available at the time). Then we could have a movie day in class [30 students x 2 minutes each = 60 minutes of movies (plus down time)] at the end of the unit.

Definitely something I’d like to try. Check out the full article here.

Google Lit Trips

Really cool idea using Google Earth to take students on tours of literature. The site focuses on individual books (such as The Odyssey) and where those books take us. You can download pre-made maps (some examples are Night, Kite Runner, and of course, The Odyssey).

Of course, you can also create your own lit trip using Google Earth. Just add a few points, connect them with lines and/or arrows, and go on a virtual tour of Earth.

Another idea I had is that we could also outline a whole curriculum in Google Earth. Instead of one book, we look at all of the books we study over the course of a year (i.e. The Whale Rider, Greek Mythology, The Odyssey, Romeo & Juliet, etc.) and all the places those books take us.

The Road Not Taken

Right now, I’m reading a book called Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy with Kids, by Marietta McCarty. It’s a really cool book that essentially provides a course outline for the author’s philosophizing with children. I really like it so far (though it’s still early), but something irritated me as I read it having to do with the following poem:

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost              

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;         5
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,         10
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.         15
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.         20

I like Robert Frost. I think he was a great poet, and this poem is fantastic. And while he is considered one of the best-loved American poets, it doesn’t really seem to be for the right reasons. Little Big Minds falls into this problem of misinterpreting a great poem. Most people think this is a great, encouraging poem about making good coices and taking responsibility for one’s actions – this is how it is understood in the book.

Upon closer inspection, however, the poem isn’t really saying this. Look at lines 9-15, which tend to get ignored and forgotten. He says that both paths he wants to take look about the same – there’s really not a difference. In fact, he wants to go down both paths, but “knowing how way leads on to way,” he didn’t think he’d ever get the chance. So he picked one. And as he did, he knew that somewhere down the road, he’ll be telling everyone how he took the “road less travelled” and what a great decision that was, even though there wasn’t really any difference between the two. Essentially, this path that he chose will turn into a big-fish story – exaggerated beyond realism.

Maybe it’s just because I’m an English teacher and a poetry junkie, but it really bothers me when poems (especially poems and poets I like) are misinterpreted. Unfortunately, poetry (as with much of life) is all about perception – if you perceive that it’s about making good choices, then it is. Even if it isn’t.