Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tikkun Olum: Repair the World

As a newcomer to the 2017 NWP and NCTE conferences, I walked around in a perpetual state of astonishment and sensory overload. The one refrain that reverberated through my mind, other than “free books,” was the concept of Tikkun Olum, roughly translated as “repair the world.” First conveyed during the NWP plenary and repeated by several presenters throughout the NCTE conference, I had heard this phrase previously through my Holocaust studies coursework at UT Dallas and through training with the Holocaust Educator Network. The phrase represents a belief which I hold dear, but hearing it again from a variety of presenters at the conferences underscored just how important it is for each of us to repair the parts of the world in which we live.
Teachers have the unique opportunity to encourage young people to do the same, as most of us see over one hundred children daily throughout the school-year and spend more time with them, on average, than the other adults in their lives do. What if we could bolster students’ empathy through reading and discussion and then – more importantly – empower them to go forth and “repair the world”? As teachers of English and language arts, we understand the importance between the texts we read and their real-world implications. We understand patterns in society and how literature warns us not to repeat mistakes of the past in a much more human way than history does. We understand the power of language to change the world.
How do we get our kids to see these things? We must take the time to have our students make connections between the texts they read and themselves, their friends, family, community, country, world, and humanity as a whole. We must provide context for what they read and connect fiction with non-fiction – in both fiction and non-fiction based courses. Bring news articles into AP Literature and bring some poetry into a class built around non-fiction, for example. We must empower our students to see themselves as readers, writers, thinkers, and feelers by not simply providing them with opportunities to write authentic pieces for real audiences, but expecting them to do so. We must encourage risk-taking as they find their voices and resist the urge to beat them down with formulaic writing and artificial writing scenarios. Why not have high school English students practice writing letters to senators, or have students submit their poetry to national publications? Students could create public service announcement films and publish them on YouTube. The possibilities are endless, but imagine the engagement and ownership students will experience with these examples versus writing to another STAAR prompt. We can still help them hone their craft along the way, but students would learn that there is power in their writing.
While empowering students to make change with the written word, we must also help them develop as oral communicators. This nation is in crisis. The adults no longer know how to engage in civil discourse. So what hope do our kids have, who spend most of their time avoiding “awkward” social interactions while they stare instead at phone screens? We must make conversation a centerpiece of our classrooms. Learning to engage each other respectfully – especially when we disagree – is perhaps the most powerful way that we can prepare our students to repair the world.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Save Me a Seat - Writing about Pet Peeves

Writing can be extremely cathartic. How cool would it be if we captured an experience (positive or negative) each day through poetry? I had fun venting about one of my pet peeves in this poem I jotted in my journal in-between awkward encounters during which I had to tell people who wanted to sit by me that the empty seat was being saved. I grew increasingly tired of feeling awkward as I watched their expressions change to disappointment as they walked away.

All of us do this from time to time. I have asked it of friends twice in the past week, but beware of expecting your friends to do this regularly. Who knows? You could end up the subject of such a poem:

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Man Called Ove: A Review with Minor Spoilers

A Man Called Ove reminds me of the protagonist in Disney Pixar’s Up, if only that cantankerous old man had been trying to kill himself throughout the story. Ove, pronounced ooh-vuh, cannot let injustices – like choosing a BMW over a Saab – go unchallenged. He lashes out at those who lack what, in his mind, amounts to common sense and decency. 

Much to Ove’s dismay, every time he methodically plans to do himself in, he is interrupted by oblivious neighbors. As we journey with Ove through his life via a sequence of flashbacks, we are reminded that no one becomes so sullen without facing adversity and experiencing loss.

Through Ove’s recollections of his wife, we learn that Ove’s capacity for love is boundless. Descriptions of how she curled her fingers into his palm made me wonder what little habits I have that my husband notices, and I became more mindful of the special mannerisms he has.

I would only recommend this book to mature readers. Though the novel contains no licentious material, it requires a level of emotional maturity and some real life experience to fully understand Ove and the people around him. Because I felt so frustrated with Ove, I didn’t decide that I liked the book until more than halfway through. Ultimately, Ove reminded me that everyone plays important roles in the lives of others – the question is whether or not we will have a positive or a negative impact in the lives we touch.

To read the New York Times review of this book that offers some backstory on the author, click here
Image result for a man called ove cover

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Teaching in the Year of Trump

Last year, I blogged about the importance of teaching students “how to think – not what to think” in a post titled “Teaching in a Heated Political Climate.” I still firmly believe that students should be taught to analyze rhetoric, obtain news from multiple and varied sources, and most importantly to know why they think what they think. I want them to understand media and political biases and also to understand their own. I want them to realize when they are being manipulated. Knowledge and literacy = power.
I still perceive my role as one of facilitator, as mediator, and quite often as devil’s advocate as a means for evoking thoughtful dialogue, debate, and mutual understanding. In my previous post, I posed these questions:

  • How can I satisfy any of those roles if I am working toward a specific political agenda? 
  • How many parents want their kids’ teachers telling them which candidate they should vote for?
And then the election rhetoric went wild. This isn’t the first election through which I have taught high school seniors at or approaching voting age. I truly believed that I held the secrets for facilitating discussions that fostered a level of mutual respect and the ability to listen to different views that most adults would envy. But as many voters noted, this election was especially divisive. I imagine it was especially difficult for certain teachers to remain impartial when the subject came up as a matter of course, such as in government, economic, and history classes. As a matter of fact, several students confided in me that some adults had told them outright who to vote for. The students were not amused.
However, this year seemed especially difficult to navigate as a teacher of rhetoric. In an AP Language course that necessitates the study of rhetoric, speeches, and the historical and cultural context and impact of language, it became immensely difficult to examine the speeches of now-President Donald Trump without pointing out logical fallacies, simple diction containing vocabulary like “very, very bad,” “amazing,” and “big loser” that is on an elementary level, and the overall negative tone of most addresses.
Let me share my first disclaimer here: these are not political views, nor are they arguable. This merely reflects the patterns of Trump’s speech – something that we train students to examine. I refuse to assign value to his ideas at all. Call me Ms. Switzerland.
My plan going in was to present all current, relevant articles in a balanced way. For instance, for every negative piece on a candidate, I would share a positive one or one from a contrasting point of view. I pulled pieces for both major candidates equally. However, the stark contrast between the writing register (how fancy they write, for non-English majors), tone, and level of logical fallacies or contradictions provided an unbalanced view on its own, without me pointing those things out. Students began asking questions about why Trump doesn’t use more specific words to communicate, asking questions about hate-speech, and noting contradictions. Addressing those questions without bias is nearly impossible. You simply cannot argue that our President employs a dynamic vocabulary, even if he’s your best friend.
I responded by asking my students questions (instead of supplying my own answers) about what audience that speech style would appeal to, and I pulled an article about how many Americans thought that Al Gore sounded “boring” and “too intellectual.” Then one girl asked: “But don’t we want our president to be an intellectual?” It seemed that no matter how carefully I worked to navigate through this year’s election cycle, the fact that I had encouraged my students to question everything came back to bite me.
In the end, I began to pull current articles that had nothing to do with the election, and we studied speeches of the past. To quote our president, this was “sad.” I have never had students so interested in an election and so willing to learn about what the candidates stood for. If we shy away from deep exploration in school, where will they experience a more respectfully facilitated deep discussion of timely, relevant issues? Students just don’t care as much when the speechwriter has been dead for a hundred years or more, even if they write as beautifully as Frederick Douglas.
Again, unintentional bias seems unavoidable in a class that discusses the beauty and craftsmanship of Douglas’ words, and then the students themselves note the stark contrast between his eloquence and the lack thereof of some of our current leaders – on both sides of the aisle. My response to this? An article on anti-intellectualism in America.

  • To read an article on the calculated grade-level of our politicians’ speeches and why they’re changing, click here.
  • To read my original post “Teaching in a Heated Political Climate,” click here.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Background Noise

I wrote this at the end of the school-year while my students were writing. Can you tell I was stressed? Teachers will understand the "interruption fatigue" of which I write here:

“Background Noise”
by Amber Counts

Someone’s nose whistles
As another clicks the push-button on his pen.
The air conditioner kicks on in a powerful hum:
Gale-force winds in miniature
To take the place of fresh air
Blast from the depths of dusty vents.
A tone, followed by an announcement:
“Pardon this interruption, teachers…”
A cell phone goes off, and another –
This one on silent, but its vibration just as loud.
I try to recall what point I wanted to make,
But the door creaks open.
An aide walks in with a note.
The girl quietly snoring
And drooling on her desk
Doesn’t notice.
All other eyes are on me
As I assess the note
And thank the aide for his interruption.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Teaching the Whole Brain

A couple of years ago, my daughter and I had the privilege of hearing engineer, physician, astronaut, actress, and dancer Mae Jemison speak at UT Dallas. She asked those who believed they were right-brained to raise their hands.

Photo credit:
I raised my hand.

Next, she asked those who believed they were left-brained to raise their hands.

I kept my hand in the air.

Not knowing where this was going, I expected the classical argument about how one hemisphere rules each of us more than the other, and that we should cater to that side. Waiting for Jemison’s response, I mused…

How many times do teachers hear students confirm “I’m a math person” or “English just isn’t my thing” or “I can’t draw”? By high school, students have categorized themselves according to what they believe they can and can’t do, and school sometimes reinforces these foolish notions by separating content areas by subject, curriculum design, and even areas of the building. This separation is understandable for several reasons, including the content teacher’s educational background and expertise, focus on subject-specific standardized tests, graduation requirements under different pathways (current Texas-talk for an area of focus – much like a major in college), and personal preferences of both teacher and student. However, we know that cross-curricular education is powerful, and that’s exactly why most schools offer their advanced students some version of a combined English & history course. That’s why we know that writing across the curriculum works for the students and for their test scores across subjects. That’s why successful coaches are beginning to have their teams complete book-studies together to reinforce teamwork and perseverance.

STEM education is all the rage. We hear about the shortage of engineers and particularly the shortage of females in the math and science fields. It’s true: this is an area on which we need to focus and support all young people who show an interest and aptitude in these areas. However, leaving the humanities out of this equation is a mistake, and perhaps one that makes these fields less appealing to well-rounded individuals like Jemison. Bill Gates supports STEM education through scholarships via The Gates Foundation, which accomplishes great feats but also neglects the importance of the humanities. One would think that the experience of being out-maneuvered by Steve Jobs’ focus on aesthetics, marketing (which involves communication), and artistry (think about the impact that those white earbuds made when the iPod was introduced, or the colorful look of the iMac) would have imparted the importance of the convergence of business, engineering, and art as integral parts of a whole, successful business model. We cannot engineer what people want or need unless we understand what people feel and desire. Likewise, the arts must be balanced by reason. In short, humanities are absolutely essential in conjunction with math and science.

Jemison knows this. As she continues her introduction, she explains that everyone should have raised their hands to identify as both right- and left-brained.

Whew! I thought. I’m not just being a rebel again. Maybe I’m onto something.

Recently, Natalya St. Clair illustrated how Van Gogh captured the mystery of turbulence and light in works like Starry Night. In her Ted-Ed video, St. Clair discusses the relationship between art, patterns, and science. This should come as no surprise, for what do we call the close study and observation an artist makes of nature if not the first steps in the scientific process? How could an artist conduct an in-depth study of light, the seasons, and the movement of the stars and not look for patterns through repeated occurrences?

This closely relates to what I tell my students who claim to loathe literature because “there are no correct answers like there are in math.” I get it. In algebra, you plug numbers into an equation, and if you follow the steps correctly, you will indeed get a “correct” answer. However, literature, too, is made up of patterns. These patterns work magic on us at a subconscious level. The more we study the writing craft, the more we understand how that magic works on us, but that doesn’t diminish its effects. I try to help my students embrace the relationship between art, science, and math. I remind them that math and science, too, at their most advanced levels, are largely theoretical and demand some artistry in their approach.

A doctor and an astronaut, Jemison states that she cannot imagine her life without dance. She cannot imagine life without the arts and sciences as expressions of her whole mind, and we should not imagine such lives for our students.

Maybe it’s because my background is in the humanities – in all the accomplishments and creations of human beings – that I find it advantageous to include historical, artistic, architectural, philosophical, mythological, scientific, and cultural contexts when studying literature. Teaching literature without discussing what was happening in the world when that literature was created makes no sense to me, and neither should it make sense to teachers in other content areas. I’m not saying that math teachers need to stop class to have a conversation about feelings, or draw a picture of an equation, but wait – why not? Okay, maybe not the “feelings” part, but drawing or writing to convey real understanding of the content? What a great way to determine what students actually know! I’m not suggesting that math and science teachers become writing or art instructors, but why not provide students with alternate means to process what they’ve learned and reinforce patterns? Why not support cross-curricular learning for all students, not just the advanced ones?

When I home-schooled my daughter, I interwove lessons around topics of her choice in order to meet state objectives. For instance, when she wanted to study alligators, we studied the ecology system in which they live, the biology of alligators themselves and the difference between alligators and crocodiles, the historical impact of alligators in certain regions of the U.S., and both non-fiction news stories and fictional representations of alligators. She completed art projects, wrote essays, and completed a scientific study of alligators culminating in a trip to the zoo. Honestly, I don’t remember all the ways I found to explore alligators, but she does. The cross-curricular approach to the different events we studied together cemented them in her mind more than any other lessons she experienced in isolation. This is something I try to remember and recreate as much as possible – all while preparing my students for a very specific standardized test. So how do we help students use both hemispheres of their brains while covering all the necessary content? Here are a few ways. Please comment with additional recommendations.

·      Art teachers can incorporate lessons from scientific texts such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain for those students who are math/science oriented and “can’t draw.”
·      Literature teachers can incorporate non-fiction texts to reinforce themes or ethical ideas posed by literature.
·      Science teachers can assign book studies including biographies of scientists, fictional accounts of what can happen in the event of an epidemic (like The Hot Zone), and many other choices from science fiction to works that track cause and effect.
·      Math teachers can have students create and color complex graphs and charts or read texts about famous mathematicians or thrillers in which math is applied to solve a mystery. Want to prove to students that they will use math in real life? Bring in some real-life examples!
·      History teachers can focus on technological innovations and how those affected the ways in which people interacted.
·      Coaches can assign journal-writing to process the athletic journey and set goals. How about drawing out “plays” to aid in memorization? Book studies are great for team-building, too.
·      All subjects: have students quick-write to process information. This can be turned in as an exit-slip or formative grade, but non-writing teachers need not evaluate the writing itself. Just look at the student’s thinking.

These are just a few ideas, but imagine how empowering our students to think of themselves as whole-brained will impact their lives and support a growth mindset.

The Sun is Also a Star, and it Shines on True Love

Wiping the tears from my eyes as I closed the book, I realized that what I loved most about Nicola Yoon’s YA novel The Sun is Also a Star is its idealistic affirmation that soul-mates exist and that true love can form quickly. Maybe I’m biased because, like the main characters Natasha and Daniel, I fell in love with my partner in crime of almost 30 years within a day. I can only assume that Yoon has felt the power of such a deep connection herself due to her realistic description of this phenomenon.

As I read, I imagined how many people might react more skeptically or pessimistically to such a premise, but Yoon weaves science and poetry together to explain such an occurrence. Through Natasha’s perfectly scientific and quantifiable observations and Daniel’s poetic and hopelessly romantic approach to life, we learn that love can be defined by both chemistry and magic. Yoon incorporates recent studies that find that discussing deep thoughts, important concepts, and even secret experiences creates a strong bond in a short amount of time, as does staring into each other’s eyes. Throughout the years, when people have asked how I knew my husband was “the one” (to use an admittedly corny phrase) within days of meeting, I have always told them that we talked about important issues, not just the superficial, fun ideas that most dating couples discuss. I guess we were on to something that science is finally figuring out, and Yoon beautifully captures this experience in her novel.

Yoon’s writing style reflects a refreshing blend of prose accessible to youth and a maturity that proves satisfying for sophisticated adult readers. Her references to bands from my teen years – Soundgarden and Nirvana, for example – helped me remember those angsty teen years and connect to the characters. I tabbed several pages for use in my classroom with insight ranging from metaphysical poetry to profound observations of the parent-child relationship such as: “My father is shaped by the memory of things I will never know,” and “Who are we if not a product of our parents and their histories?”.

If all the talk about love isn’t a reader’s thing, how about the idea that each day, we alter the course of people’s lives in ways we will probably never know? The one driver who slows us down, so we curse them, but they might have saved us from a fatal accident down the road? What about the smile or the “thank you” we offer someone that might make that person reconsider suicide? Our fates are intricately intertwined, and we must make the most out of our interactions with others while always remembering that we have no idea what struggles they might be facing. I recommend reading this book and writing about various chance encounters that have altered the course of your life.

Note: Nicola Yoon’s novel Everything, Everything will soon be released as a motion picture in May, 2017. I am eager to read that novel before seeing the movie (although this generally backfires, as I love the book so much more than the film based on it). 

Special thanks to Mary Heffner for recommending this book to me!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Choosing Readers over Choosing Texts

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a North Star of Texas Writing Project summer institute. The colleague who recommended me for the program informed me of the impact that the experience would have on my teaching, but I had no idea that I would come to define my career by pre- and post-workshop.  Not only did I write like I hadn’t written in years – both in terms of variety of genres and in sheer quantity – but I also formed deep connections with teachers across content areas. I remembered what it feels like to be a student and a writer. I learned how authentic reading and writing workshop works miracles. This corresponded with my chosen inquiry. As a fairly new AP English literature teacher whose conscious didn’t feel at peace with a narrow test-prep approach with a standard survey of British literature, I researched the pedagogical principles that supported choice in the classroom. I sought to incorporate choice into a workshop-based AP course that would not only prepare students for that AP exam but also create readers. After all, as ELA teachers, don’t we want our students to want to read for the rest of their lives, long after they stop receiving reading assignments? 

I am currently in my fifth year of teaching AP Lit., and I feel confident that the feedback I have received supports the idea that choice and Advanced Placement courses are not mutually exclusive; in fact, choice might just be essential to our students’ future as readers. Not only have my AP scores supported this (I taught the class of 2013 using full-class novels which were chosen based on how many times they were referenced on the AP exam as well as the desire to cover all of the major literary eras, and my AP scores have increased, and have remained above national averages, since I began to offer students some choice in which texts they read), but my students have also provided positive feedback about how the ability to choose what they read has provided them with more incentive to thoroughly read and explore their texts.

I should probably note that the reason I felt compelled to write this post is because recently, I heard several well-meaning, experienced teachers express genuine concern that the classics “are not being taught anymore” and that “we should make students read them because if we don’t, they won’t ever choose to read them on their own.” Yes, that’s right – I clearly heard the words “make them read…” – because yeah, that works.

I understand the fear that students will miss out on this [white] cultural heritage that has been passed on for decades. I understand the longing for tradition and the idea that our students should read book X because we read book X in grade X. I understand the fact that some of our students, if given the choice, will choose less-complex books than we might expect from a student in a specific grade-level. But you know what? Those students might need to choose a less complex book – for now. If told to read books like The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before they’ve learned the skills to analyze such a text, they’re merely going to give up or refer to Sparknotes instead of reading the book, and teachers who don’t believe that aren’t actually listening to their students.

Since I’m already guilty of crafting a lengthy blog post, here’s a brief description of how I provide my students with choice:
1.     My course has an overall theme that connects to essential questions.
2.     Each unit in my course has its own sub-theme and questions that connect to the larger thematic idea. I chose 8-10 novels of “literary merit” that relate thematically but represent different genres, eras of literature, and style. I begin each unit with a book talk, and I encourage my students to read a sample from each text to choose one that feels right to them.
3.     If students do not wish to read one from my list, they may choose another with approval. It must have merit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean canon. As a great friend and mentor, Amy Rasmussen, once told me: “They didn’t stop writing great literature in 1950.” If a book has won a Pulitzer Prize for literature or comparable honor, it has merit.
4.     I teach the skills necessary to analyze longer texts through the exploration of shorter ones in class: poetry, prose, drama, and film analysis serves to give students the tools they need to connect to form and meaning as they read their novels. Meanwhile, I regularly conference with students about their reading experience.
5.     Instead of multiple-choice tests that require students to regurgitate what they memorized about their novels (and likely gleaned from Sparknotes), I assign carefully-chosen projects, facilitate discussions (yes, it works quite well even when students have read different books), and have students write in a variety of forms to demonstrate their thinking. Yes, grading takes more time. But my students remember what they’ve learned, connect with their texts, and start reading as writers and vice versa. It’s magical.

Before I share some of my students’ thoughts, I want to note that the most surprising benefit of this system is that students almost always end up choosing to read the classics that they would avoid reading if told to do so. As students talk to each other about their books and gain comfort reading – because they feel ownership in their choices – they branch out and try new texts that might have previously overwhelmed them.

This feedback came as a response to some final questions, asked and answered via blog, which included: Which book did you like the MOST that you read during this course, and why? Which book that was assigned for you to read, during any English class in grades 9-12, was your LEAST favorite, and why? Those are some of the most basic questions I’ve ever asked, but the responses were insightful and informative, and they support choice in the classroom. Note: Beowulf was the assigned summer reading text and not my choice.

Here are a few snippets from students:
  • “Being able to pick our own book to read made the class even better, because we got to choose something to read that would fit our own styles instead of being forced to read something we may not like.” –Tiffany
  • “The book I enjoyed the most…are all the ones I chose to read. I had been wanting to read 1984 for a while and I got the chance. It was so interesting to me because my favorite books to read are dystopias. I liked The Picture of Dorian Gray because it’s different form what I’m used to reading. I like the fact that it was controversial. The Nightingale just had me feeling all kinds of emotions. It was hard to put it down because it was full of suspense. Although I loved 1984, Animal Farm was not for me. I was excited to read it, but it let me down. I don’t think it was the book itself, just the fact that it was assigned with a lot of work. Also, that we had assigned chapters every week, so I couldn’t read it and enjoy it at my own pace.” -Isela
  • “By you giving us freedom, we’ve been able to produce more creative ideas and products. You have definitely helped me prepare just a little bit more for college. Thank you!” –Kara
  • “I suppose I should designate Beowulf as my least favorite book that I had been assigned to read in the duration of my high school years.  I did not despise it entirely; it simply was not very appealing.  In addition, I never completed it.  With only a handful of chapters left, it is one of the few books I have not at least forced myself to finish.  Thus, it will always be a sore spot on my conscious. For my final remarks (at least my final mandated remarks, but I am not making any promises), I would like to state that I prioritized this class over my others even though from the grading perspective this made the least amount of sense.  I honestly felt the need to learn and not just merely make last minute memorizations.”  –Allison
  • “The book I liked best that I read for the class was Les Miserables because I liked it the best and because it was so long I cracked and got the audio book, and I enjoyed having the book read to me as I followed along even though it was a 12 1/2 hour audiobook. My all time least favorite book from my high school Englishes was Bless Me Ultima. It was plainly a boring book and the more I tried to read it the less I was interested in it. I didn’t even end up reading it, honestly. I just sat in class and listened to everyone else’s discussions and from that I got the general gist of the story and such.” –Clancy
  • “My least favorite book that I have been forced to read during high school was Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. The storyline was not necessarily bad, but I feel it moved too slow and the ending fell flat of what it could have been. I also believe my distaste for the teacher at the time lead to my distaste in a book she wanted us to read, and the fact that she did not have us do anything exciting with the book. Hands down your class has been the best English class I have had throughout high school. You have been the only English teacher (and almost teacher in general) that has made me truly think and want to be a better writer and read more. I truly thank you for the experience I have had this year.”  – Hannah B.
  • “I have to say The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde had to be one of my favorite books. It was beautifully written to the point where everyone line seemed like a piece of literary art. My least favorite book that I had to read in high school had to be Beowulf. Nothing about it pulled me in. I almost just skipped it entirely, but I felt too pressured.” – Hannah T.
  • “THE BOOK I HATE LIKE REALLY HATE IS BEOWULF OH MY GOSH! Yes, I understand it’s a classic and whatnot but it just doesn’t catch my eye I don’t enjoy it. I would definitely not recommend that book to upcoming juniors.” –Julio
  • “I enjoyed reading Frankenstein quite a lot. Something about Mary Shelley’s writing style appeals to me, perhaps because it vaguely matches my own in fiction stories (or rather, to say I try to match her writing would be more accurate). I love her attention to detail and delightfully thorough descriptions—really, the overall utilization of imagery. I also love dark, depressing novels, so I may have a bias. I’d have to say either Beowulf (“Seamus Heaney”) or The Road (Cormac McCarthy) is my least favorite assigned novel. I honestly don’t remember what I read for freshman or sophomore year. The problem with Beowulf was that I just didn’t want to read it for school. Thinking I had to annotate and write note cards for it ruined whatever excitement I may have originally had for the epic, and I find that unfortunate. It was never even finished. (…oops.)” –Katherine
  • "I’d have to say that my favorite book to read this semester was The Help. I watched the movie a few years back, but the book destroyed the movie. The book has so much detail and I could never put the book down. I’m usually not the type to read about racism because the topic makes me extremely rigid, but having multiple points of view throughout the book was intriguing. Beowulf made me fall asleep at least 5 times every time I read it. I love a lot of the books I read this year but Beowulf will never have a place in my heart. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t fight off the urge to absolutely hate the book.” – Katrina
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain was by far the most enjoyable book I have read this semester due to Garth Stein’s intelligent use of wordplay and characterization of the dog, ... but books like Animal Farm… I can not! I understand the historical context of the book, but I never got into it. You know whenever you’re reading a really good book, that it’s physically hard to put it down. Not caring that it’s 4am and you have school tomorrow. Well, I could put that book down faster than it takes a bullet to hit something, and that’s pretty darn fast. It got to the point where I got nowhere reading it and ended up reading the Sparknotes on it. I would read it again if someone paid me a million dollars, but I would loath every minute of it.” –Mari
  • “One of my favorites that I read was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I remember this novel being on the reading list last year for English 3, but I never actually read it. I really enjoyed this book because the plot was very interesting to me and I had never known that the monster’s name was not actually “Frankenstein,” until now. This all being said; I did have a least favorite book as well. Some may disagree, but I did not find To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee to my greatest liking. It may have just been the circumstances under which I had to read it, but I was not super interested.” –Sebastien
  • “My favorite book from this year was probably Station Eleven. I have a tendency to gravitate toward classics, but I’m glad that I chose a more contemporary novel (and I’m glad that this was an option). Station Eleven was really well-written – along with the non-linear style, it had a compelling plot line and fleshed-out characters.  The story and its themes have remained with me all semester. It’s actually very rare for me to dislike a book. Most of the time, I find something to enjoy about everything I read.  However, I really couldn’t enjoy any part of Beowulf.  I know that it’s a historically important text and laid down an archetype for countless future literary endeavors, but neither the plot nor the language really gripped me.  I never felt involved, so finishing Beowulf never seemed to have any pay-off.” –Gioia 
  • “Anyway, my favorite book that I had to read this semester was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which is strange because I never would have thought that my favorite book would be a classic. I think I liked it because it was a gothic novel and I liked the dark tone in the book. I also liked that I my favorite and least favorite character changed periodically throughout the book, as things were uncovered. I would have to say my absolute least favorite book that I was forced to read was Animal Farm. I don’t know what it was about it, but I never finished the book and I hated every page that I did read.” –Isabelle
  • “The book I enjoyed the most during the course would have to be The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I don’t really like reading so much but this book got my attention from the beginning. The story was very emotional and I enjoyed how it included a little of history in it talking about Afghanistan and their differences groups. My least favorite book was Animal Farm by George Orwell. We had no option but to read it but that book was boring and I was so lost while reading it. It lost my attention from the very first page. I would skip pages towards the end because it just seemed like a waste of time if I kept on reading it when I was lost the whole time.” –Jessica
  • “I also have a new found appreciation for Shakespeare and the English classics thanks to you.” –Jonmarcus
  • “I enjoyed reading Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen the most. I have always loved the romantic era in history and literature. The writing style was not what I’m use to but it has sparked an interest in reading more similar material. My least favorite has been Beowulf. I could not get into that book but the history behind it I found intriguing. I basically choked it down and avoided it as much as I possibly could.” –Prescilla
  • “Out of the many books I read (all the way through, while understanding them completely- very rare) during the course of AP English Literature, Hamlet by William Shakespeare was by far my favorite. I related so much to Hamlet himself (though not his struggles), and the plot was so intriguing and engaging. I’ve also found one of my new favorite quotes from him: the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy/monologue. My least favorite book, probably of all time, was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I couldn’t read it because of many reasons, some of them being that the pages smelled like my dead hopes and dreams, the language was outdated and therefore extremely difficult to understand, and it was straight-up boring. I loathed the characters, I loathed the plot, the time period, everything about it. I also spent a good two hours making every ‘A’ in our presentation scarlet, as a joke, but it was traumatizing. It just made me more bitter.” –Rana
  • “Although yes, there were often times I became bored with the text I was reading, I loved having a list to choose from as opposed to a “you must read this” kind of thing that usually occurs. My least favorite book I read, however, would have to be Beowulf. (And no, I will not apologize because this book was trash and my eighth grade self said the same thing.) As of books I was forced to read that I hated the entirety of high school? I’m going to go with most books in AP English III. (I’m so sorry Mrs. --- for living off of SparkNotes in your class, however, I always had a great understanding of the work and could answer a multitude of questions regarding scenes that weren’t covered by SparkNote people. Maybe I just got lucky?) As the memories come flooding back of this class, one of my favorite books I had the opportunity to read in this class was The Help, and mainly because the character build up and hidden jokes throughout really make the novel great.” –Siera
Every student shared similar reflections about what worked for them; they want what all of use want – some sense of autonomy and ownership in our own learning, a chance to make decisions based on individual preferences, needs, or curiosity, and for their time to be valued. So when teachers have a choice, we need to offer choice.