Literacy, Literature, Testing, Writing

Poetry, Power, and Political Precision

poetry 3
Image credit: Steve Johnson

To wrap up #NationalPoetryMonth, I’m excited to share a piece I wrote with Audrey Friedman and Joelle Pedersen at Boston College called In Praise of Poetry: Toward Access and Powerpublished in the most recent issue of the Illinois English Bulletin.

We collected poems from 20 high-schoolers labeled as “failing” on state writing exams. As you’ll see in the piece, the poems were brilliant, so we had to ask:

“What accounts for this discrepancy in which such a powerful writer can be rendered powerless…. Is the issue truly the writer, or is the problem the very way we understand, value, and assess certain ways of writing and being?” (p. 8).

We discuss how standardized tests compel students to write, not in the forms that are most productive or relevant, but in the forms most easily measured. As we argue,

“The Common Core State Standards’ narrow focus on informational and argumentative writing widens the gap between the language of schooling and the language of life. These genres do not and cannot capture the full range of students’ experiences, identities, or language skills” (p. 15).
Continue reading “Poetry, Power, and Political Precision”


Happy International Literacy Day!

Book pages
Happy International Literacy Day!

One of my high school students once asked me, “Mister, why do we read?” I was pretty sure he was trying to get me off on a tangent (which my students quickly learn is an easy way to get out of homework), so I made some noncommittal reply and moved on.

Later, when I recounted this story to our school’s English Department Head, his eyes got wide as he asked, “Well, what did you say?” When I told him about my dismissive reply, he looked me in the eye and said,

“No. When they ask that tell them we learn to read because we can. We read because dogs can’t. It’s what makes us human.”

Since I’ve been trying to make up for that classroom omission ever since, on this day, as a small penance, here are my favorite quotes on reading and of course… why we read.


1. “Reading is not walking on the words; it’s grasping the soul of them.”

― Paulo Freire Continue reading “Happy International Literacy Day!”

English, Literature

Don’t Know Much About Poetry


Of all my shameful English teacher confessions—skipping over Shakespeare, celebrating “non-standard” grammar, and letting students curse in narrative essays (but only twice; make em’ count)—I’m most embarrassed by the fact that, honestly, I’m not that into poetry.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s the hardest genre to write (in academia, economy of words is not our strong suit). But for some reason, to me, a lot of poems sound like they’re working too hard to sound like their genre. It’s odd, but sometimes poems just sound too much like poems.

Which is why I admire Tony Hoagland. I’m not literary enough to put my finger on it, but his poems don’t sound like they’re trying to be poems—they just are.

Recently, in a conversation about the many useful words that simply don’t exist in English, I remembered this particular gem of Hoagland’s.

There Is No Word

There isn’t a word for walking out of the grocery store
with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack
that should have been bagged in double layers

—so that before you are even out the door
you feel the weight of the jug dragging
the bag down, stretching the thin

plastic handles longer and longer
and you know it’s only a matter of time until
bottom suddenly splits. Continue reading “Don’t Know Much About Poetry”

English, Literature

Does “English Class” Mean Reading Only English?

TranslateLast week’s posts were about the continued lack of race and gender diversity in the literary canon (Part I here and Part II here). Some noticed I left out a factor that is usually central to this blog: language. Don’t worry, I figured language could constitute an entire post of its own – so here you have it!

I was once at an AP English training in which the participants questioned the preponderance of British and American authors on the exam. The AP official replied that “an English exam necessitates texts originally written in English.”

For the moment, we will ignore that fact that this reply doesn’t address the issue, as there are tons of brilliant authors who write in English but are from countries outside the US/UK (Chinua Achebe, Arundhati Roy, etc.) because this perspective brings up an even larger question: Is the idea that we should predominantly read, teach, and value texts that were originally written in English a useful perspective for the 21st century?

(Now, of course, it would be fabulous if everyone could read in multiple languages, but as many can’t (e.g. myself), I’m mainly talking about works translating literature from other languages into English.)

In a globalized world, the argument that English class “necessitates texts Continue reading “Does “English Class” Mean Reading Only English?”

Books, Literature

The 12 Greatest Books of the 21st Century (So Far)


Last week, I started a series of posts looking at the relatively unchanged literary canon taught in American schools.

At the end of the series, I wondered if, instead of trying to cram the square-peg of a 1950’s literary curriculum into the round-hole of 21st century classrooms – what a  21st century literary canon might look like?

A friend just sent along an answer – via BBC. Just a few days ago, BBC Culture released a list of The 21st Century’s Greatest Novels (so far). They polled a few dozen literary critics, got 156 titles, and these were the top twelve:

12. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)*

11. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)

10. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)*

9. Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001)

8. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) Continue reading “The 12 Greatest Books of the 21st Century (So Far)”

English, K-12, Literature

Whose Canon is it Anyway? (Part II)

shakespeare copyLast week, I posted about questioning the literary canon, and got some fabulous responses. This week, we’ll look at two more arguments for/against the canon. As a refresher, the “Top 4” arguments were:

1. These texts are part of our literary heritage. 

2. Great literature must stand the “test of time.” 

3. Some books are truly just better than others.

4. The themes of great works transcend time and culture.

Most taught high school books
Source: The Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature

We discussed the first two arguments last week. Now it’s onto numbers 3 & 4!

3. Some books are truly just better than others. Arthur Krystal discusses embracing a plurality of texts in a recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education called, “What do we lose if we lose the canon?” 

“While there is nothing wrong (and perhaps something even right) in praising those whom previously we shunned, a law of diminishing returns kicks in once we stop making distinctions between the great and the good. It’s one thing to acknowledge the subjective factors of canon-building and another to obfuscate the aesthetic underpinnings of works created by human beings who invest time, skill, talent, and knowledge into making a novel or poem…. Some books simply reflect a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships, of literature itself than do other books….”

I do agree with his statement; I am in no way advocating that students read only what’s easy and popular at the time. However, while I agree that Continue reading “Whose Canon is it Anyway? (Part II)”

Literature, Reading

Whose Canon is it Anyway? (Part I)

ShakespeareConfession: In all my years teaching English, I have never chosen to teach Shakespeare (inbox: brace for hate-mail). It was never really a conscious choice – I have nothing against the Bard; I just knew my students had been/would be exposed to his work and I had other texts I wanted to teach.

Making book choices is a painful process – for teachers and readers alike. Choosing a book is exciting, but it also inherently necessitates choosing to an entire wealth of authors, stories, and perspectives out.

So what’s the go-to literary answer? READ THE CANON. What is the canon? Well see for yourself: Here are the 10 “Most Taught” books in US High Schools (followed by the percentages of schools that reported using them).

Most taught high school books
Source: The Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature

I’m sure you’ll quickly notice how white (all) and male (all except To Kill a Mockingbird) the authors are, but I was also surprised that none of these books were written within the last half century. It’s disturbing to think that, in such a rapidly changing world, our English course lists look largely the same as one from a pre-Sputnik classroom of the 1950’s. Our perspectives on literature – and arguably reality – therefore remain shaped by the same 10 dead anglo-authors.

As a former English teacher, I’ve heard a lot of arguments for the preservation and value of “the canon.” Here are the top four: Continue reading “Whose Canon is it Anyway? (Part I)”

Literature, Reading

How Long It Takes to Read the World’s Most Popular Books

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 10.08.27 AMBecause you’ve always wondered if you should invest 19 hours into Anna Karenina or spend that time finishing The Hunger Games trilogy with time  left over for The Glass Menagerie. How Long It Takes To Read The World’s Most Popular Books – Books – ShortList Magazine.

(Full Chart Below)

Continue reading “How Long It Takes to Read the World’s Most Popular Books”