The Narnian

I wrote in a previous post on how my wife and I had made a renewed pact to start devouring books from our local library during which I also mentioned my intention of reading a biography of renowned fantasy/sci-fi and Christian apologetic writer, C.S. Lewis. The book, The Narnian: The life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, is written by Alan Jacobs a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and paints a fascinating picture of a man whom I have always respected and enjoyed his fiction. It is not often that I pick up a biography and admittedly I digested this one rather slowly, but I almost had no choice as Jacobs pulled me into Lewis’ world in a way I had never known.

Jacobs doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to “Jack’s” life. You can certainly tell that the author is enamored by his subject, but he does a good job of balancing his praise of Lewis with the realities that plague many of us in this life. Lewis faced a great deal of hardship in his life, as we all do, but to read of his conversion from atheist to Christian and how he was able to rapidly develop prose using parchment and an inkwell pin (he never learned to type) when he had done nothing but struggle with his true love of writing poetry was nothing short of fascinating for me. I found myself empathizing with Lewis’ life as I felt so much of it mirrored parts of my own. My hopes to be a writer and be recognized for it, loving and loathing teaching at the same time, and balancing a life that we are not always prepared for.

The biography has re-inspired in me a desire to read and reread many of Lewis’ work as well as write more of my own. I highly recommend the book to anyone who has read and enjoyed any of his work.


Language in Any Other Tongue Would Sound as Sweet

I’m a HUGE fan of Shakespeare. I know what you might be thinking, “Well of course you’re a Shakespeare fan; you’re an English teacher; it’s like a prerequisite.” Maybe you’re right, but I know plenty of fellow English teachers who don’t like nor enjoy Billy-Bob’s work. As someone who enjoys writing poetry and someone who sees words as being powerful tools, I seemingly fell in love the long-dead playwright by the time I was in second year of college. In high school, I thought about his words fleetingly, and with little recognition except to identify that “Leonardo DiCaprio was a terrible actor who would never amount to anything” after watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo (plus sign) Juliet. I might have been wrong about Leo, and I was certainly wrong to ignore Shakespeare as I did when I was a youth.

The truth is that the man really did change the landscape of the English language, and poetic form for that matter, forever. His ability to manipulate words, create turns of phrase, and permeate cultures with his memorable words and wit still to the this day is testament to his importance to who we are now.

Convincing my students of this approximation is a whole other matter, however. One way I do get my students to see Shakespeare’s talent is by finding new forms of media that demonstrate how is mastery of word choice and placement are still unmatched. When recently demonstrating the power of Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter, the metrical beat inherent in his word structure formed by using unstressed followed by stressed syllables in five poetic, metrical feet, I found a delightful video of a Scotsman demonstrating a monologue from Much Ado About Nothing. The young man on the video does a brilliant job of jumping to various accents from around the world while never breaking his stride in reciting the monologue. I found this to be a perfect demonstration for students how Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter still sounds good to our ears even after all these years and in any accent you can imagine.

Enjoy the video below:

A War of Gifts

Orson Scott Card has been one of my favorite authors since I was about twelve years old. It is his book Ender’s Game that helped me fall in love with reading as a young teenager, and I have followed his writing for the last fifteen years. I’ve paid the closest attention to his Ender books, though. They are afterall, the catalyst for my current and continued love of reading. What I’ve always loved most about Card’s books is that although labeled as science fiction, they are really deep character stories that take you through the psychology of growing up, war, and the dynamics of human nature. I’ve appreciated this even more as I’ve grown older. My love for Ender’s universe has been so strong that I read the original book at least once every other year, and recently I have read through the graphic novels developed by Marvel; I’m currently listening to the original book on CD now on my long drives to school and back home. (Big thanks to my Dad for sharing the CD’s with me.) In many ways, Card, with the help of my Dad first handing me the book, has altered the course of my life forever. I have pondered before if I would be a teacher or a writer if not for reading Ender’s Game.

This past week while traveling, I re-encountered the Ender universe by reading a short novella that Card wrote not long ago aptly named The War of Gifts. The short book (only about ninety pages) sucked me right back into the extraordinary world and psychology that Card has built over the last three decades. Written in third person but from different character’s views the story propels the reader back into the days of battle school, but this time the focus is on religious celebrations and holiday practices which are strictly forbidden in battle school. Card exquisitely develops the psychology behind both those who hold close to their culture and those who have been unknowingly oppressed by religion all while reintroducing familiar characters as well as Ender Wiggin himself again. As a fan of the series, I was probably easy to please, but I genuinely feel this is a great, short read for anyone. The writing is superb and the themes leave you thinking well after you finish drinking in the final word.

If you’re a fan of Card’s, or even if you’ve never heard of him before now, I highly recommend checking this novella out in the near future.

PS – If you are an avid Card reader, he just released his newest book as part of the Ender’s Shadow series and will release a prequel about the first formic wars in July. Also, the Ender’s Game movie is slated to be in theaters in March 2013.

Percy Jackson Returns!

The YAL nerd in me has to share briefly how excited I am to see Percy Jackson come alive again on the page with the release of Rick Riordan’s new book, The Son of Neptune, which is the second book in the new Hero’s of Olympus series. I just started the book and hope to finish it very soon. If you’re a fan of the original series, Greek and Roman mythology, adventure, and just good story telling, then pick up these new books. Good times and happy reading!

Book 2 of the Hero's of Olympus series by Rick Riordan

Shakespeare’s Workshop

One of the more fascinating practices I learned from this previous year developing a PBL program is workshopping. As I type the word ‘workshopping,’ there is a red squiggly line reminding me that it is not  word–yet. Many of you probably understand what a workshop is meant to do. defines a workshop as “a seminar, discussion group, or the like, that emphasizes exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques, skills, etc.” There are plenty of workshops out there too. The Home Depot holds them all the time to teach participants how to tile a bathroom, build  a birdhouse, etc, and people gladly go to these workshops because they want to know. And there is the crux of one of our greatest educational issues–the want or desire to know. I found out for myself just how powerful the word workshopping really is in the classroom.

One of the challenges that faced me and my colleagues as we developed our PBL classroom was how to get supplemental material to the students that might not be covered in a project. We originally used what we deemed the ‘coffee chat’ to get ideas to students. I realized, however, that there was some material that would take more than just one mini-lesson to cover, so I decided to develop a workshop. This first workshop I labeled the Shakespeare workshop as I spent two and half weeks presenting interactive mini-lessons to the students that revolved around Shakespeare and his play The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. It was an immediate success.

I have no hard data to use as evidence, but just by using the word ‘workshop’ rather than lesson, lecture, or discussion, my students were immediately engaged in learning about Shakespeare. I’ve always had students who enjoy Shakespeare in a regular class setting, but this was the first that I had the attention of almost the entire class for over half a month.

The key was making each workshop simple, short, and interactive. We never spent more than thirty minutes on any lesson, and I used handouts, video, audio, and images rather than a text book to present the playwright, his life, and one of his classic tragedies. Some students used the workshop as a spring board for exploring Shakespeare more closely. A handful even read several of his other plays. Others discovered there was nothing to be frightened of in concern to his words and works, while even more students used his poetic style to create poetic work of their own.

By workshopping Shakespeare rather than lecturing him, I captured student attention and more of them enjoyed encountering the famous playwright. It is amazing what simply using a different word and using a slightly different approach can do for encouraging students want to learn.