October 31, 2009
English teachers gather at college for conference
About 100 teachers from Central New York, the Rochester area and the Southern Tier attend
Liz Mascia offered tips for helping middle school students interpret stories and poems, even when they must decide if a term or passage is not literal but expresses an idea.
Young-adult novelist Ned Vizzini described three ways that high school students can get published.
Deborah Appleman lauded stories that twist the life scripts that Americans have been raised to accept as defining their lives.
The three were among the speakers Friday at SUNY Cortland’s Discussions About the Teaching of English Conference at Corey Union.
About 100 teachers from Central New York, the Rochester area and the Southern Tier gathered to hear presentations about teaching, trends in fiction for secondary students, and ways to write their own fiction.
They were joined by about 100 undergraduate and graduate students from the college.
The conference began in the early 1980s, directed by Pat Shay. It continued with Ann Gebhard and Mary Lynch Kennedy as directors, then faded away until four years ago, when current professor Karen Stearns revived it.
“It’s worth being here,” said Matt Fuentes, a teacher at Binghamton High School. “It’s refreshing just to think about the different ideologies we carry.”
Appleman, the keynote speaker from Carleton College in Minnesota, said there is no such thing as a totally innocent or value-free story. “To Kill a Mockingbird” cannot be taught without facing its racial and political overtones.
She said students spend too much time relating English readings to their own lives instead of exploring the lives portrayed in the texts.
“Be careful of times when books become a vehicle for students’ own narratives,” she said. And beware, she added, relying too much on asking students to share their personal stories.
“I have learned that some people’s lives are not in sharable shape. We shouldn’t always ride on the backs of their lives,” she said, referring to a high school student who said that her own life was private and not the topic of classroom discussion.
Appleman used the movie “Shrek,” with its story of an ogre and its mockery of fairy tales about maidens rescued by handsome princes, to say that too many students expect their lives to follow certain scripts.
Challenge notions of the perfect story, she urged the teachers.
Mascia, a teacher at Jamesville-DeWitt Middle School, talked about helping students who struggle to understand what they read.
Ask if an author’s words are meant to be literal or to stand for something else, she said to a room of 36 people. She used a passage where wind is described as a cavalry arriving, which puzzled one boy who asked her, “Where did this army come from?”
Consider special story structures, a piece’s last lines, and the importance of “unpacking” what an author has placed in a piece of writing, in the first paragraphs of a story or first chapters of a book.
Vizzini has published three novels, one of which focuses on a young man struggling to grow up in New York City. That novel, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” is being made into a movie for 2011 release,
Vizzini told the teachers to pursue three ways students could publish their writing: blogs, opinion pieces or articles for a newspaper or magazine, and contests or awards for young people.
“I started sending in writing to newspapers and magazines when I was 15, because I thought I was a good writer and wanted other people to see what I had done,” he said. Teachers should encourage students to do that, and push the reluctant ones to find avenues to publication.
Five SUNY Cortland graduate students in English education presented a discussion of five kinds of novels: fantasy with female protagonists, science fiction, boys’ stories, graphic novels and stories built around videogames or gaming.
Joyce Hansen, currently a student teacher at East Syracuse-Minoa, talked about a graphic novel as an allegory and another told in flashbacks, good for explaining those concepts. She described another about a woman whose husband dies in 9/11 on his first day of work, without being officially registered with the company, meaning she must prove he existed.
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