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Literary Terms at Play on the Basketball Court

It’ll be raining cats and dogs in Texas, come Monday.

Kentucky’s Wildcats beat the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday, and not surprisingly:  badgers and wolverines are part of the same family (Mustelidea) and the Wildcats had already shown last week how they can handle Wolverines.

The UConn Huskies pushed back the Gator attack.

In the end, the NCAA Championship game will be Cats vs. Huskies.  A classic archetypical conflict.

Did someone say “archetypical”?  Call an English teacher.

The NCAA basketball tournament parallels great literature/ nonfiction by dramatizing literary elements:  conflict, complication, character, suspense, foreshadowing, irony, resolution, point of view—technical foul vs. flagrant foul? An English teacher can use game plans as lesson plans during March Madness.

Basketball covers all the conflicts:

–           man vs. self (Need to play my best game in a single-elimination tournament)

–           man vs. Nature (Gotta push harder and play through any injuries)

–           man vs. Society (Half the people in this arena are rooting against me)

–           man vs. Unknown/Fate (Who’s gonna foul out? Who’s gonna win?)

–           man vs. Man is a defensive strategy in basketball

The players are all sympathetic characters with great backstories, complete with the Mom Angle.  According to the TBS announcers, six years ago in 2008 Kentucky’s Julius Randle confided to his mom that he wanted to play in the Final Four when it came to his home state of Texas in 2014.  Or UConn’s Shabezz Napier, who promised his mom he would graduate after all she had sacrificed for him. Coach Calipari knows the Power of Mom:  “Go hug your mom and dad,” he told Arron Harrison.

Dad’s turn:  Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson’s dad was a superstar for the 1992 Ohio State team that tried to eliminate the Other Five Freshmen in NCAA tournament history—the Michigan Wolverines. Father and son get the same chance to stop a phenom of talented newbies (irony).

With seconds left in the Kentucky-Wisconsin game, Jackson is fouled by Harrison #5 in the three point range and if Jackson goes three-for-three, he can all but seal a Wisconsin win.  Only one second had remained on the shot clock, and now Jackson can take his time at the free throw line (Irony). He’s gotta think the basketball gods are smiling on him.  Especially since statistically, the Badgers are 100% from the free throw line this game.  But the three Weird Sisters of Fate (allusion) come for everyone:  Jackson misses the first of his three shots.

That set up the Wildcats to need a 3 point shot to go ahead.  Harrison #5–yes, the same Harrison who just caused the foul (irony)—passes the ball to Harrison #2, who has only had two points the whole game.  Statistically speaking, he’s not the go to guy for this game, right? (Complication)

But in the previous two games against Louisville and Michigan, Harrison #2 had hit the three-pointer in the waning seconds of the game.  So… (Suspense)

Swish (Onomatopoeia).  Kentucky is ahead.

Back to Jackson who has about 3 seconds to make his own three pointer, to avenge his missed shot, to avenge his father’s team that lost to five freshmen 22 years ago (before any of the players on the court were born), to avoid feeling like Bill Buckner (simile) for an interminable off-season…His shot looks exactly like Harrison’s did a few seconds before…and…and…(Suspense).

No swish. Kentucky wins (Resolution).  Aaron Harrison saved his team with his seconds-left shooting heroics for the third time in three games (Repetition).  He’s like a Greek hero (simile), at first failing his team by only scoring two points previously in the game and then compensating for his failings.

Jackson’s attempt at an heroic shot had downright danced around the rim (personification), but to no avail.  What unseen force bounced it out? Either the laws of physics or the basketball gods (Deus ex machina—more on that later) ricocheted that ball right out of the rim.  Huh?

How did that happen?  Enter:  English teacher.  “Saturday’s missed shot by Traevon Jackson is an example of Deus ex machina, referred to by Horace in his Ars Poetica, when he cautions writers against using a ‘god from the machine’ to resolve their plots unless it’s worthy of a god’s help.Greek tragedy often had a machine bearing a god who resolved conflicts, which sometimes seemed unbelievable.”

But we have to believe what we just saw.  No contrived, finagled ending. Reality television at its best.

I’m an English teacher who knows more about Euripides than I do about basketball, but I think Horace himself would agree that the Kentucky-Wisconsin game was worthy of a god’s ending.

The UConn-Florida game had its literary moments, too.  Florida wins 30 games in a row (repetition).  Florida loses to UConn in December and repeats that performance last Saturday (Foreshadowing. Repetition.  Irony). It’s especially enticing to English teachers when literary elements dovetail.

In the final (literary) analysis, come Monday, when it’s raining cats and dogs (cliché), it will be a 7th seed vs. an 8th seed.  Which literary moment will prevail?  Scenario 1:  7th seeded UConn, who beat 8th seeded Butler for the championship in 2011, beats Kentucky, this year’s 8th seed (Foreshadowing). UConn wants that (Repetition).  Scenario 2: UConn beat Kentucky 56-55 during the 2011 tournament and beats Kentucky again (Foreshadowing).   Scenario 3:  Kentucky avenges the loss by being the 8th seed that beats the very team that voided the last 8th seed’s chance (Irony).

Suspense.  Foreshadowing.  Conflict:  Man vs. Unknown. Theme:  truth is stranger than fiction.  Literary terms at play on the basketball court.  And your nearest English class has a front row seat.  Improbable as it sounds, your English teacher might just be your best color commentator.  Irony, indeed.

It’s anyone’s game.  See you at tip off.  (Cliffhanger).

~ Mary O’Connor (Author)



A Workshop for the Workshop Model

At the end of my first year teaching one student informed me that he learned nothing in my class because all he needed to do to get an A was memorize Sparknotes or reword what other students said during discussions. He explained that he was not challenged because all I cared about was that they had the “right” answer. I was crushed. And exhausted. And seriously doubting my career choice. I had earned a Masters in the art of teaching the year before for crying out loud. What happened? After several days (okay, weeks) of wallowing in self-pity I decided he was right. I taught like I was the most important person in my classroom that year and what I said (or rather, what my teacher manuals said) was the only correct answer. I felt like (still do if I’m being honest) I owed every one of those students an apology. I let them down. I let myself down.

That summer changed everything. I was introduced to the Workshop Model at UNH. And little by little over the past 5 years I have incorporated bits and pieces of this model into my teaching.

And then at the beginning of this year, in walked my past self, only she’s a lot stronger than I was as a student teacher: her name is Tori. She’s bright, fresh-faced, and eager and she challenges me daily by asking me what she probably considers easy questions.

This post is my attempt to answer her questions.

Question 1: What is the Workshop model?

Answer: Simply put, the workshop approach to teaching is a student-centered approach. The teacher and the content take a back seat. Student skills become the focus, the teacher becomes the facilitator (or coach) and the content becomes the vehicle used to teach / refine the necessary skills. The workshop model functions on the idea of authentic, real-world learning and encourages students to become independent, critical and resourceful thinkers.

Question 2: Is this only for English teachers?

Answer: Absolutely not. The key to workshop is a shift in our thinking. Teachers are no longer the only dispenser of knowledge. Students are introduced to a skill (mathematical concept, artistic medium, laboratory technique) and then time is given in class to hone that skill.

Question 3: How do you structure a typical day using this model?

Answer: This is the structure that works for me and I use it almost every single day:

  1. Time to read independently
  2. Time to quickwrite (prompts are usually connected to the day’s lesson or content)
  3. A Mini Lesson: teacher introduces a skill or idea and then models it
  4. Time to practice the lesson (independently or in pairs / groups) Teacher confers with students independently or in groups. This is the heart of workshop.
  5. Time to share (last 5 minutes)

Question 4: How can the workshop model work if we are required to teach content (like whole class novels)?

Answer: Balance is probably the hardest part of my job. And this is the question I am asked most often. For the record, I do believe there is a necessary place for whole-class novels in the workshop model and I have been modifying my approach to teaching the “whole-class novel” each year. Essentially, when I teach a novel like Lord of the Flies I try to work it seamlessly into the current reading lives of my students. They are expected to read each night at home for 30 minutes and during our LoF unit, those 30 minutes are simply spent reading our whole class novel. Do some students set aside their independent read for these 3 weeks? Yes. Others can read both. Essentially, the workshop structure remains the same. Students are introduced to a big idea (or theme) and then given time to explore that idea within the chapter, in class. In most cases, there is no one right answer. Students are expected to make a claim and then find evidence to support that claim.

Here’s my agenda from a class this past December:

  1. Time to read independently (first 10 minutes of class)
  2. Time to quickwrite: prompt from Tori: “He wanted to explain how people were never quite what you thought they were” (Golding 54). Using the quote, make a claim about one of the characters and explain how he isn’t quite what you thought he was. How has he changed?
  3. Mini Lesson on Dynamic Character: Give students the definition of dynamic character. They take notes in their Writer’s Notebooks. Then they work together in groups of 4 to analyze the chapter focusing on the death of Simon. Students are asked to pull quotes from that chapter to show the changes in the other boys on the island. Teacher monitors each group. Then, as a whole class, lead a discussion to connect everything to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs / Zimbardo’s definition as evil. The key is that the teacher is not the focus here. Students work together. There is no one right answer. Students workshop the chapter together and make claims, then find evidence from the novel to support each claim.

Question 5: What are the pros to using a workshop model?


#1: Choice

When students are given the opportunity to choose what they read and write, authentic learning will occur more naturally.

#2: Volume

A workshop model increases the volume of output. Students read and write more on their own and at a faster rate. My first year as a teacher, my kids read maybe 5 novels and wrote maybe 5 pieces all year. At the halfway point in this year most of my kids have already read 10 novels and have written about 9 pieces.

#3 Differentiation

This model allows me to differentiate easier. A workshop model is the best differentiated approach to teaching and learning because students are treated as individuals and the teacher is better equipped to recognize the individual needs and growth of each student.

#4 Responsibility and Personalization

The key to the workshop approach is that the student takes responsibility for what he/she is doing (the topic they are writing about or the novel they are reading). I am no longer the most important person the in room. I am simply their coach. I demonstrate the skill and they practice it. Over and over again until it’s game time (or due). In this way, they are intrinsically motivated and excited about what they are doing.

Question 6: What are the cons to using a workshop model?

Answer: The workshop model is not a free for all. In all honestly, I have found this approach to teaching much harder than the traditional. It takes a deep understanding of students: of their needs, abilities and interests. And most importantly, it only works well if the teacher is able to relinquish some of the control. And for that to happen, you need to establish quite a lot of structure first. For many of us, one of the most difficult things to do is to share the control. It’s so easy to be in charge, to decide from our vast experience and continuing education what’s best for our students. But by making room for students to make their own decisions whenever possible, they will start to develop a sense of responsibility and ownership over their learning. This was exactly what was missing from my first year: ownership over what I was teaching. Finding my way as a teacher has been a journey the past few years, but one I am very thankfully to be taking.

Answers generated by Kristina

Questions generated by Tori

Teachers Talk Teaching: This is the second post in a series of posts on Teacher’s Podium between two or more people who weigh in on an issue important to education. Our approach to this series is captured most closely by our mission statement: “We have Masters degrees, but we are not masters.” These discussions are meant to be the start of a conversation not the final words.

Reading Poetry in the Classroom

Poetry is an elusive thing. When I ask students to read poetry I often find they end up on the verge of pulling their hair out, especially when I ask them questions like what does this poem mean, or how is this poetic device being used to effect by the poet in the poem? Students often view poetry as a mystery. Just ask them to write their own poem and they’ll say things about their poetry like I want my poem to be confusing here. I want the reader to have to figure things out for herself. The idea that the reader of poetry should be confused isn’t developed out of thin air. Students believe the reader of poetry should feel confounded and they emulate their own reading experiences when they write poetry.

So the question is how do we get students to appreciate and understand reading poetry in the same way that they might a good short story or novel? Here are a few suggestions for reading poems, any and every poem, that have worked for me:

  1. Your first question, or even your last, should not be what does this poem mean or what is the poet trying to convey? Instead, ask students about what they like. It’s as simple as that. The doorway to a class discussion about any poem is opened by asking students what they like about the poem. It takes students off their guard. It is less daunting to be asked this question than having to decode the entire poem and take a chance in class to say what it means. When they begin by talking about what they like in the poem they naturally begin talking about what the poem is about and begin trading ideas about the poem’s meaning. Don’t be afraid to talk about what they don’t like as well.

  2. Have some fun with the poem. Cut it up. White it out. Glue it. Circle and underline. Draw. Have students begin finding favorite words or lines in this way. This can be fun, but it is not just child’s play. Many contemporary poets are applying various elision techniques to full length books of poems. See Jen Bervin’s work with Shakespeare’s sonnets in her book, Nets, as an example.

  3. Read and re-read a single poem over the course of one week. Unlike the plot driven novel that wants us to read-read-read until the last page, a poem wants us to read, stop, consider and reread. Give students this experience with a poem by building upon the discussion over the week.

  4. Emulate. Have students write their own poem based on the poem they’re reading. Some of the best poetry I’ve seen students produce comes from emulating the works of other poets. If the poem has four stanzas, a rhyme scheme, or is driven by metaphor students can challenge themselves to develop their poems in the same way. (Notice how those poetic terms are popping up here? Now, instead of explaining how they work in someone else’s poem students have to decide how they will work in their own poems.)

Number four points a finger at another side of poetry, writing it, that deserves a post of its own. But for now, try approaching poetry in the classroom with one simple question – what do you like? – and see where it leads you and your students.

~ Dennis

Suggested poems that lend themselves to discussion and writing prompts, all available on the Poetry Foundation’s website:

“The Pull Toy” by A.E. Stallings

“Fifty-Fifty” by Patricia Clark

“Dog in Bed” by Joyce Sidman

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