Gatsby, Hawthorne, and Being Sixteen


This post was originally featured on, the blog site of the PA Writing and Literature Project. To continue reading, follow the link at the end of the post.

One of the last books I read in 2014 was Gabrielle Levin’s delightful novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.  At one point, the main character—a somewhat odd and sometimes churlish bookseller named A.J. Fikry—tells his daughter to remember that “the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.”  He adds, “Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.”

Many years ago when I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, I didn’t like it very much. I remember listening to a classmate gush over how much she loved the book. “Gatsby,” she gushed, “The way he could change his entire life to win Daisy over? It’s soooo romantic.” I didn’t get it. I’d read the same book but I didn’t have the same reaction. In fact, it wouldn’t be until years later, when I was taking a graduate course on the Lost Generation, that I would come to appreciate not just the tragedy of Gatsby’s love for Daisy, but also the stunning beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose.

I think of Gatsby whenever I hear my students say that they don’t like something we’re reading in class. Just last month, as we were finishing up Much Ado About Nothing, a student admitted, “I know this play is supposed to be funny, but I haven’t laughed at all.” I was puzzled. Here was a student who volunteered to read every day in class and who seemed to genuinely enjoy the play. Seeing my puzzled expression, he added, “I mean, I like the story. But I think this would have been better written in modern English.”

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NCTE Exhibition HallIf you look at the picture on the right, you might be asking yourself why all those people are in line. Concert tickets? The latest gadget? Maybe a Kleinfeld’s sample sale?


What you’re seeing is a line of hundreds of language arts and English teachers—from pre-service to elementary, from middle to high school to college—waiting for the NCTE exhibition hall to open on Sunday morning. So while others slept in, these teachers were anxiously awaiting for the doors to open. What’s behind these doors? Well, books, of course. As I said to my students on Monday morning, it was like a Black Friday sale for teachers. Needless to say, they were a bit incredulous.

During the NCTE Convention exhibition, dozens of publishers offer discounts on books for classroom use. On the last day in particular, hundreds of books are even given away for free, as publishers promote upcoming titles. One elementary school teacher I spoke to said she was walking away with 25-30 books to add to her classroom library. I saw several teachers with rolling luggages filled with books. And lines for authors signings zigzagged around the exhibition hall.

James DashnerSpeaking of authors, another highlight for me, personally, was the opportunity to meet several authors. For example, here I am with James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner series. He was signing at the PermaBound booth. As I walked by, I was surprised to see his line was relatively short. After joining the back of the line, however, the PermaBound rep let me know that they had run out of books for the signing. No matter. I asked if I could just get my picture taken with him to show my students (Look, authors are real people, too!). 🙂

Although I was in workshop sessions for most of the weekend (more on that in another post), I did get to carve out some time with a few more authors.

Despite being mobbed by hundreds of crazy English teachers (we’re a special breed, I must say), each author was incredibly gracious. I asked David Levithan the question that’s been on my mind (and on many of my students’ minds) ever since I finished Every Day: will there be a sequel?  The answer? Thankfully, yes. A companion novel to Every Day is coming out next year. Now there’s just the wait. But at least I’ve got a pile of books to read to keep me busy until then.


New (school)Year’s Resolutions

Each August brings with it mixed feelings.

The first is always shock: Wow, August already? Didn’t we just get out of school?

The second is denial: August? Really? It can’t be. Didn’t we just get of school?

Then anger: What, August?!? Why?!? We just got out of school!!

Eventually and slowly comes acceptance: August? Okay, deep breath, and here we go. For some teachers, this can happen in mid-August; those are the teachers who can be found coming to school early to get their classrooms set up.  For other teachers, acceptance may not happen until sometime during the first inservice day when they look around and realize: Wow, I guess this is really happening.

August always comes too quickly for me, mostly because I tend to have a huge to-do list for the summer that never gets done. This summer, for example, I was supposed to paint the downstairs powder room and renovate the boys’ bedroom. I got as far as picking out a few paint swatches from Lowe’s and taping them to the wall. (Somehow I still overestimate how much I can accomplish while watching/entertaining/feeding/herding my three boys.)


These guys keep me pretty busy in the summer (and year round)!

But now that it’s officially August, thoughts of back-to-school take center stage again and nervous excitement builds as I get closer to that first day. I love the beginning of the school year—the energy, the optimism. While January may be the time that the rest of the world makes their resolutions, for teachers, September is our new year, our time to begin anew, to set goals, be inspired. I suspect some students feel the same way, too.

Sometimes students ask if I get bored teaching the same thing over and over again. And my answer is always no, of course not! First, my students are different every year, so even if the material is the same, it’s the unique interaction between students and the material that makes each year special. And second, every year, I make it a point to try something new. Sometimes that means piloting a new book—such as when I introduced The Kite Runner two years ago. Or a new project—like the This American Life project my colleague Ben Smith and I did with our juniors last year.

So what will this year bring? A few of my goals:

For all my students:

  • Integrate more visual art—paintings, sketches, photography—into my writing instruction.
  • Create a system of visual note-taking or sketchnotes in my own notebook and teach students how to do the same.
  • Redesign various parts of my current instruction to reflect a more “Creativity Workshop” approach, including more opportunities for creative writing and for students to develop/express their voice

For my ninth graders:

  • Implement a more comprehensive reader’s/writer’s notebook approach with my ninth graders
  • Establish clearer goals and more structure to the independent reading program
  • Find a place to include more Asian literature in our world literature course

For my juniors:

  • Teach rhetorical analysis writing more explicitly, with a focus on pre-20th-century texts
  • Explore some flipped learning opportunities with writing mini-lessons

Of course, looking at this list already feels overwhelming! But it’s a good kind of overwhelming. The truth is that teaching can be an incredibly frustrating job. Increasingly, teachers are being tasked to do more with less: fewer resources and less time. That’s why setting personal teaching goals have been so valuable for me: they provide a sense of autonomy and a little “light at the end of the tunnel” even when there are outside forces tugging in other directions.

Writing with an Artist’s Eye

Three years ago, I took a course called “Visualizing Words and Worlds” through the PA Writing & Literature Project (PAWLP) and this past July, I had an opportunity to co-teach the class for the second time at the James Michener Museum in Doylestown (a fantastic museum, by the way!).  The premise of the “Visualizing” course is simple: by integrating art and other visual activities into our instruction, we can help students become better writers and readers.

If you think about it, this makes sense. After all, we learned how to read by first looking at pictures, and when we teach younger students how to write, we often ask them to draw pictures next to their sentences. Too soon perhaps, we begin to rely on text only. Pictures disappear from books and doodles are relegated to the corners of notebooks when students are bored in class.

To get teachers thinking more deeply about art-reading-writing connections, every day during the course, a visiting artist comes in to teach, with each artist working in a specific medium.  We learned how to paint using watercolors, sketch a human face, make original prints, and finally, create our own found object sculpture. Although none of us were certified art teachers, the connections between art and reading and writing became more clear with each passing day.  An illustrator who draws a picture uses a variety of brushstrokes to achieve a specific effect. In the same way, a writer can “paint” a picture in the reader’s mind by using his own set of “brushstrokes”—a dramatically short sentence, a sentence fragment, a metaphor, a pun.

Children's book illustrator Peter Catalanotto's sketching workshop

Children’s book illustrator Peter Catalanotto’s sketching workshop

Even some of my best student writers struggle when I ask them to “show not tell.”  What does it mean to show?  Visual artists, however, are always “showing.”  The concrete details of their art—the choice of subject, the flurry of each brushstroke, the precise shades of color—work together for an intended effect.  When we think visually when we write, it’s easy to see how it’s the simple concrete details that can speak volumes.

In an essay for Now Write: Nonfiction, NPR contributor and teacher Christine Hemp writes:

William Carlos Williams dictum about things being the life of poetry holds true in creative nonfiction. . .  The essay teeming with “stuff” is much more memorable than one that floats in abstraction.  A piece about love doesn’t end up in our cells unless it is grounded in the softness of your lover’s neck as it disappears into the collar of his sweatshirt.  Or what about that scab you picked while you were crying on the phone to the man you knew would leave you by spring?  Just like the strong poem, the strong piece of prose is rife with metaphorical power—from your mother’s out-of-tune piano to the orphan sock that keeps showing up in your tangled underwear drawer.  When we turn to things, the truth comes at us through the back door, and we are surprised by ideas and emotions we didn’t know we possessed.

As Hemp points out, it’s the visuals that create meaning for us as readers.  And thinking visually means thinking—and writing—with an artist’s eye.

Printmaking workshop (with artist Jean Burdick)

Printmaking workshop (with artist Jean Burdick)

Taking and even teaching the “Visualizing” course also reminded me also of what it’s like to be on the other side of the classroom as a student.  You could measure my level of artistic ability with your pinky—that’s how talented I am!—and as such, being asked to sketch a human face on the first day of class is an intimidating experience.  But my nervousness with drawing is not unlike the trepidation many students feel with writing.  Working in the visual arts, as opposed to the language arts, forces me out of my comfort zone into a place where I have to take risks. And isn’t that what we want our students to do, too?

Finally, the course has inspired me to try taking integrating more visuals into my writer’s notebook as well.  Like I said, I’ve got pinky-sized artistic talent, so we’ll see where this goes…

To view more images from the course, click here

Special thanks to all the artists who gave their time to work with our teachers, and to Adrienne Romano, Director of Education, New Media, and Interpretive Initiatives at the Michener Museum, who is instrumental in making our course happen.