Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Conversations in Literature
Conversations in Literature — Workshop

Individual Program

1. Responding
as Readers

2. Envisioning

3. Stepping In

4. Moving Through

5. Rethinking

6. Objectifying
the Text

7. The Stances
in Action

8. Returning to the

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Reader's Biographies

"Tell me what you read, and I will tell you what you are."
With apologies to Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

In this series, you will meet a number of readers who came together to talk about literature and the ways it permeates their lives. Since we could not incorporate all their thoughts in the videos, we thought you might like to learn more about them. In these excerpts, they talk about their lives as readers and lovers of literature.

Group One:
Dale Allender
Patricia Elam
Carol Jago
Linda Williams

Group Two:
Rafael Alvarez
Pat Bradford
Bobbi Houtchens
Jeffrey Wilhelm

Judith Langer

Dale AllenderDale Allender

Associate Executive Director with the National Council of Teachers of English

"I remember in grade school when RIF came to our school. RIF the Reading is Fundamental program. And I remember picking up two books. One was a book of ghost stories and one was, oddly, a child's encyclopedia of Greek mythology. And I enjoyed reading the ghost stories, but I don't know what happened to that book. However, the other one — the tales of Greek mythology — stayed with me for the longest time. Even today, one of my two greatest passions is mythology. The other is jazz."

"When I pick up a book now, I really, really want to look for its authenticity. And by that, I mean if I look at a collection of short stories for example, that depicts a period in history or a cultural perspective or an ethnic community, I really want to know that that writer is either from that community or is an insider into that community. Of course, I'm looking using other criteria as well: Is it interesting? Is it a topic that's of interest to me — such as myth, mystery, or politics? But, at a deeper level, I want to know that what I'm reading is organic to the community that it's coming from."

"My maternal grandfather was named Ralph W. Turner and I don't know what the W stands for actually. When I was a kid, he was just Poppy. He was an avid reader. He had books everywhere in the house — and newspapers, magazines from popular culture, books on sports, politics, pop psychology, religion — just absolutely everything. He always wanted either my mother or my sister to be a schoolteacher. Neither of them became teachers but I became the teacher and I'm the one that has his books. And in reading those books that he read, there are things that I learn about him and there's direction I get. I have copies of the first editions of Black Boy by Richard Wright in which he wrote that it was his second copy. He had many of Wright's other works as well, such as Black Power, and Black Metropolis. When he died, I inherited most of his library. I've kept many of them, but some have found their way to other libraries, including that of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society."

Patricia ElamPatricia Elam

Writer, and teacher at a high school in Washington, D.C. and a Baltimore area college

"I like to read a lot of different writers because I want to know what is beyond me. By the same token, I want to see how other people interpret the same kind of lives that I see around me, so I like to read a lot of different black writers to see how they model blackness. That's really interesting to me. But then I like to go outside of that and see what other people's experiences are — whether they're similar or different from the lives I have seen."

"I grew up in Boston in the fifties and it was extremely segregated. I even remember there were parts of Boston that black people just were told not to go into, because they might not get out alive. I remember my mother getting lost somewhere in south Boston once and being really concerned about her getting back home. I also integrated a private girls' school that was predominately white. I was only ten and so it was a very emotional experience. It was something I wasn't totally prepared for. These experiences have always been a strong part of my writing."

"When I first started writing, I didn't think of myself as writing literature. I was just writing what had to get out. I guess I thought that way because of the models before me. I wanted to have the same effect on readers that I felt when I read. I think of Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones, one of my most favorite books in the world. That book was just so beautiful to me. To this day, that's what I want to do. I want to write a book that will make someone feel the way that book makes me feel when I read it and I've read it several times and always feel the same way."

Carol JagoCarol Jago

In her twenty-seventh year as a teacher at Santa Monica High School in California

"For me the biggest thing that we gain from literature is expanding our worlds — knowing how other people think and feel. I don't know what it'd be like if the only people that you knew about were people you got a chance to meet in your life. So, you know all these middle-class people and what else would you know. I mean reading is just a window to another world."

"Oh, there, there's hundreds, perhaps thousands of books that I wish I'd read, but, increasingly, the books that I wish or plan to read are more classical — Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac, and many more. I haven't had the time or the self-discipline to do that before now."

"I really love being in book clubs and I miss it when I'm not. Right now, we run a book club for teachers at UCLA and that's the only book club I'm in at the moment. There's been a time when I've belonged to about five clubs at once. Each one had its own personality, which is one of the things I liked about that experience. The best book clubs form when people really leave a lot of their personal lives behind. It's not just to get together to chat about our families; it's really coming together to talk about the books. That's a hard line to draw because, so often, books invite you to talk about your personal stories. For a time we had a club at my high school, mostly involving members of the English Department. I can remember when Love in a Time of Cholera first came out. Discussing that book helped us to understand why we have philosophical differences about teaching. Our approaches to those characters in those books were fundamentally different. We were split down the line. And that was just a really interesting experience."

Linda WilliamsLinda Williams

Teaches in the Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland

"The first time that I read Langston Hughes' poetry, I thought to myself, this is somebody who really understands me. And I just thought that was so wonderful. So, I thought to myself, "I need to read some more African American authors because I probably can relate to a lot of the things that they've written as well."

"I go to the library every week and I read each night before I go to bed. For those times, I want to read something that really truly is an escape because I read a lot of things for school and for classes and those kinds of things. So, a lot of times it's not great literature but it's still reading. A lot of times, I select books for that kind of reading based simply on their titles. That's how I first found Barbara Kingsolver. Her books had such interesting titles: Pigs in Heaven and The Bean Trees. I had to pick them up."

"The African American authors that I read in college were some of the best writers I had read. I was just amazed at how powerful their writing was. I think I have always been just moved by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, especially the section in it where he's in the college and they have the African American males in this boxing match. I mean it, it really made me just examine the experience of African Americans in this country and to begin to evaluate my life against them. Because I think when I was growing up, I wasn't too aware of prejudice and discrimination. I'm not saying that it didn't exist and that I didn't experience it. It was just that I don't think that I was aware of what was happening. And some of the literature that I read when I got to college really opened my eyes."

Rafael AlvarezRafael Alvarez

Veteran city desk reporter for The Baltimore Sun and a writer

"Phillip Roth has a novel which I believe won the Pulitzer in ninety-seven called American Pastoral and it's all about the breakup of the American family and, through it, American society — because of the effects of Vietnam and Watergate. But the back story is all about the making of gloves and the glove industry which flourished in the United States up through about the nineteen fifties. I knew nothing about the American glove industry. However, through a work of literature not only did I see it, but I also understood it. If I had read a book of non-fiction and learned facts about the glove industry, about all I would have known were dates, people, famous tailors, and such. Through Phillip Roth, I gleaned this information and much, much more, including the front story, which was the disintegration of American society."

"Another book that has been very important to me would be The Magician of Loveland by Isaac Bashevis Singer, which I read maybe fifteen years ago. It launched me on my journey through Jewish fiction and, through Singer, I learned about struggles between man and this invisible God and how you could go about your life. You know, Singer wrote either about seventeenth century Poland or twentieth century New York City. You could be in a cafeteria on the Upper West Side, you know, eating your stewed prunes and have an argument with God at the same time. And that I found to be fascinating."

"Some people chase directors; they'll watch everything a particular director has done and it becomes a body of work. I chase authors. I'm working my way through all of Bellow and all of Roth right now. The way folks will read Rolling Stone to maybe choose what albums or CDs they're going to buy, I read the New York Times Book Review every Sunday and I look for things that interest me. I wait for new works by familiar authors to come out. Sometimes I'll get turned on to writers after they've died. It happened to me in 1981. I was twenty-three years old and read an obituary about this great writer with this amazing walrus mustache named William Saroyan. I'd never heard of him. Now, in the 30s, he was huge, but by the end of his life, he was almost unread. And because of this obituary that appeared in The Baltimore Sun and this great face and this great humanity and this guy that wrote about his uncles from the old country, which reminded me of the old country of my parents, I started reading Saroyan.

Pat BradfordPat Bradford

Teaches English at Flowers High School in Prince George's County, Maryland

"Literature became a world for me when I was very young when I would go to the Hadley Park Library in Nashville, Tennessee, and check out eight books on Saturday and read them and take them back the next Saturday and try to get eight more. It just creates a world, a world different from the one you have to live in every day."

"I have to read literature to be able to teach. So, it's my livelihood. It's my livelihood in that it keeps me alive. I'm still reading African American authors that I didn't get to read when I was in public school. I didn't know about them. I just discovered Zora Neale Hurston in the last fifteen years. And I'm, I'm just still catching up. You know you have a stack of books next to your bed and these are the classics. These are things that you know you have to read. And so I'm still catching up."

"There's a novel called Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. The main character's a Native American whose come home to the reservation after the Vietnam War. And he has to deal with being an American and being a Native American. He has to deal with the old traditions of his people, as well as the anger he feels because of the war. And I'm a product of the Vietnam War — when I graduated from high school, my friends went off to that war. So I think that novel is excellent. It has poetry, it has folktale, it has ritual, it has everything, and then it's the coming-of-age story because the character's sick and he doesn't become well until he understands the old and new."

Bobbi HoutchensBobbi Houtchens

Teaches at San Bernadino High School in California

"Through literature, I learn how other people live, I learn not just in fiction but, but in biographies of people. And as far as being a teacher, I think it really helps me be a better teacher because I can read professional literature all the time and look for the best ways to teach, especially when I come up against kids who hate to read. And a lot of my students really hate to read. And if I can find ways to get them into reading and to teach them how to be readers, then I know no matter what problems they face in their life, they can escape just like I escape sometimes in a book."

"I always felt like I wasn't ever Mexican enough to really fit in with my Mexican relatives. And I never really was white enough to fit in with my dad's side of the family. So I felt like I was always walking on a fence, hoping I wouldn't fall and be discovered not to be really a part of either family or a part of either group. So when I finally took a Chicano Literature class, I found out there's a whole bunch of people like me who feel like me that are from mixed backgrounds. When I started reading a lot of Chicano literature, I started seeing myself reflected there. And it was so validating to me that it hurts when I see kids who are black or Cambodian or Latino not seeing themselves in the literature we have at school. And so I've really been like an urban academic guerilla warrior, trying to fit all these different ethnic kinds of literature into what I teach."

"Of course, I like to read in bed. So every night before I go to sleep, I read for at least half an hour...unless it's like two nights ago when I knew I had to get up early in the morning and I was just at the end of another psychopathic serial murder novel, I read till midnight and then I was so tired the next day I cursed myself...but I know I'll do it again the next time."

Jeff WilhelmJeffrey Wilhelm

Professor of literacy education at the University of Maine, Orono

"Sometimes I'll recall a character in a book as if they're my friend. And, and it takes me a while sometimes to figure out that it was a character in a book and I didn't really go through that experience with them. It's so very intense that the characters in books that I really engage in become friends of mine, they become objects that I think with and use to think with. I often have the same kind of feelings about authors too — that if I read a lot of work by a particular author, I'll feel like I'm coming to know them — that their next book is like an invitation to dinner. You know, Katherine Paterson is one of my favorite young adult authors and you know I just feel like she's such a greathearted person and that I know her in some really intimate way through her books. And the same is true with, with many adult authors too."

"I read a lot of different things for different purposes. When I get up every morning, I read the newspaper. I can't even eat breakfast until I've read the newspaper. And I talk to my kids about the big things in the news and that's kind of how we start our morning. But when I read a book, that's a different situation. I want to clear some time. I do read a little bit before bed every night and occasionally, when I'm into a book, I'll fill in any point of the day with the reading that I can. But I prefer to clear a few hours to read. And that's where I'm, in my most engaged as a reader. So at that point I'll kind of clear the decks, let people know I'm going to be reading. I might take, you know, water or something with me. I usually flip through the book, read the front matter, look how many pages it is, get a sense of what the book's about, maybe reflect a little on who recommended the book, and, and then I get down to it. And once I start reading, it may take me a little bit to get into it, but once I'm into it, then I don't want to stop. And, you know, that can be dangerous. I remember when I was coaching cross-country, teaching high school, and I was reading Too Late to Phalarope and I couldn't stop. I stayed up all night, then I read it during all my free periods, and then I had to ask my assistant coach to take the practice because I just couldn't not finish the book. And then I finally did and there was still time for practice. You know, I could have got down there and finished up but I had to think about it."

"When I read a book that I'm not into, I don't persist unless I've got a reason to, such as my book club is reading it, and I want to talk to them about it. But if I don't have a special reason to read it, I don't, because there are so many great books to read in the world. I've got a shelf full of ones that I want to read. So, as I recognize that it's not right for me at that time or maybe I'm not the audience that book was written for. Sometimes I'll return to the book a couple of times and try it again."

Judith LangerJudith Langer

Professor at the State University of New York — Albany and Director of the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement

"I grew up in a literary family, in a reading family. From the earliest times, we told stories, we sang stories. I remember going to the library weekly, even more often, from the time I was a very, very young girl. Probably well before I was able to walk to the library, my mother carried me, or pushed in a carriage to get books. We were always surrounded with books."

"I learned to read at home before I went to school. And all of my reading in the school I attended concentrated on then "Dick and Jane" kinds of readers. And I did what was necessary in class because I was a very compliant child. Uh-uh, but the reading, that wasn't reading to me. Reading was when I went home and read the books, read the stories, discussed those, wrote my own stories as well."

"Let me see if I can tell you the books that I remember from my early growing up years. It was very traditional and you can probably tell something about my background when I describe it. I remember from a very, very young age having the Mother Goose books — the kind that have the hand-painted pictures. And I recall loving those books and reading, not only being read, but reading the Mother Goose rhymes time and time again — loving the rhymes and loving the pictures. I remember being read and then reading the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, Aesop's fables, repeatedly. I can remember that as I got a little bit older, I loved Mary Poppins. I read that book many, many, many times and actually started writing stories, pretending that I was Mary Poppins and could fly through the air. I read Gulliver's Travels many times because it brought me to such wonderful imaginary worlds. I remember reading the Bobbsy Twins from cover to cover because they were just so wonderful and I could share them with my friends. And then as I got older what I did was start getting into readings in depth. From high school on, I became interested in particular periods or particular cultures or particular groups, particular authors. And I would read everything about that issue, that era, or that author. For example, when I started to read about the Bloomsbury group, I read all of the books that I could find written by anybody in the Bloomsbury group, or by anybody who the Bloomsbury group met, even tangentially, because is was such a wonderful era. So I read a lot of bad books as well as good books, ones I didn't enjoy...but it was that stepping into a literary world that was terribly important to me."

"I've spent my entire professional career being interested in how the mind works and how individuals become highly literate. How they can learn to read, write, navigate text, communicate with others in ways that we consider in our society literate ways of getting through life. I became particularly interested in it because I felt that there were ways in which the understandings of how we make meaning — there are ways in which those understandings might give us new vantage points for informing instruction, informing how we went about conceiving how teaching and learning actually could occur in the classroom. So, my goal from the very beginning was not just theory building but trying to create new theories that might be effective in the classroom. The reason I did this is because I found that, wherever I go in most societies, you have people who can read well, develop stories well, and communicate to each other well. Some people are more highly educated than others are, but all have ways of creating stories. When you create stories, you're manipulating language, text, and mind. I wanted to better understand those strengths so that we all could understand better how taking that as a starting place improves instruction."

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