Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Glass Roses

So, have any of you read or taught Alden Nowlan's Glass Roses? I'm a fan. I like the Canadian stuff, what with being Canadian and all. Here's a really rough draft of an explanation of the lessons I tried with this story this term.


The first thing we do, obviously, is read it. Well that's not really true, this time around I read it out loud myself. It was the first short story we'd done all year, and so I wanted to model, as best I could, the "art" of reading aloud. I got this idea at the end of last year, when I asked my grade 10s to take turns reading stories out loud (without practicing first) and the whole exercise ended up being a diagnostic tool for which of my students had reading fluency and which were struggling. Too bad the diagnosis was happening in June. I think this year I'm going to try getting the students to either vlog or make a podcast out of themselves reading a short story aloud. Maybe as part of my final multi genre project, maybe something separate.

Next year I'm going to try to take things even further. A major element of the story is that midway through, "The Polack" reveals his name to be Leka, and further, that he's in fact Ukrainian, though he's been displaced and run out of his home so many times that he'd just as soon accept the label he's been given, or call himself a Canadian- which, given the way the Canadians in the story treat him, is possibly a sign of his resignation. Anyway, I was speaking with a very kind and open Ukrainian coworker and asked her if her husband (who, I was told, has a pronounced Ukrainian accent) would be so generous as to record himself saying Leka's lines aloud. I'm thinking that hearing his words read in a voice besides my own will emphasize his 'otherness', and after some discussion, his loneliness.

After reading, the first question I ask is 'what are your questions'? The length to which this activity goes depends on how much time we've got left in class. Sometimes I just ask and wait for volunteers, and sometimes I get students to write their ideas and questions down as a kind of exit slip activity.


The next class involves what I called 'the 16 square page'. When students ask how they should fill up the squares, this year I said "any way you want or can". Students can use this page as a way to organize ideas and suggest possible topics of discussion. I asked students to take a piece of paper and create 8 equal squares on each side. The headings for each of the squares are:

Stephen Leka
Father The Workers/The Cook

The Wind Trees
The Bunkhouse Canada

The Glass Roses The Cathedral
The Cavalry Men The Axe

(Something extra)
Nightmares Is Leka Gay?
Xenophobia Freedom


We spent a class going through these squares, where I'd ask students to share their ideas and encourage them to write down as much as made sense to them. The character one was nice to have first, followed by the setting, because those aspects of the story are pretty literal, and so a good place to start.

Theoretically, the groups of 4 get a little more challenging as they go; but by the time we got to the final square, the students were ready to talk about a concept like xenophobia because they'd already given some thought to how Canada has been illustrated throughout the story (Leka's yelling that the country was made to teach man humility or that it's the country itself that doesn't like people) as well as how the other characters in the story behave towards Leka. I definitely enjoy the discussion around Canada and fear of foreigners the best because I think some students (or people, really) are too quick to assume that everything in Canada is fine, just fine, and I like this example of a Canadian author pointing out Canadian flaws. Canadian!

I also like to leave the discussion of the Nightmares for the end of the discussion, because it's a snazzy way to tie the other squares together (Leka, Glass Roses, Cavalry Men, Trees, Canada, etc) and to leave the discussion on the note of Stephen's final act, or at least the beginning of this act. Yes, I believe Stephen woke Leka up.

Some students were surprised about the "Is Leka Gay?" question I think, maybe because it seems inappropriate to bring up in class, or maybe because they were thinking it themselves. For the record, I don't think so. But in previous years, when students asked that I'd just kind of dismiss the question or give them a firm "no" without explaining myself. Now, I'm thinking that this is a question that deserves deliberation, if for no other reason than students ask it seriously.


Once that was done, the next thing students did was quotations. Quotations, I find, are a major area of concern for my students. Interesting, because 'Support', as it's called, is a major concern for Alberta Learning as well. For this, I turned once again to a quick graphic organizer. Scaffolding!

p. 1 Quotation What this tells you about the character or story
p. 2 Quotation What this tells you about the character or story
p. 3 etc. etc.

You get it. I included as many rows in that page as there were pages, though that kind of organization is kind of arbitrary. My reason for asking for only one quotation per page was to not overtask students by asking for 3 or 4 per page, and also to encourage collaboration: at some point in the class, students were invited to share their quotations. There were quite a few who worked 'as a group' who assigned one another one page each and then shared their quotations at the end. I think that's what happens when the perceived goal is to complete the worksheet, and not to reread the story for deeper understanding. Tension between time, management and focus, I guess. I mean, it annoys and maybe even grieves me, but I also think part of teaching grade 12 is learning to accept their choices as valid.


The next bit involved sticky notes. I handed out a bunch of notes to the students, and asked them to return to their 16 square pages from earlier. Naturally, there were those students who by then (an entire 2 days later) had lost their notes, but what can you do? Photocopy someone else's notes, that's what. (And next time, type it on a Google doc.) I asked students to affix the sticky notes to the squares that contained the most information (ostensibly, the subject with which they were most knowledgeable or comfortable) or the topic that they were interested in learning more about. It's probably worth pointing out that I also suggested that if the student had encountered any other topic that I didn't mention, they were welcome to pursue it. I don't recall anyone actually doing this, though my next short story unit will involve students creating their own 16-square headings. Scaffolding!

So, let's say the student ended up with 4 stickies: Stephen, the Axe, nightmares, and Canada. The mini lesson that day had to do with shaping an essay through ideas, so, play with those 4 stickies and rearrange them until you have them in the order that makes the most sense to you. (I will point out here that the whole 'strongest vs. weakest' argument makes me quake with frustration, but that is a post for later, or never.) Some interesting conversations came out of this activity, and it was funny to me how naturally the students became involved in physically moving their ideas (or stickies) around on the page, long before any topics sentences or thesis statements were even on the horizon. This, of course, is where I may lose some other teachers- I believe that the thesis comes from the writer's ideas, not the other way around.


Next, computer lab for typing up the first draft.

After that, I used Google Docs to comment on some of them, and for others I'm currently using class time to conference with the students one on one, though I confess it's using far more class time than I am comfortable with.

Soon, I'll get their final drafts and I'll mark them and the cycle will begin anew. Also, am I using the term scaffolding correctly?

No, not my best work. But not bad for neglecting this blog since July!



  1. Interesting. I had a quick question. What does the Cathedral, the Cavalry Men, and the axe symbolize? The symbolism i understand is Stephen's act of waking Leka, therefore choosing to defy his father and become who he wants to be.

  2. A great lesson and activity. I love the idea of having students record themselves and also of having other adults record themselves. I love surfing through your content and I have awarded you the Versatile Blogger Award. Stop by my post to pick up your badge.

  3. I like this! I am going to give it a try this week!