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Thriving on books

Linda Roods students learn the value of literature, organization, and plain hard work

TOWNSHEND—If it’s been a while since you’ve hung out with 11th- and 12th-graders, or if most of what you now know about students that age comes through the media, talk to Linda Rood.

Rood teaches English to juniors and seniors at Leland & Gray Union High School, and she knows intimately what students that age are really like.

Or talk to some of the seniors in her Advanced Placement literature class, and ask them about Huckleberry Finn.

If you get that chance, you’ll learn a lot about the 12 students in this course for college-bound seniors. You’ll see how they draw upon their own knowledge of dualities and contradictions to identify with those qualities in Huck Finn who, they learn, as the story progresses, faces many moral dilemmas.

Or find Rood with the Level 2 juniors — students who need a little more support — and go with them to the school library. Watch them plow into the search engines to prepare a 10-item proposed bibliography for an English and American history research paper on “Innovators and Explorers.”

Spend some time with Rood and her students, and you will soon learn about the value of having an enterprising teacher who thrives on books and brings with her a nearly impossible-to-match work ethic.

Discovering a classic

The seniors in Rood’s AP class had been asked to choose a passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain that demonstrated for them a significant characteristic of the book, such as writing style, character development, the meanings of certain events, the role of the river, and other critical aspects of this complex novel. 

Earlier, they had turned in a written explanation of sections they had chosen.

The class this day began with Rood drawing the students’ attention to a definition of “idyll,” a word she had written on the chalkboard: “A simple descriptive work in poetry or prose that deals with rustic life or pastoral scenes, or suggests a mood of peace and contentment.”

It was, in part, a definition of the travels of Huck and Jim, an escaped slave, on the rafting trip.

The first student said she had chosen her passage for its descriptive qualities, noting the phrases “dark as sin” and “blast of wind,” as well as other images that gave power to the storm described in her passage.

Rood agreed with her choice, calling the images “vivid,” and described the turns of phrase as personifications for someone like Huck, traveling down the Mississippi with Jim.

“He was someone who likes storms…. Huck appreciates the ferocity of the storm,” the student said. “The tone of the passage,” she added, was wondrous, evoking an appreciation for the storm and its ferocity and magnificence. 

Rood and her student both agreed that Huck sounded “like a little kid imagining a storm.”

Another student also pointed out certain uses of language to convey mood in the natural world, such as the descriptive “blue/black,” connoting bruises and the storm.

Rood said both students made “great word choices” and then reminded them of the meanings of alliteration — the repetition of sounds in the first syllable of several words — and onomatopoeia, when the word conjures up the source of the sound it describes.

All 11 students there (one was absent) either nodded in agreement or added words of agreement, silently reading the passages along with the speaker, marveling at one device or other, and paying complete attention.

Another student, Quinn Darrow, emphasized the musical quality of Twain’s language, pointing out the way he wrote that the storm ended:  “It diminished like a piece of music” after a crescendo.

Rood was interested in that musical quality of Twain’s writing, pointing out one paragraph that was one long sentence, with lists of images. 

Darrow said the book reminded him of The Odyssey, which he’d read recently. 

Rood said that was a “great connection.”

She noted that there were many similarities between Huck’s journey of discovery and that of Odysseus’, who had taken 10 years to get home. Even though Huck’s journey is much shorter, both travelers test themselves and seek self-discovery on the water, she pointed out.

Other observations about language included a passage that made much of brightness and darkness — almost “religious imagery,” said one student.  Rood said that was a good observation, and then she asked about Twain’s attitude toward religion.

Several agreed that the language he used conveyed a sort of mockery.

Rood posed questions meant to call up themes in the book, including freedom and captivity: the former captured in part by the river and the latter by the constriction of life on the land. She was given answers that revealed a thorough-going familiarity with the book. 

One student described the river journey of Huck and Jim as “an escape route.”

Another noted Huck and Jim were “equal on the river.”

Rood reminded the students of a passage in which Huck explains how they were naked on their idyll on the raft, and she asked why. 

It was reminiscent of paradise, she pointed out, before their idyll was interrupted.

Another look at Huck

A few days later, after the students had finished reading the book, Rood handed out a chapter from a book about Twain by Henry Nash Smith, a noted critic and Twain scholar.

The densely written piece explored in greater detail what the class had been talking about, raising some of the same issues of Huck’s character development. 

The class was assigned a short paper, no more than three pages, about the Nash piece.          

Rood then distributed other handouts, including one that defined a sestina, a complicated poetic contrivance that requires certain patterns, rhyming schemes, and word repetitions.

One student had noticed the rhyming complications. Rood explained they didn’t have to memorize the sestina form, only just know it exists.

And before getting back to Huck, Rood handed out other instructions relating to the AP exam which, if passed with a high enough grade, gives the student college credit. 

The rest of the time, with Rood asking questions and getting quick hand-raises from all the students, the class speculated on the mindset and actions of Huck, the conflicts he faced, and his indecision and moral obligations about Jim.

There was general consensus that the most admirable character in the book is Jim, the only person who could be called morally superior.

“In the end, Huck is still a kid,” Rood said and, taking note of Huck’s changing behaviors, noted that most people change their behavior to suit their surroundings. 

There was some consensus that Huck had changed somewhat, that he was better off away from Tom Sawyer, that he had some understanding of the grotesqueries of slavery, and that his ambivalence left his character unformed. 

 Rood talked a bit about the era in which the book was published, and said that many critics agree that Twain’s mastery of the language of the vernacular in some sense made The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the first really American novel.

She noted that the book was written in the same period that Thomas Hardy was writing in England. She said the book demythologized slavery, and she pointed out that the book was written at the same time the Ku Klux Klan organized.

In the next class, she said, they would talk about the censorship of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from the time it was first published in the United States in 1885 through the present. 

Seemingly apparent to these students were the patterns of Huck’s moral ups and downs as he moves from the easy acceptance of received values to a more difficult and independently achieved understanding of what might constitute right and wrong.

The paper chase

The Level 2 juniors met for only a short time this day before going to the library to create a bibliography for their papers on someone of significance from a list chosen by Rood.

Some of the subjects chosen for this class included Matthew Henson (the black Arctic explorer who traveled with and beyond Robert Peary), Walt Disney, Dr. Jonas Salk, Ray Kroc (founder of McDonald’s), Jon Stewart, and Jimi Hendrix, among others.

Imparting some sense of what a decent annotated bibliography is, Rood tells them to look at the guides they have from the Modern Language Association. She tells them to make a list of 10 primary sources that would be due in a few days.

The students also received a firm calendar of when the various stages of the paper would be due, as well as instructions for formal presentation, such as type size and margins.  Papers must be at least three pages, Rood warned, and they would not be read if submitted without an annotated bibliography.

The class combed the various databases available in the school library, such as Facts on File, the Vermont Online Library Service, and the Vermont Automated Library System. Wikipedia is generally frowned upon, because it’s not always clear where the information comes from.

Besides preparing their research papers, the Level 2 juniors delved into literature. In another class, the students listened to a short story read by Rood, a World War I tale entitled “Unknown Soldier,” by William March.

But first, Rood asks the class if any of them knew about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. One person had.

So Rood related why it was there and described the ceremonies take place there every day. She showed a film of the ceremonies, which emphasize the valor and bravery of the soldier and the honor of dying during war. She also writes four words from the story on the board: “enfilading,” “Maxim,” “sentry,” and “compassionate.” 

No one knew the first word, which means the spraying of bullets. The second is the name of a German machine gun. Some knew the third word, and a few more sort of knew what the fourth word meant.

“Unknown Soldier” is about an American soldier in World War I who gets shot, falls back onto barbed wire, and experiences a series of memories as he lies dying.

“I have broken the chain,” he says before he draws his last breath. “I have defeated the inherent stupidity of life.”

The students are reluctant to say what  the flashbacks convey.

One student in the class gets it, a boy with a military-style haircut.

“It sucks to die in battle,” he says.

The students were also given a written breakdown of the story to aid in their note-taking. While their interests may lie elsewhere, many of the students in the class were working hard to understand the material. Their reluctance sometimes to speak appear to be more about shyness than absence of knowledge.

Writing about justice

While the Level 2 juniors were doing research papers, the Level 1 seniors were writing on justice, and the ambiguities often involved in its delivery.

Some of the subjects, chosen from a list prepared by Rood and the history teacher with whom she works teaching this class, include the Enron scandal, the Nixon pardon, violence at abortion clinics, the murder of Harvey Milk, and nuclear weapons testing in the United States.

The routine of the Level 1 English class closely followed the Level 2 routine: a short meeting with requirements spelled out, and then a trip to the library.

The overall theme of the assignment, “Justice: Has it Been Served?,” sets out criteria for students to explain or to question justice: “How does one define ‘justice?’”  “Are there different types of justice?” “How can you tell when justice has been served?”

The Level 1 class is reading Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. The complicated novel inserts fictional characters into actual events and real people into fictional events and grapples with the huge social changes emerging during the early part of the 1900s.

The 10 students in class that day paired up to explain five chapters they’d read, basing their responses on a set of categories Rood had written on the chalkboard, including what characters appear in a given chapter; what takes place and how; the interaction between historical and fictional characters; the emotional and social status of the characters.

The enthusiasm with which the pairs described their chapters, and the kibitzing among the pairs, made it clear that they’d all read the chapters and were prepared to answer just about everything.

Rood’s obvious engagement was palpable when one pair pointed out that in one chapter that someone was mad at women, and in another, someone was angry with men.

Later, she said, that was something she’d never thought of before in that way, and she affirmed that this class was especially sharp.

Agility and engagement

Although there are stacks of state Department of Education standards documents delineating how to turn out an educated child by the time high school graduation rolls around, Rood rarely consults them. She does, however, carry around printed portions of the high school reading and writing standards.

Papers of greater interest to the state in general are the K-12 Common Core State Standards, a plan set out in June, 2010, by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to address the complications of national standards and to correct deficiencies in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Vermont and more than 26 other states have adopted these standards, although implementation is not expected for some time.

A list of readings and assignments in Rood’s classes might make any high schooler suffer momentary dread – Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Oedipus Rex,  Antigone, Crime and Punishment, Hucklebury Finn, Pride and Prejudice. Ethan Frome, Metamorphosis, A Doll’s House, Death of a Salesman, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ragtime, Night, Hiroshima and a changing list of poets and concomitant research papers and exams.

Rood’s agility and engagement in the classroom are the antidotes to dread.

“I have been teaching for so long, I don’t have to adapt my work,” she said, “It’s organic.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #87 (Wednesday, February 9, 2011).

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The Common Core State Standards document is available on the state’s Education Department web site: education.vermont.edu.

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