Sunday, April 26, 2009

Final Project: What Makes a Scary Story?


My final project will be a teaching unit that explores the question "What makes a scary story?" It will be geared toward 7th and 8th grade students and it will use Edgar Allan Poe stories as its anchor texts. I plan to bring in scary movies, shows and books from popular culture, including parodies, to break down which elements make a story scary. The unit will lead up to a project in which students will write their own scary stories.

My goal with this unit is to do a genre study. I have seen Edgar Allan Poe units taught before as an author study, and I find the approach to be very ineffective. Asking students to find links between Poe’s life and his writing is very limiting and does not allow students to explore an essential question or create their own work. Instead, I would like students to look at Poe's stories (as well as other scary stories, films and television programs) and study the craft of writing a scary story and apply the techniques to their own writing.

The challenge I anticipate is creating a unit about scary stories that is not too frightening for 7th and 8th grade students. I will try to find ways to incorporate media in ways that teach the genre while still making my students feel safe.


1. Anticipatory Guide and Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe

The class will begin the unit by taking inventory of their ideas and opinions about scary stories by using an anticipation guide. It will be some version of this anticipation guide, which I borrowed from the ReadWriteThink website:

After completing the anticipation guide, the class will watch a clip from "The Simpsons" (Season 2, Episode 3) which is a take on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." It features an excellent dramatic reading by James Earl Jones and Homer Simpson, but the poem is introduced by a great conversation between Bart and Lisa Simpson about whether or not Poe's stories are still scary.

I might also include a SHORT PowerPoint presentation about Poe and his life and writing career.

2. Which one is the scariest?

In groups of 3-4, students will read three to five short stories from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. After reading, they will have to rank the stories (#1 is the scariest, #5 is the least scary) and write a paragraph justifying their choices. The results will be compiled as a large group and the class will try to answer the question "What makes a scary story?"

3. Choosing a Topic: Scary Movies

This activity will be a webquest done in the computer lab. Each student will have a list of iMDB's Top 50 Horror Movies (as compiled by user ratings). Students will have to run web searches of each title and determine what the "scary part" of the movie is. For example, for the movie "Jaws" a student could write "Shark attacks." After compiling their data, the class will try to split the topics in to categories (i.e. monsters, etc.). The purpose will be to get kids thinking about what to include in their own scary stories.

4. Horror Movie Parody: What do we expect?

The class will view an episode of the family sitcom "Boy Meets World" which does a great job parodying horror movie conventions (plus, it's hilarious). The episode is very self-aware, and characters practically call each horror movie convention by name, which is good for middle schoolers attempting to break down the genre. As students watch, they will be responsible for making a list of the horror movie conventions mentioned explicitly and parodied in the action. Whole class discussion will follow.

5. Edgar Allan Poe's Stories

At least 3 of Poe's stories will be read in class (including, but not limited to, The Telltale Hear, The Cask of Amontillado, The Monkey's Paw, Fall of the House of Usher, etc.). Students will discuss and "map" the elements of fiction used in these stories, and use them as references when writing their own stories.

6. Elements of Fiction

This unit might easily be used to teach the elements of fiction (and how they can be manipulated to create a scary story), but it might also be used as a review. Students will "map" the elements of fiction in Poe's stories as well as their own stories as a pre-writing activity.

7. How to Write a Scary Scene

This lesson will provide practice for translating scary scenes into words. To accomplish this, the class will watch several suspenseful scenes from films and television shows that have written versions (for example, "The X-Files" and "Harry Potter"). Students will watch a scene and have time to write that scene as a short story. Students will be given a transcript of the scene to help them along. Several students will share, then the class will look at the actual book versions and compare the ways they chose to present the story.

8. Ghost Hunting Articles

This is a great lesson plan I found that examines two journalists' experiences ghost hunting.

9. Scary Movie Review

After looking at a few mentor texts (film reviews from magazines and newspapers) students must complete a review of a scary (or suspenseful) film that they watch outside of class.

10. Writer's Workshop: Mini-lessons

As students begin the process of writing their stories, I would give a daily mini-lesson on the following topics:
  • effective leads
  • dialogue conventions
  • snapshots and thoughtshots (writing description and including characters' thoughts)
  • building suspense
  • illustrating the story
  • characterization


This unit's focus is discovering what makes a story scary because the final assessment is for students to write their own scary stories. The links below are another teacher's take on the assignment and resources I might borrow in creating my own assignment. The process would involve several days of writer's workshop, including pre-writing, drafting, and significant peer revision and conferences with the teacher. I might also include a day where students are invited to read their stories to the class (with the lights low and scary music playing, of course!) My hope is that students are able to find ways to write scary stories without putting all the emphasis on gore, but instead making the fear psychological.

Extensions/Extra Credit: Students could do a study of a scary novel (such as one of the books in the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine or a Stephen King novel). This might include completing journal entries about each chapter, charting the elements of fiction, writing a review, etc.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Week Nine: Food

This week's chapter from Tooning In, "Popular Culture and the Dark Side of Food," turned out to be one of the most interesting chapters we've read so far. Much of the chapter focused on historical changes to the perception of the ideal body images and the disordered eating that has resulted from it. I've never read a historical analysis of body images linked to power structures before, but it makes total sense. The essay argues that as women gained more power in society (such as the right to vote and leadership positions in the workplace), "popular culture demanded that women show they were in control of their lives by being in control of their weight, the lower the better" (White 134). While I've heard the link between personal control/power issues and eating disorders, I'd never heard it explained at the societal level.

Another part of the essay I found especially interesting was its discussion of processed foods. Women, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were expected to define themselves by their ability to nurture their families. As the Industrial Revolution brought the rise of the processed food industry, advertising worked to "convince women that processed food was not only healthier for their families but brought rewards to the busy homemaker" (133). Women had to come to grips with the claims that formula was better for their babies than the breastmilk that came from their own bodies. Essentially, "the traditional role of nurturer was taken away" (133).

It was fascinating to me reading about how advertising of a particular product can completely change the societal roles as well as the physical and emotional health of a group of people. Research now tells us that natural foods and breastmilk are far healthier than formula and other processed foods. The organic and natural foods movement is doing its best to reverse the trend Heinz and other companies started a century ago, but I'm beginning to be convinced it's too late.

In the July/August 2008 issue of my very favorite nerdy magazine, Mental Floss, there was an article that explained how advertising spurred a similar shift in thinking. The article is called "Just Add Milk: How Cereal Transformed American Culture," an it's equally fascinating. Before the invention of cereal, "most Americans subsisted on a diet of pork, whiskey and coffee" (Lendler 54). A group of Christian fundamentalists blamed most health problems on meat consumption, and introduced a cereal called Granula "offered consumers a sin-free meat alternative that aimed to clear both conscience and bowels" (54). Dr. John Kellogg knocked off the product, dropping the religious message but promoting cereal's health factor.

Soon other companies like Post had picked up the idea of breakfast cereal because it's easy to produce and selling well. Because all the companies were selling essentially the same product under different names, advertisers realized they had to add a little something extra to get their brand off the shelves--cartoon character mascots. Soon, cereal advertising became geared almost entirely to children and something clicked in advertisers minds: "kids don't care about their colons. They want sugar. Lots of sugar" (57). The sugar cereal was born, and within 50 years the entire idea of the American breakfast had been completely transformed.

I think the cereal example is the perfect lesson to use in the classroom because it demonstrates how much food is linked to popular culture. Kids especially want to eat certain things because of their image more than health or even taste. The power of advertising to change society's values is a real thing that should be critically explored with young people.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Week Eight: Popular Music

This week's readings, from Tooning In, made a great effort to convince that protest music and music that offers social commentary is not dead. The chapters go on to say that "if we are interested in a relevant social studies that facilitates active participation and problem solving in society, then contemporary popular music offers many possiblilities and can play a vital role in instruction" (White 112). Including music as a text in our curriculum offers the possiblity to engage students, reveal a more personal perspective of a social or historical issue and develop students' critical thinking skills.

I believe the most valuable way to include music into a unit of study is to include songs that represent alternative or minority voices. If anything, finding authentic voices that address the issues being studied in a personal way could really add to the curriculum. While I appreciated White's suggestion of using song parodies to help students memorize important facts (I once heard of a teacher rewriting "The Thong Song" to help his students learn the presidents or something) I think using music as text that actually adds something new to the curriculum is a more valuable application.

Here are a couple of ideas I've been thinking about:

As an English teacher, I often think about ways to pair poetry, especially less contemporary poetry, with more modern texts. I had a professor in college that paired Walt Whitman's poetry with Sufjan Stevens, and we discussed both the style and the view of America that Whitman portrays in "Leaves of Grass" and in Stevens' "The 50 States." It was one of the most interesting lessons on poetry I can remember (and not just because I LOVE Sufjan Stevens) because it reminded me that there are artists that continue to write about America in the same way that long-dead poets did.

Another idea I've considered is looking at the perceptions of war and the role of the soldier. If teaching a unit on The Things They Carried, for example, which deals with soldiers in Vietnam, I might pair it with poetry (like "Dulce es Decorum Est") that portrays what being a soldier is actually like. "Soldier Boy," a song by my favorite artist Mason Jennings (who writes many songs that include social commentary) would fit in quite nicely, as it is another text written from the perspective of a soldier that satirizes a soldier's attitude. These texts would feed into a discussion of the demands of war, and whether it's okay for a country to ask its citizens to take on the role of soldier.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Week Seven: Fake News

For me it was just exciting to see fake news catching on like that. We don't… you know, it's interesting. I think we don't make things up. We just distill it to, hopefully, its most humorous nugget. And in that sense it seems faked and skewed just because we don't have to be subjective or pretend to be objective. We can just put it out there.
--Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart from The Daily Show has been scrutinized quite a bit over the last few years, and not necessarily because of his content. It seems like every day the six o'clock news reports the results of another survey that claims most young adults get their news primarily from satirical shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Often, Stewart gets "blamed" for this, told his news program is skewing the opinion of millions of impressionable young adults.

His response, in a nutshell? It's fake! As you can see in the quote above, Stewart does not believe his satirical news show is obligated to follow the same journalistic standards as 60 Minutes or the Nightly News. Because The Daily Show airs on Comedy Central, Stewart argues, viewers should expect entertainment, not objective journalism. Fake news anchors do not have to swear to whatever version of the Hippocratic oath journalists take when they vow to be objective reporters of current events. "We don't consider ourselves equal opportunity anythings," says Stewart, "because that's not - you know, that's the beauty of fake journalism. We don't have to - we travel in fake ethics."

It seems to me that the problem is not with the show itself and its obvious lack of objectivity. The problem is that, allegedly, people are watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report instead of getting their news from a source that is expected to report objectively (whether they actually do or not). I'm still working through this argument. Even if it is true that there are young adults who watch fake news and nothing else, are they really laughing as hard as those who've seen the material being satirized? If I've never seen The View and I watch an SNL skit that parodies the program, will it be funny to me? And even if it isn't, will I never be able to take The View seriously after seeing Tracy Morgan dressed up as Sherri? My thought is that the responsibility is in the hands of the viewer, not the writers of satire, but it's true that SNL satire has forever changed my impression of Sean Connery.

It is my feeling that lessons on satire are very important in the classroom for two reasons. First, teaching students to read satire is very important. Students should know what they're getting as viewers of a satirical news show, and what they're missing. One of the articles from this week explained that those who consider satirical news shows to be their primary source of current events knowledge are left with fewer facts and deeper impressions about public figures or events. Kari's blog this week compared articles from The Onion to headlines in the Star Tribune, which might be a good activity to help students compare the information and impressions transmitted by two different sources of news.

Another important way satire could be used in the classroom is to have students write their own parodies of news stories or other works. To understand and write effective satire, one must have a thorough understanding of the original source material. Asking a student to analyze or write a satirical version of A Christmas Carol, for example, both requires a high level understanding of the novel and calls on other critical thinking skills.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Week Six: Toys

Like many girls, my favorite toys growing up were dolls. I asked for new ones every Christmas, and we had huge boxes full of dolls and their "stuff" in the basement. I still remember many of them as if they were dear friends: Joyce, my Cabbage Patch Kid; Sean, my Dreamland Baby; Megan, my "Teeny Tiny Preemie." I also had a whole array of Barbie dolls, including a really cool one my mom bought me when she was pregnant with my brother which had a tiny baby you could hide in her retractable belly. "House" was absolutely my favorite game as a kid, and my friend Shelly and I played it daily. Dolls gave us the freedom to play endless iterations of the same game. While playing "House" Shelly and I took care of kids and pets, sent them to school, and survived tornadoes.

According to this week's reading from Tooning In, as well as other articles I have read, play is an important learning process for children. Often play is in imitation of adult activities, which allows them to have imaginative rehearsals for their later life. There is an evolutionary factor at play here: children like me who played parenting games as kids are historically more likely to raise healthy children who are also good parents, continuing their line of decendants. Playing kickball on the playground helps kids learn the important skill of negotiating rules, a skill they will use daily later in life. Play "enables children to make sense of their world, develops social and cultural understandings, provides opportunities to meet and solve problems, fosters flexible and divergent thinking, allows children to express their thoughts and feelings, develops language and literacy, and develops concepts in all academic areas" (White 145).

While the more "modern" toys definitely have the potential to increase cognitive development (video games, as discussed earlier, help develop spatial reasoning among other things), I would argue that it is the more low-tech, open-ended toys that have the greatest potential for learning. Parents often joke that their children are more interested in the box the toy came in than the toy itself, and I believe there is definite wisdom in that statement. While modern toys often come with "one way to play," there are hundreds of possibilities for engagement with a cardboard box. As an experienced babysitter who has spent more than her fair share exploring toys with kids, I can tell you that my kids will have toys with the greatest number of ways to engage: dolls, blocks, play food, musical instruments, toy cars and ramps, bats and balls. As the article discusses, children need "an environment in which children have the freedom to construct their own dramas built out of their own interpretations of reality" (147).

Vygotsky and other learning theorists have argued that there is definitely a social component to learning. I truly do not believe that the noisy toys with lots of buttons that claim to teach your children the alphabet will actually live up to their claims. Children need to explore literacy with their parents, teachers and peers. Literacy and numeracy will not just come to kids without the scaffolding and social support of an actual person. In addition, computer games should be considered learning supports to a school curriculum, not school itself. In my own classroom, I believe it is important to incorporate toys (are there any language arts toys? Magnetic Poetry, maybe. I'm open to suggestions), games and play, but not at the expense of actual teacher interaction and teaching.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Week Five: Avatars

The clip below, from The Office, is a matter-of-fact but amusing commentary on online avatar programs like "Second Life." Dwight claims he joined "Second Life" because his life was so great he "literally wanted a second one." For Jim and Dwight, designing an avatar is an opportunity for identity exploration and perspective taking in big and small ways (for Dwight, everything is the same except he can fly; for Jim, he imagines himself as a sportswriter in Philadelphia).

As teachers, and especially as language arts teachers, we look for ways to help our adolescent students make sense of themselves and the world. Identity exploration and perspective taking are important parts of development, and skills that interaction with literature and writing help to build. The primary questions I asked myself this week was "Can the use of avatars or agents in the classroom help students build these type of skills? Can they aid in other types of learning? Do they have affordances that no other teaching tool offers?" and most importantly "Would I actually use them in my classroom?"

The articles assigned for this week discuss using online avatars as teaching tools. Rather than looking at a list of FAQs on a topic, an online avatar could speak and interact with our students. If pressed, I could think of a few reasons why this would be helpful. Students who are visual or auditory learners might prefer to experience a lesson with a "human" face on it, rather than reading a text to get the information. It also opens up possibilities for differentiation, because students working on a computer with "teacher agent" could be able to work with different parts of the lesson at the same time, have information repeated, etc.

However, the Science Direct article was a reminder that there are possibilities for abuse when using robots as teachers. Students are much more likely to view an avatar as a toy than as a legitimate, human teacher, and as such are likely to spend more time "messing with the robot" than learning from it. As much as I support finding ways to incorporate play into the classroom, it concerns me that it's so much more fun to see what the avatar will say when I call the robot a whore than any classwork could ever be. I believe it is not true play when the affordances of fun a technology offers does not contribute to learning. For example, in a science lab that explores the concept of waves by playing with a Slinky, the play does contribute to learning about the concept of waves. Technology like and "Second Life" is too much like a toy, and not a toy that supports learning.

Also, I can't discuss the idea of online avatars without mentioning the concept of the Uncanny Valley. This became an issue for me as I was exploring the site (see my finished product in the post below). The Uncanny Valley is a theory in the field of robotics which posits that "when robots and other facscimiles of humans look an act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers" (from Wikipedia). The truth is, the avatar I created through the Gizmoz site, as well as those I've seen my classmates make, are creepy and frankly I would be too distracted by their creepiness to let them teach me anything. There simply has to be something to be said for genuine human interaction in the world of teaching and learning.

Ultimately, I decided I would be willing to use avatar programs like not as a teaching agent, but as a possible tool for developing identity exploration and perspective taking skills. The assignment I imagined was for students to design an avatar that represents a character in literature. It requires a student to synthesize information from the text to represent the character visually. In addition, the assignment could ask students to do any number of things with the spoken text their avatar could say. For example, a student might make an online avatar of Lady Macbeth, exploring what she would look like in a traditional or modernized interpretation of Hamlet, and the student could record a soliloquiy to go along with the visual image. The assignment could also be to record an interview with the avatar, or any number of other permutations.