Saturday, November 3, 2012

An English teacher's dream!

High School teacher Kristin Russo recently wrote that TENDING TO GRACE is an English teacher's dream.

A statement like that will certainly make an author sit up and listen. Why is that? I asked. Here's what she said:

"As a teacher of Grade 9 English, I am required to follow a course of study with my students that includes reading and exploring a wide array of literary classics, including works by Steinbeck, Poe, Harper Lee, Shakespeare, and Homer, just to name a very few. The overall theme that is meant to tie these diverse works together in the freshman curriculum is “Journeys.”

Through the lens of a metaphorical journey, we explore literature, or as we call it “words as art,” looking for inspiration and examples of courageous personal evolution and growth. I have found that there is no better way to begin this literary journey with my students than by reading Kimberly Newton Fusco’s TENDING TO GRACE.

Fusco’s prose reads like poetry and every page has numerous, rich examples of the figurative language I try to teach my students to decode. They are thrilled when they finally understand how to use literary techniques to better understand a character or to figure out what is going to happen next.

My students notice through a close look at the food imagery in TENDING TO GRACE that the main character, Cornelia, eats more healthful foods when she goes to live with her aunt Agatha, symbolizing that she is better nourished and cared for her in her new home, even if she insists she is unhappy at first.

By following Fusco’s use of the “sock” imagery throughout the text, students not only better understand Cornelia’s loneliness and her wish to belong to a pair, but they also predict the likelihood that Cornelia is “finally going to get what she wants” when they notice her new teacher is wearing Christmas socks. The students learn to notice what they once considered to be unimportant details in a text and use them to better understand the characters and their stories. They apply this close reading technique throughout the school year as they tackle other books on the reading list.

As we near the end of the book, my students start to ask me what we’re going to read next. When I tell them, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is next, they ask me what it is about. I tell them to open TENDING TO GRACE and Cornelia will tell them what it is about. Cornelia happens to be very well read, and it tweaks my students’ interest that a number of the books on our list are mentioned in TENDING TO GRACE. My students come to love Cornelia and want to understand her better. That means reading the books that she has read, and luckily, they find nearly all of them in our Grade 9 curriculum."

After finishing TENDING TO GRACE, Mrs. Russo's students took a break for Halloween and read, Poe's, THE RAVEN. "The students didn't get the allusion to the poem when Cornelia says, "Nevermore" in TENDING TO GRACE and refuses to go back to the struggling reader class.

My lesson on Poe and his crazy poem was much better received, I think, because Cornelia knows about it, so it made my students more curious too."

Thank you, Mrs. Russo.  I believe teachers can change lives.  I know my high school English teacher changed mine.

If you'd like to know what Mrs. Russo's students think of TENDING TO GRACE, see the previous post!