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Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements: How to Teach What Really Matters About Character, Setting, Point of View, and Theme Paperback – January 1, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Michael W. Smith is a professor in Temple University's College of Education. In his research he works to understand how experienced readers read and talk about literary texts, how adolescents read and talk about texts both in and out of school, and how teachers can help prepare students to have more meaningful transactions when they read, interests he developed during his eleven years of teaching high school English. He has been Chair of the Literature Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association, co-Chair of the National Council of Teachers of English Assembly for Research, and co-editor of Research in the Teaching of English. He was recently elected as a Fellow of the National Conference on Research in Language and Literacy.

Jeffrey Wilhelm is coauthor with Michael Smith and James Fredricksen of Get It Done!; Oh, Yeah?!; and So, What's the Story?. Jeff has cowritten or coedited four other Heinemann books, Going with the Flow, "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys," Strategic Reading, and Imagining to Learn. For Chevys he and coauthor Jeff Wilhelm received the NCTE David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English. Jeff is an internationally-known teacher, author, and presenter. He is driven by a desire to help teachers to help their students to more powerful literacy and compassionate, democratic living. What he most wants for teachers to get out of his work is motivation, a vital passion and impulse to continue experimenting and learning about teaching, as well as ways to frame instruction so it is meaningful and compelling to students. A classroom teacher for fifteen years, Jeff is currently Professor of English Education at Boise State University. He works in local schools as part of a Virtual Professional Development Site Network sponsored by the Boise State Writing Project, and regularly teaches middle and high school students. He is the founding director of the Maine Writing Project and the Boise State Writing Project. He has authored or coauthored numerous books and articles about literacy teaching and learning. In addition to the Russell award, his "You Gotta BE the Book" won the NCTE Promising Research Award. Jeff has worked on numerous materials and software programs for students including Scholastic's e21 and ReadAbout, and has edited a series of 100 books for reluctant readers entitled The Ten. Jeff enjoys speaking, presenting, working with students and schools. He is currently researching how students read and engage with non-traditional texts like video game narratives, manga, horror, fantasy, etc. as well as the effects of inquiry teaching on teachers, students, and learning. Jeff grew up on a small strawberry farm in Northeastern Ohio. He loved the Hardy Boys as a boy, and has continued to love reading ever since, progressing through Hermann Hesse, John Steinbeck, and James Baldwin as literary mentors. In high school he was named a Harrier All-American for cross-country and track. He was then a two-time Small College All-American in Cross-country. He has competed Internationally in cross country, track, and nordic skiing. He now enjoys marathon nordic skiing and whitewater kayaking.

Deborah Appleman is Professor of Educational Studies and Director of the Summer Writing Program at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Her primary interests include adolescent response to literature, multicultural literature, and the teaching of literary theory to high school students. A high school English teacher for nine years, Deborah works weekly with high school teachers and students in both urban and suburban schools. She is the author of Critical Encounters in High School English.
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Product Details

  • Age Range: 11 and up
  • Grade Level: 6 and up
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Teaching Resources (Theory an; unknown edition (January 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0545052564
  • ISBN-13: 978-0545052566
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 0.5 x 10.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #175,854 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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Literary analysis? The very words fill students with dread. They also send said students diving for the mouse and the monitor to hunt up SparkNotes or some other site designed to do the thinking for them.

Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith show that there is a better way. Through inquiry, they launch units with essential questions tailored to the literature in question (e.g. "What makes a good father/friend/hero/teacher?") followed by opinionnaires that invite students to share opinions on issues relevant to the text about to be read. From there, they show you how to follow up with activities designed to be used both during and after the book (or short story, poem, play, etc.).

The number one question teachers ask of a professional development book is what its theory-to-practicality ratio is. Here the theory is posited early and briefly. From there, the authors launch into chapters devoted to four areas: character, setting, point of view, and theme. In addition to their own ideas, Wilhelm and Smith share other researchers' ideas and leaven the mix with plenty of reproducible pages that are both high-interest AND rigorous. If you teach and feel like you've beat your head against the wall trying to get students to see beyond the superficial and the surface items in literature, you owe this book a test drive. Don't expect to be returning it to the dealer, either.
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Over the summer, I tend to order a few professional development books to help spark some creativity in my teaching. At this past year's NCTE, I heard the authors speak of their upcoming book, Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements: How to Teach What Really Matters About Character, Setting, Point of View, and Theme and decided to order it as one of my summer reads.

Overall, I'm impressed with what Smith and Wilhelm have done in their book. They call for some great educational practices, such as establishing context and purpose for instruction, the idea of transfer between the classroom and life, and the use of essential questions to help guide instruction. They go into great detail about how to approach the elements of characterization, setting, point of view, and theme. Each section contains some great examples of how to introduce and practice these elements in your classroom. I'm especially impressed with the activities on characterization and setting.

However, I do have a slight complaint about the book, which is its absence of plot structure. Looking at the end section, the authors give some cryptic remark about how they felt like plot isn't a transferable area...in fact, I think they actually say they are "stumped" as to how to teach plot. I understand that each plot is unique in its own way, but every story (with few exceptions) contains an exposition, conflict, climax, and resolution (if not, the sequel). They are right in stating that some stories do not contain denouement, but I can only think of one novel that doesn't fit into a typical plot structure: Finnegan's Wake.
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Smith and Wilhelm offer brilliant ideas for teaching theme, characterization, Point of View, etc.

I was especially impressed by the various activities the authors suggest to help students seriously engage with the full meaning--not the stock definition--of the various literary elements.

One could easily use their book to design an entire thoroughly engaging year of English Literature study. Bravo.
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The writing itself is so-so. It has some pretty cool ideas but I'm not sure that it's enough to take up that much room -- it's a really long book and I was able to skip over a lot of useless stuff. I would still recommend it because it does rethink literary elements and is still a great resource even if I know I couldn't use a large percentage of it.
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Format: Paperback
Like the title suggests, this book offers fresh takes on teaching literary elements. I have only completed the portion on character, but my students seem to be understanding character and characterization more through the methods suggested in this book than through my previous teaching methods.

This book really shows how to connect teaching literary elements to students' lives, rather than just teaching them in segmented chunks or connected to a story.

I would recommend this book to any teacher wanting to find new and engaging methods for teaching literary elements.
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This book is an eye opener into literary analysis. Although I had already been approaching my units on fiction in a similar fashion to the authors' advice here, its explanations on character, setting, point of view, and theme are quite substantial and meaningful. I do remember the first time I approached teaching literature in a traditional way, through definitions, and now I wish I had had this type of guidance then. The chapter that I found most useful was the one on point of view. Even though I had figured out on my own the meaningful teaching of character, setting, and theme, I always wondered about the first person and third person distinction. I've seen these exercises and they just don't make sense to me. This text certainly clarified this important aspect and it will be helpful in crafting guiding questions for my lessons.
Teachers should also note their explanations on why they didn't explore in depth the concepts of plot and conflict. And I agree with them. After all, you have to deal with these concepts when discussing the other four elements. Character, setting, point of view, and theme are at the essence of literary understanding.
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