BEYOND THE NOTEBOOK
BY MARY COTILLO
Oct 2, 2012
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the bleakness of October than by reveling in it with Edgar Allan Poe. Seriously, is there a better time to teach Poe than October? (Okay, well, maybe in the “bleak December,” but I prefer happier stuff that month.) October is cold and dreary. The days are shorter; it’s darker longer. Classrooms are decorated with bats and ghosts and kids are itching for a good scare.
So, indulge yourself and turn off the classroom lights. Indulge the students and let them sit on the floor. If you’re lucky, the weather will cooperate and rain will pour down. If you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll get a little thunder and lightning, too! Then pass around the Poe and let your imaginations run wild.
But wait! Don’t stop there! You don’t have to let Poe be a one-day ghost story session. Okay, sure. You could frost cupcakes black for his birthday (which is today, October 2nd), but the bosses tend to frown on food in school these days. You could dress in a trench coat and pass out roses in honor of the anniversary of his death (which is October 7th), but I’m pretty sure those sorts of coats violate most dress codes. There is a way, though, to extend your visit into the über-creepy landscape of Edgar Allan Poe—one that doesn’t require a trip to A.C. Moore for specialty food coloring or silk flowers.
Here’s the idea: Together, with a lot of clarifying along the way, we read a few Poe pieces—my go-to favorites are “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” for short stories, and “The Raven” and “Annabelle Lee” for poetry. After several days interacting with Poe, I ask students to identify some of the characteristics of his writing. Generally, they come up with things like:
- lots of adjectives and adverbs
- lots of verbs
- lots of dashes
- big words
- figurative language
- talks to the reader
- creepy subject
Then, as a class, we write a starter paragraph in a mysterious setting using the first person point of view. Once we’ve done that, students apply each of the following steps. (I’ve condensed the steps for you below, but if you’d like the full handout, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
and I’ll happily share with you.) After writing a class model, students attempt to fly solo. STARTER PARAGRAPH
It was early evening in late November. I was working late and feeling sorry for myself. Everyone else had gone home so I was alone in the office. I popped a bag of microwave popcorn for “dinner,” and got a soda out of the vending machine. I was walking back to my office along the empty hallway when I thought I heard footsteps behind me. I turned, but there was no one there. SAME PARAGRAPH, BUT APPLYING CHARACTERISTIC #1: USE LOTS OF ADJECTIVES AND ADVERBS
I was working terribly
late and feeling horribly, pitifully
sorry for myself. SAME PARAGRAPH, BUT APPLYING CHARACTERISTIC #2: USE MORE THAN ONE VERB AT A TIME
I was strolling, walking
slowly and quietly back to my office along the deserted hallway when I thought, I imagined
, I heard the faintest brush of footsteps behind me SAME PARAGRAPH, BUT APPLYING CHARACTERISTIC #3: REPEAT YOURSELF
I was utterly alone, alone
in the empty office. …Quickly I turned and looked, but there was no one there. No one there. SAME PARAGRAPH, BUT APPLYING CHARACTERISTIC #4: USE DASHES
I was walking slowly and quietly back to my office—along the deserted hallway when I thought—I imagined—I heard the faintest brush of footsteps behind me. BREAK OUT THE THESAURUS FOR CHARACTERISTIC #5: USE BIG WORDS
I was laboring
—toiling—terribly late and feeling horribly, pitifully sorry for myself. All and sundry
had gone—flown home. ADDING A SENTENCE WITH CHARACTERISTIC #6: USE FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
The late November night was as dark and cold as the devil’s heart. EMPHASIZE WORDS WITH CHARACTERISTIC #7: USE ALL-CAPS
I was UTTERLY alone, alone in the vacant office. … Hastily I turned and looked, but there was no one there. NO ONE THERE. ADDRESS YOUR AUDIENCE DIRECTLY WITH CHARACTERISTIC #8: TALK TO THE READER
I was strolling—walking as slowly and quietly as a THIEF back to my office—along the hallway as desolate as the winter sky when I thought—you will say I imagined
—I thought heard the faintest brush of footsteps behind me. FINAL PRODUCT, EMPHASIZING CHARACTERISTIC #9: THE CREEPY SUBJECT
The late November night was as dark and cold as the devil’s heart. I was laboring—toiling—terribly late and feeling horribly, PITIFULLY sorry for myself. All and sundry had flown home to warm and welcoming nests. Everyone else had gone. I was UTTERLY alone, alone in the vacant office. I had only the sharp smell of a meager bag of tasteless microwave popcorn for company. I retrieved a diet, caffeine free soda from the vending machine. I was strolling—walking as slowly and quietly as a THIEF back to my office—along the hallway as desolate as the winter sky when I thought—you will say I imagined—I thought heard the faintest brush of footsteps behind me. Hastily I turned and looked, but there was no one there. NO ONE THERE.
Sure, this writing lesson makes for a super-cool addition to student portfolios. But it also provides an opportunity to review of the parts of speech. And by encouraging students to go overboard, you’re giving them permission to be “bad” writers so they don’t have to worry about being “good” writers. It’s also a fun way to engage kids who otherwise tend to hold back.
But really, the best part is that you’ll have kids reading Poe like they’ve never read him before. They’ll be dissecting his style, questioning when and where he uses punctuation and figurative language. They’ll be laughing at their own ridiculousness, getting excited about language, thinking, writing, and—MOST importantly—having a fabulously creepy time. Mary Cotillo is an 8th grade ELA teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, MA. Mother to two children, she enjoys engaging in light saber battles and hanging out on soccer fields. She earned her National Board Certification in 2009.
© 2012 Mary Cotillo. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.