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In 2013 when I arrived at the name for the Echo series of high-school English textbooks, my hope was that the books and their stories would reverberate with students throughout their lives. I put great care into researching and writing psychologically complex stories and texts to captivate young people’s imagination.

Natur och Kultur publishers imagined the books would be re-printed a few times before becoming outdated; I determined to make the books as timeless and relevant as possible.

Eight years later, the first book I wrote in the series, Echo Main Issues 5, has been re-printed half a dozen times. I’ve been using the stories and other materials in the books in the classroom ever since, and while the novelty of writing them has worn off, my students’ engagement with them has not. My students are just as interested in the characters and their lives, and find the interactive sections just as compelling.

As the books have gone back to the printers, I’ve made minor corrections. Thanks to the many teachers and students who use the books, the series is still going strong. Do you work with the books? What improvements would you like to see? Please let me know here, or by contacting me at kfrato@yahoo.com. If you have other feedback on the books, please let me know, as well.

Thanks everyone who attended and contributed to my recent lecture on teaching creative writing at Natur och Kultur publishers. Upwards of fifty teachers attended in person, while a dozen or so watched and chatted online from elsewhere in the country. Natur och Kultur themselves had about six people on hand –– working late to help students around the country by helping their teachers get new ideas.

My long-term goal is to improve the quality of English education in Sweden; working with creative structures is a vital part of that improvement.  If you were (or weren’t) in attendance and have questions or comments, please feel free to contact me at: kfrato@yahoo.com.

I’ll be finishing my Swedish lecture tour on Wednesday, May 10th at the Natur och Kultur building in Stockholm, talking about teaching creative writing at the high school level. The lecture starts at 5 p.m. (refreshments from 4 p.m.) and the sign up is here.

I’ll be discussing the benefits and challenges of using creative writing in the English curriculum, how to grade creative writing and the workshopping process, teaching the theory of what creative writing is, teaching narrative structure and mechanics, and finally describing the workshopping format and its dos and don’ts (extremely important for protecting students’ integrity, and where my Echo Main Issues books differ from others).

I’m planning to cover a lot of useful material during the evening.  Please bring your ideas and questions, and I hope to see you there!

High school English teachers in Sweden sometimes ask me why they should buy the Echo books for their classes.  My answer is in two parts –– firstly, why we English teachers should invest in textbooks in general, and secondly why the ones I wrote might be a better investment than the others.

Firstly, why invest in textbooks at all?  It’s a fair question.  I myself taught for years without textbooks, and now that my students have English textbooks, we still don’t use them every lesson.  But I’ve grudgingly come to understand that the right books are worth requesting funds for from your department head or principal.

Why are high-quality textbooks worth purchasing?

Develop a common understanding: I support students’ freedom to choose novels to read (this increases their interest in reading them); however sometimes the whole class benefits from reading and discussing shorter texts together, to help develop a common understanding.

Help for both struggling and bored student: Both struggling and bored students benefit from having textbooks to turn to, struggling students because the book serves as an extra resource, bored students because the books serve as intellectual stimulation when they have already grasped concepts.

3  Students trying to catch up appreciate textbooks: For students trying to catch up with coursework, textbooks help.  It’s helpful to be able to refer them to a specific chapter or resource section first, and then answer any questions they might still have afterwards.

Textbooks are designed to fit course goals: Textbook authors and editors spend months, sometimes years, planning, writing, editing and fine-tuning texts and exercises to fit the national curriculum’s course goals –– which means that if we use textbooks (or parts of them) efficiently, we spend more time teaching, and less time scrambling to meet curriculum goals.

Why buy Echo: Main Issues, specifically? 

1  Designed and written for Gy11  My editor Åsa and I designed every aspect of the books with the current course goals in mind. (Other books still on the market were originally written for the old curriculum!).

2  Purpose-written texts.  I’ve designed the texts in each book to be psychologically engaging and offer a complete reading experience –– unlike the extracts or adaptations to be found in other books.  (Yes, I myself wrote all the texts in Echo Main Issues 5 & 6, as well as a few in Echo Vocational, even if they appear be be written by other people.)

3  Integrated linguistic exercises –– I wrote the exercises together with the texts, so they are fully integrated with one another.

4  Respectful writing workshops: Other books encourage students to criticize each other’s text in a peer-response process.  Unfortunately this leads to poor textual analysis –– and hurt feelings.  Echo: Main Issues follws the same guidelines I use with my college students: analysis of how a texts works for us, structurally and linguistically, without any value judgments or helpful suggestions. And the author remains silent and listens, in order to avoid unnecessary apologies, explanations, corrections, or arguments.  It’s a tried-and-true method, and very helpful.

4  Natur och Kultur’s democratic mission: Natur och Kultur Publishers is a non-profit foundation whose mission is to work for peace and democracy.  Thus the stories and other texts I wrote have a democratic purpose –– they deal with issues like bullying, football hooliganism, racism, poverty, gun violence, women’s rights, etc.

5  Professional experience. I bring professional experience to these books.  I’ve been publishing professionally since I was seventeen –– working for newspapers, magazines, as a translator and editor, and as a fiction and non-fiction author since 1987.  I also have a double-masters in English Literature and Education, and I’ve been teaching since the 1990s.  In addition to high-school English, I also teach creative writing at a college in Stockholm.  So for intance the reference sections of the books that deal with various types of texts and writing feedback –– these are issues I’ve been working with professionally for decades.

This is my schedule for free lectures for teachers at Swedish schools ––  the topics are teaching the writing process through conversation theory, and how to work with creative writing in the classroom.  All workshops generously sponsored by Natur och Kultur publishers, Stockholm.  The schools listed are the ones who have signed up, and who we’ve been able to fit into my schedule (I teach at two different schools and can’t be away all the time).   I’m aware that some schools have requested a time but not yet received one.

If your school is not signed up but is still interested, please contact gunilla.hallin@nok.se. It might still be possible to find a time, but unfortunately there are no guarantees.

I look forward to working with you!

June

– Söderköping: Nyströmska gymnasium, June 8th

September

– Nässjö, Brinellgymnasiet: Sept. 5th

– Halmstad: Sturegymnasiet & Sannarpsgymnasiet, Sept. 21st

October

– Gothenburg: Göteborgs Folkhögskola & Schillerska Gymnasium, Oct. 4th

– Stockholm: Cybergymnasiet, October 6th

– Lidingö: Hersby gymnasium

– Stockholm: Fryshuset, Oct. 17th (preliminary)

– Mora: Mora Gymnasium, October 26th

November

– Stockholm: Thorildsplans gymnasium, Nov. 15th

 

My publisher Natur och Kultur has booked me in to lecture at Swedish schools this year, and first up is Nyströmska skolan in Söderköping, where I’ll be discussing teaching the writing process based on conversation theory.  This is a method I developed a few years ago after years –– decades –– of trying to find a better way to teach academic writing, and in general a more unified theory for helping students understand the writing process.  I’d recently completed double a masters in education and English at the University of Stockholm, and had taken a course in linguistics that got me thinking about language and communication in new ways.

At the same time, I was teaching one group of students how to make speeches based on conversation theory, and another how to write.  I finally put the two together and realized I was teaching the same process, but calling it two different things.  A colleague was sick and I was asked to tae his English classes on short notice, so in desperation, not knowing what he’d already taught his students, I decided to teach them something I knew they wouldn’t have heard before ––– and I taught my first lesson on teaching essay writing based on the universal rules of structuring a conversation.

Since then I’ve refined the method, and I’ve found it helps students accept and understand various writing conventions much more easily –– because suddenly they learn that structuring our ideas on paper is the same as structuring arguments with our parents.  I used to introduce academic writing (logical structures) by saying, “This is boring but I unfortunately I have to teach you anyway.”  Nowadays I introduce it by saying, “Today I’m going to teach you how to win arguments with your parents.”

That usually gets their attention.

The method I developed is outlined in the back of my book Echo 6 Main Issues (fiction and instructional texts for high school students).

At my lectures this year, I’ll also be discussing why and how to teach creative writing in the classroom, as well as discussing simple guidelines for workshopping writing with students.  If you’ve booked me for a lecture, I’m looking forward to working with you.  If you still want to book me for a lecture, contact Natur och Kultur here.

When my Swedish publisher asked me in the spring of 2014 to write a story for their middle school English reader Wings 7, I didn’t understand what I was getting into.  I had just finished writing a collection of short stories and other texts for high school English classes published under the title Echo: Main Issues 6 (my second book for Natur och Kultur), and I was in the process of writing new stories –– and re-writing and editing other people’s stories –– for their vocational book in the same series.  I was also several months past deadline on a teacher’s manual (which I wrote the week after school let out). I put as much work into the story as I could, sent it off, made some changes my editors asked for, and forgot about it.

Having grown up in the States, I’d never heard of the Wings series –– I had no idea it’s been around since I myself was in middle school, has been through several revised editions, and has been reprinted nearly once a year for decades.  I had no idea my oldest son would soon bring home a Wings 7 from school. Well, soon my editors asked me for a whole bunch more stories. Then they told me about Wings 8 and Wings 9.

When people hear I write stories for students, they often say in a skeptical tone, ”Textbooks?”  But around other authors, the reaction is more like, ”Dang, sounds like a sweet gig.” While it’s true that writing short-short stories isn’t the only thing I want to do as a writer, young people do need good stories, and I’m proud to be writing them.  It’s an important job –– I still remember the stories I read in my very first textbooks, don’t you? When I write for young readers, my goal is to give them stories that will mean something in their lives.  I’m going to spend my summer working on a new batch.

I was contacted by my publisher a few days ago concerning a couple of short stories in interview-format about South Africa that I wrote several years ago.  The stories are included in a book for high school students, and one of the follow-up questions, which had been heavily edited by the editorial staff, now implies that the Apartheid government of South Africa had been making an honest effort to reduce crime through racial divisions.

Of course it should read that reducing crime was simply an excuse for apartheid.

The teacher in Solna, Sweden who brought this to the attention of the publisher was dismayed.  We were too –– the book Echo Main Issues 5 had been proofread by several people including myself.  Why didn’t I catch the mistake?

The publisher immediately changed the text on the web-version, wrote an apology and an explanation to the teacher who had noticed it, and posted a social-media comment.  And I called the teacher and thanked her, as well.

Lessons learned?  First, when dealing with complex issues in a very short space (apartheid in one sentence), be extra careful with the wording.  Second, pay careful attention to how editorial cuts affect the slant of the remaining text –– three historically balanced sentences were reduced to one inaccurate sentence.  Third, don’t do your proofreading under pressure (not always possible –– by the time the layout and photo editors were done with the manuscript, I had as I recall only a few days to proofread the entire book.  On top of my two teaching jobs, that meant I was proofreading late at night).

 

At the final workshop of Creative Writing and Narrative Theory, I got a few questions about next term.  Here are the links and dates:

Creative Writing and Narrative Theory: February 9th-April 20th (ten Monday evenings, every week).  In this intro course I teach skills for expanding linguistic style, narrative mechanics, and range of subjects.

Novel Workshop: January 29th-May 7th (eight Thursday evenings, every other week).  In the novel workshop we analyze longer texts that tend to be part of extended projects.  We also work on theoretical issues.  This course may be repeated if desired.

The free trial evening will be January 14th; the info hasn’t been posted yet.

The Short Story Workshop weekend course has not been posted yet, either.

Finally, anyone interested in hearing me talk about using fantasy and fairytale theory in the classroom is welcome to sign up for my talk on the 11th of December at Natur och Kultur, Karlvägen, Stockholm.  I’ll also be talking about the books I’ve written for Natur och Kultur, and why I wrote the stories the way I did, etc.  I rarely discuss these projects on this blog, even though I’ve spent the past few years working on them.  So feel free to come and listen.

Yesterday evening in Östersund I met a dozen engaged English teachers.  We discussed literature and young people, course plans, course books, grading criteria, new ways of working, and fantasy and fairy tales.  I promised to post some fantasy and fairy tale ideas on this blog.  Here goes:

 

Three ideas from Tolkien’s On Faerie Stories:

1 Fairy tales are the oldest, most highly evolved form of literature

2 Most old fairy tales are broken or fragmented; therefore we need new ones

3 Eucatastrophe (‘beneficial death’): Tolkien invented this Greek term for characters dying and coming back to life for a good cause (Gandalf, The Little Mermaid).

 

Modern fantasy evolved from modern fairy tales written by E.T.A. Hoffman (‘Sandman’, ‘The Nutcracker’), H.C. Andersen (‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’), and others. Many people consider the first fantasy novel to be Phantastes (1858) by the Scottish Christian Socialist George MacDonald.

Fantasy means any story in which the laws of physics are broken. There are three main types:

Fantasy –– magic

Science Fiction –– science

Supernatural Fiction –– religion

 

Fantasy worlds:

High fantasy: stories take pace in another world (Middle Earth). Often social or political, using fantasy worlds to comment on our world.

Low fantasy: stories start in our world, move a secondary world, and return to our world. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Often psychological, using the journey between worlds as a chance for characters to grow.

Reverse low fantasy: stories start in a secondary world, move to our world, and return to the secondary world. (Monsters Inc,; the book Howl’s Moving Castle, but not the film)

Heterotopia: stories move between multiple worlds. Sometimes we don’t know which is the primary world and which are the secondary worlds. (Harry Potter)

 

Vladimir Propp was a Russian folktale researcher. His ideas were similar to Tolkien’s, but because of the Iron Curtain, Propp’s work was unknown in the West until the 1970s. Propp’s doctoral thesis from the 1920s The Morphology of the Folktale contains several main ideas:

1 It’s what the characters do –– not what a story or its characters are called –– that defines a story. Multiple characters can share the same function, and each character can have multiple functions (The Little Mermaid can be both a hero to the prince, and a villain to herself).

2 There are a limited number of things characters do in folktales.

3 Characters do things in the same order in every story, though not everything happens in every story.

 

Some standard characters in folktales:

  1. Hero (often reluctant)
  2. Helper
  3. Giver/donor
  4. Seeker (the other possible hero, who fails)
  5. Victim
  6. Magician
  7. Villain
  8. Obstructer
  9. Royalty (King, Queen, Prince, Princess)
  10. Family member
  11. Witch
  12. Monster
  13. Princess
  14. Dragon
  15. Horse
  16. Captives

And Propp’s stage props:

  1. Talisman (magical object or idea)
  2. Treasure

The hero and the villain: Propp points out that the hero and the villain usually meet twice: first the villain seeks out the hero; then the hero seeks out the villain.

Brains vs. Brawn:

Another folklore theorist named U.C. Knoepflmacher points out that heroes in African, European, and Asian tales solve problems using their brains; in American tales, heroes use brawn (physical strength).

One of my students recently pointed out that this difference is apparent in the Disney re-write of The Little Mermaid.