Review: Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence by Geoffrey Canada

Canada, Geoffrey, Illus. Jamar Nicholas. Fist Stick Knife Gun. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. a personal quest through contemporary graphic novels exploring anti-heroic themes, I picked up this graphic memoir about social activist Geoffrey Canada’s growing up in the streets of the South Bronx during the late 1950s and 1960s. In 119 dynamically drawn pages, illustrator Jamar Nicholas skillfully renders the pain, fear, disappointment, and hope of Canada’s chilling, but hopeful, childhood story.

In the book’s opening scene, Canada, at age four, first becomes aware of violence. This first lesson comes when Canada’s mother orders his two older brothers to retrieve a jacket stolen from one of them at the playground, despite the thief’s threat of violence. While the occasion left young Geoff with many questions about how to act in the world, this proved the first of many lessons to come about showing no fear and escaping victimization.

The story follows Geoff and his brothers as they earn the right to sit on, much less walk down, their neighborhood block and learn the unspoken social rules of the street. And the first rule every boy and girl learns is that everyone fights. No one escapes the elaborate rituals involved in establishing a place in an ever shifting pecking order determined by age, fighting ability, and show of heart. From the block, to public school, and beyond, young children and adults engage in and model expectations for maintaining social order, often through various and increasingly violent means. At the beginning of the book, Canada learns to fight with his fists; by the early 1970s, more widespread gun ownership, alongside the spread of crack cocaine, began a greater escalation of violence and further deterioration of community life many poor urban communities continue to fight today.

As the president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit, community-based organization dedicated to rendering various services, from education and prevention programs, to children and adults in poor neighborhoods, Canada’s main message rings loud and clear. Through the authority of experience and without beating the reader over the heads with it, he insists that individuals do not inherit violence. People do not carry violent genes or naturally gravitate toward violent acts. Canada speaks to these arguments in a moving epilogue, asserting,

I remember clearly the time in my life when I knew nothing of violence and how hard I worked later to learn to become capable of it.

Violence, he contends, happens through a series of hard lessons about how to act in a hostile world. Violent situations cannot be changed through blame or incarceration or looking the other way. The hope of preventing and, perhaps, eliminating violence, can only be reached by taking an integrated approach to looking at the complex social forces which create threatening, unequal, and unsafe situations for certain individuals and groups of people.


As I said earlier, I would recommend this to any teacher trying to stock up on graphic reading materials that might be of especial interest to young men. My current interest also lies in collecting materials (for literature circles, maybe?) to present in a kind of anti-hero unit consisting about persecuted, misunderstood, or vilified groups or people or individuals (a Night unit and associated themes?). I think this book, exploring difficult and very contemporary issues, could easily fit right in.

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Non-Fiction in New English Language Arts Common Core

Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksIn addition to increased attention on incorporating digital media into the English Language Arts curriculum, the new Common Core Standards place special emphasis on non-fiction. In a recent New York Times editorial, English teacher Sara Mosle explores the resistance expressed by many colleagues, argues against the rigid fiction/non-fiction binary, and advocates for reading more narrative non-fiction as a necessary step for improving student writing.

While admitting that the quality of available adolescent non-fiction must improve (in general and in our cash-strapped school libraries), Mosle believes the new standards will create more diverse reading cultures in our ELA classrooms. In addition to quality non-fiction news/magazine articles and digital pieces (, “This American Life” program), secondary educators, she argues, ought to seize opportunities to steer students toward high-quality, contemporary non-fiction like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

What nonfiction titles have you successfully incorporated into your curriculum? Or, what nonfiction books are your students reading/recommending you read?

On a broader note, I’m interested in hearing about your perspectives on the new standards and how it has or will impact your teaching.

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Teaching: Homer’s Odyssey

Gustave Moreau - The Sirens 1872Introduction/Background to Ancient Greece & Homer:

Odyssey Online: Interactive Learning Experience (Emory University) – Easily adapted to webquest or other assignment.

Homer Homepage (Georgia Perimeter College) – Collection of very useful background links.

Odyssey Units:

Contains great Hero hook activity, graphic organizers for guiding reading and gathering notes for problem-solution, list, order of location, and chronological order paragraphs, Hero’s Journey Charts, Research assignment on hero of your choice, and Homeric tapestry group assignment

Day-by-day lesson plans, Gods and goddesses mini-slide presentation, Odyssey intro PowerPoint, Direct and Indirect Characterization chart with “I am Laertes son” and “Lotus Eaters” section, irony webquest, symbolism search with “Circe, Sirens, Scylla & Charybdis” sections, and tiered writing assignment (culminating assessment with rubric) with options to create a comic strip, write a ghost story episode Homer excluded from the Odyssey, or write news reports following Odysseus’s journey home.

Based on new Common Core Standards, the unit includes supplementary literary as well as non-informational texts and focuses on argumentative writing. Features a heroes vs. celebrities opening discussion, exploration of archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s monomythic Hero’s Journey in film assignment, analysis of Hero’s Journey and archetypes in non-fiction narratives, tons of writing prompt ideas, anticipation guide, Mini-research assignment on changing qualities of heroes through literary periods, and more.

Individual/Daily Lesson Plans & Assignments:

Web English Teacher – Homer-related readings, assignments, and lesson plans.

Web English Teacher’s Odysseus Needss a Job assignment (would fit an argumentative writing unit)

Supplemental Materials:

Victoria Allen Teaching Guide to Signet Classic Edition of Homer’s Odyssey

Includes key vocab, journal topics, plot summaries and study questions, after reading questions and essay questions for deeper understanding, dramatic, arts and crafts, writing, and media activities. Odyssey Teaching Materials

PowerPoints, worksheets, activities, and games.

Romare Bearden’s Odyssey collages

A post I wrote for this blog about African American artist, Romare Bearden, and his work pertaining to Homer’s Odyssey. Contains many links to Bearden resources, including lesson plans.

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Teaching: Modernism and Harlem Renaissance Unit (American Literature)

Fitzgerald - Tales of the Jazz AgeIntroduction/Background:

Dr. Paul P. Reuben’s (CSU Stanislaus) Early Twentieth Century – American Modernism Introduction
Valuable introduction to American Modernism, including their common characteristics, attitudes, tensions, literary achievements and themes. Touches modern sense of self and complex relationship between Modernism and “New Negro Renaissance.” Also includes list of study questions.

Visual Art Connection: Virtual Exhibit of the 1913 Armory Show/The International Exhibition of Modern Art with essays.

Some Obvious Authors/Works:

T.S. Eliot
William Faulkner
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Ernest Hemingway
Langston Hughes
Zora Neale Hurston
Gertrude Stein
Wallace Stevens

Modernism Units:

This Modernism unit touches on several genres and focuses on Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” or “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Hemingway’s “Indian Camp.” Assignments include a short story (style and point of view) rewrite, response journals with prompt ideas, Great Gatsby picture book (image portfolio), illustrating (with brief rationale) an image from “The Hollow Men,” “Who’s Responsible” for Gatsby’s death culminating assessment. All assignments come with rubrics. Before reading activities: chalk talk and anticipation guide. Daily lesson plans for 17 day unit (90 minutes class blocks).

Focuses on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” comparison of Robinson’s “Richard Cory” to Eliot’s “Prufock” (analysis of figures as Hemingway heroes), Sherwood Anderson’s “The Egg,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, and The Great Gatsby. Materials include a Modernism PPT w/guided notes, Great Gatsby worksheets and questions, Of Mice and Men anticipation guide, questions, and essay topics, and Harlem Renaissance Ressearch Project.

Using Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God as central text, the unit examines this text alongside jazz musicians and songs of the time: Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, etc. Activities include a jazz web quest, reading logs, and multimedia/performance culminating assessments (i.e. creating a CD compilation, rewriting and performing a scene from TEWWG). Assessments include rubrics. The unit also includes activities for making more modern connections by examining ’80s hip hop and musicians like Tupac and Outkast.

Lesson Plans:

3 Part EDSitement Introduction to Modernist Poetry Lesson:

Lesson 1: Introducing students to the historical and cultural context of Modernism. Using high quality websites explore inventions/technological breakthroughs, rise of urban life, transportation, factory life, and World War I.

Lesson 2: Begins by comparing Romantic poems (Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” and Barrett Brownings “Sonnet from the Portuguese 43: How Do I Love Thee?” with Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” to get at characteristics of Modernist poetry. Includes graphic organizer.

Lesson 3: Opens with students examining Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” and relating analysis to Steven’s poem in order to add to graphic organizer of characteristics of pre-Modern v. Modernist Worlds. Next students read through Eliot’s “Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock” using detailed graphic organizer broken up by stanza with guiding questions.

ReadWriteThink Harlem Renaissance Retrospective 5 Day Project

Students explore multimedia landscape of Harlem Renaissance artists by creating a museum exhibit focused on one musical, literary, or visual artist of the time period.

ReadWriteThink Connotation, Character, and Color Imagery in The Great Gatsby

Opens with consideration of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and connects color symbolism to Great Gatsby characters. Color log to track colors and characters, culminating assessment is an argumentative paper analyzing character/color. Includes rubric.

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Review: The Quitter by Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel

Pekar - The QuitterWriter Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame, narrates a gloomy but realistic memoir, depicting scenes of his coming-of-age, the son of Polish Jew grocers, in the racially-charged, post-World War II climate of Cleveland, Ohio. Dean Haspiel provides expert illustrations to the scenes of alienation and drudgery which characterized the young Pekar’s rough search for identity and purpose. In his characteristic slightly depressed, tell-it-like-it-is tone, Pekar chronicles a series of early adult failures including his dropping out of high school sports, receiving a hasty discharge from the Navy, quitting college, and being fired from several menial jobs. Interspersed through these episodes, an older Pekar appears to deliver the sobering news that it don’t get any better from here, kid. As average Joes, many of us must often settle for what we can get and hope for the best: survive and keep trying to create something worthwhile.

Pekar - The QuitterI won’t say this graphic memoir brightened my day or lightened my mood. I will say it offered some hard and important truths we tend to ignore. In American society, anyway, an extreme focus on heroism and an innumerable number of unobtainable ideals often leave many adults, old and young, anxious about how they can ever measure up. So much effort goes into cultivating the idea that we should all be winners that our society tends to ignore the value of failing or, even, quitting. Beneath a seemingly resigned exterior, this book calls for recognition that failure creates opportunities for growth and the potential to learn. These experiences can help us determine what we are and what we are not; they help us set goals for who and what we want to be. Though the story ends in ambivalence, with Pekar still anxious about his level of artistic acceptance and financial circumstances, it’s clear he has done the important thing: survived in the world.

The book’s themes will likely appeal most to high school-aged young men; but, I think we can all benefit from the book’s main message: we need not be so fearful of failing and, if need, be, knowing when to quit every now and again.

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Teaching: Age of Reason Unit (American Literature)

Architect of the Capitol - Founding Fathers - Declaration of IndependenceIntroduction/Background:

The Enlightenment
Brief historical background of Enlightenment, including lesson plans using excerpts from English thinkers (Hobbes’ The Leviathan and Locke’s Of Civil Government) and French Philosophes (Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws & Rousseau’s The Social Contract). Comparing Hobbes and Locke might be useful for American Lit teachers as entry into examining Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, heavily influenced by Locke.

Dr. Paul P. Reuben’s (CSU Stanislaus) Early American Literature (1700-1800) page
Valuable introduction to American Enlightenment writers, including their common beliefs, characteristic elements of their works, and overview of Deist beliefs. Also includes bibliographies for long list of writers of the period.

Most Obvious Works:

Thomas Jefferson – Declaration of Independence
Benjamin Franklin – excerpts from his Autobiography and Poor Richard’s Almanac
Thomas Paine – Common Sense
Patrick Henry – “Speech in the Virginia Convention”

Age of Reason Units:

Mrs. Follis’s Teaching Page
Plenty of ideas to begin for a mini-unit. Follis’s page features an assignment where students use Ben Franklin’s aphorisms and proverbs to create skits and illustrative posters and a songwriting culminating assessment using Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” as model.

Steve Kahl’s (Mountain View HS) Age of Reason Study/Writing Prompts

Gwinnett County Schools (GA) Age of Reason Instructional Plan
Focuses on Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, Number 1, Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, and Patrick Henry’s “Speech in the Virginia Convention.” Includes Rationalism guided notes handout, Declaration.. & Crisis… & “Virginia Convention” speech graphic organizers, “Writing about Persuasion” assignment, “Read-Around Peer Edit” activity, and Age of Reason quiz.

Lesson Plans:

Two activities (2-3 day lesson plan) for comprehending Paine’s arguments for American Independence and debating/developing arguments and counterarguments on hereditary monarchy using excerpts from Common Sense.

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Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Suzanne Collins - Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games series first appeared on my radar via Appalachian Studies friends excited about the first book opening in a place called District 12. Set in a not-too-distant, but plenty dismal post-American future, District 12, once known as the Appalachian region, lies on the outskirts of the authoritarian country of Panem. Toiling in poverty and starvation, District 12’s citizens mine coal sent directly to the distant Capitol, somewhere in the impenetrable Rockies. They live in fear their children will die in the Capitol’s premier entertainment venue, the Hunger Games: an annual televised event in which one boy and one girl are chosen from each of Panem’s 12 districts to battle one another to the death.

When our huntress heroine, Katniss Everdeen, replaces her sister as the chosen “tribute” from District 12, she must leave a mother and sister who depend on her, her best friend and fellow hunter, Gale, and the only home she’s ever known. Together with the town baker’s son, Peeta, she journeys to the Capitol and toward a game that will test her courage, her wit, and her compassion.

Believe the hype: The book’s on fire

While focusing here on the first book, I must admit to falling in love with the rest of the series over the past week. These books deserve the hype (though I especially recommend the first and third installments). I haven’t been so excited about a series since reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

The Hunger Games is that good. It’s still plenty rare to find a strong, well-drawn female protagonist, so whenever I find one whose primary motivation centers around something other than earning the attention and bending to the every whim of a book’s main male characters, I rejoice. Of course, there’s plenty romance to go around, but Collins doesn’t overdo it; she uses it as one element in a complex and elegant plot.

Entering the ELA Canon

Already a popular inclusion in high school ELA courses, I’ve noticed many teachers using this novel as an appropriate modern pairing with Romeo and Juliet and/or as a central work in a utopia/dystopia unit. The plethora of themes Collins hits upon with these books lends itself equally well to either purpose. Rich with imagery and rife with suspense, Collins infuses the narrative with so many pertinent themes it’s no wonder The Hunger Games sensation continues to spread like wildfire.

As a whole series, these books might also work well paired with Julius Caesar or any work focused on the rise and fall of an unjust, authoritarian, or corrupt government.

Some Themes

Of course, the most obvious theme revolves around survival and, especially, the difficulty of maintaining one’s humanity while struggling to survive. The theme of poverty and severe inequality between the rich and poor is also hard to miss. Without going into too much detail, here are some other notable themes I pulled from my reading.

      • Repaying debts and fulfilling obligations make us human.
      • Competition is a violent strategy to discourage cooperation and perpetuate oppression and obedience.
      • Viewing people through screens via various media allows us to objectify and feel pleasure from the pain of others
      • The omnipresence of modern media creates self-consciousness about the images we project, determines how we act in front of others, and, even, confuses our inner feelings and true desires.
      • Expressing compassion and acting out of love is a form of rebellion.

Some Symbols

The mockingjay, the unexpected bird resulting from the mating of the Capitol-rpdocued jabberjay’s mating with mockingbirds, symbolizes a potential chink in the Capitol’s armor and hope that the authoritarian Panem may be toppled. Associated with song and the character of Katniss, who becomes “The Mockingjay,” the bird becomes a symbol of rebellion wheras the element of fire comes to symbolize full-scale revolution.

Bottom line: I loved these books and envy those who have them to look forward to.

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