Five years ago, Oregon adopted the Common Core in an ongoing effort to improve education. I narrowed the multitude of goals and aspirational expectations down to three key skill sets. Over the last two years, I’ve become more and more aware of other things my students are missing: determination, willingness to learn from mistakes, willingness to fail, ability to be on time or show up regularly and these are all skills that people need to acquire and keep jobs. I keep looking for ways I can use the stories I teach to talk about perseverance and determination, about consent in all areas of life, about reliability and relatibility.

Teaching my students about coded language through poetry, fairy tales, and stories from the 1800’s is a life skill that will help them parse what is and isn’t said by the people around them. Recently, it bit me. Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is supposed to be a rollicking adventure and exploration of what could live in the deeps. The reality of the book is a little different. There are just so many descriptions of fish that it feels like David Weber describing a weapon in any of his many novels. Reading it out loud, I got to the point where I’d say “the next two paragraphs describe more fish.” That’s slightly terrible, but it’s honest. Good readers jump over the boring bits sometimes and keeping students engaged means being real with them.

I told them that if the recent movie attempt at Moby Dick was true to the book every seven minutes there would be a one minute PSA on whaling. Then, my students took what they’d learned about reading on multiple levels, what they learned about coded language, and explained to me how 20,0000 Leagues Under The Sea is really a romance novel. They felt bad for Ned Land as Aronnax’s attention drifted to Nemo. They pointed out how hard Nemo tried at first. I can’t unknow that. And for all that it’s hilariously annoying, they took what they had learned, interacted with the text, and found something new. That’s what this is all about.

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