Thug Notes: Keeping Literary Analysis Gangsta!

Have you ever been hanging out with your homies and felt like discussing the subtle nuances found in Mcite>The Stranger or maybe you were in the mood to converse about Animal Farm and it’s allegorical meaning. No? Just me? Oh.

Well a new channel on YouTube gives viewers a chance to see literary masterpieces through a more realistic scope. Thug Notes is hosted by Sparky. This Gangsta with a Graduate’s lays down some intense retellings of classics, while also providing thorough analysis of themes, character, and symbolism.

What I like about this channel is that it is real. Sparky literally keeps it real. He summarizes these works in a way that is humorous, but also relevant to our 21st century voice and perspective. As he is summarizing, there are stick figure animations with funny dialogue and photos to accompany his narration. Every Thug Notes episode is different.

Travels with Gabby (Part 2 of My Journey)

IMG_2302After recounting to you what I learned during my epic journey across America in the first part of this blog, I figured I would recount to you my smaller, still epic, journey across California. My wife and I just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary with a trip to San Francisco. As a courtesy to me, she allowed me to put the National Steinbeck Center on the itinerary, since we were driving through the area.

8131588061_c9a951ea38_zAs I have mentioned, Travels with Charley is a must read for me almost every time I take a road trip. What made this road trip extra special was being able to visit a museum dedicated to one of the most influential American authors, and seeing the house where he was born and raised.

233485416_e6f4cee0c1The National Steinbeck Center is located in Salinas, California, which is roughly two hours away from San Francisco and the bay area. Nestled close to the Monterey Bay, Salinas is a small community with a very significant national treasure. The Steinbeck Center houses an interactive museum where guest can read and see items related to Steinbeck’s life. Personal journals, notes, manuscripts are all on display and set in interesting formats. For example, there is great room that appears to be Steinbeck’s childhood bedroom with a dresser with drawers that open. When opened guests can see books that belonged to Steinbeck, notes he jotted down and even some short writing samples. All of it is encased in thick glass, of course.

Travels with Harley

The first question I typically get this time of year when people talk to me about work is “Are you teaching summer school?” To this question I always have the same response, and it is this:

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but teaching is a pretty demanding career. It is particularly strenuous for those of us who do it right and actually care, which is roughly half of us, but that is a topic for another day. Although most teachers are not paid during the summer, it is a time to let go of the previous year, hibernate, relax, enjoy family time, and even prepare for the next school year. I normally do not teach summers because I am aware of the plague of “teacher burn out” which happens when a select few take on too much of a workload to support the school. For me, the time off is needed to not go crazy.

3169665644_62fe7a3df6I try to make the most of my summers by traveling. I always get the urge to reread Travels with Charley by Steinbeck because he does such a beautiful job describing his cross-country travels. Two years ago I was lucky enough to take a similar trek across the country when my brother, his wife, and his daughter Harley moved from Arizona to South Carolina. I sought this opportunity to take my own road trip across the U.S. and dubbed the journey my “Travels with Harley.” We loaded up our version of “Rocinante” and like Steinbeck’s faithful poodle, my 2-year-old niece was my sidekick through the roads of America.

How to Raise a Star Wars Book Nerd

I have to confess my nerdiness, although I’m not really sure that I have done a good job at hiding it. Not only am I a bookworm, I am a Star Wars aficionado. Some people say “Fan Boy,” but that makes me feel like a little kid. Having these two hobbies/interests/obsessions comes with its own struggles; of course one of them is fighting the ladies off with a stick. I love reading and I love Star Wars, but sometimes people do not have the same passion that I feel when these two topics arise. So you can imagine my fears when I found out that my wife was pregnant. What if he hates books? What if he doesn’t love Star Wars? And worst of all, what if he likes Jar-Jar?

I have a very young cousin (now in middle school) who loves books and reading. I buy her books whenever I can to encourage her love of reading. I made a deal with her a few years ago that any book that I gave her I would read too, and we could enjoy it together as part of our shared interest. Naturally, the first book I gave her was Star Wars themed. She loved it. Now I have my own son and I want him to be raised with the force as part of his life, but more importantly I want him to appreciate the written word. How could I ensure that I raise him to love reading?

I have found a solution to this problem that eases my concerns. Listed below are a few wonderful Star Wars themed books written for children; well, written for parents wanting to brainwash their children into loving the same franchise that they were raised on.

Darth Vader and Son by Jeffrey Brown


This was actually the first book we purchased for our son while my wife was pregnant. It is mostly a picture book with little dialogue and it is about the struggles that Darth Vader encounters as part of being a father. Some of these include Luke getting a boo-boo, Vader digging Luke out of the compactor, and even Vader/son naptime. Brown has also written Vader’s Little Princess which is about the Dark Lord’s little girl, Leia. This was the first book I read to my son, but mostly I just show him the pictures and say things like “look son, a lightsaber,” or “that’s Darth Vader.”

The Grammar Rodeo: Going Crazy for Commas!

I was told in high school that my essays were a little too “comma crazy.” At the time, I had no idea what the hell that meant. I didn’t even realize that I used that many commas. Then I stopped and realized that I didn’t even know how to use a goddamn comma. I was just throwing them in there, willy-nilly. Oops, I did it again!


I was making the common mistake of using commas in my writing as conversational breaks in my sentences. I will explain this a little later, but first a word on commas.

Commas and periods are the two most frequently used forms of punctuations. Typically, commas are used to create a pause. They are not as severe as a period, which stops the whole sentence altogether. Commas can be used for separation of adjectives, to fix run-on sentences, to join two or more independent clauses with a conjunction, or to list or group things as I just did. Lets go into detail about how exactly to use this little guy.

Separating Adjectives

This really only works when the adjectives are interchangeable, but it is typically used to provide an extra detail about something.

Example: She is a beautiful, intelligent woman.

Or She is an intelligent, beautiful woman.

The comma is only correct here when the two adjectives are interchangeable.


Fixing Run-On Sentences

As an English teacher I see run-on sentences quite a bit. Commas are often used incorrectly here, resulting in what is called a comma splice. It looks like this:

INCORRECT – He ran all the way to school, he jumped into his seat.

CORRECT – After running all the way to school, he jumped into his seat

The problem here is that there are two independent clauses or ideas. We need to separate these, but we need to rearrange the sentence so that it is not two ideas spliced by a comma. This can also be solved by using a conjunction or connector.


Chipotle: An Authentic Anglo-American Mexican Experience


A couple of months ago I was excited to read this article about how Chipotle was going to incorporate short stories and essays from prominent writers on their cups. I thought this was the coolest idea ever. Although I rarely eat at Chipotle, putting literature on cups seems like a great experience and provides the average Joe with an opportunity to read something interesting and new. The cups feature contributions from Jonathan Safran Foer, Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison, George Saunders, and others. Some writers would contribute short stories and some would contribute essays for Chipotle’s cups and bags. This all stemmed from a bored Foer eating a burrito without a thing to read in proximity. He reached out to Chipotle’s CEO and the movement to put words on cups began.


The literary burrito eating experience sounded to me like a great idea. Then I read this article and I completely changed my mind. Although this is a great idea, it seems that Chipotle missed a valuable opportunity here to reach out to its Latino customers. Chipotle labels itself as “Authentic Mexican Grill” but failed to have a Mexican, Chicano, or Latino represented on their cups. It should also be mentioned that Chipotle is owned and operated by McDonalds, so their Latin influence is as authentic as McDonalds is to Scotland.

Is Writing Across the Curriculum Important?

I used to begin the school year by telling all of my students that my job as an English teacher was the most important job in the world and that their class would be the most significant they would ever have. I used this bit of hyperbole to capture their curiosity, but I would explain to them that it was my job to teach them what they would have to use in all of their other classes, and jobs, for the rest of their lives. This was my way of expressing to them the importance of reading and writing in our society. I do not do this anymore because I truly value the movement of interdisciplinary writing and writing across the curriculum, and I would hate to belittle that concept to my students by demeaning my colleagues and their approach to teaching literacy skills. On the contrary, I want my students to make the connection that writing has across the spectrum of education.

Reading and writing are ways to analyze and synthesize life and help us find meaning in things. Writing is key to learning. It helps us process, decode, and understand our complex thoughts or the complex thoughts of others. A main focus of the “Writing is…” video was the fact that writing is an outlet; not only for creativity, but also for expression of thought and knowledge. All classes in content areas require these skills to learn, and writing is used in each of them.

Check out this video about writing.

Canonical Literature vs. Contemporary Interests

I am, and have always been, a bit of a classicist. I enjoy things delivered in their pure form, or at least the pure form that was bestowed upon me. The problem with my traditionalist ways is that I am also fascinated with technology and the advancements that world has made in the past few decades. This causes a world of chaos for me that no one can possibly understand. I fought off getting an iPod for several year because I enjoyed having a physical CD and cover art. The same with cell phones, gaming systems, blu-rays, and other advancements in the technological world. I don’t know why, but I fight and fight until I conform. And then I fall in love. Out go all of the CD’s because they are useless. The cover art? Who needs it? I convert into this monster that must cleanse himself of outdated possessions. Ever see the “Obsolete Man” episode of Twilight Zone? Well for a brief time I become the dictator in charge of purging society of all things obsolete.

There are two internal struggles that I am currently facing, and both relate to my job in the classroom. The first is again a battle with technology. I enjoy my eReader (something that I just now am conforming to), but I am not ready to give up on paperbacks. There is something special about turning a page. The smell of a book when you first buy it. The feeling you get when you finish it. The other feeling you get when you lend it to someone and understand that you will never see it again. On the other hand, I can fit a thousand books on a small device that fits in my pocket. I can read it on the go, and then pick up where I left off on another synced device. I can mark the text without ruining the page. I can annotate and save interesting bits of writing. I think I know who will eventually win this war, but then what will I do with the multitude of bookshelves in my office?

The Grammar Rodeo: Colon-oscopy…Not as Gross as it Sounds

Ok, so now we are getting into a little bit of the hardcore grammar nazi type stuff. Punctuation can be a tricky thing at times, but colons and semicolons seem to intimidate some non-grammarians. The most use these punctuation pals get now is as the eyes in your emojis. But they are so much more than that. Well, they are a little more than that. Like all forms of punctuation they serve a purpose, and here it is:



Colons are used after independent clauses to introduce a list, an appositive, an amplification/emphasis, or an illustrative quote. Colons break up sentences to let the reader know that what follows (after the colon) is important and closely related to the clause that precedes it.

If we are talking about lists, colons work in this regard: “A master chef need three tools: a sharp knife, a hot pan, and the right ingredients.”

Colons can also be used to join two independent clauses. Strunk and White offer this example: “But even so, there was a directness and dispatch about animal burial: there was no stopover in the undertaker’s foul parlor, no wreath or spray.”


I Strike Thee Quickly with My Light Saber


Don’t you love when two of your favorite things collide to make one super-awesome thing? Peanut butter and chocolate? Amazing. Rum and Coke? Delicious. Bacon and milkshakes? Well, that might be an acquired taste, but you get the idea. Last year I stumbled upon another exciting marriage of two seemingly opposite things: Shakespeare and Star Wars.

Ian Doescher, who in my opinion should be canonized as a saint, has rewritten the Star Wars films in beautiful iambic pentameter. It is truly a unique way to once again enjoy the saga from a galaxy far, far away.

And I haven’t even mentioned the best part. Doescher has provided an educator’s guide on his website. This is a wonderful way to introduce students to Shakespeare in a new and creative way. Of course you are mixing two nerdy things and that might not fly over so well at first, but the beauty of this lesson is how someone can find deeper meaning, compare themes across genres, and use poetic devices within the text. That covers a couple standards. Even students who are not fans of the holy Trilogy will be impressed at how Doescher transformed one medium by using another.

The Educator’s guide has mini lessons on iambic pentameter, themes, and comparisons between Star Wars and some of Shakespeare’s most famous works (including Henry V, Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar just to name a few). The guide also includes information on Shakespearean devices and how they are used in context. The educator’s guide legitimately turns a novelty quirky book into an awesome Shakespearean introduction for all students.