Should We Bid Farewell to the Academic Paper?

Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?  Will learning to write papers help students develop the skills they will need later in their lives?

One of my heroes, Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times (whose Sunday Magazine column, The Medium, is sorely missed) writes this week that “Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade.”  She is reviewing a book called Now You See It, in which Cathy N. Davidson asks “whether the form of learning and knowledge-making we are instilling in our children is useful to their future.”

Davidson examines the roots of our contemporary education culture and suggests that we need to look back to pre-Industrial-Revolution models and forward to the murky future.  As Heffernan explains it:

The contemporary American classroom, with its grades and deference to the clock, is an inheritance from the late 19th century. During that period of titanic change, machines suddenly needed to run on time. Individual workers needed to willingly perform discrete operations as opposed to whole jobs. The industrial-era classroom, as a training ground for future factory workers, was retooled to teach tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules.  That curriculum represented a dramatic departure from earlier approaches to education. In “Now You See It,” Ms. Davidson cites the elite Socratic system of questions and answers, the agrarian method of problem-solving and the apprenticeship program of imitating a master. It’s possible that any of these educational approaches would be more appropriate to the digital era than the one we have now.

This is old news – education needs to be skills-based, collaborative, constructivist, blabla.  However, Heffernan focuses particularly on Davidson’s discussion of the academic paper.  After reading insightful, well-written student blogs and then being appalled by the quality of their research papers, Davidson began to wonder whether it was the form, not the students, that was at fault.  After some rigourous research, Davidson concludes that, in Heffernan’s words,

Even academically reticent students publish work prolifically, subject it to critique and improve it on the Internet. This goes for everything from political commentary to still photography to satirical videos — all the stuff that parents and teachers habitually read as “distraction.”

I am not, at first glance, convinced by this argument – we’ve all read the “work” published every day on the Internet, and in many cases its “prolificness” is one of its many problems.  That said, I have students keep blogs in some of my courses, and I love them – you can SEE the learning happening as students wrestle with course topics and literature and relate them to their own experiences.  I don’t do blogs in every course because a) I am required to have them write a certain number of papers, and it can all get to be a bit too much for me, and b) the majority of my students have not received the time-consuming training in digital communication that Davidson says they need.  However, if more space were made in the curriculum for online forms of writing, and we could limit the number of formal papers and make them an outgrowth of the online work, we might be on our way to something resembling “authentic learning tasks.”

So I need to get my hands on Davidson’s book, which is not being released until next week.  I have been saying for a while that the research paper is going the way of the dinosaurs, and that we need to develop viable academic approaches to the blog and other online forms so that students can learn to write things that people actually read.  (The fact that no one reads academic papers is not a new phenomenon, of course, but now we have an alternative that gives researchers a real potential audience.)

What is the place of the formal academic paper in the future of education?  Should it continue to look the way it does now, or is it time to ask students to do something new?

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Khan Academy: What are the Possibilities?

I just today learned about Khan Academy, the online education institution whose goal is “providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.”  In the TED talk above, the academy’s founder, Salman Khan, describes exactly how the project works.

The site is home to more than 2400 educational lecture videos, mostly in the domains of math and science (but there are burgeoning history and finance sections as well.)  All videos are narrated by Khan himself, as we follow his main points on an electronic blackboard.  The videos are entirely free and open to anyone, and the levels range from simple addition to advanced calculus, basic evolutionary biology to “Role of Phagocytes in Innate or Nonspecific Immunity,” and beyond.  There are practice math exercises as well.

Students can watch videos and do exercises.  Teachers can assign videos and exercises as homework or use them in their classrooms.  Teachers and parents can sign on as “coaches” in order to tutor and track their students’ or children’s progress.  Peers can also tutor each other.

Khan says that, ideally, this technology actually “humanizes the classroom.”  If teachers assign the lectures for homework, this frees up classroom time for actual teacher-student interaction – students can do what used to be homework during class time, when the teacher is there to help them and they can discuss the work with their classmates.  The teacher goes from being a lecturer to a coach.  I love this idea.  I’ve never much cared for lecturing, and I feel the best use of classroom time is for discussion, practice and support.

I watched one of the videos on early American history and was immediately excited.  The lecture was lucid and easy to follow, and Khan is an engaging and funny lecturer.  I immediately wished I had nothing else to do today so I could watch more.  For an English teacher (or, to be honest, for any responsible citizen of the world), my knowledge of history is painfully basic and often flawed.  I’ve considered going back to take undergraduate courses in history to fill in the embarrassing gaps.  The Khan archive right now focuses mostly on the history of the United States, with a smattering of French and Haitian history thrown in, but it promises to be “a history of the world (eventually!)”  How cool will it be to bone up on my historical knowledge for free, on my couch, at my own pace, in 20-minute increments whenever I can fit them in?  I will then need to find my own way to apply this knowledge so it will stick, but the foundation will be there.

I’m curious about two things.

  • What are the possibilities for English instruction?  Grammar lectures, for sure.  Lectures on analytical thinking?  On important authors or literary periods?
  • Have any of you explored Khan Academy and made use of any of its materials in your classroom?  If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

What Young Adults Should Read

There’s been a lot of furor over the recent Wall Street Journal essay that claims that YA fiction has taken a turn to the dark side.  It isn’t surprising that my favourite commentary on this piece so far comes from Linda Holmes, editor of the NPR pop-culture blog Monkey See and moderator of my fifth-favourite podcast in the world, Pop Culture Happy Hour.  Holmes’ response aligns entirely with my own: adolescence is a dark time.  If we want teens to have some hope of emerging from it in one piece, we can’t present them only with, as the WSJ writer would have it, “images of joy and beauty.”  Holmes explains it this way:

It’s difficult to say to a teenager, “We don’t even let you read about anyone who cuts herself; it’s that much of a taboo. But by all means, if you’re cutting yourself, feel free to tell a trusted adult.”

I teach mostly seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds.  In my course on personal narrative, I prepare a list of books and ask students to tell me which ones they’d prefer to read.  When preparing the list last year, I hesitated over a couple of titles, including Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s consensual adult sexual relationship with her father) and Alice Sebold’s Lucky (about the author’s brutal rape and its aftermath).  In the end, I decided to include Lucky on the list, and when I presented the book to the class as one of their choices, I told them about its subject matter and my hesitations.  I warned them that certain passages were very graphic, and that they should keep this in mind when deciding whether they wanted to read the book.  True story: almost every girl in the class, and about half the boys, put it on their list of preferences; most girls put it at the top.  I assigned only five students to each book, but for their final course reading, they were allowed to choose any other book from the list that they wanted, and most girls and many boys chose Lucky.

What does this say?  Does it say that teenagers nowadays are inured to violence?  I don’t think so; many readers said that they found the book upsetting but rewarding.  Many of the boys who read it said it helped them understand the effect rape has on a woman; many girls said it allowed them to see how, after a terrible and scarring experience, someone could struggle on and make use of their suffering to help others.  But mostly they said that it was a really good read.

The reasons that it’s a good read may vary from reader to reader, but it probably has something to do with the fact that life is hard, especially when you’re seventeen or eighteen, and someone else’s experience of hardship – even if it’s extreme or, in the case of some YA fiction, less than totally realistic – can help you understand your own.  As Holmes puts it,

stopping — actually stopping — a YA reader from picking up a particular book because it describes behavior you don’t want him to emulate potentially cuts him off from something that might reach him in exchange for … nothing, really, except your own comfort level.

I think it comes down to this: kids read what they read for a reason.  They have a natural aversion to things they can’t handle, and a natural inclination toward things that speak to them in some way.  It may be that parents or teachers have to occasionally take something out of their hands or put up firewalls so they can’t stumble upon things that truly injure them, but I think the decision to do so needs to be very carefully considered.

If I had a teenage daughter, for example, I’d want to take Twilight away from her, not because it’s about vampires and has violence in it, but because it’s badly written and the heroine is a sap and it teaches teenage girls terrible things about being “rescued” by creepy men who are hundreds of years too old for them.  (Some commentary on my feelings about Twilight can be found here.)  But I wouldn’t take it away from her.  (As if confiscating it would mean she wouldn’t read it anyway!)  What’s more, I’d try my best not to make her feel bad about reading it if it meant something to her.  I’d ask her why she liked it, and I’d listen to her answers, and maybe I’d try to recommend something along the same lines that was, well, a good book.

But I wouldn’t expect her to read it.  That wouldn’t be up to me.

Image by Lauren J

Looking for Thoughts on Waiting for Superman

Last week I finally saw Waiting for “Superman,” and I found it both compelling and suspect.  As a post-secondary Canadian teacher, I find myself unable to evaluate the validity of the questions posed or the answers suggested by this film.  Are charter schools the answer to the US’s educational woes?  (Or ours?)  Will merit pay really support great teaching and learning?  Is tenure for schoolteachers a bad, bad, bad idea?

I have seen commentary on all these questions in blogs and American news, but because I’m not familiar with the system, a lot of it is beyond my understanding.  American teachers (or anyone who knows something about American schools), can you help me out here in language I can understand?  If you’ve seen the film, what do you think of it?  If you haven’t, have you encountered the filmmakers’ mission statements and action plans?  Are they valid?  Feasible?  If not, what are they missing?  What  are your feelings about Michelle Rhee and her move to overhaul the Washington DC school system?  Is Geoffrey Canada a revolutionary hero?  Tell me what to think, I beg you.

In Which Siobhan Does Not Lose Her Temper Over Important Literary and Pedagogical Matters

Is non-fiction less “literary” than fiction?  Someone has suggested to me that it is, and I’m so mad about it I could spit.

Last week, I attended a meeting with English teachers from several colleges.  We were there to give feedback to the creators of some online essay-writing activities.  We looked at some sample exercises, in which students were asked to read a short essay and identify a main idea from the essay.  After some discussion, one of the other teachers – let’s call her Teacher A – spoke up.  “I just want to give the point of view of my department,” she said, “and we would never use an activity like this.  I don’t teach essays in my courses, and I don’t know anyone who does.  I teach poetry, fiction and drama.  I would have no use for activities where students learn to analyze essays, and I’ve never really understood why the provincial Exit Exam requires them to do so.”

“I teach essays,” I assured the creators, “both personal narrative essays and argumentative essays.  I teach a whole course on each.  It would make sense to have separate activities, though, for argumentative essays and, say, narrative prose, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.”

A third teacher – let’s call her Teacher B – sucked her teeth and shook her head.  “Oh no,” she said, “you mustn’t teach students to analyze fiction and non-fiction in the same way.”  She pointed to a list of literary elements – imagery, characterization, setting etc. – that made up part of one of the exercises.  “You couldn’t discuss these techniques in an analysis of a non-fiction work.”

“Well, certainly you could,” I said, “if you were analyzing a personal narrative.  A personal narrative uses characterization the same way a short story does.”

“But no – in non-fiction, you can’t credit the author with inventing the character,” Teacher B replied.

It stared at her for a moment, flummoxed.  “But the author is communicating the character to the reader through the selective use of detail,” I said, “in the same way that the writer of fiction does.”

“Then call it description,” Teacher B retorted.  “It is not characterization.  I know that markers of the Exit Exams are very hard on students who treat non-fiction as though it were fiction.  I have one colleague who tries to insist that we fail students who do that.”

Now, I marked Exit Exams for many years and no such ideology ever revealed itself.  If it had, I would have (after a stunned silence) fought it with all claws out.  I did not yield to my impulse to say, “Such a person should not be grading Exit Exams, or teaching literature at all.  Such a person has no understanding of the act of literary creation or the act of reading.”  I did not use such terminology as “backward” and “pedagogically indefensible.”  I sat back and held my tongue, even as several more comments were made about “literature” as distinct from “non-fiction.”  I did not launch into a rant.  If I had, it would have sounded like this:

“The idea that there is a clear line to be drawn between non-fiction and fiction is itself fictional.  The techniques of narrative are the same whether the narrative is based on something ‘true’ or not.  For example: a character in a memoir is no more a ‘person’ than a fictional character is.  It is no more a ‘person’ than a portrait hanging on the wall is a person.  A portrait is an artifact created by the artist out of paint.  A character is an artifact created by the writer out of words.  When analyzing literary technique, we are analyzing the artifact, not the author’s intentions or the ‘truth’ or ‘fiction’ of the story.”

Why am I so mad about this?  Well, it’s partly because I am a writer of both fiction and non-fiction narratives, and the suggestion that they are technically different is, in my personal experience, balderdash.  It’s partly because I feel that fossilized attitudes toward what constitutes “literature” are alienating students from their literature classes and from reading.

Mostly, though, it’s because I teach a course in personal narrative in which I teach students to analyze memoir in exactly the way they analyze fiction.  I explicitly tell them that in memoirs they encounter characters, not people, and that authors very carefully craft those characters, as well as plots and settings, in the same way that fiction writers craft stories from their imaginations, and that even the distinction between “fact” and “imagination” is an area for much discussion.  The idea that my students might then be penalized if they discuss a personal essayist’s use of “characterization” makes me want to picket the Ministry of Education and set up dogmatic training camps for literature teachers across the country.

However, the flip side is this: maybe I’m angry because I’m wrong.  Here is my favourite principle of learning psychology: learning is often upsetting, because it challenges our preconceived notions of the world, and this is disorienting and scary.  Maybe I’m angry because I just learned something.  Maybe I need to scrap my whole Personal Narrative course because I’m teaching my students an approach that is invalid.  Maybe my students need to clearly distinguish between fictional and non-fictional stories and use different terminology when analyzing them, and I have been messing them up.

And maybe you have some ideas about this.  What is the difference between a personal essay and a short story, or a memoir and a novel, in terms of literary technique?  If a student is analyzing non-fiction, is he or she required to approach the analysis differently than when analyzing fiction?  Where does “creative non-fiction” fall?  Am I crazy?

Image by Kriss Szkurlatowski

The Five Best Podcasts in the World

Because I’m an English teacher, I rarely read anything I don’t have to.  During the semester, my novels collect dust on the coffee table, my Kindle lies abandoned in my schoolbag, and the weekend newspapers sit coiled uncomfortably in their rubber bands until I toss them in the recycling bin.  Once my final grading is done, it will be a week or so before I feel like reading anything for pleasure or even for edificiation.

I do, however, listen to things.  I listen to audiobooks – mostly popular social science stuff like Malcolm Gladwell or humour like Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, because in my experience, fiction doesn’t really work in audiobook form.  Mostly, though, I listen to podcasts.

Podcasts, and the iPod, have entirely transformed my life.  In retrospect, I’m not sure how I functioned in the years before the iPod.  I listen to podcasts on the metro, while I’m running, while I cook, while I do errands.  I am incapable of falling asleep anymore unless I’m listening to a human voice telling me things interesting enough to keep my brain from wandering to the stresses of the day.  The Husband refuses to talk me to sleep, so I depend on the podcasters of the world to fill that role.

Podcasts are doing more for me than preserving my sanity.  I find myself, more and more, quoting or paraphrasing things in my classroom that I have heard on a podcast, whether it concerns Daniel Gilbert discussing the complexities of human happiness or Jonathan Schooler outlining the phenomenon of “verbal overshadowing.”  I ask my students to listen to podcasted stories in order to expand their understanding of narrative.  Podcasts have become another medium through which I can teach my students the skills and the content I think are important for them.

So in that vein, I present to you my five favourite podcasts.  No matter what you teach, these podcasts will enrich your life or, at the very least, help you forget your troubles long enough to fall asleep.

1. Radiolab

Radiolab is without question the best podcast in the whole world.  Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich take sometimes esoteric scientific and philosphical concepts and apply them to basic, concrete, everyday experiences so that anyone can understand and relate to them.  Stochasticity – randomness – is explained through such experiences as gambling addiction and eerie chance meetings.  We learn how hookworms can help cure allergies, how epilepsy can make you an ultra-runner, and whether it’s better for a cat to fall fifteen stories than two stories.  If you care about what makes us human and what our place is in the universe, this podcast is for you.

2. This American Life

Ira Glass’s iconic introductory line – “each week we choose a theme, and give you a series of stories on that theme” – doesn’t do this show justice.  This American Life is the current gold standard in radio storytelling.  David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell and others all rose to fame on this show, and it ranges from the painfully intimate – stories about babysitting and breakups – to the personal side of global crises like the Iraq war and the economic crisis.  This American Life taught me to love radio as I hadn’t since childhood; before podcasts became a thing, I found countless excuses to get stuff done in my office so I could be near the computer and stream their show archive for hours on end.  Just go.  You’ll love it.

3. The Age of Persuasion

I may have a bit of a nationalist impulse to promote shows from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and certain great CBC shows, like the venerable As It Happens, may be of limited interest to non-Canadians.  The Age of Persuasion is not one of these shows; it is undeniably entertaining radio about the past and present of the advertising industry.  Terry O’Reilly tells us about advertisers’ invention of “The Happy Homemaker,” the rise of the “pitchman,” and the evolution of such phenomena as “luxury marketing.”  The archive at their webpage is limited, but if you subscribe through iTunes you can download most previous episodes.

4. Spark

Another CBC show that everyone should listen to.  Nora Young has the best voice in radio, and it doesn’t matter whether you really care about the world of technology – this show is about technology you DO care about, whether it’s using GPS tracking technology to deal with truancy or paying more because your online shopping history says you will.

5. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour

This regular feature on NPR’s Culturetopia podcast is pure brainy brainlessness – a panel of brilliant cultural commentators who are clearly good friends and who sound a bit drunk (although apparently “the cocktails are fictional”), giddily recounting everything they love and hate about books, music, film, video games and so on.  Recurring segments include “What’s Making Us Happy This Week” (Albert Brooks on Twitter!  Clem Snide!)  and “The Regrettable Television Pop Quiz” (in which panelists try to guess the provenance of some truly horrendous TV audio clips).  Listen to this when you are tired and you’ll find yourself doubled over laughing, even if you’re on the bus at rush hour – the worried looks from strangers will be totally worth it.

Tell me your favourite podcasts – I can’t get enough.

Image by Magstefan

Social Media in the Classroom

Rebecca Coleman, Canadian arts marketing expert and blogger, is asking a very interesting question at her blog today: “Social media: a distraction or an enhancement in the classroom?”  She describes such phenomena as participating in two classes at once by attending one and following the Twitter stream of another, and sharing what she learns at a conference with her Twitter followers in real time.

My hackles go up at the thought of students following and participating in another class while being in my classroom.  My instinct and the research I’ve heard suggest that what we call “multi-tasking” is really just “doing a half-assed job at more than one thing at the same time.”  But I’m not an expert in these matters and I’d love to hear what you all think.

I long ago gave up battling with my students about putting their phones away.  I let them use laptops and don’t hassle them about texting, but I’ve always been convinced (and told them) that the students who learn best are those who put away their toys, or at least use them strictly for notetaking or looking up pertinent material.  Am I wrong?

Note that the question of whether a tool like Twitter can be used directly as a learning tool is a slightly different, albeit interesting, one.  My question, and Rebecca’s if I understand it, is more about whether the benefits of using such a tool to share info or participate in outside activities might balance out its detriments as a distraction.

Go read the post!  And comment here or comment there, but let me know what you think.

Character = Behavior: A Lesson Plan

Two parallel experiences over the last couple of weeks have culminated in a lesson plan that I may need to add to my permanent roster.

First, I’ve been meeting with students to look at their first at-home essay.  Their essays have to include a discussion of characterization, but it’s clear that many of them are still not certain how to write about characterization in their essays, and are still not making the connection between a character’s behaviour and what it says about him or her as a person.  What’s more, some don’t seem to recognize the connection between their OWN behaviour and what it says about THEM as people.  Most are polite, punctual and constructively inquisitive; others show up late with blank faces and no questions and are unable to let me finish a single sentence without interrupting me to make excuses or go off on tangents.

Secondly, many university applications were due this past week, and so, leading up to March 1st, I received a number of requests for reference letters.  I am usually delighted to write references for students, but, as a previous post attests, every year some of these requests are baffling.  Students who talked with their friends and played with their phones all class, who showed up late when they showed up at all, who sat passively during group work and said, “I didn’t read the story,” when I called on them, nevertheless somehow believe that I will have something nice to say about them in a reference letter.

So when I went into class on Thursday, I relayed the above information to the students, and told them the story of the most recent incident in which I felt I couldn’t provide someone with a reference.  “She sat in the back and talked with her friends when I was lecturing or other students were speaking,” I said.  “She spent half the class with her phone held up in front of her face, reading and replying to texts.  When she did group work with people other than her friends, her group members often complained about her, because she wasn’t prepared and didn’t contribute.  I had to tell her no, I wouldn’t write her a letter, and she didn’t ask why, so I didn’t tell her…but a couple of things occurred to me.”

By this time, they were riveted.  Cell phones were forgotten, whispered conversations were abandoned, faces were wary but attentive.

“First of all, it might have been helpful to her if she had known the impression she was making AT THE TIME SHE WAS IN MY CLASS.  It’s too late for her to do anything about it now, but if she’d realized then what her actions were saying about her, she might have been able to change something.  So I took some time and made a list of behaviours that will get you a good reference letter from me, and behaviours that will make me say no.  If you’re interested, I’ll show you my list at the end of the class.

“What’s more, it occurred to me that this is a real-life demonstration of characterization at work.  When we discussed characterization, what did we say is the best indication of a person’s character?”

“Their behavior,” the class chorused.

“Exactly.  Writing reference letters is an exercise in characterization: you identify the character traits you believe a person possesses, character traits that qualify them for a profession or a field of study, and then you identify the behaviours that have suggested that they have those character traits.”

So I showed them a good reference letter I wrote a couple of years ago – with the name of the referrant changed, of course – as an example.  Then I explained, “You will probably also have to write reference letters at some point in your lives.  You may be a teacher, or somebody’s boss, or somebody’s colleague.  Someone may ask you to write a comment about them on LinkedIn.  You will need to describe people and give evidence for your description.  So we’re going to practice that today.”

I had them form groups of three, draw professions from an envelope (primary school teacher, dog walker, event planner, garbage collector…) and discuss whether the three main characters in the novel we are reading possess the character qualities necessary to do these jobs.  Each group member then had to write a letter.  One wrote a reference letter for the character they thought was best qualified for the job; the other two wrote letters of apology to the other characters, explaining why they could not give them letters of reference.

When they were just about done, I asked if they’d like to see my list of pro- and anti-reference-letter behaviours, and they said, “YES YES YES.”

DO NOT ASK ME FOR A REFERENCE LETTER IF…

  • you often talk in class when you should be listening to me or other students
  • you spend a lot of class time typing on your phone (especially if you hold it up visibly so that I and everyone can see that you’re not listening)
  • you are often absent or late, or leave early, without documented reasons for doing so
  • you often fail to submit assignments or submit them late
  • you often half-complete in-class work or sit passively while other group members complete work for you
  • you’re often not able to answer my questions or participate in group work because you’re not prepared
  • you do homework from other courses in my class
  • you sulk when you get bad grades, or you complain about your grades without asking polite, constructive questions about how you can improve
  • you write me careless email messages without a greeting or signature (eg. “i wasnt in class today did I miss anything”)
  • I have ever caught you cheating on anything (including “small” infractions like copying in-class work from other students)
  • you are not an excellent, engaged, attentive student who tries hard, is polite and treats the people around you with consideration, regardless of your grades.  When writing you a reference letter, I do not care about your grades.  I care about how hard you try and how much you learn.

 

I WILL BE DELIGHTED TO GIVE YOU A REFERENCE LETTER IF…

  • you are always attentive in class, with your phone out of sight and your ears open
  • you attend class and are punctual, with very occasional exceptions
  • you ask polite questions when you don’t understand things
  • you always do your reading and make an effort to respond to questions about it, whether or not you “get it right”
  • your work is always complete, even when it doesn’t “count for grades,” and you submit it on time
  • you come to me for extra help if you need it, or you seek help at the Learning Centre
  • you inform me when you know you will miss a class or will be late for class, and you make an effort to catch up on what you miss
  • you do your best when working with other students and pull your weight (even when others don’t)
  • you write me polite, clear email messages (eg. “Dear Ms. Curious: I’m sorry I had to miss class today; I had to take care of a personal matter.  Could you let me know what I missed and what I should do for homework?  Sincerely, Jane X.”)
  • you are an excellent, engaged, attentive student who tries hard, is polite and treats the people around you with consideration, regardless of your grades.  When writing you a reference letter, I do not care about your grades.  I care about how hard you try and how much you learn.

Immediate results?  A lot of polite and enthusiastic “Goodbye Miss”s at the end of class, a number of polite and well-formulated messages this weekend asking pertinent questions (and apologizing for disturbing me on the weekend) and a lot of thorough and thoughtful (and sometimes hilarious!) reference letters for fictional characters.  Down side?  I’m anticipating an unprecedented number of reference letter requests next year…but if they’ve earned them, I’ll happily write them.

Students are understandably obsessed with grades, and this means they sometimes miss the bigger picture.  And so do we – I spend a lot of time trying to attach grades to things so that students will take them seriously.  Reminding students that grades are not the only thing that counts – even when it comes to immediate, concrete goals like university admission – can go a long way, not only toward establishing a productive classroom, but also toward preparing them for life outside of school.  I have no idea what the long-term effect of this lesson will be, but if nothing else, maybe it will help them understand how “characterization” functions, not only in literature but in life.

Image by miamiamia

Top 10 Posts of 2010

For  your reading and catch-up pleasure, I have once again compiled a “year’s top posts” list.  These posts are “top” in that they got the most hits; in some cases this may have been because of timing, a well-chosen keyword, or fluke, but in some cases I think it’s because they truly were the best posts I wrote this year.  If you missed out on these, check them out – they all said something to someone!

1. Encountering the Other: How Literature Will Save the World

I was glad this post got so much traffic, because I really like it.  I return to it from time to time when I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life.  In it, I ask myself once again why reading matters, and come to the conclusion – with the help of some of my students – that “literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.”

2. What an “8th Grade Education” Used to Mean

The text of this post – purported to be an 8th-grade final exam from 1895 – has been making the rounds of the internet for a couple of years now, and, as I note in the update to the post, it’s been more or less determined that it is an authentic test, but not for 8th-graders.  The most interesting part of the post may be the comments section, in which readers once again wax in all different directions about what “education” really means.

3. Why Study Literature?

The central question of this post is an extension of that of #1 above.  Reading books is all very well, but why should the study and analysis of literature be core curriculum in college?  (Spoiler for those who want to read my further posts on this subject: I’m not certain it should.)

4. What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind

Zadie Smith + David Foster Wallace = post that gets tons of hits.  Guaranteed formula.  The post itself is really just a DFW quote, but it’s a good one.

5. I Am Disappointment With You’re English Teaching

The story of Khawar, a difficult student who was probably suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability, got a lot of response.  Another post about him also ended up high in the rankings.  (Khawar ended up passing my course, which once again had me asking myself what I’m doing wrong in my grading schemes.)

6. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

Another way to get lots of hits: put the words “Harry Potter” in your title.  Nevertheless, the “Ten Wonderful Things” posts in general pulled in a few new readers, and it felt good to write them.  If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s cool to put a children’s bestseller on a college course, this post will give you an emphatic “yes.”

7. It’s Funny Because It’s True

It doesn’t hurt to include a funny animated video in your post, especially if your audience is mostly teachers and the video is an enactment of everything you ever wanted to say to the boneheaded student spouting excuses across your desk.  Throw in a real-life story of infuriating misspelled emails and it’ll be a winner.

8. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Six: Rereading

I’m not sure why this post got so much attention, but one thing I’ve noticed is that writing about books usually gives the stat meter a little bump.  I’m glad this post got read, because it’s a concept that means a lot to me – one of the joys of teaching literature, I need to keep reminding myself, is getting to read my favourite books over and over.

9. Why Children Shouldn’t Read

No doubt the provocative title is what gave this post its currency.  Like #4 above, the post is composed mostly of one long quote, this one from Susan Juby’s memoir of teenage alcoholism, Nice Recovery.  The quote is great, and even those of us who didn’t start binge drinking at thirteen can probably relate to its description of what too much reading can do to one’s perception of oneself and the world.

10.  A World Without People

This was my favourite post of the year, so if it hadn’t made it into the top 10, I probably would have found a way to squeeze it in here somewhere.  In this story, I have a very, very bad day that ends up being one of the best days ever, and, along the way, I stop hating everyone.

There you have it, folks.  If you need to catch up on your Siobhan Curious reading, start here.  And have a super happy new year full of stories, questions, and challenges bravely met!

Literary Appreciation + Literary Analysis: A Course Plan

Regular commenter Crystal has asked for some more details about my Personal Narrative course, in which I focus less on literary analysis and more on literary appreciation.  Here’s some general info on how the course unfolds.  Feel free to steal/adapt/query, etc.

Module 1: Literary Analysis Review

Text: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

In the first part of the course, we all read The Glass Castle and discuss the genre of the personal narrative.  We review elements of narrative (theme, plot, setting, character, imagery/symbolism) and they apply them to the memoir.  We then do a short analytical essay in class based on a choice of unseen texts (I like using the “Lives” section of the New York Times magazine as a source for excellent very short personal narrative texts.)

Module 2: Book Talks

Texts: students have a course pack containing copies of the front cover, the back cover or inside flap, and the first chapter of eight book-length memoirs.  I ask them to browse this pack and then tell me the three books they’d most like to read.  This term, I included the following texts:

I assign one book to each student, so each book is read by a group of 4-5 students.  Their major assignment for this module is a “book talk,” in which they must, as a group, present the book to the class and encourage the class to read it.  Each person is responsible for a 5-7 minute presentation on one of the following topics:

  1. Plot summary: this is a challenging topic, because you will need to give a detailed enough summary to intrigue the audience, but you can’t give everything away!  Try giving a brief overview with a description of the important characters and relationships, and then identifying important events/scenes that you found interesting, and explaining why.
  2. Discussion of theme: Identify an important theme in the memoir.  Make sure you state your theme clearly and precisely.  Then give evidence from the memoir to support your theme, WITHOUT GIVING THE WHOLE STORY AWAY.
  3. Historical, geographical or cultural information: Identify the historical, geographical and social setting of the book (where, when, and in what social context it happens) and discuss important facts that readers may need to know that will help them understand the story better.  Make sure you make direct connections between the facts you provide and the events of the book.
  4. Discussion of another element of the narrative: You may wish to discuss the author’s use of another literary element such as conflict, characterization or imagery, and how it helps us understand and appreciate the story.
  5. Medical information: Some of these memoirs are about physical or mental illness.  You may wish to provide facts about the conditions the narrators or their family members suffer from.  Again, make sure you don’t just give a list of facts – connect your information to the characters and events in the book.
  6. Author info: This book tells a story of a particular event or time in the author’s life.  Besides the events in the book, what else is interesting about the author?  For example: what happened before or after the events in the book?  Has the author published other books, stories, etc., or have other works been written about him/her?  Is the author still alive?  If so, what is he/she doing now?  Tell us any information about the author that you think adds to the information in the story.
  7. Personal connections: Choose a scene, character, event or idea in the memoir that you found particularly interesting and discuss why you related to it.  Tell us about how this aspect of the book reflected events in your life, and why other people in the class might relate to it too.
  8. Difficulties: Tell the class about some challenges you had, and that they might have, in reading this book.  Explain why it will be worthwhile to take on these challenges and read all the way to the end.
  9. What you learned: Tell the class about some important things you learned from reading this book, and tell them why the book is effective in teaching readers those things.
  10. What you loved: Tell the class about some things you loved about this book.  Be detailed, but again, don’t give everything away.  Sell the book to the class!
  11. Bonus topic: Dramatic scene: Two or more group members might want shorten their talk from five minutes to four, and then to bank their extra minutes in order to perform a scene from the book at the end of the talk.  Take care not to run over time if you do this.

After all the presentations, students must write a Book Talk Report in which they explain their impressions of each book and justify which book they will choose for their third reading.

Module 3: Comparison

Text: each student chooses a second book from the list above.

Students must write an essay comparing the memoir they presented in their book talk to the memoir they have chosen for their third reading.  In this module, we are also going to look at examples of personal narrative in film (maybe Persepolis?) and in radio/TV (This American Life).

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My goal in the course as a whole is to balance the ministerial requirements of the course (understand and analyze a genre) with my personal goals for the students (learn to behave as readers by choosing reading material, discussing it with others, making informed decisions about what to read next, thinking through the pleasures and difficulties of a text, etc.)

Toward the end of the semester, I’ll let you know the general student response to these various books.

Your questions and suggestions are welcome and anxiously awaited.