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

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

Rolling in the Girls’ Room

Yesterday, the following conversation occurred on my personal Facebook page.

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Siobhan: Am I an old fuddy-duddy because I just emailed Security about the two boys and their girlfriend sitting on the counter in the women’s washroom rolling a massive joint?  Am I less of a fuddy-duddy because, after I kicked them out and found them still hovering around the door as I was leaving, I warned them that I was going to call Security so they really didn’t want to go back in there?  I actually hesitated about it, but my rationale, as I phrased it to Security, was, “Please patrol the bathrooms – a lot of teenage girls do not want to walk into the washroom and discover two boys and a pile of weed on the counter.”

J: Kind of?  Oh wait, there were boys in the women’s washroom? That’s different. The joint I’d just let pass, but that intrudes on the comfort of everyone. You made the right call.  That said, were I to catch students rolling a joint in other circumstances, I’d tell them to lose it immediately and let them know it’s their last chance to learn to do that kind of thing where they won’t get caught. It demands a response, but I’d hesitate to bring security into it since it in no way threatens the safety of students, faculty, or employees.

Siobhan: It’s the total lack of common sense that floors me. I mean, half the female teachers on that floor use that washroom, not to mention tons of students who could easily report them. What did they think would happen?  J, fair enough, but it does threaten some students’ SENSE of safety. A lot of girls would feel very uncomfortable walking in on such a scene, and might hesitate to use that washroom if they knew such things were likely to be going on in there. If students know security guards check washrooms, they’re less likely to do stuff in there that puts other students in awkward positions.

J: Sure — I see it as totally a part of teaching to teach kids to watch their asses if they’re going to do something like that. However, I feel like there is too much appeal to top-down authority when it comes to marijuana. I’m not at all trying to argue that drugs or alcohol have any place on campus, but I’m concerned about resorting to a reaction that places students in a position to be punished well outside the realm of what that sort of stupid, clueless behaviour deserves. A stern talking-to and a threat, for sure, but security I’m uneasy about, particularly because it could lead to expulsion (and in some insane cases, criminal charges, which over marijuana constitutes a total abuse of authority to me).   Also, I’d like to state here that I don’t do drugs and find potheads irritating as anything. It’s just the issue of authority over soft-drug use and the execution thereof that leaves me very uneasy.

Siobhan: J, yes, I totally get that, and that’s why I hesitated. The fact is, if two girls had been in there rolling a joint, even as blatantly as these people, I probably would have ignored it, although the best reaction would have been to chew them out for being stupid, as you say. It was the boys just casually hanging out in the girls’ room with their grass hanging in everyone’s faces that made me feel like it was appropriate to contact security – and the concerns you mention that made me warn the kids that security was coming. I’m not sure what I’ll do if it happens again, but I certainly can’t see myself calling the dogs on some kids just for being pothead idiots – it was the total arrogance of it all that made it seem somehow dangerous.

J: Agreed.

P: Nope – doing your job dear. If the rules forbid this, which they do, whether you agree or not is irrelevant…at least in my book it is. I used to tell my students that I didn’t care much for certain rules but because they were there, I would respect them, and that I expected the same from them…I would have emailed security too!

J: P, with all due respect, I must disagree strongly. CEGEP, in my opinion, is not a place for teaching blind obedience to the rules, particularly rules one personally disagrees with. If a student feels the anti-drug, anti-alcohol rules are unjust, I’d prefer to see them work through the reason for those rules’ existence and attempt to find the means to challenge them then to have them obey for no reason other than the rules’ authority.  This has made my job difficult with students at times, since I’ve never been able to tell students, “Do it because I say you have to,” but I feel that it provides them a more humane education and presents them with more challenging ideas at an instance that may be the last chance they have to be challenged like that.  (I also think the vast majority of students would conclude that the rules against drugs and alcohol on campus are for everyone’s benefit and thus not be able to excuse their own flouting of those rules.)

M: Oh dear, I feel compelled to wade into this now. As a CEGEP teacher and a parent of a CEGEP student, I think you absolutely did the right thing, Siobhan. As for J, your approach is refreshing but very hard to manage. If the students in question were in one of Siobhan’s classes, she could have used the situation as a teaching moment, I suppose, and have a discussion about developing a critical approach to following rules. As they were just some random students, I think Siobhan’s approach was right on.  I sometimes compare school to a workplace with my students. Behave at school as you would in a work situation. Unless they are training to be jazz musicians or artists or beat poets, most students get the message. (I just thought of the poor teacher who will have stoned students on her class later that day…)

K: Siobhan, I would have done the same as you (including warning them about security). If they continued their activities after such a warning, it seems to me they are basically asking to be caught. On the other hand, I would probably make an issue out of students smoking in a bathroom period. Some people have asthma, others prefer not to have to inhale second-hand smoke, whether it is tobacco or pot. That rule has been put into place to protect others, and so should be enforced.

Siobhan: K, they weren’t smoking, just rolling – if they were planning to smoke there, then yes, I agree, they would have deserved absolutely anything that came down on them!

B: I think you can question the reason for a rules existence and, at the same time, respect other people’s wish to pee in peace.

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What are your thoughts on this?  What would you do if you were a college teacher and came across such a scene in a bathroom?  Would you handle it differently than I did?

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.

On Teaching in Limbo

On Teaching in Limbo: A Composite

“You teach English littérature at CEGEP?”  She stubs out her cigarette.  “That is a job that shouldn’t exist.”

She’s on her balcony and I’m on mine.  She’s just home from work and is in full, meticulous makeup; she models for a popular magazine for femmes d’un certain âge.

“One.”  She raises a finger.  “CEGEPs shouldn’t exist.  Two years school, no tuition, between high school and university is useless.  A gaspillage of students’ time.  A gaspillage of my taxes.”

She looks like someone.  Maryse, from my intro class.  They have the same fluttery-lashed aqua eyes.  She could be Maryse’s mother.

“Two.”  Second finger.  “If CEGEPs exist, they should follow the same language laws like secondary school.  Anyone that feel like it can go to English CEGEP?  Why?  They don’t need French after they have seventeen years old?”

She pauses to light another cigarette and puffs, her eyes never leaving mine.  I haven’t smoked in six weeks.

“Three.  Literature is obligatory study for all students.  If I want to work in computers, in nursing, why I read Shakespeare, or Molière?  Grammar, ok.  Writing essays, maybe.  But poetry, talking about…personification?  I can choose that if I want.  If not, leave me alone.”

“Maybe I should be a magazine model instead,” I say.

She looks me up and down.  “Hmph.”

This morning, Jamar asked what personification was.  I told him, and he yelled, “Like Sponge Bob!” and the class cracked up, except Maryse, who rolled her fluttery eyes.

Jamar won’t make it to university.  If I were a university teacher, I wouldn’t have met him.  If I weren’t a literature teacher, Sponge Bob wouldn’t have come up.  And Jamar doesn’t speak French.

“CEGEP makes people happy,” I say.  But she’s offering me a cigarette, and changing the subject.

Why Teachers Need Something Better Than Microsoft Word

Onscreen grading is a revelation.

I have resisted the transition from paper grading to onscreen grading for a while now.  I experimented last fall with having students submit a paragraph online once in a while, but I was reluctant to use Track Changes tools, as I knew most students weren’t familiar with them, and so I tried to mark by underlining and inserting comments in bold – tedious, time-consuming, ineffective.

This term, I clued in to the fact that if students are unfamiliar with reviewing tools, then it’s up to me to start making them familiar.  So I’m now in the process of having all my classes submit small assignments to me online.

I have a repetitive stress injury in my writing arm that makes writing by hand physically painful.  My hatred of grading is perhaps even more intense than other teachers’ because of this added physical suffering.  I had no idea, though, what an eye-opener onscreen grading would be.  I am actually ENJOYING grading these paragraphs.  I’m writing three times as many comments as I normally do – which is to say that the tools aren’t really saving me any time, but they are making me a better, less miserable teacher.

Microsoft Word, however, while it seems to be the best tool we have, is not the best tool we could want.  It is lumpy.  My most serious complaint is that when we turn on Track Changes, Word tracks every change.  This is a problem when I am marking up drafts, because I highlight student errors without correcting them, and my sidebar becomes cluttered with an endless series of red bubbles saying “Highlight,” “Highlight,” … I find myself triple-spacing the student’s work just to make all the marginal comments visible.

What’s more, if the student and I are using different versions of Word, some of my feedback is lost.  Those highlights I mention above appear instead as a weird font change or disappear altogether in the conversion.  I have no way of knowing what the student actually sees when s/he opens the document I have corrected.

Do any of you have tips on solving these issues?  How do you make onscreen marking as efficient as possible?  Is there any other, better marking software that you know of that either exists or is in development?  If not, can you please call up all your software programmer friends and tell them that there is a need here that desperately needs to be filled?

Image by Michael Faes

What Does Learning Look Like?

My “personal narrative” class is going great.

We started by reading Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, and they seemed to like it.  A lot.  Most of them did the reading and participated actively in the group work, and after a little talk to them about “what to do if you HAVEN’T done the reading and CAN’T participate in the group work,” they mostly seemed to take responsibility and work together well.  We looked at the elements of literary analysis, and for each class, each group was responsible for analyzing a different part of the memoir.  When they got to the first in-class assignment (wherein they analyzed an unseen text using the elements we’d discussed), almost everyone did a good job.

Now we’ve started the second unit.  They have each been assigned a memoir from a list of eight; I asked them to give me their top three choices from the list, and I tried to give them one of the books they chose.  They are working with others who have read the same book, preparing a “book talk.”  I have given them a list of ten possible “book talk” topics, including things like “important themes,” “historical, geographical and social context,” “what I loved about this book” and “what I learned from reading this book.”  To practice preparing and presenting, they had to choose one of the topics and present on The Glass Castle.  These practice orals were the best I’ve seen; with a few exceptions, they were thorough, engaging and on point.

Then I asked them to focus on their second book, to divvy up topics among their group members (each of the four or five group members should choose a different topic), and to each prepare a five-minute presentation on their topic (for a total of 20-25 minutes per group).  The overall thrust of the “book talk” is to convince others in the class to choose the book for their third reading.  (I am indebted to Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone for giving me the term “book talk” and for helping me as I constructed these assignments.)

After the “book talks,” students must write a report in which they tell me which book they’re going to choose from the list for their third reading, and why.  They must write a paragraph about each of the seven books they saw presented and explain why they did or did not choose each one.  In the end, each student must write a comparative literary analysis of his or her second and third readings.

They really seem to be having a good time.  In their group discussions today, as they chose their individual topics and structured their group presentations, their level of engagement was the highest I think I’ve ever seen in a literature class.  They were sparring, writing, drawing diagrams, asking questions of me and of each other.  They all wrote tons of stuff on their worksheets and took lots of notes for themselves before handing the worksheets into me.

But here’s my question.

What are they learning?

I chose these activities because I thought they would be engaging.  And there is method and motive to my madness, but I’m not sure I can trust it.  So I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.  What are my students learning from this process?  And is it valuable?  Is it what they should be learning in an English literature classroom?

Let me know what you think.

Image by Sergio Roberto Bichara