Remember that stack of thesis research books I shared in my post at the beginning of this semester? I'll remind you:
Well, now we're looking at something a little more like this:
I'm going to need some more shelf space.
Remember that stack of thesis research books I shared in my post at the beginning of this semester? I'll remind you:
Well, now we're looking at something a little more like this:
I'm going to need some more shelf space.
It seems like it wasn't so long ago that I sat down and bemusedly pondered the possibility of going back to school to get a teaching degree. And here I am....
I'm experiencing an odd conglomeration of feelings, just a few of which include anticipation, fear, and gratitude. In an attempt to focus and anchor this whirlpool of happenings and emotions, I have set a goal for this next and final year, which is simply, in the words of Thoreau's Walden, "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life." I am excited and determined to live this next year to the fullest, taking every opportunity to learn and grow in the craft of teaching. So wish me luck as I start my final lap!
The time has come. I am starting my graduate thesis, which is required to complete my MA in English from Salem State. The expected tension, anxiety, excitement, and sense of impending discovery and possible doom is officially upon me as I begin compiling reading lists and brainstorming avenues of analysis. I am finding this whole process so helpful in remembering and examining the experiences students undergo when we ask them to navigate new and uncharted academic territory. The lack of direction, sense of disorientation, and feeling of potential inadequacy that I feel when approaching my thesis is not the least bit different from high school students' as they attempt their first research paper or a particularly challenging piece of literature. The act of engaging in any real intellectual work requires courage, even at the high school level. I hope to keep this in mind throughout the process of composing my thesis in order to better understand and guide my future students through their own intellectual undertakings.
Today I had the wonderful opportunity to present some of my research at my second conference, Salem State University's Writing Vertically: Writing Pedagogy Conference. It was a fantastic learning experience; the panels and roundtables were incredibly exciting and the keynote speaker, Keith Hjortshoj, gave a very engaging and fascinating talk on his theories and research into the concept of writer's block. As an added bonus, several publishers, including W.W. Norton & Company Inc., Bedford St. Martin's, and Oxford University Press, were on site handing out evaluation copies of some of their books to teachers and professors who might be interested in using the texts in classes of their own!
I took these beauties home for free, for which I am exceedingly grateful. I feel fairly confident that all three of these will see heavy use in the future. Additionally, Bedford St. Martin's has published several books authored by the keynote speaker, Hjortshoj, and they brought free copies of his books for us.
After hearing Hjortshoj speak, I'm beyond excited to read all of his work, but I am particularly interested in his book, Understanding Writing Blocks, which explores the different reasons students hit the wall which we nebulously and nonspecifically refer to as "writer's block." You can probably anticipate seeing at least one blog post on this topic once I get a chance to digest this little volume.
Overall it was an educational and rewarding experience to network with professionals in my field as well as share some of my own work with them. I firmly believe that conferences and collaborative learning experiences like these hold so much benefit for educators of all levels and disciplines. I'm very grateful to have had the chance to participate and I hope very much to be able to be involved with similar events in the future!
As promised in my last post on the importance of incorporating multimodal assignments into the classroom, I am dedicating this post to a multimodal composition of my own! I thought that, since I am wrapping up my blog series on 21st century literacies, it might be time to blog about something a little more interesting than my own general thoughts and research on said literacies. This is also the blog post in which I confess that it was not so long ago that I would have stood with the crew that said things like, "Seriously? A video project? This is why modern students can't write; because we assign things like video projects." Composing multimodally was totally foreign to me. I had no experience with it and, because of that, I had absolutely no meaningful knowledge of the process that went into it. This was mostly prior to my taking the majestic Tanya Rodrigue's digital writing class, in which I was asked to complete this assignment as well as fundamentally challenge my understanding of what it meant to compose something.
The assignment is called "Concept in 60" and was designed by Dr. Scott DeWitt. The task is to create a 60-second video that illustrates a concept, any concept you’d like. Your video may take a critical, reflective and/or interpretive approach to the subject matter, but you need to follow these rules:
1. Your video MUST be 60 seconds–not one second more, not one second less. 2. You must strip your video of all actual/matching audio. You may layer audio in your project as long as you avoid all video/audio matching. 3. You must include a title screen somewhere in your video. You must also give yourself credit as the video artist/composer somewhere in the video text. 4. You must secure permissions for all materials used in your project by their rightful owner or use creative commons and public domain material. Also, you must include a works cited page for all materials used in the project.
I came up with this:
I love it and I loved the process of making it, as I imagine most high school students would. Videos are cool; everyone loves them. However, the thing that made this assignment productive for my personal composition skills was the accompanying reflection paper. In this paper, I was asked to think about the choices I had made when composing this video project and tie those choices back to some very literary strategies and scholarly research. I was asked to become aware of the process I went through, concretizing some of my relatively savvy (if I do say so myself) decisions. This involved me thinking critically about how I identified my purpose, structured my argument, appealed to my audience, and concluded my thoughts. I noticed points in which I used symbols and how those symbols made my composition more effective. By the end of the whole reflection, I was aware of how complex and intentional my process had been; it was very essay-like and I hadn't even noticed. I began to think how equipped I would be if someone then asked me to write an essay outlining the idea of home. I was prepared to write something fairly complex and compelling.
As a writer, I learned so much from this process. I believe that the secret to strong multimodal assignments in the classroom lies in the reflective paper. Modern high school students are smart; they can often toss together a compelling video or audio project with minimal guidance. Let's not dismiss that as irrelevant, but let's also not accept that without analysis. Let's channel their abilities and ask them to reflect on what strategies they are using to compose something effective or powerful. If our assignments ask this well, students will learn how those strategies can be applied to other types of compositions, making multimodality an invaluable classroom tool.
In my previous post on the importance of multimodality in 21st century literacies, I defined my understanding of what multimodality is and explored the idea that our culture's commonly dismissive and condescending view of multimodality in the English classroom is, at the very least, up for debate. In this blog post, I'm going to raise some of what I consider to be fairly compelling arguments for the use of multimodal assignments in the modern high school classroom. These arguments are somewhat varied in scope and are listed in no particular order of importance or otherwise! 1) Modes of communication are inextricably linked to one another; a composition is never composed entirely in a single mode without some reliance on additional modes. Reading musical compositions, while largely an audio endeavor, has a necessary visual component in that music is recorded and printed with a complex set of symbols. Music is also a gestural, physical meaning-making process; any music lover will tell you that you never get the full meaning of a song until you watch the artist physically perform that piece, factoring in body language, facial expressions, and musical technique. These modes all interact with one another to create the integrated meaning of a musical composition. Even our beloved default of the alphabetical mode is actually a very visual mode in that it is a complex series of symbols that students learn to recognize. Print alphabetical texts are rarely devoid of visual, nonalphabetical cues; authors can communicate necessary information to readers through font, spacing, layout, and a wide array of other visual tools. Understanding how different modes interact with one another and with the audience creates students who can critically and meaningfully analyze pieces composed in any combination of modes, enabling them to interpret complex cues and messages.
2) Teaching students to apply the rigorous approaches of literary analysis to multimodal compositions enables them to meaningfully and insightfully approach a wide variety of interdisciplinary compositions. Art, music, drama, mathematics, and a host of other disciplines rely heavily on modes other than the alphabetical in their compositions. When we teach students to read, analyze, respond intelligently to, and produce multimodal compositions, we equip them with valuable tools to apply their literary skills across the disciplines.
3) Multimodal projects often work well as digital assignments. Multimodal assignments do not necessarily require digital tools; however, they do present the occasion for students to test and develop their technological skills while strengthening complex rhetorical and analytical skills. See my prior blog post for more reflection on how necessary it is for our modern students to be fluent and creative in digital spheres.
4) Offering students an opportunity to compose multimodally is a fun and alternative way to engage ELL students who might otherwise have difficulty connecting with and completing a composition assignment in the traditional, alphabetic mode. Students who struggle with English as a nonnative language may thrive when given an assignment in which they can compose freely without the added concern for grammar, academic language, or spelling. This gives ELL students a chance to build confidence and fluency while also developing and utilizing complex composition and critical analysis skills.
5) Integrating academically rigorous work that appeals to a student body demonstrating a variety of Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences can be challenging. Multimodal work, digital or non-digital, can respect, engage, and develop students of all learning styles. Assignments that ask students to make intelligent and strategic choices in modes that come naturally to them in order to intelligently create meaning are tasks that both challenge and encourage academic identities. The ability to use sound, motion, color, or image in order to convey what may be a very insightful or intelligent idea can often be a huge relief for a student who struggles to convey those ideas in the traditional alphabetic mode and whose primary intelligence is not verbal/linguistic.
6) The real world is multimodal. The social, career, and recreational spheres of modern life are all multimodal, featuring complex combinations of sounds, images, and text. If we don't teach our students to be smart consumers of the information and entertainment that they are bombarded with, they will struggle to navigate the fast-paced culture in which they live. Assigning challenging and rigorous analyses of composer choices in multimodal pieces as well as asking students to make those choices in their own compositions helps our students grow into smart, savvy individuals capable of functioning expertly in their society and culture.
These are just a few points in a litany of what I consider to be very valid arguments as to why multimodal composition is important, if not essential, in the modern English classroom. In all of these points, I make repeated mention of rigorous and challenging academic analyses of multimodal compositions. Given that multimodality is somewhat unfamiliar in an academic context, it can sometimes be difficult to envision how a multimodal assignment can be intellectually and analytically demanding for a student in the same way an essay or paper can. How can a video assignment help students develop tangible skills that may translate into their paper writing? How can a student's compositional skills in the alphabetic mode really be tested and stretched in a non-alphabetic mode? To help shed some light on this, in my next blog post, I will be posting a video composition of my own that I completed as part of a graduate class. Along with that video composition, I'll include some discussion of the fairly complicated compositional choices I had to make in compiling it as well as some of the academic research I relied on in making those decisions. My hope is that this will offer a little bit of insight into the complexity and potential for pedagogical use that well-designed multimodal assignments can have for a 21st century classroom.
I also recognize the great irony of relying so heavily on the traditional, alphabetic mode to write about the need for multimodality and the unprecedented communicative power of multimodal compositions. But, in my defense, would you take my points seriously if I communicated them in an alternative mode?
Carrying on in my series on what it takes to create literate students in the 21st century (as introduced in this blog post), I'd like to take this post to discuss the way we as teachers and as a society think about multimodal texts. A mode, in the words of Gunther Kress, "is a socially shaped and culturally given resource for making meaning. Image, writing, layout, music, gesture, speech, moving image, sountrack are examples of modes used in presentation and communication" (54). So, essentially, modes are systems we use to make and communicate meaning. We can make and share meaning through pictures, graphics, gesticulation, and any of the modes Kress lists above. A multimodal text is any composition that conveys meaning using multiple modes or nontraditional modes like the ones listed above. When we engage in discussions about academic literacy and composition pedagogy, however, we are referring almost exclusively to the alphabetic, written mode. Generally, we view alphabetic texts as the most academic and rigorous forms of scholarship. Multimodal texts, texts that exceed the alphabetic, incorporating still or moving images, sound, color etc., are commonly viewed as less intellectual, less academic, and less scholarly.
Here is where I'm going to bring us right back to the NCTE 2013 definition of 21st century literacies, which states...
“Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to...
I've added the bolded words to make my point, which is essentially that our commonplace dismissal of all texts that are not alphabetic is, at the very least, up for questioning. The NCTE statement above lists flexibility and fluency in multimodal texts and textual design as necessary skills when defining literacy in the modern age. The NCTE actually has gone so far as to publish a statement specific to multimodal literacy; this statement gets into the complexities of meaning production in our current cultural climate, encouraging teachers to push students to read and write critically and skillfully in a wide variety of media.
As an aside, in order to head off any confusion, for the purposes of this blog post as well as any others that may follow in this series, I am using the terms "multimodal" and "multimedia" interchangeably. Claire Lauer's article, "Contending with Terms: 'Multimodal' and 'Multimedia' in the Academic and Public Spheres," analyzes the difference between these two terms, coming to the conclusion that "rather than the use of these terms being driven by any difference in their definitions, their use is more contingent upon the context and the audience to whom a particular discussion is being directed" (225). So, while I will stick mainly to the term "multimodal," I am considering the term "multimedia" to be synonymous.
The NCTE is not the only voice challenging our culture's dismissive view of the complexities and scholarship behind multimodal composition. Kress feels that the reliance that mainstream culture and society has on alphabetic language and scholarship "is a consequence of histories of power and misrecognition due to power" (67). Kress bases his point on sign-language; sign-language is a fully functioning, complex system for making meaning that does not use the alphabet in the least, but relies entirely on a system of symbolic gestures. Kress argues that, since sign language developed out of the necessity of the disabled community, it is not held in the same esteem as alphabetic language. Collin Gifford Brooke holds that "the composition classroom... with its slow and steady approach to writing, may not prepare students to seize upon" the impactful and trending potential that multimodal and digital writing has to offer (181). In her recent research, Cynthia Shanahan makes a point of saying that, when she refers to texts, she is "referring to a rather broad conception of that word, in that I refer to graphical or pictorial representations of ideas and spoken discourses as texts." She clarifies that she does so because "often these representations may seem more accessible than written discourse but are deceptively abstruse" (143).
My general point here is merely that the casual disregard we have for texts that are composed in modes other than the alphabetic may be based more on cultural biases than on real reflections of scholarship, intellect, or complexity. If my point has any validity, it would follow that, in a modern high school classroom, our exclusive focus on alphabetic texts is not only limiting, but insufficient in the goal of creating literate students in the 21st century.
Brooke, Collin Gifford. "New Media Pedagogy." A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. 2nd ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 2014. 177-193. Print.
Kress, Gunther. "What is mode?" The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. Ed. by Carey Jewitt. USA: Routledge, 2010. 54-67. Print.
Lauer, Claire. "Contending with Terms: 'Multimodal' and 'Multimedia' in the Academic and Public Spheres." Computers and Composition 26 (2006): 225-239. Web. 24 Feb 2015.
Shanahan, Cynthia. “Research in Multiple Texts and Text Support.” Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013. 143-162. Print.
It's time to face the facts: I am running way behind on my blog posts and more than a little short on the golden commodity of time. Alas, grad school final projects have gotten the better of my past week. On the upside, my faithful study buddies are in it to win it with me.
I'll be back on my blogging game ASAP, so please accept these snapshots of their sleepy faces in the interim.
Resuming my stint of blog posts relating to 21st century literacies, I wanted to include some research that I recently presented at UMass Boston English Department's Conference on Teaching Composition, Engaging Practices, while on a panel with my brilliant and talented colleagues from Salem State. My conference paper discussed how the writer/reader relationship in digital writing is a powerful tool for teaching high school students about writing as a social, dialogical meaning-making act. In the academic world of contrived assignments and prompts that are intended to be read by the audience of the teacher doing the assigning, sometimes it can be difficult to help students tangibly understand how their goal as writers needs to be communication and participation in a larger conversation. Students with an understanding of writing as a removed, individualistic endeavor have to learn to value collaboration and interaction in their writing. In this regard, digital writing can be used as a tool in the modern classroom to give students immediate, hands-on experience with the social and dialogic nature of writing. The idea that writing can and should be responsive within a larger and ongoing conversation is rarely more evident than in digital writing genres, where immediate and prolific distribution, quick response times, and interactive composition designs all contribute to a uniquely blurred distinction between writer and reader. Digital writing creates an environment in which the boundaries between the author and the reader of any text are deeply confounded and subverted in ways that offer students the unprecedented opportunity to explore the interactive and responsive nature of writing.
Writing as a Social Act
The understanding of writing as a social act traces its roots back to Mikhail Bahktin’s understanding of expression through means of discourse with the world around us. In Bakhtin’s view of verbal expression, meaning is formed by the speaker relative to the expressions of other individuals in the speaker’s environment. “I live in a world of others’ words” (Bakhtin, Problems 143). In Bakhtin’s theory, it is impossible to remove words from the ongoing legacy of conversation and cultural expression. With this understanding, all of speech, and, by extension, writing becomes “inherently responsive” and functions, as Bahktin phrases it, as “a link in the chain of communication” (Bakhtin, Genres 68, 84).
One of the implications of understanding writing as participation in an ongoing, responsive dialogue is that the rigid distinctions separating author and reader are blurred. When writing is viewed as a dialogical act, the writer and the author are somewhat conflated, each informing the work of the other through the mutual act of conversation. Kenneth Bruffee phrases it by saying that “reader and writer become part of each others’ sustaining environment” (153).
Helping students develop an awareness of those more complicated reader and writer roles as well as the conversational view of writing that informs those roles is an important part of developing their personal composition processes. Ann Berthoff's theories stress that effective composition pedagogy makes students aware of how language and construction of meaning occur in their own thought processes. Berthoff holds that students do not necessarily need to learn how to form meaning because that is a natural occurrence. The important component of skilled composition instruction is to teach students to be aware of how they form meanings and what impacts that formation. The goal that arises from Berthoff and Bakhtin’s theories is to help students understand how words and expression are formed socially and conversationally in order to help them understand and inhabit their own roles as writers and readers in meaningful ways.
Why does it matter?
Teaching students to understand both the writer and reader roles, as well as how those roles can be blurred and conflated, is a necessary component in teaching students to effectively make meaning through their writing. It allows students to recognize and enter into a community of conversing individuals, engage with diverse perspectives and ideas, and then allow those diverse perspectives and ideas to inform their own as they work to write in ways that then contribute their developing ideas to the wider conversation. Students become aware of themselves and their thought processes in relation to the other writers in a dialogue. Their understanding of their roles as writers is informed by their understanding of their somewhat simultaneous roles as readers of the active and ongoing dialogue in which they are participating, facilitating effective and insightful communication through writing.
The Role of Digital Writing
The effort to teach students to understand and engage in the complex reader/writer role is where digital writing becomes extremely useful. Digital writing genres, like the ones discussed in my prior blog post, in which the interactive and collaborative nature of writing is very evident, provide instances for students to write and to interact with one another’s compositions in ways that resist that idea of a removed, individual author. This kind of reader/author interaction is not possible to the same degree in traditional print texts. Elizabeth Losh discusses how, when interacting with a more traditional print text, there is no real opportunity for immediate response to or interaction with the author or fellow readers of that text; however, the same is not true of digital text.
The reader’s interactions with existing digital texts cover a fairly wide scope. An example of a naturally dialogic and collaborative digital text is a blog post like this one! Blog posts are often valued at least in part for the number and complexity of discussion comments on the post. Reader conversation and interaction with one another and with the author of the blog post itself creates the blog page composition as a whole. Generally, comments at the bottom of the blog post are viewed as part of the blog post itself. Other examples of naturally responsive, social digital writing documents are Facebook posts in which readers are invited to comment on the author’s posting, online forums in which a question is posted and the resulting conversation in response to that question makes up the substance of that forum post page as a whole, or email threads, where the thread is made up of compositions by the readers of the initial email. These genres of digital writing are inherently comprised of authorship originating from readers of some version of the document itself, creating a very immediate and tangible sense of the ways in which composition is social, active, and responsive.
Another unique way in which digital writing blurs the distinction between author and reader centers around the chronology with which a reader experiences a text. In traditional print texts, the author creates a fairly linear, one-directional experience that the reader is expected to undergo exactly as the author has laid out. Chapters and pages are numbered and the expectation is that the reader will read them in that order, starting at the top, left-hand corner of the page and working their way across and down. Gunther Kress observes that this form of composition limits the “reader’s freedom to act” (3). In digital compositions, this is often not the case. Websites feature large bodies of text and information arranged in nonlinear formats. There is not a predetermined or even a suggested reading path for these sites. Readers of this kind of digital text are authors of their own experiences. They choose the point at which they enter a page and the approach they take to reading the site as a whole. The same is true of blog posts that include hyperlinks in the text. These hyperlinks are scattered throughout the text, giving the reader the choice of whether or not to click those links or what order to click them in. Gunther Kress summarizes the impact this kind of composition has on the role of the reader by saying “In this new … world, it is the readers who fashion their own knowledge, from information supplied by makers of the site” (6).
Getting Students Involved
Going beyond using the nature of digital writing to merely expose students to the conversations that composition creates and engages in, digital writing can also be incorporated into the classroom in order to offer students the opportunity to actually experience and participate in those conversations. Part of the appeal of using digital writing in the classroom is the access students gain to the ongoing conversations we are trying to teach them about; they can see the activity of the conversation and then join in with their own compositions and thoughts. The Internet’s capacity for speed and reach creates an incredible potential for student interaction with a nearly infinite range of possibilities. Utilizing classroom blogs, posting to academic forums, or commenting on news articles are all examples of ways in which students can gain valuable experience in reading a text, composing a response, and then joining in the wider conversation. This sort of experience can tangibly and practically teach students that, as readers, they also bring authorial influence to their reading; in authoring a composition, they must be aware of the conversation their composition contributes to and how other members of that dialogue can and potentially will respond. Participation in these types of digital writing conversations can help cultivate a working understanding of composition as dialogical and social, which creates more thoughtful, skilled, and engaged writers who are capable of utilizing the 21st century digital literacies discussed in my blog post introducing this series.
How This Empowers Diverse Student Writers
Incorporating this social, dialogical understanding of composition pedagogy into the classroom using digital writing also has the potential to empower students of diverse ability levels and backgrounds. It is a pedagogy that is, as Elizabeth Losh phrases it, “critical of dominant ideologies about language that reinforce existing and often unjust power structures, which exclude certain social actors from participating in communicative exchanges” (58). Digital writing uniquely complicates the separation between author and reader in a way that challenges social and cultural standards that dictate who has the influence to author texts and who does not. When the authority of the author role becomes accessible to everyone equally, that authority is profoundly challenged. As our very rigid, binaried understandings of the role of author in relation to the reader erode and disappear, the influences of social power that privileged the authorial role also disappear. By demonstrating that writing itself is social and conversational, students can access a means to change the social environment in which they are conversing by claiming an authorship role for themselves.
Ultimately, writing is most meaningful when it is used as a means of communication with and participation in the world at large. It is difficult to bring students to a place where they can understand this social nature of writing in a practical way. The complicated author/reader role in digital writing provides the perfect platform from which to launch a student’s exploration of writing as a social act. Incorporating digital writing into the classroom offers students an opportunity to understand and also participate in social writing genres in ways that challenge their current understandings of the roles of readers and authors. If that challenge is successful, it will empower students to claim the role of author as their own and use their writing to contribute meaningfully to the world in which they live.
Bakhtin, M.M., Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Ed. Caryl Emerson. MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Print.
Bakhtin, M.M., Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Ed Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist.Trans. Vern W. McGee. TX:University of Texas Press, 1986. Print.
Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Reading and Writing as Social Acts.” Introductory Talk. Indiana Teachers of Writing Spring Seminar. May 1983. Address.
Kress, Gunther. “Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning.” Computers and Composition 22. (2005): 5-22. Print.
Losh, Elizabeth. Virtualpolitik. MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009. Print.
Ludwig, Teresa Marie. A study of Ann Berthoff’s composition theory. MA Thesis. Iowa State University, 1987. Web. 11 March 2015.
This is my third post in a mini-series of posts I am writing on 21st century literacies in the modern high school classroom. My first post explored the idea behind what it means for a student to be literate in today's post-high school environment, focusing on the roles of technology and globalization in current academic and career workplaces. My second post focused on digital writing in particular, discussing the worth and complexity involved in rhetorically sophisticated digital composition as well as how those digital compositions can be used to teach writing in the classroom. For this post, I'd like to lighten up the heavy mental lifting for a bit and discuss some practical and accessible assignment ideas for bringing digital writing into the classroom. I found several of these ideas in Joan Lange, Patrick Connolly, and Devin Lintzenich's article in the English Journal; their article stresses the idea that digital assignments "build essential skills for success in college: developing curious minds and an ability to analyze and synthesize ideas to communicate insights with an audience." Their article focuses exclusively on the use of digital writing in teaching Shakespeare; however, their assignments are relevant for use with most readings!
Lange's article discusses many of these digital writing assignments as helpful pre-writing activities. They encourage students to slow down, search for textual clues and connotations, elaborate on their ideas about a text, and develop complex, textually-supported trains of thought that they can then proceed to use in more traditional writing assignments. When working with students who are not particularly comfortable with the text at hand, assignments like these, which rely heavily on literacies that students are fairly fluent in, can give students the confidence they need to wrestle authentically and connect with a new text. These assignments also build digital and computer literacy, which, for high school students, is an increasingly invaluable skillset. Not to mention, they just look like a ton of fun!
As high school English teachers, one of our major goals is to create literate students, equipped with flexible and complex writing and composition skills. We want students to enter colleges and workplaces with a certain competence in formulating and articulating their thoughts, responses, and ideas. But, in our current era of digital, globalized communication and technological workspaces, what does writing even mean anymore? What does it mean to teach composition to modern students in ways that prepare them to function expertly in today's society? In their 2013 position statement, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), took a stab at answering those questions by attempting to define what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Their definition pays close attention to the ways in which technology in particular has complicated the idea of literacy for our students, creating a need for students with multiple literacies capable of meeting the diverse needs of today's diverse society and culture. Their definition goes on to explain that...
"Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to
The overall theme here and elsewhere is that writing is becoming increasingly screen-based. Creating literate students, skilled in writing and composition, in the 21st century necessarily involves incorporating technology and digital writing. Understanding this more complicated view of modern literacy creates an infinite number of new possibilities for writing pedagogy in the high school classroom. Krista Kennedy points out that "the need to create assignments that reflect the reality of contemporary writing environments remains a pressing pedagogical concern, along with the need to prepare students for workplaces that are increasingly reliant on digital, global communication, and collaborative labor." As high school teachers developing curricula and assignments intended to prepare our students for their post-high school lives, we need to allow this evolving understanding of 21st century literacies to shape the pedagogical choices we are making. Digital writing genres such as blogs, twitter, email, and forums are now academic and rhetorical composition situations with which a literature student must be comfortable and confident. Our assignments must increasingly focus on developing discerning creators and interpreters of multimodal compositions, including composition using images, sounds, and video. Regardless of our comfort level with the idea, literacy for today's high school students means something different than it has meant historically. In order to best serve our students, we as teachers have to adapt our expectations and classroom designs to meet this new understanding of a literate individual.
Over my next few blog posts, I'm going to be exploring some possibilities as to what it looks like to bring this 21st century definition of literacy into the high school English classroom. I am planning on posting some of my research and ideas surrounding digital writing in the classroom as well as a few of the multimodal projects I have been working on as part of my graduate coursework. My goal is to share some of my exploration into what literacy looks like for modern high school students and to join in the ongoing conversation of educators who are working through the complications of this new and rich pedagogical landscape. As always, please do comment, ask questions, criticize, and/or correct!
For one of my graduate classes, I was asked to put together a text set for use in a high school literature unit. I chose to compile my text set around the ideals and concepts in Transcendentalist literature from the early 1800s; my goal was to create a body of texts that would work well in a literature unit for a 10th -11th grade class. I had such a great time putting it together that I wanted to post it here to share and for my own records. To preface my text set, I wanted to include Cynthia Shanahan's thoughts on the definition of 'text,' which are very close to my own.
"When I refer to texts..., I am referring to a rather broad conception of that word, in that I refer to graphical or pictorial representations of ideas and spoken discourses as texts. Often these representations may seem more accessible than written discourse but are deceptively abstruse. Yet, even as I refer to these other kinds of texts, the main treatment of them... is as items in set s of documents that always include written text, recognizing the primacy of written texts in schools and the importance of understanding them." (Ippolito, 143)
With this broader understanding of what a text is, my text set incorporates some interdisciplinary texts that do not fall under the traditional category of written discourse. I started by including two visual texts, paintings by Thomas Cole. Cole was, in many ways, a very large part of the Transcendentalist movement. He is considered to be the founder of the Hudson River painters, who are a group of painters creating work between the in the mid 19th century. The Hudson River painters set out to create a uniquely American style, specifically in depicting unique American landscapes. Thomas Cole held that if American nature could be studied and left undisturbed by men, then man could meet God in that nature. This philosophy aligned very closely with the Transcendentalist movement, which was going on at the same time that the Hudson River painters were establishing themselves. Cole and the Hudson River painters created visual representations of the ideals and concepts that the Transcendentalist authors wrote about.
Retrieved from here.
There are several layers of meaning to Cole’s Oxbow painting. The tame farmland is juxtaposed next to the wild and uncultivated woodlands, suggesting the diversity and open potential of nature. He also contrasts the wild and untouched nature of the woods to the land that has been marked by human interference. Cole places a small and insignificant image of himself in the middle foreground of the painting, suggesting his own insignificance in the grandeur and vastness of American landscape. He is seated in the woodlands overlooking the open pasturelands, situating himself as separated from the human-altered landscape. The purpose of this visual text is complex and ambiguous, although the genre of a pastoral painting is something that most students should be familiar with. The organization and layout of the piece is fairly straightforward; there is no real background or prior information necessary to critically assess this piece.
Retrieved from here.
The Mountain Ford painting also carries several layers of potential meaning. The lone individual is deeply immersed in wild and unaltered landscape. The notable focal point of the piece is the white horse, which is an example of nature that has been conquered by the influence man. The man and his horse, however, are diminutive in relation to the grandeur of the surrounding landscape. The shadow of the large mountain falls over the man and reflects beneath him in the water, giving the natural surroundings a sense of deification, power, and glorification. The purpose of the piece is again, vague and ambiguous, offering multiple interpretations. The genre should be familiar to students, organization is straightforward, and no background or prior knowledge should be required.
This poem is a clear and accessible demonstration of transcendentalist ideology. In the poem, the mighty force of the overnight snow-storm builds beautiful, architectural snowdrifts and masterpieces in the “mad wind’s night work” (line 27). The implication is that what the artistry and creative spirit of nature is able to create overnight surpasses what humanity is able to do over centuries of architectural design and construction. The beauty of the snow covers over everything that man has made, leaving something far superior and more beautiful behind. Emerson deifies the snow-storm with the kind of generative power of a holy creator; the snow-storm comes in a night and creates beauty out of nothing.
The Dale-Chall Readability Index places this text at a grade level of 11-12th grade, with 19% of the words not found on the Dale-Chall word list. Overall, this text would be a stretch text for an 11th grade class, but would provide an opportunity to really wrestle with some of the ideals of transcendentalism.
Retrieved from here.
As one of the few women known to have impacted the transcendentalist movement, I felt it was important to include a piece from Margaret Fuller. Her poem ‘Meditations’ captures the sense of independent self and self-realization in light of nature’s greatness; this approach greatly characterizes the spirit of transcendentalism. This poem in particular explores the idea of finding deity within ourselves and recognizing the inherent goodness in man and nature.
The Dale-Chall Readability Index places this text at grade level for grades 9-10 with 14% of the words not found on the Dale-Chall word list. However, as the Dale-Chall Readability formula is unable to test for conceptual complexity of a work, I am identifying this piece as grade appropriate for an 11th grade English class based on its fairly dense theoretical and philosophical meanings.
Retrieved from here.
This website is a little dated, but it does have a somewhat comprehensive overview of the transcendentalist movement, the philosophies involved, work that resulted from the movement, and individuals who played major roles. The website offers photos, writings, as well as external links to material that all relate to transcendentalism in the 19th century. It would be an excellent resource for students to explore and use to construct some independent background knowledge concerning literature created during this movement as well as the beliefs that informed that literature. In using this text set, a middle-stakes, independent research assignment could be assigned requiring students to gather information from this site.
The Dale-Chall Readability Index places this site as appropriate for grades 11-12, with 25% of the words not found on the Dale-Chall word list. I believe that this high score comes from the number of technical, web-based terms on the site. So, as long as students are familiar with online documents, this should not be a problem for them.
Mary Oliver is a modern day poet; however, much of her writing and philosophy mirrors those of the Transcendentalist poets we would be studying in this unit. This poem would give students the opportunity to reflect on Transcendentalist ideology outside of the time period in which we have been focusing, opening up discussion on whether or not that ideology is relevant today or for us as individuals.
In qualitative terms, the difficulty level of this poem is low. The lines of short, simple, and use very basic vocabulary; syntax is standard and noncomplex. Standard English is used and the literary devices are straightforward and easy to understand. The meanings in the poem are simple and accessible; the purpose is easy to identify and reflect on. Most genre norms for poetry are followed in this piece, so students will be able to recognize much of what Oliver is doing. The Dale-Chall Readability index places this work at the 7-8th grade reading level. While this low reading level may not challenge students’ practical decoding skills, it will provide an opportunity to interact personally with the larger themes of this unit as well as to practice evaluating some of the Transcendentalist ideas we would have been studying.
This graphic novel adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden, boils down the original work, highlighting key concepts, ideas, and quotes. These highlights are worked into the text’s artwork to create a unified sense of Thoreau’s journey and growth into his transcendentalist beliefs. The excerpts from Thoreau’s work are not used in chronological order, but have been rearranged to suit a narrative tale that follows Thoreau’s decision to live outside of society and the insights he drew from that experience. The intent of this novel is to give readers access to some of the central and most influential concepts in Thoreau’s work in a manageable and memorable format.
Qualitatively and quantitatively, this text is an interesting blend of complexity levels. As far as genre, narration, and text graphics go, the text is fairly simple. The genre of the comic book is well-known, the narration is linear, the plot-line of the story is clear, and the graphics are simple to comprehend. However, the simplicity of the graphics does not remove the complexity of meaning from them. There are several potential purposes and meanings for many of the frames and students will have to be able to sort through those messages. The minimal text is largely figurative and conceptually dense. The ideas put forth are philosophical and largely metaphorical. Standard English is used; however, despite the deceptively simple format of the book, the register of the language is academic. Vocabulary words such as “magnanimity” and “dictates” are used. In order for the piece to make sense, my opinion is that background knowledge on Thoreau’s work Walden and the circumstances surrounding it is extremely helpful.
In order to assist with the contextual information, the graphic novel has panel discussions at the back of the book that explain both the graphic and verbal choices made by the author in light of Thoreau’s history, personality, and works; much of the necessary background information can be found in the book itself. The Dale-Chall Readability Index placed panel discussions in the back of the book at a grade level appropriate for grades 11-12, with 25% of the words not found on the Dale-Chall word list. When I entered text from the panels themselves, however, the Dale-Chall Readability Index placed it at a grade level appropriate for grades 7-8. While this scoring may be accurate based on word use alone, the concepts and complexity of this text definitely surpasses 7-8th grade appropriateness. A phrase such as “making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day,” would score fairly low on the Dale-Chall Readability Index; however, the syntax and conceptual content of this phrase makes it much more complex. Ultimately, the blend of complexity levels adds a level of complexity in and of itself. This text would absolutely require guidance and explanation in order for students to access it fully. I do believe, however, that it is a challenging and alternative way to interact with a major literary work from the transcendentalist movement.
In order to have something to compare the graphic novel adaptation of Thoreau’s work against, it is important for the students to have experience with at least a small excerpt from the original. This chapter constitutes a good representation of many of the themes and ideas explored by Thoreau. Without taking class time to read the entire work, this excerpt will give students direct experience with one of the more important literary works of the Transcendentalist movement while also informing their interactions with Porcellino’s graphic novel.
In qualitative terms, this text is approximately grade level. The stream-of-consciousness style in which the prose is written is easy to understand, but lacks a narrative structure, meaning that students will have to work to follow Thoreau’s trains of thought. Many of the philosophical ideas or concepts that Thoreau reflects on are fairly complex and open-ended, which will create a mental challenge for the students; however the tone of the text is conversational and uses Standard English, making it accessible. This chapter also features several references to outside texts which will need to be explained to student readers. The Dale-Chall Readability Index places this text at a 7-8th grade reading level. Although the overall reading level is low, the text is punctuated by difficult vocabulary words such as “impounded,” “lustily,” and “auroral.” In considering the lower reading level combined with the more advanced vocabulary, extra-textual references, and some of the more advanced concepts and theories in the writing, I feel that this is a grade level text that will require some scaffolding in order to guide student understanding.
Transcendentalism is one of my favorite themes through which to explore poetry. I find that students connect easily with some sense of spirituality and peace through nature, making much Transcendentalist writing accessible and meaningful to them. I also believe that attempting to write poetry in response to a feeling of connection or meaning found in nature is something that can be very therapeutic and rewarding for students. My idea behind this text set is to help students explore the mindset of the Transcendentalist writers so that they can try to enter into that mindset in their own personal writing and reading.
I work in an urban, ethnically diverse school system. My students have a more difficult time than most connecting with canonical classics such as The Scarlet Letter, A Tale of Two Cities, and 1984 for a wide variety of completely legitimate reasons. It is no big secret that I harbor something of a grudge against the exclusive use of canonical texts in the American classroom; more on this in a prior blog post. I am a massive supporter of bringing non-traditional, non-Western, non-canonical texts into the high school curriculum whenever possible; I think it is an extremely important issue. In general, this is why I am so excited by and impressed with Lauren Leigh Kelly's 2013 article, "Hip-Hop Literature: The Politics, Poetics, and Power of Hip-Hop in the English Classroom." Kelly's article explores the merits of using hip-hop texts in a high-school English classroom not just as a gateway into more canonical literature, but as a "genre worthy of independent study" (51). In Kelly's opinion, using hip-hop texts as nothing more than a stepping stone to bridge the gap between student knowledge and canonical texts only further isolates many students from accepted canonical texts while privileging the predominantly white, Western culture of the canonical texts over the diverse, multicultural nature of hip-hop music. In order to teach literature students, particularly urban and low-income students, to recognize the power behind their own individuality, personal experiences, and cultures, Kelly holds that it is necessary to teach hip-hop texts as a literary form in their own rights without juxtapositioning them against the traditional, Western canonical works. Kelly argues that to deprive modern students of the opportunity to analyze and study literature from this genre not only deprives some students of the opportunity for identification and creation of ownership in a text, but it robs all students of the opportunity to learn about a relevant and culturally diverse art form that plays a major role in modern pop culture.
I am a big believer in using genre awareness to teach literature and composition; I also believe that it is important for students to explore genres outside of those seen as traditionally literary. In order to understand the social and cultural nature of genre development, it is critical to analyze both academic and well-known literary genres as well as modern, more recent genres that play a larger role in pop culture. Kelly's assertion that hip-hop literature is a genre in its own right fits well with the definition of genre that I hope to incorporate into my classroom curriculum.
Kelly stresses at several points that non-white students often feel disrespected and isolated in classrooms that focus exclusively on texts from a white, Western literary tradition. Hip-hop literature finds its roots in a much more culturally diverse tradition that has the potential to appeal to a swath of students that may otherwise disengage from classroom activities based on their cultural heritage and feelings of underrepresentation. In my future classroom, I would like to incorporate texts that offer students of non-white backgrounds the opportunity to see their own images and cultures portrayed in a literary work while also offering white students a chance to broaden their expectations for and experiences with literature and cultural traditions. Hip-hop literature provides a culturally relevant and accessible way to do this.
Finally, hip-hop texts encourage students to exercise and develop fairly complex literary skills while engaging with material that appeals to their authentic, non-academic interest areas. I believe that it is imperative to construct unit plans in a way that helps students take what they learn in the classroom with them once they leave the classroom. An essential goal in teaching genre theory as a gateway to literary skill is to help students understand the social and developmental nature of genres and be able to apply that understanding to genres they see in their day-to-day lives. Analyzing the genre of hip-hop literature provides a way for students to practice literary analysis on a literary art form that they are already familiar with, have a respect for, and interact with in their nonacademic lives.
I swiped this idea from my good friend's blog, Breaking Grad(School), which just featured a super fun shelfie post for World Book Day. I loved it so much that I figured I'd keep the shelfie love coming. Seeing as how my computer's spelling autocorrect programming clearly has no idea what a shelfie is, let's turn to an age old source of cultural wisdom and insight for further information:
Shelfie: A picture or portrait of your bookshelf. Showcasing literature IN ALL IT'S GLORY! (This term was originally defined by author Rick Riordan).
Thank you, Urban Dictionary.
I love this idea for a blog post primarily because my bookshelf is my favorite thing about my apartment. My husband, sister, and sister's boyfriend built it for me from Home Depot supplies using a series of pictures I found on Pinterest. It was a birthday present and I take every opportunity to share its glory with the world.
My bookshelf is full of things I love dearly, most of which are books. I do have small stashes of books on smaller bookshelves scattered throughout the house, but this baby is my main library station. Most books are organized topically.
I'll stop here, but only because I can't imagine you're still reading this. Also because I believe my dog is chewing on something that I want to keep. Thanks, Breaking Grad(School), for the fun idea. And I hope to see what's on all of your bookshelves as well!
Bonus bookshelf: Photo Books in Apple Crates
I work in a public school district, making this my February break. I don't have to go to work this week! This is a pro. I am a grad student taking 3 classes while working full time. My vacations are spent entirely on homework. This is a con.
I get to work on my homework in this coziest of spots with the most delicious of chai teas. This is a pro. Possibly two pros if you count the chai as its own pro.
Overall, the situation nets at least one pro. Life is good :)