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?
I'm making the executive decision to take a second detour in my series of posts on 21st century literacies. If you're unwilling to take surprise detours, you might miss some major highlights, right? And, trust me, these girls are major highlights. We meet every Thursday after lunch. We voted on what to call ourselves and ended up with "Tao: Together As One," which beat out "Dangerous Divas" by an alarmingly small margin. There are approximately 15 of us and the most heatedly debated topic in each and every one of our sessions together tends to center around what snack I will be bringing next week. The girls all come from different grades, places in life, and backgrounds; the only thing that they have in common is a need for community.
So Lawrence High's guidance counselor, in her infinite wisdom, thought it might be a good idea to gather these ladies together to form a community of their own. And oh what a community has been formed!
We have 3 rules:
1) Always be supportive, positive, and respectful.
2) What happens in Tao time stays in Tao time.
3) Don't hog the snacks.
We take these rules super seriously; although, I'm not sure we even needed to set them. These beauties innately understand the roles of positivity, respect, and selflessness in our time together. They are funny, smart, and one-of-a-kind young women who have, with very little help or input from me, come together and built a safe place for themselves out of relationships with one another. For 4 weeks now, we have been meeting in empty classrooms to share food, laughs, successes, sorrows, fears, and support. These amazing young women have consistently impressed and humbled me in their ability to go deep in our discussions on relationships, careers, family, sexuality, goals, anxiety, and a host of other big-league topics. They bring profound insight and experience to the table and it has been a genuine honor and blessing to see them gather together and support one another.
I came home from Lawrence High today with my heart full after 90 minutes of unfiltered awesome with the Tao girls. I sat down to write up my next blog post in my 21st century literacies series and I just had to take a detour to share some of the special brand of wonderful that the strong and beautiful Tao girls bring into the world.
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!
- Text Message Paraphrases - This assignment asks students to select a portion of a play or dialogue in a novel and paraphrase the conversation into a text message conversation. Emojis and gifs are fair game. The goal is to have students connect with the literary dialogue and make it their own by putting the words into a conversational diction in which they are fluent and comfortable communicating. This activity encourages close, careful reading of a text as well as exploration of tone and emotion behind the words being said. It also makes sometimes removed or complicated texts feel real, personal, and relatable.
- Facebook Profile Page for a Literary Character - In this assignment, the teacher will have created or found a Facebook profile page template. Students have to choose a character and create a profile as if they were that character, selecting which bands they like, their favorite quotes, a profile picture, and their bio. Lange explains that "this exercise challenges students to emulate tone and diction associated with a character." It also pushes students to insightfully analyze an author's characterization in order to make decisions and assumptions as to what that character would like or dislike, who their friends would be, or what they would sound like. Jane Mathison Fife has actually written about how Facebook pages are fairly sophisticated meaning-making devices, making strategic appeals and communicating messages about an individual to a wide audience. She holds that using Facebook as a classroom tool in order to get students thinking critically about the strategic, communicative functions of social media has the potential to connect the study of literature and rhetoric with their daily lives. This assignment asks students to perform a literary analysis of a character within the situational context of a popular and familiar social media site. (The esteemed Megan of Breaking Grad(School) has shared this perfectly suited Facebook profile page template for classroom use with this assignment!)
- Tweet a Summary - Any tweet on Twitter cannot exceed 140 characters. This is a fairly limiting constraint; and yet, Twitter is frequently used to express complex political, philosophical, or social sentiments. In this assignment, students are asked to summarize a recent reading in one paragraph. Once this has been completed, students are asked to review their summary and condense it into a tweet. This tweet would capture the main idea and heart of the reading in 140 characters. This asks students to identify the main message or purpose in a composition and put it into their own words in a conversational genre with which they are very comfortable and familiar.
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!
In my last post, I started a discussion on the 21st century literacies that modern students must acquire in order to be prepared for their post-high school lives. These literacies require students to achieve flexibility and fluency with multimedia composition, technology, and collaborative writing. In this post, I wanted to continue this discussion by taking a look at digital writing in particular. Educating our students to read and write skillfully in digital forums equips them to meet the challenges of what the National Writing Project calls "our information-rich, high-speed, high-tech culture." Just so we're all starting on the same page, the National Writing Project defines digital writing as...
"compositions created with, and often times for reading or viewing on, a computer or other device that is connected to the Internet."
This can include blogs, Facebook, twitter, emails, texting, and a wide range of social networking and media sites. All of these forums I have just listed are entirely digital, but ask participants to engage in fairly complex and sophisticated rhetorical situations. They are genres in their own rights, requiring students to think critically about their choices as readers and writers. Despite the complexity of these digital writing genres as well as their increasing importance in today's career and academic spheres, they are often dismissed in the high school classroom as unimportant, nonacademic, and distracting.
I would like to offer up a few reason as to why I believe that digital writing should not be dismissed, but rather encouraged as a tool with immense potential to help equip our students with modern and relevant literacies in the 21st century.
1) As teachers, one of our goals is to get students writing or reading in their daily lives. I have witnessed a wide variety of strategies and even outright bribes on the parts of teachers engaging in the very noble attempt to infuse their students' lives with reading and writing. Meanwhile, seemingly unnoticed, reading and writing in the digital spheres has permeated adolescent life extensively. A new study by the Pew Research Center found that the average teen sends 60 texts a day. Internet Live Stats has a live and running count of how many Google searches were performed each day and the number is regularly well into the 3-4 billions. Facebook's Newsroom stats show that, in December of 2014, they logged approximately 890 million daily active users, all of whom were reading and writing social interactions. As Kathleen Yancey points out, "Note that no one is making anyone do any of this writing." I'm not entirely sure anyone needs too much convincing on this front, but teens are reading and writing somewhat constantly in digital forms. Let's harness that.
2) Despite the fact that faculty and students alike disregard digital and social reading and writing as recreational and often detrimental with regards to student literacy, most digital writing platforms actually provide particularly unique and complex communicative situations that have the potential to carry real value into non-digital genres. Twitter's 140-character limit could be considered to be a fairly advanced exercise in precision and conciseness in composition. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook's hashtag culture provides a very unique glimpse into the function of audience in our composition and how awareness of that audience shapes our compositions. The dialogical structure of emails and forum sites presents a unique opportunity to explore the social nature of writing. Texting, which relies heavily on emojis and gifs, provides a very interesting glimpse into the flexibility and functionality of multimodality in our compositions. All of these composition exercises are fairly advanced and, with correct channeling, can serve to enrich and deepen students' overall skills in composition and reading.
3) One of the things that sets digital writing genres apart from traditional print texts is the incredibly collaborative community in which this writing takes place. The previously mentioned Krista Kennedy has said, “the simple fact that digital spaces do not require human bodies to be present in the same place at the same time opens up additional possibilities for all collaboration types.” Blog posts, social networking sites, and academic forums all engage in worldwide, collaborative writing. Returning to the NCTE's definition of 21st century literacies from my opening post, students must be able to "build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively." Digital writing creates an incredibly powerful platform from which to launch students' ability to work collaboratively and cross-culturally.
4) Teaching reading or composition using digital writing is not necessarily a departure from already existing reading or composition teaching methods; it merely offers a unique and effective tool to help students gain valuable experience in necessary modern literacies. While the unique affordances of digital writing genres create new opportunities for creativity in composition and collaboration, the ability to assess a rhetorical situation, compose a response, and then engage in an ongoing dialogue is and remains a fundamental concept in the writing process.
The ways in which digital writing can be brought into the classroom are numerous and oftentimes more accessible that it first seems. It would be unrealistic and overwhelming to suggest that ELA teachers everywhere overhaul their lesson plans so that they take place in digital realms. Much more reasonably, current teachers could begin to slowly incorporate these increasingly necessary skills into their already existing curricula, adding a low-stakes digital assignment or a digital option for an assignment into their lesson plans. The important point here is to start somewhere in helping align our classroom assignments and environments with the real world challenges our students are going to face.
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
- Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
- Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
- Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
- Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
- Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts"
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!
Have you heard of StoryCorps? Because, if not, get excited for a pretty unique classroom idea. StoryCorps is a US non-profit organization with a self-proclaimed mission to...
"provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations."
or, more simply stated, to
"help create an archive of the wisdom of humanity."
StoryCorps goes about this archiving humanity's wisdom business using interviews and oral histories. In the last 12 years, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 50,000 interviews with around 90,000 participants in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and several American territories. Each interview is recorded on a free CD to share and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The interviews are also often broadcasted on NPR's Morning Edition and can be browsed or searched on the StoryCorps site.
The founder of StoryCorps is David Isay, who just recently won the TED prize, believes firmly in the importance of interviews as a means of preserving and archiving records of our humanity. He also very strongly holds that the act of listening to another human being is an act of great kindness and humanity in the service of authentic communication in an age in which real human interaction is eroding.
In an effort to revive this pure and authentic interaction and to encourage the preservation of our oral histories, Isay and StoryCorps have created a free interview app that facilitates and records a meaningful interview between you and an individual of your choosing.
The app not only provides you with engaging and thought-provoking questions, but it also automatically records, stores, and uploads your interview to the StoryCorps database. Isay calls his interviews the anti-reality television, connecting people from all walks of life through shared experiences, common emotions, and real conversation. The app interviews tend to last around 40-45 minutes, encouraging engaged listening, deep thought, and authentic human connection. Isay views his app as the antidote to the 140-character limits placed on modern communication, saying that longer conversations encourage people to go deeper and connect more profoundly with one another.
The idea of using interviews to explore and access common threads and struggles in the human experience is also explored by Humans of New York, whose interviews and photographs have been inspirational to a huge variety of followers. I think that part of why StoryCorps interviews along with Humans of New York publications have such a devoted following has to do with the craving we all have for real human connection and the ability to share our experiences with one another. I agree with Isay that, in today's age of emojis, tweets, and minimalist texts, extended, vulnerable conversation is a rarity. The average high school student may very well feel extremely unfamiliar or uncomfortable with extended personal conversation, which is what makes this an awesome classroom activity.
StoryCorps interviews strike me as interesting resources to bring into the classroom in order to expand students' horizons and encourage them to consider people in situations, places, and lives different from their own. I think that assigning students to interview either an individual with whom they are extremely close or perhaps even someone they don't know very well at all has the potential to push them to explore meaningful conversation, deep thought, and the purpose of interaction with those around us. Exploring sites like Humans of New York or StoryCorps' interview archives can help students investigate and think critically about the importance of pursuing human connection, finding lives and identities that challenge or differ from their own, and learning to listen to someone else's story.
Students in our classrooms are increasingly diverse, coming from all different socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds. Learning to listen to and understand those who are different from ourselves is an increasingly critical skill for modern high schoolers. Asking students to engage in an in-depth conversation with someone to uncover unexpected or unique information is a way of asking them to analyze their surroundings and pay attention to the world in which they live. This task prompts them to look outside themselves and their own lives to learn something new and different. I also believe that the process of asking meaningful questions, listening carefully, and recording an individual's thoughtful response to those questions is a very literary undertaking. Communication, analysis, and synthesis of differing perspectives are all critical components of advanced reading and writing skills. In these regards, I see the StoryCorps app as a great resource for teaching students to ask good questions, think critically, and search for answers outside of themselves.
I love plants. I love looking at them. I love potting them. I love watering them. I love choosing sunny little spots for them to live in. The plant love is real. Among the countless frivolous reasons I have for loving plants, I also have some fairly legitimate reasons for thinking we should have more plants in more places, particularly in places where we are asking students to focus, stretch their minds, and explore new ideas. The research and science behind the benefits of houseplants in workspaces is very interesting and relatively sound.
1) Plants help us focus and make us more productive. Field research performed in 2014 by Nieuwenhuis et al. and reported in an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied showed that workplace culture and productivity both improved notably in scenarios where the space in which employees worked featured houseplants. Exeter University's Dr. Knight has been studying this phenomenon for over a decade, finding that employee productivity increased by an average of 15% when bare workspaces were updated to include a few indoor plants. Employee performance also increased based on quantitative tests measuring memory retention and other skills following the inclusion of houseplants into the workspace.
2) Houseplants improve indoor air quality. Lacking the ventilation of outdoor spaces, indoor spaces can become fairly polluted. Air pollutants can emanate from adhesives, clothing, solvents, and a wide variety of other sources. Research by Stanley J. Kays from the University of Georgia showed that ornamental indoor plants are capable of filtering these pollutants from the air, improving physical and psychological wellbeing. More specifics on this research can be found here.
3) Plants help keep stress levels low. Chen-Yen Chang and Ping-Kun Chen published an article which investigated how window views and indoor plants impacted the levels of anxiety and nervousness of participants in the study. Stress levels were quantified by measuring participant's electromyography (EMG), electroencephalography (EEG), and blood volume pulse (BVP). Subjects were unilaterally found to display less stress and anxiety when watching a view of nature and/or when indoor plants were present as compared to the individuals who had neither of these things.
There is a pretty long list of additional suspected benefits or benefits in which the supporting research is a little shaky, but this list above is pretty soundly supported in my opinion. I firmly believe that including some greenery in the classroom has the potential to help some, if not all, students learn better. Particularly in New England, where a large portion of our year is spent with most of the greenery outside buried underneath a sheet of white snow, I think we do our students good by bringing some natural green into the spaces where they are asked to mentally and psychologically push themselves. At the end of the day, how much can it really hurt to add a houseplant or two to your classroom anyways? Might as well stick a few more plants in a few more places.
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.
- Cole, T. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow. 1836. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. <http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/10497?=&imgno=0&tabname=label>
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.
- Cole, T. The Mountain Ford. 1846. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. <http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/10496>
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.
- Emerson, R.W. "The Snow-Storm." The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th ed. Ed. by M. Ferguson, M.J. Salter, and J. Stallworthy. New York: Norton & Company, 2005. 942. Print.
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.
- Fuller, Margaret. "Meditations." Poems & Poets. Chicago: The Poetry Foundation, 2015. Web.17 Feb 2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182705>
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.
- Lewis, J. J. The Transcendentalists. 09 Sep 2009. Web. 17 Feb 2015. <www.transcendentalists.com>
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.
- Oliver, Mary. "Why I Wake Early." Why I Wake Early: New Poems by Mary Oliver. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. 3. Print.
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.
- Porcellino, J., Thoreau, H. D., & Johnson, D. B.Thoreau at Walden. Hong Kong: Hyperion Books for Children, 2008. Print.
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.
- Thoreau, Henry David. "Chapter 2: Where I Lived, and What I Lived for." Walden (Or Life in the Woods). Virginia: Wilder Publications, LLC., 2008. 51-62. Print.
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.
But really. Who needs them when you have students that can do this!
A particularly inspirational fellow teacher and blogger, Rusul Alrubail, posted recently in response to this article. I found her post and this article to be so relevant and so heartbreaking that I wanted to dedicate my ever-so-tiny and modest far corner of the internet to this issue for a moment. The spark notes version of this article features a school in New York's foreign language department that arranged for the US Pledge of Allegiance to be recited over the announcements in a different language each day for one week. After the day in which a school student recited the pledge in Arabic, the school received a barrage of complaints from students and parents. Complaints ranged from individuals saying that they had lost family in the war in Afghanistan to the sentiment that it was disrespectful to the Jewish members of the school body. The school issued an apology and declared that the pledge would only ever be read in English in the future.
Because that's America now. You're welcome to be here, so long as you promise not to contribute any notable ethnic diversity or nonwhite culture to our system.
I have a few, fairly separate, but mercifully brief points that I would like to make in response to this.
1) The people of Afghanistan do not speak Arabic. Dari and Pashto are the primary languages. But kudos on engaging in such a thorough and consistent level of ignorance.
2) When we start designating languages as representative of racial conflicts that are distinct to both a specific time and location, we are going to have to make some serious system changes. The day Arabic is offensive to the Jewish population is also the day that we will unfortunately have to start eyeing German suspiciously.
3) If anyone thinks that the brave men and women who give and have given their lives in the service of this country do so in order for us to have the freedom to limit the cultural heritage and expression of school children attempting to participate and engage in American ideals, I take extreme offense to that.
I hope students everywhere feel that they can explore their identities as Americans in light of their cultural heritage. This is one of the factors that has made and does make America a great nation. My heart breaks for the students who see their identities as Americans forcibly divorced from and opposed to their cultural, racial identities.
"What makes you American is not the language you speak, but the ideas you believe in" - Andrew Zink
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.
My classmate, fellow teacher, and blogger friend from Inside the Gradebook opened my eyes to this hidden Internet gem recently and I have not been able to look away. There exists a Tumblr account that publishes Top 40 radio hits rewritten as Shakespearean sonnets; every Thursday a new "pop sonnet" is published. Expect to see such classics as "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper and "I Kissed a Girl" by Katy Perry adapted into 14 lines and iambic pentameter. Time Magazine even thinks this whole thing is worth noting.
Not only is this an incredible way to investigate literary interpretation and adaptation in the high school classroom, it is also a great addition to any study into the affordances and constraints of the Shakespearean sonnet as a genre. The pop sonnets follow the genre norms flawlessly: three quatrains and a couplet following the abab, cdcd, efef, gg rhyme scheme, 14 lines, and iambic pentameter. The author uses Shakespearean vocabulary, turns of phrase, and register, making these pop sonnets a fun and creative way to get students who are new to Shakespeare used to his style and language. The practical classroom applications for these creative and funny poems are extensive.
We'll never know for sure, but I think Shakespeare would be a huge fan of pop sonnets. He looks like the kind of guy who would have gotten a real kick out of all this.
Behaviorist B.F. Skinner wrote “We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading. Knowing the contents of a few works of literature is a trivial achievement. Being inclined to go on reading is a great achievement.” In this short quote, Skinner captures what I believe to be the lion’s share of where things are going awry with the literacy educations of students entering high school. Our culture holds fast to a particular list of books that we feel any American student needs to have exposure to in order to qualify as truly literate and educated. We shape much of our teaching policy and curricula around this list and how to best communicate it to students. Generally, this list is referred to as the Western canon. Hemingway, Melville, Dickens, Hawthorne, and a host of their white, male colleagues preside over this canon with a certain rigidity that seems to have held our classrooms hostage for many years now. While I hold these authors and their works in the highest esteem and often personal affection, I will be the first to say that I did not enjoy Melville’s “Moby Dick” in high school. If the only books I had read in high school made me feel like Melville’s did, then I might never have grown to be the true lover of Shakespeare and Conrad that I am today. My proposal, then, is that we explore the possibility of teaching a love of reading to our students in a way that will train them for lifetime literacy.
I am not suggesting that we torch the Western canon in the modern classroom. Many of the teachers I have spoke with have reiterated the institutional importance of classic works in the classroom. Several of the teachers I have discussed this with truly enjoy teaching the classics in certain circumstances. For better or for worse, the classics are not something that we can ignore for the sake of our students, who will have to operate in the existing educational system. I am suggesting, however, that we accompany this canonical education with authentic, enjoyable reading that falls outside of the hard lines of the canon. I am suggesting that we explore ways to integrate everyday literacy and love of reading into the traditional, canon-based curriculum that we use today. I am suggesting that we communicate in every way possible to our students the things that really matter about literacy.
The route I would like to follow in investigating this potential would be to search out accessible, non-canonical texts that have the potential to either pair with or, in certain situations, replace classical texts in the high school classroom. If we can find a way to achieve our literary educational goals while integrating books that high school students will enjoy, relate to, and engage with, then we might be able to revive the idea of loving literacy as a lifelong skill. Literature that might be able to achieve this goal would have to come from a more diverse background. As opposed to the white, male authors of the canon, this supplementary literature would be authored by women or by multiethnic writers.
In our progressively diversifying classrooms, utilizing literature from a variety of ethnic backgrounds has been shown to increase the potential benefits for kids of non-white cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Research shows that texts which relate directly to a student’s life and background are more likely to engage and appeal to them. Florze-Tighe’s research demonstrated that culturally authentic literature notably enhanced the language development and thought processes of African-American children. If we know this, as teachers, we need to be proactive about searching out texts that our multiethnic and female students can engage with and relate to on an authentic and personal level. Our classrooms cannot be relatable and accessibly only for the white, male population. Reading from strictly canonical classics can often make a curriculum inaccessible for even the white, male students. I propose we explore creative ways to integrate modern, multiethnic, and female literature into the high school classroom without compromising our academic and curriculum standards. In the words of Salem State University's Chair of English Theresa DeFrancis, “We need to stop spending all our time teaching our students stuff written by dead, white guys.”
I have created a list of sample, canonical texts that are traditionally used in the high school classroom. From this list, I have researched and generated complementary literary titles that would pair well with these works. My intent in creating these sample lists is to indicate the potential that exists to engage alternative learners, multicultural students, and female learners from a variety of backgrounds in ways that are meaningful to them without compromising the traditional values of what is considered to be “literacy” in the existing academic community.
|Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter||
|Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath||
|Dickens’ Great Expectations||
|Melville’s Moby Dick||
Ultimately, our students will leave our classrooms with whatever skills and knowledge we help and direct them to attain. While I personally am very motivated to see my students graduate with a working knowledge of several of the most important classics in the Western canon, it is more important to me that my students know how to relate to, engage with, and respond meaningfully to a literary text. It is critical to me that they know how to and desire to read texts in order to learn more about their world, the people around them, and themselves. My ultimate goal is not necessarily to teach great books. In B.F. Skinner’s words, my goal is to teach a love of reading and I would like to explore ways in which our academic community can do that for our increasingly diverse body of students.
I don't think anyone goes into teaching for the cash. For those of you who were considering it, let me save you some hassle; it's not a particularly lucrative field. While it has been daunting to watch my engineering paycheck dwindle into a high school teacher's salary, I can honestly say that, what my job lacks in financial incentive, it makes up for in a host of other ways. I am not entirely sure that it is possible to itemize or quantify the kinds of benefits that come packaged with this line of work. They range from a kind note from a supportive coworker to snow day glee that rivals that of my own high school years. Personally, I find my happiest compensation comes from my smart and hilarious students. Sometimes they give me the best nicknames (O.G. Kelley - the Original Gangster, Elsa, Miss Frozen, D-Money, Miss K-Swag. It's an embarrassingly long list). Sometimes they abruptly understand something I say and ignite with possibility. Sometimes they stop by their local bodega on the way to school, pick me up some mangu for breakfast, and bring it to my first period class so I can try the breakfast they love.
One of my major goals is to stay sensitive to the small, non-monetary ways in which I am compensated for my work. My paycheck is minimal, but the love, fun, and community I enjoy with my fellow teachers and students would dwarf any paycheck anyways. The list of ways in which my work is quietly and warmly rewarded is endless, but, in a way, I think the mangu says it all.