I Believe 3 Things About Reading for Fun

Summer is here. My manic school year days are slowly decelerating into a warm, easy rhythm. Although my time still feels full with a myriad of small tasks required to get our somewhat derailed lives back on track, I am finally able to set aside the time to reach into my pile of “for fun” reading books. The stack has been accumulating since the end of last summer, which was the last time I could plausibly read for pleasure. But summer is back again in all its humid goodness, and I couldn’t be more ready to sink into the pages of a book that I chose simply because I thought it sounded good.

Over the years, I’ve gotten fairly good at reading for a variety of purposes OTHER than for fun. I am pretty good at reading to understand, to memorize, to meet a time crunch, to search for specific information, to check facts etc. I mean, I’m an English teacher now, so these tasks are kind of inherent in my daily life. I have even learned to enjoy reading for some of these end goals. But returning to my pleasure reading pile this summer has reminded me of 3 very important personal beliefs.

  1. There is no kind of reading like pleasure reading. I can sometimes forget the immersive sensation of losing touch with the world around me as my mind and emotions detach from reality and latch organically and enthusiastically to some novel or short story or poem that has captured my attention. It is a welcome and familiar thrill to find myself elaborately constructing my own, unique visions and interpretations of places, people, and situations in my mind, creating my own reading experience and building something that draws in both my own life story, imagination, and personality as well as the author’s carefully crafted composition. There is simply nothing quite like it.
  2. Teachers of reading and writing need to make time to read for pleasure. So does everyone, but especially teachers of reading and writing. If we want our students to be fascinated, intrigued, or consumed by the compositions they interact with, we need to model that. We need to have an intimate familiarity with the feeling of that magnetic connection to and investment in a story, idea, or image so we can explain it, recognize it, and work towards creating it in our students. I see in myself how easy it is to forget the joy and simple sense of play in reading just for the fun of it; as an educator, it is essential that I not forget.
  3. Teachers of reading and writing need to create time and opportunities to allow their students to read for pleasure. This is difficult; as with most things in life, you have to give something up to achieve this. In my classes last year, I sacrificed a few assignments I had planned in order to keep the pace at a place where students could enjoy what we were reading. I also did the extra leg work required to give students some choices in their reading, allowing them time and opportunity to recognize and choose what they gravitated towards. Student life hurtles by at a breakneck pace; even students who love to read won’t have time to read for fun unless their teachers give it to them. And if we don’t give it to them, how many kids will forget entirely what it feels like? Or never even get a chance to feel it? It’s our job to make the time for them.

I won’t make the claim that these are particularly complex or scholarly beliefs. Nevertheless, I find myself consistently forgetting them, sliding them into the back of my mind and letting them gather dust while I crash through my days in a frenzy of productivity.

Thankfully, there is quiet, warm summer to remind me of my dusty beliefs. Thankfully there are porch swings and glasses of lemonade and happy dogs all just waiting for me to pull up a good book and dive in. Thank goodness.

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Teaching Composition as Activism in the Real World

My 10th graders and I just finished Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. To say that we loved the experience of working through it together is not only minimizing, it doesn’t capture the heartache and heaviness that we shared as we grappled with the reality of human suffering. We were moved by it.

When designing the unit we would use together, my goals echoed what I understand Wiesel’s to be, which is to push everyone, students included, to understand the critical weight their voices hold in the age-old battle against those who would oppress, consume, and destroy humanity. Following the publication of Wiesel’s memoir, his countless books, speeches, and essays all seem to focus on one central theme: what can we do to stand with and for those who suffer? In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel states clearly,

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

For me, the design of this unit had to strengthen critical thinking and composition skills while also honoring Wiesel’s legacy by asking students to engage personally and practically with issues of human suffering in the world around them. As it turns out, these two goals complement each other in beautiful ways.

The unit itself was a truly meaningful one to share together; however, where my students blew me away most was in the final assignment. The assignment, based on this one which I found from a fellow teacher’s blog, asked students to choose a current instance of human suffering and pain and then to use their composition skills to create artifacts that enacted change in the world around them to benefit those in pain as a result of the issue they had chosen. See the assignment statement below for what I gave them to work from.

As you can see from the assignment, the constraints were few. They had no rubrics. They had a high degree of choice. They had total control over how they implemented and pursued the choices they made. I was nervous that they would go rogue or use this as an opportunity to avoid work. They were nervous that I wouldn’t like what they did or that they wouldn’t get a good grade. We pushed through it, and, per usual, they stunned me into silence.

My beautiful, kind, clever, empathetic, and motivated students made this project their own. They chose a wide array of issues ranging from the faraway, like the drought in Somalia and the Syrian refugee crisis, to the local, diving into homelessness and sex trafficking in Boston. They built blogs, pamphlets, videos, sculptures, audio pieces, children’s books, and maps that informed, implored, and supported. Their creations traveled extensively within their communities, with letters being sent to local government officials, funds being raised within churches, information being shared with friend groups, and resources being distributed in all of these. Students created complex, strategic compositions with specific rhetorical goals that we then set loose into the real world to see how they performed.

Returning to my two initial goals, which were to build composition skills while making an impact on human suffering, I can see in retrospect that they are meant to walk hand in hand. When you give students a real reason to compose, and then you assure them that their compositions can make an impact, they rise to the circumstances. Using real-world activism to teach and explore composition not only gives students real-world experience with how their compositions can work, it shows them why good composition matters and how it can change the world around them.

I’ve compiled some shots of samples from different projects so you can see the smart and creative things students ran with. The gallery below has a variety of the visual pieces.

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The digital creations were no less impressive.

Some students made informational sites like…
– this one on South Sudan
this one on the persecuted Yazidis in Iraq
this one about the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar (complete with a Storify outlining the background of the conflict if you’re interested!).

Other students created videos like…
this one about working with children in rural Chinese schools
this one on the genocide in Darfur
this one on the persecuted Yazidis

Another student conducted first person interviews with individuals directly involved in combatting homelessness in Boston, two of which can be heard here and here.

Students made incredible use of social media, using Instagram to share artwork along with facts and links to organizations that can support those suffering OR using Twitter and Facebook to gather first hand accounts to compile into profiles. One student wanted to gauge the impact Planned Parenthood had had on those she was connected to, so she placed an open call for firsthand stories of experiences with and care received at Planned Parenthood. She received a wide variety of responses and was able to synthesize those into an audio/video presentation to her class.

I could go on, but I know I have gone on too long already. All I will say in conclusion is that correcting these projects has been one of the most wonderful and inspiring things I have ever done. Students used their developing composition skills to chip away at injustice, both in the world at large and in their own lives. In reflecting on this project, I take heart that the future of our world will be placed in pretty good hands.

All student work shared with permission.

What is this, an art room or something?

If I had a nickel for every time someone walked into my room and asked this question with a smirk on their face…

I’m not offended by it; in fact, quite the opposite is true. What I could do without, however, is the tone in which the question is often pronounced. The asker almost always seems to be suggesting a subtle amusement at the frivolity of a room that should be dedicated to “serious literary scholarship.” It’s as if they are skeptical that real academic rigor in the literary discipline could possibly occur in a room such as this one.

This question, and the attitude that so often accompanies it, represents a school of thought that I find deeply concerning when it comes to the way we tend to approach the study of the English language. In our concern surrounding declining literacy rates and plummeting standardized test scores, we seem to have lost sight of something big. Reading and writing are artistic endeavors. Scholarship in the realms of composition and meaningful interactions with texts has to take place against a backdrop of curiosity, play, and creativity. I have seen this most poignantly in my own teaching. When students are able to play with texts, probe them, translate them into different modes, and wrestle with them, their work comes alive. This kind of learning, in my opinion, relies very heavily on the affordances of incorporating multimodality into the English classroom, which I’ve blogged about before. It also relies on an emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of composition and reading. Why can’t my classroom be an English room and an art room and a science room and a programming room and whatever else my kids want to mess around with in order to create and interact with texts?

When we panic in the face of test scores and standards, we end up stifling our students under the weight of our own ideas on what makes for competitive literary studies.  We suffocate their ability to love reading and writing in our efforts to make them literate. Instead, I believe our goal should be to teach them how to dive headlong into all the different ways meaning can be made and experienced through composition.

And so, when I am asked that dismissive question about my room and, by extension, my student’s work, I proudly answer: Yep, among other things. 

And if you want to see some legitimate literary scholarship performed in ways that may fall under the category of art, feast your eyes on the smart and explorative compositions by many of my students in the slide show below. It strikes me as very worth noting that a good portion of these works were done entirely voluntarily, in addition to required classwork, simply because those students felt like they wanted to augment the meaning of their pieces using some of the tools at their disposal.

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Many of these images above show visual representations of academic essays, illustrations from short stories, or brainstorms for poetry. And if you think these artistic endeavors didn’t make for some wildly excellent written texts, you obviously haven’t read my students’ work.

Telling Time with Bookshelves: A Shelfie Update

I am someone who references different chapters of my life using my bookshelves. Each phase of my life has had its own bookshelf and, for someone whose books have been and remain a somewhat central feature, those different bookshelves stand out in my memory as kinds of landmarks in my personal history.

When I was homeschooled on a sailboat, I had a tiny bookshelf in the boat’s salon; it only fit about 5 books, so the titles rotated fairly regularly, but it was mine. In the house I lived in during high school, I was able to upgrade to a long, wooden bookshelf that was painted baby blue for some unknown reason. I liked this shelf because it had cubbies that I could use to organize books by genre. Over a decade later, I still remember which genres went in which cubbies, which probably says more about my compulsion to organize than it does about my love of books, but that’s not the point of this post. The first thing I purchased for my college dorm room after gleefully notifying the University of New Hampshire that I would be attending was a set of birch-colored Ikea shelves that were deep enough to fit textbooks as well as novels. Upon graduating, my first apartment featured a heavy wooden shelf that I found for free on Craigslist and that my mother kindly characterized as “hideous.” The list goes on and, despite my fascination with my own bookshelf lineage, I’ve probably already lost you.

This blog originated and has unfolded during my “living in an apartment in Danvers” phase of life, which was also my grad school phase. I have very much loved this phase, which, for me, is marked by the bookshelf I blogged about in this post, built for me by my husband, sister, and sister’s boyfriend for my birthday. This shelf housed my critical theory books, books on pedagogy, fave novels, and even some of my husband’s books, which was a new experience for me. I don’t usually share my shelf space.

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The time has come, however, for a new chapter! I have graduated with my degrees, as evidenced by the enthusiastic picture to the left. I will be leading my own classroom this fall. We have left our tiny apartment and secured ourselves a tiny house in the woods. Accordingly, I have moved myself into a brandy new bookshelf to mark the transition. And so, without much additional fanfare, allow me to share a recent shelfie with you!

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Built for me by the smiley fellow in the photo up top, this is my favorite bookshelf yet!

I hope that this next chapter will be as beautiful and full of colorful stories as its associated bookshelf!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using Digital Activities in the Classroom – Part 3 of 5: Pinterest

Continuing on in my series on digital classroom tools, introduced in this opening post, I am truly excited to discuss some of the ways Pinterest can be used to build digital literacies and promote 21st century literacy skills. Although I have briefly talked about using Pinterest to create classroom word walls in the past, this post will explore some of the broader, more flexible roles Pinterest can fill in an educational context.

For those of you who have yet to delve too deeply into the wonderful world of Pinterest, it is a social networking site that allows users to share and organize online content, including links to articles, videos, images, audio files, and much more. The defining feature of Pinterest, however, is that this sharing and organizing is driven almost entirely by a visual component. Every content link is associated with an image; this image/link pairing, or “pin,” is what is shared, organized, and pinned to different boards. Each board represents a general topic on which the user can pin a variety of image/link pairings. For example, on my own, personal Pinterest site, I currently have a board entitled “Teach” on which I pin classroom strategies and lesson plans. Each pin has its own image and link to related content. The result is one large visual made up of a series of individual images, each tied to a relevant content link. See below!

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Here is a screenshot of my personal Pinterest board built to house my pins related to classroom lesson-planning and teaching. If you click on any of the images, they will take you to the site that houses the associated blog post, article, or lesson plan.

Given the inherently multimodal and digital nature of Pinterest, it holds a ton of potential for classroom use and digital literacy-building. Additionally, for students who are more visually oriented or for ELL students, the image associations that Pinterest relies on can be very powerful learning mechanisms. With this in mind, here are a few ways to think about capitalizing on Pinterest’s unique functionality in order to generate new and creative learning opportunities in the classroom. Some of these ideas overlap with one another in different ways, but my hope is that at least one of them might trigger some potential activity ideas for any teacher-readers out there!

  1. Brainstorming: Pinterest is gloriously vast; its scope is impossibly broad. This diversity of pins can make a Pinterest board a fantastic place to gather ideas for various projects or assignments, particularly when students are in the drafting and planning phase of composing visual, digital, or multimodal projects. Students can pin example work, project ideas, and anything that helps them narrow their vision for their composition. For students who are intimidated by visual or multimodal work, a brainstorming board on Pinterest might help them formulate some tangible ideas or starting points. For students who are enthusiastic and fearless composers of multimodal work, Pinterest’s endless sea of ideas can serve to inspire and push them to consider new and creative possibilities.
  2. Group Work: Pinterest can be collaborative in a number of ways. Boards can be set to function collaboratively, allowing multiple users to pin different ideas to a single board. This can help group members communicate, organize, and streamline various visions for a single project, particularly a visual project. Each individual pin also allows comments from other users, so students are able to comment on the pins that their classmates are collecting and curating, offering feedback, questions, or further resources. When considering how the this point interacts with the first point, the potential for group brainstorming around a collaborative project is huge.
  3. Research: As students research a particular topic and sift through which sources they would like to use, Pinterest can be a great way to collect and organize that research. Pinterest’s visual nature and layout also encourages students to value multimodal sources, including videos, sound bites, infographics, or photographs, all of which are important to consider when compiling research around a topic. As this post by Leah Anne Levy points out, a single board dedicated to a particular research topic can serve as a sort of running, virtual bibliography that a student can return to throughout their work and use to craft their final works cited page. It is important to note that some discussion around choosing good sources would help make this use of Pinterest much more effective.
  4. Teacher-Curated Resources: A teacher-run Pinterest account can function as a convenient, centralized way to make educational resources available to students. The classroom teacher can construct different boards to house related content, sample work, or other resources that she feels might be useful for her students. These boards could easily be supplementary or optional, allowing students to use the sources according to their needs, learning styles, and personal goals.

I personally am very excited to employ some of these ideas in my own classroom; however, as high school principal Eric Sheninger points out in his Edutopia article, any use of Pinterest in an educational setting necessarily has to include a discussion of copyright and fair use laws. Pinterest functions on the use of visuals, which are often creative works requiring appropriate citation. Despite this, the Pinterest universe largely neglects this aspect of social networking; very few pin images are appropriately cited. For classroom boards, it is important that students give proper credit to any image, video, sound bite, or other work that they pin or use in their personal composition.

I view the copyright issues surrounding the use of Pinterest in the classroom as one of the many compelling reasons to incorporate it into student work. Students often have a wildly inadequate understanding of responsible source use. Navigating copyright regulations surrounding digital sources is a complex, but necessary skill that any 21st century student needs experience with. Pinterest can create safe and controlled opportunities for building digital literacy skills while also exploring the vast, digital resources at their fingertips. So, in short, happy pinning!

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The Problem of Plagiarism: Asking Why – Part 3 of 5

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Courtesy of Creative Commons

In my last post, I attempted to investigate and complicate the way in which we commonly define plagiarism.  It is impossible, however, to discuss a more multifaceted understanding of plagiarism without then going on to consider how that understanding complicates our assumptions as to why students plagiarize. When we perceive plagiarism to very simply be cases in which students “steal” the words or ideas of others in order to pass them off as their own, we reduce the list of potential motivations down to laziness and deceitfulness.  Either a student couldn’t be bothered to complete her own work or she just wanted to cheat the system and get away with literary theft.  If, however, we are going to consider plagiarism as occurring over a spectrum, as we did in my prior post, then we must be willing to consider the corresponding spectrum of situations and rationales that might prompt students to engage in these different kinds of plagiarism.

In her article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rebecca Moore Howard captures the danger in a simplistic rationale for why students plagiarize, saying, “by thinking of plagiarism as a unitary act rather than a collection of disparate activities, we risk categorizing all of our students as criminals.” It is not only demoralizing and harmful to minimize all our students in this way; it is also inaccurate according to the often-quoted-in-this-blog Keith Hjortshoj and his co-author Katherine Gottschalk.  In their own classroom experiences, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk found that instances of plagiarism did not “correspond with integrity among the students” (Teaching Writing 118).  Drawing from their time teaching, they recount many instances in which an ethical and motivated student committed some form of plagiarism.  When reflecting on the numerous occasions in which they had to respond to plagiarism in their classrooms, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk say, “while all of these cases involve misrepresentation, their motivations and implications can be entirely different” (Teaching Writing 118).

Several recent scholars and organizations have begun theorizing on what exactly some of these different motivations might be.  Based on their research, I have compiled a list of just a few alternative reasons students could have for committing some degree of plagiarism.

  • A General Lack of Ability: Jennifer Rabold has said, “I see plagiarism as an issue of students trying to enter the academic conversation unskillfully.”  For a motivated student who wants very much to succeed in an assignment, but who does not have the skills to do so, it may be easy to either intentionally or unintentionally rely too heavily or incorrectly on outside sources.  As part of the process of further investigating this idea, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA), Hjortshoj, and The Citation Project have identified a few specific skills-based pitfalls that students may fall into when attempting to incorporate outside information and voices into their writing.
    • Inability to Critically Read and Summarize Complex Sources: Work done by The Citation Project shows that, when citing sources in their papers, students summarized an outside work only 6% of the time, “indicating that they either could not or would not engage with extended passages of text.”  The Citation Project’s position on this is that plagiarism is unavoidable in situations where students are not able to critically read and interact with complex sources.
    • Lack of Established Personal Voice: When writing within the different academic disciplines, students are developing and exercising the ability to write using different voices and lenses required by the individual disciplines.  Students are being asked to write as experts in particular fields on particular topics, even though writing from that perspective and in that manner is very unfamiliar for them.  (I discuss this in more depth in my post on disciplinary literacy.) This lack of familiarity can cause students to lose track of where their ideas and words are original and where they borrow from outside sources.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk explain this by saying, “The difficulties novice writers face in establishing an authoritative voice and position can make the task of quoting and citing real authorities very confusing.  Many students therefore drift into minor forms of plagiarism because the approach they have used does not give them a sense of position from which they can easily distinguish their ideas and voices from those of other writers” (Teaching Writing 119).
    • Confusion Surrounding the Technical Mechanics of Citation: It doesn’t take much more than a casual thumbing through the most current MLA or APA handbook to establish that the list of rules governing correct documentation of the ideas of others is overwhelming for developing writers.  The WPA’s Statement on Best Practices for Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism acknowledges that “students may not know how to integrate the ideas of others and document the sources of those ideas appropriately in their texts.”  A student writer may be genuinely overwhelmed or confused when trying to understand the guidelines and, as the WPA reminds us, “error is a natural part of learning.”
  • Cultural or Language Difference: American school systems and academics have a very specific understanding of what is appropriate and necessary when attributing credit for ideas and words.  This understanding is not objective and it is not shared equally on a global basis.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk point out that “in some cultures… repeating what authorities say is almost a definition of learning.”  It is understandably difficult for students coming from an international or multilingual background to understand what it means or why they would be asked to “take an independent or original perspective, especially when they truly have learned from others everything they know about the subject, including the language required to discuss it” (Teaching Writing 119).
  • Time Constraints:  The modern American student has more demands on their time and attention than ever before.  A 2008 New York Times article reported that a high-performing high school had to enforce a lunch period after their students became so entrenched in extra-curricular activities, AP classes, and part-time jobs that they were skipping their midday meals.  The expectations on students to build resumes and accumulate accomplishments at an overwhelming rate have only grown since this article.  The WPA points out that students may make time-management or planning errors and “believe they have no choice but to plagiarize” in order to meet important deadlines.

This list is in no way meant to be comprehensive.  My only goal is to offer some different options to consider when thinking about why students fall into plagiarism.  While I emphatically acknowledge that blatant and intentional literary theft does indeed occur and demands response, I am attempting to advocate for the increasing number of student writers who authentically struggle with the ethics and complexities of citing sources.

In my admittedly limited experience and untested opinion, students are generally trying to learn, create good work, and live up to the expectations that are placed on them. The increasing levels of plagiarism in the academic system are much less an indication of decreasing interest levels and morality among students than they are of a sharp incline in the complexity of navigating outside sources.  The internet’s limitless access to an impossible range of sources makes choosing, interacting with, and incorporating those sources a very challenging task.  This challenge is layered onto the already-difficult undertaking of composing a piece of academic writing.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk identify that this process is, for almost all novice writers, characterized by “helplessness and confusion” (Teaching Writing 120).  Based on some of the research summarized in this post, it appears to be the case that this helplessness and confusion can fairly easily lapse into an incorrect use of the works of others.  I believe it is up to modern educators to remain sensitive to the variety of reasons students engage in different types of plagiarism.  This sensitivity is what leads to effective responses to plagiarism when it does occur, which is what I plan to address in my next post!

An Exploration of Literacy in the 21st Century

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 and Rebecca Moore Howard point 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” (44).  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!

A Very Transcendentalist Text Set

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Conclusion:

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.

The Genre of Hip-Hop Literature

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.