The Best Kind of Assignment

In my humble opinion, the best kind of assignment is no assignment at all. Allow me to explain myself.

The most valuable kind of work a student can do is work that is voluntary, self-motivated, and unassigned. This is the kind of thing a student thinks of and pursues independently, just because they think it’s cool. Despite the elusive and difficult-to-quantify nature of uncoerced student productivity, it is unquestionably the richest, most meaningful work of all. Students learn and retain more by exercising their own creative and independent ideas than they will ever completing our imposed tasks and assessments. This self-propelled work is often the best use of everyone’s time.

The logistics of creating space and opportunity for this kind of work in the classroom, however, are incredibly tricky. The very idea requires a lot of careful planning and trust in students on the part of the classroom educator. It involves trimming down compulsory classroom work to the bare necessities so we have time and energy for intellectual play. It requires me to strategically cultivate attitudes of exploration and curiosity over time so my students are increasingly predisposed to come up with, recognize, and act on creative compositional impulses. Relationships between the students and myself and between the students themselves must be mentored into bringing about the kind of collaborative environment that naturally erupts into spontaneous acts of creation. It’s actually kind of exhausting, but, in my experience, TOTALLY worth it.

The central, anxious questions haunting my dreams as I try to design a classroom environment that invites voluntary work always go something like…

  • What if students choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration?
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly?
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits?
  • How do I grade this madness?

This is an adapted list, as the complete one is approximately 30 times as long; however, I have found that there are pretty practical, simple answers to these questions.

  • What if students just choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration? Some will. Others won’t. As time goes on, the number of students choosing to do nothing will dwindle as they observe their peers interested and engaged in really cool, individualized work. Some students choosing to do nothing with the space might actually just need space.
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly? What I often perceive as incorrect application of a skill or principle I’ve taught can, on closer inspection, just be a student’s very different take on what we are learning together. However, if the student genuinely struggled to understand what I was teaching, there is NO better learning opportunity than when underway in an applicable, interesting project. 
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits? My answer to this has been balance. I do not recommend doing away altogether with compulsory work that encourages students to stretch in all directions. I am however preparing my students for a world in which creativity, individual motivation, and ability to self-direct will probably get them a lot farther than any discrete content I have to teach them, so my classroom design needs to account for that.
  • How do I grade this madness? I grade effort, progress, and reflection. Have I watched the student struggle and overcome? Has the project evolved into something significantly more complex than the first draft? Can the student insightfully converse with me or peers on their intellectual process? It’s not scientific, but I find students rarely disagree with my final grades.

What I’ve learned while experimenting with this idea of creating space for students to act independently and then stepping back is this: when you invest in teaching your kids real world skills that are flexible, applicable, and multipurposed, they start doing really cool things just because they can. Teaching students how to flex their creative, activist, or design muscles can trigger a number of students to authentically desire to play with their newly discovered skills. We can and SHOULD stay up late at night designing strategic, well-integrated, and thoughtful assignments, but we also need to face the facts that the only people who can really create understanding and productivity in our students is our students themselves. So let’s do what we can to back them up!

 

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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Presenting at New England CCCCs 2017: Continuing my Career as a Teacher-Scholar

As I’ve blogged about extensively in the past, I have an enthusiastic love for academic conferences within my discipline. Even when the conference or the keynote speaker isn’t what I was expecting or hoping for, I always walk away from my conference experiences feeling enriched, motivated, and challenged. Now that I have completed my graduate degrees and am working full time in a high school classroom, conference participation and attendance don’t fall quite as readily into my work life routine as they have in the past; however, I find it more important now than ever that I continue pushing myself to remain actively engaged in current, ongoing scholarship within my field. It matters deeply to me both as a scholar and as an educator. To my pleasant surprise my supervisors, administrators, and colleagues at LCA support me in this wholeheartedly.

As a result of all these factors, this past May, I had the genuine pleasure of continuing my research and scholarship in teaching composition by working alongside my longtime research colleagues, Anne Mooney and Kate Artz, to organize a 60-minute panel at NCTE’s New England Summer Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCCs): Sharing Best Practices at Boston University. And let me just say, my passion for academic conferences has not waned in the slightest.

Our session, entitled “Making Audio Accessible: Teaching Transcription as Composition” examined how teaching transcription of audio files as a rhetorical process empowers students to create purposeful and accessible texts of their own. Attendees of the session participated in an activity designed to help them better understand the experiences transcripts create for their readers. We also provided assignment materials for attendees to use in their own classrooms. It was a great turnout with truly fantastic and engaged participation from our attendees.

We were also fortuitously paired with Dartmouth College’s Mark Koch, who approached similar questions to the ones we explored in our panel, but through the rhetorical activity of composing maps. While his was a very visual mode and ours relied on the relationship between audio and text, both projects explored exciting and interesting ways to prompt students to grapple with complicated and difficult questions when composing. What information is included? What information is left out? What are my rhetorical goals, and how can I best achieve them? We felt very honored and lucky to have been so aptly paired with Dr. Koch.

As this was my first conference as an active teacher instead of a graduate student, I was definitely aware that my daily activities existed much father outside the realm of traditional research and scholarship than they have in the past; however, I became acutely conscious of the difference my role in the classroom made in the way I was able to process and engage with some of the theoretical ideas we were batting around. The immediacy with which I was able to envision the practical implementation of some of the principles and concepts we were exploring was pointed and fascinating to say the least. More than ever before I felt the importance of the balance between my identity as an educator and my identity as a scholar, and the energy and excitement of that recognition has not left me as I transition into my summer.

Ultimately, I was able to gather with motivated and experienced educators from across New England to share our research, discuss developments in our discipline, and provoke deeper, more complex thought on the issues shaping our field today. But I was able to do so while inhabiting the role of a teacher-scholar more fully than I ever have before. And I have a sense that the gravity of that has yet to entirely hit me, which excites me greatly.

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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.

Pros and Cons

I work in a public school district, making this my February break.  I don’t have to go to work this week!  This is a pro.

I am a grad student taking 3 classes while working full time.  My vacations are spent entirely on homework.  This is a con.
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I get to work on my homework in this coziest of spots with the most delicious of chai teas.  This is a pro.  Possibly two pros if you count the chai as its own pro.

Overall, the situation nets at least one pro.  Life is good 🙂