Thursday, October 17, 2013

Apples to thesis statements

Lately I have become obsessed, and possibly over-reliant, on index cards as a pedagogical tool. What activities should we be doing in a composition class? Should we we be even changing up the activities, or should they be the same activities every day but with different readings? What is the magic bullet that will suddenly make my students learn things, or at least stop fighting me so hard about learning? These are the questions I ask myself when I have received two sets of essays and will get two more tomorrow morning, and I cannot bear to start the grading.

I wish I could report that I had some wonderful sort of answer or had devised an activity with satisfying results for either me or them, but I felt my outcomes the past few days were mixed at best. I feel like any activity with this amount of grumbling and resistance and anger and pushback is actually on to something, but I also feel that a frustrating activity should end with some sort of breakthrough and feeling of accomplishment on the part of students, or with thinking and phrases that I was pleased with.

As part of making them write a synthesis essay I am emphasizing the idea that they will need to make connections that are not obvious. It is not enough to tell me that tattooing is a form of tattooing, or that tattooing and plastic surgery both involve the body; I need to see deeper, more interesting connections between our topics. When we bring these different readings together, I keep saying, what new and exciting ideas can you find in the process of combining them?

The other part of what inspired me was the "template" section of They Say/I Say. It reminds me of Mad Libs and other fun games of creativity. I searched and found some mad lib style thesis statements and started thinking about the themes and concepts underlying our readings. (I also found tons of web sites talking about synthesis essays after not finding any reference to them two years ago when I was trying to convince my Postdoc U students that synthesis does in fact exist. I also also, sadly enough, found a writing in the curriculum website that had a lesson plan all about the idea that any thesis you could make into a template and apply to any work of literature was by definition a terrible thesis. That made me sad. Too late for that now! I said. I am teaching this tomorrow.)

I took my handy index cards and made about 20 "practices" (dyeing hair, nose job, tribal scarification...) and another 20 "significance" (self-expression, competition, boredom, envy, death...) and I had my students play on little teams. They were all shown this sentence:

________ tells us ___________ about ____________ and this is important because _________.
(practice)...........(something important) .....(this theme)........................................(you tell me)

Then I dealt them some cards. They had a terrible time of it. Some of them through no fault of their own. "Why do they get to write about nose jobs and envy when we have to write about makeup and death?" some cried. "Well," sez I, "you have terrible luck with cards. I'm not going with you to Vegas. Maybe you'll have better luck with another round."

After they had come up with some sort of sentence (many not really putting words in that "something important" slot) I made two of them defend the thesis and the other two argue against it. This also only went adequately well.

Then, because I am evil, and I told them that, I went around the room and offered to trade them either a practice or a significance, but they all had to agree on which and give me some sort of reason why. I accepted all reasons ("hair extensions are stupid and I don't care about them!") but I found the discussions fascinating ("No, we had such a hard time figuring out "exclusion" that I don't want to deal with it any more." "But now we finally have a handle on it, and if we get something like the "liposuction" team did we could make that kind of argument again.")

I guess my students have not, in fact, played apples to apples as a drinking game. This may be something only grad students and postdocs do. I, personally, could find tons of interesting things to say about any of those pairings, and the ones that "didn't make any sense" were the most interesting to me of all. These students, unlike my Postdoc City students, have no concerns about expressing themselves publicly, or taking a side, even if they are doing so in subjective and nonacademic ways. And yet they were neither particularly able to produce any arguable statements nor show any sort of loosening up into a sense of play or open-mindedness about it all. Really, what I was hoping was that the students would, despite their misgivings, come to enjoy themselves and their conversations to some extent, but that didn't really happen. On the other hand, two weeks ago when I made them write a paragraph about "the real meaning" of "Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self," an exercise I lifted wholesale off of a high school website, they totally ate it up, and produced pretty good paragraphs besides.

All of this makes me think that this exercise needs significant rethinking and transformation for its next use, or else I should get rid of it. Sigh. And I had thought so hard and this was the best idea I could come up with for some sort of way to develop thinking and creative arguments. Not sure what I am doing now. Not even sure what I want them to get or to do in class any more. Still looking for that magic bullet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't give up! This sounds like a great exercise and I am totally stealing it right now. see if you can modify it and try it again with a different class before you toss it. Sometimes things just don't work for a particular class. It could have just been a bad day for them (my students always perform worse when it is raining, for example). there are a lot of factors OUTSIDE the pedagogy that you can't control.

Also, I love a magic bullet as much as the next one, but there aren't any. Nothing is going to transform the students you have into the students you want. You just have to plug along as best you can. Don't forget--it's not all you--they are responsible for their learning. If they don't want to learn, there's not a lot you can to do make them