Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Let's start at the very beginning...

Arrrrgh! I freakin' loathe Sound of Music!!!!! Why did I think to start this post with that lyric? Now it is burned into my braiiiiiiin!

Ahem. Let me try this again. Once more, from the top.

I am procrastinating, as is my usual way. Tomorrow morning I give two finals and hand back the research papers. I have done a reasonable amount of grading, and my procrastinating consists of reconfiguring my Intro to Writing About Lit course. To do that, I decided to read back through old posts and then I got distracted by all my old posts about shoes and food. Mmmm. Anyway.

I put a lot of time in my Writing at a College Level class this semester and beforehand. My plan was to do just ok enough on the IWAL class, which is one level advanced from WACL (yeah, they need better acronyms, huh), to make it through the semester and then take the break to do improvements. Well, I'm gonna need a lot of improvements.

Back at Postdoc State, I taught a lit survey that was not really in my expertise, if you remember. I certainly posted a lot of angst-ing about that class and how difficult it was to tailor that course to a bunch of unprepared students who had to take a lit survey as a requirement. But at the end of the day, they weren't training me, and they weren't paying me very much, and they were explicitly telling me to get the hell out and get a better job. So I wasn't really committed to more than getting it serviceable.

Now, of course, I have totally different stakes. Similar problems of unmotivated students who don't really know how to be students or maybe should not be in this class. New, different problems in that it is a composition class and an intro to literature class rather than a historical survey. I need to find a way to make that basic structure less boring, more engaging, but I am kinda the worst person to do that. I was the one who taught a very traditional and bare bones intro to the major course when I was a grad student and it was my turn to get this course option. Other people were doing Ooh ooh it's my dissertation topic and we are creating wikifications and holding the entire course online in Second Life! type inventive things, and mine was based around very traditional essay assignments and canonical texts. I guess I just like to try it once bare-bones and then be inventive.

The other problem is that this class is largely not required, and can be fulfilled by the other writing option: Intro to Writing and Critical Thinking, which is based around nonfiction essays and various social science or law themes. This means that enrollment and retention are always going to be a serious issue in my plannings. And I don't want to have to teach another evening late start college writing class again. Ugh.

So I am looking at the course outline and SLO metrics and requirements for the course again and asking myself: what do I really want students to be able to do and to know when they are done with the course? What do I want to model and emphasize for my students over the semester? (for example, I had lots of struggles with getting students to buy, bring, open, and use the book this semester; but do I want to be draconian and persnickety with book checks and quizzes and checking for reading notes? Do I want to kick them out of the classroom for not being prepared, or will this run me into retention problems?)

I need to cover poetry, drama, short stories and the novel --- but does it matter where I start? does it matter what genre I finish with? Does it matter how much time I spend on any particular genre? I also have to cover all the standard elements of literature ---- so what if I mixed up genres and taught by looking at imagery, plot, pattern, theme, sound, form etc? Should I have standard essay assignments that match the genres, or would it be more useful or interesting to compare/analyze different genres across an essay? Since I need to build in at least one research paper, how should I scaffold that in? Should I put that in the middle of the semester? The end? These students especially seemed so exhausted and were not even trying to show that they were doing the reading by the end of our very long semester --- how should I work with building that into the schedule?

Are there interesting assignments I could have them do other than your standard essays that would still help them develop close reading and critical thinking skills? The novel I taught/am teaching has a Cal State web site devoted to it, and this class had to craft new covers/illustrations for the novel and then write up justifications of how they were portraying the novel's theme better than the original. I like that idea and want to somehow steal and adapt it. What other inventive assignments could I bring in, or at least look at and possibly adapt?

I should add that any particular day, especially at the end of the semester, I would only have 4 or so out of the 20 enrolled students in the room. This spring the course is MWF at 50 minutes a pop and I have no idea how the attendance/minimum enrollment situation will shake out. But the time and the fact that I am scheduled back to back across campus is making me lean away from any presentations and any extended group activities that carry across the week.

Hmm. I am still frustrated and overwhelmed by the limits and structures of this class. But, procrastinating about this is better than tallying up this semester's grading! I encourage you all to lay out plans and suggestions in the comments. That or links to food and shoes. Mmmm.


Monica said...

Okay, so, the short answer is yea, you can do lots of things with them that still support close reading and analytic skills and are fun. You can also do things that don't torture them but are more academic. I have taught this kind of class a TON and used to mentor teachers in same.

Here are some ideas, all "borrowable":

1) Have students write scenes that aren't in the actual story/novel. Like what happened next after the end of a story with a short justification of why.

2) Have students write poetry in the style of one of the poets you read, with an explanation of the style and what they borrowed.

3) In class, have them read things aloud and think about voices--who would sound like what, why, etc.

4) Think of questions they might want to answer, that will drive them to analyze that you would never ask an English major. I like to ask students which character they could see themselves being friends with and why. It's a jumpstart to a discussion of particular scenes that help them observe who the character is.

5) Create a group project around one of the scenes and do brief dramatic readings or performances. (Time, I know.)

There are lots of possibilities, and I hope you get tons of responses. What you can do and how far you can stretch will depend on your department culture, but it does sound like you have some freedom. I always tell people to think of 3 50-minute classes as being able to contain two activities, just as a 75- or 80-minute class will hold three activities. Same number of things each week, just not on the same days.

I would say that the most important thing to remember is that these kids want a fun class, and they have been made afraid of literature by their previous education. My focus in a poetry unit, for example, was to make them see poetry as not scary. I'd have them look for the story or the central "thesis" of the poem, and that helped them see past rhyme and meter, which made them think they could not read poetry. If you can, lean toward contemporary things, as for many non-majors, simply having language they recognize helps.

Oh, and I totally think you should steal that book cover idea! Can't wait to see what happens.

Tree of Knowledge said...

Things my students say they enjoyed:

1. Write a poem in one of the forms studied. I've also had them do parody poems. Both work well.

2. For drama and staging, have them choose a scene in play and write about how they would stage/ direct it.

3. For POV, have them id the pov in story, then pick a scene and write it from a different pov & explain the changes. This was way more popular than I expected.

If the class is small enough to do groups, my students seem to really that. They say that they like being able to try out ideas with a few people and "practice" before speaking up in the whole class.