Now let’s consider what I dare to envision the actual classes to be like.
Blah Blah Blogs
For me, Language Arts is fundamentally about improving the quality of input and output. I guess that could be true of most subjects, but English emphasizes the medium of language. Everything in my class is about improving comprehension and literacy on one end and communication and expression on the other. I take comprehension to mean basic fluency in language and normative understandings of literal meanings. Literacy is a more sophisticated affair involving the critical discernment of meaning and context within a specific genre of communication. I take communication to mean articulate conveyance of intended meaning. Not necessarily easier or harder, but different, is creative self-expression which, for my purposes here, I’ll say involves employing rhetorical techniques to unexpected or ambiguous effects that somehow seem aesthetically or emotionally truthful.
Now most English teachers, myself included, generally teach these four areas as distinct skill sets. We read a text bit-by-bit, all the while going over major events and characters, perhaps tossing in a few pop quizzes. We then have our wonderful discussions about what the book is really about and go over themes and motifs. We have lessons on how to write the five-paragraph expository essay and include essay prompts with our multiple-choice tests. Finally, we assign a project, perhaps involving some creative writing or a small-group presentation. Vocabulary and grammar are sprinkled throughout as a kind of close study of the medium itself at its finest granularity.
This is not a bad way to go, and it’s worked for me for the past few years. I teach specific skills that fall under the broader ideals of my discipline. I cover the stuff that everybody else will continue to recursively cover, like a spiraling Babel to the heavens. Slowly and surely, brick-by-brick, most students handle inputs better and produce better outputs. At least in institutionally required ways.
But I think I may be missing an opportunity here. The literary texts we study are artifacts and models of these processes. They themselves “read” life and culture and then challenge us with newly artful levels of technique and meaning. They give us not only the occasions, but also the examples, to learn the communicative strategies they employ — so that we can understand and do the same. All writers start as readers — and students of what they read — and then at some point decide to jump into the conversation.
Conversation. Because what’s missing is what’s between the input and the output. The urge to respond, to engage. It’s the grail of all communication, including teaching; you want to say something that effects a change. You want to add something to the transcript that has a bearing on what follows after you. You want to be slashdotted, dugg, and deemed del.icio.us.
You might see where I’m going with this. I’ve been trying to incorporate blogs into my classroom ever since I was hired at this school — usually with fairly piddling results. They seemed so perfect in addressing the shifting literacies of our culture with their power to publish and interact, and yet they never found a comfortable fit with everything else I had going on.
But I’ve been re-thinking my entire approach, and I think I’m getting close to being able to articulate a new model, one that I hope will get me closer to the fundamental aims of my calling.
I think of it in three stages:
Stage One: Do As I Say
The first stage is about mastering the basic skills, terms, and routines that are the foundations of this model. I, the teacher, will have a blog and each student, in turn, has a blog of their own. There will also be a class web site, which is a wiki of assignments, policies, and tutorials.
Four days of the week will be devoted to instructional lectures and tutorials followed by prescribed blog assignments. Everyone will be on the same page and do the same assignments. I’ll roughly devote these days thus:
- Going over how to keep track of notable facts, events, and characters within the text
- Using the text to identify defined parts of speech
- Looking up and understanding the definitions of vocabulary words, and noting their context and usage within the text
- Pointing out themes I notice emerging from the text; showing and definining the literary techniques used to support those themes
At this stage things are more at a direct, transmission mode of instruction. Assignments will be quick, easy, and unambiguous, and are merely meant to reinforce specific concepts and skills explicitly taught in class. Not only am I setting an academic “baseline,” but I’m giving students ample practice with the technologies and platforms they’ll be utilizing further as we advance.
Off days and hour-blocks will be devoted to 1) technology and 2) improv. At this stage, I expect students to master the basics of sending, receiving, and publishing electronic information. Email, blog posts, RSS.
“Improv”? It’s an inexact term I’m using for a series of teamwork and theater exercises that tries to impart the philosophy of Del Close and long-form improvisational comedy. I’m hoping these activities will teach us all lessons of cooperation, creativity, and performance. At this stage of the process, I’m thinking the activities should emphasize the wild generation of multiple creative possibilities (i.e., brainstorming) and the stewardship of and dedication to a larger purpose, a thesis if you will.
Stage Two: Do As I Do
At this stage, the daily lectures are to diminish and expand into guided discussions. I’ll be presenting more of my advice within blog posts and comments. More and more class time will be devoted to drafting more substantial blog posts that:
- Summarize the reading assignments
- Diagram sentences and clauses from the text
- Research and discuss the connotations and variations of usage of given vocabulary words
- Analyze the use of literary techniques to support themes discussed about the text
As you can see, the assignments will be more demanding and open-ended, and I might cut back on the frequency of the assignments. I’m also considering rotating assignments so that there’s more diversity of blog posts at any given time. There will be more emphasis on commenting and providing feedback upon one another’s posts.
Eventually, I’d like the blogging to mirror the famed “writing process” — drafting ideas, refining arguments, developing structure.
Tech days will move to issues of research: performing searches, analyzing (and citing) sources, organizing and documenting notes.
Improv activities will revolve around themes of flow and structure. Transitioning from one moment to the next and organizing arcs of action. Scenework. Maybe we can work to some version of the Harold).
Stage Three: Just Do It
At this stage, I am truly more of a guide and coach than instructor/inquisitor. Classes are free-form and self-directed. Students are working on blog posts of their own choice that:
- Critically analyze developments in the reading
- Notice the employment and effect of particular sentence patterns within texts, and, more importantly, demonstrate themselves effective variation in sentences
- Reflect upon choice of diction in texts and, furthermore, show a fluent assimilation of an enhanced vocabulary set
- Independently discern literary themes and analyze the rhetorical devices to support those themes
Indeed, my ultimate vision rests not so much what I see happening in the classroom, as what shows up on my RSS reader. I want to read writing that’s engaged and engaging, thoughtful and questioning, savvy and provocative. I want to see long threads of involved commenting. I want to see digital identities and writing styles emerge, evolve, and solidify.
I would similarly like to see students independently pursue and explore new technological literacies. They would, in turn, be required to share their knowledge and teach others their lessons learned. I envision the class eventually being a kind of barcamp.
All the improv lessons of the year will be put to use and honed in a culminating exhibition project. Students will have to brainstorm, structure, finalize, rehearse, and polish a complete and collaborative work of art. Perfect for Shakespeare, which is what we always end the year with.
Texts and Tests and Timing
I will, of course, be using the same texts and unit tests as my fellow teachers. I’ll also be sharing with them additional texts and materials that intersect with the subject material and complement the skills I’ll be pushing for. I’ll be looking for materials that represent a diversity of genres: videos, interviews, essays, short stories, poems. The idea is to have a surplus of raw material so that I won’t be able to cover everything in class, but will be able to dump stuff into the teacher blog for interested students.
I’ll also be looking for more authentic assessments: the blog posts themselves, creative projects, expository essays.
I’m going to put off the temptation to fix a timetable for these stages I’ve set for myself. For all I know, we may stay at Stage One all year long. Advancement through the stages shouldn’t depend on an arbitrary schedule, but a sense of collective mastery.