Sunday, September 13, 2009

Authentic Writing

Throughout their study of American literature, my students are asked to examine who they are as Americans. We are beginning the year with a study of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a contemporary novel that does not challenge students in decoding language, but rather in uncovering meaning for themselves. I hope that my students are coming to an understanding that they bring meaning to a text from their own experiences and prior knowledge. The questions that they bring to the text are just as worthy of consideration as any question that I could propose as their teacher. I like the idea that we are studying a novel that I have not taught before and that others have not taught and prepared lesson plans posted online. We have a situation where there is no "expert" on this text in the classroom or online.

Of course, I am the expert reader, modeling questioning and how to discover valid hypotheses about the text, the author's intentions, and the universal meanings presented by the story. In their discussions, my students are beginning to make some great connections between their own lives and the circumstances of this novel. A question that I would like them to continue to explore is: What can this novel say to me in my life now?

Now it's time for some assessment. How can I test their understanding of this process of self discovery that I hope is building a foundation that we will continue to develop throughout the year? In terms of examining the novel, reflecting, sharing their ideas, and developing understandings about McCarthy's impact as a writer, my students are working on a class wiki. They use individual pages to post initial thinking about the novel, group pages to post their group discussion notes, and a class page when we have whole class discussions of the novel. I will use these pages to construct a final unit test including sections of quotation explanation, vocabulary enrichment, and McCarthy's writing techniques. These sections will be individualized to each group using ideas and points that they found to be most relevant in their discussions. (I'm not exactly looking forward to making six tests though!) But, I think that makes them more authentic, especially in light of the unit goal that students understand the validity of their own examination of texts, not teacher or expert driven. I hope that the test does not ask them to "regurgitate" any material that I alone value, but rather to synthesize ideas examined throughout the unit in their own reading of the text and in their small group discussions.

A writing task: my English department has a consistent approach to writing and as a school we produce strong writers. I would be remiss in serving this goal of my department if I didn't include a writing assignment in this unit of study. In continuing the concept of self discovery and the idea that we all "bring something to the table," my students are going to make short presentations about who they are. After these oral presentations I want them to synthesize all of the ideas presented by their classmates and write a paper about "who we all are as Americans." At this point, my writing assignment is as vague as that. They could write an essay focusing on certain qualities shared by a number of their classmates. I want their papers to be interesting and authentic so I am trying to consider alternative audiences besides just myself and their peers (they're not going to read all of the papers anyway).

As I imagine this paper I keep thinking about The Breakfast Club and the final letter those teenagers left for their teacher. And, as a teacher of the 21st Century, I think something like that would be really cool too!

What ideas or suggestions do you have? If you were to write this paper, what kind of direction would you want me to include in the assignment sheet?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Learning to Understand

The entire faculty at my school is studying Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe this year. While the ideas are not completely new to me, it is an interesting exercise in trying to get the whole school thinking on the same page. I find that every year I am rethinking my classes and approaches and making small adjustments. Using web 2.0 technologies both in the classroom and to build my own personal learning network has certainly prompted and encouraged much of this thinking.

This year my American Literature course is getting a bit of an overhaul. I'm starting the year with the contemporary novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Students are studying it in cooperative learning groups, recording their work on a wiki, and then sharing their insights with the whole class. Working with such a contemporary novel has been an interesting challenge for my students and myself. While they do not need to decode language, the structure of the plot and the message are mysteries to them at this point. I am trying hard not to give them ready answers and instead encouraging them to see this overarching idea:
There is no right answer to what the text is about. But that doesn't mean that all answers are equal. There may be no right answers, but some answers are better than others, and figuring our what that means and how it can be so is one of your major challenges. (Grant 143)
Working in their own literature circles, with their peers, I encourage them to be persistent and not give up on a discussion question too quickly but instead to "consider, propose, test, question, criticize, and verify" (129). In developing their own theories about the literature and seeing these develop and change throughout their reading of the novel, I hope to instill the understanding that they make their own meaning from the literature that they read which is based on their own skills and prior experiences and not solely reliant on an expert opinion about the literature. If they can then transfer this confidence in their own reading and theory making to our next unit, a study of Puritan writings, I'll be ecstatic!