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?


Mike said...

Wow Jennifer, your ideas are brilliant. Your discussion about your students' wondering about what this novel can say to them in their lives right now makes me wonder about all those books we ask kids to read. Is that the criteria for required HS literature? Does the book have to be something that will make kids ask that question? Is that why we ask them to read Tl Kill A Mockingbird, A Separate Peace and so on? I just wondered about this. My background is choral music, then mathematics, now I'm finishing a masters in writing, but I've got so much to learn.

Teacher Food

J. Clark Evans said...

Thanks for the comment, Mike. I don't think that we help students make this connection between the "classics" and themselves often enough. It's too easy to get overwhelmed with the daily demands of teaching that we can easily lose sight of our bigger goals-helping students find personal value in reading.

Mr. Evans said...

OK you've sold me. I'll reread the book, because it seems I've missed another world. Sounds like amazing discussions. Thanks

J. Clark Evans said...

And now it looks like we can take a class field trip to see the movie together :)