Sunday, May 15, 2011

wise button

This button, which has been circulating around Facebook, pretty much sums up why I don't teach high school:

The two things I like best about my job are the feeling that I'm helping people and my autonomy. I couldn't do without either.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Inspiring Creativity

This was the second year that the Composition Program at my school held a poster contest, in which second-semester students represent their research visually. I allowed my students to submit a poster in lieu of their final paper. I was very hopeful that this year's crop would be better than the last. I showed them submissions from last year, and we talked about their strengths and weaknesses. I showed them pictures of the winners. And we looked at and discussed a website, Creating Effective Poster Presentations.

Overall, I was disappointed. The posters that were creative in design were poorly executed, no doubt from waiting until the last minute. The ones that were well-done visually didn't have much information or else had lots of information in large chunks. I was envious of the posters submitted by my office-mate's students. They seemed much more professional and creative than mine. What accounts for the difference?
Maybe it's just luck. After all, every group of students is different. If that's the case, I shouldn't expect his students to consistently create interesting projects--but I do.  I think it's him. And I think what he does is be playful and to encourage chaos.*

I try to be a creative teacher. I make creative assignments and design creative in-class activities. But I'm not playful and I don't like chaos. When students ask me how to be more creative in their thinking, I've suggested the following things:
  1. Build on your own experience. Your experience is different from anyone else's.
  2. Try pairing two things together to see what each shows about the other. Creativity can often just be about matching.
  3. Be playful. It's when we play that we open the doors of thought, that we step outside our narrow boxes of the way things should be.
I suspect that if we played more in class, my students might be more inspired to be creative.

What are your secrets for inspiring creativity?

*It's also possible, nay likely, that I'm being too critical. The 3 posters that I chose from my 2 comp classes, when placed beside the other submissions, didn't seem too bad.**

**Not too bad indeed! One of my students won 2nd place. My office-mate's students won 1st and 3rd.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Strategies for Teaching Novels

I mentally divide discussion of novels into three stages, though there is often overlap, depending on the novel. The first stage is acclimation, when we're figuring out what's going on. The second stage is the deepening of analysis, when we talk about narrative techniques and themes. The final stage is resolution.

The three biggest elements of a novel are characters, setting, and conflict, and these are the foci of the first stage.

An activity I often do on the first day is to list all the characters on the board and ask for an adjective for each. Sometimes I will put the students into groups and ask them to "cast" the film adaptation of the novel and explain why they chose a particular actor for a role. At this stage we're trying to figure out how the characters relate to each other, what each character wants, and what stands in the way. [I do the same thing for drama.]

What's the setting? What do we already know about this time or place, outside of what the novel tells us? What attitude does the narration take toward the setting? How do the characters engage with technologies? How do the characters fit into the setting? Is the setting part of their identity? Is it part of the conflict? I often have students draw a map at this stage, though not usually on the first day. I have had students draw maps of Robinson Crusoe's island and of Audley Court, and I have had them trace Jonathan Harker's journey through Europe (a first-day activity).

What are the conflicts? Conflicts are usually, but not always, centered in character relations. Thinking about conflicts separately from characters can get students thinking about societal and environmental conflicts.

The above strategies work well for both fiction and drama. When discussing fiction, we also need to look at narrative technique, which I usually save for the middle stage, unless the book has multiple narrators (like Dracula). Who's the narrator? If it's first-person, why is this person speaking? What does the speaker reveal about him/herself and others? If it's third-person, is it omniscient or limited? Does the narrator seem to have a persona? Does the narrator privilege a point of view? How are up-close scenes balanced with descriptive scenes in which we get to see characters in a larger context? When and why does the narrator "zoom in" or out? How are characters' voices and thoughts represented? Does the narrator "preach" or philosophize on the situation?

This middle stage is also when we look closely at quotes that build certain themes. A good introductory quote activity is to let groups choose a quote that interests them for whatever reason. Assign each group a different chapter. Then have them explain what's going on and why they think the quote is important. (You can then use these quotes on your exam.)

The final stage is resolution. What sort of closure is offered? How/ Have characters changed? Have students again give an adjective for each character and compare the list with the one built on the first day. What conflicts have been resolved? What conflicts remain, or what new trouble looms on the horizon? Fun activities at this stage are (1) to have students create tableaux of important scenes in the book, (2) create the "reduced" 2-minute version of the book, and (3) to have a debate about the issues the book was addressing. (These also work for drama.)