Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Engaging the Interconnectedness Between Reading and Writing (an Article Analysis)

In my English content methods class this week, I have asked my students to think about the connections possible between reading and writing as processes, and to do some reading from one artifact in the National Writing Project’s resource archive on Writing to Read. Because I’m reading and writing with them, I am sharing my thoughts on a piece from the collection, too. I read “Style Study: One Connection Between Reading and Writing” by Rebekah Caplan. Published in 1987, this piece predates my own teaching career, but it has resonance for me as a teacher of teachers and as a teacher of writing. It rings true to some of my own high school classroom teaching practices—and offers ideas which maintain currency even today. Caplan’s short article provides me with a clear reminder of the interconnectedness of reading and writing—and how teachers must make those connections explicit in ways that students can apply and use.

Caplan elaborates on ways she merges writing and reading practices in a unit on The Great Gatsby. She outlines several activities for student writing and response, including one in which students create “showing paragraphs” from “telling sentences,” an activity that I used when I taught ninth grade English and still use in developmental composition courses. Caplan also elaborates on how she asks students to emulate Fitzgerald’s style, moving from mimicry to analysis, and developing their own styles along the way.  

The first important take-away, for me, relates to the way Caplan provides opportunities for students to learn how to give and get feedback. When Caplan’s students compose and share aloud their short, “showing paragraphs,” they hear from their teacher the language of response, and they are able to draw evidence from one another’s’ texts to support their thinking about quality writing.
It strikes me that learning to give feedback using short, exploratory pieces, which are lower investment for students, bridges the way into feedback for works in which students are more personally invested. The opportunity to practice helpful peer feedback with short responses, rather than with long, more personally relevant pieces, can help novice writers better understand what kind of commentary is helpful and appropriate in a low-stakes way. Over the course of the unit, then, students move from analysis of Gatsby to personal reflection writing that explores some of the text’s themes in their own lives. Allowing students the opportunity to practice writing in “new and different ‘voices’” helps them to hone and develop their own styles. Additionally, it allows them to go deeply into understanding the style of the works they read. 

The second important idea that grows out of my reading of this piece relates to the kind of co-created meaning that discussions about literature can so fruitfully foster. Caplan describes in detail the ways she helps students to analyze Gatsby by stepping back and allowing students to lead the learning. When confusion arises, “instead of giving them the answer,” Caplan asks the group, and when one student elaborates his understanding, it becomes “a learning experience for those who don’t understand.” In this way, the discussion evolves so that “one student’s insight has influenced another’s thinking and ultimate understanding of the passage.”   

What I love most about this article is the way Caplan seamlessly moves students through the interconnected processes of reading, writing, and thinking. Students mirror Fitzgerald’s style and structure patterns (Caplan gives explicit examples from Gatsby and from student work) and in doing so, they engage as writers themselves, reading, processing, internalizing, and producing texts of their own that are both interpretive and exploratory, revealing something about style and understanding, providing insight into the craft of writing and the understanding of a reading. Reading this piece makes me want to teach Gatsby again, just to try out Caplan’s techniques. 

Caplan, R. “Style Study: One Connection Between Reading and Writing.” Writing to Read: A Collection of NWP Articles. National Writing Project, 13 May 2010. Web. 26 Jan. 2015

Monday, January 19, 2015

Returning to Teaching Methods and to My Adolescent Self

Happy New Year! It is a new year, and I am finally working with pre-service teachers in a methods course in my new (as of August) position at Georgia Gwinnett College. After a semester of teaching first year and developmental writing courses, I am ready to work with teacher candidates again. It feels like a homecoming and a return to who I am as a learner, too. Since I am asking my students to blog, I am blogging with them, instead of writing freshman comp essays with my novice writers.

During our first class session last week, my co-teacher and I asked our groups of preservice teachers to think about who they were at 12 years old—the point at which, for most adolescents, adult personalities and self-concepts are beginning to cement. A range of responses followed this reflection. Some were quiet, shy book lovers, and others were trying on multiple identities, looking for a sense of place. Others were listeners; some were arguers. Some were guided by great English teachers, yet others watched as teachers explicitly didn’t teach.

Of course, this discussion made me reflect upon my own path to the classroom. I turned 12 in September of my seventh grade year. Seventh grade marked a turning point for me in many different ways—developmentally, socially, physically, intellectually. Seventh grade was the year I learned to hate school. I found boys, cliques, algebra, and many other frustrating things.  I lost my academic confidence and my voice. I wanted to be invisible, and I watched more visible girls be tortured by gangs of ponytailed bullies in designer jeans. I watched teachers watch this too—and do nothing.

During my seventh grade year, reading, which had been a source of pleasure for me, became a site of refuge, and I learned to hide in books, which is one of the ways I managed to make it through the awkward and painful years of secondary school. I have a vivid memory of a day in junior year English class, American literature. The teacher was reading to us, line-by-line, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. She leaned into the lectern, her glasses slipping down her nose, reading and interpreting, sentence by sentence. I sat about two rows back from the front, my textbook propped in my lap. Tucked inside my textbook was a novel that my teacher could not see, and as she lectured on, I lost myself in the book, just as she was losing herself in her own reading of Edwards. No one else was there.

I didn’t know I would be a teacher in seventh grade or in high school, but when I began my teacher training years later, I thought back mostly on the kinds of teachers I didn’t want to be. Some of my students during our first session expressed this, but others spoke of teachers who changed their lives. Still, all of us, somehow, whether by the guidance of a brilliant teacher or the lack of teacher role models, have ended up on the path to teaching, themselves. And I get to watch them get there.

This week, I have asked my students to blog about their own reading and writing (which I do here). I am looking forward to hearing about how they became the readers and writers they are, and I am looking forward to seeing the teachers they become. An exciting way to begin the semester: new beginnings for a new year.