Sunday, April 26, 2009

Writing Expanding with the 21st Century

I am reading Maja Wilson's Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. I started it to be in the English Companion ning's book group, but I have to say I was completely outclassed by the nine pages of comments written the very first two days. Realizing I couldn't possibly keep up with that (in case we ever wondered if we English teachers can write, the answer is "yes" and "yes, a lot!"), I have been reading along at my own pace and have stumbled across two ideas that have me thinking not about rubrics but about how my students' worlds are changing.

"The disconnect between the writing we honor in our own literary lives and the writing we encourage from students is illustrated by our approach to teaching research and expository writing versus the research and expository writing we actually read" (38).

I think I now understand comments my seniors made when they were writing their academic articles. I reworked this assignment because I wanted to make this research paper more authentic to link to the collaborative ning work the students did to build up to the writing. As the due date drew near, I asked my students how the writing was going (something I do if only to see how many work on their final revisions before the last night!), and more than one student said some version of, "This is harder to write than I thought it would be." I then worried about how their final papers would turn out, but that turned out to be an unfounded fear. Then I read Wilson's words above. Now I wonder if maybe I achieved my goal with this paper even more than I had hoped. I structured this paper around the research-based writing scholars do who are debating Shakespeare. I tried to say every day in class, "You are joining the conversation," so my students would see that what they had to say was valuable. We looked closely at academic journal articles to see HOW they are written. In the end, maybe they found this hard because it was not a traditional research paper -- instead, maybe they really felt like they had something to say and they wanted to say it well. I know in the end that their articles were indeed something I would choose to read.

"Literature has broadened because the events of the last century could not be contained by the old forms; new ideas, conflicts, and discoveries have forced new vehicles for expression" (39).

This then makes me ponder how I can revamp other writing assignments to be writing my students and I want to read. We have a very strong writing curriculum at my school, and we as a department think often about how to make writing meaningful for our students. Wilson's words crystallize for me how the collaborative and open world of the web can help us to help our students write writing we and they want to read even more.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri

A change in my school's daily schedule decreased the number of class meetings we have in a year. While I tried mightily all year to trim and condense, I still arrived here, a month before the AP exam, with not enough class meetings to "finish." Deciding to cut texts/authors is very hard for me. What if they are never given a TS Eliot poem in the future and I cut mine? What if Kafka was going to be the spark for that one student?

But with the brick wall I found myself faced with, I could not pretend I could go without dropping Kafka's The Metamorphosis. I just did not have the four days I know I need (at minimum) to do the text justice as an introduction to our Cultural Identity and Isolation theme. So, I punted and ended up making a homerun (sorry for the mixed sports metaphor). I had my students read two stories by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I read her collection Interpreter of Maladies in the fall and loved it. So a few weeks ago, I thought, "Well, she certainly introduces culture and the struggles that come along with it, and her stories are shorter than Kafka. Let's give it a whirl."

What an amazing two days of whirl. My students were fascinated from the start because Lahiri is a living, breathing writer (listen to her in this NPR interview). They said, "She makes us think we could do this too -- she is not Sophocles writing milennia ago." Then her stories delivered. I let them choose between "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" and "Mrs. Sen's," and they spent the next class period discussing their story with a partner who read the other story. The window into lives defined by culture was paradigm-changing for them. Her style was even more than this -- they read quotes by her and struggled with how to articulate the power they felt running under her words. We worked hard that day and loved it.

So if you can, add Lahiri into your curriculum. Even just two stories. But more importantly, I was reminded again of the spread of literature I can and should show my students. They really liked Sophocles last week, and they loved Lahiri this week. They know where writing came from and where it is today. They can join the conversation.