Author Archives: jnardac2

The micro-lesson

Wow – I was really nervous to teach in front of you.  I was pretty intimidated by teaching a class of experts – but you were as Prof. Sample said you would be – my ideal students!  So thanks for that!

I was primarily nervous about teaching this particular lesson to you because I was going out on a limb with my claim for motive.  What I am proposing as a motive isn’t backed up by any experts (that I could find).  But I became am more convinced of its possibility after reading Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition”.  By giving you some bits of that essay, it might have made my proposition more plausible to you.  And after I figured out how to use it, I think it became the heart of my lesson.  It was also a necessary piece of the puzzle because without knowing a little about Poe’s process you might not have been willing to work on the question of motive.  Most people simply accept the fact that we will never understand the reason, and would be rightly skeptical of someone claiming to know the motive.

I see from developing this lesson, that a teacher should have some good reasons for asking students to do something.  Not only that, but be able to explain those reasons, and create work that helps makes connections.  When the students feel the work is pointless, they don’t engage as fully – it merely becomes busy work filling 75 min of their lives.

As I mentioned in my lesson, I really related to the difficulty paper idea.  I think this concept can be used in various ways to get students to engage in some deeper level thinking.  Even in the Eng 101’s, where literature is being pushed aside in favor of more article/opinion type reading, the difficulty paper can be used. I will probably use it quite a bit next semester, as well as other lessons I learned both from you and from our class.


On Understanding

Even though I enjoyed the readings on course design (and am taking a course right now, on course design – using the Fink book), the chapter on Understanding (Ch 4) was what hooked me this week.  I teach first year freshmen and I suspect about half of them don’t understand what they read.  This is largely because they don’t take the time to read carefully.  But more interesting to me, is that I believe they don’t even know that they don’t understand.  They are unaware that they don’t understand.  And they are untroubled by their lack of understanding.

In class next week, I plan to begin using the six facets of understanding.   If a student can explain the text, interpret, apply, show perspective, empathize, and show a sense of awareness of their understanding (metacognition) then they can (likely) say they understand what they read.  These facets are a quantifiable way for students and teachers to gauge levels of understanding.  By applying this little rubric to everything they read, students will have some way to measure whether they truly understand what they’ve just read.

The frustrating part of designing courses, is that I expect my learning activities to jump from the reading that was done for homework.  I make every effort to plan with the learning goal in mind and tailor classroom work with certain assumptions (that the reading will be done).  But if there is a fundamental lack of understanding of the reading, then the classroom work is not engaging and becomes ineffective.  As we read earlier this semester, students expect that the lecture will include a summary of the reading homework therefore they just don’t do it or make little attempt to understand it.  Valuable classroom time is taken by the “re-cap” – which is also rather boring.

So the freshmen in my classes will receive a gift from me:  the gift of an “Understanding rubric”! This is the year they are creating the habits and patterns that will take them through the next few years.   When they come out of English 101 they will know how to understand if they understand (applicable for any subject), and they will know their strengths and weaknesses in reaching understanding.

Pathos and logos

While I am an advocate for reading without the clutter of background, I also am an advocate for filling in the blanks after a first reading.   And no matter the number of times I read the book, the graphic novel just cannot answer all my questions.  While the pictures portray the pathos of the situation, they cannot portray the logos – and without that, a reader doesn’t get a complete picture.  After reading Thomas Gray’s “Confession”, many of my initial questions were answered, and the Baker version became much more accessible.

I was impressed by Gray’s honesty about his prejudice against Nat Turner, and his reasons for writing the Confessions.  I was especially interested in how the bias of Gray would come through.  From the very beginning he marked Turner as a fanatic.   It is clear from his note “To The Public” that Gray is entirely prejudiced against Nat Turner, calling him “a gloomy fanatic … revolving in the recesses of his own dark, bewildered, and overwrought mind, schemes of indiscriminate massacre to the whites.”   Yet, as he records the confession, Gray seems rather objective – almost like a court reporter, simply gathering facts.  We don’t see the editorializing that might have been expected from such a prejudiced reporter, rather we mostly get the facts of the story.  At the very end, again we get some analysis, some editorializing, but for the most part, we seem to be hearing Nat Turner’s point of view.  Gray seems able to distance himself, at least for a short time.

On the other hand, the Baker version is clearly biased in the side of Nat Turner, and we get no sense of distance from the author.  From the Baker version we get the emotional side of the story, the sadness and despair, the horror and the acceptance.  The point of this version is purely to elicit disgust and revulsion, and to base the motivation of Nat Turner in this emotional place.  From the Baker version we get a fuller picture of the awfulness of slavery, and a wider context for the rebellion.  I think it’s a more personal story – there is no attempt to be objective and no attempt to hide the emotional attachment the author has to this story.

 If we had another version, perhaps the photographs might be that other version, we might get yet another perspective, another point of view, and another bias.  It all adds up to a more complete picture.  Neither Baker nor Gray are quite adequate enough on their own, but together they make a more complete, and therefore more compelling, story.

on reading the graphic novel

I’m not sure I know any more about Nat Turner after reading this book.  Like the author, I knew very little about the man, and the frustrating part of the book was that I still feel like I don’t know much.  While the graphics were gripping at times, I believe there are still too many gaps to satisfy a reader willing to learn more about a famous slave.  If I had more time, I would spend it googling Nat Turner and try to fill in some of the gaps I feel were missing (but already I am very late getting this weeks readings done).

And that brings me to my next point – time.  Sure I was able to finish a 200 pg book in a very short amount of time, but the time I spent trying to figure out what was happening was frustrating.  There were plenty of sequences when I just couldn’t figure out what was going on (the killing of the old man drummer, for one).  Finally, when I finished the book there was a page of notes that explained that episode.  But it was frustrating going back and forth for a few minutes trying to figure out where I missed the panel “explaining” the situation.  I have lots of questions like this which weren’t answered on the page of Notes.

I imagine a college student, who is pressed for time, will absorb very little of this.  I don’t want to minimize the horror of some of the scenes, and depictions of the violence of slavery in general.  These are the images that will stay with me.  But if an instructor was expecting a student to learn all about Nat Turner, that wouldn’t happen with this book.  The busy college student who doesn’t want to linger and spend the time trying to piece the narrative together, and perhaps even spend a little time in google, won’t get much from this.    At the very beginning of his article, Rabkin says  “…we need extended time to apprehend art – to read it.” (36),  and I think this could actually be a problem with the graphic novel format.

I was really hopeful to see what I would take from this week’s reading.  While I think graphic novels are a nice break from the typical texts, this novel in particular might expect too much from students; many of the students I teach would be willing to put in the time to make the leap to fuller understanding.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, about how students today read, and some experts are saying that because of the format of most of our reading, on a computer screen, we’ve become a nation of skimmers – we do a lot of surface reading, but very little deep reading – and therefore there is very little deep understanding.  And I think that might be a problem with this graphic novel.  The material is difficult and the gaps are sometimes too large, and therefore, the student will just skim the surface rather than take the time to figure it out.  It certainly is tempting just to skim when you have so many other things to do.

fads and trends

About five years ago, I had an Asian student in my English 111 class at Nova.  He was a quiet, attentive student, who occasionally dozed off, but generally, started the semester strong.  After a few weeks he started skipping class and stopped turning in work.  When I finally saw him, I kept him back for a few minutes after class and asked if everything was ok.  He was failing the course and I wanted to see whether he was willing to get back on track, or if he would drop.  He confided to me that he had an addiction – a video game addiction.  He never slept, instead he played games all the time – all night, all day.  He had already failed out of VCU and he was mortified to admit this.  Worse, he was in danger of failing out of Nova – which would multiply the humiliation dramatically.  Given his ethnicity, and the pressure from his parents, as he explained it, he was in big trouble.  In his words “An Asian kid failing Nova is pathetic”.

This left a really strong impression on me and I’ve never forgotten him.  Before that I hadn’t encountered the truly debilitating impact that gaming can have on young people.  This young guy had no control over his life.  While I’ve bought my fair share of games and own the latest gaming system, I just don’t buy the connections that Gee is trying to make:  teachers could be capturing students by incorporating elements and strategies of gaming.  I see socializing via the Xbox, but I see it in real life too.  I see scaffolding and planning a strategy in Xbox, but they are already there in real life too.  I creativity in Xbox, but it’s already there in real life too.  My point is that whatever skills kids are using in their games, they are already using them in life – in fact, they learned them in their real life.

I am not going to use video gaming ideals in my college teaching.  And I’m not sure I would want to even see an elementary school teacher using gaming.  It all seems a bit trendy to me – and many of these would-be trend setters don’t address the negative impacts of gaming.  Now the newest trend is figuring out a way to apply some of the strategies kids are already employing in their gaming, to the classroom.  However, I think the classroom should push students out of their comfort zone, out of their virtual worlds if need be, and engage them meaningfully in the real.

I am very much in favor of using different technologies in my classrooms, but all assignments are intentional acts of creation, with editing and revising, team work and presentation.  These are also acts that students might be using in their favorite video game. But I don’t see that it’s necessary for me to draw those parallels for students – it seems quite unnecessary, to me.  And I feel absolutely no compulsion to join the trend.

on thesis exams

I just finished grading 160 mid-term exams.  These were essay exams asking students to choose a thesis (out of four provided theses) and write an essay supporting that thesis.  The day before the exam, the students were provided with the short story and the thesis selection, and could prepare by writing a practice essay, or re-reading the story, etc., but could bring nothing into the test itself.

The beginning this ordeal happened to correspond to my reading of Blau’s discussion on testing (p.146), and on the thesis test in particular.  I graded few of the exams above a C – not because I am a particularly hard grader but because the students were unable to show applicable evidence for the thesis.  As I went through exam after exam, trying to figure out what the problem was, it occurred to me that because the thesis was provided, the students really couldn’t permit their own interpretation into their essays.  But they couldn’t deny their interpretation either (much like Robb in the think aloud of “Gretel”), and therefore their essays were often rambling, scattered and unfocused.  I concluded that the provided theses were not interesting to most of the students – in fact, they were irrelevant to their reading of the story.  If I had asked the students to identify possible themes in the story, it’s likely few would have seen “a challenge to gender stereotypes”, or “bridging gaps between cultures”.  Instead they likely would have found themes relevant to their own lives and their reading of the story.

What does Blau say about the thesis exam?  While recognizing that students are prepared throughout  in high school to write exams supporting a thesis, when it comes to literature exams, we need to do things differently.  Because we “experience” literature, and we encourage interpretations through the personal/cultural/ideological lens, it is necessary to leave it up to the students to arrive at their own meanings, to figure out how the story is meaningful to them.  To that end, modifying some of the workshop ideas might produce better essays than the ones I just finished.   For example, Blau suggests asking students to select what they think is the most important line (or event) in the meaning of the poem or story and explain why.  This approach would enable students the freedom to explore what is interesting and meaningful to them, rather then box them in with a pre-determined thesis.  The point is to identify the “high points of their experience” (146) and ask them to describe and interpret these points, in their own words.  Another approach might be to modify the “difficulty paper” idea – asking students to exploring the problems of a line or an event that they find difficult to interpret.

Obviously, grading these types of exams is far trickier than the thesis exam, but I think they would be a much more interesting read for me!  And would hopefully be a more satisfying and rewarding experience for the students.

On providing a little background info to students

Both Blau and Wilner bring up the question of a little background information (author bio, historical context) as something many teachers find necessary in helping students interpret a literary work.  I believe that this background information leads students away from their own personal interpretation of a story or poem, and therefore almost never provide it.  I used to feel guilty about “gypping” the students out of a little more knowledge, but I don’t anymore.  Once a teacher provides biographical or historical information, students often shift their thinking to fit what they now know.  And that contradicts the idea of making meaning.  In many cases, the background info isn’t much help anyway, but I have seen students try to fit an interpretation to their new knowledge.  For example, Emily Dickinson was a recluse.  Knowing this detail of her personal life may help in appreciating ED, but it is not much help in understanding many of her poems. However, I have had students who try mightily to fit this fact into their reading of her poems.

Wilner talks about the emphasis that thoughtful teachers place on the reader’s emotional connection with a text.  In fact she says this connection “should not be underestimated”.  This is what I am counting on when I select poems and stories (from my anthology) for the class.  By eliminating the “little lesson in geography, history, or politics”, I feel like I leave the learning up to the student.  When Fish said that it is the readers who make the meaning, he meant that they do that through their emotional connection, that empathy or understanding, to the text.  When students can fit the text into what they already know, culturally or academically, then they make that emotional connection and can therefore construct an interpretation that feels authentic to them.

Blau has a nice solution to the problem of background info – and that is to give the students other material written by the same author (88).  Students can then absorb the themes, language, nuances that interest the author, and see connections in a body of work.  By doing this, students can also monitor their progress in understanding, and see their own construction of meaning evolve as they become more familiar with an author.  Blau says that it is not our job “to convince our students that we are in possession of some unattainable knowledge that makes it easy for us to navigate in textual waters”   (95) but rather to help them acquire the knowledge they need by providing them with the texts they’ll need to learn that knowledge for themselves.

When I read the Fish article I recalled another theory-based English class from a few years ago.  For a few weeks that semester, we settled into a discussion of the Ideological State Apparatus.  According to this theory, we are unconsciously interpellated to do certain things, or think certain things, in certain ways (think, indoctrination, sort of).  This interpellation is accomplished through every person or entity, we come in contact with, from the moment we’re born to the day we die. It distorts our perception of what’s real, and what’s true and thereby, holds us bound by certain ideologies.  We’re not really free.

For example, when we English teachers confront something new, like a poem, we have been taught to handle it a certain way and we do so, without even thinking.  The fact is that we are not really free – we’re not freely interpreting the text.  We’ve been trained (conditioned/interpellated) to approach a poem a certain way – to expect certain meanings when we read “rose” or “white”- and that’s probably how we teach it too.

Even a poetry-reading novice comes to poetry with an ideology in place.  When he tries to interpret a poem, that ideological training/conditioning kicks in and he finds his meaning by looking for signs familiar to him  – signs which are “previously learned cultural codes” (Rabinowitz) and attempts to decode.  In his article, Fish tries to show us that we all (both teachers and students) are limited by our own cultural institutions – without us even realizing it.  So while we create meaning, our creations are fashioned (to use his word) by the ISA’s to which we belong (white, female, English teacher, student, etc.).  Reading is another form of creating – creating a meaning for the reader, within the boundaries of his or her own individual ideology.

Working within the framework of this understanding could lead to some innovative teaching – got any ideas?!  One of the reasons students are so turned off by poetry, like our colleague, Alex Glass, is simply the way we teach it- that’s all…. it comes down to the teaching.

Active readers/Reading comprehension

Active readers/Reading comprehension

I am looking for practical ideas to move students into writing more often and reading more thoroughly.  Many of the readings this week fit the bill.  The idea of the “Difficulty Paper” was particularly interesting to me because I am also interested in getting students to think about how they work, and to think about how they think.   They are very comfortable writing “reaction papers” or “responses”, but they struggle with content when I ask them to think about their own thinking.  The difficulty paper idea, in the Salvatori & Donahue article, is a great way to jump-start this kind of thinking.  When students write about their problems reading the text, they not only begin a sort of analysis of the text, but they also write about their own learning experience.  These papers then turn into asking themselves why – why are they having difficulty.  According to the article, the instructor then uses a few of these papers each week as a starting point for discussion.  This is a great idea too, because all too often, teachers end up summarizing and interpreting the text for the students through our own experiences  (like many of the readings this week address), and don’t get to the issues that are truly troubling the students.

On the other hand, sometimes those interpretive/analytical/summarizing lessons can be very helpful for students who aren’t understanding the material.  I myself have often appreciated a synthesis of challenging material by an expert teacher.  Ideally then we would all go back and re-read, but we don’t, and that too is why teaching the article (poem or story) can be helpful.  Precisely because students do arrive in our classrooms with different experiences and levels of cultural understanding, we teachers do need to provide guidance through a challenging poem or story, and teach students to teach themselves. Getting a sense of how the students are understanding the text before we teach it, can make us more responsive teachers.