Author Archives: Tim

If I could do it over again …..

1) I would have managed my time better. I really wanted to spend more time on the last part of the presentation where the class would put together the likes/dislikes list for Collins’ “Interpretation of Poetry”. I wanted to show that poets usually agree with readers of poetry in that poetry should be accessible and that interpretation should not be the contrived and convoluted exercises that we all seem to remember from our poetry classes. I think that the two likes/dislikes lists – ours and Collins’ – would have been surprisingly similar. Unfortunately I did not manage my time well, so I never got a chance to make the point.

2) I would have trimmed down the list of guide questions for the presentation. I used the same list I used for my class, which was obviously overkill for graduate English students. This would have freed up more time for other stuff.

3) I would have read the poem aloud before asking you guys to read it. As it was, the poem was never “presented” as it should have been. This may seem like a minor point, but I think a poem should be heard before it is read. First impressions are important.

4) I would have spent a few more minutes emphasizing the difference between ESL students and native speakers of English. Their schema makes them unique, not only compared to native students, but compared to each other.I have a student from Mongolia who was living in a Yurt until she moved to the US a few years ago and another who lived in a refuge camp in Darfur. I think this would have helped explain why my lesson plan may have seemed simplistic to some.

5) I would have sung Pink Floyd’s “Time” rather than subjecting you to my butchered reading, although my voice has been known to kill small animals.

Teaching Graphic Novels

I previewed “Maus” today for my ESL level five reading comprehension class as part of an exercise on figurative speech and inference. I hadn’t intended to, but one of those teachable moments presented itself, so I took 10 minutes or so out of class time to discuss weather or not they considered the book to be a form of literature. I parroted a few of the rhetorical questions Prof. Sample had asked us to get the discussion started.

The only student who knew anything about “Maus” was a young woman from Germany who said it was used in her public school system to teach the Holocaust. She had an interesting perspective: she found the depictions in the book to be much milder than looking at the photos found in many of the usual texts used in German schools. Maybe her reaction would have been different if Kyle Baker had done the illustrations.

The other students, mainly Asian, African and Middle Eastern, knew little about the subject, but they immediately identified the mice and cat analogy and discussed how, without using a single word, the author had set up a paradigm that everybody could understand. We didn’t have time to go over the text, but a number of students said that because of the amount of text in the book, “Maus” was literature. According to their way of thinking, text is a defining characteristic of literature. I wish I had had the time to give them a preview of “Nat Turner”; it would have been interesting to see if their ideas would change.

If I were to teach graphic novels as part of a literature survey course I would begin with a similar discussion of literature and have them compile a list of defining characteristics before introducing whatever text I was going to teach. The fact that they realized that text can stand in place of text would be key to a teaching strategy.

The minimal amount of text in a graphic novel makes them much harder to “read” than what many of us have come to know as literature. We grow up with words and use them to determine meaning. We are comfortable with words and have become lazy and dependent on our literal interpretations. At the same time, we have also become dismissive of illustrations/graphics/photographs; we don’t give them a lot of thought because we are constantly bombarded by them. I think one of the greatest pitfalls a new student to graphic novels could make would be to dismiss what they see without really trying to understand what is being represented.

With a novel like “Nat Turner”, the next step would be to have them create their own text by writing a narrative to accompany the illustrations. I would ask them to explain what they think is transpiring on certain pages. Another approach would be to have them create their own text, either through captions or dialog. Having them put what they see into words would be a valuable experience; students would need to really study the illustrations and not give just a first impression. This could be done orally was well; a version of “popcorn” reading, where each student selects a sequence of illustrations and explains what they think is being represented.

Parsing Nat Turner

There is a lot of discussion on the blog about the violent images in Nat Turner and I agree, but then again this is a story about a violent period in our history. The violence of what Turner did to the white slave owners balances out, in my mind, the violence that was done to the slaves. In many ways it is a morality tale, only with graphic images. I agree that reading about a decapitation and viewing a graphic representation of one are two very different experiences. I’m not sure which I like better.

Having said that, I must say that I think the art work is amazing. Baker’s rendering of facial expressions captures and conveys undeniable meaning to the reader: the love Turner’s parents have for each other, the bewilderment/joy of children, the anguish of being whipped and your wounds salted, the terror of being branded, and the terror of white slave owners knowing that they are about to reap what they have sown.

I especially like how he uses the eyes of his subjects to project a personal connection into his work. All of his drawings are distinct, but in his facial expressions, the eyes seem especially powerful. In the six panels found on pages 11 and 12 we see anger, coyness, humor and terror, all within Baker’s rendering of the subject’s eyes. The first panel of the book is nothing more than a pair of eyes and the image of a book surrounded by black. It captures one of the themes of the work; how the power of the written word can set us free. He mentions the power of written text extensively in his preface and then proceeds to create a text with only a minimum of words.

What little written text he does use seems to work against the graphic text. The excerpts from Turner’s “Confessions…” move back and forth between a matter-of-fact recitation of events and the wonderfully structured sentences describing his spiritual development and final epiphany. The bland and gentle matter-of-factness of the written text clashes head-on with the brutality of the images. Turner mentions the kindness of some of his victims in his confession and then Baker renders an image of absolute brutality and terror as they are destroyed.

This juxtaposition produces one of the few instances of ambiguity that I identified in “Nat Turner.” We are trained to identify ambiguity in a written text; when our ability to understand the author’s use of words breaks down, we must interpret. I am not sure how to identify ambiguity in a graphic novel; the genre is such a departure from what I am used to. I have dealt with words long enough to know what I don’t know. Parsing an image is a different experience altogether and I found it one of the most disconcerting aspects of “reading” Baker’s novel.

Finally I want to say what a beautiful edition this is. The quality and weight of the stock makes the book a pleasure to hold. It reminds me of browsing a “coffee table” art book. At first I thought I would have preferred black ink, but the variety of tones he captures using a brown tint is amazingly subtle (and harder on the eyes). I think Baker is making the statement that part of the experience of producing/reading a graphic novel is a consideration of the tactile as well as the visual. When we engage with a written text, the number of senses in play are minimal. When we engage graphics, we are opening ourselves up to a much broader experience. I heard the “BOOM, BOOM, BOOM” on pages 61 – 63 more than I read them.

Doubtful About Text Book

Like all of us, I look for items in these readings that I can use in my classroom. As teachers, we are all constantly looking for new ways to present material. I started the segment on metaphor thinking I was going to come away with something usable (think Blau), but I didn’t find much. For me, immediate applicability is what makes a reading standout. I found only one writing exercise that might be useful – modifying metaphors on pages 73 and 74 could be used as a starting point for class discussion.

“Text Book” would be inaccessible to my students. Part of the reason for this is the level of the writing – this appears to be aimed at an upper level undergraduate audience. Since my classes consist mainly of first and second year non-academic ESL students, “Text Book” would be much-too-much of a challenge. I would need lots of supplementary material for them to truly “get” many of these concepts the way the authors’ laid them out.

A couple of the segments were truly tedious – I’m thinking of excerpt of Sontag’s “AIDS and Its Metaphors” and Martin’s “The Egg and the Sperm”. I found them interesting, but both were too long and really, too tangential to the point the authors were trying to make (I felt like I was in an undergraduate bio class). There must have been another reading that would suffice. The segment on sports as a metaphor might be more workable.

I also agree with blogger esadler – the format, mashing examples together with no commentary or transition of any kind, makes the book an exasperating read. It would be a chore to “chunk” the book into doses small enough to make it teachable at the level I teach at.

Fresh perspective – on the other hand, their all too brief segment on advertising would be a great way to discuss the power of “literature” in our everyday lives. The text book I currently use has a great segment on advertising as an effective medium, but I like the author’s explanation and the way they broke down the visual and textual components of their examples.

“Text Book” has a place on my shelf as a reference, not as a book I can go to when I’m seeking new teaching materials for a class.

It’s All About Me

My blogs are about me; my teaching problems and questions. Because this is what I do for a living and because thinking about teaching occupies most of my waking moments, it would make sense that everything I read (including for this class) I try to relate to me (the teacher) and my issues or concerns. It is why I took this course – I want to learn ways to be a more effective teacher.
I’ve written 6 blog posts so far and the majority of each has been related to how I teach. In three I wrote in detail about specific issues/benefits I saw in Blau or Scholes and how I could apply them to my issues. In others I recognized a general framework for the pedagogy of teaching which I had never given a lot of thought to.

Writing blogs helps me to organize my thoughts on a question I might have, or about an idea that developed because of our readings. Putting into words my thoughts on a reading frequently make me view a problem or concept in a way that just thinking about it does not. Maybe it is the concreteness of seeing my ideas in “print” or the tactile exercise of keyboarding. Maybe it’s knowing that somebody else will read these words, so they had better make sense. I’m forced to analyze the details of my thoughts because I am presenting them to a reader.

As I was writing my blog for Week 5, for example, I remember jotting down a few variations on a couple of exercises that Blau discussed. These ideas came to me as I was writing because the writing process forces me to think critically, which frequently triggers other thoughts and creates “new knowledge.”

In rereading my blogs, I also noticed that while the earlier ones are more general in nature, my newer writings are becoming more specific. This is partially do to the course readings, which have moved from the general to the specific, but I also think it is a result of the cumulative effect of the course work – I am starting to see how the concepts we are discussing provide a framework for my teaching and as we progress, I am starting to see how to actually apply them in the classroom.

While this is not part of this assignment, I would like to make a quick note on reading my classmate’s blogs. I usually don’t read what others have posted until after I have posted my blog – I do this so I am not influences by what others have to say. Writing my blogs, as I mentioned, has been a big help in synthesizing information, but reading what others post on the same readings has given me perspectives I don’t think I would have gained otherwise.

Seeing how my classmates respond to the course work makes me to realize that it is not all about me. We are all teachers and seeing how another teacher views a concept is a learning experience. Sometimes others post reactions that are similar to mine, which gives me reinforcement and affirmation for my ideas, but many times I am struck by the variety of insights into the different ways we all teach.

Blau and the ESL Perspective

I have a good friend from Belfast who speaks with a heavy Irish accent. He has lived in the U.S. for a number of years and in the mid-1990s he taught at a language school in New York City, where most of his students were first generation Asians. I kid him that every time I visit NYC that I find myself listening for Asians speaking with Irish accents.

I’m reminded of this when I read Blau’s conclusions in chapter 9; we can disable our students by over-directing them to a particular interpretation or “otherwise render students overly dependent on their teachers in the production of interpretations, so that students to do not recognize or never have the opportunity to discover the efficacy of their own experiences and persistence as readers” (p. 200). How much of us spills out into the classroom, according to Blau, determines the difference between fostering our students or preempt their autonomy.

As a middle-aged, white, native born American male (from Topeka Kansas no less!), my experiences indelibly color my interpretations which, on occasion, have seeped out into the classroom. Try as we might to be neutral facilitators, as teachers attempting to take advantage of teachable moments, we all have often grabbed the closest thing available to us in the swirl of class discussion; usually the examples we use to illustrate a point reflect who we are. Like Asians speaking English with an Irish accent, foreign born ESL students basing their views of literature on my WASPish past is a troubling thought.

The problems that Brau outlines in his book seem to become more complicated when dealing with non-native born ESL students. Most of them have had some academic experience in their own cultures, where the instructor is usual held in high esteem and mimicry of what is spoken in the classroom by the teacher is considered knowledge. For many of them it is a matter of respect to parrot the instructor’s views.

This is compounded by the desire of ESL students to acculturate. If teachers represent American academic culture, then emulating their thought processes is seen as a move towards academic acceptance. It is also seen by many as the surest way to achieve good grades and the path to other academic achievements. They see other advantages; because they are absorbing what they think is an American point of view, it makes them more “American”, while “learning about literature.”

Native born students don’t have this issue; they are taught the value of independent thought in American classrooms, even though many choose the easier way out by also mimicking their teachers.

While Brau does not address the issue of foreign born ESL students specifically, the rules he outlines for how we operate in the literature classroom frequently lead to questions from foreign-born students who want to know what we, as teachers, think and what our thought process are as we struggle with interpretation. They feel that they are at a disadvantage because their point of view is “different” than native-born students and instructors.

One reason I like Blau’s story telling workshop is that it teaches students that their view point is just as valid as any other students and that they should value their cultural heritage and views. Unfortunately, for students struggling to fit in to their adopted culture, this frequently does not give them the sense of security they need to be autonomous.

Blau’s Book Is A Keeper

Blau works nicely to fill in the gap between the theory we’ve been encountering and the reality of the classroom. Several of us have commented on it. Finally, news we can use!

I like that Blau gives us models and examples of what we can do, but I also like that he also tells us what NOT to do. Like Scholes, he warns us that we can easily slip into the role of “sage on the stage” and put our students into the position of spouting back to us our own interpretations when it comes time for assessment. This “banking model”, where information is deposited into our student’s memories and withdrawn by them when they need it is, unfortunately, what many of our students have come to expect from us. His revelation that in planning and preparing to teach a course, teachers are doing the learning while students are relegated to the role of serving as witnesses and recorders of interpretations and approaches to conceptual problems. I confess that I have occasionally presented lessons like this, usually when I am out of ideas on how to engage students or when the material is new; it sometimes is the easiest way, the path of least resistance, but it is mediocre teaching at best.

Fortunately Blau’s book is full of suggestions on what we can do with a classroom full of students so they can become more competent and productive learners instead of merely containers for our ideas. I appreciate his emphasis on group work and how it is a natural part of the reading process. Yes, reading is a solitary act, but that doesn’t mean that understanding, analyzing and interpreting should also be done by the student working alone. In my composition classes, I am always pleased with the results of group discussions as a pre-writing activity. Working in groups, students rarely complain afterwards that they don’t know what to write about. Working together, without the intimidation factor of a teacher standing over them, they feel free to say things they might not say otherwise. They question each other’s ideas, suggest alternative approaches and general are more open. This is exactly what we want them to do in a literature class when we ask them to engage an author’s text.

Blau’s book is crammed with too many examples to discuss in a single blog post, but his workshop on background/prior knowledge (Chapter 4) is especially illuminating to me as an ESL reading instructor. One of the biggest issues I face is that ESL students frequently discount what they know because they don’t see the universality of it or its worth. After all, their cultural background is different from that of their peers and from their instructor, so how can it apply to a classroom discussion of a poem or passage they don’t understand?

I would modify Blau’s approach and have them bring in examples of fables indigenous to their cultures, then spend time in groups where they would “teach” each other how they construct meaning from the cultural references. I think they would soon realize that there are themes that run through many of the readings that are universal to all cultures. They would hopefully also understand that what they bring with them from their culture is just as valid as anything I or any students has to say.

I also think that Blau’s storytelling workshop (Chapter 5), where students exchange interpretations of personal stories, would be an excellent way to illustrate how each of us uses our different backgrounds and cultural references when we attempt to create meaning. As students and instructors, we are the sum total of the experiences we have had in our lives. There is not “wrong” interpretation, only different interpretations.

Gee and Reality

There is a lot of information in Gee’s book, almost too much to get your arms around in a single reading and definitely too much to critique in a blog post. At the macro level, however, it is safe to say that what Gee espouses is what every educator should consider; if students aren’t learning using present teaching concepts, then all of us (teachers, administrators, and education theorist) need to look at the way students are being taught. I think most would agree that there are many subjects and courses where students are going through the motions of learning, but that their accumulated knowledge is, as Gee notes, an inch deep and a mile wide. (I occasionally have students who are the products of European schools and have found that while their knowledge may not be as broad-based as other students, the depth of what they know is impressive.)
I like many of Gee’s concepts; I find his “learning principles” to be, in many cases, refreshing restatements of current pedagogical maxims. Speaking from the vantage point of a “reading” teacher, I found the section on identity and learning, especially the concept of learners developing a projective identity (p. 48), to be something that should be stressed more in ESL reading classes.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am currently teaching a novel about the immigrant experience in America. While I am sure that most of my ESL students can identify with the immigrant experience, projecting themselves into the story would help them identify more with the characters and plot lines than merely the topic of immigration. Assigning students to put themselves in to role of one of the main characters or having them write into the story a completely new character, would immerse them to a much greater degree.

Giving them the freedom to have their “projected” selves act in ways that are not prescribed by anything other than basic plot points, would give them an insight into what writers must consider as they construct the world inside their novels. What are the relationships between characters? How are these relationships manifested? What restrictions are placed on their actions by the plot, character development and various story lines?
Forcing students to consider all the potential ramifications of the actions of their projected identities would be a revelation for many into the craft of writing and story telling. Hopefully it would also give them a greater appreciation for what they read and some tools to help them interpret what they author is trying to say.
Gee has other ideas that I think I can use in my classroom, but his theories, like others we have read this semester, bump into the realities of teaching. We all know, as Gee emphasizes, that students learn from their mistakes. In a classroom, however, mistakes often go into the grade book because of the realities of our education system. We don’t have the luxury of allowing students to repeatedly fail at a task until they get it right.

Cultural Code Switching

It is interesting that both Scholes and Linkon address the concept of culture and the skill of rendering interpretations in this week’s readings.  These are issues that are not far from my immediate focus in a class I am teaching this semester.

A little background is in order. I teach a level 5 ESL reading class – this is the last reading class students must complete before they can take mainstream “academic” class at NVCC.  The syllabus stresses literal, critical and affective comprehension of college level texts as well as novels and poetry.  This is not an introduction to literature, but more of a reading skills class.  I have 13 students from 7 countries this semester; many have a high school background in their native countries or a few years of American high school.  They are not fluent English readers.  Many have told me they enjoy reading in their native language, but find reading in English to be a laborious process, fraught with misunderstandings that impede their comprehension and strip the pleasure from the text.

For the last two semesters I have been “piloting” a new novel that I selected because I thought it would be appealing to immigrant students: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinew Megestu.   The protagonist is a young Ethiopian immigrant running a small grocery in the late 1970s in a neighborhood of Washington, D.C. that is becoming gentrified.  His clients, mostly prostitutes, drug addicts and the poor, are slowly leaving, but instead of taking advantage of a changing clientele and the money they could bring in, he lets his business go down hill.   He is emotionally paralyzed as he reflects on the part he played in his father’s death at the hands of thugs during the Ethiopian revolution.  At the same time, he is beginning to fall in love with a white woman and her mixed-raced daughter, two of the outsiders gentrifying the neighborhood.

There are an abundance of cultures floating around my classroom; American culture, the author’s culture, the student’s culture, the college’s academic culture, the collective immigrant culture, youth culture, &c.  The issue is to get the student to understand and/or explain which cultural point of view they are representing when they speak or write.  We’ve discussed the concept of an individual having multiple cultural identities and the possible perspectives it can bring to them as readers, but they seem to be unable to identify any part of their cultural make up that accounts for their views.

A male student from China wrote in a final course reflection that he was “disgusted” with the grocery store owner because he used his father’s memory as a reason for inaction and failure rather than honoring him by working hard to succeed.  He then noted an apology for his Chinese view point.  Many women students can relate to the gossipy, mean spirited feminine social culture that dominates many immigrant enclaves and regard it as something their mothers or grandmothers would participate in, but they would not because it is “not American.” Most students identify with their role as immigrants and the frequently confusing aspects of American culture.  All seem to be navigating a confusing cultural stew.

Like Linkon, I think a lot of my students, when asked to interpret a passage from the book, try to guess what the “correct” answer is.  They engage in a kind of cultural code switching; rather than express what their true feeling are and where those feelings come from, they neglect the insight their cultural heritage gives them and try to figure out what a native-born American would say and what I want to hear so they can get a good grade.  This is a fairly standard response for Generation 1.5 students; they feel trapped between cultures.

One thing I am hoping to get from this class is an approach to literature that I can use to help students sift through their thoughts and reactions and give them the confidence to express themselves.

Difficulty – why we do it

I wish I had had a copy of “The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty” as an undergraduate English major in the 1970s.  It would have been reassuring to know that a text loaded with obscure references and confusing imagery can be accessible if approached in comprehensive method.

The best way for me to understand Salvatori and Donahue’s book it to juxtapose the methods they have put forward against the recollections of my education in literature.  I think I was fortunate because my initial exposure to literature in high school had clued me in to the fact that much of what I was going to study was going to be difficult to understand and require me to find other ways to construct meaning than the more contemporary ones I was used to.  Still, my introductory college literature classes took me by surprise.

I remember struggling with one or two other literature students in my dorm, trying to keep up with the readings and knowing that complete understanding was out of our grasp; only in class would more be revealed.  I think I succeeded because I had instructors who were passionate about literature and understood our predicament.   They would hint at a couple possible interpretations of a passage or give us a new perspective with which to analyze the text.  They were patient and would shepherd us along in the general direction they wanted us to go until we understood, making us occasionally feel that we had stumbled upon something nobody else had discovered.

Reading Salvatori and Donahue’s book, I understand that they too have a passion for literature and a desire to make it accessible to all; their methods also rely on the student “discovering” possible meaning.  Salvatori and Donahue, however, have emphasized that the process of discovery, the journey we all take when we read a difficult text, is as important as arriving at understanding.    How do we know what we know if our teachers don’t let us go through the process of analysis and examine our repertoire of beliefs?

The only issue I can see with their approach the authors take in their book is that they do not emphasize enough the importance of “pre-reading” activities.  Students who receive a thorough back grounding on the author, the genre, and the period frequently feel better prepared in dealing with ambiguities in the text.  If the student’s context is expanded, there are likely to be fewer difficulties in interpreting the text.