Author Archives: lfiesthu

Reflections on My Presentation

First—thanks everyone for participating wholeheartedly in my writing activity and in the discussion yesterday! I really appreciate it.

Now, on to my thoughts about my presentation. Overall, I’m pleased with how the presentation went. Looking back on it, I think the best part of my presentation was the actual discussion. My plan was to talk about the context for my lesson for about 5 minutes and then to devote the rest of the lesson to the writing activity and the discussion. I’ve never taught before, so I really wanted to challenge myself with this project by building at least 15 minutes into my lesson for real discussion. I also wanted to moderate the discussion in such a way that we would hit about 5 different points that I thought were important in the story. I had a little list of discussion questions that I used to sway the discussion a bit, and I was really pleased that we actually touched on most of the topics about “Death of the Right Fielder” that I wanted to discuss (the characteristics of the right fielder, the story as allegory, is baseball as a sport important to the story, etc).

I really struggled with how to open the lesson. Basically, I examined the process I went through to write my interpretation paper and that’s how I came up with the glossary homework assignment. I don’t think that this assignment would be particularly necessary or all that useful for other texts, but I think it’s necessary for a story like “Death of the Right Fielder” that has many baseball references that may leave my students clueless. I talked about this glossary homework assignment in the very beginning of the presentation, so I definitely wasn’t 100% comfortable standing up in front of everyone yet. Looking back on it, I think I may have rushed through the explanation of the assignment a little. I’m curious to hear your feedback about this particular glossary assignment. Would it be useful in a real classroom?

I wanted to incorporate a writing assignment into the presentation. I picked the baseball poem because I thought it would get everyone to start thinking about the themes that were present in Dybek’s story and how those themes run through a lot of baseball literature. I would stick with this pre-discussion writing assignment if I were to teach this again, but I think I would put some concrete directions or some guiding questions up on the overhead to help students know exactly what I wanted them to be thinking/writing about.

Since this was one of my first times “teaching,” I’d really appreciate any thoughts/suggestions you guys might have! Thanks again!

Teaching Nat Turner

I’ve been thinking about how to teach graphic novels, and more specifically, about ways to get our students to slow down when they are reading Nat Turner. I know that I flew through the book the first time that I read it. I think that more inexperienced readers (like those in high school) may be particularly inclined to view Nat Turner as a “fun” book and to not take it as seriously as other books that they might read in class. These students will probably flip through the entire book very quickly, but they wouldn’t go back to reread it as a more advanced reader might.

Here are a few teaching strategies I’ve brainstormed:

  • Assign one section to read at a time at home. Sections could be the four books, or preferably broken up into little vignettes within the books.
  • Read the book entirely in class, as a class. This way, the teacher can control the reading pace.
  • Have our students make a close textual interpretation of only one panel or one page.
  • Read The Confessions of Nat Turner alongside Nat Turner.
  • Have students create and add their own panel into the story and write about how this enhanced or changed the original narrative.
  • I think it would be really helpful to teach sections of Understanding Comics alongside Nat Turner to legitimize graphic novels to students who are skeptical about them.

I was skeptical about graphic novels myself, until I studied a few for grad school. Now, I think that graphic novels are a great way to teach interpretation. I’m really drawn to McCloud’s concept of the “gutter”. The gutters are visual cues for interpretation and because of this, I think graphic novels could be a nice gateway into learning when and how to interpret all kinds of literature. It seems like we could first teach the gutter in a graphic novel, and then compare the gutter to stanzas or line breaks in poetry, and finally move into textual interpretation.

Reader Responsibility in Nat Turner

I was first introduced to graphic novels last semester in my 701 class. We read Satrapi’s Persepolis and McCloud’s complete Understanding Comics. After working through graphic novels last semester, I was excited to read Nat Turner. I had a decidedly more difficult time reading Nat Turner than I did reading Persepolis, a graphic novel about a young girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It seemed strange to me that I was having a harder time comprehending Nat Turner, because I know a lot more of the history of Nat Turner’s rebellion than I knew about the Islamic Revolution when I read Persepolis. After reading through Scott McCloud’s excerpts again, I realized that the way Kyle Baker presents his story puts much more responsibility on the reader than Satrapi does in Persepolis, which might make it a more difficult read. 

McCloud talks about “reader responsibility” in his chapter on closure and the gutters between panels. Nat Turner puts a lot of responsibility on the reader. Baker uses action-to-action, subject-to-subject, and even moment-to-moment panels to tell his story. In many of Baker’s silent panels, the reader is expected to make a really big interpretive leap of “closure” between panels when what is happening in the two panels isn’t necessarily that clear. For example, on page 72-73, there are a few moment-to-moment panels where we see two slaves singing. Nothing really changes between the two panels, but we do see one man eyeing the other man suspiciously, so we know that what is happening is of importance. Here, I had a difficult time interpreting what was happening between the two panels until I read Kyle Baker’s notes in the back of the book. He indicates that on those pages, he was depicting the importance of transmitting messages through singing. I knew that singing was really important in the slave culture, but these panels were really vague and it was almost like I needed to read that note in the back of the book to confirm what I thought was happening in these panels. 

McCloud also talks about how the placement and shape of the panels can affect the reading experience. There are several pages when Baker incorporates words from Nat’s confessions with some graphics. On these pages, such as page 133, the panels are both round and square and are mixed in with the words. Because the panels are not in a linear order where we can read them left to right, it puts more responsibility on the reader to figure out how you are supposed to take in all of the information on the page. 

The more true-to-reality graphics that Baker uses to depict the story helps to make the story more disturbing. Unlike Satrapi who uses a stripped-down comic image to depict herself (think Peanuts or Garfield type comics), Baker gives his characters a more human and individual look. In one of the chapters in Understanding Comics, McCloud argues that readers of graphic novels tend to identify with the more “comic”-looking characters because the simple illustration allows the reader to see themselves in the character. Baker’s characters had very distinct, unique, true-to-life characteristics that may prevent readers from “seeing themselves in the characters” as McCloud argues. However, I think that by giving his characters more humanly characteristics, the violence and hardships that the slaves went through is that much more disturbing to watch unfold on the page.

Thoughts on Textbook

As most of the posts have already indicated, I really had a hard time with this week’s readings. I just couldn’t get into Textbook at all. I found it especially hard to navigate through, with the long narratives and questions mixed right in with larger theories and research. Like several other people have already mentioned, the format the text took really hindered my ability to navigate and comprehend it. 

Almost immediately, I asked myself what age group this book is designed for. I’d like to think that this book is designed for a more advanced undergraduate literature student, although I was really confused/surprised when I read this on page 11: “every high school student knows that novels and plays have an introduction…is she right? Do you think these things?” Here, the authors are obviously indicating that their readers are intended to be high school students, at least for the particular section. I really can’t think of a class in high school where this would be a useful and practical textbook. On one hand, its subject matter is really densely packed (Freudian theory and Christian symbols mixed with the 6 elements of narratives and commercial transcripts). On the other hand, chapter 2’s subject of metaphors is something I feel like most high school kids and undergraduate lit students already know a lot about. And I can’t help but noting that obviously, we are all at the graduate level and most of us feel sort of blah about the book, not really able to take much from it. How, then, can we expect high schoolers to make anything of it? That being said, I did find some of the “For Discussion and Writing” sections in the book helpful and semi-practical. For example, the writing prompt used with the play “The Stronger” asks students to revise the one-act play to be from the point of view of Miss Y, the character who doesn’t talk. This prompt reminds me of some of the readings from Week 7 about how students comprehend literature at a higher level if they are asked to retell the story from a different point of view. 

I was first introduced to the concept of “texts are everywhere” in a senior level undergraduate class in Visual Rhetoric. We studied everything from photographs to museum exhibit design to commercials to power point presentations to understand how these texts compared to traditional literary texts. I tend to think that Textbook fits more closely with the goals of a class on visual rhetoric than it does with a more traditional literature class.

Blogging On Blogging

I really liked being able to go back and take a critical look at what I’ve been thinking and writing about in this class so far. Here are some things that I noticed myself noticing quite a bit in my responses: 

  • Practicality of the reading: In almost every blog post, my comments tended to drift to what I found most useful or practical about the readings—in other words, I commented on the assignments, arguments, and tips that I thought I could translate easily to a classroom. In my post about Elements, I talked about the practical assignments like the Difficulty Papers and the Reading Logs. In my responses to Blau, I commented on the usability of the workshops, specifically by focusing on techniques he uses like the jump-in reading, pointing, and “most important line” writing assignment that I found really helpful. In last week’s post, I talked about both that I admired Blau’s assignment descriptions and how adaptable they seemed to be to a classroom. On the flip side, my main critique of Gee was on his inability to translate the learning principles of video games to the classroom. I wrote, “Where Gee loses me is when he gives little to no tangible examples of how to actually employ these learning principles in the classroom (the only practical example he gives that I’ve seen so far is about the computer game that asks students to elaborate on Galileo’s principles of motion on page 86).” Even as I’m disagreeing with Gee, I am still using this idea of practicality as the overarching ideal that determines how I value the readings.
  • “I am a new teacher”: I’m somewhat surprised and maybe slightly embarrassed to see how many times I’ve used some version of the phrase “as a new teacher” in my responses. Going back through my posts, I see that I’ve used this phrase in 3 out of the 5 posts. I think using this phrase goes back to the practicality aspect of my posts. In constantly writing “I’m a new teacher” in my posts, I think I’m justifying (to myself, perhaps?) using the “practicality” filter in my readings and responses.
  • Starting with something I liked/was surprised by: In most of my posts, I focused the bulk of my comments on something I liked in the reading. In Elements, I commented on how Salvatori and Donahue “clearly promote the act of writing as a critical thinking tool in the study of literature.” In response to Linkon’s article, I commented on how I was drawn to the kind of classroom where the students are apprentices and the teachers guide their students to becoming expert readers themselves. For Gee, I commented on his strength of describing with incredible detail the examples from the games that demonstrate the corresponding learning principle. In response to Blau, I talked about practicality. Starting with something I liked, for most of these responses, shows me that I’ve been really excited about what we’ve been reading in class. This kind of response technique highlights my tendency towards picking out the elements that I find most relevant to me while reading for class. Perhaps, it also shows that I’m not as critical as I should be when I read for class.
  • Applying readings to my experiences in the classroom: In two of my posts (Linkon and Blau), I connected some aspect of the reading to my own experiences as a student of English in high school and college. For both posts, the connection I made was how my experience did not really compare to what the writer was advocating. For Linkon, I commented that I didn’t experience an “apprentice-like” classroom until my graduate school studies. For Blau, I commented that while I have had assignments like Blau’s before, they were never as detailed or contextualized as what Blau advocates. Both of these comments suggest my tendency to both agree with and get excited by the readings for this class, particularly when the writer advocates a pedagogy that I see a need for, from my own experience.

Preparing Students for Assignments

As a new teacher, I found Blau’s writing assignments in Chapter 8 to be really helpful and I’m drawn to comment mostly on this chapter in my posting. While I’ve encountered assignments like Blau’s in previous undergrad English or Composition classes I’ve taken, I was never given such in depth descriptions of these assignments that Blau provides his students. After reading through all the assignments, I noticed a commonality in how Blau presents them. When giving his students a particular assignment, he always makes sure to contextualize it. In other words, Blau doesn’t just give the reading log assignment or think-aloud assignment to his students without any further information. Rather, he also takes the time to explain to his students WHY the assignment is valuable and what the students can expect to get out doing it. Sometimes, this contextualizing happens in the actual descriptions of his assignments. For instance, in the description of the Reading Log assignment, Blau uses phrases like “The logs will be useful to you in several ways” and then lists the reasons why completing the assignment would be worthwhile for the student (164). Other times, this contextualizing is given through class discussion and modeling. After assigning the Reading Process Research Paper, Blau tries to “dignify the entire study” by providing in-class contextual information about theorists who were concerned with how readers make meaning (169). Seeing Blau’s approach to his assignments made me realize that as teachers, we can’t simply hand out assignments without justification. We must also remind our students that what they are working on for class is a valid use of their time.

I also want to touch on Blau’s argument that before students can be expected to complete certain assignments, they must first be given “a model and a language” with which to complete them (170). Too often, I think teachers forget that students who don’t possess a model for the kind of thinking that they are being asked to do, simply do not know how to complete the assignment. To help give his students “the language” for the Think-Aloud assignment, for example, Blau tries to “prepare students for their study” by first dividing them into small groups and asking them to go through the motions of the Think-Aloud in the controlled classroom environment (169). Blau makes a great point that I think is often overlooked; he writes “A student asked to write a paper in a literature [. . .] needs to what such a paper looks like” (173). Thus, for many of his assignments, Blau “reads aloud some sample papers from students from previous years” to give his students a model for their own assignment (170). A valid point in Chapter 8 is Blau’s argument that we can’t expect students to know how to complete an assignment without first giving them an understanding of both the form and the way of thinking the assignment demands. Rather as teachers, we must demystify our assignments by first giving our students justification, contextualization, and models to help them be successful.

Briefly, I did want to say something about Blau’s argument in Chapter 10 that students who learn how to think and interpret literary texts for themselves inside the classroom are better able to think critically about the world in which they live. With this view, the English teacher now seems to take on the dual responsibility of both teaching students how to read literature and also molding them into active participants of their society. I tend to agree with Blau here, but I also think this way of thinking is somewhat daunting (especially for a new teacher).

Teaching Students to Trust Their Interpretations

I’ve been really thrilled to read Blau’s The Literature Workshop because of the practical teaching methods that Blau gives us (not that Gee wasn’t interesting, but definitely not too practical). As someone who has never taught before, the “workshops” that Blau methodically works through in each chapter are really enlightening. I was particularly drawn to and interested by the techniques Blau introduces through his workshop on the David Ordan short story in Chapter Six. As an undergraduate English major, I was always troubled by the idea of “what’s worth saying about a literary text”? After years of lectures and writing prompts, I never felt like I was taught how to read a piece of literature and trust myself enough to know what in the piece was “worthy” of writing about. I found Chapter Six to really be helpful to me both as a future teacher and also as a reader and student of literature.

Blau emphasizes the importance of having our students read and reread through a series of silent reading and reflection and by using the “jump in” reading that the entire class participates in out loud. The last time I participated in this kind of “popcorn” reading style was probably when I was in middle school. I think that a lot of secondary school teachers and university level professors probably find this kind of activity to be a waste of time. Rather, Blau tells us that he uses versions of pedagogical strategies that elementary school teachers use (like this “jump in” reading) to help their students make sense of what they’re reading (98).  Using these sort of “elementary” reading activities first and foremost ensures that all students have read the text; more importantly, going through these reading techniques emphasizes the point that no reader is skilled enough to understand all the nuances of the text in the first read-through—not even the professor (I particularly liked Blau’s observation that teachers are more willing to fail at understanding the first time around than their students). I really liked the “pointing” activity that Blau introduces in this chapter. Allowing students to pick the lines that they saw as most important and then watching as some of the same lines are repeated again indicates that the teacher is allowing the students to dictate the interpretation of the text. The students see that what they find important in the text matters. They can also see that other students found the same lines important, giving further satisfying validation that their initial thoughts were “on track”. The writing assignment that follows is also a great way to get students thinking independently about why they were drawn to certain lines in the poem. These three steps (rereading, pointing, and the “most important line” writing assignment) seems like they could also work for any writer who wants to figure out what he thinks is “worth saying” about a literary text that he is grappling with.

So far, I would probably use most of the workshops presented in Blau’s text, except for the one in chapter five that asks students to share their own stories and have their peers interpret them. I understand the point of this exercise (to teach students that anyone can interpret), but it seems that this kind of activity wouldn’t work in all classrooms. Students must be mature enough not to take this “story-telling” time as a time for socializing, and I think a lot of students would be uneasy “interpreting” the anecdotes of their peers. In other words, I think you really have to have the “perfect classroom” to pull this one off.

Translating Learning Principles to Classrooms

As I finish up with Gee, I can’t help but be equally engrossed and critical of his argument. In Video Games, Gee’s argument was particularly strong when he was actually giving examples from the games he was playing to demonstrate what learning principles were being activated and used by the player. Gee’s use of the game Pikman to get his discussion started on semiotic domains is particularly good, because as a reader of Gee’s argument, I can see how each maneuver that the player makes in the game directly translates to a learning principle. As a reader who has very little experience playing video games (and absolutely no experience with the games he uses as examples), I was pleased with Gee’s ability to describe the action of each game in terms that a non-gamer could understand. Through his meticulous background descriptions of each game and detailed play-by-plays of certain maneuvers, Gee makes clear how exactly the action in a video game translate into a critical learning experience for the player. I found the learning principles described with Lara Croft particularly interesting; for example, the player “learns” that he must, in fact, deviate from Professor Von Croy’s strict instructions by being rewarded with golden skulls each time he disobeys. So, on Gee’s video game side of his argument, I was very much with him.

Unfortunately, I was a little skeptical when Gee began to try to translate his video game learning principles to the classroom. For instance, it is not hard to understand the separation of “real-world” and “virtual” identities in the gaming world (except, maybe when Gee overcomplicates things with his discussion about the placement of his italics in the phrase “James Paul Gee as Bead Bead”…so not necessary!), but it really seems a stretch to separate a “learner” and a “scientist” when both are physically the same person. Isn’t “scientist” just one of those “real world identities” that the “learner” may have acquired from years of science class? I just felt that Gee was really making a stretch with his discussion of real and virtual identities in the classroom.

I get how video games make us think and learn in different and often challenging ways. I also understand that the wild success of video games is an indicator that the learning principles they employ should be transferred into the classroom. Where Gee loses me is when he gives little to no tangible examples of how to actually employ these learning principles in the classroom (the only practical example he gives that I’ve seen so far is about the computer game that asks students to elaborate on Galileo’s principles of motion on page 86). I appreciate that video games highlight learning principles that are conducive to how humans tend to learn best; I don’t appreciate when Gee takes pages and pages to describe the learning principle and then makes an abstract claim like “good teachers set up scientific environments that guide learners and surround them with empowering tools that extend their individual efforts” (108). As a reader, I’m left thinking, “Okay, but HOW?” If Gee devoted as much time to translating his learning principles to a classroom setting as he devotes to describing Bead Bead’s maneuvers through her virtual world (and did anyone else think it was TMI when we heard about Bead Bead’s “well-deserved night of forbidden pleasure”?), I think that this book would be a lot more worthwhile for me. It was definitely an interesting concept, though.

Turning Students into Experts

The Reader’s Apprentice, for me, was the most fascinating of the week’s readings. After reading this article, I was honestly so surprised at how…obvious Linkon’s points were about treating students as apprentices in the classroom. In other words, it should go without saying that students who have come to college without ever doing real library research or being asked to think independently about a piece of literature should need some hands-on, meticulous, step-by-step guidance on how to actually do those things. And yet (and I can only speak from my own experience) literature classes continue to be taught under the assumption that students have already acquired these skills in previous courses. (Side note: I have never taught before, so I appreciate articles that can apply abstract pedagogical theory to real-life successful classroom examples, as Linkon does in The Readers Apprentice).           

Linkon draws upon the study we read last week on experts versus novices to conclude that students should be treated as apprentices in the literature classroom. In this kind of classroom, the teacher (assumingly an “expert reader”) guides his novice learners through a set of meticulous assignments designed to help his students become expert readers as well. In my undergraduate studies, every English major in my program was required to take a 200 level course that was an “introduction” to literary scholarship and criticism. This course was designed to prepare students for the kind of work they would be asked to do in upper level English courses. After reading The Readers Apprentice, I realize that this class didn’t come close to teaching me the kind of critical thinking, writing, and researching skills that I would like to think most English Majors should acquire in their undergraduate coursework. If I’m being honest, I never encountered the kinds of assignments Linkon describes in her classroom until I began my graduate studies in English here at Mason (and more specifically, in my English 701 class). In English 701, for example, we were asked to complete weekly assignments that took us step-by-step through the kinds of library research we would be doing in the course (and even more importantly, our class met in the library a few times so that we could get a feel for actually conducting library research). Never once in my undergraduate English studies did a teacher devote class time to explaining library research, let alone allow us to meet in the library to go through the process with our teacher as a guide. In addition, I was never explicitly taught the idea that texts are “grounded in their cultural contexts” and that to really understand a text, one must understand the cultural context, until English 701 (252). Asking students to conduct research on the history of the time period of the text should be a must in undergraduate literature classrooms as well. While I am so glad to have received this kind of instruction in my graduate studies, it seems a crime that such fundamental ideas and skills were never taught to me in undergrad.

While Linkon suggests that her class should be taught at the 300 or 400 level, I would like to see Linkon’s class taught as a required 100 or 200 level undergraduate course. Perhaps it could be a required class that all English majors had to take and a prerequisite to any literature courses. In this classroom, I envision a lot of hands-on assignments that guide students through the process of critical analysis. I envision a lot of research assignments that require students to practice using the library. I envision incorporating discussions on history as well. The point, as Linkon’s class shows, is to give students the skills to become themselves experts in reading. And for the typical novice English student, wouldn’t he be best served by taking this class as soon as possible in his undergrad curriculum?

Writing to Learn & Literary Analysis

As I finish up with The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, I, like some of my fellow classmates, have some initial “difficulties” regarding the use of this textbook in the classroom. What age are the students to whom this textbook is geared? I ask this because at times, the book takes on some rather abstract concepts—i.e. a “moment of difficulty” for me was the discussion in Chapter Two about the difference between standard and poetic language. On the other hand, this textbook also introduces vocabulary like “narrative,” “personification” and “simile,” concepts that are generally taught in early high school and maybe even as early as elementary school. As I will further, Elements clearly promotes the use of writing as a gateway to understanding literature. This leads me to another initial question—in what kind of classroom is this textbook geared towards? I can see it in both composition and literature classrooms.

Moving past these initial questions, I’d like to focus the bulk of this post on what I found most fascinating with this textbook: Salvatori and Donahue clearly promote the act of writing as a critical thinking tool in the study of literature. For the authors of Elements, readers have a responsibility to the text; it is the reader’s duty to do “the work, be creative, and not settle for the quick and easy response” (33). In other words, rather than being given the answers to textual difficulties by their teachers, students should be given the tools to critically analyze these moments of difficulty themselves. The authors of Elements clearly advocate the act of writing as one of, if not the best, tool to give literature students; both the “Difficulty Paper” and Triple-Entry Notebook assignments are designed to help students make sense of both their own repertoire and more importantly, how their repertoire affects their understanding of any given text. 

I was surprised to encounter, then, this “writing as a means of discovery” mentality in what I thought was going to be a textbook on the concepts of literary analysis. Salvatori and Donahue show that writing can (and should) be used in every aspect of literary analysis. The student case studies that are excerpted throughout the textbook clearly show how writing can help a student recognize his own previous misconceptions that are inhibiting his understanding of the text. In the discussion of hybrid genres in Chapter Three, for example, students are asked to writing Difficulty Papers on The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere. Most of the student writing focuses on the difficulties of reading a long poem that strays away from standard chronological storytelling. Here, the act of writing illuminated the repertoire of the students who believed that longer texts should function as straightforward narrative. Writing about this particular difficulty in Rime helps the students come to an understanding of the poem as a hybrid text. Following this discussion of hybridity, Salvatori and Donahue ask their readers to analyze their own writing as a hybrid text. Here, the authors equate student writing with literature; it is so refreshing to see how literary analysis and “writing to learn” should work hand in hand in the literature classroom.