English Three and Real World

Part two of what I’m up to in English Three this year (sort of). 6:23PM-6:52PM, 08282023

My principal is on a real-world kick this year, which I appreciate, although I feel like there’s a tension that comes up in English: our job in that class has to be write, write, write, and then write some more. I don’t mean more assignments, I mean making sure that we have solid written work being produced year round.

As I wrote about last week, my second unit, “Thinking like a Critic” focuses on a series of short stories. After we’ve read, they produce a paper linking three of the stories together.

It’s a cool assignment. How do I make it “real world”? I don’t have time to mount the “learning to express yourself clearly in writing serves you better than just about any other real-world task I can think of” argument.

Tension one: there’s not a lot of audience for literary criticism as it is done right now. I don’t want them aiming at scholarly journals with these pieces.

Tension two: apart from intellectuals and book folks, people don’t read these sorts of literary pieces much. And my sense from college comp profs I talk to is that they’re after a more general approach to rhetoric and writing.

I’m thinking that I will pick the best eight to ten pieces the kids write and send them to my favorite critics to see what they make of them. Like spam, if even one responds, that’d be great, and would address this goal for authenticity.

Better yet, I want to write to them and ask how they’d structure the assignment. What would they ask of students? What do they put in their syllabi? After doing extensive research (eleven minutes on Google looking at different syllabuses), I found that most folks do not offer anything close to my awesome definition for their papers. So maybe I’ll stick with it:

I want you to be able to write something readable and engaging. Something that shows how deeply you’ve thought about these stories. Something that shows your ability to represent the ideas in these stories and connect them to each other.  Something that shows your ability to develop an argument (something you need to say to the world) about these short stories.

Basically, something someone would want to read until the end and then, when they got there, make a noise of some sort, maybe a noise like, huh, never thought of it that way, or pfft, this person makes an interesting argument but I totally disagree, or sighhh, that was cool.

Other option for this unit:

If I had a full semester, I’d try and replicate the selection process for the best of short story collections. I’d do my sort (or I’d write to these editors and ask them if they would give me the second to last list of the selection process) and then I’d have the kids pick their eight and write the introduction. We’d set up meetings where they could deliberate over their choices, mount an argument for the pieces they’d include and why. (This would also address the internet problem; I couldn’t do this with any piece more than two years old as there is so much internet crap out there already.)

I’d need a full semester so that I could still maintain the momentum of analyzing a few stories together, modeling that process, trying different approaches as a big group.

Maybe create that as a bonus assignment, for my students who are all in for English and want an additional challenge?

Dinner is ready.

Thought from one city priest

This memorial is powerful.

This line stuck with me:

What he understood is the difference between charity and community — a difference founded in kinship, in recognizing that we all fall down, that sometimes it takes another hand to pull us up again. “All you have to do,” he once told the novelist Ann Patchett, “is give a little bit of understanding to the possibility that life might not have been fair.”

Renkl, Margaret. “Opinion | Proof That One Life Can Change the World.” The New York Times, August 14, 2023, sec. Opinion.

Why I’m doing what I’m doing in history this year

Rules: 45 minutes, 750 words, edit later.

4:00 PM.

Why do I teach history the way I do? I have 180 days, maybe a few less, to cover all of American history. I can count on a range of student backgrounds — some will have ready made timelines to build upon and others will know very little — as well as the casual and reflexive dislike of history class.

So I could do it the way I was taught: start at the beginning and try and get as close to the present day as I can. If you do it this way, it’s hard to ensure that the themes of the beginning of the year carry all the way through, although it’s certainly not impossible. This way allows for the usage of a textbook, which is a kind of security blanket for any teacher, but I don’t have a textbook. Or I could do it thematically — come up with five or six themes and then use those as anchors for the year. You can skip around chronologically when you do it this way. I’ve seen some classrooms where this works very well.

Here’s what I’m going to do and why:

Quarter one: reading a survey text (Jill Lepore’s These Truths) and developing a podcast script that traces one theme in American history from 1492 up until the present. I want students to finish first quarter with a sense of the value of looking at all of American history. When pondering a policy problem, I want them to think about examples not just from the present day or the past fifty years, but from across three hundred years. Using a mix of discussion, primary source analysis, and mini-lectures, I hope there’s enough diversity each week to keep the kids interested.

Quarter two: making a short documentary for C-Span as part of their annual contest. The important work here is identifying a problem they want to address in the film; my job is ensuring that the documentary features real historical context. What are the structural elements and historical processes that shape the issue they’ve selected?

Quarter three: studying two eras in American foreign policy — the war in Vietnam and the Global War on Terror — with an eye towards assessing America’s role in the world. For the final assignment, each student creates two works of art based on primary source documents; the written component is a guide to those primary sources. These two works of art should allow for a comparison between the two eras and highlight the promise and peril of diplomatic, military, and economic foreign policy.

Quarter four: Here we look at Philadelphia’s place in American history, trying to assess how the larger trends we’ve discussed all year emerge in this city. We make a photo portfolio, a brochure on an understudied event in Philadelphia’s history, and we learn enough GIS to create storymaps on various topics.

The good news:

  • There’s a range of different projects here where students can develop an understanding of the American past and then use that to create something new.
  • There’s a balance between social, political, economic, and diplomatic history.
  • There’s an emphasis on high-level secondary sources; there’s also time and space for research and grappling with primary sources.
  • At the end of the year, they have a podcast, a documentary, an art exhibit, a photography portfolio, a brochure, and a storymap (mixture of their prose and maps they’ve made.).

The bad news or at least the questions I ask myself:

Am I moving too fast? I gave up on coverage long ago — it’s not possible in a compulsory setting — but I do wonder what could happen if I dropped C-Span (which I won’t do, ever) and read Lepore over two quarters. There’s never enough time for anything — why I gave up on multiple case studies during the museum unit and limited it to Vietnam and the GWOT — but is there enough depth here?

How do I make sure that the technical elements of the projects, whether recording audio, making videos, making the artwork, or learning GIS, do not take overwhelm the content? What process pieces do I build in to put kids in a position to allow the two to support each other? For example, when mapping census data, am I doing enough so that they’re studying the data they’ve mapped, not fuming at the software?

While this approach will help familiarize students with an upper-level collegiate course, it will do nothing to get them ready for a lecture-hall course with a mid-term and a final. I think the writing we do for the scripts underscores the necessity of being able to communicate about the past effectively, and while perhaps my feedback and their own reflection will allow them to evaluate their work, it’s definitely not the same as an in-class exam.