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Today's featured guest blogger is Shane Bradley, Administrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College.

 

A student in my Composition and Literature course told me that she had trouble relating to Emily Grierson in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” She just “didn’t get” the story.

 

“She’s an old woman from a weird family. And she killed somebody.”

 

“Is Emily Grierson really that far removed from the average person?” I asked. “To somebody, each of us is old. And if we really think about it, aren’t most of our families weird in some way?”

 

A collective murmur of agreement engulfed the classroom.

 

“Okay, I may be old to my little brother,” she conceded, “and you’re right about odd families. Mine is definitely strange. But I’ve never killed anybody. I’m not a villain.”

 

“But have you ever been angry enough, hurt enough to at least think about killing another person?”

 

The tendency to expect our students to regurgitate what we tell them about the literature, instead of helping students make personal connections, abounds in education. While this approach to the literature is not completely without merit, demanding broad acquiescence to our ideas and beliefs is one way we rob students of their ability to relate to the literature on their unique terms.

 

Of course this method does not mean students have free reign to interpret works any old way. No, “A Rose for Emily” is not a happy love story. Emily Grierson’s life is not one held in high regard for our emulation; her life, however, does represent elements of humanity that most of us face, problems with which we find ourselves wrestling, on a regular basis. Don’t we, after all, want to teach the literature in a more personalized way?

 

When I was 18 or 19, relating to the death of an old woman who had been sleeping with the corpse of the lover she murdered was a stretch of my imagination. The same applies to our students now until we allow them to struggle with their own lives and experiences in terms of the broader human condition: everybody ages, most of us fall in love, we hurt when we’re betrayed, we seek some form of revenge.

 

Our students experience an inherent longing for acceptance and validation, and it’s that same longing that compels Miss Emily to take Homer’s life. Is she a bad person? No worse than the rest of us. Does she give in to her momentary desire for some aberrant sense of retribution? Yes, but we’ve all probably at least considered doing the same thing.

 

Each person who reads the story can relate to the struggle to overcome momentary urges that, while at the time may seem perfectly acceptable considering a vulnerable emotional state, ultimately carry with them legal or moral repercussions that will result in a far greater struggle in the long run. That’s a key lesson our students should know.

           

As we provide students the freedom to relate to characters, not only the protagonists,  but the antagonists, too, in ways that make those universal struggles relevant, we empower students to move beyond a read-the-story-and-answer-the-questions mentality that permeates our profession. Sure, students may answer the assigned questions that accompany the readings, but do they actually care about how they’ve responded? Or, do they simply do the work in order to meet the requirements of the assignment? That’s really the core of our struggle as educators – creating relevance.

           

In the end, more students have something in common with Emily Grierson than they do Homer Barron. Homer may be the one who gets the poison, but Emily, like all of us, struggles with and succumbs to her desire to become whole after her fall. Once we give our students the autonomy to relate to the villain in the same ways we encourage them to find common ground with the characters we deem morally or ethically “good,” we help them realize that each of us has the potential to be the villain and commit a crime as egregious as murder. From Emily Grierson’s mistakes, though, we can all learn how to better manage our urges and begin to recognize each other’s basic humanity.

Today's featured guest blogger is Tammy Powley, Professor at Indian River State College. 

 

Wouldn’t it be great if the first day of your creative writing course started with an inspirational talk given by a famous author like Amy Tan? That and similar questions came to mind when I received department approval to develop my college’s first  creative writing course. This began my web journey as I looked for video resources to help supplement and inspire my creative writing students, and now Amy Tan greets my students during their first week of class. Throughout the semester they also hear from Billy Collins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, and many other authors.

 

Amy Tan arrives thanks to TED.com, which it a site best known for commenting on technology, education, and design, but in “Where Does Creativity Hide?” Tan examines how she personally creates, where her ideas might originate, and how life events affected her writing. Tan is a wonderful presenter. She is funny and easy to understand. My students watch this 22 minute video, and then I ask them to reflect, to examine their own approach to creativity. This is one of the earliest writing assignments in the course, a very simple response, but it starts them thinking and writing. This site also offers videos by some entertaining and thought-provoking poets, for example What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali and “The Danger of Silence” by Clint Smith. So, while TED.com is full of presentations from technology gurus, there is also plenty to glean from this site for creative writers and liberal arts studies. An added plus to this site is the inclusion of a transcript for each TED talk, and I have found the hyperlinks I use in my  course shell are also accurate and not prone to change, an issue that can come up whenever using free  content.

 

YouTube is more popular with Internet readers than TED.com and full of possible content. It requires a different approach when researching for curriculum, but I feel it worth considering since many educational institutions and similar organizations have free resources through this site. A few videos I have discovered useful over there for my writing students include “Write What You Know” presented by Nathan Englander and “Revising, Rewriting, and Overcoming Obstacles” by Sinead Moriarty. Writing instructors, however, should be prepared to spend more time culling through content on YouTube because there is the added task of determining if the person who posted the video is actually the owner of the content. Additionally, if the channel owner changes something (and it has been my experience that this occasionally happens) then links could be disabled at some point. Therefore, it is important to check links regularly for a course to ensure they still work.

 

Finally, one of my favorite video sources is  but not necessarily available to everyone on the World Wide Web. It is a database called Films on Demand, and many colleges and universities subscribe to it. The information available through this database seems to be endless, and I especially like that I am able to combine content from it with a book or e-text. For example, in one assignment I ask students to examine the basic ideas concerning plot and structure, and I bring in Edgar Allan Poe as an example. We look at his story “The Cask of Amontillado” and watch one of the film versions of the story provided through Films on Demand. This brings in more writing opportunities as I ask students to answer another response question: Did you feel the tension building, and were you surprised at the end? Then, they are given an opportunity to rewrite the story and bring it into the twenty-first century but keep the original sequence of events.

 

By combining videos with traditional curriculum sources such as handouts and textbooks, I am able to layer my learning strategies and provide a method for visual learners to engage in what may seem like abstract ideas to many of them. TED.com, YouTube, and Films on Demand are three resources that can help writing instructors create an engaging and encouraging environment, whether a course is taught  or in a traditional face-to-face setting.

So many of my students love being students. They enjoy reading and writing and researching. They are often good students and have been good students their whole lives. As a result, while graduation grows ever closer, those who are not pursuing graduate programs are concerned about their opportunities in the workplace. How do they find jobs that allow them to keep writing? How do they find jobs that allow them to be creative? How do they find jobs, period?

 

Here I outline my process for talking with students both in the classroom and in individual meetings. While I’m focusing on creative writing students, I have employed similar strategies with students across the disciplines, especially in the humanities. I recognize that the backgrounds of my students vary widely—from students who’ve never held a job to students transitioning from careers of twenty years or more—and I adjust my advising accordingly.

 

To first identify the fields they see themselves entering, I challenge my students to closely observe their own experiences the way they study texts in class. What recurring themes do they see in their interests, habits, and hobbies? Where are the turns, or moments of change and growth, in their personal narratives? What details or anecdotes exemplify their characters?

 

Often, students feel uncomfortable or flustered at the process of turning close observation onto themselves, so I draw from a variety of questions to guide our dialogue:

            What is one of your favorite projects you’ve done?

            What are your favorite classes? What do you like about them?

            Where do you best complete your work?

            What do you like to do outside of schoolwork?

            What’s your favorite job you’ve ever had?

 

Just as with our creative writing texts, I ask my students to notice what they notice. Through these questions, I hope students can identify for themselves the type of work they like to do, the spaces they work best in, and the meaningful experiences they’ve had.

 

Next, I show them how to research and compile lists of jobs that demand the work and skills they value. I direct them to the university’s career services website, and I encourage them to schedule appointments with counselors there. I also show them job ads and resources from LinkedIn, Poets & Writers, and AWP.  If my students have time before graduation, I suggest they take on an internship in a field of interest. Above all, I encourage students to conduct informational interviews; they need to call someone who has the job they’re interested in having and ask interview questions about that job.

 

Some of my students say they “just want to write” or they want to be novelists or poets. I encourage them in their pursuit of paths that allow them to write full time, but I am honest with them about the difficulties they may encounter. Their research assignment, then, becomes one of tracking the paths of their favorite writers and identifying the work those writers did that allowed them to write full time.

 

Once students find positions they’re interested in, the next step is articulating their skill sets and translating their skills into language that matches the job ads for those positions. For this translation process, I encourage more close reading and research. First, students have to break down the language of the ad and highlight key verbs and requirements. Then, they review the syllabi from their classes and examine the course goals and student learning outcomes, which often have clear verbs. I also encourage them to write out stories of their experiences and pay attention to the language they use when talking about themselves. Are the verbs in the ad the same or synonyms of words in the syllabi and personal stories? Are the experiences the job requires not exactly the same as what the students have, but similar?

 

Finally, I tell students to lean into their storytelling and argumentation skills. When putting together a resume and cover letter, and later preparing for interviews, I remind my students that they are experts in their own experiences. They need to familiarize their audience, potential employers, with those experiences in a compelling way. They can use story structures we employ in class—rising action, climax, falling action—to succinctly describe how they have successfully navigated workplace or workplace-adjacent situations.

 

By offering a structure for entering the job search process and reiterating the value of their skill sets, I’ve seen my students grow more confident and excited at the prospect of graduation. The strength of their searches rest on their abilities to re-see themselves in new, professional perspectives—a process that mirrors the way they return to their favorite texts and discover key elements they may have never noticed before. No matter what career path they pursue, I remind my students that if they desire to write they will find ways to do so, if not in the workplace itself, then certainly outside of it.

While reading stories from my students this semester I noticed in many pieces there was a clear tension between two characters, but no other elements of conflict. In our individual conferences, many students expressed a desire for deeper and richer stories beyond the single line of conflict. “It feels like my story is missing something,” one student said.

 

Both in conferences and in class, I encouraged my students to draw out a third element in their stories—a character, a weather pattern, an object—that bears significance to their stories and pulls at desires of the two characters already on the page. Then the stories have three central elements in conflict, a triangle of tension as one of my own creative writing instructors called it.

 

While my students understood how adding a third element to their stories would be effective, the question many of them asked was “How can I do this?” In response, I led the class in a guided story exercise of five steps. Each step built on the next to encourage students to pay attention to conflict and to go looking for trouble. After each step, I gave students a few minutes to wander on the page and see where the prompt took them before moving onto the next. I used “you” in each step to encourage students to get in the mindsets of their characters.

 

First, I asked my students to place themselves or a character in a room.

   Where are you?

   What are you doing?

 

Then, I drew their attention to another figure in the room.

   There’s another person in the room with you.

   What are they doing?

 

I turned toward dialogue, asking students to listen to their characters.

   What do they say to you?

   What do you say back?

   What are you doing while you’re talking?

 

I finally asked them to look for another figure in the scene.

   You may have already noticed this, or you’re just noticing now, but someone or something else is in the room    with you two.

   Who or what is it?

   What do they say or do?

   What do you say and do?

 

Finally, for the closing of the exercise, I encouraged students to explicitly consider elements of conflict and tension in the scene.

   What do you want?

   Who and what is in your way?

 

When students came up for air at the end of the exercise, shaking out their hand cramps, I saw the pages of their notebooks were filled. As a class, we discussed the benefits of the exercise. One student said she’d forgotten to look for a third character when she started writing, so she was grateful for the prompt to pay attention to one. Another student found the open-ended nature of the prompts useful, so that he had authority over where he sent his characters. Yet another student found the closing part of the exercise, the question of what her character wants, to be a powerful question to ask each of her characters to make sure they all had something at stake in the piece.

 

My students almost unanimously asked for more guided story prompts, with the condition they receive even more time to write than the fifteen minutes I had set aside. I’m eager to develop more of these exercises to support other fiction skills, such as creating turns, developing a clear setting, and tuning ears to dialogue.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen KolbaDigital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida. 

 

“I was not excited to read this book,” says a student, holding up a copy of Morgan Parker’s There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé before our Introduction to Literature class starts. The poetry collection is the first book we’re tackling this semester. “But then she quoted Kendrick Lamar right off the bat, and I was like, I know this! I know what song this is from.”

 

My student is referring to Parker’s epigraph, a line from Lamar’s “A.D.H.D.”: “The president is black/ She black.” Already, my student has access to one of the cultural conversations that the poems exist alongside. I know this. His words play over in my head, and I think, this is why I start my poetry units with contemporary poetry.

 

Many of my Introduction to Literature students are nervous about poetry. It’s the kind of literature that they oftentimes see as locked behind a gate and only with the right key or code can they unlock a poem’s “secret meaning.” They view poetry as an elevated form of writing, in contrast with prose writing, which they view as “casual” (a terribly vague word that, when I press for greater specificity, usually means accessible or colloquial or language that’s familiar). While I question their use of the word casual, it highlights students’ relationship with poetry. That it’s prose’s buttoned-up, stuffy counterpart, guarding a lock box filled with the secrets

 

However, contemporary poetry offers students the opportunity to redefine their relationship with the form. If they can understand how their own positioning within history and a culture (a familiarity with the allusions Parker makes to Lamar’s body of work, or references to the Black Lives Matter movement) allows them to read, interpret, and understand a poem, then they might be more prepared to turn to poems from other periods. When they gain confidence reading contemporary poetry, they’re positioned to be better readers of older words. They’re less intimidated by poems from other time periods if they understand that at one point, someone was able to read that poem not because they had unlocked a secret code, but because they had the cultural context to do so.

 

Perhaps here is where teachers might worry that this method invites students to dismiss older works because they come from a different context. However, I get sort of excited when a student says, “I don’t get it because the poet’s references aren’t relatable to me.” These kinds of comments offer a perfect segue into a discussion about what it means to be an empathetic reader and why poetry and literature matter. I’ll ask the student (and the rest of the class): “What if I assign a poem written yesterday by a person with a completely different gender, race, socioeconomic status than you? And the experiences they relate in this poem are nothing like what you’ve ever experienced? Is it not worth reading? Or trying to understand?” The student, as well as a few others, will say: “I would try to understand.” And so I prod further: “Why would you try to understand?” At which point, they’re a little bit cornered: “Because it’s good to hear and try to understand different perspectives and experiences.” We enter a discussion about how reading poetry from other eras can help humanize experiences that are different from our own, which then will usually spiral into a wider conversation about how poetry and literature can make us better people.

 

By unlearning some of the expectations that they have of poetry—that it’s inaccessible, it’s too formal or lofty for non-English majors—students can gain more confidence in their ability to read poetry, which will in turn make them better and more enthusiastic readers.

 

April is National Poetry Month! We've asked some of our LitBits bloggers to discuss how they approach poetry with their literature and creative writing students.

 

Before the first workshop of the semester in any class I teach, I pass out a stack of papers, face down, and instruct my students to take one each. When everyone has a paper, we flip them over. I’ve given them a poem: "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

Without introduction, I read the poem. I pause when I reach the ending. Some students’ heads are bowed, gazing at their copies. Some have their eyes closed. Some are watching me.

 

“Why do think I wanted to share this poem with you today?” I ask.

 

The responses from my students vary depending on the course I’m teaching. But often, one of the early answers is a question: “Because you like poetry?”

 

“I do like poetry.” I smile. “But what is it about this particular poem?”

 

Soon, someone points to the lesson plan on the whiteboard. “We’re going to talk about workshopping.” Another adds, “And you want us to be kind to each other.”

 

“Great observations. So what can we learn about kindness from this poem?”

 

The room is quiet. My students frown at the poem, or at each other, or at me.

 

It’s time for a short writing exercise. I ask my students to write their answers to two questions: what can you learn about kindness from the poem? How does the poem make you feel?

 

Most of my students are used to analyzing writing. They are used to looking for meaning. They are not accustomed to looking inward, at their own feelings, at how the work is affecting them. Poetry, in this instance, helps them identify their feelings and prepare them for the vulnerable process of workshopping. An honest conversation about something other than workshopping encourages them to trust their ideas and each other before diving into their own work.

 

After a few minutes of writing I ask my students to share their responses with a partner next to them, if they are comfortable. I walk around the room, eavesdropping. “This is a sad poem,” several students say. “But it’s hopeful,” others point out. “I don’t understand all of it,” some students say, and their peers offer, “I think that’s OK.”

 

I bring the class back together and encourage my students to share their responses. They are animated, responding to each other, almost as if I’m not present.  

 

“I don’t like poetry much, but this is deep,” one says. “It’s like reminding you to walk in someone else’s shoes, you know?”

 

“Everyone has sadness. I’ve got sadness, you’ve got sadness.” A student points to herself and then to her peers.

 

“So we have to respect each other,” says another student.

 

“Even if we disagree.”

 

“Especially if we disagree.”

 

I step into the conversation after a few minutes. I encourage my students to point out their favorite lines.

 

“I like the opening: 'Before you know what kindness is you must lose things.'”

 

“You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

 

“It follows you like a shadow or a friend.”

 

All or almost all of my students participate in the conversation about the poem, even my quieter students. The poem animates them. They connect with each other over favorite lines and ideas. They connect over confusion and questions. It’s these connections that are vital to successful, thoughtful, and trusting workshops.

 

I read the poem one more time after our discussion, so students can listen to phrases they haven’t noticed before, memorize lines they hold dear, and remember how kindness will take them far both in workshop and outside the classroom.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Lisa DuRose, Professor at Inver Hills Community College

 

“These characters and what they represent are things that I normally don’t read about, but these stories compel me to look at the reality that some women face.”

 

My student, quoted above, echoes what many others tell me about the works we read in my Introduction to Literature course: these selections are not their usual reading material and these characters have little in common with the protagonists they’ve encountered in some of their favorite works. At this point in the semester, students have been unsettled by characters who face poverty, mental illness, and death.

 

This week, however, we venture into a terrain that is even more emotionally challenging. We are reading a collection of short stories by contemporary author Bonnie Jo Campbell entitled Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Campbell’s stories often feature strong working class women who mitigate dangerous terrain—troubled relationships, economic hardships, and addiction. Campbell’s first person narrators, however, often present the greatest opportunity for critical analysis. In some instances, these narrators are processing through sexual assault and molestation, and readers are drawn into each woman’s effort to sort out the traumatic details of these violations. 

 

Although we know that posts about sexual assault and harassment swarm students'Twitter feeds, we may be reluctant to engage students in substantial discussions about these highly charged topics for fear that we are ill-prepared to deal with the emotional impact they may have. However, those of us who teach literature understand that the tools of our discipline provide a framework for such discussions. Through the lens of literary devices and critical approaches, we can create a space that allows for both analytical understanding and social empathy, even as we venture through the most emotionally vulnerable themes. 

 

In the case of Campbell’s stories, I ask students to consider how the author’s choice of narration allows readers to glimpse the thoughts of protagonists who have suffered through sexual assault. To aid in their analysis, I provide students with ample background information: my video interview Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell: Difficult Topics in Literature, a critical essay I’ve written about Bonnie Jo Campbell's Sources of Inspiration, and several reviews of the short story collection. These resources coupled with Campbell’s writing style—which is both lyrical and plain spoken—move my students toward a critical space that invites exploration rather than judgment.

 

Applying literary techniques to Campbell’s story “Playhouse” has led to complex discussions about the roots of sexual violence and the often complicit social responses they prompt, especially among family members. In this piece, Janie, the narrator, gradually discovers that she was gang raped three weeks earlier during a party at her brother’s house. She “feels sick and weird” (15) and her brother hasn’t returned her phone calls. The story opens with Janie returning to her brother’s house and learning that her brother, who recalls more about that night than Janie, is inclined to chastise his sister’s behavior and excuse the actions of his friends, one of whom he calls “a decent guy” (31). As Janie struggles to piece together her memories of that evening, the reader glimpses the emotional nuances of her discovery—experiencing first confusion, doubt, guilt, and then a sort of sickening knowledge. However, even as the events of that night become more lucid, she still struggles to identify the violation. After she tells her brother that she thinks she’s been raped, she second guesses herself: “The word raped feels all wrong, and my heart pounds in a sickening way” (31). When she says the word again, “it feels even more off-kilter, like I really am a drama queen, creating from thin air a victim and perpetrators and accessories” (31).

 

Students are quick to comment about how upsetting this story is, but I’ve noticed that when they are asked to frame their responses around questions of literary techniques, they are able to articulate a deeper understanding of the stories and the theme. When students are asked to apply a range of critical responses—including feminist, Marxist, and reader-response—their interpretations are even more enhanced.

 

Since many of Campbell’s protagonists live in poverty, students learn about the connection between sexual assault and poverty through Callie Marie Rennison’s New York Times article “Who Suffers the Most From Rape and Sexual Assault in America,” which explores how “women in the lowest income bracket are sexually victimized at about six times the rate of women in the highest income bracket (households earning $75,000 or more annually).” 

 

For some students, these topics are highly personal; a few will identify themselves as victims of sexual violence, often commenting about the realistic depictions in these stories. In every case, these revelations have enhanced the level of respect and community in the classroom.

 

These are difficult topics to discuss, but such conversations are already happening outside of the classroom. When we include them in a literature classroom, we can provide a framework that not only enriches our students’ knowledge but stretches their capacity for empathy.

Today's featured guest blogger is Howard Cox, Instructor at Angelina College.

 

 

My epiphany came one day when I was teaching Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in a sophomore literature course.  In Chapter VIII of the novel, Jake and his friend Bill are taking a stroll along the river Seine.  Bill, who evidently has decided to avoid hangovers by never sobering up, had previously suggested that they stop almost every ten feet for a drink.  After looking down the river at Notre Dame, the bridges over the river, and the islands covered with trees in the river, Bill remarks, “It’s pretty grand,” and “God, I love to get back.”

 

A few moments later, Jake, being considerate of his friend asks, “Want to have a drink?”  Bill says, “No, I don’t need it.”

 

The point I make about this exchange is that the beauty of the cathedral at night, the river, and the scenery is intoxicating enough in and of itself.  Alcohol isn’t necessary.

 

My students, many of whom already have extensive experience with alcohol, don’t get this.  My aha moment came when a student asked about part of the description that says, “Down the river was Notre Dame squatting against the night sky.”  “Why does it say squatting?” she asked. “How can a church squat?”

 

I explained that Notre Dame was a Gothic cathedral built in the Middle Ages with flying buttresses.  “Viewed from the right angle,” I said, “it looks like a giant toad squatting on the river bank.”  Blank looks were on every face.  “It’s a kind of awe-inspiring sight,” I offered.  “Have you ever seen something so amazing that you just kept staring at it?”  Crickets chirped in response.

 

I was a getting a little exasperated when inspiration struck, and I happened to be in a classroom with a computer hooked to a projector.  A couple of minutes later I had a southern view of Notre Dame, about four feet tall, up on the screen.  Comprehension began to creep into students’ faces.

           

“Yeah,” one said, “it does kind of look like a frog.”

           

“Definitely squatting,” said another.

           

I had learned an important lesson.  Our students, who have smart phones with more computing power than the spacecraft that went to the moon, often don’t bother to Google images of things they are unfamiliar with, any more than they look up new words on Dictionary.com.  Seeing something, though, is often key to understanding the point an author is making.  Incorporating this into a lecture yields surprisingly positive results.

           

The following week I was teaching Wordsworth in a British Literature course.  This time I was ready and was able to quickly reference online photos of Tintern Abbey and the River Wye.  It may not have helped any students to understand the themes in the poems we were discussing, but it definitely helped them to understand the inspiration for the poems and the places being described.

           

In recent semesters I have added props to the online visuals I have been using.  When discussing fiction dealing the American Civil War, I pass around a replica revolver, a Minie ball, and a kepi cap.  There is something about touching and holding an artifact that brings the literature to life for many students.  For a British Literature class on the Medieval Period I recently acquired a broadsword replica.  When I discuss how medieval swords were purposefully made to look like crosses, it is much easier to make the point when you have one to display and for the students to touch.  After a serious intellectual discussion about swords in that class, we took ours outside and sliced a watermelon with it.

           

My experience with using props and visuals has been overwhelmingly positive, but there are some legitimate concerns that some instructors may have:

 

  1. Cost: You can find anything for sale online these days, but I was surprised to find good quality replicas were available for not much money at all. The most expensive prop I have is a revolver replica that was $80.00. 
  2. Time constraints: It does take time to display visuals, and to have students interact with props.  Some advance planning is always involved, but I don’t find this to be any more burdensome than planning, say, a group activity, for example.  I often arrive a little early to pull up online visuals on a classroom computer, and to make sure the projector is working.
  3. Safety: Replica firearms are impossible to fire, but some states do have regulations concerning their display and use. Sword replicas are sold without sharpened edges. The only danger from either of these props is dropping one on your foot. 

My fiction students came to a unanimous conclusion this semester: writing scenes without abstract language is hard. How are we supposed to make sure the reader understands what the characters are thinking and feeling without explaining everything?

 

“Trust yourself,” I told them. “Trust yourself to show your characters embodying those emotions. Then trust your reader to know those actions and to know how to interpret those actions.”

 

I acknowledged with my students there are some instances in writing where abstract language is necessary. However, my students often over-explain the feelings and emotions that their characters are experiencing; or alternatively, my students use an emotion to describe a character’s state of being, but it is unclear how the character acts upon that feeling.

 

I’ve challenged my students this semester to “show a lot, tell a little, and never explain,” a course concept borrowed from nonfiction writer Phillip Lopate. By this, I ask students to write in action, with clear details and careful observations, as much as possible and to insert external information and backstory only when necessary. If students show and tell well, then they’ll never need to explain how a character is feeling or why a character takes the actions she does. Both will be obvious from the scene.

 

To help my students practice writing without abstract language, I developed an in-class exercise that asks them to pair emotions with clear, concrete actions. I made a deck of cards with common phrases centered around an emotion that I frequently see in student writing: she felt anxious, he was confused, they were in love, and so on.

 

We first did an example together as a class with the phrase they were uncomfortable. At the board, my students and I sketched out a scene of a Thanksgiving dinner and a small cast of characters—parents and two children. We decided on a reason for discomfort in the room: both children have announced they wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas.

 

Then, I asked my students to take on the roles of the characters and act out what their discomfort might look like. Several slouched in their chairs, some played with imaginary forks, or poured themselves an imaginary glass of wine. We discussed how each action reflected discomfort of the characters without ever using the phrase they were uncomfortable.

 

One student, a mother herself, even took on the role of the mother at the table, choosing to drop her shoulders, roll her eyes to the ceiling, and frown at her shoes. After laughing at her dramatic performance, we all agreed. She was disappointed.

 

Then it was time for the students to try on their own. I dealt each student a card with a different phrase, and I asked them to put the emotion into a paragraph or two of action and dialogue on the backside of their card. Once the students had completed their writing, I collected the cards and read the action pieces out loud.

 

Students then shared the emotions they heard in the pieces I read. Some were exactly right in identifying the phrase, such as he was self-conscious. Other peers saw anxiety, worry, and nervousness—all appropriate interpretations of the moment. Together, we discussed the possibility of readers interpreting actions slightly differently and how the creation of a full scene could provide enough context so that readers would understand what was happening. At the conclusion of the exercise, my students expressed their desire to incorporate movement as part of their writing to get the actions of their characters just right.

 

I was impressed that in such a short time so many of my students successfully captured different emotions and ideas in action without any explanation. When their peers correctly identified the corresponding ideas, they saw concrete ways of showing and telling without explaining, and the power of trusting their readers.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Cristina BaptistaAmerican Literature Teacher at Sacred Heart School in Greenwich, CT

 

The day after the 60th Grammy Awards, no fewer than six students were excited to tell me that “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet that has graced the base of the Statue of Liberty for well over 130 years, was quoted at the music awards ceremony. We had studied the poem in class, comparing the idealistic image of America to the dirty (in more ways than one) society of frauds, drunks, murderers, and rapscallions in the America of a novel published just one year later: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While it took some time to help students make a focused claim about what a comparison between the two contemporaneous, diverse works reveals, they soon realized both authors share a desire for achieving the best America possible—albeit Lazarus’ rhetoric is one of pride and patriotism while Twain’s satire catalyzes change via shame.

 

But I daresay the effect of U2 standing on a barge before Lady Liberty, insisting, in the voice of that “mighty woman with a torch,” “‘Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses,’” offered more of an impression than reading Lazarus’ original words on a classroom handout.

 

Afterward, a colleague joked, “It’s part of pop culture. ‘The New Colossus’ has been legitimized to students.”

 

How do we, as educators, make literature relevant and vital to young, media-motivated minds? How can literature—a type of media itself—become more of a social currency, even a lifeline to purposeful living, that is standard rather than exception? How do we make students appreciate literature as a living manifesto of their own lives and not just flat words on a page?

 

It may seem obvious: find common footing. But it’s one thing to tell students, after reading a piece, “see how much human nature hasn’t changed?” and quite another to inspire them to find out for themselves. Even more, as teachers, we often have to fool them into believing that they’re having an epiphany about a text—even if that message or view is, all along, what we’ve been hoping they’ll discover.

 

Based upon the response to the U2 / Lazarus match-up, young people are still invested in music. I have been an American Literature educator at both the high school and college level, and one of my favorite eras to teach is Modernism. It is a textured time—war and celebration; expatriates in Paris and the Harlem Renaissance at home; surrealism and cubism, imagism and objectivism. And the music—the throbbing pulse of that era is certainly its jazz-age sounds and dances. It is an era of syncopations in every way.

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby lends itself well to interrogation through a musical lens, especially for restless high schoolers. Five years ago, instead of reducing Gatsby to yet another academic essay; instead of watching a film version and comparing it to the novel; instead of assessing students’ level of critical reading via pop quizzes after each reading assignment; I found it time to hack traditional modes of literary reading, discussion, and assessment.

 

The Great Gatsby Playlist Project was born. Essentially, it is as follows:

 

  1. Students read and annotate one chapter at a time, charting themes, characters, topics, motifs, symbols, and surprising passages.
  2. Next, students find a song with lyrics, from any era, that best reflects the chapter.
  3. Then, students write 1-2 paragraphs responding to what, in juxtaposing that chapter with the lyrics, they recognize about human nature and why it matters.
  4. Students repeat the processes above for each of Gatsby’s nine chapters.
  5. Finally, as a tenth entry, students select a “theme song” best reflecting what they feel is the overarching theme of The Great Gatsby.

 

By project’s end, students have read deeply, sometimes obsessively, about literature and lyrics. They have written 10-20 literary paragraphs, each beginning with a claim. They have made connections between the lives of the Lost Generation members and those of people today.

 

What do students gain, personally? Aside from practicing time-management (the project takes longer than they realize), and finding a multi-media approach to Gatsby via original ideas, academic writing, and close-listening, they inevitably recognize, “hey, we’re still a lost generation.” Each year, students conclude music is perpetually loaded with sadness, despair, anger, greed, and unrequited love. Though it can get quite depressing, that is what Fitzgerald’s novel is: a cautionary tale about the danger of nostalgia, overactive imaginations, immorality, and hollow, “meretricious beauty,” to use Fitzgerald’s words.

 

So, when I assign The Great Gatsby Playlist Project, I am reminding students that they need to close-read life as they do books and song lyrics. I am reminding them to peel back the layers of reality and separate the chaff of fake news from the wheat of truth. I tell them that songs are a literature, and literature is their lives; so, listen well.

As an English professor at a small school, I teach a wide range of courses including, of course, composition. And like most places, my department expects regular conferences with students in those writing courses. I’ve always liked them, because they give me a chance to get to know my students better and because they allow for that individualized attention that’s so necessary in the teaching of writing.

 

For my literature courses, though, I’ve not always had this opportunity. For some courses—particularly upper division literature courses—I’ll require a conference while a student is working on a research paper, but that doesn’t have the same feel as the conference in a WRI 101 course. By the time students are writing a research paper in a junior/senior level course, they likely have taken other courses with me or— at the very least— have been in class with me for 10 or more weeks. I have always liked the idea of introductory “getting to know you” type conferences, but I’ve always found those to be awkward and a bit directionless.

 

Last year, though, I hit on a way to meet with students individually that involves meetings early in the semester, but also gives those meetings some direction.

 

One caveat, before I explain: this takes up an enormous amount of time in the weeks that I do this. But, as I hope I can show here, I think it’s worth it.

 

When I teach a survey course, I have students keep commonplace books as part of a larger assignment that helps them prepare for class, review for exams, and make some sense of the larger trends of literary eras. This assignment comes in three parts: the commonplace book, where students record at least one interesting quotation each class session; the individual conference with me; and a written response that works to define the style and interests of an era. Because we divide our British Literature survey courses at 1798, we quite easily fall in line with the traditional demarcation, so I’ve got three sections of each survey course.

 

For the commonplace books, I create a template in a word processing program that I share with the students. It simply includes the following things for each day of class (thus, if we have 42 class sessions, I give them 42 entries):

 

Date:

Author:

Title:

Quotation:

 

Students are certainly encouraged to use this, but I also like to encourage them, if they prefer, to handwrite their commonplace books in a notebook of their choosing. That latter option is what most students take up, with many even customizing and decorating their books (a practice I strongly encourage).

 

When it’s time for conferences, I have students sign up for a meeting during the last week or so before an exam. They come to my office and I ask them a simple set of questions: What stuck out for you? What patterns are you seeing? Who was your favorite author? From those questions, we’re able to have a conversation about the things that interest the student, following whatever path they start us down. At the end of the conversation, I encourage them to bring it all together, asking them to identify some major characteristics of the era in terms of prominent themes and style.

 

After this conference, students write a paper that explains what they see as the defining characteristics of the time period. In grading these, I’m simply looking for whether or not the students seriously engage the work and show some recognition of patterns across a particular era.

 

I’ve found that this has been incredibly useful in getting to know my literature students. More importantly, though, I found that in doing this my students have become much more fluent with the literature itself. They’ve begun quoting on exams where I’m not necessarily requiring them to do so (that is, they’re quoting when answering questions that don’t ask for quotations, but where quotations are ultimately useful); they’ve become more adept at recognizing quotations; and they’ve become better at expressing the larger trends across an era, pointing out places where non-canonical writers break the mold of elite literary practice.

 

It is a lot of work in terms of time, but because I’ve created it as a relatively low-stakes assignment (do the work, get the points), I hope that I’ve developed a situation where students are becoming increasingly confident in their ability to participate in a conversation about literature and about literary history.

Allyson Hoffman

Digital Storytelling

Posted by Allyson Hoffman Expert Feb 7, 2018

In my writing classrooms I ask my students to challenge their idea of what makes a “good” story. I encourage them to imagine new and unfamiliar ways of experiencing a story, and then I support them in bringing these stories to life. One broad approach is digital storytelling, which I define as storytelling—whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or hybrid work—that is enhanced by digital tools. The enhancement may be adding visual or audio components, making the stories interactive, or adding other experiences for the audience.

 

There are so many directions students can take with digital storytelling it’s impossible to address all of them in a short post. Here, I outline my initial approach to introducing digital storytelling in the classroom, which I modify depending on student needs and interests.

 

I first begin with the reminder that the story itself is essential to digital storytelling. Without a strong story employing techniques of whatever genre they are writing in, the effects of digital tools will be limited. I encourage students to focus on story selection and composition first before selecting the tool or tools they’d like to use.

 

Then, I provide my students with examples to show the possibilities of digital storytelling and to inspire their own work. Here are a few:

 

  • Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Jennifer Egan (the print version is in her book A Visit from the Goon Squad)
    • This story demonstrates how digital tools do not have to be complicated or unwieldy. Simple tools, such as PowerPoint, can be effective in storytelling.
  • Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge by Dinty Moore
    • This essay, built with Google Maps, shows how maps can help readers locate the place of a story.
  • Escape from the Man-Sized Closet by The Late Show Staff
    • Built with Twine, this funny choose-your-own adventure reflects the possibilities for inviting an audience to participate in a story. 
  • Welcome to Night Vale
    • As a popular podcast that now has associated books and other media, Welcome to Night Vale shows how audio stories can reach audiences in a long-lasting way. Simple audio stories can be developed in programs such as Audacity.

 

Next comes the exploration of digital tools. Importantly, I don’t teach a specific tool to students. I also don’t know how to use every digital storytelling tool available, and I strongly believe I don’t need to. This is for two reasons: 1) technology changes quickly, and much of the information I teach students will soon be outdated, and 2) I don’t want to limit students on the possibilities for creation by requiring them to use a tool I’ve taught in class.

 

Instead, I encourage students to teach themselves what they need to know. This type of learning is crucial since, as I just stated, technology evolves quickly, and students need to be able to adapt with technology changes. As instructors, we can foster student independence and problem solving with digital tools—skills which will be important to whatever work students do after graduation. I support students by helping them identify learning resources, from the FAQ or help pages on a digital tool’s website to YouTube instructional videos.

 

I find it helpful to set aside class time so students can explore digital tools, either by bringing in their own devices or by having work time in a computer lab. In these spaces students can also teach each other about the basic workings of whatever digital tools they discover.

 

A good place for students to start their research of tools is the DiRT directory, a directory of digital research tools, including story creation. I also introduce students to resources from Dr. John Barber, who is in the Creative Media & Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver. (I had the opportunity to study under Dr. Barber at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute 2017—an excellent course and conference.) Finally, I remind students to investigate the tools used in the examples we read.

 

Since digital stories are designed to engage readers, I encourage students to share their pieces. There are many options for this—in-class presentations, department symposiums open to the campus community, and public “readings” for anyone to attend. By watching users engage with their stories, students can see the effects of their stories in the moment.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Happy Endings

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Jan 31, 2018

One of the most common complaints I hear in my undergraduate courses is how depressing literature is. And in my creative writing classes this translates to: Why do we have to write literature that is so depressing? Doesn’t anybody get a happy ending? 

 

The challenge, most of the time, is that the writing we’re doing—essays, short stories, poems—is, by definition, short. And all, or almost all, of it has to start with conflict to get a reader’s attention. So how, in a short space, do you believably get from conflict to happiness?

 

In my classes, I like to use “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin as an example. The short story follows two brothers, an unnamed narrator and his younger brother Sonny, who are in conflict most of their lives, but in the last scene have a believable moment of connection. So how does Baldwin pull it off?

 

  1. Baldwin creates an achievable goal—not that the brothers get along generally, but that the narrator learn to listen to Sonny.
  2. He creates two characters capable of change—who want change.
  3. He covers a long period of time during which movement towards change can occur.
  4. He shows the brothers trying repeatedly—and failing—to change.
  5. He has each character first go through a major life event—the kind of thing that might trigger other changes.
  6. It’s not a huge change, and is, therefore, a plausible one.
  7. There is no happily ever after—there is merely a moment of understanding that bodes well for the future.

 

Now key to his success is Baldwin’s amazing manipulation of time (well documented in Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction), but still, at least we see it can be done.

 

So maybe literature doesn’t have to be so depressing after all?

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen Kolba, Digital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida 

 

Each semester, I teach an Introduction to Literature course for non-English majors. One of my goals in this course is to break down an idea they tend to bring with them from their high school English courses: there is one right way to interpret a text. We talk about our personal frame of reference for seeing and understanding the world and the role that this plays in how the meaning of a text is constructed. However, it’s easy for undergraduates to fall down the slippery slope of “we can each understand this work differently” to “literature means anything” or “any interpretation is correct.”

 

To reach a middle ground in the way my students understand interpretation, I turned to concept artist Sol LeWitt. Starting in the late Sixties, LeWitt created instruction-based Wall Drawings. He would write instructions for a piece of art and then a group of artists would execute the actual drawing. I’ve always found LeWitt’s Wall Drawings compelling since the instructions, while fairly simple and clear, can be interpreted differently, depending on the reader, and inevitably yield a different result reliant on the group executing the drawing. These drawings felt like a wonderful visual metaphor for literary interpretation.

 

On the second day of my literature class, I bring in a large roll of paper. I write the instructions for one of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings on the whiteboard. As students file in, I cut large squares from the paper. I usually get a few apprehensive glances. Class starts and I put students into groups of three or four. I ask them to:

  1. read the instructions on the board and write them down
  2. take one sheet of large paper for their group
  3. find a hard surface in the classroom or hallway to execute the instructions

 

Students disseminate with their groups and paper. On their way out of the classroom, some usually ask me to clarify a sentence or two in LeWitt’s instructions. I answer by telling them to give the instructions a close read, break them down part by part and examine the relationships between the sentences, and work together as a group to make sense of them.

 

I wander between my students. They chat happily, debating interpretations of the instructions and how to best execute their drawing. Students come alive when tasked at creating something in the classroom, especially creating in collaboration (which means the activity serves a secondary purpose as an ice breaker in the first week of school).

 

As each group presents me with their finished product, I tape them up in the classroom, side-by-side. Then, students free write in response to three discussion questions:

  1. What do you notice about the drawings in front of you?
  2. Who is the artist of the drawings? Who can claim ownership over the creation of these drawings?
  3. What does this activity have to do with literature?

 

The class discusses their answers to the three questions. Virtually all my students come to the consensus that there are many similarities between the drawings, due to the fact that parts of the instructions are more objectively understood. However, they point to differences in the way some more complex parts of the instructions are interpreted by each group. There are some facts we can agree on in the instructions, but other areas required interpretation. Thus, it’s not surprising that my students then slide into a discussion of the way that our interpretations of literature can be grounded in facts, but influenced by the way we read and construct meaning.

 

As a bonus, the second discussion question prompts my students to debate the roles of writer/artist and reader, raising questions about authorial intent, how much space a reader is given in co-constructing meaning, and how these dynamics impact our interpretation of a text.

 

Sol LeWitt not only serves as a way to introduce my students to the questions that literature raises and to think about interpretation, but it also gives the class a memorable touch-point for the rest of the semester. Students reference our “LeWitt activity” discussion as we interpret new works. And when my students start to say that “this poem can mean literally anything” I can remind my students of their drawings and the way they constructed their interpretations. 

Many students these days are Bio Med, Finance, Marketing, or Nursing majors to name a few. These students are accustomed to 200-person classrooms where watching long PowerPoints and taking notes for the upcoming exam are common pratices. 

 

Writing classes, however, are often hugely different. With a cap of 22 students per class, we, as writing instructors, are able to learn our students’ names, and create a more engaging classroom environment by utilizing participatory techniques.

 

I’m almost positively sure that my students do not want to hear me lecture every class for an hour and fifteen minutes. By 2 P.M., if I were to do this, they’d be falling asleep while sitting up.

 

Enter: The Think-Pair-Share—a teaching technique I learned in a previous practicum course where students are asked to think individually about a set of questions, then exchange ideas with their peers, all before coming back to discuss together as a class.

 

More specifically, it works like this: My students read a brief piece of writing in class and are then given a one page set of about five questions. They are given 10-15 minutes to quietly write their own answers before they pair up with a classmate sitting next to them to exchange each other’s ideas. When this happens, the classroom breaks from quiet study hall to nervous laughter, smiling, and the exchanging of names. This is often how they meet one another for the first time. Then, after discussing their answers with their peers, we come back together as a class and I ask different groups to answer the initial questions handed out.  

 

The Think-Pair-Share works well for many reasons.

 

  1. It puts the onus on the students to articulate responses to in-class texts and allows for an interesting way of using class time (versus a one hour and fifteen minute lecture).
  2. It allows students to think both individually about their answers and also allows them to collaborate or exchange ideas after they’ve answered questions on their own.
  3. Instead of cold-calling on students, this method allows students time and preparation to thoughtfully articulate well-developed answers and gain the confidence they need to answer in front of the whole class.
  4. It allows them to have fun. They meet their neighbors, talk to their classmates, and while they are engaging with the text, questions, and answers at hand, they are also forming classroom relationships and rapport with their peers, breaking the pattern of staring into phone glows and computer screens.

 

In addition to lecturing, Think-Pair-Shares have revitalized my classrooms, have given students agency, power, and room to speak, and have strengthened the rapport between my students, and with me, their instructor. Because of the many positive outcomes associated with Think-Pair-Shares, these exercises have become, and will remain, mainstays in my writing classrooms.