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All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > 2018 > February
2018

 

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.