Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > Authors LitBits Guest Blogger
1 2 Previous Next

LitBits

25 Posts authored by: LitBits Guest Blogger

Today's featured guest blogger is Bill Leach Liberal Arts Program Chair and Assistant Professor of English at Florida Institute of Technology

 

 

What do alien abductions, cops chasing robbers, and binge drinking zombies have in common? They’ve all been subjects of one-act plays written by student groups in my introduction to literature classes over the years.

 

I’ve always been a fan of introducing creative writing opportunities to students as a method of reinforcing the elements of short fiction, poetry, and drama.  Many of my ideas are not really mine at all. Our university uses The Bedford Introduction to Literature, edited by Michael Meyer, and there are gems of writing ideas embedded in the text just waiting to be mined. These ‘Creative Responses” are sprinkled throughout, such as writing your own 55 word short story or writing a three minute phone call or email conversation between two characters based on the brief play Reprimand. These ideas can be incorporated as journal entries, test questions, and group activities.

 

I introduce group work early in the semester, which allows group members to get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and provide a sense of commitment to the group for completing the tasks assigned. Toward the end of the semester, I introduce the groups to the project of writing a script for their own one-act plays. Years ago, I started this activity by asking the groups to write an alternate ending to the play Am I Blue by Beth Henley, which deals with many issues young adults face today. This activity also works in writing an alternate ending to Death of a Salesman. Studying original plays and writing in groups takes up a good chunk of classroom time, so I searched for shorter activities because of the premium associated with classroom time.

 

That's when I stumbled across the website 10-Minute-Plays.com. The site not only provides multiple examples of short plays, but it also provides students easy to follow directions on how to compose their play, which reinforces the concepts of plot structure.  Here’s an example of directions from the site:

 

Page 1:  Set up the world of your main characters (exposition)

Page 2:  Something happens to throw your characters’ world out of balance

Page 3-4:  Your characters struggle to restore order

Page 5:  Just when your characters are about to restore order, something happens to complicate matters    

Page 6:  Your characters either succeed or fail to restore order

 

The brevity of the 10 minute play allows students to work with the structure of drama, introducing conflict and providing a resolution just as longer, traditional plays do. In addition, the shortened format saves on group and classroom time, allowing for more in-depth discussions of other genres such as short fiction and poetry.

 

The students really enjoy the activity and work well together writing the scripts and even acting out the parts. It is a fun way to end the semester, and student feedback shows it to be something they learn from and remember.

 

As a caution, though, instructors need to be involved in the brainstorming part of the process, guiding students toward appropriate topics. If not, you may find yourself in the middle of many dramatic renderings describing drunken zombies fighting aliens!

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

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. 

 

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.

 

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. 

 

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

 

I expected the worst during finals week my first year as a teacher: a huge stack of papers to grade, frustration over revision advice not taken, late nights to meet grade submission deadlines. While I certainly had a lot to grade, what I really struggled with was unexpected: boredom at the conformity of my students’ work. Their writing was polished and it was evident that their skills had improved over the semester. But the writing lacked energy, originality, and their own voices. I found myself wondering what they had really learned.

 

In preparation for the next semester, I re-examined how the course learning goals might still be met while allowing students to present their learning in a more individual and authentic way. If students could tell me how they would best be able to present their learning, then maybe they would engage with the final project with more investment. And when students are invested, they spend more time, produce higher quality work, and engage in the work more deeply.

 

Enter, the “pitch your own final” final exam. A final exam designed to give students agency over their own learning. What I’ve detailed below is how I present Pitch Your Own Final in my Introduction to Literature course (a writing-intensive general education class offered at my university), although different iterations of this same final can be applied to courses throughout the English discipline. How it works: 

 

A month before the end of the semester, I introduce the final exam. The guidelines are as frustratingly open-ended as they come: “Engage with at least one course concept in a new way to demonstrate what you’ve learned in this class.”

 

It’s important to note that I’ve scaffolded this kind of project into my course. Throughout the semester, my students have been given a little more agency over each assignment that they complete, in order to prepare for an almost instruction-less final.

 

The class is usually in a mild uproar at this final project. They ask question after question to try and get me to tell them what I want. I ask them to tell me what I want. This makes them furious. They beg for examples. I learned early with this kind of project to not give them examples (a practice I otherwise offer in my class) because what many produce will be a near copy of that example. I ask them to trust me, as they’ve done all semester, that they’ll get much more out of the project if they’re in control.

 

Students then develop pitches for their final projects. This is a critical step. It allows me the opportunity to give students feedback about their initial direction. I can jump in early to make sure students are either doing enough work for a final project or not too much work (I’ve had students pitch me ideas that would turn into a book if executed as they describe). What I usually receive is a mix of analytical and creative work, synthesized together to demonstrate the student’s evolved understanding of what literature is.

 

On the last day of the semester, students present a portion of their work to the class, and the results are diverse and astounding. I’ve had students examine literary translation through dance choreography, create video games, and one even live-coded music. They’re invested in the work because they’re allowed to take what they’ve learned and connect it to a mode that they already know (either in the form of their major, hobbies, or a medium they’re familiar with). Many, as they present, tell the class that they discovered that they knew much more about literature than they thought and that it relates to their own interests in relevant and unexpected ways. 

 

I step out of the classroom that day with arms full of large, weird textual/visual/analytical projects and an inbox full of links that will lead me to a new and surprising project and perspective. I’m looking forward to grading, at this point, because with each new project, I get insight into a completely new, non-conforming perspective.

 

Quick end note: As you can imagine, I’ve implemented this type of final in courses in which I’ve had the freedom and luxury to design the class myself. While I’ve used this final to meet departmental and university-level learning outcome requirements, I acknowledge that assigning a final exam like this is a luxury afforded to those with complete creative teaching control.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Susan Dunn-Hensley, Visiting Assistant Professor at Wheaton College, IL

 

 

“Do you feel my pain, / This anguish like no other / From taming with the words of France / This heart that came to me from Senegal?” (Leon LeLeau; translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy). These are the final lines of Caribbean poet Leon LaLeau’s poem “Betrayal.” I teach this poem to my History of English Language (HEL) classes as part of the unit on world Englishes.  Although LaLeau is speaking specifically of the French language, his lament for the loss of his language and culture echoes the concerns of many English speaking postcolonial poets, novelists, and playwrights. Reading LaLeau’s poem and other postcolonial works as part of a unit on World Englishes allows students to explore the varieties of World English resulting from colonization and globalization. These works also reveal the evolution of the English language in these postcolonial contexts and help students understand political and cultural factors involved in the spread and development of language.

 

 A few years ago, as I was teaching the History of the English Language in the same semester that I was teaching freshman composition, it occurred to me that the material that we were covering in HEL would benefit the students in my English writing classes. In particular, I began to consider how learning about language – the tool that all writers use – could actually help English writing students become more careful, sensitive, and effective writers.

 

In Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser argues that one of the great enemies of analytical reading and writing is the transparent theory of language, which presents words as if they were a clear window through which to view meaning, a meaning which can somehow be accessed without attention to language. As I thought about this assertion, I realized that many of our native English-speaking students grow up with the type of language privilege that makes it difficult for them to recognize the power of language to shape identity. As such, some students fail to appreciate the importance of gender nonspecific language and culturally sensitive language. Seeing the ways that reading about linguistic imperialism and post-colonial reassertion of identity helped my English majors better understand the power of language to both subordinate others and to assert and shape one’s own identity, I began to realize that this lesson could be particularly useful to non-English majors who may be headed for careers that would involve intercultural connections and the need for sensitivity to English language politics and privilege.

 

In order to help my freshman writers understand language in more complex ways, I decided to take components from my HEL class and modify them to fit an English writing class. Writing classes at the liberal arts college where I teach tend to have themes, so I decided to structure the class around the theme of Globalization and Language.

 

First, I began the semester not with my usual introduction to academic writing but with Brian Friel’s play Translations. The play, set in 1830s Ireland, dramatizes the replacement of Irish hedge schools with National Schools and the topological surveys of Thomas Frederick Colby and the royal Engineers that mapped and renamed Ireland, Anglicizing the landscape.

 

My students and I discussed the fact that language forms our identities and connects us to our own culture; however, language can also be a tool used to oppress, control, and redefine others. Beginning the course with a reminder of the power inherent in the tool that they were wielding gave many students a greater sense of the importance of their roles as writers.

 

Second, I focused our writing on language and global interconnections. One assignment asked the students to research the political and cultural ramifications of the English as a world language. The students selected a “variety” of English and researched the socio-political issues that accompany the use of English in that country or region. The variant could come from any number of places – Australia / New Zealand; South Africa; West and East Africa; India; Hong Kong; Jamaica; or Canada. The students simply had to select a variant and consider particular conversations and controversies pertaining to that variant. For the research paper, I allowed the students to select their own topics, but I required that the topics in some way address global interconnections.

 

Third, I incorporated Caribbean poetry into our lessons on analytical reading. Each poem that I selected dealt specifically with the complex interconnections between language and culture. Analyzing poems such as Grace Nichols’ “The Fat Black Woman goes Shopping,” Mutabaruka’s “Dis Poem,” and LaLeau’s “Betrayal” reinforced lessons about the connections between language and power structures. However, it also reminded the students that, although English writing classes do teach students to write in Standard English, non-standard dialects are not linguistically inferior - but are, instead, an expression of identity.