Category Archives: theory

De-centering “whiteness”: Why Critical Theory matters, and where it falls short.

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I’ve been pondering this idea for some time. I have come to a few conclusions. I’m not sure how they’ll be received, but as a thinker, amateur philosopher, and educator, I find I am compelled to at least put my observations out to anyone who may read this post.

Introduction for 2020

2020 was marked by the unanticipated, the unexpected, and the unprecedented. The words have been so overused that they have lost much of their meaning and all of their power. Still, no one could have predicted back in January just how the next months would unfold. First a pandemic, followed by controversial responses to mitigating the illness, and then a series of abuses of power by individual law enforcement officers that led to months of civil disturbances ranging from protests to riots, ironically none of which seemed to be concerned about controlling the still raging pandemic. Natural disasters from an early hurricane season in the Southeast and early wildfire season in the West led to mass evacuations an devastating loss. The economy, which had been the best in years, tanked; between government quarantines to control the viral spread, businesses damaged and destroyed by riot-induced looting, and nature’s wrath, there wasn’t really any way to maintain a robust economy. Workers were first furloughed before being let go, the result of not enough work to do. White collar jobs moved out of offices into homes, and schools went remote, requiring quick thinking by creative teachers and a paradigm shift about the role of technology in the classroom.

People around the world felt the uncertainty of a pandemic in the Internet Age. Opinions of fault for the spread of the virus began with its source in Wuhan, China, but quickly spread to national and world leaders, criticized for their responses, no matter how they responded. Some were quick to shut down their countries, mandate mask wearing, and force people into isolation. Other countries chose a measured approach, choosing to leave things open and let a herd immunity help slow the disease. Neither extreme approach made a major difference: COVID19 affected the weak and elderly first and hardest, but no particular group was unaffected, and the long term effects are still unknown.

In the middle of the chaos, a social movement gained traction and Critical Theory entered the general lexicon. It is not a new philosophy, but it has become central to a number of groups in the US, particularly in academia, in some protests movements, and even in some churches.

Critical theory is generally known as a Western European tradition that strives to merge philosophy and activism to provide liberation from slavery leading to a world where everyone is satisfied (Horkheimer, 1972). Critical theory (CT) is distinguished by its emphasis on a practical and moral response to inquiry that transforms culture by “decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Early Critical theorists focused on humans as agents of societal change with a capitalism in a “real democracy” as an entrance to a system where life operates by consensus (SEP). Social inquiry led to rational and practical knowledge that people could use to create the cultures in which they wanted to live. Human reason was a path to liberation.

Problems with this view began to emerge almost immediately. Horkheimer argued against the Marxian concept that solidarity of impoverished workers would overcome capitalism because most of the time capitalism helped people build better lives. He added that freedom and justice were dialectical in nature: “The more freedom, the less justice and the more justice, the less freedom” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBaY09Qi-w0). He said that we who live in a society cannot determine what a good society looks like, but that people can bring up the negative things that need to be changed. The problem with this view is simple: every individual can find negative things that need to be changed, but criticism alone does little but create misdirected dissatisfaction, which increases human misery rather than relieves it.

2020 was a year of many things, and the re-emergence of CT, particularly of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is among them. In the midst of a pandemic and natural disasters, CRT has migrated from academia to the vernacular, and the result has been less of liberation and more of strident division, even among friends. But CRT cannot define racists or racism. What it can do is make people aware of the lenses through which they view the world and give them an opportunity to learn through a different lens.

Continuing in 2021– coming soon

The dangers of either/or

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This year’s conference theme—Widening the Angles of Literacy Research: Honoring Untold Stories Using
Contrapuntal Approaches— LRA 2021

con·tra·pun·tal/ˌkäntrəˈpən(t)l

adjective MUSIC

  1. of or in counterpoint.
    • (of a piece of music) with two or more independent melodic lines.

When I read the theme for the 2021 Literacy Research Association conference, I was a bit confused. Contrapuntal? My limited understanding of Latin roots gave me a clue: contra: against, punctum: point in time or space. I turned to my friend, Google, for clarification and found that contrapuntal is a musical term related to counterpoint. Being both a musician and a word nerd, I dug a little deeper and learned that contrapuntal is an adjective that denotes the existence of a counterpoint, while counterpoint is the investigation of how two independent melodic lines may work in harmony. Counterpoint itself dates back to the Middle Ages (Jackson, 2020), where two or more sung/chanted groupings created a unique sound.

Without going too deep down the musical rabbit hole, counterpoint evolved and changed through the centuries, becoming mostly associated with two independent melodies that, when sung or played together, made a pleasing sound. If you listen to the Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number Three, you can clearly hear distinct musical lines in an interplay of stringed instruments. Each instrument is distinct and each melody identifiable, but the magic of the piece is in the putting it all together in a joyful blend that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Voices of Music

I read an interesting piece in Medium recently that gave me a V8 moment (for those readers who missed the joys of ads in the 70s, click here for some pop culture history.) It was a story of a family who stymied a customs official by claiming to be full Asian, full Hispanic, and full Caucasian. The father in the story explained, saying, “As a family, we believe that ethnicity is much more than some digit that can be chiseled away into percentages. We cherish all the distinct bloodlines we descend from and see ourselves as fully included in all of them. You see, we are multiracial and not mixed-raced”(Agarwal, 2020, December 10.)

Multiracial, not mixed.

So what does musical counterpoint have to do with a story of a multiethnic family and the danger of either/or?

One of the lessons of the Great Pandemic of 2020 included increased attention to the issues of race, injustice, and “othering.” The issues weren’t new, but maybe because we had time to pay attention to the world around us, we had to face, head-on, the ramifications of some people more equal than others. Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breanna Taylor became familiar names across the US because of the ways each died–at the hands of white official and unofficial law enforcers. There were dozens of other names to be remembered, but these three stood out as representative of three distinct problems within law enforcement: police brutality, police ineptitude, and non-police vigilantes. There are plenty of essays and articles about the specific cases, so my focus is not necessarily on these three, but rather what they illustrate: humans who focus on skin color, culture, and/or ethnicity can be dangerous. A philosophy that puts appearance above character stands in opposition to what most Americans believe. Most Americans (Black, Hispanic, Asian, and white) cling to Dr. King’s dream for a time when people would be judged, not for the color of their skin, but by the content of their character (King, 1963, August 28.) When the riots of June 2020 began, white Americans were largely horrified and surprised, but Americans of other ethnicities often echoed the sentiments of those participating: You who are in authority cannot continue to violate the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness guaranteed to ALL Americans without consequence. And because it was impossible to turn a blind eye to the protests and the riots because we were all in pandemic lockdown, people of all ethnic backgrounds had to listen for a change.

The problem of racism begins with the dehumanizing effect of the other. It is not limited to people of European descent, although that is how it is most often discussed in the political and social US. The idea of the other goes back to Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) when Cain, in a fit of anger, murdered his brother, Abel. When confronted, Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” By that, Cain meant that Abel was not his responsibility; they were different and their relationship was a matter of “him” and “me.” Othering began at that moment and has been a global phenomenon ever since.

Othering is at the heart of the either/or movement. Either Black or white. Either digital or analog. Either science or art or religion. When people fall victim to a false binary (either this or that), they typically seek to protect “their” culture, “their” belief systems, and “their” ways of knowing. By turning inward toward those who look and think as they do, people begin to view the other as an enemy.

Either/or is not limited to melanin sufficiency or deficiency. Either/or can be any aspect of humanity that seeks to keep itself apart from other human groups: the spread of the Persian/Greek/Roman Empires, the Viking conquests of northern Europe, the battles between Israelis and Palestinians, African tribalism, and the European colonization of most of the world are all examples of how othering destroys both cultures and individuals.

There is a solution to the notion (and the nonsense) of either/or: both/and.

There is power in both/and. Both/and is truly inclusive. It means that every voice is permitted, heard, and respected. In a both/and world communication includes listening carefully to information AND experiences. It considers situations and issues from multiple sides, like turning over the facets of a diamond to see the beauty from all angles AND to remove the inclusions of misinformation so that everyone has a clear view. Both/and looks for truth, truth that conforms to fact and actuality, not subject to whims of opinion.

Both/and is what allows the contrapuntal lines of music to create harmony. When a musician makes a mistake, the harmony is disrupted. It is in the both/and working according to the music in accuracy to the design of the piece that brings joy to both the musician and the audience. Every genre of music has its own rules and forms, even the most improvisational form of jazz. The sounds of different genres may not make sense to every hearer, but once the rules and reasons are understood, everyone can appreciate the contribution of each to the music of the world. Individuals are richer for learning the differences in scales and tonalities in global music.

In the same way, individuals are richer for exploring and examining all sides of any given idea or thought or experience. Including multiple points of view, without exclusion, is the best way to find harmony and truth. No one group or person has all the information about anything in this world. Perspectives inform interpretations of facts and events, but perspectives are not necessarily accurate to reality across the board. It is in multiple perspectives that people can gain understanding that leads to harmony.

Embracing both/and is exactly what the family in the opening story meant when they claimed to be multi-ethnic and not mixed-race. The limits of either/or are destroyed when we all embrace both/and.

Agarwal, S. (2020, December 10). There are no ‘mixed race’ people: Why it’s troublesome to believe otherwise. An Injustice Magazine. https://aninjusticemag.com/there-are-no-mixed-race-people-655eb510fbc1

Jackson, R. John (2020, January 5). Counterpoint. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/counterpoint-music

Digital Literacy in Teacher Education

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I had grand dreams about adding voiceover to this, and I still might. For now, a simple upload will do.

It never ceases to amaze me that the most intelligent and creative teachers (and pre-service teachers) freeze when I tell them they have complete freedom in a project. It testifies to the habit of grades and rubrics. Research is clear that inquiry and choice lead to better learning, but we still want a standard as a form of measurement.

The slideshow here is mostly work done by students in my ELA methods course. It took a fair amount of convincing for them to trust that I REALLY didn’t have an agenda or a rubric. Once they relaxed into the play of remix, they enjoyed the process. The first slide of the remixes (slide 3) is my example and the questions I asked when the project was complete. The remainder of the slides are student remixes and student reflections.

Teachers in my class enjoyed the freedom to create, and several planned to include a similar assignment in their own classes. This is the kind of creative project that is easy to do during remote instruction. Students shared their images on a discussion board and responded to them. In class we talked about how they felt about the project and how the minimal direction made it harder to do than an assignment with a concrete rubric and a template. It made them rethink how they might introduce creative projects by allowing students to play and explore with no expectations except to do something. The only grade is complete/incomplete, so if the few parameters were met, students earned full credit. It’s a nice way to break up required test paragraph practice and can certainly be a check for mastery. It also gives students an opportunity for self-expression and making connections between canonical literature and pop culture.

More about what I’m thinking while teaching under COVID-19

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I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee with my hours of Zoom meetings and online school and family video chats. My eyes complain that I need more screen breaks, but the work still needs to be done. I have been working and teaching in online spaces for years. If I have screen fatigue even though I have extensive experience in this digital realm, how much more do those whose lives prior to COVID-19 resounded with “put that screen away and go outside?”

All the coffee coincides with thinking, especially in the wee hours of the morning when I should be sleeping. So, as I brew another cup, I will attempt to make sense of things I’m pondering.

Clarity matters, but change is constant.

When chaos is the order of the day, decisions about assignments or deadlines or grading become flexible. Most of my students, however, thrive on routine, planners, and fixed schedules. I know I can continue to improve how well I communicate expectations from assignments, and I need to regularly reiterate that the syllabi for my classes are philosophically sound, but practically fluid. My goals, objectives, and rationales rarely change during the course of a semester, but very often current events or unexpected information require adjustments to individual assignments and deadlines. This current pandemic exacerbated the need for multiple adjustments, but the combination of need for routine collides with the reality of change and has led to confusion and a plethora a panicked emails, even though the changes have largely been in the students’ interest.

I answer the emails understanding how overwhelmed people are, and I remind them that the most recent information is correct, but subject to changing again. When COVID-19 meant a shift to remote instruction, there was no way of knowing whether it was for weeks or months. The initial changes assumed we would be back in the classroom before the end of the semester. When the decision was made to stay away from campus, I made another change. I ultimately made my way home to be with family, but that left me in a different time zone than my university. And then a number of students went to be with their families, which meant synchronous classes could not be realistically cover the hours of the face-to-face courses. Now that the end of the university semester is near, I don’t think there will be new changes, but I won’t guarantee it.

Pandemic means keeping your calendar in pencil, not ink. I get it, though. My own planner is riddled with whiteout for canceled meetings, classes, and appointments. I’ve also learned over the years to think on my feet, respond to the actual problem quickly, and compartmentalize tasks. Going forward, I intend to teach those skills to all my pre-service teachers and graduate students. Planning is important, but plans can’t be written in stone when people are involved. If we as teachers have learned one thing in the last months, it’s that we can’t predict the future.

Thinking on my feet comes from my life as a disc jockey and radio journalist in the 1980s. Radio is a medium of incessant change. A story relevant at 8 a.m. is dead by noon, and recorded over by 5 p.m. At least, it used to be recorded over. Now, I suppose it is archived to the Cloud. Still, when information flows fast and furious, the ability to keep moving is a necessary skill. In school, teachers should be able to pivot away from a lesson that isn’t working and improvise a better approach on the fly. That skill comes with learning the students, not the script. It requires knowing the content rather than the curriculum. Even without a pandemic, teachers’ days are filled with the unexpected: assemblies, fire drills, half a class missing for a sporting event or field trip in another class, and a million other little things. Thinking on our feet as teachers is important.

Responding to a problem quickly goes along with thinking on my feet. It’s too easy to look at the overwhelming tower of things that must be done and give up. Anxiety is a real biochemical response to the unexpected, and those of us who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses exacerbated by sudden change have had to be exceptionally vigilant about maintaining our medications, using the tools available to us for meditating or self-calming, and working to recognize what is reality and what is in our minds. It’s hard. Additionally, people who do not have diagnosed anxiety disorders feel especially anxious when they can’t predict or anticipate what the next change might be. Part of dealing with change means focusing on the moment and the next moment. My students who are sending panicked emails are emailing first and then thinking through the problem once I’ve talked them off the ledge.

Granted, this is an unprecedented pandemic (except for virologists and epidemiologists), and a number of my students are suddenly working in an unfamiliar space with their children needing them for their own school work. Some have limited access to technology (a topic for another time) and others have partners whose employment is in jeopardy or who are essential workers with long hours. Still, when I asked my students how many of them were planning their work without the external force of going to school only one said that she was. Most of my students admitted to a haphazard approach to the tasks that were largely unchanged. Work was still due, their lesson plans still had to be done, hours for practicum had to be completed, and their academic lives continued to move ahead. Responding to the actual problem requires being organized and diligent enough to recognize what can be altered or reworked as soon as the changes are known.

Compartmentalization saves me from panic, although it can make me look like I am without compassion. I think it may be the most important think I should teach in the future, especially to the women in my classes. We women are masters of multi-tasking, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. To be able to order dinner while finalizing grades and making sure the kids are bathed before bed may get a lot done, but it is exhausting. If we try to think about ALL the things at once, we’ll likely burn out or paralyze ourselves and accomplish nothing. I like to use Stephen Covey’s philosophies from First Things First as a baseline for deciding what needs my attention. The quadrant of urgent/not-urgent/important/non-important allows me to prioritize what must be done and what can wait. I think prioritizing and compartmentalizing tasks can prevent teachers from being overwhelmed by the sheer number of resources, tasks, demands, assignments, and responsibilities just from their school-based lives, apart from their family and private lives. I’m thinking I may add some of Covey’s work to Ruiz’s Four Agreements to my first two weeks of classes.

There is much to learn from this pandemic, and I can do a better job preparing my students for dealing with the unexpected. While a global pandemic is unlikely to take anyone by surprise again any time in the near future, change is inevitable. Having some tools in place to navigate change may alleviate some of the stress that the unexpected can bring.

What I’m learning: Reflecting on teaching under COVID-19

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I’ve been reflecting on the lessons of this time of shelter-in -place lately, and there are some changes I will make as I teach going forward.

Home workspace. Green screen, table with laptop, camera, pens and pencils, and books.
Workspace

I am well acquainted with online teaching; I’ve done it, or some hybrid version, for years. I even earned an endorsement for online instruction with my Master’s degree. Still this pivot from face-to-face classes to unplanned remote instruction has made me rethink how I can better approach ALL of my teaching practices.

The very first change I will make is to focus on learning for the sake of learning, not for a grade. The primary complaint I hear from my graduate students who are already teaching is that, without the ability to grade work, few of their students are actually doing any kind of work. Students don’t check in, they don’t turn in assignments, and they don’t show up for synchronous meetings. The result is that the teachers are losing steam quickly. Why should they continue to create digital content when the impetus for students to do the work is gone? Why should students do the work when the grades don’t matter?

The lack of participation from students leads to a loss of motivation for their teachers, which means MY students aren’t keeping up with the assignments in their graduate studies. I cut the requirements in half, but the consensus from their Flipgrid check-ins is that they have no motivation to do anything at all.

I know that this crazy quarantine time is part of it. Uncertainty breeds complacency. BUT, several weeks in, I think we all need to find the purpose for learning again. After years of being part of the education system, it’s easy to forget about WHY we choose to follow the call to teach because we are focused on deadlines, due dates, and grades. Why do we learn? Why does learning matter? I have not made a practice of teaching that, so my students may not have really thought about it in years. I need to reinforce early and often that learning is personal, grades are arbitrary. If I model that teaching, then hopefully my students will pass it down to their students and the perception of school as drudgery will change.

One think I have done well as a teacher of adult is to open the semester with Ruiz’s Four Agreements. I think the idea that learning is for the self will flow naturally after 1) Be impeccable with your word, 2) Don’t take things personally, 3) Don’t make assumptions, and 4) Always do your best. I know Ruiz wrote more, but these four are sufficient and I can use them to lead to the understanding that ultimately, learning is for our own edification.

I need to ponder this idea further and decide how to make it the forefront of my classes: face-to-face, hybrid, and online.

On the less philosophical side, I’ve learned some practical things:

  1. If students are required to set up websites for a class (not by me), set specific parameters like most recent post first and dates on everything.
  2. Practice all the technology for the semester early and often and in class: Zoom, Flipgrid, photo/video editing, Hangouts, Twitter and Twitter cats and Tweetdeck, and how to find anything on the web, including YouTube tutorials for all of the above.
  3. Use dates for deadlines, not week numbers! Granted, some of this comes from teaching other people’s classes, so they set it up, but I have learned that abbreviations and numbers are far more confusing than actual words and dates. “WWA #3” – what is that and when was it due again?

I’m sure I will continue to learn more as this semester concludes, but just those three practical things will make a huge difference. I think students will appreciate the reminder that educators do not choose to teach because of grades. Education is a calling as much as a vocation, but it’s so easy to forget that with all the demands of quantitative data, content- driven curriculum, and the need for “rigor.” If we who teach can remember why we learn, perhaps this time of pandemic will have served a useful purpose.

#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

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#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

This is the slide show from a round table presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention (NCTE) that I didn’t get to do. I had a conflict with a panel presentation at the same time. I know, I’m that cool. I’m putting it here now as a reminder that I need to flesh it out and submit a manuscript for it.

Transactional semiwhatics?

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I am in the final stage of my PhD studies. My official study runs August and September, and, Lord willing, I will defend my dissertation in March or April of 2019. The central theory in my studies is what I call transactional semiotics.

Because academic writing has its own rules, I am challenged when trying to explicate my idea because I have to interrupt myself with APA citations (lest I miss one upon revisions). This post is my attempt to share my concept without adhering to the strict rules of academia. For the most part, my ideas reflect a blend of the philosophies of Louise Rosenblatt and Charles S. Peirce.

Rosenblatt developed the concept of reading as a transaction with a text. Taking her lead (and the term) from Dewey, Rosenblatt considered reading more than decoding words on pages. She taught that a readers’ background experiences, personal histories, and internal philosophies inform or affect how they understand texts. Transactionalism, as she called it, meant that readers looked at texts through the lenses of their personalities, and their interpretations of what they read came from their experiences. Additionally, Rosenblatt postulated that reading is a cyclical transaction, made complete when readers create something new based on their interpretations of a given text. The reading transaction triad was made up of three parts: the text, the reader, and the poem (or creation of a new text by the reader.) Part of her philosophy was segregated from its based and labeled the reader-response method of teaching reading. The most important element of reading, according to this view, is the reader.

Focusing intently on the reader was part of Rosenblatt’s perspective, but she didn’t believe the context of the text or the message of an author was unimportant. It was along this line that reader-response theory cracked and fell into disfavor. As a writer myself, I want readers to understand what I am trying to convey before they begin to reinterpret it according to their experiences. Rosenblatt did not intend for readers to divorce the text from the author, but rather wanted readers to expand how they understood a text by adding their voices and the voices of others to its meaning. Hers was a broad view of interpretation, one wherein the author and readers engage in a conversation through the creation and recreation of texts.

Rosenblatt looked, not only to Dewey, but also to Peirce. Peirce was an American philosopher and scientist with a broad scope of interests, but his primary focus was logic and a theory of sign that he called semiotics. (He later changed the spelling to semeiotics because his original theory was misunderstood and connected to a language theory by Saussure, but that is another conversation.) For Peirce, understanding required three elements of equal importance: an object, an interpretant, and a sign. The object is the easiest part to explain–the object is, well, an object. A person, place, thing, feeling, idea, or text. The interpretant is the person who recognizes the object. The sign is the way the person describes the object and the way he/she communicates it to others. There are a lot more elements, but in its simplest form, the essence of semiotics is the system of how a person assigns identifying symbols to an object.

Sign systems vary by context and culture. Letters are a form of signs.  In Language Arts, words, particularly written words, are the most common sign for giving meaning to things. But the culture and context matter. The letters F,A,C,E means one thing to to musicians (namely the named spaces on the treble clef in a sheet of music), but more commonly put together as a reference to the part of the body containing nose, eyes, and mouth. Face also describes part of clocks and watches, along with other objects I can’t name at the moment. The object and the signs exist independently of one another; only the person (the interpretant) makes the connection between them.

As in Rosenblatt’s theory, Peircean semiotics relies on the experiences and prior knowledge to make meaning of the object. Like Rosenblatt assumes the importance of works to convey meaning, Peirce assumes a knowledge of a particular sign system. For both, a person (reader or interpretant) sees a thing (text or object) and makes meaning of it using personal experience, prior knowledge, and language/signs. The meaning is conveyed by connecting the person and the thing through a newly created assignation (text or signs).

The concept of transactional semiotics in English Language Arts (ELA) is a mix of the two ideas applied to meaning making and composition.  Because I am focused on teachers in ELA classrooms, my application is specific to how transactional semiotics works in educational settings. Broadly I think it applies to any kind of study. Peirce was not an educator (although he wanted to teach at university), and he applied his semiotic theory to science and mathematics more than to the humanities. Literature and composition may fall under the auspices of the arts, but only in a world that has segregated studies into subject areas. The living world and the experiences of it are holistic, and therefore, logic matters in all realms of observation and knowing.

When students enter a classroom, they bring with them a rich diversity of prior knowledge and experiences. To require all students to read, think, and write the same way is to validate only one part of the complexity of human life. Literature is a reflection of life, and so will resonate differently with students based on their experiences and prior knowledge. Students in high schools are developing unique world views based on their experiences in their families, communities, and instruction. Transactional semiotics as a theory values burgeoning world views by offering students a platform on which to build texts that reflect both an author’s intent (and context) and their own experiences, prior knowledge, and sign systems.

The idea is to begin with a text. Using one required by the school or district is always a good place to begin. As students read, they should look for similarities to people or situations they have experienced. Let them talk about their experiences and how what they’re reading connects to it. So far, this is standard procedure for many teachers. This is the beginning of transacting with the text. The semiotic piece comes next.

Ask (assign) students to create something that represents the life experience and/or connection to the literature. I’ve used altered books, photography, painting, music, and remix as suggestions to begin, but students sometimes have their own ideas. Let them run with it. As they create, they will begin to create a semiotic system that allows them to put their creative work with the text, although they won’t likely recognized it. Teachers will recognize some of the parallels to essay writing, still part of standardized assessments. Students choose a point of view, locate their evidence (materials), consider how to assemble their creations (outlines), and put it all together (writing). When students present their creations–and presentation is important, they explain what they did, how they did it, and why they made the artistic choices they did. Their signs will have come from their experiences and past knowledge.

Now the fun part begins for the teacher. Sometimes students will be first to see the parallels between their creations and written composition. Sometimes they need a little prodding through questions. Ask other students to identify the object, interpretant,and signs. Allow for discussion about student answers. As a reflection writing project, ask each student to revisit how they constructed their creations and assigned meaning to each element. Then ask them to look at the original text again, looking for clues about how the author did the same.

At this point, students have done the thinking, creating, questioning, and journaling that makes up a transaction with a text. They have also created something, devising a semiotic system that afforded them a mode of expression that is more comfortable than the five-paragraph-essay or the free-response questions (FRQ) on mamy of the high stakes exams. The final step of ELA transactional semiotic practice is to have students take the PROCESS they used to construct their creations and repeat it using ELA semiotics: words, paragraphs, evidence.

Employing transactional semiotics in a high school ELA classroom can be challenging. It means teachers relinquish control of the learning products. It means trusting students to use their skills responsibly. It may mean learning from and with students about culture, technology, and what makes literature relevant. It also may mean convincing administrators and parents that the skills developed through the process will translate to whatever standards are expected. In my experience, it is worth the challenges. When reluctant students get enthusiastic about creating something, the atmosphere in the classroom becomes one of anticipation instead of anxiety.

This practice is the heart of my dissertation study. I’ve done this kind of teaching with good results; now to learn how it may work for other teachers. I will know more in the next nine months.