Tag Archives: definition

Literature or Art Class?

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Why not both?

One of the unorthodox ideas I tested in the last school year was a “Through the Lens” concept. The idea was to read literature, write a short essay, create a digital art piece (based on student photography), and give a presentation that incorporated both the essay and the art. For 2011-2012, the theme was American Literature. It was an easy place to begin for me, as I had already put together a curriculum for a thematic approach to American Literature with a fellow teacher several years ago. American literature also lends itself to images that are approachable by most teenagers who have some interest in visual arts.

I began with the Transcendentalists. Who better to photograph than Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson?  The nature element alone makes for good images. All I asked the students to do was to connect the photo to some quote or poem from the readings.

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Opening with such obvious connections allowed me to also discuss photography as storytelling and somehow reaching all five senses with imagery. I used PowerPoint to let me illustrate each point, and I encourage the students to learn PowerPoint for their own presentations. The first semester I allowed them just just share their images and discuss them, but by the end of the each all students were adept at full presentations with multiple slides.

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I will teach a similar course for the 2012-2013 school year, this time centered around the work of C.S. Lewis. If that isn’t unorthodox, I don’t know what is!

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The Logical Conclusion by T.S. Eliot

Frankenstein

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I love finding new ways to approach classic literature. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those books I knew about but was never required to read. I finally read it over the summer thanks to my Nook and free classics. Was I ever dumbfounded! Every conception I had about the book was completely off base, as it was tainted by pop culture and cinema. Here was a book written by a 19 year old girl in 1818 with a multitude of 21st century conflicts. I won’t teach a book that is no longer culturally relevant because I want ALL my students to love reading. Classics that are restricted by time period are often wonderful, but I prefer to recommend those to my students who want to read everything–twice.

Frankenstein, however,may be more culturally relevant now than in 1818.  One of the key elements for current readers is the question, “Just because we are able to do something, does it mean we should do it?”  In 1818 electricity was a new concept, and the practical and cheap applications were years away. That Frankenstein was able to infuse life into something he assembled from multiple parts (particularly grotesque when envisioned) was purely fantasy. Today, however, that idea has plausible elements to it. Cloning, transplants, and stem cell research open that Pandora’s Box of possibilities heretofore unimaginable.

The geneticist Barbara McClintock once said of her research, “I was just so interested in what I was doing I could hardly wait to get up in the morning and get at it. One of my friends, a geneticist, said I was a child, because only children can’t wait to get up in the morning to get at what they want to do.” (http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4917&page=1)  McClintock explains the passion of research and experimentation in the same way Frankenstein might have as he created his new “species.” He was so caught up in his idea and the potential glory he could receive that, like a child, he didn’t think through the consequences.

Whether it is practical science, economics, politics, or any other science, modern practitioners often lunge forward into experiments without fully thinking through the consequences.  Students entering the college and work world need to understand the long term ramifications of their decisions and discoveries. Running with new concept may seem like a great plan, but the ultimate outcomes may be contrary to the vision.

Of course, Frankenstein contains more timeless lessons than the conflict of science and ethics. The importance of companionship, the danger of isolation, and the tragedy of hubris are all themes appropriate for the contemporary teenager.  The focus will vary depending on the interests of the particular students in the class. The primary idea is to make the literature relevant.

Science, ethics, and literature: they are connected.

Unorthodox but Effective

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Years ago a principal wrote “Her teaching style is unorthodox, but effective.” I took that as a tremendous compliment and I’ve made it my teaching mantra.

Why unorthodox? Well, I have some unusual philosophies about teaching literature and composition. I don’t believe in tests. I use tests only as a consequence of non-participation by a class on any given day. The test covers the material that the Socratic discussion should have done more effectively (and interestingly.) Generally, if I give a test, the passing rate is low: students who came to class prepared pass, those who hoped to ride on the backs of their prepared classmates, fail. As a result, I rarely have to give a test to any given class–and if I do, it’s only once.

I encourage students to use the study tools available to them. Those tools are always insufficient for class discussion, but many students find that reading the material, reading the notes, and re-reading the material is an effective method for them. I also encourage audio book use for my auditory learners.

I don’t teach grammar or vocabulary. By the time a teen is a sophomore in high school he should understand the basics of mechanics. If he doesn’t, there are plenty of on-line sources and tutors available. I also use peer editing to strengthen those skills for both writers and editors. Vocabulary is best learned by reading good literature, not by matching unrelated words to definitions. I expect my students to look up words they don’t know. By the second month of school, they usually do. Students will rise to elevated expectations.

My primary form of evaluation is the essay. My students read and write a lot. They are required to keep a daily journal (ten minutes per day) and I walk them through the essay writing process from thesis to works cited. By the end of sophomore year, my students write a highly developed, well-researched 10-12 page paper with confidence.

I also integrate art into literary analysis regularly. Too much of school is relegated to left brain activities: lists, memorization, numbers, facts, etc. Good thinkers use the creative right brain to formulate ideas before engaging the left brain to organize them. Altered books, altered puzzles, photography, digital art, paintings—all of these have a place in my classroom.

Effective? Yes. In 20+ years as an educator, my students have consistently outperformed their peers in college courses that include writing. A number of my students have determined to pursue writing and communication in their careers, based partly on strategies learned in my class.

This blog will be my place to share these strategies and to share a new approach to literature I am currently developing. Test these ideas in your own schools (whether large private school or home school) and see whether or not unorthodox can be effective.