Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I Will Gladly Pay You for an Essay Tomorrow if You Give Me a Soliloquy Today

If there is one thing I have heard as a consistent worry from colleagues in Common Core states, it is that fiction may get crowded out by the request for more non-fiction in the English Language Arts classroom. Personally, I am not worried about that happening because I know enough English teachers to know that there would have to be a lot of dead bodies before fiction became an inconsequential part of our everyday teaching lives. We love fiction because it is what helps us relax, take a step back, and examine our lives in light of a compelling story. Don't get me wrong, some narrative non-fiction is just as compelling, but answer me this: Which assassination is more surprising? Lincoln's or Gatsby's? We know Lincoln's story and we cringe, breath stopped, as we wait for Booth to squeeze off the fatal shot. The first time we dive into Gatsby's pool, we are just as unaware, just as oblivious to the danger lurking behind the pillars of patio, nestled in the barrel of Wilson's gun. The fictional compels us because it becomes part of us, as we become part of it. This metonymic power of literature to stand in for and represent our lives makes narrative, especially fictional narrative, personal and powerful.

So, when given the choice between learning with fictional or non-fictional texts, why should we choose? Some people might not see the way to incorporate both, but this month's Engage Now! submission from Amy Magnafichi Lucas incorporates fictional texts as models for writing non-fictional essays. Not only does she use fictional text to teach writing, but she dares to use Shakespearean text (cue gasps).

There are a lot of gems to be mined from this clearly aligned sequence of 3 lessons. The first is a concise method for writing crisp and pithy prose. Using a couple example passages from equally challenging writers, students discuss the nature of "the economy of language." Students are then asked to revise Shakespeare. Like the Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie sketch, they are asked to revise Hamlet. Specifically, students look at the soliloquy from Act I, Scene ii about Hamlet's "too too sullied flesh." They are asked to keep track of and justify each decision in the revision process based on the discussion from the presentation. The key step comes after the second class period when students apply all of the techniques they have developed in terms of revising for the economy of language to the peer review of each other's work. Knowledge without action is useless; however, the instant application of skills gleaned from literary analysis and critical thinking to the writing process builds retention and relevance. The conversations in peer groups coupled with the revision of the initial draft provide the framework for a lesson of enduring value.

Check out the full lesson plan complete with presentation and handout here. The next time I go to teach a novel or play and then have students write a literary analysis essay, I plan on using a piece of the text as a model for a portion of the writing process; maybe I'll use that scene where Nick enters the Buchanan residence for the first time to teach about the value of powerful and vivid language. I can think of no other scene in literature that so readily calls up the whirlwind of the 1920s: all of that elegance and class caught up in the violence of a summer wind. The first time I read that scene, it stood out as picturesque and calm; on my second visit, the spectres of Wilson, Myrtle, and Gatsby reared up, reminding me of the fact that these elegant, yet careless people will be responsible for the suffering of so many others. The words didn't change; I did. As I developed greater understanding through multiple readings of that passage, perhaps my students returning to that passage to explore a new writing skill may gain some new insight. In the study of the words, they get a chance to revise their original impressions and engage the text more deeply: economy of language and economy of instruction time.

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