Sunday, July 14, 2013

Engaging Students' Experiences and Backgrounds

By Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

The author Julia Alvarez is mostly known for her poetry, and when she teaches creative nonfiction classes she keeps the focus on poetry. For Alvarez, it is the economy of language that makes poetry so powerful. She explains that the condensing of a moment into a poem helps provide artistic distance so that an author can write about a real moment with the literary eye of a poet. After the students write the poem, they turn it into a piece of creative nonfiction prose by looking for what the poem is about, for the Truth of the experience. Alvarez is a teacher's teacher. She knows that telling students that they have to write about the truth is unhelpful and deceptively obvious. Instead, she engages the students in an act of writing to teach about the content for a separate act of writing.

Teachers looking to engage their students for all kinds of purposes have turned to multi-genre writing to help them do so. One of the pieces students write in our program at the Governor's School is a single piece composed of multiple genres including dual-voice poems, prose, and visual images. Oftentimes, this project is one the students remember fondly because they can easily be successful. Take young Rachel (names have been changed here). She chose to write a dual voice poem about her father's experiences in war, wrote a beautiful short story from her father's perspective, and created a visual presentation about the interview she conducted. Each piece was woven into the other: the poetry informing the prose and the interview underlying everything. Students wrote, they developed themes, and they presented. That is a grand total of three skills in a single unit. Take that long list of standards: three birds with one stone. (And that does not count the research they had to do.)

This month's Engage Now!, from Associate Chair Katie Greene, is a great lesson about multigenre writing and visual text. The lesson addresses a timely issue that many of us will face in the coming months: getting to know new students. In a progression of visual and written textual compositions, students describe themselves to the teacher in the vein of the letter-to-the-new-teacher assignment. The skills addressed are straight from the common core, but the focus is on the individual and valuing the identity that the individual brings to the classroom. Forgetting to value students is easy in a data-driven, standards-based world, and any assignment that provides those opportunities is worth noticing. After all, if we do not show outwardly that we value our students and their experiences, how can we expect them to value those experiences in the construction of themes? Themes must be constructed from the text and the students' experiences. Valuing what students bring is a vital and powerful part of the English/Language Arts classroom.

In short, the lesson asks students to create a logo that represents who they are as a person and becomes part of a writing portfolio. This first step asks students to think in terms of visual representations of meaning and in terms of economy of meaning. The student provides a single visual, not a menagerie of visuals. Following the construction of the logo, students write about their methodology: why did they choose what they chose? Why the colors? etc. Again, a complex, basic skill is reinforced. The metacognition students practice with this exercise will be necessary time after time during the course of the year. Why not start early? The final step is key. Once again reinforcing the economy of language, students are asked to write some artful and short about the logo based on the reflection (i.e. a poem of some form). The exemplar provided is in the form of a haiku. The lesson is an easy, yet fun, way to practice some essential, complex thinking skills students will need throughout the year. I am already looking at how I can adapt it for my students and setting because it is so flexible and powerful in its application of multiple genres to the simple task of getting to know a new student.

Whether you ask students to write poetry before the essay, to write with different genres about the same experience, or to write about themselves in multiple genres and modes, ask them to think about the truth of the text and the truths in their lives. The thing that sticks with me every year are the insights students bring from within themselves and apply to the texts. That is why we teach in community schools: none of us experiences everything, but we can learn from each other if we value the truths of our experiences.