Monthly Archives: September 2011

Transcendentalists 1

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I’m developing a new approach to teaching literature by making photography/digital design an essential element. The last few sessions we’ve studied the Transcendentalists with an emphasis on Whitman and Thoreau. Emerson became the source for journaling.

The students had to choose a selection from either Thoreau’s Walden or a selection of Whitman’s poetry (Dover has a little book of them, which oddly, leaves out some of my favorites.)
I pulled a section of Thoreau called “Solitude.” It reads, in part:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where he can “see the folks,” and recreate, and as he thinks remunerate himself for his day’s solitude; and hence he wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui and “the blues”; but he does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does, though it may be a more condensed form of it.
Thoreau was, of course, talking about the benefits of solitude. As an introvert, I identify with the idea that society can be exhausting and that a respite is refreshing. However, I also identify the idea that it is possible to be lonely in a crowd, and so I used that idea in my piece. I used a student from another class as my model and took a timed exposure (without a tripod, by the way), having her hold still while other class members walked around her. I desaturated her image and increased saturation on the background students. The digital papers are from my collection (mostly Faith Sisters and DigiDesignResort). I decided to add some word art, play with blending modes, and call it done. It captures the essence of being lonely and I think illustrates Thoreau’s concept of social fatigue.

My students have done some fantastic work with this challenge; I’ll share some eventually.

Ah, Social Media, How I Love Thee

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And teachers around the world cringe in horror.

But think about it. What better way do educators have to teach one-on-one AND the whole class all at once?

Let me explain. Facebook is the current all-encompassing, all-unifying,and all-pervasive force that connects people. Most of my students come to class hooked into Facebook, FB Mobile, Chat, and anything else that the media offers. I can insist that my students find the school website to and e-mail me or form study groups, but why not use what they already access?

To that end, I set up a closed Facebook group for each subject. Even though I may have multiple sections of a particular class, I combine them all into one larger group. I act as administrator, adding members, facilitating discussion, and walking individuals through various quandaries. The benefit is multi-leveled: a student who asks a question may represent others with the same question, students can help each other, and I can see what needs to be reviewed in class.

For example, some students are better prepared to write cohesive thesis statements than others. I could spend more class time reviewing general concepts, or I can walk a student through the process one step at a time the the wall of our class group. By working with one student in a forum like this, everyone benefits, but I can use class time for critical thinking and discussion.

Over the course of the year, my help becomes less critical, as students begin helping each other. This sets up the habit of forming study groups outside of class, a habit that help me tremendously in college. Plus, those students who help others learn the material, techniques, and strategies better for themselves.

A benefit I didn’t anticipate is an alternative for inclement weather. In January 2011, my part of the country was shut down for a week because of snow. (It doesn’t usually snow too much in Georgia.) School was cancelled for a week, but since everyone had power, my classes met–on Facebook. I sent a message to all members with the time, and everyone showed up. In one hour we had 187 RELEVANT posts about the literature. We were able to pick up when school resumed without missing a beat. It is also beneficial when students are absent, as they can interact with others on the class page between class meetings.

Social media has a place in the classroom. If the technology exists, use it!

Oh, and one final benefit? My “cool” factor is magnified when I am in tune with students both in and out of the classroom.

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.