Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Assignments

"These are the poets, the philosophers, the scientists, the thinkers whose observations and interpretations of life provide nourishment for the inner spirit of those who can learn to heed them."

It's the end of the semester at the high school where I teach, and Louella B. Cook's article from 1959(!) could not be more apropos as I reflect on the last two assignments I have been feverishly grading for weeks on end.

My sophomore students had two massive assignments this semester that reflect those "two faces of Janus" Cook references in her article. One was a formal literary analysis of one of the works of Edgar Allan Poe - a 4-5 page structured assignment in MLA format, 7th edition, held to the highest of Common Core standards, with absolutely no use of first person permitted. I slaved over the grading of these papers, meticulously circling every error I found, writing extensive comments, even with a nasty fingertip injury.

Yes, I soldiered on like a good English teacher should, grading those papers with such fury that it even became a hot topic on Twitter when our school did not close for a "cold day" last week.
Everyone knew this was an impossibility, especially from someone who was just voted "hardest teacher" for the second year in a row. It was the talk of the school, so much so that when I DID grade an A paper, I posted THAT on Twitter.
The rub of it is, the kids strove to do well on this paper, but I doubt very much that a single one of them enjoyed the process. They had a hard time excising themselves - especially that letter I - out of the writing process. The average grade on these papers was an 84% B - a solid average, yes, but nothing that inspired them or me.

That all changed, as it does every year, when we moved on to Transcendentalism. 

We read Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Dickinson. We blew bubbles in class to help understand "The Over-Soul" and sang along to U2's "One." (Well, at least one of us did.) We did yoga in class.

I assigned them scrapbooks that they could create with a minimum of requirements, and I tossed MLA format out the window. I took them out on nature walks and told them their entire scrapbook should be in first person, that they should feel free to argue or agree or puzzle over these authors, that they should pick quotes that meant something to them, that they should make this assignment their own.

When they were finally able to write about themselves, when they were able to pick the quotes, carry on arguments with authors, design and decorate to their hearts' content, their grades soared. The average grade for the scrapbooks was a 90% A-. 

Not only did I allow them to write for self-revelation, but they took their inspiration from those poets who provided them with "nourishment for [their] inner spirit."And that made all of the difference.

1 comment:

  1. Laughing out loud as I read and relate to your post.

    Using your students' experience (loved the Tweets and the attention they got nationally - incredible ) provides an effective vehicle to make your points about process and purpose.