March 14th, 2008 Karen
Only having read a few of the sections of When Writing Teachers Teach Literature: Bringing Writing to Reading so far, I’ve found it to be one of the most useful assigned readings of this course. I particularly connected to Cheryl Glenn’s “The Reading-Writing Connection-What’s Process Got to Do with It?” Throughout her journal entries, she stresses the importance of reading, writing, and speaking as processes that begin as rough drafts that may be polished and refined through more reading, writing, and speaking.
This semester I’m teaching a 12th grade literature course to the same group of students I instructed last semester in composition. I’ve found that they are terrified of expressing their opinions about literature, especially when it comes to poetry. Most of these students are college-bound, but have not ever taken advanced courses. They don’t seem to have the vocabulary to talk about literature, and are afraid of saying the “wrong” thing. This week, I spent a good portion of the class teaching them about the possibility of individual interpretations of literature, that there’s not necessarily one “right answer” to a poem, that I don’t have all of the answers.
Because I had spent so much time working with these students to develop writing fluency, they are very familiar with low-stakes writing; one of my mantras during quick writes was “write first; think later.” Just getting something down on the page was a great achievement for many of these students. So this week, I applied that same technique to reading and the discussion or literature. While we were looking at a new poem, I encouraged them to jot down whatever came to mind, to “brainstorm the poem,” that there were no wrong answers. They appreciated the idea of having a “rough draft” of reading; this strategy enabled most of the students to take the risk of jotting something down or adding to the discussion. I have to admit that reading Glenn’s chapter gave me a sense of validation regarding my teaching method. I enjoyed seeing in print an approach I had tried just a few days earlier. Despite my success with this method, I still had a few students who insisted they had nothing to add to the reading of the poem; they just “didn’t get it.” I’ll need to work on another strategy for including them in this process.
One of the most appealing features of Glenn’s chapter is the detailed explanation of writing prompts that she uses in her ENGL 205 course. The writings she assigns early in the class focus on summarizing a text, whether in a few words, a sentence, or a paragraph. Her emphasis on teaching students to effectively summarize before moving on to interpretation follows the chart we discussed in class last week: a reader must have a literal understanding of the text before she can move to a deeper, more critical reading. Based on the student samples Glenn offers, this strategy seems to work well for her class; however, I was often left wondering if she only opted to choose the best student work to be included in her chapter. It might be more representative of the effectiveness of the assignments if both less successful and more successful examples of student writing were included.
As a bit of an aside, I would like to build on our prior week’s discussion of grading; I feel that Glenn is working toward a successful balance between high and low-stakes writing. One of Glenn’s students, Gretchen, comments that “with the three critical responses and seven ‘freewrite’ journals that this class does a great job of combining the two” (110). Glenn grades several written assignments solely on completion, allowing her students more freedom. The three critical responses are examined and assessed more closely. The one area of assessment where I would question Glenn’s technique is in the overwhelming amount of time she spends conferencing. It’s not clear if all of these student conferences are occurring within standard office hours or if Glenn is staying late to get through the long lines of students hoping to discuss their revisions, but she often remarks how tired she is and how much time she’s spending in this area for the course.
Entry Filed under: Week 9