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Musical Theatre Writing in the Classroom

posted: 8.10.15 by David Eshelman

Playwriting teachers occasionally encounter students interested in musical theatre writing.  Unfortunately, they may feel that they do not have the skills or time and may, unwittingly, discourage potential authors.  To combat this tendency, I have lately made a concerted effort to nurture students interested in writing musicals.  After all, one could argue that musical theatre is where theatre is healthiest.  Musicals represent a theatrical genre that does not need to justify its existence:  Broadway continues, thanks to the musical, and musical plays sell seats in high school and community theatres across the nation.  We should, therefore, not discourage those who want to write in this form.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to musical theatre writing is that scripts require many separate skills that hardly ever reside in the same person.  They are usually written in teams—book writer (script writer), lyricist, and composer.  Whereas most playwrights would be perfectly happy writing the script—and, possibly, the lyrics—it is unusual that they would have the musical expertise to write all those darned notes.  Musical theatre writing then would best be taught as an interdisciplinary endeavor—music and creative writing—possibly with students taking different roles within the class.  While I believe that such team-taught courses exist in larger universities, I doubt that the average college would have the resources.  What to do then at a smaller school when faced with a musically-inclined student?

From a practical point of view, I do a few things.  First, I lay out the realities:  I am not qualified to teach music theory, but can help with words.  I make sure that the student knows that musicals are extremely time-consuming and usually written in teams.  Second, I urge students to become acquainted with musical theatre literature—especially the integrated book musical, as exemplified by Rodgers and Hammerstein, one of the U.S.A.’s most significant contributions to drama.  I also make a few general statements regarding musical numbers.  I discuss basic formatting:  song lyrics are written as verse, with line breaks, and in all caps.  I describe how songs are used in the integrated book musical:  the action of the play does not stop for the song; rather, the song comes at the height of drama.  An old adage states that what cannot be said in words must be said in song; and what cannot be said in song must be said in dance.  Songs, then, are for intense moments—climaxes and decisions.  Last, I suggest that the student have a melody in mind while writing lyrics:  the melody does not have to be good, but it will allow the student a stronger sense of structure as the lines are written.

Usually, with just these bits of advice, students can make forays into musical theatre writing.  Later, more advanced students continue in independent studies with me or with faculty from the Music Department.  Most important, though, is acknowledging that budding musical writers should be encouraged, not discouraged.

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Categories: Classroom Challenges and Solutions
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Horizontal divider Joanne Diaz

Looking for the Parts of Speech in a Poem

posted: 7.22.15 by Joanne Diaz

When students read and discuss a poem in class, they do not usually expect to analyze the poem’s grammatical construction. But quite often, grammar is the best place to start a close reading. Years ago, I read a fascinating article that changed the way I approach poems with students at all levels. In “Deformance and Interpretation” (originally published in New Literary History), but you can also find it here, Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann advocate for reading methods that can transform how readers engage with and contribute to a poem’s meaning. They suggest that we read poems backwards, from the last line to the first; isolate one part of speech at a time; and alter the layout of the poem in order to understand why the poet has chosen a particular typographical arrangement.

In what follows, I’ll focus on how reading for specific parts of speech, such as nouns and verbs, can alert students to the preoccupations of the poet. Of course, one could begin class by asking students what each sentence of the poem “means,” and that could yield a great discussion. But if you focus first on parts of speech—especially nouns and verbs, which are the most powerful parts of any phrase or sentence—you’ll find that your most reticent students are able to form opinions on the poem even before they’ve fully analyzed it.

For my example, I’ve chosen Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait”—certainly his most recognizable and frequently anthologized poem. Here’s the poem in its entirety, with an audio file of Kunitz reading the work. If you play the audio so that students can hear Kunitz’s brilliant, deeply moving delivery, they’ll understand the poem’s narrative right away: the speaker’s father has killed himself; the speaker’s mother cannot forgive him for doing this; and instead of telling her son what happened, she hits him when he tries to learn about who his father was. The poem is an incredible testament to the toll that such a trauma can take on a family.

First, ask your students to circle or highlight Kunitz’s nouns. The result should look like this:

Even before we’ve read the poem for its narrative, we can see that the poem’s first line features the mother and father; we know that the house plays a large role in the poem, with a focus on the attic (which is in fact the literal attic of the speaker’s childhood) and a reference to a cabinet (which is a metaphor for the mother’s heart); we see that Kunitz is attending to the time of year (spring) and time as a concept; and we can also see that Kunitz is concerned with the body—hand, moustache, eyes, cheek. From this reading of just the nouns, one can already sense that the story of the father’s suicide has deep, lasting effects that are attached to the memories of the house. We can also see that the child who wants to know something about his father learns that knowledge through the body—through the recognition of his father’s face and the slap on his own face that lingers in his mind for decades.

Next, ask your students to isolate the poem’s verbs:

By isolating the verbs, we can see the gothic terror at the heart of Kunitz’s poem. In this reading, Kunitz’s concern with forgiveness—his mother’s refusal to forgive the father—becomes the poem’s first action and tension. One sees, too, that the verbs are incredibly violent: killing, thumping, ripped, slapped, burning. Of course, there are three agents of action in the poem—mother, father, and son—and each of them performs one or more of these actions. In this reading, the poem is reduced to the physicality of its actions, and is already quite exciting. Kunitz wants this to be a hot poem, one that leaves us feeling singed by that “burning” in the final line. Memory, then, is not a cerebral or abstract entity, but one that is visceral, a mark that stays with us forever.

Not every poet will use such verbs of violence and assault; not every poet will use nouns that allude to the time of year or body parts. But that’s precisely the point of the exercise. By charting a poet’s obsessions with language, and with parts of speech specifically, students will be able to think more critically about how and why poets have stylistic differences that are deliberate, unique, and transformative.

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Categories: Creative Writing, Critical Reading, Joanne Diaz, Literature, Poetry
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Online Teaching and Inspiration for Classroom Adjustments

posted: 7.9.15 by Emily Isaacson

I’ve taught courses online during summer sessions for the past several years.  I find it a challenge, and I’m constantly retooling the courses to make sure that students are getting the most out of the experience — and particularly to make sure that I’m providing enough resources for the students who are in the course, beyond my responses to their exams and their written work.

So over the past few years, I’ve been slowly adding features to my online courses.  When I first began to do this, I simply used discussion boards, my personal blog (as opposed to lecturing), and exams with essay questions.  Last year, I began adding short video lectures to my courses — I simply use pre-loaded software on my MacBook to record, and then upload everything to my YouTube channel.  This year, along with those video lectures I added narrated PowerPoints about important literary terms, which were uploaded to my Google Drive and linked to through our Moodle page.  I also had students write daily journal responses (informal), weekly blog posts (a bit more formal), and interpretive papers (most formal of all).  And this summer I finally figured out how to create a timed exam in Moodle.

In previous summers, I’ve taught 200-level courses designed for and taken by English majors.  This summer was the first where I’ve taught the introduction to literature course as an online course.  In thinking about how it went, I’ve recognized a few things about the problems of online education, but I’ve also begun to think about how I can incorporate some of these features into my traditional classroom in the coming academic year.

First: the downside.  Having all the material online — and having students do the work asynchronously — means that students must be extremely motivated to get everything done, and that includes watching the videos.  While I tried to keep most of the videos brief (fewer than 10 minutes), I admit that some of them went longer than that.  Because I use YouTube to store all the videos, I can also see how often they were viewed, and in some cases, it was rarely or not at all.  This definitely constitutes a problem, particularly for students who are unused to textual analysis of literature.  I realized in reading the journals and blog posts that students were simply not getting some things.  Even though I make it a point to avoid complaining about my students publically (only praising them for their awesome work), I actually reached a point where I complained on Twitter something to the effect of  “Anyone who thinks online education is the way to go has never taught Yeats online.”

So, teaching introduction to literature, when the students don’t make use of all the materials available, has the possibility of being disappointing.  Nevertheless the experience of teaching online — and trying out the different tools at my disposal — does give me some ideas about how to more effectively use our Learning Management System during the regular academic year.

One thing that I’m considering is moving the exams online, rather than taking up time in the classroom for them.  This would be particularly useful in my survey course (British Literature before 1798), because I typically run an exam after every major time period — and we lose two class days to those.  I could reclaim those days for more readings, or those could be days of workshopping student papers.  It’s a matter of mashing those 1,000 years of literature into 15 weeks.

Another thing that might be useful is to create short (5 minute) videos about some of the literature, highlighting the most essential ideas that we’ve covered in class, or talking about things that are essential for students to understand.  For example, when talking about Chaucer, I talk to the students about what Middle English sounds like — but what if I were to have a short video (or audio) linked to the Moodle page so that students could go back to it?  Or what if I were to have narrated PowerPoints talking about important literary or historical terms for that survey course?  While I certainly want students to continue to develop their note taking skills, I’m probably most concerned with making sure they know the material and can use it in the classroom.

While I don’t know which of these things I’m going to incorporate into my courses — particularly that survey course — in the fall, I think it’s important to be open to better ways to connect the students with the ideas.  I certainly don’t want the tech to obscure the teaching — but rather I want to let it be a tool towards a better educational experience for my students.

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Categories: Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Emily Isaacson, Reading Online, Teaching with Technology, writing online
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Horizontal divider David Eshelman

Playwriting Teachers Must Be Advocates for Playwriting

posted: 6.5.15 by David Eshelman

In a blog post titled, “We Need More Crappy Plays,” theatre scholar Scott Walters makes a claim that should be obvious:  healthy theatre requires a healthy dose of new plays.  Walters lauds the Goodman Theatre in Chicago for declaring that it will produce four world premieres as part of its 2015-16 season.  As he wistfully states:  “Imagine if every regional theatre in the country devoted half of its mainstage productions to new works . . . .  What would be the result?  An American Renaissance in the theatre as our stages became [sic] once again to be relevant and vibrant.”  Unfortunately, the field of theatre—especially professional theatre, which often makes conservative choices in the name of increased ticket sales—is not always eager to support new work.

As teachers of playwriting, we must realize that we and our students are part of a community of artists.  Whereas writers in other forms—poetry, for example—can imagine that they operate exclusively in a world of writers, playwrights have no such luxury.  Their work depends on a vast network of artists – actors, designers, stage hands, etc. – who are not primarily literary.  Whereas the decision makers for the printed genres (for example, editors of creative writing journals) can be presumed to have a literary background, decision makers for theatre (for example, artistic directors of professional theatres) may have found their way to the profession through any number of fields unrelated to writing.  For this reason, they do not always see playwriting as important.  It is up to us, then, to insist that it is.

Scott Walters points out that popular music does not rely on covers of past hits, nor does the motion picture industry confine itself to remakes.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that our most vibrant contemporary art forms—popular music, stand-up comedy, video, and, to a lesser degree, movies—are predicated on originality.  Of the arts, only classical music shares theatre’s obsession with re-creating works of the past.  In contrast, visual artists must create afresh, and poetry and fiction become mere book-making without original contributions from today’s writers.  Puzzlingly, theatre is an unwitting oddball in its preference for works of the past.

What we have today is a karaoke theatre, where contemporary artists recreate yesterday’s hits.  While karaoke is entertaining, no one thinks of it as high art because it lacks the ability to further the field.  No one looks to karaoke singers to define what art and culture will become.    Regrettably, theatre today is largely karaoke theatre and satisfied to remain that way.  It excludes the contributions of today’s writers; paradoxically, amending this exclusion could be the solution to many of contemporary theatre’s problems.

Playwriting teachers must be aware of the issues facing the theatre community and must be prepared to make cases like I have made.  If teachers do not advocate for playwriting, there will be no need for the playwrights that we train.

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Categories: Teaching Advice
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Creativity in Student Work

posted: 5.18.15 by Emily Isaacson

This was the year that I embraced creative projects in my literature courses.  My department chair has been doing them for ages, and he’s been very encouraging.  His only stipulation is that English majors must write a long seminar-style paper at some point in an upper-division course- but we leave the choice of when to write that paper to the students.  Additionally we’ve got lots of non-majors taking our courses, and we want them to see connections across disciplines, so working on something other than pure literary criticism is useful to them. So this year in addition to the traditional term paper, I’ve given students the option to put together creative projects or write papers based on their own majors, using the literature. For example, several psychology majors have described the pathology of characters.

In the fall, I had the students put together an exhibition of their work. This spring, I coordinated with my department chair, who taught the other upper-division literature course, to have the students put on a mini conference where students gave brief presentations about their work.

Students who take the creative option must still write a researched introduction, but they’re otherwise given free rein to do what they want.  Letting them explore literature in this way not only gives them the opportunity to make connections between the material and their own interests, but also gives them the opportunity to really shine.

And shine they did.

One student used social media to explore Katherine Mansfield’s stories, another created a board game based on Northanger Abbey; someone created a commonplace book of tips for how to get by in Bath (also based on research about Jane Austen), while another wrote and performed songs based on Wide Sargasso Sea.  Students in both semesters developed thoughtful lesson plans using the works that we read; both semesters, students reworked pieces of literature as film scripts. And the students who opted for traditional papers wrote some incredibly thoughtful and thorough scholarship.

Sometimes I bemoan the fact that I don’t know how to teach students to be creative.  This semester in particular, I was reminded that they already are — and that I just need to give them room to be so.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Creating Assignments, Emily Isaacson, Learning Styles
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Horizontal divider Heather Sellers

Grading Versus Responding

posted: 5.4.15 by Heather Sellers

When I was finishing my PhD in creative writing, my boyfriend was a rhetorician.  He was a bit older, and a professor (not mine). I was very influenced by him. He taught me how to close-read, how to make Stromboli, how to play tennis, and how to interact properly with a cat.  All new to me.  I was enthralled. Except for one thing. Instead of “grading papers” he always said “responding to student work.”

As we were both teaching full course loads, we talked about teaching every day, at every meal, and in the evenings on our walks. So, I said “grading” a lot and he said, all the time, “responding,” and it irritated me.  Obviously, by “grading” I meant reading, writing comments, reflecting, and then assigning a grade. His term seemed tedious, and perjorative, and complicating unnecessarily a simple thing. Grading.

Ultimately, we became collaborators instead of romantic partners, and ultimately, I stopped using the word “grading.” He’d written many articles and a terrific book on all the different ways teachers comment on student work—and when we began analyzing the comments creative writing teachers make on student work (with everyone’s permission), I slowly but profoundly came to see our collective endeavor as So Much More Than Grading.

Response.  The word means answer or reply and I found that when I wrote comments on my students’ writing, I was much more focused on a relational and empathic conversation with them than I was on an evaluation. I spent my comments playing back what they had written, and suggesting places where they could go further, write deeper, say more. I mentioned exactly what I wanted to know more about. I absolutely said what I felt the strengths were and listed the two or three areas they’d want to focus on. In revising that particular piece, yes, but more importantly, what to focus on as a developing writer.  These “assessments” required a lot of discernment and I liked that process, a lot.  It sure wasn’t “grading.” I was in conversation with my students; we were on the page together.

So, as I read more deeply into the pedagogical literature on teaching writing and response (Rick Straub, Wendy Bishop, Patrick Bizarro, Andrea Lunsford), and worked on the project analyzing what we say to our students in the creative writing classroom, I gradually changed my language.

“Do you have a lot of grading to do?” I’m asked frequently this time of year. Well, no. Kind of. The grading—figuring out which letter grade to assign the students based on how well their work displayed what we set out to learn this semester—isn’t what takes up my time. It’s reading and responding meaningfully to their pages. Maybe the distinction seems picayune. But what used to irritate me has become a profoundly important distinction.

In this age of STEM, with rapidly declining enrollments in the Humanities, it’s more important than ever that we articulate what it is we do, why it’s necessary, and exactly how it matters. (I highly recommend Peter Meinke’s article, “Double Major.”)

Our students will likely have jobs where giving and receiving responses to work in progress is a crucial part of success. Not grading. In fact, delaying evaluation and judgment in order to learn how to build rapport, work in a group, and think more creatively is essential. At the end of the term, we’re not grading. We’re discerning, with empathy, and I call that response.

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Categories: Assessment, Creative Writing
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Thinking with Analogies

posted: 3.24.15 by Emily Isaacson

In preparation for our university’s re-accreditation process, my department has been reviewing the goals and objectives for our majors.  One of the things that we want to make sure our literature majors understand is the distinction between the major eras of British and American literature. Our upper division courses are broadly defined — Students in British Literature, Studies in American Literature, Studies in the Novel, and so on — which allows us to break out of the periodization paradigm. However, we run four survey courses that all literature majors,  and most writing majors, take: the standard issue Brit Lit before and after 1798, and American Lit before and after 1860.

Thus, our goal is for students at the freshman/sophomore levels to form an idea of what constitutes each major era of literature — in their junior and senior year, they may engage in a more intensive study of a single time period (I’ve taught early modern drama) or a study of a theme across time (in the fall, we’re exploring concepts of trauma and disability through an examination of monsters and monstrosity in British Literature).

But how to get students to remember the differences between the eras in order to help them gain a sense of literary history?  At this point, my own understanding of literary history is intuitive — and sometimes I forget that it’s not as obvious to students why Tennyson is a Victorian or why Swift is clearly a product of the eighteenth century.  I may lecture at the beginning of each new era on what the essential components and hallmarks are (and I’ve written previously about using fashion as a way into each era), but that doesn’t mean students are putting the pieces together as we read through the literature.

To deal with this, I tried something new when finishing up my last survey course.  To help students review for the final exam and to help them get a sense of the shifts from Romanticism to Victorianism to Modernism/Postmodernism, I decided to have them work out analogies from pop culture to explain the differences.  My example was from Friends: Phoebe is Romanticism, Monica is Victorianism, and Ross, with all his overwhelming anxieties about the world, is Modernism.  And then I set students to the task of coming up with their own analogies and explanations of their choices.

When students shared their ideas, we had a range of things — Twilight, zombies, superheroes — that made sense to them, and looking over the comprehensive essays on their final exams, I think that the exercise helped students delineate the time periods.  I plan to try this again in the fall with the pre-1798 course, and I’m looking forward to whatever weird analogies my students determine.

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Categories: Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Emily Isaacson, Learning Styles
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Horizontal divider Heather Sellers

The Pyramid: How I Teach Revision

posted: 3.10.15 by Heather Sellers

About four weeks into the semester, I write these words on the board, inside a pyramid:

Proofing and Grammar



Then, I explain the pyramid to my students, but in a very careful way.

I learned a lot about how to teach from being a step-parent and in the classroom, as on the step-homefront, I don’t tell them what to do, I share what I do. I teach from the side. I even act slightly puzzled, just slightly disinterested—probably this wouldn’t work for you slides my tone. Nothing to see here. But I’m also very engaged—with my own process: I act like I’m sharing a secret, too—step inside my studio, if you want to. I don’t let everyone in. This is not the standard curriculum. This is a writing class. We are co-alchemists and my job as teacher is to be sly and stealthy.

Here’s what I want to get across to my students in my revision lesson sneak attack. Revision is writing.  But I don’t want to say that sentence. Not ever. Because I have a feeling this sentence makes little sense to a new writer, a young writer, a college student/writer. “Revision is writing” certainly made no sense to me as a student: it sounded to my nineteen year old ears as something teachers say to sound teachery when they are trying to make something boring and time-wasting sound helpful, like broccoli. But the truth is every single working writer I know creates a draft, a piece, and then she begins to work. And it’s the act of “revision”—re-seeing—on which we spend most of our time as writers.  I don’t think students are lazy; I really believe they want to improve as writers. I think students simply don’t know how to spend the time on a piece of writing. They don’t know what to sit down and do for hours, all the hours it takes to craft something potentially substantial and significant.

So, I show them exactly what I do.

I draw the pyramid. I tell the truth: about 80% of my time is spent doing what I call re-seeing the piece.  After I writing out the images and scenes, I read the piece aloud and see what I have. I read to stabilize the narrative in place and time, layer in the dialogue, and clarify confusion. I print, read the piece it aloud again, and adjust, cutting and adding, sharpening and tuning, over and over. I will do this for as long as I have time (depending on the deadline). For a poem to take to my writing group, I will do ten or twenty rounds of this seeing and re-seeing on the page, in the course of a week. I read the work aloud to my writing partner, aloud to myself, aloud to a close friend who happens to be an editor, catching, each time, parts that aren’t clear, parts I need to see more fully.

Editing—making the sentences more artful, fact-checking, formatting, etc., takes about 15% perfect of my writing time for any given piece and proofreading for typos, spell checking and grammar checking—5%.

When I gave this lesson last week in my introductory poetry class, Aaron sat up, took his feet off his skateboard-cum-footstool, and he said, “This is the most helpful thing so far.”   “Like ever.” Natalie took a cell phone photograph of the board, and several others followed suit. Yuni got out a Hello Kitty notebook for the first time this semester, and drew the pyramid, which now had the percentages written by it and she said, “Could you say this one more time?”

“Why does no one tell us these things?” Danica said.

“Do other people do this?” Chantelle asked, holding her hand in the air as she spoke.

I nodded solemnly. My friends who are writers, they do this. We have talked about it, I say. And I make sure to always say each one of us has to find the way that works best, our own way. It’s very individual.

Then, I pull out from a folder one of my poems in progress—a thick packet of pages. I  make it seem like I just happen to have this with me. I say I don’t usually share my work in progress or talk about my process with my students. In this case, I pulled out a poem about meeting my 80 year old aunt in St. Augustine, very near the Fountain of Youth, as it happened.  I held up the first draft, which was written on the inside cover of an issue of Poetry while I was in the car. I hold up the printed out typed versions with all my many notations, all my re-seeing. I show them the drawing I did after struggling to get the opening of this poem clear, a quick sketch of the fountain at Columbia House with my aunt and her partner and my friend and his hat. Then I show them the copies my writing partners have written on, and I hold up the printouts of the emails I got back with notes on various versions of the from Dylan, Elaine, Norman, and Stephanie. Elaine’s—with track changes and many, many more words of commentary than are in the poem—draws a gasp.

“How freaking long does this take?” Joe asks. I’m dying for Joe to spend more than five minutes on anything, ever. I look him dead in the eye and say “The whole thing? From start to finish?” I hold all the pages in my palms as though I’m weighing time itself. Long dramatic pause. “Probably 25 hours?”

“For one poem?” Ken says. “Shit.”

I nod.

“Shit,” Coral says. “I need to spend more time.”

“I’m editing,” Danica says. “I thought I was a great reviser. I’m editing.”

“You’re a great editor.”

I don’t ask the students to track their time or do anything with the revision pyramid. Most semesters they ask about it again, later in the course. I see their work improve, week by week. I think learning how to spend more time on a piece of writing takes time.  For my introductory courses, presenting the pyramid and a cold hard sausage-being-made look into one writer’s folder of drafts is enough.

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Categories: Revising, Writing Process
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The Bits Blog on Literature

posted: 2.20.15 by smooney

The Bedford Bits blog provides instructors with teaching ideas from leading scholars, authors, and professors, focusing on composition generally, while LitBits was created just for literature instructors.  However, sometimes the great contributors on Bits have approaches and perspectives that are equally useful in the literature classroom.

For this week’s post, we have gathered a collection of great posts on poetry, using technology and culture to engage students, and writing as a social action.


Holly Pappas, Gen Ed Poetry: Finding a Real Toad or Two

Holly Pappas offers an assignment that will help engage students who are overwhelmed by or bored with poetry, and explains to her students that they don’t need perfect understanding to appreciate what is happening in a poem.

Joelle Hahn, Poetry, Proliferating

Technology has made an undeniable impact on the written word, and Joelle presents a variety of online resources for navigating online poetry.

Traci Gardner, Using Pop Culture to Hook Students on Poetry

Song lyrics, commercial jingles, and Dr. Seuss all play a role in Traci Gardner’s plan to entice students into loving poetry.

Andrea Lunsford/Jeanne Law Bohannon, Multimodal Mondays: Day in the Life: A DIY Assignment Using Immediate Media, Archives, and Animation to Engage Student-Scholars in Digital, Public Writing

An explanation of how Twitter, Storify, and Go Animate bring digital learning and literacy to the classroom.

Traci Gardner, A List of Ten Inspired by Literary Starbucks

Traci Gardner uses Literary Starbucks as a model, creating an assignment that allows students to playfully explore the minds and characters of great literary figures.

Michael Michaud, Writing is a Public Act: Take One

In this exploration of how the private writing of the college classroom differs from the public writing of the internet, Michael Michaud discusses his efforts to bring student writing into the public sphere and generate discussion about the impact that writing can have.

Andrea Lunsford, Writing to Make Something Happen in the World

Andrea Lunsford discusses “good writing” in the context of words that serve a performative – even a transformative – purpose in the world, sharing and causing waves of social justice and change.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Discussion, Poetry, Reading Online, Teaching with Technology
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Engaging Students in the Reading

posted: 1.28.15 by Emily Isaacson

One of the great challenges for many of us is getting students to really engage with the readings. Students may read before class, but don’t annotate. Student may not read at all. And many students don’t necessarily think on their feet about the readings at hand. One of my challenges in the classroom is getting students to go back to the text itself, rather than simply talking in abstract terms about what happened in a story or a play.

As a member of my university’s faculty development committee, I’ve found myself in charge of a workshop on this very topic: getting students to engage with the reading. Given that’s it’s time for a new semester, I thought it might be useful to share a list of activities to use in the classroom to help foster thoughtful engagement with the text itself. Some of these are things I’ve written about before, some are ideas from other people that I’ve found helpful.

In-class discussion questions

Everyone approaches classroom discussion differently, and every class dynamic requires some different approaches to the way we present the questions to the students.

  • I’m a frequent user of small groups in my classrooms, and I’ve developed a number of ways to get the groups working on ideas. This particular exercise is one that encourages students to consider their own answers — but then to also evaluate the quality of other people’s answers.
  • This semester I tried something new with students who were reluctant to jump into full-class discussions. I projected 4-5 discussion questions (usually culled from the instructor’s manual to the textbook) and gave students the first 5-10 minutes of class to find information that would help answer those questions. I wish I could tell you where I ran across this idea, but it worked wonders with a class that was reluctant to join in discussions.
  • I’ve long used student-generated discussion questions in my upper division classes.
  • This guest post by Ben Bunting has some nice ideas about literature and contexts as discussion openers.

Writing as Discussion

Many of my courses are writing intensive courses, so I try to integrate written analysis of the literature into classroom participation.

  • I’ve found success with having students write analytical paragraphs as part of their approach to the texts, which can work in any classroom where analyzing information is central.
  • Barclay Barrios suggests having students write argument haikus about complex informational texts, which could certainly be translated into discussion-openers in a literature classroom. I will be doing this next semester, most assuredly. (Barrios has also suggested a way to do this with Vine.

In class reading

Actually having students read in the classroom can be useful, particularly early in the semester when they’re just figuring out how to do the work of the literature classroom.

  • Critical Reading , as exemplified here, is a technique I picked up from the Foundation for Critical Thinking. It can be useful when students are approaching a really challenging work. It helps students recognize the need to slow down as they read, and can build confidence in the idea that they can actually do the difficult reading.
  • I also like to have students make use of contexts sections in anthologies.
  • Having students view characters through the eyes of other characters in the text can be a useful way to understand character motivation.

Multi-modal approaches

Encouraging students to have fun with the literature, while still looking carefully into the text itself can be a useful way to engage students who are not English majors.

  • I recently had students create comics about Charles Dickens.
  • In teaching “The Things They Carried,” I’ve had students create categories of the items in the book — and I think this is something that could be adapted for a wide variety of stories and poems.
  • Barclay Barrios has written both about drawing the argument (which I’ve adapted as drawing the poem)

The aural nature of literature

And finally, literature — especially poetry — should be approached through the aural experience.

  • Joanne Diaz has students perform Shakespeare’s sonnets as slam poems, which encourages the students to consider the varying patterns of the poems.
  • Joanne Diaz also has her students use the Woodberry Poetry Room to teach students about active listening.

I think that all of these are adaptable for different levels and for different texts, which is generally how most of my teaching goes: I see what others are doing, and I adapt it to what works with my particular groups of students. I’m looking forward to another semester of teaching — and I certainly plan to adapt some of these activities in new ways for my classrooms.

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