2nd day of class: English 121 MW and English 100 W

ENGLISH 121-049

Today I remembered to turn the camcorder on. Already, it’s a good day.

Our focus activity today was 10 minutes of freewriting (followed by class discussion) about Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” which Tovar Cerulli writes about in the first chapter of The Mindful Carnivore. I asked the students to respond to one or more of these questions: “What do ‘wild things’ mean to you? Are they a reason for hope? For fear? Are they a nuisance? Or something else?” Some students joked that the “wild things” they thought of were the ones in the movie, so I told them to write about that. A few students asked for more direction; freewriting or writing about their own ideas and experience may not be a regular part of their educational experience. I think they’ve got the idea now, though, especially after our class discussion about what they wrote.

The discussion was especially useful, because it established what the students already knew about where food comes from, what it means to work in food production, and what it means to be wild. The primary activity for the day was working through a table describing the strategies of proficient readers. The first strategy is identifying what we already know about the topic of the text.

Strategies of Proficient Readers handout, from Buehl, Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning, 3rd ed.)

I separated the students into groups that they will stay in for the next week or so, and I encouraged them to rely on each other in their groups as we worked through the strategy steps as a class today. At one point, a student (Daniel, in my English 100 class also) asked how he was supposed to get to step 5 (or so) all by himself, if he found himself alienated by the style in which the text was written. I told him to use his group. We make knowledge in groups, and this is a way that we do it. We ask each other, “What did you get out of that? I understood it this way. What did you think?” I hope the entire class realizes that they are a tremendous resource for each other’s learning — if they don’t realize it today, I hope they realize it by the end of the semester.

I had each group transfer their notes on one of the strategies to a blank overhead sheet, and I collected them. I was going to put them on the overhead if we had time in class, but we didn’t, so I’ll scan them and put them online. I actually used clear report covers instead of overheads, because the overheads were only available in boxes costing $50, but the pens didn’t work so well on the report covers, so maybe it’s worth investing in actual overheads.

ENGLISH 100-908

Today I met with my five students in English 100 for the first time. These are all students from my 121 section who did well enough in English 108 that their teachers said they should have the chance to skip 109 and go straight to 121, with an extra 1-hour meeting with the instructor each week. That’s what 100 is: the extra hour per week. All the 100 students are guys this time, all pretty young (I don’t have any older students so far this semester). Three of the five are naturally talkative and two are less so.

I am calling them by pseudonyms here on the blog. One is Daniel, because he is brave in the face of danger, like Daniel in the Bible. One is Phineas, after Phineas and Ferb. One is Victor, because I think he deserves that name. One is Zack, after the Freddie Prinze, Jr., role in She’s All That, because he reminds me of that character once Zack became a good guy. The last one is Cameron, after Ferris Bueller’s best friend.

At the suggestion of other instructors who have taught 100 before, I asked the students what they wanted to have happen during 100 each week and what they wanted the class policies to look like. They decided they would like to have 1 free absence (there are 15 class periods in the semester) before an intervention from me (it’s a pass/fail class, I believe). They also decided they would prefer to use the hour to discuss whatever they want to from 121, rather than having a set curriculum. I said I would read and prepare so that I could bring in helpful ideas and strategies when they needed them, and they accepted that.

They also explained to me what sort of information they need when I am frontloading the class in preparation for the Cerulli text: things like, why is Cerulli taking so freaking long to talk about a fish or a tree? What’s the point? Who is Willie, and what role will he play later on? I explained that Cerulli looks back on his choices and feels that he was lied to or he lied to himself, and he wants to be extra careful in his choices now so that he can feel good about what he is doing. He realized that his choices have consequences that he never thought about before, so he want to think about them now so that he doesn’t get caught in that trap again. He talks about his father’s friend, Willie, because Willie is a sort of spiritual mentor for Cerulli as Cerulli tries to make sense of the big meanings of his small acts. Daniel said, “That’s the sort of thing I need to know. Now, when I read, I’ll be looking for that stuff, instead of thinking, why in the hell is he going on and on about a fish?”

We talked about strategies for improving the reading experience when they don’t like a text, which they don’t — some of them really hate The Mindful Carnivore so far. However, they already use a surprisingly self-aware and progressive set of strategies for reading success, so I believe they will make good use of these new suggestions.

I gave each of them an assignment to try certain things to improve their experience with this book. In order to help them keep all the boring text from running together, I told everyone to stop at the bottom of each page and write a sentence summarizing the content of that page. Here are the individual assignments:

  • Victor is assigned to draw pictures making use of all the detailed imagery given by the author.
  • Zack is assigned to put sticky notes in the book at key points with (1) some concrete detail from the text, and (2) his own thoughts relating to that detail, however random they may be.
  • Cameron is assigned to find an audiobook version of the text and see if that is more engaging than the print version.
  • Phineas is assigned to find ways to set aside time to read and ways to protect himself from his noisy and invasive parents, so he can actually get some work done.
  • Daniel is already deploying effective reading strategies, but he needs to open himself to the possibility of seeing things (fish, the world, other people) differently, as suggested by the text. I asked him to go find a fresh-caught fish and look at it, and see if he can see all the things that Cerulli describes.

I had them write down things they already know to do or things they can do to help themselves read successfully. They listed things like: reading aloud, reviewing the cover and the preface/introduction to find the purpose and style of the text, rereading certain passages, reading and then re-skimming each chapter for main ideas, finding a location with either quiet or static noise to enhance their experience, and protecting a certain time of day for reading.

I really like these guys. They are determined and intelligent. I pointed out that they are teaching me how to teach them, and they seemed to accept that we have a shared responsibility for their learning. I’m excited to see what they have to teach me.

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