3rd day of class: English 121 MW

Today I focused on a couple of different aspects of the Learners’ Bill of Rights:

  1. Learners deserve a map, so they can see where they’re supposed to be going.
  2. Learners require reasons to engage with the content and the texts covered in class. Their reasons may not be the teacher’s reasons. While the learners do bear responsibility for doing the work of engaging with the text, the teacher shares that responsibility, in that it is also the teacher’s job to figure out how to present content and texts in a way that the learners can understand and make immediate use of.

In class this time, I wanted to address something the English 100 guys brought up last week: why Cerulli uses so many details in his writing. He doesn’t need to use that many details to get his point across, so what is he hoping to achieve by it? (Learners require reasons!)

What I told the guys last week was that sometimes artists portray something in a certain way in order to get you to see it differently. (You could make the case that all art does this; if it doesn’t, it’s not art, it’s decoration. But that’s a different class discussion.) Their assignments last week included the directive to try to be open to new ways of seeing. That’s what we spent the first part of class today doing: observing, noticing, perceiving.

I took the students to the Japanese Garden on the CLC campus. This little courtyard is enclosed on 4 sides by the two-story school building. It has a water feature that includes a little pool, a small waterfall, and a long, twisting, fast-running stream. There are trees and tall reeds and bushes and rocks and grass, and a patio with cafe tables and sunbrellas. It was about 1 p.m. CDT when we got there.

I gave the students 10 minutes to observe and take notes. They spread out over the garden, some finding seats at the cafe tables, but most settling around the central water feature.

A few of the guys had a hard time settling down, resulting in some minor disciplinary problems at the beginning of class involving comments about how pointless the observation exercise was, along with some colorful profanity. I didn’t get upset about it, but I did redirect them into the activity.

Daniel especially felt frustrated because he didn’t know what I was asking him for. As he said, “I look at things, and I see them, and that’s it. I don’t know what else you want me to do.” He said that, when he goes camping, he notices all kinds of things, like animal tracks, so I ran with that.

I brought him over to the pool that feeds the waterfall, and pointed out how we could see the ripples in the water. The ripples gave us all kinds of information: we could tell that there was a water source below the surface, and that the edges of the pool reflected the water flow back in erratic ways that signaled an erratically ridged wall surface. I pointed out how the water bounced off the angled chute on the way to the waterfall, and how the water got aerated by plunging over the falls into another pool. I suggested that he imagine that the waterfall was a large one, falling over a high cliff, and that he had to decide from its looks whether the pool was deep enough to dive into, or what kinds of animals might live in the pool. I also pointed out how the color of the bushes changed when they were in light or in shadow (color is reflected light), and how the tracks of lawnmowers were clearly visible in the grass.

Really, what I want from these students at this point is pure observation, not interpretation, but I will take interpretation if it includes careful perception. This student needed not only a map, but a reason to see differently. Looking for useful information is a reason that I hope makes sense to him.

When the 10 minutes were up, I took everyone back to the classroom. There, before we launched into our discussion of what they observed in the garden, I gave them a short description and explanation of my profanity policy: “taboo” words are violent words, which does not make them evil, but it does mean that they have a certain power. If we use them all the time, they lose their power. I prefer that we save these violent words for times when we really need them to express a violent emotion. If we read them in a text for class, then we go ahead and say them, because they were included in that text for a specific persuasive reason — they are chosen with care and intention. In general, though, we show each other respect, maintain professionalism, and demonstrate maturity by refraining from the use of profanity unless we really need it. I noted that other teachers might have a different attitude toward profanity, but this is mine.

Then we started our discussion on observation. The students related details like how the breeze felt and where they could see it moving over the trees, reeds, and grass; what color the water was; where the bees gathered over one section of the stream; how peaceful it felt; and the fact that there was a breeze even though the garden was enclosed two stories high on all four sides. Daniel, who had asked me what he should be seeing, volunteered that he had noticed that, in the shade, the grass was still wet from the dew or the sprinkler system, but it was dry in the sunshine. (Yes! Observation!)

I told them that, as human beings, we usually don’t see what’s actually there. We focus on only what we consider important, and we make that proportionally bigger in our mental pictures, to reflect its importance. If we draw a human head, we tend to make the face too big, because the face carries so much information for us that that is all we tend to see when we look at each other. In other words, we rely on patterns to help us select what to pay attention to. The danger there is that, if we’re not careful, we accept the persuasion of the pattern and think we are seeing everything, when really we are only focusing on a small part of what is really there in front of us.

I wrote the word, “tree” on a sheet of paper and showed it to them. “What is that?” They said it was the word, “tree.” (Actually, it’s just a symbol for the word, “tree,” but that’s okay.)

Then I drew a cartoon tree with an apple in its branches. “But when we see this, what do we say it is?”

“A tree,” most of them said.

“This is not a tree,” I told them. “It is a picture of a tree. It’s important to know the difference. Everybody on this planet is trying to sell you something. It can be an idea they want you to buy, not just a pair of jeans or a Coke. But they want you to buy it without questioning. Every day, people are positioning you as consumers, not as thinking, self-motivated action-takers. Try to see what is actually there before you buy what they’re selling. That is what I want you to practice this semester: seeing what is actually there.” I’m not sure if that was a coherent message, but I can build on it as the semester goes on. They never remember everything I say only the one time, anyway.

The next part of class was practice taking notes and whittling them down to just the important bits (see Strategies of Proficient Readers), using a PBS movie called Dogs Decoded. (Learners deserve a map!) The movie is subtitled, which makes it easier for everyone to follow along and remember things long enough to write them down. It’s also interesting to all the dog lovers (of which I have many in class this semester). Best of all, this documentary is formatted exactly like a research paper using secondary sources, which is what they write as undergraduates, so it’s a good introduction to that format.

I started by showing them a template of a research paper. (A map!)

MLA Paper Format for English 122

This template shows that the argument of this kind of paper has six parts: introduction, background, primary argument, naysayer argument, rebuttal, and conclusion. I explained that the movie would follow this format, and that we would discuss which points would go where on an outline using only the most important bits of information from the movie.

Which is what we did. We only got through the first 20 minutes of the film, but we had a good discussion afterward of which points were primary and which were secondary. I’ll refer back to this film later in the semester when I introduce the idea of the source/quote sandwich, which is the core of every body paragraph in an academic research paper. The film introduces its sources and comments on them exactly the way writers do in a source sandwich.

One student asked an interesting question about causation vs. correlation, which I’ll revisit later in the semester.

There was one last tiny little spurt of profanity as the movie started in class, but that student quickly corrected himself. Overall, they responded very well to correction today.

After class, I ran into one of the other teachers in the Gang of Seven while I was in the Communication Arts office. We commiserated about how hard it was to figure out how to teach things (like proficient reading skills) that most of us English teachers learned intuitively, when we were so young that we can’t remember what the learning was like anymore. I referred him to the Buehl text, which I have found very helpful so far.

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