Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Big Picture

Recently, I met with a consultant the school is bringing in to help us with our inquiry work. She pushed a few of my ideas further, and helped me clarify some of the ways I'm going to go about working on this project. But she also suggested that I ask some bigger-picture questions about the curriculum we teach and why we teach what we teach. One of the questions we came up with was: how does the stuff we teach actually lead to critical thinking?

The question came up as I described to her my struggles with teaching literary analysis in a way that lets students' hearts be in their work. It's not easy. So she asked me why we have to teach it at all. I came up with the usual reasons: writing such essays is required in college, and becoming skilled at literary analysis will benefit our students by making them better critical thinkers—if they can dissect a text, then they can dissect anything else. But as I teach freshmen the rudiments of such analysis this fall, I am reminded of just how difficult a genre it is, and just how arbitrary some of the rules may seem. Is asking students to fit into this mold also somehow depriving them of developing their own critical voices? Or are there ways to get them into this mode that allow for more freedom?

In Advanced Comp, I've been experimenting with allowing students to choose their texts for the analytical writing portion of the class. In part, my decision to do so is grounded in the idea that choice is incredibly important to writers. In the real world, scholars choose both their field of study and their concentrations, even though they do have to sometimes take courses (and write papers) that are out of their particular concentration. So why wouldn't high school students benefit from an element of choice in what they study? This year's experiment has gone well: I have four groups reading four books, and they're working with each other to understand the texts and write about them. That doesn't mean that they love expository writing—they're all excited to move on to writing personal narrative next week. But giving them choice does mean that they've made an investment that they have in the texts that they might not otherwise have. As one student put it to me when I asked them how choosing books was different, "Even if I hate the book, I'd still be like, this is cool because I chose it."

But those are seniors; they've spent the last four years working their analytical muscles, and while they don't all feel that they're strong writers, they do know what the expectations are for their writing. What can I do with freshmen to engage them more in the process of writing out their thoughts?

Several things come to mind, many of which I use regularly in my classes: informal writing serves often as a bridge between thinking and talking in class and writing formal papers; open time for journaling gives my students time to use writing for something other than analysis; sometimes I say during a particularly good discussion that the way we're breaking down the text is exactly what students are supposed to do in their essays. But few of these tactics lead to my students' feeling anything more than frustrated with the process of learning to write this way—there isn't always the joy of discovery as students first begin learning to write analytically. Older students do get this joy: once they're not struggling all the time with form, the ideas/content can become engaging in and of itself. At that point, they're thinking critically, and happy to do so.

Back to teaching freshmen critical thinking: I need to collect information about my primary question. (How do I make writing something that all students feel they are both able to do and able to improve upon?) I need to find a way to pursue this question that allows me to see tangible results. And I needed to start collecting that data three weeks ago (funny how work gets in the way of work sometimes...). Here's what I'm going to do in the next week: make a quick check-in survey for my frosh, see what they say, and try to tweak some practices in the final stretch of the class. I'll work with a couple of students in particular to see if I can help them stretch those analytical muscles a bit more. And I'll report back, sooner than a month from now.