Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Morning Announcements

            “Miss O’ would like to apologize for leaving off a critical piece of instruction in yesterday’s post. The final line should have read:

            In order to replicate the desired feeling of a true instructional day, please read this blog post every hour on the hour FIVE TIMES, substituting in 30 new student names each time, assorted disciplinary infractions, and hunger pangs because you gave make-up quizzes during your 20-minute lunch period.

"We apologize for any convenience."

"We would also like to apologize for the snort you just heard from Nick DeFonde, 'Heh, she said 'period.'"

I also realized that I should have given you your marching orders for the rest of the week because I’m not doing another big post until Saturday probably (my playwright’s lab meets tonight, for example, and I’m developing what promises to be a motherfucker of a cold, sweeties).

For TODAY: Collect response pieces from yesterday’s assignment. Follow instructional path for Monday, substituting “setting” for “character development." Point out (and have the students point out and read aloud) Steinbeck’s descriptions of the ranch, the isolation and harsh beauty/lack of beauty of the landscape, Crooks’s room, the bunkhouse, etc. The setting, as you know, will mirror the feelings of isolation in the characters, which will be important for the theme discussion on Thursday. Assign a short response piece, asking students to reflect on setting and character. Grade yesterday’s 150 (really 80, sadly) response pieces. (Multiply teaching times 5.)

For WEDNESDAY: Collect yesterday’s response pieces. Same as above, subbing in “plot events,” to which you will add the skill “Sequence.” This is important, mapping out the events, because kids think the novel takes place over many months, when in fact it is three days. That’s the gift of Steinbeck—he can take you so completely into a world, and show how painfully it can drag a body down, that it’s a shock to realize how tightly packed the events actually are. When they doubt you, just say, “Where in the novel does the narrator say, ‘Weeks passed’?” Assign a plot even time line to be completed in class in pairs. Grade yesterday’s 150 (sadly, only 50) response papers. (Multiply teaching times 5.)

THURSDAY: Big Theme Day! Today you will pull together all the big themes in the novel, including mercy killing, and have the big moral debate, “Was George right to kill Lennie?” This can be emotional. Don’t judge. Always bring them back to the text.
Assign the Essay. Times FIVE. (See Writing below.)

FRIDAY: Allow class time to begin drafting the Essay. Have students work in pairs or small groups to discuss ideas, and break for writing. Make it due in stages through next week, marking each stage from draft to revise to final until your eyes bleed, times 150, times three, times 5, which means you are reading how many versions? Math is HARD.


            In Language Arts, to continue with my instructional example, there is no such thing as teaching literature alone. The standards dictate instruction in vocabulary, grammar, writing, speaking, and listening. As a result, a teacher has to plan instruction to include teaching a variety of standards. Here are some examples.


            An eminent writing teacher and expert in pedagogy once said in a seminar at Bread Loaf, “I never understood the point of putting 20 words from a book up on the board for kids to define.” He smiled warmly. The other students, mostly teachers, laughed knowingly. I stared with a furrowed brow.

“I always do that,” I thought to myself. Hmmm. So the next school year, I assigned a complex story in class, had the students read it, and afterward I put up a transparency with about 15 words from the story. “Here’s your vocabulary list,” I said.

“What do those words have to do with the story?” a kid asked. Others agreed.

“All these words are in the story,” I said, and I uncovered the page numbers on which each word appeared. They couldn’t believe it.

            So prior to seminar discussions about the text itself, I used to put up a list of twenty vocabulary words from any text, such as the novel above, and invariably my students would say, “Those words aren’t in this book.”

And that is why we teach Vocabulary with a  capital “v”!! Why did they miss these words? They did what most readers do: They just skipped over what they didn’t know. How to encourage the use of the dictionary?  (I know I live with a dictionary in every room. I can’t live without looking stuff up.)

So I told them this little story, the one about how I read the novel Silence Over Dunkirk, or Dunquerque, and wondered all through that WWII book what the word [here I will pronounce it] "chay-oce" was. It was, like, on every page. Finally I looked it up, after I finished the book. CHAOS. Pronounced, KAY-oss. I new what KAY-oss was! Jeez. Changed the whole book for me. And that is why you use a goddamned dictionary.

Teach vocabulary. Dammit anyway.


            Critical essays, theme papers, comparative literature assignments where students compare themes in the novel to a poem (even a seemingly unrelated one such as “Dogfish” by Mary Oliver, which can make real sense thinking about Curley’s wife), and short response papers are often the most valuable ways to apply instruction. Since this is not a blog about teaching English per se, I’m not going there, here. At least not today. In addition, you may want to include specific lessons in dialect, since Steinbeck’s characters speak ungrammatically. Have students “fix” the sentences grammatically and discuss how it alters the novel, for example.

            Okay. That should get you through Friday! Big kiss. (Hope you don't catch my cold.)

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