Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Affective Dimensions

Last time in class, we talked about how culture affects literacy and learning. When I think on this, I realize that in my family, there was never any conflict between my home life and my school life. There are pictures of me sitting in front of books from the time I was one year old, and my mom tried to teach me how to write my name at that time as well. My house was filled with books.

I remember I was crazy about Davy Jones from the Monkees--I listened to their tapes so many times that the tape film grew thin and stopped working. I also watched the Monkee TV series, and my grandma taped all of their episodes and saved them for me on a VHS. Of course, that meant I read about the Monkees too, including Davy Jones trivia books, and of course, his big-time classic biography: "They Made a Monkee Out of Me." I mean, EVERYBODY has read that one, right??

So, in sum, I had lots of books and reading experiences at home, and lots of books and reading experiences at school. Because of this congruence, I did well in school, and I became a teacher.

There's a famous book by Denis Lortie, titled School Teacher, that talks about how people perpetuate the system in which they grew up. In other words, people like me who did well in school, end up liking school, graduating from school, and becoming a teacher. Very rarely do people who hated school, did poorly in school, and ended up not graduating, become a teacher.

Lortie says that the problem with this is that the system is reproduced. So instead of getting people who might diversify the system, we get people like me who maybe experience no conflict between their home life and school life, and consequently may not seek to change the system to make it more inclusive of people with different home lives.

I think it's important to recognize that students do come from multiple backgrounds and I appreciated people's suggestions for actively trying to incorporate those backgrounds into their teaching.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Writing in Middle and High School


When I reflect on my experiences in writing in middle school and high school, the memories that stand out to me the most are from my ninth-grade English class. (To protect and preserve the identity of the innocent, er, guilty, my English teacher shall remain nameless.)

Up until that point, I had tons of positive reinforcement on my writing. I remember my fifth-grade teacher praising me for "painting a picture with words," and my eighth-grade English teacher asked to use my works as models for other students. I wrote, wrote, wrote all the time: stories, poems, prayers, inspirational quotations, observations, notes to friends, you name it. My method of processing the world was through writing. 

But when I was in ninth-grade English, my view of myself as a writer changed. When my view of myself as a writer changed, my willingness to write outside of school also changed. I stopped writing, writing, writing.

What happened to cause me to lose my love of writing? I wrote what was (at least to me) a brilliant psychological thriller that had been percolating in my mind for at least a year. The story was written by somebody with a split personality disorder who did not know that she had a split personality disorder. She was actually the killer while also being afraid of the killer. I don't remember the specifics exactly, but I do remember that it was beautifully, subtly written (in my ninth-grade mind), and that the whole key to the story depended on a red handkerchief, which was the primary clue.

I remember the English teacher submitted the story back to me with nothing but a big A- on the front of it, with a comment, "So the narrator was the killer?" 

I felt justified that she at least GOT my clue, but crestfallen that the story I had worked so hard on received an A-. The teacher then went on a verbal rant to the whole class, saying that she had never read a batch of stories that was so dark and disturbing before, and she was sure that the media was ruining our young and impressionable minds. 

Okay, but in my defense, almost all of the stories I wrote were upbeat and chipper; this story was just a psychological thriller/slash/murder mystery, which is a totally valid genre. Now that I reflect back on it, I think the teacher was so worn out from reading stories that she gave me an A- in part because she was weary of violence, and not because I had written a poor story. I currently work with teachers now who admit that when they are in a bad mood, they give lower scores to essays than when they are in a good mood. 

I went home that night, threw the story away, stopped writing for pleasure...and more importantly, began to doubt my ability to write stories. 

What can be learned from this story? 

I take away a few lessons:

First, teachers should not evaluate assignments based on their personal beliefs, but rather according to specified pre-determined criteria. The teacher evaluated my story based on her personal belief that stories with murders were bad, but she never told me in advance that she did not want a murder mystery. I felt like she evaluated me based on her morals instead of on the story's literary merit.

Second, students deserve positive feedback as well as constructive criticism. If she had said something like, "I really loved the subtlety of your clues," or something like that, I probably would not have thrown the story away, even if she had still given me the A-.

Third, teachers need to remember they are working with students who internalize their teachers' opinions of them. Believe me, I know that reading essays gets very tiring, but students still deserve to know what they do well, and they deserve people who encourage them, believe in them, and make them feel like they can succeed as writers.