Saturday, September 22, 2007

What Teaching English III Looks Like

Friday's Student Quote Of The Day: "I can't believe we have to work so much in this class! We didn't have to do any of this work last year. We never had homework. We never talked about theme and tone. We didn't have to do any of this literary analysis stuff."

Me: "But this year you're juniors. I have to prepare you for the TAKS and SATs, and for college or careers. Those things require you to be able to read and write very well, and I wouldn't be a good teacher if I ignored how much work is involved to succeed at them, would I?"

Student: "I didn't say it was a bad thing. I just can't believe it."


Because I needed a solid writing sample from my students that wasn't a personal narrative, I assigned a 3 paragraph "literary analysis" covering theme and tone in a Native American speech. For preparation I gave them a list of the 6 most common themes in Native American literature and rhetoric as notes. We've also been working on tone since the second day of class, and have identified the tone of several folktales and speeches already. They also received a list of tone descriptions from me, and added to it on their own. We then read Chief Seattle's 1854 Oration together, and completed a close-reading activity I designed which required them to comb through the speech identifying similes, and imagery. They had a day and a half to complete the writing.

The instructions were explicit: Compose a 3 paragraph literary analysis of Chief Seattle's 1854 Oration. In the first paragraph, identify one of the common themes in Native American literature and rhetoric, and provide a quote from the speech which illustrates that theme. In the second paragraph, choose any passage and identify its tone. Provide a quote which illustrates the tone you've chosen. In the third paragraph, choose a passage you particularly liked, and explain why it caught your attention.

That was the assignment. The actual implementation of it looked something like this:

Putting Out Fires

Do we just make up any theme we want? No, you simply choose one from the notes you took in class on common themes.

I don't have those notes. Check your binder. Look at the table of contents I gave you for your work this 6 weeks. See number 18, Notes on Common Themes in Native American Literature and Rhetoric? Right between 17 and 19? Go and see if you have those notes. Oh, yeah, I have them right here.

What's tone again? Check your notes. They are number 4 in your binder.

Do we have to write in complete sentences? Yes, because your sentences will need to make paragraphs, as explained in the instructions.

Do we need to put our names on this paper?

Is this for a big grade, or a little grade?

Should I indent my paragraphs?

Does spelling count?

Is "nostalgic" a word?
Yes. How do you spell it?

Silent Writing Time

3 minutes in: Why have you put your things in your backpack? Did you finish your literary analysis already? I thought this was just busy work. I don't give busy work. Lots of teachers do. I'm sorry that's been your experience. Get out your paper and pencil and begin writing.

5 minutes in: [Student delivers paper to my desk. It has a bulleted list of the required information, and is on a different speech.] Go back and read the directions again carefully.

10 minutes in: Is this all we're doing today? Have you finished yours? No. Then let's cross each bridge as we come to it.

15 minutes in: Someone farts. It sounds staged.

20 minutes in: Class still recovering from fart.

25 minutes in: have managed to redirect entire class back to writing, but copy-cat farts have sprung up.

30 minutes in: Principal makes announcement about something important enough to interrupt my class. Students should not be using cell phones in the hallways. Yes, thanks, that'll fix it.

35 minutes in: Still walking the room, still having to show students the notes, the correct speech, reminding them to write in complete sentences.

Next period: wash, wince, repeat.

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