What a stimulating experience – the 2014 National Writing Project Annual Meeting and the National Council of Teachers of English Convention in Washington DC. So many great sessions. So many excellent ideas to take back to the Chippewa River Writing Project and my classroom. The only drawback to conferences of this size and scope is idea overload, so I’ll chat here about only the best of the best that I attended.
For all of us who expose our secondary classrooms to Shakespeare, the Folger Shakespeare Library sessions are an excellent source of inspiration. The session I attended demonstrated one way to introduce a play to students totally unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s language. In this live demonstration typical 9th graders from a local Washington DC high school read a short Shakespeare text four times. The teaching takeaway is to have students read aloud a short section of uncomplicated script several times, emphasizing a different element with each read-through. Students change characters, with every student having the opportunity to read at least once. When emphasizing unfamiliar vocabulary, students circle words as they encounter them and a discussion of meanings takes place afterward. This is especially helpful when encountering the many references to Greek mythology having archaic spelling, which Shakespeare often employs. Reading to the punctuation is always insightful to students. When the demonstration group was asked afterwards about their experience, many said that Shakespeare was easier to understand than they had expected. That response is certainly what any teacher of Shakespeare’s plays desires. This year, I have been contemplating how best to elucidate Hamlet to my 10th grade class which has a larger-than-normal population of academically challenged students. Using this technique of re-reading a short, uncomplicated passage and Folger’s 15-Minute Hamlet text, I believe all of my students will have a successful Shakespeare experience.
Another session that I found challenging to my presuppositions, “Blurred Lines: Landscapes of Truth and Fiction,” involved using information from fictional as well as nonfiction texts as evidence when writing an argument. While I knew about photoshopping, I had not thought about the “blurred line” that photoshopping is visual fiction. Nor had I contemplated teaching my students that maps can be political tools and/or informational fiction. I do instruct my students that some information found on the Internet today is fake, but I don’t know whether they employ this knowledge beyond the classroom. By setting the purpose to search for argument evidence while reading a variety of fiction and nonfiction texts, students are naturally motivated to read closely. Texts used during the demonstration included Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, (looking for evidence about who’s to blame) Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, and multigenre text sets including Voices of the Holocaust and Broken Glass, Broken Lives by Arnold Geier (“What impact did Kristallnacht have on the Jewish population of Europe at the beginning of WWII?”). The pre-reading question, “Is Dickens still relevant in the 21st century?,” was posed before students read A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. Textual evidence from both fictional and nonfiction sources was employed as support for the students’ arguments. I can readily agree that reading with the purpose of developing an argument using fiction, as well as nonfiction texts, can expose students to a wide range of well written literature, assist students in making connections between fiction and nonfiction genres, and help students create a well-supported argument.
A round table discussion about a Place-Based Advanced Institute was thought-provoking and, I believe, particularly relevant to the CRWP and its proposed Advanced Institute at Beaver Island in 2015. The Rhode Island Writing Project held their first place-based Advanced Institute on three islands off the shores of Rhode Island. The goals for the RIWP event included developing a self-sustaining yearly institute not dependent on grant funds and building leadership capacity for their WP. While they used island-based poetry, quotes, and excerpts from fictional texts as writing prompts for their focus on personal refreshment and renewal, the cross-curricular applications for a STEM-focused institute are clearly visible. The RIWP invited speakers from the local historical society and island ecologists to present during their three-day institute, used non-motorized travel on the islands, and posed an essential question (“What does it mean to be a Rhode Islander?”) as the focus for writing prompts. The RIWP round-table handouts included planning meeting notes, projected costs, a packing list, a daily agenda, various writing prompts, and even an RIWP bookmark. I think these resources will be very helpful to the planning team for the proposed CRWP Advanced Institute if the grant proposal is accepted.
Again, with “Story as the Landscapes of Knowing” as the theme for the 2014 national conference, I was reminded of the power of narratives in our lives. Since I truly believe that fiction should not take a back seat to nonfiction, unlike what is emphasized in the CCSS, I was pleased to see the focus on fiction narratives in many of the NWP and NCTE sessions. The three sessions outlined above offered perspectives through an innovative lens that I could take back to my classroom and implement this year, as well as resources for the CRWP. Talk about refreshment and renewal! This pair of conferences offers both to the intrepid Language Arts teacher, providing me with many stories about teaching that I can take back to my own students and colleagues.
Deborah Meister is a high school language arts teacher at Fellowship Baptist Academy in Carson City, MI, and a Teacher Consultant at the Chippewa River Writing Project. She has co-directed the CRWP Middle School Writing and Technology Camp for the past three summers at Central Michigan University with author Jeremy Hyler.
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