Friday, December 12, 2014

SWCBlogger Challenge #2: Storytelling Moments

VAMP in the Classroom by Slidely Photo Gallery

It's official! We've named our blog challenge SWCBloggers! Here's my second installment, responding to the prompt:  "Reflect on your teaching week. How did this week go? What "aha" moments did you have?" Here goes: 

One of my biggest challenges and learning curves is developing writing projects that ask students to write for a real audience, that compel students to express meaningful ideas in a public fashion. I experimented this year with monologues, a "hacked" version of public radio story-telling programs (something between  This American Life's Serial and NPR's This I Believe).

I re-purposed the Visual Auditory Monologue Performance Showcase  (VAMP), a storytelling project from the local non-profit creative arts organization So Say We All  (I wrote about my "in-class VAMP" here).

Students prepared monologues about literacy and borderlines, and presentations began this week. This isn't the first time I've assigned personal narratives, a first-year composition staple, Yet the prompt and added performance aspect of the project upped the ante, both in terms of how much students workshopped their projects and the stories' emotional punch. 

Even better? Students somehow avoided delving into issues they weren't ready to address. Though some monologues dealt with serious issues - death, trauma, social dislocation, emotional turmoil - by and large, students maintained enough emotional distance from the event so they could actually "control" the narrative, make meaning of their stories rather than merely summarizing events. Not that I'm against the power of ventilating, an important step to integrating difficult memories. But this assignment asked students to do more than recount the past; they had to use a life event to illustrate a significant theme, a meaningful dominant impression. 

And they did! In no particular order, here are some of the observations, "ahas" that struck me: 

Medium:  Experiencing students vocalize their stories gave their narratives greater impact, both to the speaker and the audiences. The embodied nature of speaking added a dimension that reading a static text just can't. 

Agency: Students paid close attention to each others' monologues.  They also observed how each student took control of personal experience, exerting authorial agency over the events they experienced. Seeing each other forge meaning from difficult moments gave everyone examples of a growth mindset. Students told the truth about what they faced without sugarcoating. At the same time, they arranged memory and events in ways that turned what could have been an excuse to quit into a valuable life lesson. Students saw how storytelling can create coherence out of difficulty, even traumatic, moments. 

Identity: The theme "borderlines" and "literacy" yielded stories about identity. Not surprising. The majority of students are between 17 and 22 years old, a crucial period of identity development. The most poignant identity crises they addressed had to do with feeling a part of a cultural group, experiencing alienation from the groups which they are members. The struggle for ethnic or racial authenticity, particularly as it has to do with language, played out in so many stories. Their stories struck me; students who appeared to be confident, fully integrated young adults experience significant struggles when it comes to reconciling the languages they can or cannot speak and their ethnic or racial identity. 

Process: For many students, this was one of the first time they engaged in purposeful revision, composing more than a single draft. They felt the burn of a sustained intellectual project culminating in a public presentation. This stands in high contrast to a series of skills worksheets and decontextualized written projects meant only for my eyes. I saw students experience a greater sense of personal satisfaction form exerting cognitive skills. And those who, for whatever reason, did not put in the effort saw how their classmates' sustained efforts paid off, intellectually and emotionally. 

Feeling the students stories and observing them reap the rewards of authorial agency made me appreciate and respect my students more deeply. I got to hear their voices, see more clearly the faces behind the names in a grade book. I'm grateful I get to teach composition. 

Perhaps I'm getting better as a teacher, gaining confidence. Perhaps the VAMP process allows students to add greater depth to the stories. Or maybe the fact that I had several VAMP veterans share their monologues to students.  Mentors from So So We All guided me through the process, too. I think it's fair to say I learned from this process. This success likely has to something ratio of those factors, some magical combination I'd like to recapture next semester. 

To that end, I'll compose an "action report", i.e., a debrief to account for those strategies so I can replicate the best of this project and preclude some of the shortfalls (there were several, but none that would stop me from doing this again). And I'll definitely ask students their response to the project. Makes sense, since it's all about developing their voices.