Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sesame Street, Poetry, & Kids with Incarcerated Parents

I'm teaching a writing and editing course for novice writers, students preparing themselves for college level composition clothes. Some students are this close to being ready to join a college level class; others have come less prepared. 

Many haven't been in school or years. Most come to class anxious about taking English. And the majority are first-generation college students. So I feel extra pressure to make sure I don't overwhelm them with logistics, especially on first day.

I doubt that taking attendance, adding and dropping students, and reading the syllabus substantially settles peoples' nerves. Minimally perhaps. But for students excited about the first day of school, too much "teacher talk," regardless how important, might dampen their spirits.  The ones already not looking forward to English? Spirits further dampened. 

I did make sure to point out important passages they'd need to know right away (texts, contact information, major projects),hopefully enough to ease tensions for those who require that sort of information right away.Luckily, I was able to protect a good two-thirds of the class to diving into actual work. 

The theme of the class is incarceration.We will read Walter Dean Myers Monster, a chapter from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, excerpts from Couldn't Keep it To Myself, an anthology edited by Wally Lamb featuring the writing of incarcerated women. I'm stretching the theme a little to include Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely Autobiography of a Part-Time Indian, making the case that the reservation is a form of incarceration. Okay, it's a big stretch, but I'll work it. 

The other tie that binds these texts is that the narrators come to writing, or at least creative self-expression, while incarcerated, in an institution (juvie, jail, prison, reservation school). The narrator of Monster uses screenwriting to make sense of his experience. Malcolm X came to critical consciousness while locked up. The women who wrote Couldn't Keep it to Myself were part of a writing group facilitated by Wally Lamb. And the narrator of  Part-Time Indian composes comics to work out his feelings as he transfers from the reservation school to a majority White school. My hope is that at least one text inspires students to consider using writing or some other expressive form to figure themselves out, to write themselves into being. 

So how did we begin? PBS Kids and Russell Simmons Def Jam, of course!  

I showed the animated clip Little Children, Big Challenges: Visiting Dad in Prison" produced by Sesame Street. Then I followed up with the Daniel Beaty's spoken word piece "Knock Knock" that screened on Def Jam Poetry in 2005. Both clips feature the story of a child with an incarcerated parent. But though they shared the same topic, each was clearly aimed at a different audience for different purposes. And visually and textually, each used different rhetorical moves to make their various points. 

The wonderful thing about using these two texts in tandem was how easily students identified those composition concepts: purpose, audience, past/present perspective, perspective, interior monologue, and rhetorical moves. Juxtaposing two texts with the same topic with the same rhetorical pattern (narration), brought those concepts into high relief. 

Students may not have used precise words, but they noted those concepts in their own vernacular, and I was able to provide the formal names for what they observed. In context. The students, with the nudge of the video clips, introduced the content of the class; they brought concepts up, and I labeled their observations using the vocabulary of our discipline. I didn't tell them; I reinforced what they brought to the table. 

Interest level was high, high, high. I barely had to prime the pump to get students talking. A couple of times, I had to steer conversation away from indulgent story telling or other topics a bit far afield of our class goals. But I took it as a good sign that students felt safe enough to begin to share themselves with each other. 

And the conversation didn't feel "high stakes."I just asked what they observed: What did one text do that the other didn't? What difference did it make that the narrators were different ages? What did that allow them to do? What about their race? How about medium? Who do you think the clips were for? And that most important pair of tag questions: How do you know? Why is that important? And the clips were short enough that we could test our observations by reviewing the clips (I did have transcripts, too). 

This experience reinforces my belief the importance of using more than a single text when teaching writing. So many concepts are easier to observe in paired texts that are hard to see in single one. 

What's next? 
We begin analyzing short informative texts on children with incarcerated parents shortly.  My plan is to help students figure out what it is they want about what they've read. Perhaps they can write some sort of informative piece about the meaning they make about the issue of children with incarcerated parents when they put the expressive texts next to the informative ones. And then we'll see about surface, editing level lessons but until they've written something they believe in. 

My hope is that as students write pieces they care about, it will be easier to teach grammar and formal rules in context. I've noticed that students' resistance to writing comes from the way they have come to believe that writing is simply about mechanics and structure. 

What many students experienced as excessive rigidity makes the English class into a carceral institution, rendering students into prisoners, and turning me into their jailer instead of the coach/facilitator I aspire to be. 

There will be more to write after we unpack the informative texts and investigate how those articles "speak" to the visual texts.Woo hoo!