This year I have added a new task as part of the freshmen English classes I teach. Every couple of weeks, i have been giving them a non-fiction article to read and then asking them to write a response. In a way, I guess it was kind of inspired by something I read in one of Kelly Gallagher’s books. It started very modestly in the first semester. Over the course of the semester, I have gradually increased the demands and provided more guidance.
It was kind of an experiment really. Initially, I just wanted to see what they would do when asked to read something and write about it with very little requirements or instruction. Initially, they wrote very little but got credit for writing at all. Then I started to up the ante and ask them to incorporate their personal reactions to the reading. Mostly, these are newspaper or magazine articles that I have read or found interesting for one reason or another. They span across multiple subjects, but often are focused on what I think of as being issues facing all of us in modern everyday life. The are not the big global problems but smaller things, like internet and gadget use, issues related to brain research or learning, and generally just some of the day-to-day aspects of living in this time, things that they might not otherwise think about or reflect on without prompting. Overall, I think it has been successful.
Part of the goal was to get them writing about non-fiction, non-literature in my class, which is important and increasingly so with new standards coming. Being an English class, the discipline of English tends to use capital “L” Literature almost exclusively in the curriculum and reduce the reading of non-fiction to maybe anything involving a research paper, project, whatever. It has always seemed terribly out of balance to me. I also wanted to give the students the opportunity to write about something more informally, without all of the formal requirements of academic writing. Plus, I wanted them to react to the readings on a personal level, making direct connections to the material, in a way that asked them to begin reflecting on their own lives and what they see everyday.
The first obstacle was how little they are asked to do anything like this. Consequently, many of them really had no way to begin. “What do you mean write about what I think?” was an open cry. “How many sentences does it have to be? Is this going to be graded?” all the usual responses were expressed. So they needed more guidance than I had originally thought.So, slowly, iteratively, I have been providing more instructions and using some of their work as models of engaging, interesting work.
Another new wrinkle at the school where I work is all incoming freshmen now go through a kind of computer boot camp, known as the Freshmen Technology Seminar, which is some rudimentary instruction on using the school’s computers, network, Internet, and the like. Of course, this was an area where most of the students think they already know everything, but many of them have expressed its helpfulness when not under the gaze of the larger group. This seminar was, ideally, positioned in a way to give every student a Google account and shore up a lot of the smaller file management details, so we teachers need not explain all of that in class. The Google account was the best outcome, as far as I was concerned. A few years ago I had my students register a Google account and submit work electronically, so this was a boon for me. They all get an an account with all of the associated tools and an official school domain. Of course part of the account tools includes Blogspot. By the end of term, this became the space to publish the reader responses.
While not terribly radical in approach, I am certainly not the first teacher to get their students blogging. Yet, simply having the students routinely reflect on a reading and write about it in a public way is slowly having an interesting effect. The students are becoming much more conscious of what they write and how it looks when presented. We discuss the changes that need to be made when moving from paper to electronic mediums, from me as the audience to a more public one. All good conversations. For nearly all of them it is a genuinely new experience. Better still, I am the only teacher taking advantage of this at the moment, which should stay the kind of “journal fatigue” that can set in when every teacher opts to use the same writing to learn strategy. I continue to monitor the developments and showed them how I can track each section’s posts with a simple Pageflakes dashboard, which mildly fascinated them. “No more excuses about printers,” one student admitted.
I plan to examine the impact of all this much more closely, but it is still ongoing and developing. Some final reflection, with significant student input, will be forthcoming. Plus, it is the kind of long term experience that I have been wanting to seed for when we do actually enter into some actual research driven work. Now, however, it is not a once and done kind of experience.