It’s been a couple of weeks since school let out for the summer. I’ve tackled a few projects, read a book or two. And so, of course, I’ve started to think about next year.
For the last couple of years I’ve had my seniors participate in a final Harkness discussion, where I ask them to reflect on what they’ve thought about the course. The rules are simple: no grades, and I, their Gentle Instructor, will not talk nor take offense. The goal, I tell them, is to improve the quality of the experience for future students. So far it’s been pretty successful–a few tears but no pitchforks. Here are my takeaways this year.
Literature, fiction, good stories–they still matter. As we’ve moved towards more nonfiction texts, I’ve been generally pleased with the results. I find it easier to teach argument using informational mentor texts. But my students still like fiction. They were emphatic on this.
Nothing stuck with my students the way that the stories do. They called out Holden, Lady Macbeth, Tayo, Offred, Gatsby, and talked about how these characters moved or frustrated–or sometimes bored–them. That doesn’t surprise me. But they also named people from nonfiction pieces that we’d read. They remembered the stories of Derek Boogaard, Jamaica Kincaid, and Bharati Mukherjee and connected them back to the stories they follow: Orange is The New Black, Daredevil, Gilmore Girls, and on and on.
There’s something primal about our need for stories. We might look for them in different formats but we want them. Stories work as “empathy machines” for us, and I have to remember that as I look for mentor texts. Even when I’m really searching for an excellent use of embedded quotes, I have to keep those stories in mind, because audience matters, and empathy is a great way to connect.
Stopping the Search for Perfect Mentor Texts
Two years ago my students really dug into Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko. It was the most discussed novel, followed by Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Not so this year. Ceremony was roundly criticized by almost all of my students, while Handmaid’s was lauded.
My students also asked why we hadn’t read a book with a transgendered or gender-switching character. I offered to do a summer book study of Woolf’s Orlando. I waited a long time at Starbucks; no one showed up.
Where does that leave me? I’ll never get the mix right, so should I abandon “required” reading in favor of student choice? I’m tempted, I’ll admit. But can I really, as I’ve claimed, teach skills using any book?
I’m still thinking about that, and I am moving that way. I want to respect their ability to choose . . . sometimes.
Relatable Characters for All Students
I’m doing a terrible job with my students of color. This was the most heartbreaking part of the discussion. Students who had done a terrific job talking about the Lomans, the Macbeths, Sherlock, and Holmes said that they “were used to” not seeing characters who looked like them, who might represent their experiences.
“Used to it.”
It cannot stay like that. They were also clear that they had had their fill of the Harlem Renaissance, “I Have a Dream,” and the rest of the “Black History Month stuff.” They deserve better and I’m working on that for next year.
As I’ve written, I’ve moved further away from prescriptive rubrics and forms of writing, in favor of more authentic, audience-driven work. Instead of giving them a simple set of instructions for “successful arguments in writing”–5 paragraphs, 3 part thesis, counter goes here–I’ve been asking my students to devise their own measures for success.
Yeah, it’s much more difficult, but so much more real. My students tell me that they think much harder about this kind of writing. They find it challenging, and sometimes wistfully long for the days when writing was easy, because there was a formula. I can’t lie; sometimes I do too. It was so much easier to look for that thesis statement when I knew its location. But we’re not going back.
My students talked about how much more “real” and mature they felt to have these choices. They talked about how they wished they’d taken feedback more seriously–that’s where I come in–because they saw how important it was to this to the process.
There were more trends in these discussions, of course. My jokes are bad. I might want to rethink my love of 90’s hip-hop along with my dance moves. Some students I absolutely did not move at all. They felt like my classroom was mostly a waste of time. But overall they gave me enough to think about so I can “do better when I know better.”
Rick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.