Friday, June 16, 2017

Thoughts and reflections on Bruce Pirie's "Reshaping High School English"

This is a classic that I think I've read three times.  It is just so dense that none of it really sinks in.  But I think I'm mostly responsible for that.  Whenever, I read a new book (especially nonfiction), I try to take too many notes and come away with too many heavy lessons or ideas.  Instead, I should just read it for enjoyment and to learn and move on.

A few summers ago, I was listening to Michael Hyatt talk about his passion for professional development reading.  He said that he never takes notes or writes in the books he reads. This is mainly due to the fact that he listens to his books while he runs on the treadmill, so it's impossible.  But he also said that he found himself trying to remember too much about the books he read.  So now he just reads a book and trusts his subconscious to take what is important away from the book and store it and allow it to connect with all that he has previously read.

So that's the approach I'm taking now with my fourth reading of Reshaping High School English.

I'll take a few brief notes below, but other than that, it's going to be a quick, enjoyable read.

Ch. 1 - "What Rough Beast . . ."

Pirie recalls as a young high school English teacher sitting down at a department meeting.  The department head begins talking about a shift in how they teach writing (it's at this point that my pulse invariably quickens as this is the stuff that I live for as a writing teacher): it's all about the process of writing.  Make writing personal and make students aware of the craft of writing and the process of writing.

This movement led to writing being kept into folders or portfolios for students.  This was exactly what we used to do at LHS two decades ago.  We have moved away from that in years past though, not because it didn't work, but we moved away from it because so few students ever came back for their folders.  Now our 1:1 environment makes this easier than ever though as students now have their Google Drive folders full of writing assignments.

What I would love to see us start doing, though, is to keep a reading folder for our kids as they move through LHS.  I'd love to see them log all of the books they read 9-12.

Of course, Pirie notes that his departments focus on the craft and process of writing was vital and groundbreaking.  It was the first time they moved away from just assigning and grading writing to actually teaching writing.

If there is anything I do well, it's that I can teach writing as a process.  I'm successful with this because I'm totally transparent in how I teach writing.  Taking a cue from Tom Romano and his disciple Penny Kittle, I write in front of my students and with my students and I model the writing process the entire way.  On top of that, I've uncovered something profound: how to use Google Drive to model writing and give immediate feedback to students as they write.

One of my favorite quotes from Ch. 1 is "There is a life of the imagination, and that makes a difference to human beings, even if it is a difference not easily measured by standardized tests."

Next Pirie examines how his own craft as an English teacher has moved away from just delivering content to actually aiming to allow students to experience growth.  Dave Burgess calls this LCLs (Life Changing Lessons).  Recently, I heard Seth Godin talk about the importance of being in the change business on a podcast.  If we don't change people, we are immediately replaceable (and likely will be replaced).  In that regard, we should all be in the change business.

My favorite moments are when I hear from students how I've changed them.  It might be in a letter, like the one Alyce wrote me a couple years ago talking about how much she appreciated the fact that I encouraged her to let her freak flag fly.  She loved that I made it cool to be a nerd in my room, and that changed her.  She flourished and produced amazing work.

This was another point that was made just two weekends ago when I saw this Tweet:

I think this is why I often get shout outs from seniors at graduation and the honors banquet.  There is a relationship and a change has occurred.

I'm not being boastful.  If a kid spends 18 weeks in my room and there isn't a change, then I should be fired immediately, for I'm useless.

Ch. 2 - "Beyond Barney and the Cult of the Individual."

I really like this quote, "In English classrooms, we no longer see our students as receptacles of transmitted knowledge, but rather as young people responding out of uniquely personal depths."

This is true.  Especially in my classes.

Have a swung too far in this direction?

Almost everything we write is out of the students' own experiences.  Is this good?

I also really like Pirie's take on what we must remember about our own personalities and identities - "Whatever personal identity any of us has develops within a matrix of circumstances outside our psyches; our place in history, parents, social class, sex, race, educational opportunities, and all the other accidents of personal history."  Now that is really interesting.

Pirie soon brings up a topic that I was just writing about - allowing students to have ownership over their reading selections.

He examines how if he imposes his own ideas on his students, from which they can grown and learn, isn't he getting in the way of their true personal development?  I wonder how this could ever be avoided?  The author wonders ". . . if I take a hand-off attitude, simply leaving choices up to students, they may well end up choosing only the texts and topics dictated by their own cultural circumstances."

This is an excellent point.  I recall Savannah, who sent me a wonderful text message that is on another blog post on here, thanking me for pushing her to read In Cold Blood and Psycho.  She likely would never have selected those on her own.  Yet they transformed her.

The same exact thing happened to one of my former students, Anna, who is now a nursing major when I encouraged her to read a book she never would on her own.  The book was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lachs.  She loved it and couldn't put it down.

That's the importance of trying to push students in the right direction as opposed to allowing them total freedom.

Then Pirie gets lost in theory and forgets about the real students he teaches as he progresses into this chapter.  He started to remind me of my (useless) but interesting (but useless) literary theory classes in college where it seemed all anyone wanted to do was talk about theories in the most complex ways possible.  I've used about 1% of anything I culled from any of the literary theory discussions.  What a waste.

Pirie delves into this when he focuses on the concept of audience when we teach writing.  He reminds us all to be cognizant of the power of audience.  Here is one example: "And if the response is delivered before a group of classmates, the complexities [of audience] multiply.  Are these classmates friends? Is the student trying to impress someone? Whom? How? By being the cynic? The clown? The rebel? The expert? What kinds of responses might boys (or girls) not easily speak before their peers"?   Interesting questions to ponder somewhere (most likely a university classroom).

But in reality?

Here is what my honest to god heart is telling me about that passage - Give me a break!  I'm freaking trying to get my kids to write something interesting using concrete details and images to render it vivid for their peers.  Worry about audience?  Please!  Have you taught real kids?  Who has time to fully analyze all the possible roles of an audience?  I'm trying to teach here.  I simply want the kids to write a narrative that is honest and real and meaningful.  Then I want them to work their way up to being able to write a college level research essay.  I don't have time for your abstract shit.  I'm trying to get stuff done here man!

And then Pirie drops this wonderful pearl of wisdom on us - "We should also think about the significant number of students who are uncomfortable with personal writing, preferring other tasks"


What kid would rather write a literary analysis for film review over a rite of passage narrative?  I have yet to meet one.

Pirie does support this with a quote from a boy: "'I don't think my feelings are any of the school's business.'"  Okay.  Sounds like a cop out to me, though.  Check out his social media feed, and I bet he is broadcasting his feelings to the whole freakin' world . . . why not school?

I don't care about his feelings.  But I do care what he thinks.

I'll opt for one of my favorite writing quotes here -

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"

Ch. 4 - Unlocking Reading Processes

I love the opening paragraph of this chapter -

My Grade Twelve English teacher - this would be in the last 1960s - handed out copies of The Mayor of Casterbridge and told us to read the book in three weeks, after which time we would begin discussions.  I read the novel happily, but the ensuing classwork left me with the bitter realization that I somehow must have got it all wrong, for the things that seemed important to the teacher had not occurred to me while I was reading.  I was now reduced to making humble notes on literary features I had failed to notice on my own.  Whatever this exercise may have taught me about the preoccupations of literary criticism, it taught me nothing about how to read, since the reading - my primary reading - was already finished before instruction began.  reading processes were not on the agenda.

This is something I really need to think more about.  I try to address the reading process, especially in CC when students read their two novels, but not in a way that is nearly enough.

Pirie has a great point - never would we assign an essay and give students two weeks - without any feedback or intervention or peer editing - and then have students hand it in magically complete.  Why do we do this with reading?

And truth be told, I think our Collections textbooks, especially the Close Readers, do a great job aiding students during the reading process.  The key problem, though, is that too many students are lacking the content knowledge to put what they read in full context to aid comprehension.

We need to do a better job reading with our students, especially cold reads.  This happened to me a few years ago in Lit and Lang 9R when I read "Quilt of a Country" cold with my students.  Not the piece I should have tried with them, but it would have been far more interesting to try it with my CC or CC 2 students.  I struggled to comprehend it all . . . just like my students.

I've always said we do a bit of a disservice to our kids when we show them all we know about "Young Goodman Brown," "Hills Like White Elephants," and To Kill a Mockingbird because we've read them all 100 times.

This gives students the illusion that I learned all about literary devices and figurative language all on my first time through the text, which could be further from the truth.

Ch. 9 - "Mind-Forged Manacles": The Academic Essay

A topic near and dear to my heart: the five paragraph, thesis-support essay/theme.

I don't despise it nearly as much has I did leaving graduate school.  In fact, I embrace teaching it.  Here's why - 1. It's easy to grade.  I can literally grade 19 five paragraph theme essays (usually a literary analysis of "Young Goodman Brown") in two hours.  It's a damn science - analyze the thesis, make sure it corresponds to the topic sentences, make sure the quotes are used correctly, and make sure the analysis is thorough.  It's easy.  Try that with 19 braided essays!  Good luck.  But there is no question which ones the students enjoy more and learn more from.  2. It's good to expose students to this as they will have professors in college who will have to grade 75 essays.  They won't have time to sift through different formats, savoring style and voice.  They want a simple format to reflect the students' analyses.  So I tell students if you need to write a quick and dirty essay and want an easy C, go for this format.

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