Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Theater and Literature

Today's class found us discussing the similarities between the theater and literature content standards. As an English major, I do feel a slight bias towards the more traditional standards of Language Arts. However I do recognize the limitations in strictly adhering to solely those standards. Since we're suppose to measure our student's ability to read and write, it's easy to cast aside any other method of assessment. What I like about the theater standards is that they more closely mirror the Six Facets of Understanding.

With the theater standards, a student is forced to tackle artistic perception, creative expression, cultural/historical context, aesthetic value, and to establish a connection to other disciplines. What I particularly enjoy about these standards is that they push a student's intellectual boundaries. A student can assess artistic and creative expression to establish a sense of artistic worth. In having a skill like this, students are better capable of forming strong academic critiques that they would otherwise miss out on if they followed the language arts content standards to the letter.

If we stick with the "Beowulf" example from a previous post, there are numerous traditional ways we could assess students with: essays, quizzes, multiple choice exams. The theater standards offer a more varied route though as they cover areas of understanding that exams and essays can't. For example, an idea i have for my lesson plan is to incorporate a dramatic performance of hero the students create modeled after the heroic archetypes we discuss. Even though I could just assign an essay asking them to explain what they know, this dramatic exercise allows them a creative outlet that will resonate with them for years to come. What's more memorable: a boring essay or a heroic skit?

It's definitely worth attempting to find a middle ground between the two sets of standards. Though I seem a bit more inclined to say that Drama is lot more fun.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Visual Art Project Response

Following our discussion and exhibition of our Visual Art Projects, many of my fellow students touched on a very interesting topic: to what ends do our course/work guidelines matter?

For most of our future curriculums, we as teachers will expect our students to meet our academic guidelines and expectations. Often, we'll assign classwork and homework with specific instructions for our students to take whatever topic we've been exploring and use their intellectual muscle to convey their understanding. Most, if not all assignments, will have strict instructions as to how the student should approach his or her own work. While not inherently wrong in establishing criteria, as future teachers we must be wary of allowing our grading scales to become rigid and static. Students vary in their intellectual abilities and how they process information and thus, the end goal of academic evaluation should be held on both an individual basis and the amount of the student's comprehension and mastery of a topic present in his or her work.

Shifting back to our Visual Art project, I was tasked with taking home Amanda's diorama. My initial observations of her project are as follows: an all black box with a small soldier who appears to be both tied to the roof of the box and has been hung. Our assignment's original guidelines required us to create a 3d representation of a piece of text from "The Things They Carried" by Tim O' Brien and she appears to have followed them to the letter. More profoundly, she has exhibited a clear understanding of the themes the story attempts to convey. If I were to be grading her project, I would immediately embrace the thematic impressions of loneliness, horror, death, and control vividly conveyed by her soldier and his environment. The Vietnam War was a dark period in human history and Amanda's project gives a worthy representation of what an American soldier may have existentially felt.

That being said, all the comprehension conveyed on her behalf would not be lost if she had instead relied on a 2d representation of her text. If for instance she were to have done a painting or collage instead, there would still be a clear view of her own academic and personal connection with the text. Of course, the argument would be that she failed to follow directions and thus deserves to be graded down for that. However, I feel it would be unfair of me to do so for any sort of assignment she were to turn in were to contain this level of literary comprehension clearly demonstrates her mastery of the topic.

At first, I was a part of the school of thought that felt if a student didn't follow directions to the letter he or she should me marked down accordingly. After viewing Amanda's and my other classmates projects, it is clearly plain to see that academic and intellectual understanding comes in all shapes and forms. We as future teachers need to be able to accept that in order to get our students to reach their full potential.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


One of our past lectures had us talking about this idea of transmediation. I find this concept extremely interesting as it basically is the process of taking something in one sign system and placing it in another. For our purposes, I am going to establish literary texts as our first sign system.

Now let's say I was teaching 12 grade AP British Literature and our assigned text was the epic poem "Beowulf". Most students react to this text in a "Aw, not another poem" attitude. High school kids hate poetry (I know I foolishly did). Guys usually assign poetry to Romance; essentially a subject they aren't interested in (hence dooming most heterosexual relationships). When girls this isn't a love poem (as they have been socialized to believe all poetry to be), they immediately tune out.

As heroic violence ensues verse after verse, it's realistic to state that most students would be more interested in the text if they could actually see the action unfold. Fortunately (or unfortunately for a literary purest), there have been a handful of film versions of the poem. If you were to poll most high school students, you'd find they much rather watch a movie then read a book. And while a teacher does want to appeal to their student's tastes, it would be erroneous to cast the text aside and make the film the basis of your class's educational focus.

Instead, I would argue that it would be more constructive to use the films as supplementary teaching tools. As students, we are aware of the fact that there are multiple ways in which one learns. While the text can work for one student, a film might be able to better convey the literary elements some students failed to pick up through their reading. When it comes to an English class, we also have to be aware of the fact some of our students won't be at the reading level they're suppose to be. A film can definitely serve as an academic bridge for struggling students.

Transmediating a text to a different sign system like film can be a great tool for teachers to use. Since not all students learn the same way, a different sign system opens up academic doors that would otherwise be closed to them.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Secondary vs. University Education

A few days ago our class had a discussion on the differences between Secondary School (Middle/High School) and a University. Specifically, we decided to identify all of the characteristics of a High School teacher against those of a University Professor.

Professionaly speaking, a High School teacher's background is rooted within an educational discourse. Not only do they have to attain a Bachelor's in their prospective teaching subject but they also have to get a teaching credential. Here in California, the teaching credential programs I'm familiar with focus on the multi-facet ways a student can learn and be assessed by. At the end of your program, I feel you are usually left with a strong sense of how to make education and the subject you're teaching accessible to today's youth. Admittedly some teachers don't remember every teaching tool they learned in credential school but it still gives most educators a stable background in teaching.

All of that gives the High School teacher the leg up over the Professor. Yes, the Professor definitely carries more intellectual clout as they usually have a Master's or Doctorate in their specified field of study. The drawback for them though lies within the fact that all they've learned throughout their academic careers is how to analyze and interpret their field of study on their own. Talk to any Professor here at CSUN and you'll find that the graduate schools they attended only furthered their understanding in their field of study. Very rarely will you find a Professor with a teaching credential or educational background. It's for this reason that most Professors we meet are research oriented.

Now the problem with this is that Professors will have often have loads of information to give their students but will ultimately fail in creating an enriching academic environment that would foster their student's intellectual growths. More often than not students are either day-dreaming their lectures away. It's not that the material isn't interesting for students mind you. It's more that the material is made intellectually remote and inaccessible.

That's not to say that High School students won't day dream in class. You'll always have a slacker or two in one of your classes who won't connect with the material. However our teacher credential training sets us up to be educators first and English majors second. Most Professors do not have this luxury and thus find themselves caring more about their research goals than about actually teaching a course (and as a student I've met many a teacher like that). Sadly, until Professors are given that same educational background that High School teachers have our university courses will suffer.

All of my favorite teachers (with the exception of a few here at CSUN, including you Professor =)) have been high school teachers. While they may not have had the academic authority that a Master's or Doctorate could give them, they definitely created a far more intellectually stimulating academic environment.

I hope that I can handle that half as well as they did.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Visual Literacy...and what constitutes a Text?

Through out our discussion, the definition of Literacy kept finding itself challenged or reinforced by a number of people in class. At its most base, literacy does indeed stem from the ability to read and write. However what one needs to keep in mind is that the specific definition I mentioned only finds validity within a world dominated by Literature. As much as the English major in me hates to admit it though, we do not live in such a world.

In fact, our world is inhabited by a multitude of mediums; no longer is intellectual entertainment strictly founds within the bound pages of a book. For in addition to reading, one can easily take a novel like Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night" and watch the DVD or find the movie or recording online. As amazing as our technological advancement in the Arts is, the various means of entertainment currently available mean absolutely nothing if we cannot intellectually engage them. For art to be considered Art, we first need to be able to recognize its aesthetic characteristics. Without that ability, we would be prone for accepting all of the bile that is currently be attempted to be passed as "entertainment".

Stepping back to the concept of Literacy and its relation to the written word, most of the books we now consider classics only reached that status with the advent of people knowing how to read and write. In our present day context though, the ability to be literate extends to a much broader capacity of artistic understanding and engagement. For if "Mother Night" has a movie and audio recorded version of its story, then surely watching the film and hearing the narration would only augment a person's understanding and connection with the story.

However, one must take care in expecting a different medium's version of a story from being equivalent in value to the original story. That is why it is of up most importance that the definition of literacy be expanded to include the ability to recognize the artistic qualities of any given work. While reading and writing are important skills to own, it is not enough in today's world as we are constantly bombarded by a wide range of mediums. If one is not carefully trained in being literate, a movie like Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin suddenly finds itself on par with Virginia Woolf's "To The Lighthouse".

It is with that thought then that I suggest that in addition to focus on the written word, we take advantage of our multifaceted society and actively engage its creations. For if our students are to step out into the world prepared to intellectually immerse themselves in its Art, then we as future teachers need not limit that ability to just the written word.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Facet #6: Self-Knowledge

With the final Facet, we now find the end goal of what we hope to accomplish as future teachers: imparting our students with self-knowledge.

Traditionally, teachers would assess how well a student knows the course's materials through an examination of some sort. The fluidity and range of the previous 5 facets refute this type of assessment as education clearly surpasses any "A's" one can get on a test. No multiple choice test could properly asses a student's ability to explain, interpret, apply, gain perspective, and empathize. As teachers, we need to step outside of that box and create lesson plans and activities that reflect each level of understanding.

For me, the first three are fairly easy and straightforward. There limitless class discussions and essays that can properly assess a student's mastery of these facets. Facets 4 and 5 are definitely trickier as a teacher needs to be a bit more creative in how he or she wants to test their students. Perspective would require us to really challenge our students to find a connection between our course texts and their lives. This is a bit challenging as most students come into English with the mentality that books are boring and pointless. As heartbreaking as this notion is to an English Teacher, we can present students with texts that relate more directly with their lives (like say Luis Rodriguez's Always running to a class in East LA) or with something that seems irrelevant but can resonate with their own personal experiences (like 1984 does with the Central American students I mentioned in an earlier post).

Building off of that, empathy can be assessed by the emotional response we see our students develop towards our course's texts. Whether it be seeing how tragic the existence of O'Brien's life is in 1984 or it be by a student claiming that they identify with more with a traditionally unsympathetic character, that level of understanding is key in a student's critical reasoning skills. For if they can empathize with O'Brien, then their work will reflect a much broader analysis of a text then say a student who vilifies him.

All of this will leave our students with a profound sense of self-knowledge. Not only will they have mastered the texts we presented them with, but they will have the tools they need to further their critical thinking skills. As adults, we can all attest to the importance of such skills as we are constantly bombarded with intellectual and professional challenges. If we fail to impart our students with this, then we fail as educators.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Facet #5: Empathy

Now, this Facet was a bit hard to come to terms with as I could not see how this could play a role in assessing a student's knowledge. Going by my own interpretation of the word, I know empathy to be defined as the ability to emotionally understand all sides/participants of an argument.

Applying that definition to education is a bit tricky but I think our class discussion helped me figured out a way to do that. Take for instance Orwell's 1984 (Again!). As readers, it goes without saying that we all feel for Winston's journey. The trials and tribulations he faces under the political and interpersonal oppression are immense and clearly have the reader root for him every step of the way. His antagonist, O'Brien, often earns the reader's scorn and bears responsibility for finally breaking Winston's spirit.

Thinking back to our discussion, this interpretation seems heavily one sided. As readers, we're naturally drawn to the hero but perhaps our sympathies should sway more towards O'Brien. His existence is filled with tragedy as he does not contain the critical reasoning that gives Winston a shot at freedom. Much more than that, we as readers are far less likely to be like Winston should we find ourselves in a similar situation. The reality of it is that we would more than likely fill O'Brien's shoes.

With that said, it is here that empathy becomes a critical aspect of the learning process. A reader's understanding of the text definitely coincides with their ability to cheer for Winston's possible victory. However, a truly accomplished reader would find that their own existence mirrors O'Briens's and thus deserves more of our empathy and sympathy. A reader being able to acknowledge that walks away with a much deeper understanding of the text.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Facet #4: Have Perspective

For me, the Facets start getting a bit more intriguing as they take on a more personalized feel to them.

The first three deal directly with information and a student's ability to retain it. While admittedly our role as teachers is to pass on information to our students, there are definitely less traditional manners of assessment we can employ in our curriculum. The concept of having perspective is an interesting educational goal to reach as it has the ability to connect with a student's personal beliefs and life.

So let's say I'm teaching at a High School located in the Pico/Union area of Downtown LA and decide to cover George Orwell's 1984 (Yes, another Orwell book!). Now, most of these students will have the benefit of having either been born or grow up here in the United States. However the majority of them though will have at least one direct or indirect familial connection with life outside of the U.S. Since this is a predominantly Central American neighborhood, most of my student's families will have some experience with Totalitarian Governments in their countries of old.

As we read through 1984, I'm sure that most of their parent's will eventually ask them about the book they are reading. I am more than certain that for some of those parents, the subject matter will resonate with them on numerous levels due to their background. Drawing from my own personal experience with my first read of this book, I recall my mother walking into my room and asking me about it. After filling her in, she candidly told me about life in El Salvador before and during its brutal Civil War (Circa 1980-92). While I could never fathom what life must have been like living under such political turmoil, I was able to connect with the book on a much deeper level.

While it could be pointed out that not all students will experience this, it is improbable to assume that they cannot establish a personal connection with whatever text they are assigned to. Each student has a unique set of experiences and there is no telling what sort of relationship they can create between themselves and the text. With that possibility in mind, students then have the potential of gaining insight into the literary worlds they encounter. Since perspective is defined as "having a meaningful interrelationship" (as per dictionary.com again), then us future educators tapping into this possibility will only lead to our students gaining a sense of perspective with our assignments. This would prove invaluable as they would then establish a personal connection with their education that could fuel future educational pursuits.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Facet #3: Apply!

Now that we've covered #'s 1 and 2, we move on to #3: Apply. Before we discuss this concept, I feel it is important to see its definition in its entirety (a trend that will probably continue through out my blogging about the Six Facets). As per Dictionary.com:

To make use of as relevant, suitable, or pertinent

For me, this is a significant facet to cover as what will really draw your students into academia is its relevance to the world around them. My personal career goals will more than likely have me teaching in the inner-city amongst poverty stricken youth. My students will come from a world full of violence, abuse, broken families, poverty, and struggle. Very few of them will jump at the chance at reading Lord Byron's "Don Juan" or Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse despite those texts literary significance. Realistically very few will care about anything that doesn't relate directly to their lives.

With that said, I would bridge those texts with other literary works that spoke more directly to their experiences. If I were managing a course that was made up predominantly of lower income Latina/o students, I would definitely use a text like Luis Rodriguez's Always Running to introduce the concept that literature can be applied to their everyday lives. With that story revolving around Luis' own experiences as a troubled youth in what was then the gang-infested San Gabriel Valley, it can definitely serve as a good introductory piece for my students to actively apply what they read with their world.

Since many of our students will come into the classroom with the idea that reading is irrelevant to their existence, it would be of extreme benefit for a future teacher to establish early on how that simply is not true. Only then can students know how to truly apply what they read to their own lives.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Facet # 2: Interpret!

Now the 2nd Facet seems sort of similar to #1 (especially when you notice that it is included in #1's definition) but does deserve its stand-alone position.

As per Dictionary.com, Interpret is defined as the following:

To construe or understand in a particular way.

Now for me, this is a great level of understanding to aim for as it fits perfectly within the English classroom. Many of us striving to be English teachers will be astonished to find the multi-faceted nature of interpretation that our classes embody. While we will be teaching dozens of students, it must always be remembered that each student's interpretation of a text will mirror their own individuality. Sometimes we may get lucky and we'll have a unanimous consensus on what a particular text is trying to say. More often than not, we'll find our students surprising us with a unique perspective on a text that even we failed to acknowledge.

While it may seem intimidating for us to be faced with students that could challenge our own interpretations of a text (The horror! Students thinking for themselves!), we should welcome each student's unique interpretation of a text. For example, my interpretation of F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is based on my views of class and capitalism. From a non-Marxist perspective, a student may see the novel as a poignant illustration of the alienating effects of wealth. While different from my own, this opinion is valid and extremely critical to our class's eventual interpretation of the text. Without contrasting and differing views, my class may find whatever my interpretation of a text as both irrelevant and oppressive. In getting kids to share their unique interpretations, my classroom gains the advantage of being a welcoming and inclusive academic environment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Facet #1: Explain!

To start things off, I'm going to post the dictionary.com definition of the word Explain.

"to assign a meaning to; interpret."

Having Explain as Facet #1 is pretty significant as it lends itself to a wide range of uses in the classroom. When teaching, every educator ultimately wants their students to walk away from a class understanding whatever our courses key concepts are. I don't think we can kid ourselves into thinking that our students are going to remember everything we teach them. It's more realistic to try and aim for our students to embody the Six Facets.

Now let's say we were studying a text like Animal Farm by George Orwell. Those of us familiar with the text know that it touches on a variety of issues centered around the Soviet version of Communism. In teaching this text, we would have to draw on a number of historical sources to place its themes and characters within the appropriate context. Ideally, we'd want our students to be able to fully explain the dichotomous nature of the Cold War and how that helped form the thematic underpinnings of the book. However, I'd argue that it would be both more realistic and productive if we focused on imparting on them a few key concepts they can understand, remember, and explain.

For example, it is widely acknowledged that Napoleon's eventual corruption is a key example of how broadly power corrupts and how specifically Stalinistic Communism has strayed from it's egalitarian roots. With both concepts being key themes of the text, I would want my students to be able to express their understanding of these two points more so than actually remembering the full text. If they explain these themes in terms of their relationship to situations and experiences they are personally familiar with either through oral or written assignments, then it is safe to say that your students have successfully mastered the first facet.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Six Facets of Understanding

Today we covered an interesting topic: how do we measure a student's level of understanding?

As teachers, we need to first accept that their are multiple forms of literacy. While the inner English teacher in me would traditionally identify literacy as the ability to read and comprehend any given text, I accept that literacy encompasses a wide range of abilities and modes of understanding. If I were to look at a piece of Theater, I'm willing to bet that a Theater major would be more than capable of identifying the different dramatic elements that would establish the value of that performance. In that sense, the Theater major would be more literate than I would be as my own education has mainly focused on evaluating the worth of a text.

With that said, I then can accept the idea that there are multiples levels of learning. To understand something, a student has to be trained to see past traditional notions of knowledge and skill. In the example I listed above, I would benefit more from an education that recognized that intellectual comprehension escapes its traditional definition of textbook analysis.

This is where the Six Facets of Understanding our Professor introduced really took hold with me. If a student can explain, interpret, apply, have a perspective, empathize, and create a sense of self knowledge, then he or she would be more than able to effectively comprehend both a complex text like James Joyce's Ulysses or a dramatic piece like "Fate of a Cockroach".

The next few entries will go into more detail as to how I view the importance of the Six Facets. For now, I will end this post by saying that these facets genuinely intrigue me and I cannot wait to use them during my tutoring sessions/future class sessions.