My interest in re-imagining the role "packets" play in our teaching began a few years ago when my son (then a sixth grader) brought home from school a "packet" on Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, the book his teacher had assigned the class to read. With the 16-page packet of exercises was a page of directions that clearly delineated requirements, deadlines, and criteria for evaluation. For the next few weeks my son and I worked together on the packet, desperately trying to complete all of the assignments before the due date. For some reason it was an onerous and arduous task for both of us. When we finally completed the last page of the packet, we both sank onto the couch and uttered a sigh of relief. My son then said something that has remained with me since. "You know, Dad," he said, "I thought Hatchet was a really good book until I had to do this packet. Now I hate it."
I am in the position now of being (1) a former high school English teacher who assigned packets to my students when we read a novel in class; (2) a professor of English Education who instructs future teachers who will probably assign packets to their students as well; and (3) a father who works with his children as they do their packets at the kitchen table. As my son's words echoed in my head, "Now I hate this book," I reflected upon what I did in the classroom, what I expected my students to do in their classrooms, and what my children did in their classrooms. My son's words have forced me to reflect upon these questions: How might we re-imagine "packets?" How might we re-imagine our purposes for reading, our purposes for writing, and our assessment of those skills? How might we re-imagine why we choose our assignments, what we choose for assignments, and how we articulate those assignments in the packets? But above all, how might we guarantee that our packets won't turn our students off to reading, or leave them wondering, "But what was the book really all about?"
I am especially indebted to the following English Education students who contributed to this work: Hillary Laurent, Carney Lentz, Sue Fisher, Tony DePaolo, and Darcie Vacek. I am certain that each of them will one day be an "engaged teacher."
What are our goals?
How can we re-imagine using questions?
How can we re-imagine increasing our students' vocabulary?
How can we re-imagine teaching literary conventions?
How can we re-imagine using art and other media?
How can we re-imagine teaching reading?
How can we re-imagine integrating literature with other disciplines?
How can we re-imagine teaching writing?
How can we re-imagine assessment? (See Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student-Centered Classroom by Harvey Daniels)
I began this presentation with a personal anecdote involving my son and his fifth grade school teacher. I hope that I have not portrayed myself as ignorant of or insensitive to the challenges (academic as well as disciplinary) that all teachers face daily. Indeed, I feel this particular teacher dedicated herself and time to her students with a sincere desire to help them progress in their learning. I have thirteen years of experience in the public schools, three of them teaching eighth grade English in rural Idaho, ten years teaching high school in Las Vegas. But I would like to conclude this presentation with another anecdote, one that involved me and my college students just last semester.
I thought the second semester of "Introduction to Literature" had gone quite well. From the evidence in the students' writing (journals and formal essays) and discussions, I was satisfied that the students had not only learned the basic elements of literary conventions, but they had also grown in their appreciation for reading drama, novels, short stories, and poetry. But it was in the last week of class that I learned that I had misjudged my own evaluation of the class's progress.
As we finished a discussion of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," I noticed that one woman (all of the students were "non-traditional" students, 30 years or older working, toward a B.S. in nursing) was obviously peeved with what was transpiring in the class. And so I asked, "Eve, what are you thinking?"
Eve didn't hesitate to let me have it. "You've robbed me of this poem, Dr. Smith. It used to be one of my favorites, but now you've (and she gestured to all of the class members) have gutted the poem. It is no longer mine. I don't own it any more and I'm sad about that."
I was stunned. The class was very quiet. I truly thought the discussion of Frost's poem had been enlightening, and several of the class members had participated with diverse opinions and interpretations of the woods lovely dark and deep, the snowfall, the city, the farmhouse near, and of course the promises to keep. I must admit that the persona's supposed "death wish" did also come up in discussion, but I noted that Frost had commented, "People are always trying to find a death wish in that poem. But there's a life wish there! He does go on doesn't he?" And so, overall I felt that we had peeled away the poem nicely and we had become richer for the experience. But Eve felt otherwise.
She explained. "I don't want someone else telling me how I should read the poem. I'm intelligent and confident enough to find my meanings. Indeed, Dr. Smith, I need to have my confidence increased by sharing my reading with others. When I'm told that the snow means this and the harness bells signify that, and that Frost said this about his poem, then I feel as if I don't have ownership of the poem any longer, and that saddens me."
Some of the students came to my defense. But that is beside the point, and it didn't do much to soothe my bruised ego. The point really is that I was guilty of the same "sin" my son's teacher committed with Hatchet. I had unwittingly squelched a student's love for literature. I had stripped her of ownership of the poem.
And so once again I
must ask the questions I asked earlier:
To accomplish this end, I have pledged to be an "engaged professor!" I am going to speak less with a scholarly voice and more with a personal voice. I am going to drill my students less and urge them to create more. I am going to grow personally from the literature, just as I have grown intellectually from the literature for the last …well, too many years. I want the literature to matter to me again. I suspect that as I become more of an engaged professor I will better understand the complexities of the literature because I will hear in my students' voices the complexities they encounter and share.
This does not mean that I am trading in my Ph.D. in nineteenth-century American literature for a job in counseling or therapy. I will continue to encourage my students to cite those particular details and examples in the literature that speak to them directly and that reveal personal (if not universal) truths. These details and examples we will explore together as scholars and friends as we simultaneously see the literature as a means of self- exploration and textual exploration. This is the balance I will seek in my teaching. This is the balance I will encourage my English Education majors to develop in their own lives. I want my students to be what Ralph Waldo Emerson called, "Man Thinking," i.e. not subduing their students (creating what Emerson calls "parrots" in "The American Scholar") with packets, lectures, and exercises, but connecting them to their divine natural potential.
As my student Hillary said,
"As a future teacher, I think it is important to keep communication open
in the classroom. I would like to value each insight. I don't
want to dwell on a text too long for fear that I may ruin it. Sometimes
less is more. Can't we just read something for fun? Can't we
just read it and pause to think about the magic of the words? Both
of these ideas are disappearing from the English classroom, yet, I think
each is essential in acknowledging the joy of reading...I don't think teaching
will be effective in the middle or high school classroom if the teacher
does not make some connection to the student's life. They may be
intrigued by the plot events, but there are more important lessons to be
learned. What do we want them to take from the novel besides the
importance of a hatchet?"
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A Cry in the Wilderness
The Edge (Probably for high school students.)
The Truman Show
The Sixth Sense
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