My personal literacy narrative

A vignette. Filmed at Syracuse University during The Writing Program’s New TA Orientation. Thinking about literacy, literacy sponsors, and reflection. Also the first time I ever made a video of myself – with kind help from JR.

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Thoughts on Composing / (A) Composition

You know you’re a writing teacher when you read an awesome article that combines content, form, style and structure to make its point clearly and beautifully and think: I want to put this in a syllabus. Or so it was for me, with Larissa MacFarquhar’s requiem for Aaron Swartz in last week’s New Yorker, which you should read.

But actually, I don’t want to talk about that piece. I just squeezed it in there for kicks; I actually want to begin with a moment in another article from the same magazine issue, a profile on jazz pianist Jason Moran. There is a moment where Moran is teaching a lesson at the New England Conservatory of Music to a student named Chase Morrin.

“How would you play that song another way?” Moran said when [the student] finished.

“Is that rhetorical?” Morrin asked.

“No, it’s not. I want you to do it now.”

Morrin started again, but Moran immediately rebuked him for imitating the style of a famous piano player. “I don’t want to hear that stuff,” he said. “You’re more creative than that. That’s good for him, not for you. I want you to go somewhere else.”

Morrin began playing very fast, almost antically.

“Stop,” Moran said. “Stop. it’s its own rhetoric now. Once you start doing a bunch of arpeggios, it’s like an exercise. In the beginning, you didn’t know where things were going. I want us to maintain that uncertainty. I don’t want to see autopilot. Where I want you to start is, I don’t know. I want a whole lot of I don’t know.”

Then the article moves to Moran’s next lesson.

This moment reminded me of a meeting with my creative writing thesis advisor, my senior year of college. We had been meeting every week or two to talk about my work. For the first month or so, I had been attempting a novel about a student who gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby. But it was bad, and then Juno came out, so I switched to writing short stories, which were better. My advisor wanted twenty pages every week. I would send them and we would meet in his office in the arts building on Wednesdays, which was the only day he was on campus, or sometimes we would get a beer. And I remember once, we were in his office, facing each other each from our own slim couch, the afternoon light falling on us through west-facing windows, and I said something to the effect of, “Inspiration is weird. Where does it come from.”

And instead of really answering me, he told me to read Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles, which had recently been released, that Dylan had a better answer for me than he did. So I went and read Dylan’s book, and listened to the not seminal album, Oh Mercy, around whose recording the book revolves, and smoked cigarettes out of my dorm room window and watched the people walking on the street beneath, knowing they’d never look up. And at some point I went back to my little couch and kept reading and that day or another day found the part where Dylan describes a song as a thing that kind of hovers in front of him, and you can’t get to close to it, and if you try to grab it, it will vanish, so you have to just sort of respect its distance from you, and slowly approach it through writing.

(I looked for the passage just now on Google Books but without much luck. A keyword search for “inspiration” turned up nothing; “in front of” fared slightly better. I found this: “This song is like that. One line brings up another, like when your left food steps forward and your right drags up to it.” But even that’s not quite what I remember. I think it was in pp. 150-200. Maybe you will find it.)

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And I remember the first semester I taught composition full-time, I had one class where everything was just right–the kids where great, the classroom was big, with an A/V hookup. The professor before us taught a class about jazz, and I thought maybe that left us some good vibes in the room. We had a bunch of musicians in that class, music students studying jazz guitar and cello and music composition, and when I assigned the writing-on-writing paper at the end of the term, I said they could write about writing music if they wanted, and some of them did. One girl turned in a bunch of MP3s with songs she’d written, and her essay was all about them–where they came from, what they meant.

It’s funny, a few weeks ago I wrote this post on Jewish-African-American relations, and ever since then I’ve felt this pressure to write the follow-up posts I promised, on all sorts of important topics I detailed in that piece. And in the process of not following up I realized that part of the hang up is that I write about Jewish-Afroamerican relations every day, I just don’t share it with you: because in the novel I am writing, have been writing forever, my Jewish main character moves from a relationship with a black man to one with an Arab woman. But y’all don’t see that book, because that’s the difference (for now, at least) between writing fiction and writing a blog.

On Friday I was working on this scene where my protagonist finds another character dead in her apartment. I’ve written this scene maybe three or four times; I was looking through some old drafts. The funny thing is, all of my drafts from grad school are beginnings. Together they add up to almost the whole novel, but every time I turned pages in, they started at page 1. I remember a professor at grad school telling me to be patient, that you can’t write a whole novel at once, that I had to let the thing unwind. Now, finally, I’ve managed to hide this death til the middle. But it’s taken me five years to learn how.

About Jason Moran, the jazz pianist, the established saxophonist Greg Osby said this: “I could hear the history of the piano in all that he did. He wasn’t like a twenty-one-year-old who wants to play everything he knows all the time. It was not a bombardment. he did all the right things, and more.” Later, Moran gives a student to another lesson, Jiri Nedoma, who is working on an original composition. “‘You have to add an introduction,’ [Moran] said when Nedoma finished. He balled his hands together and opened them as if to reveal something. ‘Unfold the song slowly,’ he said. ‘You can’t show me the whole thing at once.'”

And now my mind flies back to college, to my last March and April there, spent writing a thesis, when I would take my laptop to the reading room in the music library, and face wide windows that looked out into green spring trees. I remember rewriting the same story from the perspective of three different characters, how little details emerged each time, how the friend could see around corners that the aunt couldn’t. Those were the days when I felt like I could be a writer, like there was nothing better I would rather do than sit in a room, looking at the trees, taking real life and making it something greater, something with language and form.

How does one learn to teach writing? (the teacher reflects)

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You may have noticed that some of my recent blog post titles are alike. That’s because the last paper assignment of the semester in my freshman English course is to write an essay that answers some personalized version of the question, “How does one learn to write?” I received great papers on how one learns to write thesis statements, how one learns to write through their mistakes, how Kanye learns to rap and graffiti writers in Style Wars learn how to bomb, etc. And in working on this project with my students (lesson plans for which I have yet to put up), I began thinking about how I learned to teach writing. Because this was my last semester teaching at U of M, at least for a while and likely for a long while or forever, the question seemed pressing and I began taking notes. Given that I’ve blogged lesson plans all semester for the expressed purpose of reflecting, taking a moment to formally reflect seems apt.

The list I ended up with is a combination of stuff I’ve learned to do, assumptions I’ve learned I hold, and activities or practices I want to incorporate in the future. I’ll split them up that way.

1. Assumptions I’ve learned I hold

  • Put the argument up front, in the introduction. Have a thesis statement. Have topic sentences and conclusion sentences that relate that paragraph’s work to the thesis. Hell, have paragraphs. Don’t relate your argument to the world. Just get in, prove what you’re proving, and get the heck outta there.
  • Group similar topics of conversation together in the paper; i.e., the same quote or source shouldn’t be discussed on different terms in different places, if it can be avoided (and it usually can).
  • Words can always be cut out.
  • Papers that went through multiple drafts are always better than those that didn’t
  • On a related note, you don’t fully know your argument until the end of writing–writing involves more discovery. Ergo, take that argument you found and draft it back into the beginning of the essay
  • Close reading is contextual: what you find should depend on what you’re looking for, and what you’re trying to prove
  • The difference between a (sophisticated) essay and a(n unsophisticated) report is the former’s acknowledgement of and critical approach toward its source material
  • The difference between “specific,” “explicit,” and “precise”: say a student writes, “Kanye’s verse holds a lot of emotion.” Asking them to be specific entails the questions, Which verses? Which words, which emotions? Then say they revise to, “Kanye’s words “X Y Z” are really important because they contain a lot of strong emotions about how he feels about problems in his community.” That is pretty specific, but it is not explicit. Which emotions? Which problems? Precision is when the author says, “Kanye’s words ‘X Y X’ and ‘A B C’ both connote strong anger” and I ask, can you be more precise, i.e., shade the differences in emotion between the two? Two moments are never identical, only more similar than different.
  • Complexity is crucial. Don’t ignore difference, incorporate it.
  • Don’t speculate, close read. Don’t moralize, illuminate.
  • Never use these words you used in high school: credibility, flow, counterargument. Replace them with truth, logic, complexity.
  • Writing has to be about something. You can’t prove a claim about the world or hiphop or writing or the University of Michigan in five pages, but you can prove something about that text, that song, that video (or their conjunction). And this small expansion of the documented universe is what we call scholarship.

2. Things I’ve recently learned to do (and want to do more of and refine my practice of):

  • Model argumentation by blogging my lesson plans for use in class
  • Use short creative writing assignments to teach students empathy not just with other ways of living but also with other ways of writing
  • Keep records of class and online participation  so that course participation grades are meaningful
  • Use rubrics, which I used to hate, so that students can see their feedback in the context of what better and worse work looks like
  • When students come to office hours, ask them to articulate their papers’ strengths and weaknesses before I read it, so that they develop reflective skills and I don’t give an impression of my omnicience and their dependency
  • Use the scientific method to describe the writing process, where planning and drafting involves making hypothesis, testing them against the evidence, tabulating results and drawing conclusions
  • To state the obvious, I’ve learned to teach writing through hiphop and plan to continue doing so. I’ve learned to do this through organization around a single album, and in a more cross-chronological survey fashion. I hope to refine both. I really want to teach a Ready to Die class. And a hiphop studies survey course. One day!
  • Use reflective writing to help students engage with their own writing practice

3. Things I want to do or want to do better

  • Use research questions as the first step in every writing project
  • Have students engage with real web texts more, through assignments like editing Wikipedia or Rap Genius, or writing blog comments
  • Teach close reading better and more thoroughly at the beginning of the semester
  • Have a discussion about quality and criticism at the beginning of the semester so that students don’t think my rules are arbitrary but instead see recognizing quality as a project for them to actively participate in
  • State these assumptions clearly at the beginning of class!
  • Start an online journal for students to publish and edit their awesome papers
  • Use wikis or google docs for students to collaboratively write documents that will outlast our one semester

So, it’s not enough to ask the question–I made my students answer it, and I ought to do the same. I think one learns how to teach writing by teaching writing. That’s where all these notes came from–teaching writing is the only crucible that works for this difficult and necessary task of learning how to be a better teacher. If I were one of my students, the above would have only been my first outline: now would begin the process of going back through old lesson plans, finding quotations to document how my teaching practice has changed, and crafting all those quotes and claims into a gorgeous argumentative paper that proves I learned to teach writing through teaching writing. Luckily, I’m the teacher – so I’ll just stop here.

4.2, 5.1, and 5.2: All of My Lesson Plans on Cone’s “The Spirituals and the Blues”

Y’all, I am so tired.

LESSON PLAN 4.2: Intro to Cone

1. Spend some time with the Table of Contents. What does it teach us about the subject matter of this book? About the questions Cone will ask?

  • What is Cone like as a speaker? What are his aims in this text? Anyone look at the year (1972)? Context?
  • Explain that even though this book is hard, it gives us a theological vocabulary with which to discuss “I’ll Fly Away,” “Spaceship,” “Jesus Walks” and “Never Let Me Down”

2. Groups of 3-4: After we all read pp. 5-6 together, split into 5 groups and each group is responsible for fully understanding and explaining to the class one of the 5 claims Cone makes about black music:

Black music is unity music. … Black music is functional … Black music is a living reality. … Black music is also social and political. … Black music is theological. (Cone 5-6)

Speaking of which, what’s the difference between theology and religion? What does it mean to claim the spirituals are “theological” as opposed to merely religious?

3. Listen: “I’ll Fly Away” + Spaceship”

  • What does “I’ll Fly Away” add to “Spaceship”? In other words, what might we miss in the latter if the former was excluded?
  • Do we see any concepts from Cone resonating in “Spaceship”?

 

LESSON 5.1

1. Collect their first final papers! Then congratulate them, then… reflective writing!!

  • List the different steps you took to write this paper, as though it was a lab report, from receiving the assignment through turning it in today.
  • Which step was the hardest and which was the easiest? Why?
  • Assess your process – not the product but the process. Did you set goals? Did your steps work? Would you change them?

2. Discuss Cone ch. 4 “God and Black Suffering” and ch. 5 “The Meaning of Heaven in the Black Spirituals”

  • What is the relationship between faith and suffering in the spirituals? What attitude to the spirituals take?
  • What are the multiple meanings of Heaven Cone sees in the spirituals?
  • What kinds of questions does Cone ask of the lyrics he analyzes?

3. “Jesus Walks”

“God show me the way cuz the devil tryna break me down.

I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cuz we ain’t spoke in so long.

Jesus walks with me…

  • Can we apply Cone’s questions to Kanye? What is the image of God he gives us in his lyrics, or of Jesus? What about the devil?
  • A music video makes choices about how to represent a song: is it literal; does it draw our attention to certain storylines, sounds, or themes; how is the artist positioned in the video, if at all; etc.
  • Compare 2 versions of “Jesus Walks” video, asking above questions of each.

 

LESSON PLAN 5.2 (meet in computer lab)

1. Cone- “The Blues”

  • What’s the relationship between the spirituals and the blues?
  • p. 100 Cone says the two genres share the same “ethos” – what does that mean?
  • What does Cone mean by absurdity? “But absurdity int he blues is factual, not conceptual. The blues, while not denying that the world was strange, described its strangeness in more concrete and vivid terms” (101). What, in the view of the blues, is so absurd? “The blues…recognize that there is something wrong with this world, something absurd about the way that white people treat black people….The blues caught the absurdity of black existence in America and vividly and artistically expressed it in word and suitable music.” (112)

2. Introduce a PARADIGM SHIFT: From doing primary source work to secondary source work

  • Remind me what primary vs. secondary sources are?
  • In the first part of class, we wrote about primary sources and read texts that wrote about primary sources. (Anderson had his transcripts, Cone has his lyrics.) But now we are going to write about primary sources and secondary sources together, just like Tricia Rose will in the next book we read.
  • Strategies for using secondary sources: VERBS!! Verbal weapons with which we wage our wars!! acknowledge – add- admit – agree – argue – assert – believe – claim – comment – compare – confirm – conclude – contend – declare – deny – dispute – emphasize – endorse – grant – illustrate – imply – maintain – note – opine – point out – reason – refute – reject – report – respond – suggest – think – write

3. (For today, everyone had to analyze a music video of their choice and post it on the class blog.) Teams of 2: pick a post neither of you wrote, read it, watch the video. Then summarize the author’s take on the video and challenge or expand their analysis using 3-5 of these verbs.

Week 3.1, 3.2 and 4.1: Reflecting, Workshopping, and final coverage of _Code of the Street_

I had all these grand plans about how I was going to write up my 3.1 lesson plan to make it really really gorgeous so that I could use it in my writing sample, but instead I got distracted and am now 3 lesson plans behind. Why did I make all this extra work for myself?? Oh well, as the White Rabbit might say, “No time to say hello, goodbye!’ I’m late, I’m late I’m late.” Ergo…

LESSON PLAN 3.1

1. Logistics

2. Code of the Street ch. 2 – “Campaigning for Respect”

  • what is the “campaign for respect” in question? what is involved in that process?
  • what evidence does Anderson use to illustrate this campaign?
  • a look at the way he introduces terminology on p. 79:

3. There is a lot of learning in this chapter. What do Anderson’s subjects learn?

4. REFLECTION–> what is reflection? Did you do any reflective writing  in high school?

  • Reminder: reflection helps us become self-aware, by drawing our attention to ourselves, our own strengths and struggles, to facilitate transfer (i.e., remembering what we learned) when we write future papers all by our lonesome
  • Creative writing: look at the kid on p. 74 who says: /// imagine Anderson asked him, “How did you learn that?” Answer from the kid’s perspective
  • Give purpose of that exercise: to create empathy for this kid who learns other material than us; but also to create empathy for the act of imagination. Lots of questions about does Kanye really know this or that. This exercise reminds us of the possibilities of artistic empathy, which we also share.

5. MORE Reflection: Reflect on how you learned to write. Think back to this first paper you’re working on right now

  • How did you begin this paper? What were the first steps you took, perhaps before you even began typing a draft?
  • Where did those skills come from? When did you learn how to begin a paper?
  • What have been the easiest and hardest elements of working on this essay so far?
  • Reminder: save and date these, I won’t collect them but you’ll refer back to them later

6. WORKSHOP: overview of how workshops run

6. Thesis mini-workshop: exchange your thesis-in progress with a partner, formulate three questions for your partner’s thesis that push it to become more explicit. Could begin with HOW WHY WHERE or WHAT.

LESSON PLAN 3.2

1. Logistics: PSA – sneeze & cough into your shoulder, not your hand, and wash those puppies. Yes I really told them this.

2. Code of the Street – ch. 2 “Drugs, Violence and Street Crime”

  • Read the chapter’s opening (pp. 107-108) – why does Anderson open this chapter with W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro?
  • Spend a moment understanding “deindustrialization”: AP US History flashback, what was industrialization? Correlation with the Great Migration–> African Americans to urban centers–relate back to drug trade as it “picks up the slack” (108)
  • evidence: Why does Anderson spend 8 pages describing a stickup? How does it illustrate elements of the street code?

3. Code-switching – groups of 3: identify a verbal or written code-switch that you perform in your own life- make a list of rules for performing in each code + knowing when to switch.

4. Does Kanye code-switch?

LESSON PLAN 4.1: Workshop 1

Workshop instructions: they read each other’s papers in advance and wrote a 1-page letter for each of the 3 papers they read. So the workshop instructions just remind them that while the author is quiet, the readers have a conversation that begins after their letters end and is collaborative. Focus on identifying what specifically the paper is about besides just “the lyrics” and making sure the argument is about that specific thing. Discuss thesis, evidence, paragraphs, intro and conclusion. Okay to describe and not only critique.

If they finished early, I made them re-write a new introduction that began from the first sentence talking about the song their paper is about. So it’s a funnel but a tiny funnel.

This weekend I am going to do some summative reflection on all this reflecting-in-action I’ve done so far. Peace y’all.

 

As We Proceed….to Give You What You Need… (Here, Have My Course Materials)

Wassup, fools! It’s Labor Day Weekend, the annual last weekend of summer when a lot of people are on vacation but I am at my desk, editing syllabi for a new calendar year.

When I started teaching “College Writing on The College Dropout” two years ago, I was an MFA student with a simple purpose in mind: to make sure the required freshman writing class I taught would be more enjoyable than the one I took when I was a freshman, which I hated. And from the moment I started teaching, it was clear to me that this was something I’d have to write about.

That first semester teaching was Fall 2010; the following summer, I did some research for the English Department on the subject of reflective writing. Among our research team, my subfocus was new media, and blogs were a large part of my research. In fact, blogs have tons of reflective writing applications. They archive student writings for future study. They foster a writer’s awareness of their audience. And that pithy-casual blog tone we all know so well  actually helps young academic writers break out of an academic register and let their own voices and experiences come into play. But one of the most important things I remember reading (in Will Richardson’s wonderful Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other powerful Web tools for the Classroom) was that to teach effectively using blogs, you needed to know what it was like to have a blog. If we in the English Department were so sure reflecting on writing made students better writers, wouldn’t it behoove me as a teacher to reflect on teaching?

(Full disclosure: Around this time, I told a friend I wanted to write a book of essays on hiphop. She said, “Why wait for a book deal? Go start a blog.”)

Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus”

That December, about eight months ago, I started writing this thing, and it has been wonderful–a place to reflect on rap, on teaching, on pop culture. Indeed, I like this stuff so much I’m about ready to go back to school for it. So, in the interest of my future research and remembrance of times past, I’m going to try something new this semester: starting on Tuesday, I’m going to post all my lesson plans and course materials up here. If you’re a writing teacher, feel free to ape (with credit to me, please). This new initiative is inspired as much by the principles of transparency, crowdsourcing, and remix as by my own personal interest in recording and reflecting on my lesson plans. Heck, my course already makes use of free, online materials like song lyrics, music videos, and other blogs and periodicals. I’ve spent a lot of time honing this freshman writing course, but that only makes me want to share it with you. If you want to teach “College Writing on The College Dropout,” please be my welcome guest. (Heck, if you want to take this class along with us, please do! Though I won’t grade your papers–I have enough of those already.) If you have thoughts or comments on my lesson plans, I can’t wait to hear them. If you’re my former student, the time is ripe for your revenge: tell me (and the world!) if this stuff actually worked. In the process, I hope to learn more about my teaching style, to remember those little lessons we learn every day but too often forget, and to give a lil’ sumt’n back to this hiphop universe that has given me so much.

More soon, friends. Til then, happy Labor Day. -T.