In the wake of the most recent mass school shooting, the solution from the president and the NRA is a rehashing of an old idea—the “let’s arm the teachers” concept. It’s sort of like a cross between the old west and the nun with the deadly yardstick, I suppose. In the case of the president and the NRA, I am a bit cynical—I’m 100% convinced that they have latched onto this idea as a means to avoid actually doing anything about the gun problem in this country. That said, I can understand the logic of people who hear that idea and think it’s worth a try. For them, people who have never set foot in a classroom as anything other than a student, it makes sense. If a teacher has a gun, that teacher can end the attack more quickly by shooting the attacker. They don’t understand the flaw in this plan.
The flaw is the idea that shooters like the one in Florida, Columbine, Newtown, etc. are exceptions. We like to see these shooters after the fact, and say “oh look at all of those signs. We should have seen this coming.” The problem, however, is that the signs here weren’t all that rare. This was a teenager who had lost his father and then his mother, was expelled for fighting over bullying and/or issues with the opposite sex, and had an obsession with violence and weapons. To be clear, this teenager IS a monster—we know this because he killed 17 people. If we look at him BEFORE that act, however, he is not particularly rare or even uncommon. Schools, even the best schools, have MANY hard-luck cases: kids with difficult home lives, kids who have experienced tragedy, kids with emotional issues, and more. These are the kids who were in the classes most of us weren’t in back in high school. They were the kids who sat alone or with other kids like them. Most people, as students, don’t really see them. But they are there. They are kids like Jack.
I taught Jack during my very first year as a high school teacher. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. As any good teacher will tell you, we desperately want to go back and apologize to that first group of students who we taught. Even still, Jack stands out. I still remember every detail about that moment—the moment of my first major “issue” as a teacher. The bell rang, students started filing out of the room, and this one little 9th grader dropped a folded up piece of paper on my desk without uttering a word to me. I hadn’t been collecting anything that day, but I picked up the piece of paper, unfolded it, and read this:
I had no idea how to handle this at first. This was a pretty good school. Jack was a poor student, but he seemed like a genuinely nice kid. What do you do when a student tells you that he intends to kill you? In this case, I brought the note to a mentor, who walked me down to the office with a serious look on his face and made me show it to the principal. I felt awful. I was worried this student would get expelled or arrested. He was suspended—for one day—and was back in class the next week. He apologized. His mother wrote me a nice note, expressing her horror that her child would ever write such a thing, and insisting that he was trying to joke around with me. He had fallen in with a group of bad influences, she said. Within a week, things went back to normal. He did not manage to pass my class that year, but he never tried to kill me, either.
That was the only year I taught Jack, but I kept tabs on the kid. I asked him how he was doing in 10th grade the following year, and offered advice on how to approach Shakespeare. I asked him how his mother was doing, in that “I know some of the horrid details of your home life but I can’t reveal to you that I know these things” way. I don’t want to get too into specifics, as the point here is not to reveal Jack’s true name or identity, but let’s just say that there was plenty in this 15 year old’s background that could have been considered a “sign that we missed.” I lost track of Jack in 11th and 12th grade. The next time I saw him was at his own graduation. He was supposed to be lining up, but he was frantically looking around for the tie that he “misplaced.” I am reasonably certain that he never remembered to bring a tie, but he could not walk without one. I loosened the tie from around my own neck and tossed it to him. He lit up with a smile, made eye contact, and gave me the most authentic “thank you” I think I’ve ever heard. He then rushed off to line up for graduation. Other than a quick hand-off when he returned the tie, I have not seen Jack since. I went off to graduate school, and I lost track of this young man who had seen too many things in his life and who had once threatened to end mine.
Why do I bring up Jack in this blog post? I don’t want to conflate him with the young man who did that horrible thing in Florida. Not at all. Nothing would make me happier than to hear that Jack is living a wonderful, happy, stable life right now. He deserves it. No, I bring up Jack because—until the young man in Florida decided to act on his threats—he could have been Jack. There are dozens of kids with horribly tragic circumstances in our schools. Only a handful turn out to be monsters. The rest? The rest are the special projects for teachers. They are the students we show up early for. They are the students who make the athletic teams even if they were on the bubble because we think they need the community the most. There is a phrase often associated with schools--in loco parentis—which literally means “in the place of the parent.” The phrase is usually used to indicate that teachers make decisions when the parents aren’t there. But what about the kids for whom the parents are absent altogether or might as well be? Teachers will always go that extra mile for a kid who has nobody else in their corner. It’s part of the nature of the profession.
It’s been a long time since I was in front of a high school classroom, but many of these kids stay with me: the kid who had no self-confidence and cried when she found out I called home for a positive reason; the kid who was on the path to being a massive bully before several teachers took him under their wings rather than giving up on him; the student who told me that his father beats him; the student whose parents sued the school system because he was gay and they wanted someone else to pay for his tuition at a school that could “make that go away.” These kids stay with me, even though I don’t really know what became of most of them. Every teacher has kids like this—kids with “warning signs” who we work a bit harder to help. What does this have to do with guns? Easy. No teacher—and it doesn’t matter how much training they have had or if they are former military—no teacher can aim a weapon at a student, even the toughest, most pain in the ass student that has ever graced their classroom, and pull a trigger. To point a gun at another person and pull the trigger, you have to be able to see that target as an enemy. To teachers, that isn’t “the enemy”—it’s our kid. Even in the best case scenario, there would be hesitation. Any teacher who claims to be able to do exactly that is either lying to themselves or should never be in front of a classroom or in possession of a gun.
The only thing we can expect from adding guns to school buildings is a significant increase in accidental shootings. So what SHOULD we do? I am not particularly comfortable around guns. Especially guns designed for the mass slaughter of people. I don’t think that stricter background checks will catch ENOUGH people. Some folks will always slip through. If it were up to me, I would want all semi-automatic assault rifles banned. I understand that a lot of folks feel differently. How about this as a compromise. Let’s flip the script. Instead of running checks to look for (and all too often miss) reasons why people shouldn’t have a semi-automatic assault weapon, why don’t we have a multi-step process of affirmative checks—if someone wants to buy a semi-automatic assault weapon, they need to explain why they want/need one, demonstrating that they have trained, have a clean record, have a plan for safe storage, etc. It’s not as far as I would prefer when it comes to gun control while still leaving the option there for people who are able and willing to demonstrate that they have the need, training, and stability for such a weapon.
As a solution, it isn’t perfect. But it’s a far sight better than putting a gun in my hand and asking me to end the life of one of my students. No teacher can do that. Even if a student did threaten to end my life, I could never fire a weapon at that student. I’d much rather lend him my tie.
Apologies for the delay between posts. The inauguration and world events have weighed heavily on me, and I fear that any post that would have come from me over the last couple of weeks would have been inherently political in nature (and while I'm not opposed to writing political posts, I don't want ALL of my posts to turn into political soap-boxing).
For my first pedagogy post, I wanted to discuss something that I've been working on extensively for the last few years--performance based approaches to composition. In many ways, this interest began back in the summer of 2008. Back then, I was a high school teacher at North Harford High School, and I had recently been selected to participate in an NEH sponsored professional development opportunity called the Teaching Shakespeare Institute. Basically, it was a four-week residential program hosted and run by the Folger Shakespeare Library that was built around three pillars: Pedagogy, Scholarship, and Performance. Every day of the Institute, we heard lectures from top scholars, worked in the Folger reading room, engaged in acting games, and worked together to figure out ways to turn all of that into applicable classroom pedagogy. That summer was the single most transformative event of my professional life, and I still use, adapt, and turn to the skills I learned that summer on a regular basis.
Though it probably irks them to hear it, my experience at the Folger solidified my desire to go to graduate school. I wanted to live in that reading room and be one of those eminent scholars giving a morning lecture. I wanted to embody that balance between research, performance, and pedagogy. So the following year, off I went to the wilds of western New York, to pursue my M.A. at St. Bonaventure University. At Bonas, I took a composition theory class with Daniel Ellis. That class served as the beginning of my work trying to meld performance and composition instruction. The more research I did on the topic, the more I began to realize that most people seemed to think of reading aloud as "performance" pedagogy, which isn't the case at all. I did come across several scholars whose work incorporated elements of performance into their composition instruction: Debra Hawhee (gesture), W. Keith Duffy (sound and digital recording), Meredith Love (discoursal selves and writing personae), and Jenn Fishman and Andrea Lunsford (embodied writing).
What I found lacking in this critical conversation, and indeed what Fishman and Lunsford actively called for someone to provide, was a functional and reproducible compositional performance pedagogy. This is the one glaring item missing from the otherwise exciting work of all of these scholars. Fishman and Lunsford seem aware of this, and close their article by asking, “How then, can we incorporate performance into our classrooms and our pedagogies?” (Fishman 246). A devoted Folger acolyte, I of course asked, "WWFD--What would the Folger do?" The Folger had, thirty years prior, already developed a functional and reproducible performance pedagogy. The key question was whether or not that pedagogical approach to reading Shakespeare could be adapted for use in a composition classroom.
The potential snag, of course, was the fact that the Folger activities were largely designed for interpretive use--to derive potential meanings from an existing text. What I needed were activities that could be used in a generative context, so that students could utilize performance methods to craft their own written work. So my first step was to sort through the various Folger activities to determine which ones could be adapted for use in a composition classroom. Those that were mostly interpretive in nature, I adapted for editing and peer review activities, and those that could be converted to generative contexts, I adapted for pre-writing activities. I've been working with these approaches for the better part of 7 years now, and I've shared some of the more effective activities below.
CUTTING A SCENE
One of the Folger's most effective performance-based strategies involves having students create a "director's cut" of a scene. Basically, the idea is to give students a Shakespearean scene and have them cut it in half. At first, the cuts come easy, but as they progress, they start to argue with each other and fight for their favorite lines. Without even realizing it, they end up doing an extremely close reading of the scene in order to figure out which details are absolutely essential and which ones they can afford to cut.
This activity was my first foray into Folger-based composition. I had long been irked by my students' fondness for "mega-paragraphs" that spanned a full page (or more) in length. All too often, students would cram three or four ideas into one paragraph, never developing any of them, and usually giving the shortest shrift to the most intriguing idea. Bringing in the Folger "cutting a scene" activity just made good sense, and I made it part of my peer review process. I first introduce the idea that cutting can improve a text (I like to use the Hugh Laurie/Rowan Atkinson sketch, "A Small Re-Write," where Shakespeare argues with his editor. See below). We then transition to a group activity, where students cut a passage--usually one selected to match the course theme--in half. Then, in peer review, each student self-selects two paragraphs from their own paper that seem a bit long. They count up the words and, as a group, they cut half of those words out. The paper writer always holds the pen, so the last word belongs to them, but the constraint is the same--half of the words must go. By the end of the process, they have paragraphs that are much leaner and more focused. They can build them up a bit from that new foundation, and the material that was cut frequently ends up as seed-material for new paragraphs in their papers.
Another Folger activity that I adapted early on in a peer review context is their lesson on blocking for performance. In the Folger activity, students look over a passage from Shakespeare and think about the different ways they can perform each line. They use, as an example, a short sentence that can take many subtextual meanings, like "I didn't say he wet his bed." If you say that sentence, emphasizing each word in turn, it takes on several different (and potentially disgusting) meanings. "I DIDN'T say he wet his bed" (defensive) is far different from "I didn't say he wet HIS bed" (gross). The Folger approach has students take short passages from Shakespeare and mark them up in this way, "blocking" the scene with performance notes regarding which words will be emphasized, how and when the actor will move, where the actor will pause or speed up, and so on (see below for one example). By engaging in this activity, students can see how one scene can be played in so many different ways, opening up a text to interpretive analysis rather than definitive analysis.
In my composition classroom, the task is a little bit different. Here, the concern is that student writing might be TOO open to interpretation. The goal is to make sure that they do as much as they can to make sure that their audience reads a line exactly the way they intended it to be read. We again start with the "I didn't say he wet his bed" example, but this time, we don't stop at the awareness that it can be read in many different ways. I split the class into seven groups (one group for each emphasized word), and each group is tasked with re-writing the sentence to make its meaning more concrete. With this idea established, we can use it in peer review. I have students bracket off the most important parts of their paper (up to three paragraphs)--the parts of the paper that need to come across perfectly in order to convince their audience of the validity of their thesis. I then have them block those paragraphs with performance notes, encouraging them to treat it like a script and to actually perform those paragraphs with those notes as a guide. Then, in their peer review groups, they work together to revise these paragraphs to make them more concrete, with the rest of the group playing the defined audience for the paper writer. The end result is that the blocked passages go through a sort of "rehearsal" process during peer review in order to "audience test" the key portions of their papers/arguments and then re-write them to more effectively target that audience.
I had been using the above strategies during the peer review process for a couple of years, but was still on the hunt for ways that I could use performance techniques to help students generate writing rather than simply edit and revise it. I was teaching my third or fourth section of writing at Rochester when I realized that I could use one of my favorite Folger activities (two-line scenes) to combat one of my biggest compositional pet peeves (floating quotations).
The basic idea of the Folger's two-line scenes activity is to have participants quickly create a fully realized scene out of just two lines. They use this activity regularly during workshops (see below), and it works beautifully every time. Each participant is issued a card with a Shakespearean passage on it, and the two partners must collaborate to make some quick performative decisions: Where are they? What is the relationship between the two speakers? Who is speaking first? How does the second speaker react to what the first speaker said? How does the scene open and close? And so on. It's a brilliant activity, where you can create a whole world in five minutes with two 3x5 cards. And on top of that, the passages are usually pretty fun as well (see below).
I had tried (and failed) for a few semesters to incorporate the two-line scenes activity into my composition classroom. Initially, I used it as part of my discussion on subtext. I had students do the activity just like the Folger did it, complete with Shakespearean passages, and then talk about how they made subtextual decisions to create their scenes. Students had fun, but the activity didn't really have a noticeable impact on the quality of the writing they were doing. A couple of years ago it hit me--I could use this activity to tackle one of my biggest pet peeves in student writing: floating quotations. No matter how many times I tried to convey the idea to them, students seemed to be invested in using floating quotations in their papers (quotations with no introduction, no attribution, and no reaction on the part of the writer--they were simply dropped into the paper, seemingly at random, to fulfill the requirement to "use sources").
It occurred to me that the two-line scenes activity was perfect for effective quotation use. The activity was all about the interactive aspect of the lines, and it was ideal for conveying to students the difficult concept that they are (or at least should be) interacting with their sources. I now introduce the process in much the same way. We still use the Folger cards and the Shakespeare lines to have a bit of fun creating our scenes. From there, we discuss how those scenes came to be, including all of the decisions that needed to be made to create each performance. Finally, we bring it back to the idea of quotation use, highlighting the notion that quotations should be used not to take the place of our ideas, but rather because we had a strong reaction of some sort to the point the author was making. Any time we use a quotation in a paper, it should "make a scene." I now have students complete "quotation cards" as they work on their papers. When they react strongly to something said in one of their sources, they write the quotation on one side of the card, and their reaction on the other side of the card. When it comes time to write a draft of the paper, I emphasize the idea that both sides of the quotation card need to end up in the paper--the source and the student's reaction. During peer review, we revisit the idea of the two line scenes, and students work with a partner to make sure that they are conveying their response in the way that they intended. I wish I had figured this approach out so much earlier, because it has drastically reduced the frequency of "floating quotations" in my students' papers.
The last Folger-based composition approach I want to discuss is also the newest--I've only been beta testing this idea for the last year or so, and I'm still working out the details to an extent. I've been experimenting with the idea that the first draft, rather than being a written product, could actually be a performance or a presentation of some sort. Of all of the activities discussed in this blog post, this is the first one that is not a direct adaptation of a specific Folger activity. Rather this one is more about extending the spirit of the Folger philosophy to the composition classroom. I had experimented with the idea of digital first drafts earlier in my career. I used to have students upload their paper drafts via a website called Voxopop.com, a digital voice-thread site. Basically, it was a way to force students into reading their papers out loud so that they could "hear" errors that their eyes skipped over. I had long since abandoned this approach, however, mainly due to the fact that Voxopop was Java-based, and the glitches that resulted from that meant that I was doing as much tech support as I was composition instruction.
Then, about two years ago at the NYCEA conference at Hilbert College in Buffalo, I ended up in a conversation where we were discussing the idea of students engaging in a sort of digital double-translation--presenting a concept version of a paper and then "translating" that presentation into a formal paper. I was immediately drawn to the concept, as all too often, I felt that students focused on mechanics to the detriment of content revision. By making the first draft a presentation--a performance of sorts--they could focus on the idea-side of the paper before even worrying about the writing side of it. I piloted this idea last summer in my WRT 105a class, and implemented it more fully this year. While the sample size is still a bit small, the results have been quite promising. One of my students from last semester railed against the idea in her self-reflection for paper one, and completely changed her view of it by the final paper. By presenting the ideas of the paper and working out the issues on the content side before ever drafting a single paragraph--a sort of rehearsal process if you will--students seemed to find that the writing part of it became much easier.
I think this connection between Folger performance techniques and the college composition classroom works as well as it has because college students, whether they know it or not, are already phenomenal actors. In 2009, my first year working with college composition students, I met a freshman named Alex who insisted on beginning every peer workshop session with a disclaimer about how he is a horrible writer. He would routinely apologize to his peers for the perceived low quality of his writing, and this was before they had even looked at his paper. His serious belief was that he was incapable of learning to write. Alex played the role of the sheepishly embarrassed poor student in that class. He knew to turn his eyes to the desk, and modulate his voice so that his peers would understand his fault, and maybe not laugh at his work. What he did not know, is that his apologetic performance for his peer editors is exactly what writing entails. He just never learned to view writing in that way--the Folger way.
It should be noted that when I refer to "the Folger," while I AM referring to the place in Washington D.C., I am also referring to the people who made that place feel like home back in 2008, and completely changed my life for the better in the process. Those people include: Bob Young, Mike LoMonico, Sue Biondo-Hench, Peggy O'Brien, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Michael Tolaydo, Shade Gomez, Stephen Dickey, Jay Halio, Margaret Maurer, Deidra LaWan Starnes, and the entire 2008 TSI crew.
I mentioned a few sources in the early part of this entry. The bibliographical information for those sources can be found below:
Duffy, W. Keith. “A Pedagogy of Composing: The Rhetoric of Electronic Music in the Writing Class.” Inventio: Creative
Thinking about Learning and Teaching 2.7 (2005): 1-15. Web. 19 Feb. 2010.
Fishman, Jenn, Andrea Lunsford, Beth McGregor, and Mark Otuteye. “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy.” College
Composition and Communication 57.2 (2005): 224-52. Print.
Hawhee, Debra. Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language. Columbia: The U of South Carolina P, 2009. Print.
---. “Performing Ancient Rhetorics: A Symposium.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 36.1 (2006): 135-42. Print.
---. “Review Essay: Somatography.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 93.3 (2007): 365-74. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
---. “Rhetorics, Bodies, and Everyday Life.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 36.1 (2006): 155-64. Print.
Love, Meredith. “Composing Through the Performative Screen: Translating Performative Studies into Writing Pedagogy.”
Composition Studies 35.2 (2007): 11-30. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
Welcome to the "Blue Collar Scholar" blog at TheRenaivalist.com (i.e. Scott O'Neil's personal and professional blog).