Using literature to teach writing, Part 2

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Here is my handout for my co-teaching in English 759. I’ve probably already talked about some of the strategies for using literature in the composition/writing intensive classroom in part 1, but many of these are new. If you find these interesting, I highly recommend you check out the book edited by Art Young and Toby Fulwiler. The citation is below.

When Writing Teachers Teach Literature: Bringing Writing to Reading. Art Young and Toby Fulwiler (eds). Heinemann: New York, 1995. Print.

Overview: This collection of essays focus on pedagogical tools that can help teachers with writing instruction through the use of literature. The book is divided into parts that each has a particular focus. This handout gives emphasis to each part and describes some pedagogical strategies from each section. Note that I haven’t discussed every essay/pedagogy in the book.

Part 1: Conflicts in the Contact Zone

These essays talk about how to deal with difficult topics in the classroom. These can include difficult themes to discuss in literature (e.g. rape) or misconceptions students carry about what English means.

This first part focuses on why students “take literature” courses. Most students expect to bring them further “awareness” of cultural issues and, more broadly, make them “better people.” (like the rhetorical question—“Is the good speaker a good person?”) Trimbur focuses on why students “take English” and gives some good ideas to have students explore what literature means by having them describe their prior experiences with literature and what they expect to learn in a literature course. (You can easily turn this around and ask what their previous writing experiences are and what they expect to learn in a writing course. It will help get the course off on some solid ground.) Essays that follow discuss pedagogical strategies for teaching writing and literature and I have highlighted a few of these below:

  • After students read a work of literature, ask them to rewrite that work of literature in a new way. I currently do this in my world literature course where students will write a poem retelling Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” for example. This demonstrates to students that literature is not static, but malleable.
  • Ask students to write a letter to the editor (or some form of more formal or informal writing) that places themes from the story/poem into a contemporary setting. For example, if they read Yeats poem “Leda and the Swan” a student could write a letter to the editor of the student newspaper about rape on campus.
  • Use literature in a way to challenge students’ current misconceptions. Have students Freewrite on their past experiences with a certain (perhaps difficult) topic and use these to lead into discussion. Works well in classes where you are talking about difficult themes/ideas.

Part 2: Student Writing and Teacher Learning

In this section, student writing is the main focus where students can use their own experiences to guide the classroom situation.

Pedagogical strategies:

  • In one class, students created their own “textbook” for the class of their own writings. This would be a good thing to do in a 120 class or in a creative writing course. You could use this textbook for other classes so they could learn the genres or have it be a sort of “class portfolio.” All students would contribute their own work or work collaboratively on this as a class. (Group writings, for example with an “editing group.”) This gives students power over the class and their own writing.
  • Reader response is a focus of this section, so another pedagogical move would include having students write their own interpretation of a story or poem. I know we, as teachers, sometimes step over students to correct interpretation (especially if we feel strongly about a work of literature or author), but the goal here is to let students express their own reading of the text and contribute to a “critical edition” of that work. (I think Dr. Totten has done this kind of assignment in 358, so he would have an assignment sheet on this if you were interested.)
  • For exercises in imitation, students can mimic the sentences of an author. (We have talked about this.) Students can also practice summary by writing a summary of the plot of a novel read in the course.

Part 3: Writing and Rewriting Literature

Self-explanatory title. 😉

  • This was an example from a poetry class: The teacher assigned multiple genres of poems (rap, sonnets, etc) and had students write their own versions of these forms of poetry, along with talking about how the “form fits the meaning.” This gets students to think about genre as well.
  • One teacher in this section discussed how he had students “rewrite” a story or poem in a way that it fit modern times (or however the student wished to rewrite it.) Students also played around with writing alternative endings or adding new characters. This would work well in a creative writing class. You could also use this in 120 by showing how literature can be made relevant today (rewriting a story/poem into present day) and also teach about genre and how genre is culturally constructed (something I make a point to do in 358 and 120).
  • When critiquing literature, have students talk about the writing too. Why the writing works or doesn’t work. Use this to teach students about diction and descriptive writing. (I have an exercise on a Robert Hayden poem I did where I taught them about using diction and descriptive writing. I also showed them his multiple drafts to show how the poem changed via the word choice and descriptions. I’d be willing to share.)
  • Have students write personal essays in response to literature. This can work well (but also potentially backfire) if a student has a strong reaction to a work of literature. The example used was Maya Angelou’s Why the Caged Bird Sings rape scene. A student wrote about her own experiences on this topic. (Would be good for creative writing or 120, but I also think this is a very delicate subject, but if done well could be a very forceful and successful assignment. But you would want to know your class well and make this a later assignment.) This also shows them that literature isn’t an “outside” entity but something they can relate to on a personal level.

Part 4: Writing for Personal Knowledge

These essays all discuss ways students can discuss literature in a more personal way, mainly through journal writing (I felt the last essay from Part 3 fit more into Part 4.)

  • Have students keep a journal or blog where they write about their personal responses to the readings. Journals or blogs will offer a safe haven for students to talk about their personal reactions to a given creative work.
  • A problem with journals is that they can be “unfamiliar territory” to some students, so you could use journals to show how they are private discourses to better understand a story, poem, or novel. Students would use these to discover ways of understanding the reading (writing to learn) and bring these ideas with them to the next class period.
  • In using technology, you can set up an email listserv to talk about the literature. (This may seem outdated today, though.)

Part 5: Writing for Critical Literacy

These essays focused on more comprehensive ways students learn through literature and writing. It discussed ways to get students personally and critically engaged in the readings.

  • Portfolios. We already do this here, so it would easily fit. With portfolios, students would have their personal responses (a response or journals) to a reading and then have a critical piece of writing on that reading following it (analysis, close reading assignment, etc). This way a student could see how his or her knowledge of the readings changed over time.
  • Another teacher discussed the possibility of grading student freewrites at the start of class. He called these the “ten minute writing assignment” and 40 percent of the student’s grade was based in these assignments. They are basically like informal response papers to the readings due for that day. I thought it was an interesting idea to make sure the students were doing the reading and giving credit for that in a tangible way. This also easily helps bring about discussion of literature in the classroom.

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