Monday, August 27, 2007

Reading and writing and grinning

One of my colleagues came into the department office after teaching his first class, a huge smile on his face. "Good class?" I asked. "Great so far," he said, "but I haven't read any of their writing yet."

Well I have read some of their writing and I'm still smiling. Yes, at 9:00 on the very first day of classes, I made my students write about a poem they'd never seen before. The results are not bad. There are a few marginal responses, but several of the essays made me want to pump my fists and say "Yes!"

Writing about poetry on the first day of class is part of the assessment plan for my literature survey classes. I need to measure students' ability to conduct a close reading of an unfamiliar text, so I give them a poem and a question on the first day and a similar task on the final exam and evaluate both of them with a common rubric. The result is a meaningful number: most semesters, more than three-quarters of my survey students improve their close-reading ability, many of them significantly.

There is an ulterior motive for this exercise, though: to scare students away. The literature survey courses carry general education credit, so they're always overenrolled and waitlisted. What's the best way to scare away the students looking for an easy A? Toss 'em a poem on the first day and make 'em analyze it.

Finally, the exercise requires students to think (and write) about the purpose of literature. In American Lit Survey, I'll often use "To the Stone-Builders" by Robinson Jeffers, and in this morning's Postcolonial Lit Survey, I used "On a Theme by Hone Taiapa" by Hone Tuwhare. Both poems compare the creation of poetry to working with the hands (building a wall or carving a totem), and both raise interesting questions about what literature is for. I get excited about that kind of question and I want my students to do so too.

So if anyone asks me why I'm grinning today, I'll say, "Great class--and I've read their writing."

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