Saturday, January 18, 2014

Teaching My Own: High School Writing And Literature

Waiting at Waiting for the Interurban in Fremont.

Over the past dozen years of teaching high schoolers, I've covered a lot of different subjects.

Writing
Literature.
History.
Geography.
Government.
Current Events.
Art.
Algebra.

While holding firm to some basic principles, my teaching partner, Heidi, and I experimented with several different formats and strategies for those specific topics. And though I firmly believe there is always more than one way to skin a cat, especially in matters of learning, I share my success stories as food for thought.

"I dare you to spit."

Writing and literature are best taught arm in arm. College-bound students should be able to bang out a successful five-paragraph essay in their sleep, and that means they will need years of practice. So what to write all those essays about? How about some interesting, well-written, maturity level-appropriate books! 

One of my biggest pet peeves with my high school literature class was that the teachers often dragged out the book over six or eight weeks, admonishing us to read only the assigned sections and *gasp* never to read ahead! But Heidi and I found our students enjoyed the stories much more if we read at a brisk pace: one book every three weeks. As long as they finished the book within that time frame, our students had the freedom to read at their own pace, which definitely proved a winning strategy. 

In our twice-weekly classes, my teaching buddy and I would work to get our students pumped up for the title of the day. We would share any useful information that would make the book more understandable, prompt them with some tantalizing spoilers, and provide some engaging multisensory experiences to bring the book to life. We would also intentionally factor in some mini lessons on writing mechanics - spelling words, grammar reviews, creative writing exercises, the elements of literature, and such. 

Since we were teaching homeschoolers, we used our precious class time for group discussions and building motivation that would keep the students on task and engaged while they were completing our meaty, writing-based assignments at home. The culminating assignment of each book was a formal five-paragraph essay; we would give three topics for the student to choose from, and while we did not assign grades, I evaluated their essays with gusto. For each book, we also threw in an open-ended creative assignment, such as making a 3D scene from the story, or bringing some sort of food item inspired by the tale to share with the class. 

Seattle's Aurora Bridge arches over the entry to Lake Union, as seen from the Fremont Bridge.

Choosing the right books is an art form. Certainly, there's a long list of classics that are commonly taught in high school, and we found some of them to be sure-fire winners: Lord of the Flies, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby. We had a blast reading through the works that are considered to be the foundation of Western literature: Greek and Roman myths, European fairy tales, Aesop's fables, the Just So Stories, the New and Old Testament, and the oldest story on record, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Interestingly, one of our students' all-time favorites was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The boys totally got into it.

Tailoring the selections to the whims and interests of the particular students is key. To keep our superhero-loving young men engaged, we studied graphic novels via Watchmen. Because the Twilight saga was all the rage, we delved into the somewhat boring and long-winded Dracula, which is considered the ultimate guide book for the modern concept of vampires. Ditto Treasure Island, an old-fashioned plodder that sets the standard for what pirate fiction is all about. In the days of the Pirates of the Caribbean craze, our students dug into the topic with relish. 

But a title chosen indiscriminately can drag students way off course. Just because it's skinny and full of talking critters, Animal Farm is often introduced to young high school students. But unless they are well-practiced in the art of deciphering complex metaphors and up to speed on the history of Russian politics, that story will be a massive exercise in frustration. Orwell's fascinating allegory has destroyed many a young student's appetite for reading, only because it was introduced to them before they were ready to understand.

I suppose that the giant concrete Troll on the hill rules over this historic drawbridge. But from the looks of it, my students have a lot to say about who gets to pass. 

We also selectively used films (and subsequent movie reviews) to enhance our studies. After reading the Holocaust autobiography, Night, we watched to great dramatic effect the movie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Upon completing Dracula, our students hooted and hollered over the production values of the 1931 classic starring Bela Lugosi. And in a strategic twist-up, our students watched Romeo and Juliet before they dove into the written version of that classic Shakespearean tragedy. By giving them a clear sense of the plot and an ear for the Bard's unique employment of the English language - not to mention a sneak peek at Olivia Hussey's assets and Leonard Whiting's bare booty - our students felt comfortable enough to tackle the play with enthusiasm and gusto. Our film-savvy students relished these opportunities to compare the two art forms, and almost always came to the inescapable conclusion, "The book was better."

* * * * *

One strong word of caution on teaching high school literature: mature themes often arise in classic works, so pre-read the books and communicate with parents about what their students will be reading. Make no mistake, I believe that teenage students are ready to handle stories that include sensitively written scenes of violence and sex - they've seen it all on TV anyway - but as their teacher, I was responsible for helping them to interpret those ideas in a positive, thoughtful way. That challenge was sometimes daunting, but I also found it a great privilege to walk with my students as they entered the world of adult ideas.

The photos in this post came from the culminating adventures of a class we taught on United States Landmarks. After a year spent discussing the historical, geographic and cultural implications of one hundred of our nation's most iconic sites and scenes, we took our students on a whirlwind tour of Seattle's top landmarks. It was one of the finest afternoons of my homeschooling career and a sweet, sweet memory today.

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