Monday, October 20, 2014

The Literature Research Project

I haven't been teaching my high school English classes with textbooks this year. That was a conscious decision I made going in, and thankfully, I had the authority to make it. But then, of course, came the questions of, "Well, if not textbooks, what then?"

The first concept that I explored (and still am) is the novel.

I should preface this with the fact that my school does, and has for years done, Accelerated Reader. So I know that my students are reading (and if they're not, then that's a separate issue to be dealt with on its own). I know that they're reading choice books, and I know that they're reading at least 30 minutes every weekday. With that in mind, reading isn't the same problem as it is in other schools. I'm not tasked with the goal of making sure students read for the sake of reading. I know that they're already doing it.

I questioned myself, Why do English classes read what they traditionally do? You know what I'm talking about--the standard curriculum. Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird in Freshman year, Gatsby in Sophomore, etc. Why?

Is it just for the sake of tradition? I was made to read this when I was your age. I disliked this idea and played with it in my mind for a while before I was able to put it into better terms.

I like to think that it's to create a shared American experience. More of a, kids all over the country your age are reading this, so you need to, as well. Something to create a liberal education and collective consciousness of society.

A liberal education is easy to explain: it's a good idea to take a look at a wide variety of topics and voices in order to widen your perspective and understand more about the world. Everything is interconnected, and something you encounter in one discipline (or in one book) might provide insight or help solve a problem in another area of your life. There are some good lessons in the books that have already been chosen for us. (That being said, they shouldn't be left unquestioned. If something seems outdated, it requires further scrutiny and replacements should be considered.)

But "collective consciousness" is a little more difficult. To understand it, I found myself asking the question that every student asks, "When will I need to know this?" It's a question of authenticity, a valid question indeed, so I answered:

When will these novels and literature themes come up again, hypothetical student? Well, first of all, you might need to know them in college when your English 101 and 102 professors expect you to be familiar with them.

Pfft. Alright, sure, but that's still an artificial reason. What else you got?

Okay, let's consider. Because these are books that the rest of America knows, everyone makes references to them, and, likewise, everyone understands those references. You will probably encounter these references your entire life--a conversation with a coworker, a news report, a song you hear on the radio, a movie you're going to see. 

Ah. So that's what is meant by collective consciousness. Central themes that we know as a society. Common stories that we all know and can discuss together.

So what's really important here? The ability to know the books in America's collective consciousness and understand references to them.

But as our society grows, so does our collective consciousness. Every year, there are more and more books added to our pool of material from which references are made. At this point in time, I doubt there are very many Americans, if there are even any at all, who have actually read all of these books that are considered important enough to make references to.

Now, what I'm about to say next is considerably controversial, but that's why we're here at Non-traditional Teaching, right? So bear with me.

What if English class didn't mandate that students read a limited, select few books cover to cover, but instead guided them to conduct research on a wide number of books so that they understood a larger amount of material present in America's collective consciousness?

Thus, my Literature Research project was born. This concept was intriguing enough to dive head first into. It was exciting!

My first step was to discover what all was encompassed in the literature realm of America's "hive mind," if you will. The first thing that came to mind was a silly quiz I'd seen on Facebook titled something like, "Which of these 100 classic books have you read?" I couldn't find the precise one, but in my search for it, I discovered countless other lists. I had hoped to find a good, comprehensive one, but that didn't happen. They all came up short somehow, and none of them included everything I expected it to.

I finally settled on a list of Assigned Reading in High School on Goodreads (this one? I can't recall). It was quite extensive, and there was no way that we would have the time to cover everything, so I had to pare it down.

I decided that my seniors, being the closest to departure into "the real world" should have the most to research. One book per week would be 31 books. (I needed just a few weeks to get settled in. Next year it could be more if we begin right away.) Juniors would work on the project every other week and have 16 books under their belt, and Freshmen and Sophomores could do it just once a month and have 8.

But then as for the actual book selections... That was a difficult decision, and it finally came down to my own discretion. I scoured the list and picked out the 31 books that I, personally, had heard the most references to in my adult life. Who am I to make those sorts of claims and decide what is in the collective consciousness? I know, but someone had to make a decision. I hated doing it, but it was my project, so it might as well be me. And besides, doesn't every English teacher do that each year by determining which material to share with her class? Not that that makes me feel any better about it, but it is what it is. I organized my 31 books into a weekly schedule. Step One finished. Books decided upon. Here's the finalized list for Seniors. Underclassmen have some of the same books, just not as many. (Click to enlarge.)

Now for Step Two. How to guide my students to knowledge of these pieces of literature? Well, as an adult, how do I learn something I want to know about? Google, of course! Wikipedia is a great place to start because it usually summarizes everything up nicely in one paragraph at the top, and if I want to go deeper, I can just keep reading. There's also Sparknotes, if I want to go chapter by chapter, and blogs and articles that analyze different aspects that are interesting.

But, of course, it may be a book that has been on a student's To Read list for a while, and he wants to just read the whole thing on his own. Awesome. The scheduled date is listed for their convenience.

Finally, we'll come together and discuss our findings as a class.

By these three methods (or four, as my students mentioned watching movie adaptations, as well), the student should have enough information and be prepared to contribute to a larger, societal conversation about the piece of literature.

Here is the handout I prepared for Seniors. I did make it sound more about the "being prepared for college" reason than the "being prepared for contribution to America's collective consciousness" than I stated here. I was still trying to figure things out.

Yes, the bottom refers to a couple of books read in class. More on that later.

Well, it's been six weeks, and though the Freshmen and Sophomores have only done it once, the Juniors have had a little more experience with it, and the Seniors have gotten into a good flow. There are two dates for each book listed on the schedule, a Thursday and a Friday. I give the Thursdays for researching (on laptops borrowed from the computer lab), and on Fridays, we discuss what they found and they each write up a one-paragraph summary.

The research itself was a little tricky to get into, as the students weren't quite sure what they were looking for. We worked up this list together:

The summaries have been rather difficult to get perfect. I'm not sure if it's because it's something they're still not quite used to yet or if I'm grading them too hard.

I did have one full credit paper turned in, and I was so excited, I took a picture that we've used as a model since:

I've also been urging in the direction of a specific format, even though that's something that typically bugs me about teaching writing. (Students should be able to write with their own voice! etc., etc. That's another topic entirely. I digress.) It should start out with the title of the book, the author, and the publication date, then go into just a couple of sentences of plot, and finish up with some historical context. It's not necessary to follow this format, but some of the students found it helpful.

When I grade the summaries, I make some comments about what information could be included or excluded, and they keep everything together in their notes. We haven't had any tests over it yet, but there will be a few little ones where students will need to remember enough key information to write a summary from scratch, and then a comprehensive one at the end of the year.

I'm not sure if I'm going about this in the best way yet, but we'll see how this goes. I'll report back with more information when I have it!