March 5, 2008

Visual essay exploring cultural literacy

Boy, what a jumble. This is my attempt at creating a visual essay that explores my personal experiences in developing literacies outside of alphabetic literacies (i.e., reading and writing). The idea behind this exercise is that traditional written language skills do not wholly prepare students for a world whose arguments are made predominantly through a visual means. To fully unpack the vast array of visual images that students are presented with in our culture, students need to learn visual literacy skills as well (see Selfe, Toward new media texts: Taking up the challenges of visual literacy).

I chose a handful of photos to explore my own cultural literacy through my travels, experiences, and the people who have made my life rich. The upper left-hand image is a postcard reading, “Greetings from Kentucky" – my home state, and the beginnings of my exploration of various cultures. The image just below it portrays (left to right) myself, my good friend Kenji, and a new friend we’ve met at a café in Bangui, Central African Republic. East and West meet the birthplace of humankind. As friends, Kenji and I shared insights into our own cultures that illuminated all experiences that followed.

To the right, just past John Coltrane, we see one of my English conversation classes in Kaga High School, Japan. Learning to reach students as a teacher with limited Japanese language skills, and as a gaijin (foreigner/"outsider"), proved to be a challenge to say the least. As Japanese popular technologies (e.g., cell phones) are about 4-5 years more advanced than our own, in a sense this was a glimpse into the future of students in American schools. Six years later, keitais (or, cell phones) are commonplace among American high school students – a great nuisance to many teachers. To the far left below the photo from Africa, there is a photo taken along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. Especially in India, the cultural richness of these peoples is something to marvel. For centuries, people have made pilgrimages to this sacred river to die and be cremated on the pyre not too far upstream. Further, this experience helped me appreciate the poverty that so many people must endure to survive in this world.

Moving to the right is an image of me thoroughly confused by the work of life on an organic farm on the island of Bocas del Toro, Panama. My lady friend, Annie, and I spent four months traveling in Central America, but our original intention was to spend the entire time on the farm Finca Luna, whose farm infrastructure was sorely lacking. There are only so many varieties of meals afforded by lentils, rice, chemical pancake mix, and bananas, so the three weeks we spent at this farm were intense to say the least. The next two photos portray scenes from this trip as well. To the right, we see Annie posing with grape soda in front of an anti-American mural in Nicaragua. These murals were commonplace throughout the country, as the Sandinistas had created them to depict how the United States funded Contras to squash the burgeoning Socialist government, leading to a long and brutal civil war. This illustrates our reinforced awareness that our government is much maligned by many other peoples – not always a pleasant sentiment to recognize. And just below this, just for fun, I’ve included a photo of Annie posing among figures in a garden in Boquete, Panama – one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever visited. Here, Annie is at play with her surroundings (namely, functional/popular works of art) – representing a spirit of playfulness and humor that I hope to always recognize as wholly life-giving and affirming. This also affirms the idea that literacies revolving around art, film, or music do not have to be entirely serious – indeed, we can be playful in our interpretations of any works of art, including literature, as well as our own experiences.

Lastly, at the top right is an image that I’ve just always loved. I took this photo in the rural Nebraska countryside that is home to Carhenge. This place is absolutely surreal, and stands as a testament to American humor, art, and style. The beauty of the Midwestern plains and the blue sky contrast with the skeleton automobile’s tire. This serves as a strictly visual representation of something about the United States that I can’t quite put into words but makes so much sense to me in its visual presentation.

Anyway, there are a handful of texts and images that I’ve included to build on the idea of collage, and to represent other fields of my personal interests – namely, literature and music. Novels represented include Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker, and Plath’s The Bell Jar. Musicians that explore various literacies include John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, and The Smiths. I’ve included these images to serve as a backdrop, but they tend to clutter the whole piece more than inform. At the same time, I wanted to present this as a collage rather than 6-8 separate images. Organization certainly needs work, but this is my first attempt at creating a visual essay. I see the value of unpacking the visual arguments of a text, but I am certainly no master of creating visual forms that lend themselves to others’ interpretations.

February 27, 2008

Grappling with Media Education

The following stream of ideas follows my reading of Henry Jenkins’ “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century". The purpose of these thoughts is to consider how certain technologies in Web 2.0 might facilitate learning in classrooms. By no means is this an attempt to definitively distinguish between what programs can and cannot improve my own pedagogical practice. Instead, consider this a sort of juggling of ideas.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I struggle with the idea of how participatory the most popular affiliations (social networking programs) might be (Jenkins, 3). My own interaction with MySpace and Facebook is pretty limited, but it seems to be a fairly passive experience focusing more on the presentation, or posturing of the ego. This expression of personality does not necessarily facilitate the learning of any problem solving skills, or learning to grapple with new ideas. However, the ability to “shape the flow of media" seems like a great benefit afforded by technologies such as podcasts and blogging. Jenkins also suggests that certain technologies present in Web 2.0 might shift our attitudes toward intellectual property; to this point, all I can say is, “It’s about time." The problem with this shift in attitude is the well-known argument implied in the litigation of people breaking copyright laws. I feel that people ought to be able to play with these ideas/intellectual properties without fear of breaking any laws. To what extent people ought to be allowed to profit from this culture of sharing seems to be the central question left open in the current intellectual climate.

Regarding video game players’ relations to avatars, Jenkins claims "this projected identity allows the player to strongly identify with the character and thus have an immersive experience within the game, and at the same time to use the character as a mirror to reflect on his or her own values and choices" (28). Here, Jenkins deemphasizes a central driving force of why people play games of any kind – to escape from our day-to-day experiences. People often play games to role play what they are not. Besides this, I wonder how authentic our responses to the program of a video game are. If we are only allowed a finite choice of options in a video game setting, then how might this limitation of choices affect the strengths within a diversity of cultures?

As an aside, Jenkins refers to young people’s recent interest in Asian popular culture, particularly Japanese pop culture. I wonder how much of this interest is decontextualized to the point of being an escapist sort of leisure. While I was in Japan, I often struggled with this issue. So much of Japanese popular culture (as well as American pop culture) seems so vacuous, so empty. I wondered at times whether I was just not getting it, but I began to see this sort of escape as a definite result of the great loss Japan suffered at the end of World War II. An American occupation, and the need to rebuild and modernize urban centers, forced a sort of Americanization within Japanese culture. Thankfully, much of their rich cultural heritage still remains, which is something I feel is lacking in their current pop culture artifacts (e.g., JPop, anime, and manga). With regard to how young people get swept away in popular fads and fetishes, I wish people would dig deeper than the novelty presented in so much of our pop culture, and seek out works of art that provide insight, meaning, and thought into our experiences. As an introduction to how Japanese popular culture influences our own culture, listen to this discussion on Manga, Anime, and Japanese Culture in America.

Lastly, I’ll consider Jenkins' statement that "digital remixing of media content makes visible the degree to which all cultural expression builds on what has come before" (32). This idea is essential for us to recognize as Language Arts teachers -- students need to be able to recognize the ideas/attitudes they share with characters in classical literature – these ideas might lead them to new ideas that might help to cultivate their own thinking and assess the strengths and weaknesses of our own culture. Jenkins’ idea of a "collective intelligence" present in the Web 2.0 culture – which thrives on individuals knowing pieces of the whole in order to create, or recreate the whole – reminds me of the term zeitgeist, or "spirit of the age", which captures the idea of how people share similar experiences, attitudes, and ideas during a given historical climate. In many ways the ideas of a cultural zeitgeist or a collective intelligence in American culture might be scorned by a people who largely value, or are taught to value, how each individual is so different from his or her peers. In other words, there appears to be an implied conflict between the collective intelligence of a community present in Web 2.0 and the numerous peoples who want to have the final word on an issue.

February 20, 2008

Thoughts on Dornan, Ch. 4

Having misread the syllabus for last week’s assigned reading, I’m doubling back this week to cover Chapter 4 in Reade Dornan’s Within and Beyond the Writing Process in the Secondary English Classroom.

Thankfully, Dornan’s text provides both a clear context of the focus of each chapter within her work, as well as a wide variety of best practices that support high quality reading and writing skills among students. Her systematic presentation of material concerning teaching grammar, correctness, and style facilitates a higher quality of learning, while serving as an excellent reference for teachers interested in addressing these issues among their classes. The list of sample skills worth bringing up in editing conferences functions as a good short-hand reference guide for teachers (p. 100, figure 4.2). One website that can be used for reference to teaching grammar is Kim's Korner for Teacher Talk.

Also it’s worth noting that when students are practicing or trying out new forms recently learned, then there is a higher propensity for them to make simple mistakes (e.g., spelling, punctuation, capitalization). To these points, Dornan suggests being selective about which errors to focus young writers’ attention on, and at times restraining from pointing out too many errors (she refers to as “benign neglect"). While there is some emphasis on not marking up a paper in a sea of red, Dornan provides plenty of real support for how to teach grammar in schools (e.g., process writing; teaching sentence combining; developing a culture of literacy through reading and writing practice; and crafting efficient, mature writing style).

Briefly, I often feel surprised to hear people’s horror stories of receiving a paper that’s littered with teacher revisions. I can remember plenty of times that I questioned why a teacher had “marked up" my paper – sometimes there were explanations as to why (with my own doubts and confusion remaining), whereas no explanation as to what was wrong with my error just frustrated me. It’s important for teachers to reveal explanations as to why students have made any errors in their writing. If there is no time for student/teacher conferencing, then the marked up text is all the student has to refer to. Additionally, students need reinforcement from teachers, so it’s important to illustrate to them that you noticed strengths in their writing as well.

February 13, 2008

Sentence fluency and conventions in Culham's text

Looking at Chapters 6 and 7 in Culham’s text 6 + 1 Traits of Writing, I’ll briefly touch on some of her ideas that either resonated with me as authentic, as well as those that do not ring as true for me. Specifically, the chapters focused on the importance of the writing traits of sentence fluency and conventions (e.g., grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation).

In regards to issues of sentence fluency in students’ writing, Culham recognizes that test graders ran across a problem when grading standardized tests. They felt their grading ought to recognize fluency and variety in good writing – not just the structure of the writing. Here I cannot help imagining a bureaucratic, rigid system that administers and strictly grades standardized assessments. I think of the variety of people who take such jobs as test grading for the state – surely, there are several that go through the motions they’ve been trained to do, while a few begin to question the rigid nature of the grading system, and only a small number of those people actually make any waves to this point. With time, the few graders that question the authority of the system gradually are noticed, as similar complaints have been consistently made by other active participants in the process. In the end, I wonder how much has been done to stress the importance of sentence fluency among graders and students taking these tests. And whose ideas are most authoritative on the issue of what constitutes sentence fluency in the first place? Culham is not the first person I would consult on this issue.

As Culham encourages accepting fragments as sentences within a text, I cannot help but question her authority. For instance, within Writing Sample 2 in Chapter 6 (Culham, 189), the student’s writing contains numerous fragments but receives a score of 5/5 in sentence fluency. Personally, I’m not too stuck on the importance of grammar rules, and students should know they can (and often should) use a number of sentence structures to craft fluent writing. But, in emphasizing the acceptability of sentence fragments, Culham seems to focus on the breaking of only one rule, whereas the emphasis might be better placed in illustrating to students how variety in sentence structures indicate mastery of a given language. Then again, perhaps the high score illustrates that sentence fluency is not as important, or not as easily assessable with objectivity, as other traits.

Regarding strategies of building narrative fluency, I do not see any pedagogical value in practicing tongue twisters or using “fluency phones", but I can see how reading aloud, and pausing at times to notice sentence structures within a text, may help students become more fluent. Also, I think students may greatly benefit from a mini-lesson on sentence diagramming (204). For more ideas on teaching sentence fluency, check out Wiredinstructor for ideas.

In Chapter 7, Culham encourages teachers to “correct use of conventions, as well as [trying] new techniques [or, risk taking]" (217). I appreciate her open approach in regard to teaching and assessing this trait. Too often, English teachers spend too much time with students on conventions, and seem unbelievably frustrated when they’re faced with students writing exactly how they think they’re speaking.

Thankfully, Culham notices the very basic strategy of using copy editor symbols when grading/proofing rough drafts and final papers for students. She also notes that teachers ought to model the editing process for students, while occasionally asking why they made certain editing decisions to reinforce their own thinking about conventions, or lack thereof, within their own writing. Culham also suggests practicing the editing of spelling by having students read a text backwards, or by rearranging punctuation – these ideas seem unnatural, inauthentic means of practicing this skill. Students would notice how ridiculous these tasks seem to be, and I think they would be less likely to participate in them, as opposed to just reading through their paper again.

Lastly, I was surprised by the following quote in Culham’s text: “Research doesn’t support claims that the separate teaching of grammar. . . will help students score better on standardized tests that include grammar, usage, and punctuation" (245). What? If that’s the case, then why should teachers even bother teaching grammar? Surely, this does not suggest that there is no value in teaching conventions to students. I cannot support the altogether dismissal of the value of teaching conventions to students in our schools. And I do not think Culham means to suggest such an extreme position either.

February 6, 2008

Teaching Organization of Writing in the Classroom

Considering the value of teaching students how to organize their writing, much has been written about the importance of form – in particular, the five paragraph theme/essay (FPT). Assessing various points of view on this topic, it’s clear that the FPT provides a basic framework of organizing one’s writing (e.g., the emphasis on strong opening to introduce the central ideas discussed in a given paper, as well as to encourage an audience to read on; also, emphasizing the development of conclusive statements that argue for the timeliness, practicality, or utility of these ideas). However, an essay is only one form of writing that develops voice and critical thinking, and for teachers working to teach composition to students, the medium may prove too rigid, or limited in some respects to young writers.

Dornan, et. al., notes the importance of building rhetorical strategies, for instance, as a crucial element of learning to organize ideas. She states that taking on opposing or conventional theories, positions, or arguments, if done thoughtfully, can ultimately strengthen a position and weaken its opposition at the same time. Further, emphasis is placed on the empowering process of data collection. For example, she claims,

“High school writers would produce more insightful papers if they were to
discover and analyze the ideological prejudices of their sources. If students were able to situate everyone’s (including their own) position in terms of class, gender, religious affiliation, and political views, they would be able to evaluate the readings more perceptively" (Dornan, 127).

In essence, students can be critics of the critics that help them understand given texts. The ability to challenge those with perceived authority on a subject certainly empowers young writers, and supports their ownership of a given position. Certainly these strategies help students organize their own thoughts, as they distinguish their own arguments from others.

Looking at critical arguments against focusing on teaching the FPT, Joanne Gillespie reveals how the form can be too rigid, as students may be more likely to express more varied, creative ideas while writing in a more unique voice. Similarly, expository papers tend to be indistinguishable from each other, at least superficially, which is a trait that doesn’t seem to serve our culture particularly well. Her argument suggests that embedding students’ practice in composition with the element of choice requires students to consider what they have to say, and how they will say it. Ideally, choice can empower many students to do good work. Also, she details how working with multigenre writing, students wrote “insightful, imaginative, and sometimes playful, turning what might have been a tedious literature unit into one that was fun" (Gillespie, 678-9). This was a fairly large project, requiring the composition of 10 pieces, along with student reflections on those pieces. So, while I have concerns with how much students centered their work on only one text, they were forced to be actively engaged in the process of writing.

Kimberly Wesley’s argument in English Journal illustrates the stifling conventions of the FPT, but she deemphasizes its usefulness in creating organized, systematic presentation of ideas. Similarly, she doesn’t mention that the FPT might be a tool in encouraging students to distance themselves from certain positions, in an effort to present ideas more objectively, which ultimately supports critical analysis. She does address certain core questions that writers should address during the pre-writing and writing stages of composition. In this essay, too, she stresses the importance of student choice and the need to encourage freedom of thought, as critical solutions to the blandness of the FPT format.

Looking at Culham’s text, again she begins a chapter with another strange, out of place, metaphor likening the organization of writing to the herding of cats (Culham, 68). Yet again, I can’t help thinking that it’s hard taking advice about how to write well, or teach good writing skills, from someone who makes so many poor choices as a writer. Honestly, it’s hard not to be skeptical of her message from a chapter that opens:

Chapter 3


Herding Cats

It’s a disorganized, bad metaphor; the presentation of the text is too varied, with a jumble of fonts; meanwhile, the next page presents a contrived, uninspiring poem about organizing good writing. Bad metaphors aside, though, she offers several options on how teachers can get students to think about organization (e.g., order of chronology, order or importance, order of content). Also, she provides a list of common transitional phrases that would assist young writers.

Further considerations in teaching writing is the teaching of proper citations. Students can consult several websites, in addition to references older texts, that provide adequate information. For instance, see The Owl at Purdue University.

January 30, 2008

Contrasting Culham and Dornan's Writing Texts

The purpose of this brief posting is to compare the textbooks 6 + 1 Traits of Writing: Grades 3 and Up, by Ruth Culham, and Within and Beyond the Writing Process in the Secondary English Classroom, by Reade Dornan, Lois Rosen, and Marilyn Wilson. Generally speaking Culham’s text is a fine introductory text into the process of writing for students at a very young age, but Dornan, Rosen, and Wilson present a more sophisticated presentation of ideas that contrast older methodologies with current best practices in teaching writing to older students becoming young adults.

Dornan, et. al., reference the work of reputable scholars, provide appropriate references to other resources (see Scholastic Art and Writing Awards website referred to on page 75) and address standards in the standard curriculum. Most importantly, and most distinctly, the introduction in Dornan’s text takes into consideration all the conventions focused upon in the other text, in addition to stressing the importance of students’ writing about personally meaningful issues, as well as using writing for a social purpose.

My greatest problem with Culham’s text is that it seems to be oversimplified, or dumbed down, for a mass audience, which tends to strip a text of its richness and depth of thought. The inclusion of presentation as a meaningful aspect of writing seems somewhat old-fashioned, but not entirely useless. And the distinction between the processes of revision and editing in Chapter One succeeds in showing how teachers ought to be able to explicitly convey these different processes to students. Overall, I feel like Culham’s text would benefit from a stronger presentation of the whole process of grading in this method – should teachers be expected to grade papers in a holistic sense, or should we isolate each of the 6 characteristics when grading?

As I intend to be teaching high school English, I cannot help but to question the appropriateness of Culham’s text in a graduate school course. Too much of this text seems a little too fluff, or simple to the point of being irrelevant. Refer to sections of the text referred to below to judge for yourself:

• “Beware All that Glitters" section (p. 30-1)
• Opening introduction with one teacher’s story (p. 7-9)
• Sapphire mining metaphor at beginning of Ch. 2 (p. 33-4)
• “Cat/Dog" writing sample, unbelievable (p. 42)