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Advice, Lesson Plans, Tips for Teaching

Theme for 1020: Students’ Prior Knowledge as a Starting Point

Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” keeps reappearing in my teaching life. When I taught high school, I remember it being especially valuable in a unit on developing identity. In this sense, it was useful to me as a potential spark for personal introductions in the composition course. But a couple of years ago, I began considering the poem in a new light, and looked at it in terms of how the speaker of the poem exhibits the ability to play with the assignment he has been given. Instead of a paper, he writes a poem. Initially, I was attracted to the concept of play this poem seems to highlight, and thought about ways that I could introduce this concept to my composition students, to begin to get them to think differently about the ways they composed their writing in response to course assignments.

Last winter, I created an introduction assignment asking students to “play” with the instructions and to create whatever kind of text they felt best worked with the ideas they were presenting. The results were several poems, a video, a comic strip, and, of course, many “regular” essays. While we continued to keep this concept of play in mind throughout the semester, I began to understand that such an emphasis (for example, on play) needs to be central (not just occasional) to the work of the course if students are to really take it up as a practice. While I worked with students to meet other course outcomes, this interest in play took a back seat, and I filed it away in my mental folder of things to work on in the future.

This semester, because students respond to the poem, and because I am particularly interested in making sure that students have opportunities to announce themselves to the class, as the speaker of the poem does, I came back to the poem as a starting point, as a way to begin to think about another personal introduction assignment. The poem begins with an instructor’s directions to (his) students: “Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you— / Then it will be true” (Hughes). The way this poem is structured—as a teacher’s prompt followed by a student’s response—allows us to look at it not (only) in terms of its literary qualities, but also in terms of how the poem might operate as an example of a student’s response to a writing assignment. This quality seems, to me, to be an especially interesting aspect of the poem, and one that makes it suited for use in the composition classroom.

On the second day of class, I asked students to read the poem (and to watch a video performance of the poem) with the following questions in mind:

* How does the speaker of the poem respond to the assignment given to him by his English teacher?

* What do we learn about him through this response (in both what he tells us and what we can infer about him)?

* What is he doing in this poem; that is, what tactics or approaches does he use to complete the assignment and to describe himself.

* Did you get anything from listening to the poem that you did not notice (as much) in reading it on the page?

* What questions or responses did reading this poem invoke in you?

I have asked these questions in previous semesters, and they have led to valuable comments from students. The results of this semester’s discussion were unexpected for me, though. First, I have to say that discussion works significantly better at a large conference table where students can see each other than it does with them in rows, all facing me. They are suddenly accountable to each other for what they say, not just to me (or, at least, it feels this way). This seating arrangement has also been tremendously helpful in helping students form supportive peer relationships in the writing classroom. Discussion also works better now that I am more comfortable with letting it go wherever it may and with asking students follow-up questions to get them to more clearly articulate their ideas and extend each other’s discussions (this takes practice, and it is worth it to watch people who are really good at it in action—we should be asking around about these people). All sorts of interesting threads came out of the students’ initial discussion of the poem:

* Comments on and responses to expressivist styles of teaching (as modeled in the teacher’s instructions in the poem)
* Discussions about development of ideas: from the basic to the complex; from outward appearance and geography, to thoughts, feelings, and questions
* Comments on the writing process (“I wonder if it’s that simple?”)
* Questions about the speaker’s goals: What does he want to say in this poem? Is he speaking for others?

This is not a comprehensive list, of course, but the ideas students discussed that day will likely be relevant as we work through students’ writing projects this semester: Where is your voice in this writing? In what ways do you see yourself speaking from within a particular community? What do you want to argue or accomplish in this piece? What stages did you work through in developing an idea for this essay? How can you best organize this text? We will be able to recall our initial discussion of the poem as we enter into these conversations.

My point is that during the first week of class, students showed their knowledge of these writing issues in their discussion of the poem. Given the opportunity to talk about what they knew about writing (and to do so in the context of discussing someone else’s writing—albeit fictional, in a way—instead of their own) allowed students to showcase their knowledge, and allowed me to get a feeling for the kinds of things my students feel are worth talking about in the writing class. I believe this interest in discussing certain aspects of writing will lead to more meaningful learning experiences for students (a concept argued for by Dewey and later Macrorie).

Our students are not coming to us as blank slates. Part of what I like about this poem is how it highlights what one student brings with him to his college English classroom—his complex feelings, experiences, and background—and how knowing this catalogue of information about him might somehow be important to the instructor, too. I was amazed this semester by how something as simple as letting my students talk about their responses to the poem (instead of me trying to get at something, like play) allowed them space to say so many interesting and important things about writing.

Adrienne Jankens is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer teaching ENG 1020. She is interested in inquiry pedagogy and collaborative research practices.

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