J.B. Blackford

Refine. Hone. Distill. The self is a text, too.

Teaching (with a little bit of trickery?)

When I started this blog several days and drafts ago, it was supposed to be a drive-by drop-off of a few online resources I used for students while teaching English Composition at a for-profit school with classes that were only a month long. Then I got distracted by trying to create a foundation for readers to understand the type of student I worked with, which distracted me even further by going back in time to my own education that served as the standard to which I compared my first experience as an educator. What a convoluted mess.

And now I’ve scrapped it all (or maybe will use it as fodder for other blogs), because you really don’t need to know all of that history to appreciate resources which can entertain (and educate on the sly) the type of student who sees English Composition as a waste of time because, “I’ll never use it in [film/digital art and design/computer animation/entertainment business, etc.].” Of course there were other endlessly rotating assets and successful short writing exercises which I might include in future posts, but these were my “big three”:

The The Impotence of Proofreading.” In case you’ve never heard of him, Taylor Mali is a spoken-word poet who was previously the president of Poetry Slam, Inc., and can also claim the credits of both author and teacher. In this video, he does a spoken-word piece that livens up the shortcomings of basic word-processing software. It was the first thing that I showed to my students which actually got them to understand they have the power; the machine is only as smart as the person using it. Yes, I did have to deal with adult students complaining that his use of the word “clit” instead of “click” was “offensively sexual,” but for the most part, students were engaged, amused, and thankful for the resource. Sometimes, they also found it helpful to read along in order to really understand and get the most out of what Mali says. In some ways, this humorous and informative piece reminds me of an evolution of Pope’s Essay on Criticism.

Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling. Since sass and humor clearly got my students’ attention, I wasn’t at all surprised to see them weed out errors when I started using The Oatmeal’s comic. The silly illustrations stuck in their minds, and they had better retention with a sentence example using cows, casserole, and aliens than anything written in a textbook. Apparently, telling someone, “If you put an A in ‘definitely,’ you’re definitely an A-hole,” is an effective memorization technique. I’m just glad that the sentiment was hosted elsewhere; like the parent-child relationship, my students seemed more likely to accept something if I wasn’t the one delivering the information, and this format kept me from being liable, too.

Visuwords. In addition to needing guidance on the basic mechanics of grammar and writing, my students often complained of an inability to express their thoughts adequately. (Of course, when I connected this directly to reading and expanding one’s vocabulary, their eyes glazed over.) Although we did writing exercises geared toward having them practice description and be attentive to word choice, I realized fairly quickly that they can’t dredge up words that aren’t there to begin with. Since I was working with a student body that was 1) predominantly enmeshed in the digital world, and 2) almost entirely repulsed by anything to do with reading and writing, I introduced them to a diagram-based dictionary and thesaurus. The immediate gratification of watching the “neural net” expand and bounce with search-term associations pleased the reluctant student, and most of them found the color-coordinated connections both simple and visually appealing.

More than one student’s writing improved after I introduced this asset, and one young woman even took to showing me new pieces of poetry or fiction she wrote using vocabulary cultivated through the site. Another entire class of 88 students both laughed and applauded when, as an example, I searched for the adjective “lush” and the program also included the slang noun form complete with helpful mouse-over definition.

Although each one of these assets is “nontraditional” in its own way, whether it’s removing the power of the thesaurus from the printed page or insulting your readers with their own stupidity, there is a place for each of them in the brand of 21st-century ENC that is evolving in many schools. I’m just old enough that I wasn’t raised by a TV, a computer, or a video game. Many of my students were, resulting in learners who want to be entertained and amazed, to whom education is a requirement and a chore, rather than a gift and a luxury. Although it reminds me a bit of my best friend sneaking squash into her toddler’s spaghetti sauce, the outcome is still the same: They enjoyed it, and they absorbed what they needed to.


One comment on “Teaching (with a little bit of trickery?)

  1. Pingback: Cover Songs Are to Tone… | JB Blackford

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This entry was posted on August 30, 2012 by in Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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