Sunday, April 14, 2013

Alternative entry points in High School English

My son recently came home with this 10th grade English assignment:

Greetings, you have a collage assignment for a character or title chosen by yours truly :).
Here is what your collage must include:
1) Character's name
2) Words, phrases, or adjectives that describe your character
3) Drawn pictures
4) Printed pics
5) Pics from magazines, newspapers, old postcards
6) Material or a partial background using something other than the background of the paper
7) Colored pencils
8) Crayons
9) Markers
10) Embellishment--I'm thinking 3D (i.e. feathers, buttons, earrings, a miniature book)
I though it would be a nightmare getting this done; one of those high-ratio-of effort-to-learning assignments. But he was surprisingly independent and did most of it, fairly quickly, on his own (with some help from SparksNotes), despite the fact that we didn't have stick glue and didn't read step 6 until he'd already covered the poster board as per steps 1-5.

Had J instead been given the kind of antiquated literary analysis assignment that I received back in my day (the book in this case being James Baldwin's Go Tell it On the Mountain), the requisite effort would been a thousand times greater with not necessarily that much more learning in the process (though, of course, any positive number is greater than zero).

So in some ways this assignment exemplifies the alternative entry point ideal: it makes literary appreciation "accessible" to those with very weak verbal skills.

But it's also a classic case of accommodation instead of remediation. Assigning my son collages rather than essays will give him a shot at a decent grade in Honors English; it will do nothing to improve his ability to write a coherent essay--whether in pencil, marker, or crayon.

7 comments:

Deirdre Mundy said...

In the future, if a discussion can't be held via pinterest, it won't happen at all.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

You seem to be making the assumption that this collage was an accommodation for a student with a disability—but such make-work projects are now common in many high schools.

Many students are not being taught how to write. Those few who are taught are generally taught only the literary-analysis essay, which is perhaps the most useless and uninteresting genre that could be taught. (Some are also taught the SAT essay genre, which has exactly one use—the SAT exam—and is as possibly even less interesting than literary-analysis essay.)

Katharine Beals said...

"such make-work projects are now common in many high schools."

Absolutely. And their raison d'etre isn't disabilities, but supposed differences in "learning styles." So that no one learning style is "privileged," it's generally the case that everyone has to do these assignments.

And, yes, most students aren't being taught how to write--even when they are given writing assignments.

The literary analysis essay is useful pedagogically, even to the vast majority who will never write anything in this genre professionally, inasmuch as teachers use it as a venue for teaching clarity and economy of expression and rigor and coherence of argumentation. But for this you need the kind of feedback-revisions loop that seems not to exist any more.

So I agree that today's literary analysis assignments aren't particularly useful--in terms of how they are generally implemented these days.

I don't agree that the literary analysis essay is uninteresting as a genre, however. Wayne Booth, to mention the most recent literary analyzer I've read, has written some really interesting stuff.

FedUpMom said...

I'm stuck on the first sentence of this assignment. "Yours truly" normally refers to the speaker, in this case, the teacher, so the sentence should mean that the teacher chose a character or title for each student to illustrate. Was that the case? Or did he mean that the student should choose a character or title?

Anonymous said...

My third grader had the same assignment.

Anonymous said...

That's actually one of the better descriptions of Gardner's schema that I've seen -- either from supporters or opponents. But it also makes it pretty clear that a different entry point only gets you so far in most academic (or non-academic) pursuits. Fine to start with a picture, but if the goal is a verbal expression, you need to get down to sentences and paragraphs pretty quickly. Just as if someone wants me to understand how an internal combustion engine works, it will help me if you describe what the different parts do (in words, not equations!). At the same time, that will only get me so far; I will never develop the talent for diagnosing and fixing broken engines that my nephew has.

Hainish said...

I've just had a teacher explain that she weighs her grading scheme so that even students with 40s or 50s on exams can earn a decent grade. Ugh. But they're low ability students, so I guess she's accommodating that.