A Narrative with a Point

An ERWC 3.0 Mini-Module

On May 1, 2017, Jimmy Kimmel opened his show with a story about his son, who was born with a heart defect.  He began

I have a story to tell about something that happened to our family last week. I’m sorry, you know I try not to get emotional, but it was a scary story, and before I go into it I want you to know it has a happy ending. Don’t get too upset; leave that to me.

It was an unusual beginning for a comedy show. He tells his audience that the story is scary, but not to worry, it has a happy ending, referencing both the past and the future at the outset. Then he returns to the past to begin his narrative. His son is born, but in the recovery room, a nurse notices something unusual. His son is rushed to another room, which soon fills up with doctors and specialists. Everyone is worried as more tests are made. Meanwhile, Kimmel’s wife is still in the recovery room, oblivious to any problems. Finally, Kimmel’s son is rushed to Children’s Hospital for heart surgery. Everything turns out ok.

Kimmel thanks doctors, nurses, and many others, and describes a happy home life with his new son. But then he makes a political point: “No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life.” He connects this thesis to the vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act that is about to take place in the Senate.  This quickly became known as the “Jimmy Kimmel” test for the political viability of a health care policy.

The narrative is a well-crafted rhetorical piece with emotional appeals, strong identification, and various appeals to both medical and political logos. It also does interesting things with narrative time.  As he delivers the monologue, he moves back and forth between show time, hospital time, home time, and the larger political moment. There are many “nows” in his story, as there are in most stories, including the “now” of senators taking a vote on health care.

We used this monologue at our leadership events to introduce the concept of the rhetorical situation.  I found it so interesting that I decided to create a mini-module around it, based on the current draft of the ERWC 3.0 template.  See what you think.  Please post comments on this site.

What will ERWC 3.0 be like?

People have been asking me how ERWC will change as we work on the new NPD and i3 grants. I have some ideas, but we are just beginning our work. Although I nominally chair the steering committee, there are a lot of talented people on the various ERWC committees, and we don’t always initially agree. Still, I think that some things have become relatively clear.

11th Grade Course

Currently the ERWC curriculum consists of a 12th grade course with 12 modules, from which teachers select 8-10, with additional modules for grades 7-11. Our new plan is to create an 11th grade course and redesign the 12th grade. Some existing modules will remain, but some may be retired and some shifted to 11th grade. Many new modules will be created. The current plan is for each course to have eight major module slots with at least two to three possible choices for each slot. Mini-modules introducing rhetorical concepts will be available for the transitions between the major modules. The courses will form a coherent whole and the expected outcomes will be more clearly sequenced, but it will not be necessary for a student to take the 11th grade course in order to do well in the 12th grade. Our intention is to provide teachers and students with greater flexibility than in the past.

Literary Texts

The existing ERWC does a good job of addressing California’s English language arts (ELA) standards related to reading and writing expository and persuasive texts. Although literary texts have always been included in ERWC, they have not been a major focus. ERWC 3.0 will include more novels, poems, and short stories and will address all ELA standards, including speaking and listening. The ERWC approach to literature will go beyond the traditional focus on the use and interpretation of figurative language. Each literary module will take up multiple perspectives and theoretical approaches and encourage multiple interpretations. Of course, the rhetorical perspective that is built into ERWC will be a prominent one. The pilot module on The Great Gatsby is a good example of what an ERWC literary module will look like.

The Template

The Assignment Template has been called the DNA of ERWC. It is an apt metaphor because the template contains the structure and sequence of every module. It has been the foundation of our success and we are reluctant to alter it greatly. However, certain aspects of it need to evolve. Right now we are asking ourselves four big questions:

  1. How can we make ERWC more accessible to students with different learning strengths and needs?
  2. How can we incorporate Universal Design for Learning?
  3. How can we better support English learners?
  4. How can we update the template to reflect current research and new approaches?

We have lots of ideas about the first three questions. The problem is to integrate the material without turning the template into a dissertation. On the fourth question, we are still negotiating some important issues about theory and practice.

New Modules

My oft-repeated slogan for our new and revised modules is that they should be “Shorter, Simpler, Smarter.” I think it is beginning to catch on. In the last i3 study we found that many teachers were not able to finish one module before going on to the next one. This was one reason we started talking about the ERWC “Arc” and saying that a module moved from a professional text to a student text. It also was clear that it was difficult for teachers to finish eight modules in a year. In the last rewrite we had simply added too many activities and in some cases, too many texts (I was the biggest offender in this regard). Our idea was that we would provide lots of activities so that teachers could use formative assessment to determine which activities their students needed and which they did not. In practice, teachers new to ERWC may not have had enough experience with the materials to make these decisions. They tried to teach everything.

What the slogan really means is that module writers should be asking themselves questions such as

  1. Do I really need this activity or text to achieve the goals of the module?
  2. Is there a simpler way to do this activity and get the same result?
  3. Can I use the product of this activity in another activity for double benefit?
  4. Has another module already taught this sufficiently? Can I build on it?

Another way to look at this issue is to consider the effort to benefit ratio. In other words, is this complex or difficult activity worth the benefit it will achieve?

And we also face the challenge of balancing the need to add strategies and activities for integrated English language development to modules and still keep them shorter and simpler.

Rhetorical Concepts

When we designed ERWC 1.0, most high school teachers were unfamiliar with rhetoric. We introduced Aristotle’s three appeals—ethos, logos, and pathos—and based most of our critical thinking questions on them. We kept it simple. Now, most teachers are aware of this aspect of Aristotle and are ready to teach a more complex set of rhetorical tools. We will offer more sophisticated means for analyzing audience and purpose, building on Aristotle, but going beyond. The new version of “Three Ways to Persuade” is one example of this extension. We will focus more attention on the rhetorical situation, using concepts such as “kairos” (timeliness and appropriateness) and “exigence” (that which moves the speaker to speak). Our task is to present these concepts in such a way that they are easily understood and used in various contexts and situations. These new materials are under development.

In Summary

There will be lots of tweaks, revisions, and additions, but ERWC will remain recognizably ERWC. The new courses are going to be very interesting. We will address more standards and provide more tools and strategies for different populations of students. We will have new modules, texts, and strategies. It is an exciting time to be involved in ERWC.

CATE Presentation–2/19/16

I presented at the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) conference on Friday with two of my former grad students, Alberta (Albie) Miranda and Amanda Thomason. CATE is a great conference.  It is just big enough and the attendees are all enthusiastic about teaching and learning.

As the ERWC matures, we are beginning to emphasize module creation by individual teachers rather than a prescribed set of official modules.  My part of the session was designed to introduce participants to some of the concepts and tools used to create modules.  I distributed the following handouts:

The micro module is designed to demonstrate how an ERWC-style module works in a very short format in which it is easy to grasp the whole arc of the module.  Lydia Davis writes “stories” that may be only a few sentences long.  The prereading section offers quotations from reviews that give the participant some idea of what kind of stories they are about to encounter.  Before reading the stories, the participant is instructed to think about “relationships.”  After reading, the participant is giving Davis’s definition of a “story” and asked to reread to determine if indeed these short pieces really are stories.  These activities form the “Preparing,” “Understanding,” and  “Questioning” stages of the ERWC arc.  It is typical of ERWC modules to include activities that cause the student to read and reread the texts multiple times from different perspectives.

Students are then given a writing prompt, which initiates the “Responding” stage:

Write an essay in which you explore the problems of relationships as presented in these stories. Define the problems and the implied solutions, supporting your ideas with quotations from the stories and examples from your own experience.

The students then compose drafts, get feedback, and revise.  At the end they are asked, “Do you think that your essay about relationship problems might actually help someone who was having problems in a relationship? It might, if it is easy to read and understand.”

Amanda and Albie both wrote the initial versions of their modules as projects for my English 589 “Pedagogies of Reading” course.  Both are now writing instructors in our department.  Amanda says in the introduction to her module

This module, “Learning to Dream: Dreaming to Learn,” was created for use in first-year college composition classes during the end of the year (once students have already been exposed to the ERWC style module). It takes several weeks to complete. It was developed to introduce students to the topics of dreaming, lucid dreaming, dream interpretation, and whether or not dreams can be harnessed to improve learning. Students are introduced to several different types of texts of varying purposes, styles, and difficulty levels (including web pages, articles, and a research paper) that will allow them to develop and defend an opinion on whether or not dreams are useful – and if so, how. As the final writing assignment, students are asked to either write an argumentative essay or a personal narrative and interpretation of a dream. Depending on the class and teacher, the final paper can be modified to take a more academic or creative slant.

Albie describes her “Romeo and Juliet” module as follows:

This module was develop for use in a ninth grade English class. The module is designed to guide students through their first experience with the works of William Shakespeare. The module will also help students understand why drama must be read differently than poetry or prose; students will work with genre-specific strategies that they will then be able to apply to other dramatic texts. At the end of the project, students will compose a two-part essay: in the first part they will explore one of the major thematic concerns in the play; in the second, they will reflect on their development as readers of drama.

I would guess that there were about 35 people at the session.  I had 28 handouts, and I ran out.  Nearly all of the attendees had some experience with ERWC and I think the session was well-received.  Albie and Amanda gave very professional presentations, there were good questions, and I had fun.

The Arc Revised

The ERWC Steering Committee met on 10/16/15 at the CSU Chancellor’s Office. Among many issues that were discussed was the language of the ERWC Arc. There were two main points of contention:

  • Is “selecting” the right word for the stage of the process that is between reading and writing, what the ERWC template calls “Connecting Reading to Writing”?
  • Does the arc misrepresent what is a recursive and complex process as a linear, stage-driven one?

We had an extended conversation about the word “selecting.” This is a crucial turning point in the student’s relationship with the texts and many different things are going on. It is a Janus-like doorway that swings both ways, looking backward and forward. We tried many words–engaging, framing, connecting, taking a stance, aligning, joining the conversation, positioning (selecting is part of positioning), composing meaning through reading and composing meaning through writing, formulating, aligning, reconsidering, and answering. We considered for a moment adding a seventh term, but because one of our considerations is to create metcognitive terms that students can transfer to other situations, we decided that six terms is already a lot.

We finally decided on “responding.” It is general enough to contain the other processes, and it captures the backward and forward gaze of the moment. “Selecting” was too narrow. You can download a revised version of the “ERWC Arc” Handout.

Here is an image of what it looks like.  The .pdf version in the link above looks better.

RedARC

The second issue was about the linear nature of the model. Here we need to think about the purpose of the representation. Back in the early days of composing process research, a four-stage model–pre-writing, composing, revising, and proofreading–was proposed. Protocol analysis quickly determined that the actual writing process was recursive, that writers did not simply complete one stage and move on to the next. A difficulty in composing might send the writer back to some kind of pre-writing activity, and revising might lead to further composing. The four-stage model was abandoned as simplistic and naive. However, if I am talking to engineers about teaching writing, the four-stage model makes a lot of sense to them. If I then point out that in reality the process is more complex, they just nod. Of course it is. Everything is recursive.

The concept of the arc came out of teacher comments and observations that we did as part of our i3 study. Teachers were not finishing the modules. They were spending too much time on the reading and running out of time for the writing. We are not proposing the arc as an accurate cognitive model for designing research. It is more about the design of modules. As with any simplification, it has its limitations, but as a tool for delivering a quick understanding of ERWC practices, I think it works well.

The arc is also for students. It shows them that there is more to a writing assignment than reading a text and summarizing it. “Responding” encompasses the complex process of having a dialogue with a text and joining the conversation. I think it is a good choice.

ERWC Arc Handout

I think that the concept of the ERWC “Arc” is important to help teachers understand the fundamental pedagogical concepts of ERWC and to help students internalize the concepts so that they can transfer them to other rhetorical situations.  To promote this concept, I created a handout, which has been formatted and enhanced by my wife HeeJung.  Here is an image of it:

ERWC-Arc-Handout ImageThe handout illustrates the concepts of “Text to Text” and the progression of tasks built in to every ERWC module.   Download a .pdf version here: ERWC Arc Handout.

Kenneth Burke’s Pentad and Gatsby

As I was describing different approaches to Gatsby in the introductory part of the module I wrote a section called “People and Places” using the Burkean Pentad.  My goal was to introduce just enough Burke to be of use without confusing.  Apparently, I failed.  Several people told me that this was too confusing for 11th graders.  I thought I would post it here to see what others thought.

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In A Grammar of Motives critic Kenneth Burke describes a five-term system for analyzing the motivation of characters that he calls the “pentad.”

  • Act—What was done? “What took place in thought or deed?”
  • Scene—Where and when was it done? (Place, Context, Background, Situation)
  • Agent—Who did it? (What person or kind of person, what co-agents or counter-agents)
  • Agency—By what means or with what instruments was it done?
  • Purpose—Why was it done?

Burke combines these terms into what he calls “ratios.” We often think that when people do something, they do it either because of their inherent nature (agent-act) or because of their purpose (purpose-act). However, in this novel, where someone comes from, especially if they come from the east or the west, or if they come from a poor neighborhood or a rich one, makes a big difference in how other people see them. Burke would call this a scene-agent ratio. In this ratio, the “scene,” which can be a place, a culture, or a historical moment, forms the nature and character of the “agent,” the person who acts. It is also possible for the scene in which the act takes place to motivate the act. In this novel, the action moves from East Egg to West Egg, and from East Egg to New York, passing through “the Valley of Ashes.” In each place, different kinds of action occur. Burke would call this a scene-act ratio. The place motivates the kind of act.

As you read, note where characters come from and how people feel about them. For example, at one point, Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). That is the scene-agent ratio. For Tom, that is the ultimate insult. Also note what kinds of things people do in different locations and circumstances. For example, people behave differently in Gatsby’s party house than they do elsewhere. That is the scene-act ratio.

Literary Devices in Gatsby

As I write the module on The Great Gatsby, one of my concerns is how to deal with the issue of literary devices.  I don’t want the students to be intimidated by “hidden meanings.”  I don’t want them to go figure hunting as if they are bird watchers logging sightings of rare specimens.  However, I do want them to be able to interpret the novel, to appreciate the language, and not to be put off by Fitzgerald’s indirect ways.  My first move in this direction was the introduction for students which I posted earlier.

In the section below I am trying to explain how symbols, metaphors, similes, and irony work.  Many of the definitions I found on the web were too complex or confusing, even contradictory.  Others went too deep into semiotics or linguistics, attempting to describe cognitive processes or to create a host of types and sub-types.  I just want students to have a basic working understanding of figurative language so that they can read the novel with pleasure and understanding.  I want to empower them rather than intimidate them.

Please give feedback in the comments.

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Although reading literature is not like an Easter egg hunt in which the reader is looking for hidden meanings buried behind symbols and metaphors, such devices are part of the novel and do have meaning. For example, automobiles are common in this novel. At this time, the automobile is a fairly recent introduction into American culture. Traffic lights to control intersections were introduced around the time the novel was written. In the novel, automobiles are meticulously described. Characters drive them, buy them, sell them, repair them, crash them, and sometimes the wheels fall off. People are killed by them. Is the automobile a symbol of some aspect of American culture? Is steering a car a metaphor for a new kind of American life? It is up to you, the reader, to decide. Maybe a car is just a car. Maybe it is more. Symbols take on their meaning from context and from the evolving value that they have for the characters and the reader. It is never a simple matter of “Symbol X equals Meaning Y.”

Let’s say that the automobile is a symbol of American technological progress. What is implied if the wheels fall off? What is implied if the automobile kills someone?

Some definitions:

A symbol is something concrete (like the automobile) that represents or stands for an abstract idea (such as progress). Symbols are usually related to major themes in the work and may reoccur several times. The symbol does not necessarily resemble the symbolized idea or share any of its qualities. For example, the American flag is a symbol of the United States, but it does not look like the country. The stars on the flag may symbolize the individual states that are the current components of the union and the stripes may symbolize the original states that joined at the beginning, but the states are not like stars or stripes in any way.

A metaphor causes us to see one thing in terms of something else. On page 2, Nick Carraway talks about “the foul dust” that “floated in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams.” There are two metaphors here. First, the dust is not literally dust, but at this point we don’t know exactly what it is. We will find out what dreams Gatsby has and what the foul consequences are as we continue reading. Second, the dust floats in the “wake” of Gatsby’s dreams. As a boat travels through the water it creates a turbulent track behind it which is called the “wake.” So Gatsby’s dreams are being compared to a boat that leaves foul dust floating behind it. But wait a minute! “Wake” is also another word for funeral. Could that be what it means here? It seems unlikely because the word “floating” is associated with water, which triggers the association with a boat. Note that these are not “hidden meanings.” The metaphors are just part of the way that the sentence creates meaning.

A simile is a type of metaphor that uses “like” or “as” or other comparison words to connect the ideas. The most famous simile ever is probably by the poet, Robert Burns, who wrote, “My love is like a red, red rose,” comparing a woman to a flower. In The Great Gatsby, when Nick is criticizing Jordan’s driving he says, to the reader, not to Jordan, “I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires” (58). This statement compares his “interior rules” to the “brakes” on an automobile. Similes such as this are very common in fiction.

Irony is also common in this novel. The word “irony” comes from a Greek word that means to pretend. There are many types of irony, but in all types the surface meaning is different, often the opposite, of what is intended, creating a humorous effect. For example, if a person walking in pouring rain meets another person and says, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” that would be an ironic statement. Another common form of irony is understatement. Say a woman who is very afraid of spiders finds a spider in her sink, rolls up a magazine and in a panic hits the spider 20 times. Her roommate says, “Do you think that’s enough?” In Gatsby, irony often takes the form of exaggeration, such as when Nick arrives at Daisy’s house and she says, “I’m paralyzed with happiness” (8).

You will find many examples of these and other literary devices in the novel. Take note of these, discuss them with your classmates, and think about how they influence your reading of the novel.