Updated Gatsby Module

I have updated the module on The Great Gatsby to ERWC 3.0.  This version includes the new 3.0 cells.  I eliminated some of the possible literary approaches and streamlined it a bit.  I now have a short writing assignment after each section so that instead of one module “arc” it has four mini arcs.   It is currently being piloted by at least one teacher.  After the pilot, I will create a teacher version.  If you have a chance to pilot it, please give me feedback.

The post on the older version is here.

The ERWC “Cell”

Why are the third-level headings in the ERWC Assignment Template called “cells”? Are we supposed to imagine them looking like this?

purplecells1

When we designed the first ERWC Assignment Template, we created a two column table with the ELA standards on the left hand and a description of an activity that addressed those standards on the right. As we added activities, we added rows, and eventually, we started naming categories of activities and describing the kinds of things that would happen at that point in the process. We started calling these categories “cells” because they were inserted into cells in the big table that was developing.

Recently, as we work on designing ERWC 3.0, some members of the committee began to question the term “cell,” saying that it wasn’t intuitive and that it reminded them of a prison cell. One even said that the term was “just weird.” I found myself defending the term, having used it without thinking much about it for more than 14 years.

Element

One of the suggested replacements was “element.” I took an immediate dislike to this, but I had to think carefully about why. In one sense, an “element” is a substance with a unique molecular structure that is uncombined and pure. In another sense, it is a necessary part of something else. Neither of these descriptions fit what we have in mind when we imagine our activity categories, which are not unique, pure, or necessary.  And “element” seemed solid and static. It didn’t feel right.

A Container

I began to think about the connotations of “cell.” A cell is a space with boundaries in which things happen. Yes, there are prison cells, but there are also monk’s cells. A cell has an inside and an outside. A biological cell is full of activity, consuming energy, processing things, accomplishing tasks, performing functions. A biological cell has a role to play, connects and collaborates with other cells, does work and passes the results on to other cells with different roles. A cell is part of a whole, part of an organism without which it cannot survive.

So a “cell” is an activity node, a waystation in a network of activity. I think this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish in naming the places and pathways of the template. We fill the cell with possible activities, processes, and products that connect to other cells and other products. And moving from the template cell to the module cell is a kind of reproduction, mitosis if you will. So yes, I think we should imagine a module to look something like the picture at the beginning of this post.  It is a pretty good metaphor for what we are doing. I think we should keep the term.

New 1984 Writing Prompts

In a college-level literature course for English majors, the general practice is to assign several novels or other works and then let the students decide what they want to write about. Usually, this involves choosing a theme, a motif, a set of symbols, a social issue, or other focus and examining how it plays out in a particular work or works. Students support their reading of the work with evidence from the text. However, this practice is a bit too open-ended for non-majors. For ERWC, the writing assignment needs to have more focus.

A novel like 1984 is bristling with themes and big ideas to write about. However, the Internet creates problems in this regard. All of the obvious themes and big ideas have been explored in Spark Notes, Cliff’s Notes and various homework helper sites. A student can easily find essays to download, or detailed comments to copy and paste from Goodreads and other review sites.

In my original module, I tried to follow somewhat unconventional themes that perhaps had not been explored so thoroughly. I created four topics:

  1. The Party and Power: Can a society based on hate survive?
  2. The Fall of Big Brother: What might cause the fall of Big Brother?
  3. The Party and Objective Reality: Can Big Brother decide what is real and what is not?
  4. Surveillance and Big Brother: Is our technology taking us closer to the world of Big Brother?

Because these were all complex issues, I tried to help students by quoting relevant passages and asking lots of questions about subtopics. The prompts ended up being long and complicated, which is why I kept coming back to the core questions listed above. Recently, I asked one of my colleagues on the ERWC Steering Committee, who has read more sample ERWC essays than anyone I know, how these topics were working. The news was not good. Most students chose the fourth question about technology. Those who chose the first one about a society based on hate usually just answered “no” and went on to describe how horrible it was to live in Oceania. The topics were not inspiring good writing or thinking.

The other two topics were rarely used. The second topic about the fall of Big Brother requires an understanding of the fictitious book by Emmanuel Goldstein, plus an understanding of the implications of the appendix, the essay on Newspeak. It is an interesting political question, but too much for most students. The third topic, about Big Brother’s control of the perception of reality through language and power, is at its heart an epistemological question. I was setting the bar pretty high.

So as I revise the module for ERWC 3.0, one of my tasks is to create new writing prompts. My criteria are as follows: the prompt should

  • Require that the student have read the novel
  • Connect ideas from the novel to the student’s own experience
  • Be formulated in such a way that the student can take a stance and write a thesis statement

Here is a list of possible new topics (linked here and pasted below).  Please help me refine them by posting a comment:

1. Winston Smith is a low-level party member. In the course of the novel he has several interactions with the “proles” (short for “proletariat, essentially “the people”). How are the lives of proles and party members different? Would you rather be a prole or a Party member in 1984? Provide specific examples from the novel to support your argument.

2. The world of Big Brother has three main slogans:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

These slogans seem to be paradoxical and contradictory on the surface, but in the world of Big Brother, they make a kind of sense. Each is like an equation, but how can one thing equal its opposite? Perhaps it would be better to ask “How can one thing lead to its opposite?” Could war abroad lead to peace at home? Could absolute freedom make you a slave to your own desires? Could knowing too much make you think more than act? Choose one of these slogans and explore what it means in 1984, using examples from the book. Then think about how the slogan might apply in our own society.

3. The people of Oceania are under constant surveillance by the government, through telescreens and microphones. How does this surveillance affect the lives of the people? If you knew your TV, your smartphone, and other devices were constantly watching and listening to you, how would you change your behavior? In a well-organized essay, discuss the effects of surveillance in the novel and potentially in our own lives.

4. 1984 provides a cautionary tale about the potential of surveillance technology to allow an authoritarian government to control the population. At present, current technology, including smartphones, web cams, GPS tracking, internet-connected home appliances, and many other items, is being used to make daily life more convenient. However, each of these is potentially a very powerful surveillance technology that the totalitarian oligarchy of 1984 would have been overjoyed to use. At this moment, the government, or another entity, could easily see every Web site you have visited, read every message you ever sent, and listen to every phone call. In what ways does 1984 suggest that we should be worried that our use of electronic devices could someday lead to totalitarian control? If Big Brother really might use our electronics to watch us, what could we do to stop it?

5. Science fiction novels don’t always try to predict the future, but in 1984, Orwell is trying to warn us of what might happen if new propaganda techniques and technology were combined in the hands of an authoritarian leader. As a prediction of the future, how accurate is 1984? In a well-organized essay, discuss what Orwell got right, and what he got wrong. Support your arguments with examples from the text.

6. “Newspeak” is attempt by Big Brother to control thought by reducing the number of words in the language and eliminating words that might lead to “thoughtcrime,” which is itself a Newspeak word. Is it possible to control thought through controlling language? Does our own society have similar tendencies? In a well-organized essay, discuss examples of Newspeak in the novel and how this kind of control might function in our own society.

Shorter, Simpler, Smarter: Tips for Module Writers

I have joked in previous posts that my position on new ERWC modules is that they should be “shorter, simpler, and smarter” than our previous efforts.  I have been asked to clarify what I mean by that and how it might be achieved.  As ERWC is about to gear up for a mad dash of module writing, it is an appropriate time to unpack that slogan.  In response, I have brainstormed a series of tips, based on my experience writing modules and getting feedback on how they perform in the classroom.   It turned out there were ten.  Here they are:

  1. What is the most interesting aspect of the text? Is it the rhetorical strategies? Is it the claims, the arguments, and the evidence? Is it the style? Is it ethos constructed by the author? Is it the implications for our lives, or for the future? Focus your attention on the most interesting elements.
  2. Design learning goals that are appropriate for the course, the standards, the students and the text. Don’t try to do everything at once.
  3. Build your module from the inside out by writing a micro-module first. After choosing your text or texts, design a writing prompt, then a prereading activity, a reading activity, and a critical activity that lead up to it. Then consult the template and the course matrix to think about what might be added to enhance the module and support the learning goals.
  4. Don’t go cell by cell and design an activity for each one. Each cell is a possible door. Don’t open every one. You are charting a path, not ransacking a building.
  5. Every activity should have a clear purpose that supports the learning goals and moves the student toward the writing assignment.
  6. When you add an activity, think about how it integrates with other parts of the module. Can a written product produced in this activity be used for another task in a later one? Will the thinking or analysis used here be useful for a later step?
  7. When adding a new text or activity, always consider the effort-to-benefit ratio. Is the effort expended by the student worth the benefit they will get from it?
  8. When you add another text to the mix, think carefully about what is gained by it. Do you really need another perspective or more data? Do the texts complement each other, clash productively, or just give you more of the same?
  9. When writing your module, try to think like a teacher and think like a student. Imagine you are teaching your module, then imagine an inexperienced teacher teaching it, then imagine being a student in the class. Ask yourself, “What can they do now that they couldn’t do before?” and “What am I preparing them to do later?”
  10. Don’t present every interesting thing you have discovered about the text. Leave some treasures for students to find on their own.

To complement this list of tips for module writers, I have also posted the new ERWC 3.0 Assignment Template Outline with Key Questions, which is the short version of the template that serves as a cheat sheet for module writers.

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.