Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving--Teacher Content

First things first—Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

For those of you out there who teach, here’s some information about the project we just finished:

Each year, students at our high school read a novel at the same time. The first year, we all read the same novel, The Great Gatsby, but we found the range from regular 9th grade to 12th grade Advanced Placement to be a stretch. Last year, we did King Arthur legends in different versions depending on the grade and level. This year we chose the Western. Because we live in an agricultural area of Texas in a small town whose main industry is agriculture--specifically feeding cattle, producing food for cattle, transporting cattle, producing milk, and beef packing, we thought this would be a familiar subject to our students. After all, no one here even looks up at the rattle of spurs and pickups with horse trailers in tow are parked regularly at the drive-ins. I remember going to a touristy Western restaurant with my small son a few years ago. He looked at their waiters in full cowboy regalia and said, “Mommy, those cowboys don’t smell right!” Well, imagine our surprise in finding out that most of our students were totally unfamiliar with the Western as a genre. I suppose we had thought they would have picked up some things by osmosis, but very few of them had.

Our novel selections for most students were very traditional:

9th grade—Hondo, by Louis L’Amour
10th grade—The Cherokee Trail, by Louis L’Amour
11th and 12th grade, 10th grade Pre-AP—Conagher, by Louis L’Amour
And for the 11th and 12th grade Advanced Placement, a coming-of-age novel that explores the myths of the West as a theme, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

Each teacher—one on each grade level—chose her own activities and developed her own lesson plans for each book. The McCarthy book was taught with not only an eye to theme and plot, but also with a more traditional AP approach of style analysis, study of literary archetypes, study of symbolism, and structural analysis. The students are now in the midst of group multimedia projects over aspects of the novel or background issues in the novel. We will finish after the Thanksgiving holiday. If anyone wants a list of the projects, let me know. I can already tell that some of them should have been designed a little differently. Student response to the novel was mixed. I know that two students really disliked it—one was vocal and one too polite to say so. However, some of the students who are in the AP class because that’s our college-track class, but who really are science or math oriented, liked the book, finished reading a week or so early, and went on to read another Western. One, who thought we should have read a “more challenging” McCarthy—GT students can be that way—told me she is taking No Country for Old Men to read on the road for their Thanksgiving holiday trip. I told her I hope her holiday is very festive!

The other novels were taught with a more traditional approach. We read and discussed in class. We explained an amazing amount of Western terminology—words like stagecoach, corral, stirrup, saloon, etc. The 10th grade students produced tracking posters on various Western topics. These are researched and documented in MLA form, sort of a visual research paper.

These were displayed on the wall as part of our decoration for the final barbecue. One of the results of this project was that students became familiar with all sorts of Western places and legends that they were not familiar with before. It was also a good exercise in documentation skills.

My classes took a more varied approach to projects. I gave students in my 10th grade Pre-AP and 12th grade regular classes a choice of followup activities for the novel. I deliberately chose for the 10th graders activities that would lead them to take “compositional risk,” to think about writing in different ways other than a traditional essay or paper. Those students will be taking the state writing exam in March, and to score really well, being able to think about writing in a creative fashion is essential.

Here are some sample project suggestions. I was more detailed in spelling out requirements to the students, but you can suit youself if any of the ideas appeal to you:

  • A 25-entry dictionary of Western terminology used in the novel. This was to be in the form of a book. The results were much more varied and interesting than I had expected.

  • A diary “written” by a character in the book. It had to include not only incidents in the book, but thoughts and feelings and events fitting “between” episodes. It was to be properly aged, of course.

  • A short story retelling an event from the novel written from the viewpoint of the 11-year-old boy or the younger girl.

  • A research project using a poster and Venn diagram comparing the two Native American tribes mentioned in the novel—the Zuni and the Apache.

  • A project investigating the setting of the novel, the San Agustin Plains of New Mexico, at the time of the novel and as it is today. (This is the location of the Very Large Array, the enormous radio telescope.)

  • A children’s book describing what it was like to be a cowboy. I have not yet read all of these. Some did sort of a “this is what a cowboy uses” type. Some did coloring books. Some wrote stories with plot. Levels of execution varied. One of my more artistic students used scrapbooking materials in a creative and unusual way.

  • The one very unsuccessful assignment, probably because it was selected by students who don’t want to work anyway and who just threw something together--a resume for the main character.

Due to both teachers having to be out due to illness, the 11th and 9th grade classes are not through with their projects yet, so I can’t tell you about them.
We also watched the associated movies for the books we read, and we did comparison activities—How is the movie different from the book? Why would the makers of the film have left out certain scenes that you found interesting? Did elements in the film change—why did bad weather become heavy rainstorms instead of snow, for example? Are the characters as you imagined them?

The L’Amour books were a big success. Students who usually choose not to read are checking out more. We were careful to choose books that have strong female roles as well as the traditional Western hero, so the girls liked them as well.

Activities that we all did:

  • We showed excerpts from a film on the Western as a genre. It was originally on television, so it was broken into parts. We showed the parts that were relevant to our particular classes. Therefore, we covered the concepts of the Western hero, the treatment of Native Americans and Hispanics in traditional Westerns, the bad guy, the role of violence, and other topics with liberal examples from film.

  • Every English student attended a presentation by Eldrena Douma, a Pueblo storyteller. Although I wasn’t sure at first what the response would be, I found that they did incorporate some of what she said into discussion of the scenes involving Native Americans in our novel. In addition, she gave some good examples of how to turn everyday events into interesting stories. This was a deliberate choice on her part to give us examples for teaching TAKS writing.

  • We also spent a day on Artifiction, a project from the American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame and Museum in Amarillo, Texas.

We teamed for this project. Working at the tables in the library, students examined artifacts from the museum to determine what they were. They made the determination by answering questions on analysis sheets. Then we gave them the history of the object. When we go back from the holidays, we are going to be asking students to choose an “artifact” from their homes or lives and write about that artifact and its meaning, not as an explanation, but from the viewpoint of someone using the artifact, someone making the artifact, someone finding the artifact, or from the p0int-of-view of the artifact itself. There are graphic organizers provided by the museum for this purpose. (I know that it seems like poor planning on our part to split this project over the holidays, but we made 2 levels of the football playoffs during this time If you don’t teach in a small Texas town, you may not understand what effect that would have on planning, but take my word for it.)

  • Our final event was a pre-Thanksgiving feast of barbecue, cole slaw, and beans in the cafeteria. Students from the National English Honor Society did the decorating and cleanup.

When my daughter was a preschooler many years ago, her school sponsored a "Thankful for Pioneers" day each Thanksgiving, and the students could dress as traditional pilgrims, as Indians, or as pioneers from our area. The menu was barbecue and chili, and the children gave thanks for the settlers here. That was probably a very appropriate choice, since there is some evidence that the first "Thanksgiving" in the sense of a meal for that purpose by Europeans occurred long before the pilgrims in the Palo Duro Canyon about 50 miles from here when Coronado's men held a feast of thanksgiving for finding the canyon with water and good hunting after so many days of crossing the relatively barren Llano Estacado.

1 comment:

Deb said...

What a great approach to literature! I love the fact that all the students across the school participated. The projects sound great too. This is teaching at its best.