Much of our work in class over the first four class sessions has focused on the intertwined task of building trust and understanding audience. The students need to trust me, for I am asking them to write in ways outside their experience; they need to trust each other, for they (like me) are audience to each other’s writing; and I need to trust that the students will not resist me but work with me. We have also been establishing the ground rules for the semester and orienting ourselves to the progression of the five units.
One of the things I have been doing to establish a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom is to play music over the minutes before class starts and I take roll and while students are writing or working in small groups. I make little mention of this, just do it. I want to expose students to things I doubt they have heard but that relate to the music in their lives. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins have been featured so far.
Class time has been split, to date, between small-group work (which includes individual writing), my talking and large-group discussion. From my perspective, the latter has been the least successful, though I never expect much from it this early in the semester. To try to engender comfortable discussion, I used, for the fourth class, the recent furor over blackface, giving a short history and showing a few clips to make the point that even claims of using blackface as tribute are sketchy and need to be taken skeptically, as they have been with Virginia’s governor and attorney general. To do this, I showed a clip of Bill Robinson, followed by one of the Nicholas brothers that shows his influence, and followed that with Fred Astaire’s lame (and embarrassing) blackface tribute to Robinson–and finally a mid-1950s dance bit that shows a lineage (particularly in the use of hats and hands) that goes back to Robinson. Tribute, the point was, by whites for blacks, does not necessitate blackface. I also pointed out that Jim Crow and “Dixie” originated with the blackface minstrel shows, that separating blackface from racism is impossible. The students in all three of my sections responded well, though the third class was more lethargic than the others in its members contributing to the discussion.
As part of this, as I always do, I relied heavily on my own experiences and on what I know of my family’s past. I encourage students to do the same, but don’t demand it–except when it comes to a particular writing task such as the Literacy Narrative. Over these two weeks, I have encouraged students to look at personal anecdote as a starting point for essays, explaining that, as they know nothing better than they know themselves, they could easily use themselves as a place for starting any essay–even if they had to cut “themselves” out later in the revision process.
One of the early writing exercises has been a “talk and write” where, in twos and threes, students have discussed and written about events in their own histories of learning to read and write. They write and share and take notes while they are sharing and their partner(s) ask “tell me more” questions. The prompt for this exercise was a blog post I wrote for the Open Lab class sites on my own memories of learning to read and write–itself a part of my trust-building strategy, showing that I can participate in the tasks I set for them.
On the heels of the “talk and write,” I had students read an essay from the late 1990s on responding to student writing. It’s a problematic essay for me, for it assumes writings as things, not as physical manifestations of a dynamic. I led students to discover this through a discussion of texting where the communications dynamic is always at the fore. We concluded (as I had hoped we would), that a reader has to first respond to what the writer is saying, long before offering suggestions for improvement. We arrived at that by discussing how students are likely to respond to a text to them suggesting that their grammar might not have been perfect in an earlier text or explaining how they could have made that text more “effective.” They would respond, they told me, with “k,” the texting way of cutting off further discussion.
The discussion of texting has been useful in other ways, from the desire to keep focus in class away from devices to recognizing that audience always needs to be kept in mind while writing (all of the students recognize that texts can be understood in differing ways and that texters need to constantly keep that in mind). We talked about the number of words the average student texts in a day–two of the classes deciding on 2000, the other on 1000–and I asked the students why, when they write so much so easily on a daily basis, a 600-word paper seems such a challenge. That got lively responses. I also suggested that they used texting as a means for developing papers, discussing topics with others in the class then copying their texts into Word, being careful not to co-opt the words of their respondents.
These first two weeks of class have been packed. Much more has gone on than I have described here, but almost everything has fed into increasing awareness of audience and comfort levels with this semester’s direct audiences and in getting started on creating the background for the Literacy Narrative. Next Thursday, along with reading the Malcolm X passage, students are to come to class with notes, jottings and anything else that they can use for starting their own Literacy Narratives. We will conduct another “talk and write” in preparation for the completed draft that is to be turned in the following Tuesday.