When Students Fear a New Text
In fourth grade, right before we were about to step onstage for the yearly choir concert, my teacher told the class to picture the audience as giant pickles. She explained that giant pickles are funny and that if we could laugh before the concert, we wouldn’t be nervous. Of course, we had all heard about picturing the audience in its underwear, but that line had become worn out. The success of the pickle picturing plan was its novelty in addition to its effectiveness. We weren’t scared of performing because we were performing for giant pickles. It was new, and it worked.
Today, as my students work to see themselves as writers, I draw on my fourth grade teacher’s advice. How can I make the oftentimes daunting task of writing new and exciting? What can I do to demonstrate to my students that new texts are not tedious and should never be sources of fear?
On the first day of analyzing a new text, my students are hard at work charting the text. As a group, we have broken it into digestible chunks, and now, we are completing a triple-entry journal that will act as the pre-writing for our argumentative analysis essays. Our goal is to dive into the brain of the author to figure out how he is trying to persuade us. As effective as this is, it has also been done before. It is the equivalent of an audience in its underwear.
Drop Everything and Play
Dropping everything and playing is the pickle in the audience. The goal is to transform the fear of a new text into an opportunity for pure creativity.
More specifically, when students drop everything and play with a text, they are given complete creative license to do anything they want with their copies of the text.
STOP ANALYZING. START PLAYING.
Your task is to take the first chapter of Night and turn it into something completely new. Extra points if it is unrecognizable from the original text.
My advice is to pick a text that is, of course, relevant to your content, but also slightly harder than what is normally read in your classroom. Remember, you are looking for that “Aha!” moment when students realize the text isn’t impossible or daunting.
Texts I have used:
- Chapter 1 of Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night – Students encounter words like shtibl, penury, treatise, and antechamber.
- Gravedigger Scene from Hamlet (found here) – We played with just the “Alas, poor
Yorick…” speech. This text lends itself well to budding poets.
- Chris Ferrante’s 2013 article, “Playing God: The Ethics of Euthanasia” (found here) – We used this as debate preparation after reading Of Mice and Men. This is the most difficult text we read all year, but it has the most opportunities for play.
- Students cut out individual words and pasted them on a poster to create a word cloud.
- Students blackened out almost all of the words in the article and created a blackout poem.
- See http://newspaperblackout.com/ for a fantastic database of examples.
- Students wrote found poems and short stories based on words and phrases in a text.
- Sayler’s Hamlet Found Poem:
Horatio I knew your merriment. I knew your grinning. I knew how your lips kissed and how - in my imagination she abhorred her own chamber - her lips kissed back a thousand times. Now, her songs mock me. Not one favour to know. Not one favour to roar. Your infinite jest. My infinite imagination.
- Students created vocabulary flashcards for difficult words and quizzed their peers.
- While reading an argument about the declining reading abilities of Americans, a student cut out each word in the text and created an alphabet book with each page corresponding to a letter of the alphabet. Each letter’s page included every word from the article that started with that letter.
During our Drop Everything and Play time, words become tools for creativity as opposed to hurdles and barriers to understanding. The texts themselves become less intimidating. They become something that can be analyzed.
Overall, I want my students to enjoy playing with words. I want them to see how malleable and fluid language is. They need to recognize new and complicated texts as avenues for entertainment and creativity.
Of course, the analysis has to follow. And it will. Students will gravitate toward making connections and digging into the text to discuss the author’s motivation. They will get there. But the foundation of the experience must be creativity. After all, we are asking them to become writers, creators of content, and molders of meaning. Writing is an entirely creative process, so when students can first interact with a text by turning it into a pickle, their response to it as writers will be monumentally more creative. When we drop everything, we give our students the opportunity to change and be changed by writing.
How do you encourage students not to fear new texts? How do you make analytical writing new and exciting? You can connect with me on Twitter @MGriesinger or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.