My knee-jerk reaction aside, I really enjoy the professional development days at MHS. Not only do they provide a necessary opportunity to simply share with other teachers to tighten one's own classroom practices, but they almost always entail highly thought provoking questions of education that tap as deep as our foundational philosophies about learning. In short, they remind me of the professionalism this job demands, and that is an encouraging thought.
Today's discussion in the 9-10 ELA PLC concerned the expectations of growth from the 9th grade to 10th. After some discussion, we realized that the author's craft units being taught at both levels were disconcertingly similar, with almost no framework in place to ensure an intentional development.
We eventually arrived at an interesting quandary about how students need to develop. Is it best to have them first master identifying isolated examples of author's craft (in our case, that means characterization, conflict, imagery, figurative language - metaphor, simile, personification, and hyperbole - and diction) and explain how the author encoded meaning through that vehicle, or should students first learn to identify and express bigger topics like theme or central ideas before moving to the more minute elements of craft?
In my Author's Craft unit right now, we've been operating off the first premise: that students will benefit most by identifying smaller elements of encoding and explaining how the author intentionally added meaning to the story through that specific usage. The summative assessment for the unit will ask students to read a short story and perform the following tasks for the aforementioned literary devices:
- Define/explain __________ (fill in the literary device)
- Identify an example of _________ in text.
- Explain how the author used this literary device to encode meaning in the text.
We are using an inference structure to help students explain the devices. The equation is simple: textual clues + background knowledge = conclusion. This works as well for inferring character traits as it does to understanding figurative language (ex. Bob said his hands were ice cubes. This is a metaphor because he is comparing his hands to ice cubes. Bob's hands aren't actually ice cubes; he's saying that his hands are cold, because I know from background knowledge that ice cubes are frozen and associated with extreme cold). It's simple, but it's a practice in taking the abstract and making it concrete via explanation, an expected skill.
The logic for starting with these isolated examples of encoding is that by first drilling the skill of identifying an example of intentional encoding and inferring meaning from it by incorporating existing schema, students can then more astutely identify patterns of their usage later on, which would allow for more nuanced discussions of central ideas and theme.
More pragmatically, though, this trains the students cognitively to infer properly and be able to explain their inferences. In the grand scheme of things, teaching author's craft is really a service to inference in the Career and College Ready School environment for the majority of students. While, yes, working with metaphor stretches students' abstract thinking muscles, thereby helping them develop that important cognitive function, the domain nonspecific skills of inference and explanation will serve them well in quite literally any pursuit.
That's one theory - I'm by no means saying it's absolutely correct. While I would argue that there is definite value in drilling the isolated act of decoding examples of author's craft, which can be later applied on a grander scale, there's much merit to the idea that bigger ideas like theme are easier to notice and discuss, thereby making them more suitable for our younger pupils. If nothing else, this practice in specificity ought to at least bolster the quality of student writing, regardless of the task.
In my own experience as a writer, identifying central ideas was never a significant issue. My problems arose from going back to the text and trying to justify my points by explaining individual elements of the text. The first hypothesis would say that students could make that leap more easily if they've already drilled the act of identifying and thoroughly explaining elements of a text.
I look forward to years of experience shedding light on this important issue, for it's answer could lead to a radical redesign of underclassman ELA courses, down to the texts we choose. For example, part of the reason my current unit is rooted in teaching author's craft via isolated examples is that we are using a longer novel. If we switched to short stories to teach these elements, they could much more easily be tied to central ideas, thereby combing the elements.