I recently attended the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association’s 72nd Annual Convention in Cheyenne, Wyoming. True to nature, the conference had an excellent variety of multilingual pedagogy and literature sessions. This is the one conference I make sure to attend. It is large enough to provide variety but small enough to promote a collegiate ambiance and a spirit of cooperation. The participants from all over the United States and the world are eager to share their experiences both in literary and pedagogical theory and practicum. Without exception, this conference always provides an opportunity for stimulating and invigorating conversations. This year, I shared a lesson plan on “Going Beyond the Traditional Norms of Teaching Poetry”.
The guest speaker was Dennis Shepard, the father of Matthew Shepard, who spoke on “The Legacy of Matthew Shepard”. After sharing the tragic story of his son’s death, he gave a riveting and enthralling speech about what we, as educators can do, to teach and promote tolerance, inclusion, and diversity, especially in the current political climate. He left us all spellbound.
Regarding the conference sessions, as always, it is difficult to choose a single one. Every session contributed greatly to the teaching and learning of language and literature. I particularly enjoyed all the pedagogy sessions where participants presented “tried and true” lesson plans and innovative ideas. If I had to single out one session, I would choose the excellent session on the teaching of literature organized by my colleague, John Schwiebert, from Weber State University1. I learned very much from the three presenters. Christa Albrecht-Crane presented on double-entry journals where she asked students to choose just one paragraph from the text they were reading, single out the main idea, and give their own comments and reactions. She found that the double-entry journal helped students use both critical thinking and creative skills by concentrating on one small section of a text without being overwhelmed. Robin Taylor-Rogers gave an interesting alternative to writing essays and showing power points. She very cleverly turned a dull writing task to a multi-media assignment that captured student interest while covering everything that a traditional analytical essay would teach. It invigorated the students and taught them research skills at the same time. John Schwiebert gave us a novel way of helping students think and organize their thoughts before actually sitting down and writing an essay. He asked his students to carry a small notebook (or use their phones) to jot down any thought that came to mind as they went about their day. Then, the students were asked to try and see if they could “connect the dots” at the end of the day and create a paragraph. He was essentially teaching mental mapping in an original way. (In this session, I presented my lesson unit on teaching poetry beyond the traditional norms.)
I found this session very helpful because all participants presented ideas about moving away from a strictly traditional way of teaching language and literature and making the students more involved in the task. The ideas presented in this session are very dear to my heart. I believe strongly that by creating pre-reading exercises for the students before their first exposure to a literary text or a grammatical structure, we can seize their interest right away. For example, when introducing a literary text, I never give them the traditional introduction of the biographical, historical, and literary context of the author and/or giving them key questions to guide their reading. I want the students to come to their own interpretations first without being influenced by what the teacher or the critics think. In this way, the students get involved with the process right away. Only after we have discussed their own interpretations do I bring in the traditional approach and place the author in the historical and literary context. Although using the traditional method first works for some classes, it approaches the text “from the outside” so to speak. It encourages students to look for examples of what we have given them and thus adopt a more passive attitude. Some might argue that pre-reading exercises take too much time but it is well worth it in terms of what the students learn. It allows the students to have a “hands-on” experience, to become much more active participants, and to learn “in spite of themselves”, without labels, without academic jargon.
One thread that connected virtually all of the pedagogy sessions, including the aforementioned ones, was how to make the instruction accessible to a diverse group of students. Diversity is defined in many ways, including but not limited to first-one-in-the-family to attend college; ethnic, economic, cultural and social backgrounds; as well as psychological and personality differences. In all the sessions, the presenters showcased different ways of making the course material palatable to the students by using the students’ ways of communicating with the world, using tools as varied as digital, audio-visual, kinesthetic, or others. For example, some created teaching tools to address avid Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest users. Others used voice technology to help visually impaired students. The basic requisite was to be aware of the different learners in the same classroom and address their needs as best as possible. In addition, many innovative teaching tools were also used to increase motivation and in turn participation in class. Many studies have shown that by increasing motivation instructors are better able to maintain student interest and positively affect student involvement and learning by creating a 100% active learning environment. All of the above combined with a solid support system outside of class–tutoring, teaching reading, writing strategies–gives a better way of reaching our students in this digital age. This year’s conference proved to be especially useful in addressing diversity.
I remain forever grateful to the Berkeley Language Center for their support of lecturers in helping us continue our professional development.
Practical Approaches to Teaching Literature
Chair: John Schwiebert, Weber State University
Presenters: Christa Albrecht-Crane, Utah Valley University. “The Double-Entry Journal in Literature Courses.”
Seda Chavdarian, University of California, Berkeley. “Going Beyond the Traditional Norms of Teaching Poetry.”
Robin Taylor Rogers, State College of Florida. “Been There, Done That: Alternatives to Research Essays and PowerPoint Presentations.”
John Schwiebert, Weber State University. “What I Would Like to Have Learned As an Undergraduate: How to Take Good Notes.”