Tag Archives: Geoffrey Sirc

Minor Thoughts

I remember the epiphany well—the look in their faces, a mix of ennui, exhaustion. Exasperation. That class of seniors, the first time I had taught that level in six years, when I was student teaching, staring back at me, beat. We had read through Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Macbeth. I dutifully doled out worksheets, carefully crafted questions to help them understand these ancient texts. I quizzed them, tested them, to ensure they remembered what was important to remember: diction, tone, theme—those universal truths that have stood true for hundreds, thousands! of years.

I don’t remember who said it, or what piece of classwork or homework the student was referring to, but their question matched their bleary-eyed look, and it woke me up.

“Can you just tell me what to do to get an A on this?”

At the semester I shook things up. I dismantled the rows of desks and gathered them into groups. I gave them a reading schedule for our next novel, 1984, along with the standards, and a blank calendar that lasted through the reading dates. Their charge? Show me what you know about 1984 over the next four weeks.

In their groups they had to prepare for discussion days by coming up with two kinds of questions: questions to help them understand the novel and questions to move a class discussion forward. We discussed the novel two or three days a week—on the other days they had to plan and carry out self-generated projects that demonstrated proficiency of self-selected standards. I told them they could use any activity they’d used in the past 12 years to help them learn, or they could create their own.

A handful of students launched into the novel with giddy abandon—thrilled at the chance to do school their way. Most fell back on education’s tropes, tried and true: quizzes, tests, worksheets, essays. A few others struggled to guide themselves through the novel.

Then a third of the way through 1984 a student came up to me and said, “You’re not even teaching us anything.”

This particular jab was especially jarring since it fell from the lips of a student in my video broadcast class, a class in which students are active participants and leaders in the structure and day-to-day flow of the course. I had assumed this student was accustomed to a more collaborative, do-it-yourself learning environment. I was wrong.

Twelve years of public education had shaped most of these students into baby birds, little seagulls, taught to sit cozy in their nests until mama or papa seagull come sailing in to regurgitate their meals, their knowledge, into the youngsters’ gullets. In “The Student and Society” Jerry Farber accuses the educational system of creating “authority addicts.”

I knew I had to keep doing something different. The status quo wasn’t preparing students for much more than taking class-based multiple choice, or standardized tests. And for all the talk of gearing students up for college AND a career such tests weren’t going to cut it.

One of my first pedagogical shifts was to give my students permission, permission to question the whys and hows of their education. If we’re gonna saddle them with tens of thousands of dollars (more!) of student debt, they should know why they’re sitting in our classrooms waiting to be netted up by all those big, fancy colleges they dream of attending. So before my students open up The Catcher in the Rye, I lead them through a question brainstorming session in which they crank out a list of questions based on this statement: school is the best place to learn. They pare down their list of questions to just a couple and then explore that question as they read Salinger, Prose, Emerson, Baldwin.

The next shift was to axe cumulative finals. Instead, students write, and publish to the web, reflections on what they learned and thought during the semester. In their reflections I hope students discover what Claes Oldenburg calls a “kernel of infinite expansion.” I read about this idea in Geoffrey Sirc’s English Composition as a Happening in which he suggests we teach “writing as growing, changing, maybe even culturally transforming” (166).

Sirc’s book, a 300-page riff on Charles Deemer’s 1967 essay of the same name, supercharged my classroom practice. In the chapter titled “The American Action Writers,” Sirc argues Jackson Pollock “became a real compositionist only when he began to follow his heart: discovering he had a vision and voice worth sharing.”

Then Sirc asks this question: “Are our students searching for a way to make the world see the world their way, or, rather, do we insist they be made to show the world the way we think it’s supposed to be seen?”

I want to see the world their way. I want to teach my students to write like Joan Didion who calls writing “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” I hope you will, like I do, listen to these student statements that follow, pulled from their year-end reflections, and change your mind in some small way. Listen. They’re just minor thoughts…

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What Are You Doing About It?

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After seeing the above sketch in her Twitter feed a couple months back, my good friend and teacher-neighbor across the field, Seena Rich, sent me this response:

While she did so gracefully, Seena was calling me out, challenging me, asking me to put my money where my mouth is.

What she wanted to know was: Ziebarth, I’ve been watching you tweet out all your little doodles about that book you read over the summer, so what?!? What are you doing about it?

Up to that point I hadn’t committed to doing anything about my reading other than tweet out the sketches of it. Probably because my head was spinning with ideas, but a book like English Composition as a Happening needs some time to settle, digest, sink in.

I’m grateful for friends and colleagues who push and challenge my thinking, my practice, who get a little antsy when I’m just tossing bread crumbs to the world. Seena’s tweet started me thinking … What have I learned? What is my big takeaway from Sirc’s book?

Respect.

Respect for what my students have to say.

Respect for their voices.

Respect for my students as writers.

Respect for the journey my students are on as writers.

Respect for my students as human beings.

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What’s curious is that I’ve been changing my composition course every year, bit by bit, as my students teach me every year that they deserve and are worthy of my respect.

What this respect looks like in my classroom (and the changes Sirc inspired) is ongoing, and like Deemer says, there is no blueprint. Happenings happen. Teachers must inspire their own. Regardless, I hope to explore mine here in the near future. Stay tuned.

 

The Catcher in the Rye: a blacked-out novel

I’m crazy / I’ll be bored and dance / I get a bang for dancing all over / It’s in my blood / It gives me suspense / by Alyson

About a year-and-a-half into my teaching career I cribbed an in-class activity from Austin Kleon: newspaper blackout poems. But I didn’t want to do them exactly like Kleon. I wanted to tie it closer to my curriculum. At the time I was teaching juniors and freshman, and among lots of other things we read The Catcher in the Rye and Fahrenheit 451 at those levels, respectively. So I scratched out “newspaper,” replaced it with “novel,” and armed my students with black Sharpies, crayons, Crayola markers, anything I could get my hands on. Oh and of course they each had a couple pages from the novel we were reading.

I love poetry but I never actually write it, so this was an interesting way to try it out. —Melissa

I especially like the prompt I gave my freshmen students who were reading Fahrenheit 451. At one point in the novel, the protagonist, Guy Montag, is running from the police who are recording the pursuit and Montag imagines himself being caught and wonders what he could say, with millions watching, “in a single word, a few words, that would sear all their faces and wake them up.” So I instructed my students to imagine themselves in Montag’s place and come up with a blackout poem, boil down words from the novel into something, that would get everyone’s attention, that would shake everyone out of their comfortable numbness.

Here are a couple examples from that first year:

"Books are friends not your enemy."
“Books are friends not your enemy.” By Giang
“A lifetime of books well hidden are no use to our world.” By Travis

Kleon himself says he struggles with teaching people how to create a blackout poem and as you can see from these examples, my first attempts at teaching them varied widely, visually at least.  While different students put a little more care into how they looked than others, each of these 9th grade boys created poignant little poems.

I shared my student work with Kleon who generously posted it along with my presentation to his website. The students were thrilled. Six years later and students are still impressed by that. It just goes to show you how hungry students are to break out of the classroom walls once in a while. It’s never enough really.

I felt like this blackout poem was really different from what we have been doing, so it felt pretty nice to do something new. —Hannah

See?

After using blackout poems for a few years I wanted to do more with them, “plus one it” as my friend David Theriault likes to say. Year after year, I’d pass out the same two pages from the novels and frankly, I grew tired of looking at the same source material, so a couple years ago I decided to hand out different pages to each student. Then the idea struck! Why don’t we collaboratively black out an entire novel?!?

That’s exactly what we did. It’s a bigger project than I first imagined, so it’s taken my students and me a couple years to complete. They did their part. It took some organization and focus on my part to bring all the student work together and even then I needed my students’ help and so a few of them stepped up during the last week of school this year and helped me scan, tag, and queue our first blacked-out novel: The Catcher in the Rye.

At present, we’ve posted just under half the novel. I’ll continue to post one poem a day until we exhaust the pages. Then what? Well, we’ll start working on another novel. Probably one of the more hefty novels we read: The Scarlet Letter or The Grapes of Wrath.

On a pedagogical note: I don’t use a rubric for this assignment. I show them this presentation, student examples, then I give them the prompt: “create a blackout poem that represents one way YOU see the world.” As you can see by the main image for this post, students take the directions “black out” with a grain of salt. And I like it that way. I want these pieces to be dripping with each students’ voice and tone and self.

Even with very few criteria, some students still struggled with the assignment. Some felt limited by the criteria—

I was really into it…until the poem had to be about how I saw life. This became an obstacle. I was struggling to find something to put together. Especially with the page. I had I wasn’t able to really put something together until I forced myself to pick out something. It later became an assignment more than a work of creativity for me. —Victor

Victor’s words sting! I want to let students roam free with this assignment. Victor wanted to be free, but others might need a little more guidance, more limits. It’s an easy problem to solve. Make the criteria optional!

Lest anyone think this is a frivolous activity, well, let’s agree to disagree. I think we need more frivolity in education and many happen to agree. I’m still not frivolous enough! One of my playmates/mentors whose work reminds me of this fact is the ever fabulous Amy Burvall.

So that second link above is to a book I’m reading this summer by Geoffrey Sirc who argues that composition classes should look more like art classes, and he uses Duchamp, Pollack and other artists from the 60s’ Happening movement as models for what that might look like. I see novel blackout poetry as one take on Sirc’s “Student-as-Jackson-Pollock allegory. He quotes Robert Goodnough who says the composition classroom should not be “concerned with representing a preconceived idea, but rather with being involved in an experience of paint and canvas, directly.” Novel blackout poetry encourages students to “just put stuff together” (Sirc) and is a way of writing “which, ” John Cage says “comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them.”

Take this 16-year-old’s idea for instance:

They said I’m a smart girl / I said I wanted to stay a moron / Because I’m too young to be this sad / by Lindsay

It was like a blank canvas, except it was already filled in and you picked the things that you liked. —Trang

Novel blackout poetry employs new techniques of composition that Sirc calls for, that networked knowledge demands: “appropriating, sampling, copying, cataloging, scanning, indexing, chatting, and audio/visual streaming.” Sirc’s compositional ideal is Duchamp’s “chosen, pre-manufactured readymade.” And my students are obviously from the neo-readymade generation:

I like how the blackout poem really embodied the idea of creating your own work from something that was already written. —Celine

Novel blackout poetry also aligns nicely with the Common Core standards. I can help you there too.

It did help me appreciate The Catcher in the Rye more and especially Salinger’s writing style because writing the poem gave me a better understanding of Salinger’s word choice and also how he fit all of his words and ideas together. —Jesse

So as Amy Burvall says, let’s: