Bringing Forth the Skeleton and Fleshing It Out: Day One of a Reggio Emelia Inspired English 1B

Using a Reggio Emelia approach within the current system, which relies on official course outlines and the assignment of letter grades, results in a hybrid creation: a rigid framework housing protean possibilities.

To respect the course outline of record, you should follow it carefully; after all, making meaningful changes within the existing structure only works if you respect what has been built. Disrespect it, and no one will pay much attention to the work you are doing. So then, you need to work within the given framework, which does allow you to approach certain aspects of course design and execution creatively.

Here, then, is the type of compromise I am proposing:

  • Begin the course by presenting the students with the course outline of record. Much of the language will sound familiar to them; it is English 1B, after all, which is likely their 13th or 14th English class if you count back to the 1st grade. Boil the course outline down to the bones and trot out the skeleton. This is the structure of the course.
  • Let the students study the skeleton, and, after some discussion, let them decide how they want to flesh it out.
  • Tell them that your role is to be the resident expert, to teach them what they don’t know, to suggest approaches, and to serve as their guide throughout it all. Tell them that you want the class to be an intentional journey, that you expect them to struggle and to make mistakes, and that you expect them to learn from all of it, especially the mistakes.
  • Remind them that you are there to learn alongside them—even though your role requires you to grade them, too.

On the first day of class, begin with a discussion like the one outlined below. You will need to track the discussion on the board, perhaps even ask for a student volunteer to record the minutes, too. The outcome of this first conversation determines the course of the class.

Outline for the First Discussion

  1. These are the requirements of the course, the skeleton, boiled down to this list from the course outline:
  • In total, writing assignments will amount to a minimum of 6000 words (not including revisions).
  • Of those 6000 words, 2500 need to be written in the form of a literary analysis essay, in MLA format, synthesizing the student’s ideas, the literary text(s), and secondary sources.
  • Also, one writing assignment needs to be a structured, purposeful essay in an established time frame.
  • These are the objectives of the course:
    • Analyze literary texts and draw inferences based on textual evidence;
    • Analyze and evaluate arguments and interpretations advanced by literary critics, both student and professional;
    • Write well-supported analytical essays advocating specific interpretations of literary works;
    • Write a structured, purposeful essay in an established time frame;
    • Write a MLA documented paper-demonstrating competency in the synthesis of the individual student’s viewpoint, primary sources, and secondary source material;
    • Demonstrate a working knowledge of the major literary criticism theories;
    • Compose literary analysis essays incorporating literary criticism theory;
    • Read a variety of texts actively and critically;
    • Identify key elements of the major genres of fiction, poetry, and drama in order to analyze and interpret texts;
    • Define common literary terms and apply them to the analysis of specific texts;
    • Compose formal written analyses of texts that demonstrate appropriate academic discourse and the conventions of literary analysis;
    • Research appropriate primary and secondary sources and apply documentation skills without plagiarism.
  1. Now, we’re going to plot a course of action, collectively. But first, a few questions that will help us develop a common vocabulary for setting our course:
  • What is meant by “writing assignments”? Notice that the word “essay” is not used.
  • What is an “essay”? Let’s review the definition.
  • Who is a critic?
  • What is literary criticism? Let’s review: http://www.iep.utm.edu/literary
  • What is research?
  • What is the difference between primary and secondary sources?
  • What is MLA citation, and why does it matter?
  1. Journaling (roughly 3500 words), the research essay (2500 words), and the in-class essay (roughly 1000 words) add up to 7000 words. The minimum is 6000; we are aiming for 10,000 words, though, because we don’t settle for minimum effort. So, let’s figure out how you want to write those remaining 3000 words. An essay is an attempt, a trial, in written form—a short piece of writing on a particular subject. That kind of writing can take many forms. What forms interest you?
  2. How should we use our time in class and out of class? We have 110 minutes of class time each meeting and 220 minutes each week. Let’s form a consensus regarding our use of class time and our use of out-of-class time.
  3. We aren’t going to decide everything during the first class. Also, you need time to reflect. We will formalize our plans during the next meeting. We will also begin our semester-long discussion of literature with a general overview of literary terms, followed by a more focused look at the elements of poetry.
  4. As part of our continuing conversation about the course of our class—of our collective effort to study literature and to write critically and meaningfully about it—I will also propose a grading rubric for essays, which we will discuss together. The object of these discussions will be to settle on a fair grading policy, understanding that I must assign each of you a grade at the end of the course. Given that grading is my responsibility, I will weigh your input carefully before making my decision. I will distribute the finalized grading rubric during the second week of class, well before any essays are due.

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So there it is. Remember, Reggio Emelia is an approach, not a model. Thus, the course outline determines what will be done—but not how it will be done. You, in partnership with the students, decide how.

This is not a Blog; It’s a Tribute (and a conversation)

Last night, someone asked me the exact question I have been anticipating:

“Just read your last blog a second time, and I have a question:  What about all those disciplines—everything from science, engineer, medicine, biology, climatology, physics, etc.—that covet, even demand, advanced degrees from those who desire to enter those very demanding fields as professionals?  How do they prove they’re qualified? Will just thinking/saying, “I think I’m ready,” satisfy those who do the hiring?”

Thank you, Dad!

I should note that my dad–Jack Pelletier–was raised and educated in his early years by Jesuits, taught English for over 30 years in Sacramento, and is responsible in so many ways for encouraging my growth as a thinker and a teacher.

Here is my response:

“Dad,

This is THE question, I think. The make or break question. My answer is that professions know whom they want to hire, and driven people will learn how to acquire those skills (and they might even do it more quickly and more effectively if a group of intellectuals with egos at stake aren’t dictating how that happens and how the process should be judged). What I am arguing, ultimately, is that the system we have is an expensive, soul-crushing burden. And it is actually preventing growth, creativity, and intellectual advancements.

My core point is that learning should not be a prescribed process. When it is, it will always fail a segment of the population. When it is, it will always encourage people to become homogenized, robotic, prosaic thinkers.

To answer more precisely, people interested in those fields would apprentice in actual labs, for example, and do real-world work rather than theoretical extrapolating. For most people, the working world is a shock to the system. Why not allow folks to learn by doing rather than by forcing them into debt, with only theoretical experience to bank on?

For what it is worth, I know I am arguing for an ideal–and that is precisely my intent. I want to challenge people to rethink education.

Love, Josh”

For the sake of roundness, here is his reply:

“Josh, arguing for an ideal is always a worthy cause.  Keep fighting!  And the concept of ‘apprenticing in actual labs’ rather than ‘theoretical extrapolating’ makes sense.

Thanks for answering my question so thoroughly.
– Love, Dad”

Readers, now that the conversation has started, I cordially invite you to join in.

Cover Your Inner Control Freak’s Eyes

I ended my last blog by saying that I was going to suggest ways to implement a Reggio Emilia approach at the high school and college levels. I will, but first it’s important to acknowledge that simply “implementing ideas” is a half-measure. It is merely a way to tweak how classes are taught within the current system.

I detest doing things halfway, but meaningful strides do evolve from baby steps, so I will do as I promised. Before I suggest some concrete ideas, though, allow me a final bit of rhetoric.

Since posting my last blog, a question has been haunting me. If the Reggio Emilia approach is so great, why hasn’t it been adopted all the way through elementary school, high school, and college?

Aside from the fact that Loris Malaguzzi didn’t begin implementing the Reggio Emilia approach until the mid-twentieth century, the simplest answer is that adopting Reggio Emilia as an educational philosophy requires that the current system be replaced. Not repaired–replaced entirely, which means abandoning a system that feels both like a prison and a security blanket. Most of the structures and mechanisms that educators know, grew up with, and have learned to navigate would go away–leaving what? Reggio Emilia is not a system. Classes do not have predetermined learning outcomes. There are no grades, no levels, no standardized systems of measurement. Which means what?  Students just go to school until they believe they are ready to leave and join the workforce?

Yes.

And why not? Why not allow people to exit the educational system when they choose to and with the specific skills they have chosen to foster?

Fear, I suspect. Compared to what we have now, Reggio Emilia probably feels like jumping from an airplane without a parachute. So, fear, yes, but also money. Too many people have invested too much money in the current system for too long. Thus, it has become an ancient behemoth whose course no one in his right mind imagines he can alter. Forget about replacing it with something new! You may as well recommend that the work week should start on Wednesday or that the Electoral College should be abolished. Ain’t happening, folks.

If we can set aside our fears and our money concerns for a moment, though, what would replace the current system–you know, if we were willing to take the leap together?

As I see it, Reggio Emilia schools should feed naturally into apprenticeship programs and on-the-job learning opportunities. When a person feels she has satisfied her desire to be a student and is comfortable and confident choosing a career path, she will move into an apprenticeship program, become an intern, a resident, a junior associate and learn by doing, by having real-world responsibilities that she can take pride in fulfilling.

Speaking for myself, I learned quite a lot about grammar and composition and rhetoric in school, but I didn’t really need to know any of it until I was responsible for teaching what I knew to others; then I went back and reread everything with a focus I never had in school. If I didn’t know my craft, I would be exposed and be bad at my job. And that’s all the motivation I needed to learn my craft and be good at my job. And, no, my behavior is not exceptional. I reject that argument; all people desire to make something of their lives; sadly, it’s often the system, itself, that serves as a barrier to satisfying their desires.

So, here is what I am proposing should replace the current system of education (a portrait painted with broad strokes, I admit):

  • All people, until the age of 18, should be legally recognized as students. This legal status will afford all people access to free, public education at a Reggio Emilia school of their family’s choosing.
  • Until they are 18, all students will engage in general education, studying core disciplines like language arts, mathematics, engineering, science, technology, history, anthropology, the arts, and so on. The key, here, is they will study these disciplines, but they will not be expected to earn a 4.0 GPA while doing it. GPA won’t exist; it’s a meaningless measurement, and good riddance! The direction of each course will be determined by the students, themselves, and guided by their teachers, school community, and parents. See the previous blog for more details.
  • What we now think of as colleges, universities, and graduate schools can be replaced by higher-level, more narrowly-focused Reggio Emilia schools. Like the colleges we all know, these Reggio Emilia colleges will not be free, either. They will function much the same as Reggio Emilia schools for students under 18; parents, however, will no longer be involved in decision-making. Students will be free to stay in school and study for as long as they desire to do so, and can afford to do so. If a person takes off like a rocket and shoots past the limits of her school, she is free to leave and pursue her career–and with no derogatory marks on her record. No matter how successful a person becomes, if they don’t finish school, that’s a shame that never fades. Don’t believe me? Just Google “Billionaire dropouts.” That label marks a person all the way to the grave–and for what purpose?

So, I say, let it go. Let the fear go. Let’s be brave, instead.

When I was a graduate student and no one took me very seriously, I was invited to attend a workshop for faculty members who taught non-language arts classes but who were given a new teaching responsibility: teaching writing within their discipline. No, not essays! So, these teachers–art teachers and business teachers and chemistry teachers–gathered weekly to discuss the challenges they were facing now that they had to assign essays and had to grade them. One teacher complained that she failed, on average, 95% of the essays she read. “They are all terrible!” she said, exasperated.

“Why?” I asked, forgetting I was a graduate student. “Why are they all terrible?”

“Who are you?”  was this teacher’s response.

After making sure I knew my place, she explained that she required her art history students to write formulaic 5 paragraph essays, but hardly anyone ever followed the formula correctly. The results were rarely what she envisioned, and she was constantly disappointed with her students’ inability to follow her instructions.

I took a deep breath and steadied my nerves.”Your students aren’t the problem,” I said. “Your assignment is the problem.”

To her credit, the woman whom the college had hired to implement the new Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in Disciplines (WAC/WID) program, the woman who had invited me to the workshop, bolted forward in her chair as though charged with electricity. “Stop,” she said, before the art history teacher even began. “He’s right.”

I don’t tell this story to enlarge my ego. My point is this: perhaps, like that art history teacher, we all need to take a deep breath and let go of needless structures, like the 5 paragraph essay. Just let go. And have faith in people. And when you lack faith in people–because you will–go stand in front of a mirror. Ask yourself if you needed someone to decide what you learned and how you learned it. Ask yourself if you needed to be graded to know you were capable. Ask yourself if you might have become someone braver, bolder, and better educated if you had been encouraged to follow the paths that you knew were best for you, without being constantly judged against a norm (which is just another four-letter word).

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Okay, the next blog will be something concrete, I promise. I’ve been cooking up an English 1B syllabus, designed using Reggio Emilia concepts. Given the current system and given the need to assign grades, an English 1B class can only, at best, embrace certain Reggio Emilia principles. Some is still better than none, though. Onward!