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.

* * *

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.

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

  1. Josh, Thank you for sharing this! Very interesting – I love the “rigid framework housing protean possibilities.”
    How are you planning to work in this approach with respect to the texts used in the class? I’ve thought about offering students a voice in the text selection process at the beginning of the quarter, however this is complicated by issues of book purchases, waivers, etc., not to mention the need (at least for me!) to be able to have at some idea of a course schedule to ensure a manageable reading/grading schedule… Any ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts as I’m intrigued by the possibilities of implementing this approach.
    Kat

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kat,

      I am using the anthology Exploring Literature (Madden, 5th edition). This time, I decided to pre-select the readings and allow for creativity and freedom of choice regarding the writing assignments and our common use of class time–though I am also insisting on one traditional in-class essay and one traditional research essay. The journaling and the two take home assignments are the assignments the students will have creative control over. That’s roughly half the writing. In reality, it’s less freedom of choice than I would like to provide.

      By the way, the discussion about how we will use our class time was amazing. First, the students didn’t see it as an opportunity for laziness or anything like that (these are critiques I’ve heard, privately). They settled on 15 minutes of class time for reading/reviewing, 45 minutes for small group and class discussions, 40 minutes for journaling, brainstorming, working on essays, and workshopping with peers, and 10 minutes of dedicated lecture time for me. And this division of time will always be reviewed during each class to determine if time would be better spent by focusing more on one specific activity. Brilliant! And, it was their choice.

      If you decide to give this approach a try, please let me know. I would love to hear how it works for another teacher who will inevitably do things differently. My one conclusion so far is that surrendering some of my control regarding the writing assignments and the class structure has made for a much more collegial relationship with the students, who are acting more confidently about their opinions and interpretations. After all, they’ve already accomplished something significant: they’ve collaborated with their teacher to shape a class structure that suits their needs and interests.

      We ended week one by reading and discussing Richard Wilbur’s poem The Writer, which is my way of telling them that writing is a difficult process, that it’s always a personal journey, and that sometimes a teacher teaches most effectively by stepping back and witnessing the struggle from a position of empathy.

      -Josh

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