saying “yes” when students ask “can i . . .”

I teach a variety of writing classes at UC Berkeley–two that fulfill the University’s Reading and Composition Requirement, an intermediate and an advanced writing class. The intermediate class–CW 105: Finding Your Voice with Others–is one in which students read current articles–academic and journalism–as well as a little theory–Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, David Post, Lawrence Lessig, Sherry Turkle, Anne Wysocki, etc–about new media and technology. Multimodal forms of expression are required, and students write reflective journals with each project submitted, thinking about how the use of technology affects the language we use. And they also think about design related issues: color, shape, image, platform.

One purpose of the course is to help students who have fulfilled the R&C Requirement continue to develop academic reading and writing strategies as they learn to hear, appreciate and deploy their own voices. Voice is a slippery concept. Most writing books and manuals take a kind of Grammar Girl approach, which is fine. It’s useful as a starting place. But students enrolled in 105 have read something like this already. Probably more than once.

While 105 is not a creative writing class (what kind of writing is not, in some sense, creative? question for another day), I do try to approach the concept of voice in a way that is about something more than style (while it is also, of course, related to style–see the concept begin to slip and slide?!). I use material that you might more often find in a creative writing course to get the discussion rolling. For example, I might use some passages from Finding Your Writer’s Voice, by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall (a book I love): “Your voice is actually a very ordinary thing. It is just who you are, projected artistically. It is often linked to your speaking voice, and your breath, and the rhythms and sense of pace that you draw on when you are too absorbed in what you are saying to listen to yourself from a distance. It is also linked to your body, the language or dialect you spoke in childhood, and whatever naturally interests you. Your voice is how you write when you don’t have time to be elegant” (5). And later from the same chapter: “A search for voice must always involve a willingness to experience what you already know in a new light” (7).

And in 105 that new light often shines from new media. Students are using tools they have, for the most part, never used. They are writing in public. They are taking risks. And so when a student says to me, can I try, can I use, can have an extension, can I use I (yes, dear god, please use I–use it wisely, don’t over use it, but do not let writing at the University rob you of I). I say yes. We might have a brief discussion (depending on the question), but usually I say yes, try it; yes, you can turn it in late; yes yes yes.

I’m not an easy teacher, but I try to be a generous one.

How is yes rewarded? (okay, I’ll confess, sometimes it’s not; sometimes I should have probably said no: live and learn)

One of the tools students use is Prezi. Here is the product of Ylan Ha’s great imagination, a lot of “can I” and a lot of “yes.” The Iron Dove #1

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what is the elephant who is the elephant elephants are amazing: when the teacher is the distraction

Yesterday in class we were discussing Jo Kyung Ran’s amazing short story “Looking for the Elephant” and students were puzzled in a kind of urgent way about the elephant: who is the elephant what is the elephant is the elephant real. And I kind of blurted out (in a way we often don’t appreciate when our students do it), “Elephants are amazing. Do you know this? Do you know how amazing they are?”

There was a brief moment of silence. Then they all looked at their laptops and quietly started tapping away. “Are you googling elephants?” I couldn’t help but laugh. They laughed and nodded yes.

So we took about 20 minutes for some research time. Then we got back to the story: what is the elephant who is the elephant elephants ARE amazing.

Looking for the Elephant is in an anthology put together by the wonderful Words Without Borders.

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prezi on reading to write about fiction


I can’t believe how long its been since I blogged! Once the essays begin coming in, time disappears. Now it’s midterm already. But I spent a couple of hours today making a Prezi to use with my class tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure how it will be different from just having a discussion or handing this information out on a piece of paper. But I am trying to use more media that students who are absent can easily access (I uploaded this on bSpace–UC Berkeley’s course management system) and I think it might be more inviting to review than staring at a piece of paper. We’ll see.

Reading to Write about fiction

I’m using a book of short stories, essays and poetry published by the wonderful Words Without Borders for the first time. We all read one story in common–the story in the Prezi–and then students chose one on their own to discuss in class tomorrow. My plan is to use the Prezi for the discussion of “Children of the Sky,” give them some time to make connections between their story and Space and Place by Yi-Fu Tuan, the book I’m using to support the Landscapes of the Imagination theme of the course.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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digital pedagogy for the digital age

Ok so I was always the student who did the assignment in some kind of wonky way. I guess I still am. I haven’t written an essay yet. But I did spend several hours making this Prezi called, yep, digital pedagogy for the digital age. In thinking about reading and writing digital texts, I wonder why I would write that essay (other than the fact that I said I would). But for my audience of teachers, the Prezi is more effective. I don’t need to demonstrate to them that I can do a close reading, and I have no use for them in any aspect of my life: reader (I seldom read those kinds of academic journals, though I do read a lot of critical book reviews, a kissing cousin, perhaps, to the close read); writer (don’t write’em), teacher of writing (I tend to read pragmatic articles on teaching). As Katherine Hayles notes in her book how we think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technologies, the close reading is largely an artifact of English Departments. I teach it because I used to believe that it was a useful thing for students to be able to do. Now I’m not so sure. I require students to write them because my department has a final portfolio requirement that one essay demonstrate close attention to text, a term that is vague in some ways but is meant to give a nod to the English Dept. type of “close reading,” while also freeing people (students and teachers) from the strict form of that essay. If close reading is still important for all college students to learn (and I’m not sure that it is), it has to be equally important that they learn to critically read electronic texts–from electronic literature (see two volumes collected by Electronic Literature) to various kinds of web pages and works produced on apps.

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draft conferences

Yesterday I talked to 13 students about their drafts (one lucky student is in Japan with the women’s golf team, so we haven’t talked yet) for 20 minutes each. I hope I was making sense by the time Alberto sat down. Amazing variety in the approach to the topic which made them all interesting to read. The “final” (is any piece of writing ever final?) drafts are due tomorrow. Mine will be late. No excuses. Just a fact. I look forward to reading these essays, which students can revise when they are returned if they want.

Tomorrow we begin our second writing project in participation with the UCBerkeley’s On the Same Page project. This year we are using the book Fiat Lux, which is a facsimile edition of the book of photographs Ansel Adams took as the UC’s request in the mid 1960s (text by Nancy Newhall). I’m really interested in seeing students’ photographs and reading about their vision for UC Berkeley, especially in these difficult budgetary times. I’ve started a Flickr group for our photographs. Students have been taking and tweeting them #FiatLux but so far haven’t put any on Flickr yet (only mine are there), but I hope they’ll add some soon. I’ll add the essay topic . . . as soon as I’ve written it . . .

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rough drafts, diigo, it’s friday!!

On Tuesday rough drafts were due, and late Monday night (uh-oh!!) I wrote mine. But I had been thinking about the topic a lot (oh dear, I am now imagining how I would respond to the student who said this to me: I have no draft, but I have some ideas; . . .). Anyway. I wrote the draft and I really have been thinking about both the electronic poem by J. R. Carpenter and how we read such texts. So we used my rough draft (at the end of this post if you’re interested) to work with the peer review questions I had prepared for the session. Students did a great job commenting, asking questions, and Rebecca pointed out what she thought to be my working thesis. I was grateful for this confirmation. It seemed clear to everyone that I was addressing the prompt but for a different audience than the one they had in mind and also that I was far more interested in the issue of reading electronic texts than they were. They are focused mainly on interpreting the poem, Entre Ville. They also commented on the fact that I have a lot of questions in the introductory paragraph. As I told them, this is pretty typical of my early stage writing when I have real questions about the topic I’m writing about. Most of them will probably be gone in later drafts (or maybe not; this is something I want to think about more).

On Thursday we looked at second stage drafts and then walked the main part of campus from Unit 2, the residence hall where our classroom is (don’t get me started)

classroom or cave?

for a great workshop on using Diigo. Cal’s Educational Technology Services has a terrific media-loaded classroom where we can learn to use free Web 2.0 software that supports learning and teaching.

Diigo workshop

In that workshop students read Entre Ville: This City Between Us, an essay by Carpenter on how and why she created Entre Ville. Students highlighted passages that helped them understand her poem and put “sticky notes” on sections they thought they might use in their essays. Next week: individual draft conferences. Then on to the next assignment!

my First Rough Draft

J. R. Carpenter invites us into her neighborhood in her poem, “Entre Ville,” which is a work that she tells us in “Entre Ville: This City Between Us” has appeared in both print and as an electronic text. The work being read for the purposes of this essay is the electronic text. In it there are several pieces of writing, the main one being “Saint Urbain Street Heat.” While the reader might enjoy other aspects of the entire work more, Carpenter signals this is the main text by making it the most accessible and the most familiar. It is placed in the center of the site, and it is written in an easily recognizable spiral notebook. Any reader familiar with a scroll bar can easily read the entire text. But if this is the only part of the text we read, are we getting the full meaning of her poem? Does she make enough of a connectin in ths part of the larger work for us to get her full meaning? Or are readers more famiiar with reading electronic texts going to get more from the poem than those who aren’t? What does this say about the accessibility of electronic literature? For experienced readers of electronic literature, “Entre Ville” might, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s words, become a place, whereas it might remain a space for those who are not able to access its full meaning. But we might argue that this is true for any text. Readers practiced at reading lengthy complex print texts like the classic Don Quixote, for example, are likely to get more out of the novel than readers who generally read less challenging texts like contemporary magazines, newspapers and best selling novels (rethink–also consider WC’s comment about the value judgments involved in assessing level of literacy )

In his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Tuan tells us that “space . . .” while place ” . . .” (find quotes that clearly distinguish). There is no question that we begin to experience “Saint Urbani” more completely when we explore the sections of the poem, some of which appear in the windows of the sketched builidng we assume is Carpenter’s apartment building. From one we can hear the “French man” who waits “until dinner time, / to aim his trumpet” at Carpenter’s apartment. While it isn’t always safe to assume a piece of writing is autobiographical, Carpenter tells us in her essay that this one is. She spent “15 years learning the vocabulary of the nieghbourhood.” If we go to the fourth window, top row on the right hand side of the notebook, we can listen to the French man’s song which accompanies the a video of a sheet blowing in a breeze. The title of this part of the poem is “Rust Sheet Improv.” The more we have retained from reading the central poem, the easier it is to make connections to other sections of the larger work, “Entre Ville.” But how do we know to move the cursor over the building, clicking on the windows and other images on the page? Presumable the more familiar we become with electronic literature, we will know how to explore the page in the same way we learned to click on hyperlinks in web pages to move from one window to the next.

But as with the reading of any kind of text, this does not come instinctively. We need to be taught to read this way (ref Nadel interview & Hayles).

Develop paragraph on Tuan

Before she moved to Montreal, the city was a space (ref Carpenter’s essay), but in her years of living there she has gained intimate knowledge of the people and places; thus it has become a place.

Conclusion: (my audience teachers, so I want to reiterate my argument that we should be teaching students to read electronic texts and to navigate these texts as we do any other kind of literature–that digital literacy, or in Nadel’s words, transliteracy, is essential).

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Reading “Entre Ville” together

On Thursday class met, students talked in groups of 4-5 (14 students total in the class–yes, I know this is a heavenly number) about the freewriting they did after reading “Entre Ville” while I got the projector set up so that we could read it together.

While they were talking with each other, I did my usual teacher-eavesdropping and heard some great comments: I’m a visual learner, so this was perfect for me; I think she uses place like Tuan‘s definition because she really makes us experience her neighborhood; space is the internet, right, where she’s doing the writing?

There are a lot of things to like about those comments: students are using Tuan’s terminology, making interesting observations about how they read and asking good questions. What more could a teacher ask for? The assignment is a fairly complex one, I think, inasmuch as it requires students to both analyze J. R. Carpenter’s poem and to think about their process of reading the text as well. We’ll talk about various ways this piece of writing might be organized when we meet on Tuesday and they will have their first very rough drafts with them. I like to see what they’ve come up with (in terms of organization and the commentary on the poem) before we discuss things like development and organization.

In our larger discussion, students asked what we were considering to be the poem, which is a good question if you look at the electronic text. Most students had focused on Saint Urbain Street Heat, mainly because it was easily identifiable as a poem, it is centered on the page, and it is contained in a notebook. We discussed the ways in which the design invited us in with things we were familiar with. But then someone pointed out that the entire work is called Entre Ville. A couple of students had read only Saint Urbain, unsure why they hadn’t explored the page further. One student was bothered by the fact that he was supposed to analyze the poem, but he couldn’t use his usual annotation strategies: highlighting, underlining, writing in the margins, etc. In fact, these were all strategies they had just read about in an essay by Donald M. Murray called Reading as a Reader. In addition, however, we’d also read an interview with Ryan Nadel on transliteracy and talked about what it means to be a transliterate person. One student said that he had copied and pasted the text of Saint Urbain onto a doc so that he could work with it in that way. Another revealed that he had discovered that there were other places to go in Entre Ville when he by chance moved his mouse and the cursor landed on an image that opened up a video with sound, which drew a comment about Tuan’s use of the word Experience when he discusses how we use our five senses to know a place. Her comment elicited more comments about how students had played around with the poem to find more poems, a story about a dog, and many interesting sounds of the neighborhood.

The words play, experience, discover and explore are what interest me as a teacher (and also as a reader and writer). This is why we read, yes? And I like having this discussion in the first couple of meetings with a class whose goal it is to improve their reading and writing in an academic context. As the one student was concerned that he couldn’t analyze the poem the way he’d been taught, I expect there will be other concerns. But I assume (and hope) that each concern opens a door (like those in Entre Ville) into a new way of thinking about how we are reading and what kind(s) of analysis might result from these discoveries. Right, the essays they write might not look like essays they’ve written about Sylvia Plath poems or Tupac’s lyrics. Good, I say. All the better.

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