Wednesday, February 1, 2012

BREAKING NEWS: Prestwick House Top Secrets Revealed! (Part 2: YOU can teach your students literary theory ... yes YOU can!)

by Douglas Grudzina

If you’re like many English teachers, you have (a) degree(s) in education with a minor or a concentration in English or communications or something like that.

If you’re like most English teachers, your state’s certification requirements don’t include all that many credits or course hours in actual content.

If you’re like many English teachers, you spend a good deal of your prep time, not pondering how to teach, but agonizing over what to teach. You’ve got the pedagogy down pat.

The content ... not so much.

Now, I’m not bashing pedagogy. After all, if we’ve made it into the classroom as a teacher, we ourselves have suffered through many a course taught by the brilliant whatever-ist who hadn’t the faintest idea how to teach.

Pedagogy is important.

But that still leaves the problem of the teacher tasked with preparing his/her students to attain some level of “College and Career Readiness” (the stated goal of the Common Core State Standards).

Are you really supposed to be physically present in your classroom face-to-face with recalcitrant students for some 35 hours a week and then spend an additional 30 – 40 hours grading papers, and then devote your “free time” to learning the stuff no one told you you were going to need to know and then planning lessons—including creating usable materials—to fill your 35 hours of class time?

I doubt that’s even humanly possible ... and that’s why Prestwick House is here.

So you already know that, given a piece of literature (fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, it doesn’t matter), you can guide your kids through a literal reading and a search for “theme.” You can march them up Freytag’s rising action and slide them down the other side of the climax.

For fun, you can have them underline all the similes and circle the metaphors. Scan the lines and point out every variation from the iambic pentameter.

Plot the rhyme scheme.

In a recent episode of a popular television show, a student (obviously smitten with her dashing substitute English teacher) complained, “Scansion is mathematics. It destroys the romance.” I have to say that I agree with her.

I suspect a good many of our students do too, and that is why they don’t bother doing the reading, and they sit in our rooms bored and sullen, wondering “when am I ever going to use this?” 

But if we abandon the things we know, we’re faced with that not-humanly-possible work week. So, what do we do?

Well, at the risk of sounding immodest, I’ll repeat: That’s why Prestwick House is here.

Last week, we shared with you one of Prestwick House’s best-kept secrets: the Levels of Understanding units that allow you to guide every student through every level of thought for every title you teach (well, as long as we have a unit for it ...).

This week, it is our extreme honor to introduce you to ...Multiple Critical Perspectives guides!

Multiple Critical Perspectives guides are reproducible units that help you introduce your students to literary theory, exposing them to the Feminist, Freudian, Archetypal, Marxist, Formalist, and New Historicist approaches. Each unit introduces three approaches and provides two to three activities to examine the work you are studying from each perspective.

The activities are designed to be completed in a single class period (two at the most) and to require NO ADDITIONAL PREPARATION ON YOUR PART—you might have to copy a few handouts, but that’s it. Seriously, these activities are so easy to implement even a Cave-substitute could do them.
Each Multiple Critical Perspective guide also includes discussion questions and writing prompts for each of the approaches covered in the unit.

Here’s one of the Marxist Approach writing assignments for the Animal Farm Multiple Critical Perspectives guide:
Analyze the trade relationships Napoleon enters into with his neighbors Mr. Pilkington and Mr. Frederick as the foundation of a capitalistic economy. Consider the characteristics of such an economic system by describing what makes this system work and what jeopardizes it.
And here’s a Formalist prompt from the Life of Pi Multiple Critical Perspectives guide:
Throughout the novel, Martel uses a number of forms and narrative techniques (italics, plain text, the special font for Okamoto and Chiba’s side comments, bulleted and numbered lists, unnarrated dialogue, sound effects, etc.). Write an essay in which you analyze the use of these techniques and evaluate their effectiveness.
The Life of Pi Multiple Critical Perspectives guide also includes the Mythological/Archetypal approach. One of the activities invites the students to examine the carnivorous island as a “Perversion of the Garden of Eden.” After the students examine the pertinent chapters and sections of the included notes on archetypes in literature, the activity culminates in a discussion:
With the full class, discuss the possibility of this Island’s representing the opposite of Paradise. Consider the significance of the following from this viewpoint:
  • Pi’s bath in the freshwater pool
  • the meerkats’ lack of fear, and unawareness of predators
  • the location of the one “fruit-bearing” tree
  • the nature of the “fruit”
  • Pi’s decision and actions upon his discovery of the “fruit
One of the To Kill a Mockingbird Multiple Critical Perspectives guide's Psychoanalytic activities invites students to apply Atticus Finch’s definition of a hero to several characters in the novel:
  1. Have the students read (or reread) Chapter 11, focusing on Atticus’ definition of a true hero. Divide the class into small groups and assign each group one of the following characters:
    • Aunt Alexandra
    • Tom Robinson
    • Mr. Underwood
    • Calpurnia
    • Judge Taylor
    • Boo Radley
    • Scout
    • Jem
  2. Then have each group develop a thesis that states whether or not its character meets Atticus’ definition of a hero. Have the groups peruse the book for specific incidents to support their theses.
  3. Reconvene the class and have each group report. Where two or more groups working with the same character disagree, have the full class examine the evidence and discuss.
Because they deal with literary theory and multiple ways of viewing the same text, Multiple Critical Perspectives guides do not have an answer key, and many of the activity discussions come with the caveat:
NOTE: For such a discussion, the class does not need to come to agreement or consensus. It is important only to express a view and to be able to support that view with an accurate and complete reading of the text.
While Multiple Critical Perspectives guides are intended to supplement, not replace, the core instruction of, say, a Levels of Understanding or an Advanced Placement Teaching Unit, some of the cool things customers report is that they (the Multiple Critical Perspectives guides) prove that “literature has something for everyone” as we keep promising our students. Students might be bored to death after years and years of “the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is racism. The theme of Animal Farm is the fraudulence of Communism in Russia” and so on. They might be “What-is-the-conflict-“ ed to death, and we know they’re frustrated beyond words trying to figure out how to figure out the “right answer.”

Studying the same text from ... uh ... Multiple Critical Perspectives ... opens up the field for your kids so that they might actually begin to find their connection to the literature we love and teach, that longed-for relevance.

Multiple Critical Perspectives guides are really cool units, and we have them for dozens of titles. They’re one of Prestwick House’s best-kept secrets.

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