Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Generating authenticity

Goodbye Summer by Gabriela Zabka
I've written before about my ongoing concern to get my students to appreciate the value of what's taught in school, based on the work of the late Jere Brophy. Part of my solution is to meet the students where they are by using authentic writing situations that call for the use of authentic rhetorical devices. For example, on the first day of school a couple of weeks ago, I asked my students to write what was on their mind, and the most frequent response was "college." So some of the work we're doing now in my senior English classes capitalizes on their preoccupation with their post-high school plans – an authentic writing situation.

First, a word about authentic rhetorical devices: To begin this year I had success with the idea of generative rhetoric. I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop at the annual meeting of the National Writing Project with Richard Graves and Sherry Swain a while back where they introduced the idea of generative rhetoric, based on Francis Christensen's 1967 work, A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence. In essence the workshop facilitators led us through an exercise where we crafted and appreciated the elegance of participial phrases and cumulative sentences like the following:

Now that I can have her only in memory, I see my grandmother in the several postures that were peculiar to her: standing at the wood stove on a winter morning and turning meat in a great iron skillet; sitting at the south window, bent above her beadwork, and afterwards, when her vision failed, looking down for a long time into the fold of her hands; going out upon a cane, very slowly as she did when the weight of age came upon her; praying. – from This Way to Rainy Mountain, by N. Scott Momaday

This lesson is described in detail in the article, "The Final Free Modifier – Once More" by Graves, Swain, and Morse. For me, what ultimately works about this activity is that it asks students to think of someone special, doing something. It's an assignment that's very real and significant to them. The activity is wonderful by itself, but it can also be a springboard (or be the opening or closing sentence) to the type of college or scholarship essay where students describe an important person in their life. So now I'm thinking about how the underlying structure of things like the compound sentence or a device like anaphora might help convey the significant thoughts of my seniors. More on that later....

Now, back to authentic occasions and meeting the students where they are now: College essay and scholarship applications are difficult for my students to write because they're taught to be humble and self-effacing. To alleviate this issue, I'm doing a sequence of assignments that asks the students to generate information from the significant people in their lives.

Activity 1: Before they start drafting their application and scholarship essays, I have them gather information about themselves. This first activity is based on "How to Play to Your Strengths," an article from the Harvard Business Review. I have my students interview three people who know them well – friends, family members, mentors, coaches, etc. – about the students' strengths (i.e. their best self). Then the students complete an assignment called the Reflected Best Self.

Activity 2: Have students write letters to three generations (their peers, their parents, and their grandparents) for advice about the high school and post-high school transition. We talk about formatting personal letters (see graphic at bottom of this post), and how to address an envelope. I suggest they do the following in their revisions:
  • Tell the addressee about where you are in your high school life now and what your tentative post-high school plans are,
  • Ask them about their own high school and post-high school experience,
  • Ask them for advice about how to go about finishing high school and about college, 
  • Finally, ask them for advice about how to live a fulfilling life.
Activity 3: Now they're ready to compile a story inventory for college essay prompts. And finally, once they choose the most compelling story, they can begin drafting their admissions and scholarship essays.