Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Reading Anthology

Sometime in August, I went to Dubuque, IA, to conduct an inservice session on Conversation Circles. During the inservice, I mentioned a project that I used to do with my seniors at Woodham High School in Pensacola. I've mentioned this project, The Reading Anthology, in several presentations/inservices, but no one has ever asked me for instructions. Three middle school teachers in Dubuque wanted to know how to do the project. The following is a pretty much lame attempt to inform them. This may not be very interesting reading if you're not an English teacher, so don't feel obligated . . .

How I wish that I had kept the disk that had all of the instructions on it! I’ll try to reconstruct what I did a dozen years ago. Here’s a little background first:

One evening in 1990 (or thereabouts), I decided to look through old issues of The English Journal, my favorite “teacher” book, but one that I had neglected for several months because of the mounds of papers that needed grading. The EJ had always been my source for new ideas, ideas that I usually tweaked to make my own. Because of my “borrowing” from this periodical so much, I would later refer to myself as a copycat teacher. Very true!

As I sat cross-legged on the floor of my office, I happened upon one particular EJ that changed my teaching life forever. I had always thought that students should have a definite say in what they read. A teacher never gave me that opportunity, and I wanted my students to be able to choose. But I was at a loss as to how they could do that and still have the kids read quality literature. I hope that somewhere in boxes out in our storage building I still have that particular issue, but I doubt it. Anyway, as I thumbed through the issue (probably somewhere between 1988 and 1990), one article almost literally jumped out at me. It was by Anne McCrary Sullivan, a teacher in Texas, and was titled “The Reading Anthology,” or something similar to that.

I fell in love with the assignment immediately because Anne had opted to give her students literature types to read, but she let the students choose the specific titles. Why couldn’t I have thought of that? I’m no dummy. Maybe I didn’t think of it because the Lord meant for me to meet Anne in person. My detective skills kicked in, and I found her. It wasn’t easy, but I did it, and I think it was in 1992 that she and I finally got together at NCTE. There’s quite a story in our meeting, but what you want to know is how to do the assignment.

Now to the instructions. I’m going to give them to you in bulleted format, just suggesting some things that you might want to do. Before beginning, however, let me remind you that I taught high school seniors, and I required of them much more than you’ll want to require of middle school students. The assignment can be done with any grade level and any ability level, as long as the number of selections and the depth of writing are adjusted.

• Before assigning The Reading Anthology (through the years, my assignment came to be known as The Dreaded Anthology, mainly because seniors like to gripe), write the assignment in an enthusiastic manner so that students see that they’re in control and that the assignment can be fun and meaningful. They’ve never been able to choose their own literature before. This may be a problem for some of them, but you’ll encourage them and make them see that they can do this. If the three of you are working on this together and can get together to agree on what to assign in the way of types of lit, I think you’ll enjoy the project more. I was a “voice crying in the wilderness,” and many times I wished for a companion teacher just to bounce ideas off; however, I’m pretty much a loner in most teaching, so I did fine. Good instructions are a must! You may have to adjust the assignment as you progress the first time, but the students will like that because most of the time, your adjustments will make the assignment easier for them. Seniors are probably more devious than middle school students, so you may not have this particular problem: three of my boys decided to sabotage my beautiful assignment by twisting my words to mean something other than what they meant to me. I have to admit that they were successful to some degree; however, I found ways to lower their grades because of their mis-interpretations. They didn’t really win, but I re-worded instructions the next year.
• The following are the categories and number of selections that they had to read: Southern novel (1), British novel (1), Southern short stories (3), British short stories (3), poems (10) [the second year, I changed this to (5) for my survival], young adult novel (1), children’s story (1), cartoons (5), magazine article (1) . . . I think there were other categories, but I’m drawing a blank right now. Remember that my students were seniors; be sure to adjust the types of literature and the numbers of selections that they have to read. Don’t make an assignment that will suffocate them. Give them plenty of time to read and write.
• And now to the writing: My students had specific instructions for the essays that they’d write about each type of literature. The essays that they wrote were definitely personal, very much informal, but with definite guidelines. I’m sure you have your own instructions for writing about fiction and nonfiction. Just be sure that the instructions are not onerous. You want the students to enjoy writing about the selections that they’ve chosen. Don’t make the assignments too long because YOU must read and evaluate them.

Here are a couple of other things that I had my students do:

• Every Thursday after I made the assignment, they had to turn in a memo to me. I just had them use a regular memo form. The first paragraph was a summary of the kinds of reading that they had done during the week. The second was a comment on what they liked and/or didn’t like in their reading. And the third was a projection as to what they’d do during the next week. Frequently, a student would come to me bemoaning the fact that he or she didn’t like his or her selections for the anthology. My reply? ABANDON! Do not read something that you wouldn’t want to include in a book that you’re putting together! Occasionally, a student would bound into the room announcing, “I’ve abandoned that short story, Mrs. Young!” And we’d all cheer!
• I also had the students do double-entry journals for novels and short stories. You’ve probably done this before, maybe using a different title for the assignment. The students had to quote sections of the selections and comment on them . . . sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, often questioning the passages. This was always one of my favorite assignments in the classroom. I can’t remember how many I required, maybe seven or so from a novel and three to five from a short story. Frequently their comments were a page or so long.

I’m sure you’re wondering how I evaluated an assignment of such magnitude. Believe me, I made it fairly easy for myself by creating a good rubric beforehand. The students had a copy of this. The main ingredient that I looked for in the assignment was their real reaction to the literature. I also evaluated them on how well they followed my instructions and whether or not they read and wrote about the full number of required readings. You’ll have to determine all of this for yourselves, though. Make this YOUR assignment!

I never marked anything on their finished product because it’s an assignment that they’ll be proud of and will want to keep. I made copies of the rubric and wrote on that for each student, mentioning page numbers in their “books.” Grammar, punctuation, capitalization, etc., were important but not the deciding factor on the excellence of their anthologies.

I gave extra credit to students who made a copy of their anthologies for me to keep to show students the next year. Don’t let them give you their original because you’ll want them to keep them. Their parents will want them to keep them, too. Will it be a problem for middle school students to use computers for their final copies? I doubt it.

Have I told you enough? Have I overwhelmed you? I do hope that each of you will make The Reading Anthology an assignment that both you and your students can enjoy. Please be sure to let me know whether or not you choose to do this and how everything turns out. I’m eager to hear!


Anonymous said...

The funny thing about the internet is that you just never know what the cat is going to drag in.

It's great to see this and kind of catch up after a "few" years of not being in touch. Wendy called earlier today and I was so excited to hear from her. All of y'all look so great! I am jealous of y'all living in the Land of Enchantment, it sure looks like it agrees with all of you!

Keith Bryan

Nancy said...

Cuz, I'm glad to have these instructions! I just got back from NCTE in San Antonio and I really wished you were there. I agree about English Journal. Even though I'm at the community college now, I still read EJ religiously.

I do want to visit one of these days before long. Let's definitely talk. I want to hear about your writing project.