Recent highlights from La Frontera (entre profes y mocosos de JLS)

8 02 2011

The new year has brought with it new teaching blood, who goes by the name of Rebecca. She’s actually part of the Old Guard at el Instituto José Luis Sampedro, having worked there for years; however, she was kept busy giving birth and all that goes with it during the entirety of fall. This term finds her back and working with me four times a week.

She and I get along splendidly both in and out of the classroom, with all the fairy-tale magic that word implies. Somehow the exact same groups of rambunctious, rebellious students from the semester prior have been transmogrified into eager little beavers, anxious to catch the next directive from Miss. Apart from loving the immense learning opportunity to bear witness to classroom management techniques that actually work – respect! not wasting the students’ time! getting serious! – I find the time we spend together marvelous in that Rebecca offers me the opportunity to design and execute my own lessons. She gives me directional hints over coffee, and the caffeine hit inspires creativity along with acrid jittery goodness.

Here are five lessons I’ve whipped up in the past few weeks for our students. If you’re so inspired, feel free to use/modify them in your own classroom.

WHAT A CHARACTER
third year bilingual students – equivalent to 9th grade in the US

Rebecca’s been working with her third years to develop their own creative characters, a useful first step in the process of constructing fictional narrative. My task was to prod them into deepening this development, which took place through two descriptive exercises.

The first one offered the students a paragraph concerning a fascinating fellow known as “Generic Character:”

Generic Character had many things to do today. S/he moved around the house attending to this and that. S/he remembered to go outside and check the mailbox just in case that one thing had arrived. It hadn’t, which made her/him feel some emotion. There were still many more things to do, and the item which was to arrive in the mail would have made a difference.

Suddenly, her/his cell phone rang. S/he heard it, noticed it was from an unknown number, picked up, and greeted the person on the other end.

“Hello. Who is this?”

They were to adapt the general structure of the narrative to fit how their own character would execute the actions as seen through their creative mind’s eye. One student’s medieval invention had the message arrive by unmarked carrier pigeon.

The second part was significantly more open-ended: I wrote five prompts, and the students had to choose one to which they would like their character to respond. I emphasized the inclusion of “massive amounts of descriptive nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives – after all, it’s not just what they do, but also how they do it!”

1. One afternoon, your character is enjoying their favorite series on television. All of a sudden, the TV set begins emitting sparks and black smoke.

2. Your character is buying something in a convenience store and notices two shady young punks in the back stealing liquor.

3. While cleaning the attic, your character comes across an unusual box. Inside is a note.

4. Your character has been asked to give a speech at a university on his/her area of expertise.

5. At the bowling alley, your character sees someone very attractive two lanes down. This person is a very talented bowler.

FRUITY POETIC DESCRIPTION
second year bilingual students – equivalent to 8th grade in the US

After leading the class through a reading and discussion of the Li-Young Lee poem “Persimmons” (which is really quite wonderful, highly recommended), we had each student physically bring in a piece of fruit from home. I then led them through a general overview regarding how one might play with sensory description. We covered the power of the various parts of speech in conjunction with poetic expression; for example:

Use verbs. Verbs are strong, direct words.
* Use verbs for the smells themselves. Smells can waft, distract, hint, permeate, suggest, confuse, conjure images, command attention, or intrude upon the consciousness.
* Use verbs to describe the source of the smell. Here are some actions that you might associate with smells: baking, frying, digging, sweating, burning, rotting.
* Visualize what the smell does. Does it creep into your nose? Wrap around you? Follow you? Bombard your nostrils?

It’s immediately obvious that the vocabulary level is through the roof, even for “bilingual” students – which was a conscious decision on my part. Poetry is such a wonderful venue for confidently exploring the far reaches of language that may otherwise lay beyond one’s speaking ability, and as such I wanted to encourage pushing those comfort zones as much as possible.

The second half of the class was dedicated to individually brainstorming images/ideas that the students wanted to include in the poems they would be writing the following day. To this end, I passed out lists of adjectives pertaining to the five senses that might prove useful when considering their piece of fruit. Rebecca encouraged physically interacting with your fruit in search of inspiration; we had the students-cum-poets pensively munching appleflesh, attempting to ascertain whether it might be called crunchy, gooshy, crackling, squishy, or squelchy.

EXTRA EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!: THE RHETORIC OF HEADLINES
third year bilingual students

Rebecca had been talking periodicals with her third years; to me she posited a lesson focused purely on the art and purpose of headlines. Predictably, I took it in the direction of argument analysis; what’s a good headline if not an argument that you ought to read the paper?

First, we checked out headlines I had snagged from online news sites and magazines the night prior, ranging from the New York Times to the Huffington Post, from Cosmopolitan to Perez Hilton.

Can Europe Be Saved? – New York Times
A Continent of New Consumers Beckons – Wall Street Journal
What Men Secretly Think of Your Hair – Cosmo
The Euro Could Be Doomed – The Huffington Post
Horrifying! Five-Year-Old Gets Her Eyebrows Waxed! – Perez Hilton

The range is both funny and fascinating, if you’re the sort that’s titillated by rhetoric. With each set of headlines, we worked through a series of discussion questions together:

1. What can you tell about these news sources based on their headlines?
2. Are they informative? entertaining? intriguing?
3. MOST IMPORTANTLY: are the headlines EFFECTIVE? Why (not)?
CRITICAL THINKING: what tools do headlines use to create interest?

After establishing a decent list of what qualities the best headlines included, it was time to turn over the reigns. I found five clips from recent articles and removed their original headlines, leaving it to the students to compose their own dramatic titles based on the text. Each pair handed in an entry to be judged by presiding officials Rebecca and Janel, each aiming for a chance at a coveted prize from the assortment of Ed Hardy style temporary tattoos I brought over from the States. They dug on it, their competitiveness kicking them into high gear while considering the intersection of elements in a successful, appropriate headline to fit the texts.

I’ve since lost the winning slips of paper, and no one quite beat the original “Octomom: Why I’m Addicted to Having Babies” – but we had a blast, and I think they just might have learned. Whoa.

INTERNATIONAL RIGHT TO PRIVACY CONFERENCE
third year bilingual students

Headlines are a mere introduction to journalistic writing; we deepened the discussion with a focus on the indefinite intersection between the individual right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression as it relates to the press. An article giving an overview of different aspects one might consider started us off; we learned that most newspapers draft and adhere to their own personal interpretation of this fuzzy zone between rights.

From this jumping off point, each student was (semi-)randomly given a role, which they were informed was a secret so as to add totally unnecessary intrigue. A selection:

  • You are Lindsay Lohan: a celebrity with a (constant) drug and partying problem.
  • You are Michael Jackson (back from the dead): a celebrity who has undergone frequent cosmetic surgery and spends a great deal of time with children.
  • You are an American senator who uses campaign money to pay for his lovely beachfront condo in the Bahamas. No one knows your secret yet, but you are currently being investigated by several top reporters.
  • You are a current events journalist at the Wall Street Journal. Your salary is fixed. Recently, you have been investigating into the current activities and past actions of American senators. One of them appears to be spending his campaign money on something else.
  • You are a top reporter for The Sun, a famous British tabloid. Your salary completely depends on how many big stories you can write this year.  Recently, you’ve been looking into Lindsay Lohan, Tom Cruise, and Michael Jackson.
  • You are an avid reader of tabloids – your favorites are The Sun, The National Enquirer, and Weekly World News. You love reading juicy celebrity gossip.

As soon as we had defined “avid” for half the class, I banged my fist on a desk and welcomed the attendees to the first-ever International Right To Privacy Conference. As I was aware of the presence of a few celebrities among the invitees, I opened the floor for them to speak with respect to their personal experience regarding privacy and the press. I had slyly made sure the role of Lindsay Lohan had gone to someone particularly chatty in each class, and it managed to get the discussion ball rolling.

I barely had to intervene whatsoever as suit-jacketed moderator; the students caught on extremely quickly and were game to ham it up in their interpretation of the roles. One class ended up focusing on the politicians, using them as an example of what the public had a right to know using the press as an investigatory tool; the other went around in circles for some time as to whether Justin Beiber’s theoretical sexuality was a matter of public interest.

This roleplay style of debate was highly successful; I plan on using the heck out of it in the future.

THE MAGNIFICENT METAPHOR
third year bilingual students


The reigning ruler of linguistic devices: the metaphor (see what I did there, ah-ha, clever auxiliar has a trick or two up the ol’ sleeve yet). After soliciting a basic definition from the class – a comparison of two objects that creates a new idea through juxtaposition – I offered that I found metaphors important for two principal reasons. One, they help us “be on the same page” about something that’s tricky to understand in a literal sense. Memory in a computer is a perfect example; computers can’t remember anything, but that’s certainly the easiest way to express what it is they do when they code and store information in 0s and 1s. Two, metaphors are one of the most powerful tools we’ve got in terms of inspiring and expressing totally new ideas. Unexpected juxtapositions help us gain deeper perspective on how a subject might be understood, and this is very, very exciting to any writer looking to put something out there.

The most common issue with beginners’ attempts at metaphor is that they are bad. Straight up, top-notch metaphor is tricky. How does one use well-understood ideas in conjunction to summon totally original thought? It’s altogether too easy to fall into the cozy arms of cliché – yawn. In order to get the students thinking deeper about metaphor creation, we read and discussed a series of hints on what makes good metaphors work. For instance:

2. Keep it clear. Carl Sandburg wrote a wonderful metaphor in his poem “Fog” (“The fog comes / on little cat feet”). His metaphor is wonderful because it is clear. It is easy to imagine a fog creeping over the city much in the same way that a cat creeps up on mouse. It is simple and clear, like all great metaphors should be.

We then looked at three examples I had snagged from the net, dissecting their syntax just enough to ascertain possible meaning. I also got to draw a poodle on the board.

Enough with the introduction – production time. I wrote “High school” on the board as our subject, and asked for an object to compare it to. Each of the classes immediately offered “a prison,” which I just as immediately shot down as borrrrrrinnnnng. We eventually got to “a forest of trees putting down roots” in one class, and “a temporary birdcage for parrots” in the other – not bad.

It was time to set my parrots free: I gave them the subject prompt of Spain, and in partners they again competed for the temporary tattoo spoils. An idea bank full of freely associated thoughts I had had on the metro helped out the less imaginative, but the winners tended to be generated on the spot. The best entry, which had Rebecca and I clutching our guts in surprised laughter:

Spain is a Christmas tree, lots of lights and party but dead from the roots to the top.

Another winning entry for a different prompt:

Young love is a soft drink (with gas); the best part is the beginning and the worst the end.


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8 responses

9 02 2011
linda

Me thinks you are a (horrors!) teacher. . . Who wouldn’t want to be in your class? I would love to see you in action. The last winning entry is perfect.

9 02 2011
contomates

thanks momma – i have really grown into the post. looking forward to the next year-and-a-half 🙂

9 02 2011
Rich

Mangkut! Ditto the comments on teaching. Sounds like you’re jumping over and around the status quo curriculum and reaching students in a great way…plus, marrying your love for writing and language along with it. Great post.

9 02 2011
contomates

i got lucky with rebecca; she encourages the best of my creativity in a way that works with 14-year-old language learners.

13 02 2011
Grandpa

Janel,

I read your latest post. You have become a teacher like I wish I could have had. My recollections are of being read something, then being tested on how well your memory was of that something. Never learning or exploring the fantastic world of literature, and language, but pure rote. I wish you would have been my teacher. Kudos, Love Grandpa

14 02 2011
contomates

thanks so much!! it wasn’t until i put all of last month’s activities side-by-side in a single post that i realized – whoa nelly, i am really getting into those lesson planning business!

one question i always ask myself before designing a lesson – how would i have wanted to learn this at 13 years old? considering the perspective of the students has been an enormous help.

13 02 2011
Alice

What awesome lessons! Grandpa says you have become a teacher. I say you love your results. Enjoy!

14 02 2011
contomates

gracias!! it’s definitely the right thing for me to be doing with my time right now – i feel really good about “what i’m putting out there.”

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