Teaching with Passion Learning by Choice


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Teaching with Passion, Learning by Choice
published in the March 2007 issue of NCTE’s English Journal

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Teaching with Passion Learning by Choice

  1. 1. > I S S U E S A N D I N N O VAT I O N SHonor Moorman with Brad Dehart, Richard Flieger, Nancy Gregory, Liz Ozuna, Lindsey Perret,Donna Reed, Amy Stengel, and Lydia M. Valdés Teaching with Passion, Learning by Choice Honor Moorman and her colleagues describe the enthusiastic response from high school students and teachers to the school’s annual tradition of English minicourses—mixed-grade-level classes that take the place of regular English classes for two weeks in the last half of the spring semester. Teachers are given an opportunity to teach a specific topic they feel passionate about, while I students can choose the minicourse that sounds the most intriguing to them. f you could teach anything you two key principles of passion and choice, the concept wanted, what would it be? Would for our English minicourses was born. it be something you enjoyed study- ing in college or an interest you just Making It Workdiscovered last summer? An area of expertise orsomething new you would like to learn? This is the We decided to offer our minicourses during the laststory of English department members who dared to half of the spring semester, after state testing wasdream of teaching their passions and found a way to completed and after spring break, when we could allmake their dreams come true. use a little boost to get us through the end of the We teach at the International School of the year. Each teacher developed a minicourse on a topicAmericas, a small magnet school of choice located of his or her choice and wrote a In our seven-year historyon a comprehensive high school campus in San brief description. We told stu-Antonio, Texas. There are 450 students in grades 9 dents that for the next two of English minicourses,to 12, and our department consists of six teachers, weeks they would be attend- we have offered a wideone at each grade level plus two electives teachers. ing a special mixed-grade-level variety of topics.During a department meeting several years ago, we class in lieu of their regular Naturally, there has been awere sharing information about what we were each English class and they would strong literary component,teaching in our classes when the conversation potentially have a different but minicourses havedrifted to how much creativity and freedom the teacher. allowed us to incorporateelectives teachers seemed to have with their curric- We shared the descrip-ula. We talked about how great it would be for us tions of the minicourses (see authors and literary worksand for students if we could all teach the things we fig. 1) with students and asked beyond the standard highwere most passionate about and interested in. It them to fill out choice slips school fare—everythingwould refresh, renew, and reenergize our zest for (see fig. 2) indicating which from the Beat poets toteaching. It would give students the opportunity to courses they were interested in. Enlightenment thinkers tosee us as lifelong learners with interests beyond the We sorted the students’ choice science fiction authors.required curriculum. And it would be fun! slips by class period and stu- As we continued to explore this idea, we dent preference. To balance classes, we moved a fewquickly realized that what we wanted was to share our students to their second choices, but the vast major-passions with students—we hoped students would be ity of students got their first choice. We created classjust as passionate about our favorite topics as we were. rosters, organized by grade level, for each minicourseWe decided to give them the opportunity to choose and distributed a complete set of rosters to every En-the courses they were most interested in. Based on the glish teacher, as well as the attendance secretary. English Journal Vol. 96, No. 4 March 2007 33 Copyright © 2007 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.
  2. 2. Teaching with Passion, Learning by Choice FIGURE 1. English Minicourse Descriptions The following is an example of the course-description listings we give students in order for them to identify their mini- course preferences. The courses included here have been selected from throughout the years to give English Journal readers an idea of additional minicourse topics not already described in the article. English Minicourses The English Department is pleased to announce our annual spring minicourses. Please read the descriptions below and identify three different courses offered during your class period that interest you. Then fill out the choice slip provided. We will try to put you in your first or second choice if at all possible. Enjoy! Course: American Literature and the Broadway Musical (2000) Teacher: Amy Stengel Periods Available: 1, 4, 6, 7, 8 This course will survey the achievements of the Broadway Musical as a dramatic element and as an influence on American literature. Embedded in the best musicals are songs that greatly influence the drama and the plot of the play. The songs establish characters, move the plot, and intensify the conflict. Without the music, the plays would be poor in comparison. This course will evaluate the songs, discuss musical theater as an art form, look at American musical history, and create a literature review. Course: The American Short Story: Preserving the American Ideal (2001) Teacher: Nancy Gregory Periods Available: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 In this course we will immerse ourselves in the works of America’s premiere short story writers, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Kate Chopin. We will read stories that explore, among other things, the mother-child relationship, teenage alien- ation, bizarre human behavior, and the fanciful pursuit of dreams. Course: Secrets of Satire (2002) Teacher: Richard Flieger Periods Available: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 This course will explore several areas of satire, including television, literature, and film. The emphasis will be on identi- fying some of the archetypes and techniques of satire, and determining what makes satire effective and amusing. We will look at classic work by Jonathan Swift and more contemporary examples such as The Simpsons, asking the ques- tion, “What makes this funny?” Course: George Sand—Woman, Writer, Revolutionary Thinker (2002) Teacher: Honor Moorman Periods Available: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) and the Brontë sisters are famous for having secretly taken on male pseudonyms to publish their works at a time when writing novels was an occupation reserved for men. But George Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin, the Baroness Dudevant) took things even further. She insisted that everyone call her George, wore men’s clothing, and smoked—shocking! In this minicourse, we will learn about the life and works of the inimitable George Sand through short readings and excerpts from a film called Impromptu. We will also examine her artistic influences, such as the poet Lord Byron and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and sample the artistic works of her famous friends, such as the composer Frédéric Chopin and the painter Eugène Delacroix. Course: Fronteras/Borders (2003) Teachers: Brad Dehart (4) and Liz Ozuna (8) Periods Available: 4, 8 What is a frontera? Where do your borders lie? What is art and how can it help us explore the nature of these very real and symbolic constructs? We will journey through the eyes of artists who describe borders through art, photography, film, video, music, prose, poetry, and short stories, and then create our own representation of the borders in our lives. Course: Imagining Mars: A Look at the Red Planet in Fact and (Science) Fiction (2004) Teacher: Liz Ozuna Periods Available: 2, 3, 4 Since long ago, when humankind first turned its eyes toward the heavens and their contents, Mars has captured the imaginations of its viewers. The Red Planet appears, perhaps more than any other celestial element, in myth, story, and drama, while it represents exciting, new territory for current-day science as we probe the mysteries of its surface with our latest robots and dream of ultimately sending humans to explore this next frontier. Using a series of short video and audio clips, current technical writing, and selections from Ray Bradbury’s collection of short stories, The Martian Chronicles, the class will examine what some of history’s most imaginative minds and current-day scientists have said about our nearest neighbor, while reflecting on what it means to be human. Our work will culminate in a short piece of writing that seeks to answer the questions raised in class concerning the mysteries of place, time, and humankind’s position in the universe and the nature of the genre of science fiction.34 March 2007
  3. 3. Honor Moorman et al.FIGURE 1. English Minicourse Descriptions—ContinuedCourse: Narrative Structure and Film: Rear Window (2005)Teacher: Donna Reed Periods Available: 1, 2, 5, 6, 8Thrills, chills, and suspense! Everyone loves a good story presented in the written word or in a visual medium. We willcomplete a comparative study of the short story of the same name written by Cornell Woolrich and film productionsof Rear Window, including a production by Alfred Hitchcock, director, who is famous for his suspense films, and the1998 “remake” of the film with Christopher Reeve.Course: Poetry of War/Poetry of Peace (2006)Teacher: Lindsey Perret Periods Available: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7War . . . huh . . . what is it good for? Join us as we explore the nature of war, the nature of peace, and the nature ofpoetry by looking at poems that have inspired and responded to conflict. We will examine poems that have spurredon wars, poems written as a result of war, and poems that advocate peace. If the pen is mightier than the sword, thenhow has this maxim manifested itself in the volumes of poetry written surrounding conflict and peace? We’ll exploremale and female authors from contemporary and historical time periods, and we will compose our own poetry.Course: To the Countryside and Back: A Look at Chinese Culture (2006)Teacher: Lydia Valdés Period Available: 2What do you know about China and the explosion of China into the world markets of culture and business? Comeand explore a bit about the effects of communism and capitalism on the culture of the most populous country in theworld. Using the novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, we will explore how Chairman Mao’s CulturalRevolution sent intellectuals to the countryside; and using Jia Zhangke’s latest film The World, we will watch “dailyloves, friendships and desperate dreams of the twenty-somethings from China’s remote provinces who come to liveand work at Beijing’s World Park.”FIGURE 2. Minicourse Choice Slip Minicourse Choice SlipName: _________________________ Grade Level: _________________________ English Class Period: ___________First Choice: __________________________________________________________________________________________Second Choice: ______________________________________________________________________________________Third Choice: ________________________________________________________________________________________If you are in one or more English electives in addition to your grade-level class, please check below and fill in theblank where applicable._______ This is the first choice slip I have filled out._______ This is the second choice slip I have filled out. The other one was for _______ period._______ This is the third choice slip I have filled out. The others were for periods _______. As a department, we discussed our expecta- course they attended, we identified a number oftions in terms of student participation and assign- state standards to be addressed in every mini-ments to be completed, and we agreed to course. Thus, although students would be study-exchange grades so they could be recorded as part ing different authors, issues, themes, and genres,of the students’ regular English class. Recognizing we were certain that they would develop their lan-that students would be reading, writing, and dis- guage arts skills and understandings along thecussing important ideas no matter which mini- continuum at each grade level. English Journal 35
  4. 4. Teaching with Passion, Learning by Choice Our approach to the practical concerns of atten- stories, poems, and paintings inspired by the colors dance, grades, and curricular alignment was simple of the desert and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and and straightforward, and it worked. So well, in fact, created their own artistic impressions of the south- that we have organized our minicourses in the same western landscape. In Fragmented Reality: Focus on way for the last seven years. While we have the advan- Stein and Picasso, students learned about the influ- tages of being a small department with 100 percent ence Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso had on each participation and additional other’s work as well as on the artistic and literary Other minicourses have intern teachers, the same plan movements from modernism to postmodernism. offered students could be successfully imple- Another favorite minicourse theme has beenopportunities to produce mented in any school context as popular culture. Students in Deadly Persuasion science fiction stories, long as there were enough examined the media’s impact and influence on their tales of mystery, and teachers involved for at least lives through the work of Jean Kilbourne, Bill Moy- personal manifestos. three course offerings per class ers, and Neil Postman. Students in Protest in Ameri- period. Of course, the more par- can Music: A Political Rag analyzed music as a form ticipation and the more choices for students, the better! of artistic expression and its use as a political medium With the logistical details worked out, we were with selections from Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, eager to see how the minicourses themselves would be Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and Steve Earle. Enter the received. The student response to our initial experi- Twilight Zone introduced students to Rod Sterling’s ment with English minicourses was so positive, they cult TV series as they studied the art of storytelling instantly became an annual tradition. At the begin- through visual and print media. And The History of ning of the next school year, students were already ask- Breakdance gave students a chance to learn about the ing what the minicourse topics would be that spring. breakdance trend, initially a political movement, through documentaries, film clips, and literature. While students always write in their mini- Course Offerings courses, some minicourses have focused specifically on In our seven-year history of English minicourses, we creative writing. Students in The Transcendental have offered a wide variety of topics. Naturally, there Experience: Nature, Art, and Writing explored has been a strong literary component, but minicourses nature writing by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry have allowed us to incorporate authors and literary David Thoreau, Diane Ackerman, Pablo Neruda, works beyond the standard high school fare—every- Annie Dillard, Langston Hughes, Basho, Gabriel ¯ thing from the Beat poets to Enlightenment thinkers García Márquez, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and to science fiction authors. Excerpts from film adapta- Alice Walker and then had the opportunity to create tions of literary classics have also been included in nature-inspired pieces. Finding Your Muse, or Let- minicourses such as Rebecca, Jane Austen on Screen, ting Your Muse Find You immersed students in a and The Wild and Witty Plays of Oscar Wilde. Some poetry-writing workshop that culminated in a coffee minicourses have approached films as texts, focusing house–style poetry reading. Other minicourses have on The Language of Silent Film; 2001: A Space Odyssey: offered students opportunities to produce science fic- Myth, Mystery, Masterpiece; Classic Images of Horror; tion stories, tales of mystery, and personal manifestos. The Image of America’s Rebellious Youth; and so on. In keeping with our curricular emphases at the A number of minicourses have focused on rela- International School of the Americas, a number of tionships between literature and visual art. In Exper- minicourses have also been designed to give students imental Art: A Look at the Aesthetic Avant-Garde, a deeper understanding of the connection between students explored the work of avant-garde writers, local and global communities. Students in For the musicians, and visual artists including James Joyce, People: Social Commentary through Public Murals Virginia Wolff, Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cum- and the Related Literature explored social themes mings, T. S. Eliot, Radiohead, The Smiths, Pablo expressed through mural art from around the world Picasso, and M. C. Escher. In The Southwestern and took a field trip to a local community to see how Landscape in Literature and Art: Focusing on D. H. residents there had expressed pride in their local Lawrence and Georgia O’Keeffe, students examined culture and had honored their Mexican American36 March 2007
  5. 5. Honor Moorman et al.heritage through murals. In Looking at the Middle A Community of LearnersEast through Children’s Eyes, students learned aboutArab culture and Islam through poetry and chil- The English minicourses provide a unique way fordren’s books including Habibi, a young adult novel teachers and students to come together around top-by San Antonio author Naomi Shihab Nye. As part ics they are truly interested in. They form newof a minicourse called Understanding Genocide, stu- learning communities that further strengthen thedents met a local artist and Holocaust survivor, read larger learning community of our school. Theexcerpts from her biography, and hosted a commu- excitement about minicourses has been so great, innity art show and lecture in her honor. fact, that students began asking to help teach them. Other minicourses have encouraged students to At least seven minicourses have been taught or co-explore their family relationships and bring family taught by senior students under the supervision of amembers into the classroom. Several students brought faculty member. And one of our colleagues in thetheir mothers to Life Patterns: Daughters Come of social studies department has also chosen to partic-Age in Women’s Fiction, which used quilting as a ipate by teaching a minicourse during his confer-metaphor for examining mother-daughter relation- ence period.ships in fiction and in life. Fathers and Sons looked at After each year’s minicourses, we have askedfather-son relationships in short stories, drama, and students to reflect on their experiences through open-television, as well as in the lives of the participating ended written reflections and detailed questionnaires.students and their teacher. And Exploring Cross-Gen- Whether through written surveys or informal conver-erational Relationships involved students in sharing sations, the overwhelming majority of the students’their learning with significant elders in their lives. feedback has been positive (see fig. 3). Their onlyFIGURE 3. Students’ Comments about English MinicoursesContent• “I learned a lot about things I wanted to know but never had a chance to learn. It helps me with my understanding of the world.”• “I feel as though it is a refreshing time for students and teachers alike because it is a break from the normal day-to- day high school teaching. The seminars add to the diversity and richness of our school experience.”• “I was exposed to ideas that I wasn’t used to, and in that sense, I was pleased. To be challenged by new ideas causes me to go in directions I was previously ignorant about. To burgeon in such a place as high school is rare.”Enthusiasm• “Mini-courses are so much fun, they restore my yearning to learn and go to class with a positive attitude.”• “It gives us a break from our daily routine, and at the same time, the mini-course gave us a new perspective on coming back to our regular [English] class.”• “I love getting to experience different things in English classes; it jumpstarts my brain.”New People• “We don’t have much interaction in other grade levels except in electives. Most people already know everyone in their grade, and this was a good opportunity to mix it up.”• “I love the mini-courses. It gives me the chance to work with new teachers, and meet people of all grades at ISA.”• “Working with a different teacher is always fun. Every teacher has a different technique. Basically, it’s fun to wake up in the morning and wonder who is in your English class.”Choice• “The mini courses I have attended were informative and fun. I enjoyed being able to focus on one subject and being able to choose which course to attend.”• “The English seminar is awesome! You are allowed to choose what you want to learn about for two weeks. If you are into poetry, then you do a poetry seminar, etc.”Passion• “The fact that you chose to be there and teachers are sharing (not teaching) something they love creates a pleasant environment.”• “I loved the idea of the mini-courses as soon as I heard about it. I thought it was cool that the teachers were able to teach what interested them and we were able to learn from such passion.” English Journal 37
  6. 6. Teaching with Passion, Learning by Choice significant complaint has been that the minicourses ing in a group with people I don’t know that well aren’t long enough—many students have asked us to helps me open my mind to new ideas.” They also offer them year-round. appreciate that their teachers create special courses Students enjoy learning about subjects that that are personally meaningful to them. “Being in a stretch beyond the traditional high school English class where everyone was enthusiastic because curriculum. One student wrote, “I think [mini- everyone was engaged, even the teachers, the class courses] are a great idea for exposing us to different was much more enjoyable. We all took risks in books and ideas that we might not otherwise get in expressing our opinions, and we deviated from the regular English classes. The choices for the courses beaten path to come to some, in my opinion, origi- have all been very interesting and it’s hard to choose nal points.” which one to take.” Students are also insightful The positive atmosphere surrounding our about the positive effect minicourses can have on English minicourses indicates that we are achieving their attitude toward other English classes. As one our original goal of bringing the joys of language explained, “Mini-courses breathe new life into En- arts and learning to ourselves and to students. As glish class when, near the end of the year, every- one student explained, “The English seminars are a thing seems to be stale.” really great idea. They’re a lot of fun, a great way to Students tell us that they value the opportu- meet people from other grades, and either meet nity to choose their course of study and appreciate teachers you haven’t had yet or revisit teachers the chance to meet and learn with students from you’ve already had. I’ve had a great time in the top- other grade levels. One student described it this ics I’ve chosen and you learn all kinds of interesting way: “Since you can choose which topic you want to things you usually wouldn’t cover in a regular learn about, it grabs my attention to know I am class.” Another student wrote, “Keep letting teach- going to come to school knowing and wanting to ers do what they love. It makes us excited when our learn. I feel I devote more time and energy when I teachers are excited.” We couldn’t have said it bet- have a choice of what I want to learn about. Work- ter ourselves. Honor Moorman taught English at the International School of the Americas for eight years. She is currently a secondary lit- eracy specialist for the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. The International School of the Americas (ISA) is located on the Robert E. Lee High School campus in the North East Independent School District of San Antonio, Texas. ISA attracts students who are curious about the world, who are independent thinkers, and who want to make change happen in their world. Students come to ISA from over twenty public and private schools in the San Antonio area. For more informa- tion about ISA, please visit http://www.neisd.net/isa/. Call for Proposals The Conference on English Leadership (CEL) is calling for proposals for their 2007 conference, “Charting the Course: Leadership Strategies and Practices for Twenty-First Century Literacies,” to be held November 14–20, 2007, in New York City. The Conference on English Leadership’s mission is to support the develop- ment of new and experienced leaders. The 2007 Conference is designed as an interactive collaboration where participants will learn from and about each other and their leadership experiences. The presentation strands are Leadership; Reading, writing, and . . . sharing what works; Multiple literacies; Standards, testing, man- dates, initiatives; Teaching and learning. Questions may be directed to Dr. Alyce Hunter at ahunter@nac.net. Submit program proposals by May 1, 2007, using the submission form at http://www.ncte.org/groups /cel/featured/123161.htm.38 March 2007