A Tough Project Equals Great Opportunity

Two weeks ago, I welcomed thirty-one students to my one section of Survey of American Literature, a class I’ve never taught before, but am getting because of an overload in numbers to the teacher who usually owns this class.

I had taught most of these students in a writing class earlier in the year and they embraced my pedagogical turn for an authentic audience. So, I started thinking–how could I give an authentic audience to an American Literature class which focuses on reading throughout the history of America. Could such a class have an audience? Does an audience really motivate a class like this?

I’ve learned, in my path to better teaching, to embrace uncertainty and also to rely on the students’ judgments when they’ve earned the right–and these students had.

I gave them a choice–read and respond in our more typical fashion or create a new, more relevant textbook. They chose, unanimously, the task of enhancing the entire textbook experience instead of reading the teacher-prescribed list. Sounds like more work. Sounds like more fun. Students, when they see the purpose, will choose the harder work.

The work started with some deep analysis of the already-existing textbook published in 1999. Here were a few student observations:

  • You know the supplemental material is out-of-date when a “Connection to Modern Day” uses an opinion piece titled Is HDTV Here To Stay?
  • It doesn’t use the Internet to make any connections.
  • The literature pieces look good, but the book doesn’t show us the relevancy. 
  • It’s heavy–really heavy.
After that, another good discussion ensued–this time on organization. The students decided that, instead of a more traditional organizational style put together chronologically, they wanted their textbook written by voices:
  • the African-American voice
  • the War voice
  • the Native American voice
  • the Social Injustice voice
  • the Inspirational voice
  • the Books-to-Film voice
Already, based on the titles my students are choosing, I see more women and people of color represented. It’s exciting work–and it’s only just beginning. 
We’ll do the best we can with our little amount of time, but it’s fun to honestly say, “I can’t wait to go to work to see how my students surprise me next.” 
I’ll be sure to keep the blog posted–but, first, we could use your help. 
Please give us some titles. Just follow this link to help us on our search for meaningful, exciting literary pieces. 

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