Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Th1rteen R3asons Why

Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher was recommended to me by a student in the early part of the semester, and I only now got a chance to read it. The story revolves around a high school junior named Clay Jensen, who mysteriously receives voice recordings of Hannah Baker, a classmate who committed suicide. It most likely falls into the YALit category, but I wouldn't let that deter you from reading it. This is a powerful story. It would make a great addition to a high school syllabus, especially in 9th or 10th grade.

I don't want this to be a book review, though. That's not really why comPOSITION exists. Instead, I want to talk about this book's take on education and writing, especially education about writing.

For Hannah, like real life student Phoebe Prince, writing became an outlet to address the confusion she was experiencing in her life. Hannah particularly took to writing poetry. It should also be noted that she made fun of the self-indulgent "miserable poets" in her poetry class. Outside of class, she shared with a classmate what she considers to be her real poetry. At first, she found this experience freeing and thought it might be her ticket to finding comfort, but eventually, writing was not enough. It wasn't enough because her words became twisted by others, just as her reputation does.

This became especially true when classmates tried to interpret a poem they did not know she wrote. The professor refereed to the assignment as akin to interpreting a "dead poet." As the students tried their hand at revealing the hidden meaning of the piece, Hannah became more and more upset with their inability to understand her meaning-- which, underneath it all, was clearly a cry for help. This moment only further severed the ties between her peers and herself.

Eventually, the only way Hannah believed she could express herself was through her 7 tapes. She would be the "dead poet," with the power of her name left behind, but this time, her meaning would not be hidden by imagery and meter.

If one looks back, though, the problem for Hannah was not that she was not allowed to express herself, but that she felt that her voice was never heard or that her messages were contorted. As a writing teacher, this is a major concern of mine, especially when I either congratulate a student for using voice well or tell them that I can't really hear "their voice." Am I hearing them correctly? Am I helping them to express themselves? And even if I am, so what? What do I want those words to do? Do they have an effect if they stop at me? These are questions to which I have no answers.

Speaking more towards education as whole, Hannah also talked about her favorite class, Peer Communications. This is a class that encourages students to talk about the real issues they are facing in their lives, including topics like abortion, drug abuse, and, eventually, suicide. The teacher promotes positive reinforcement between peers, as well, which is something that almost never happens in classes that rely on tests and grades to separate the strong from the weak. Hannah noted that despite her suicide she believes that Peer Communications class should continue. She also talked about how the class must be defended every year against those who believe it is a waste of time because it does not teach the "hard facts." Several of the teachers of those "hard fact" classes, Hannah said, resent the Peer Communications class because it is "fluff" and, more likely, because they are jealous that students are so engaged. Hmm... reflection of real life much?

For me, Hannah's trials speak directly to what is going on today with our youth. So many of them feel unheard, especially at school, the place that is supposed to be preparing them for the real world. School often fails to be a microcosm of the real world, to prepare students to be socially responsible citizens, and to deal with the things that are really happening in the lives of students. I think many times, when in front of a classroom, we forget that we are not supposed to fill empty vessels, but to help our future generation create progress. We worry about "correctness" rather than building imaginations and problem-solving skills. Furthermore, little is done to deal with the subtle ways that students-- and even adults-- tear one another down. The competitive nature of the classroom translates into social lives.

The last note-- and possibly the most important one-- that I want to make is that Hannah doesn't want to "move on" from her experiences, which is the advice she is given. She doesn't want to just get over her traumas, but she does want to own them and live. Yet, no one is able to help her take ownership of the things that have happened in her life because they are all too focused on reputations and expectations. Agency is really the matter at hand here. Like Hannah, many students feel trapped and unable to act. They want agency, but they are confined to a set of rules, social practices, and fears of being outcasts. As a teacher, I'm still wondering-- as I did in my earlier post about the recent teen suicides and writing-- how we can give students this agency, or anyone really.  How can we make sure others do not share their traumas only to have them thrown back in their faces? And what does it take to move a someone to use a trauma rather than to repress it?

The scariest thing for me... Hannah's final tape goes to her English teacher.

Trauma. Writing. Agency. Education. Microcosm. Expectations. Social Responsibility. Those are the key words of this book.

For a sampling of the novel, as well as clips of Hannah's voice recordings, you can visit: Bonus: This book is an easy read. I finished it in a few hours.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Inspired by Rebellion

I saw this today on my way home from Staten Island, NY. Though defiling property is never recommended, I thought this particular piece of graffiti was rather awesome. I found myself staring at it as I waited for the traffic light to change. From the Elvis-like character to the use of shading and texture to the vibrant color pallet, I was wowed. I've seen graffiti before, as near as the fence outside my apartment building, but usually, it's standard run-of-the-mill scribbling. Someone quickly sprays a messy tag and leaves, without giving much thought. More often than not, they choose either black, white, or dark blue, and their creation is built from single lines of paint. But this one was really quite amazing. I can't even imagine how someone would get away with doing this. It was not only on the front of an abandoned house on a main street, but it must have taken quite some time to complete.

I write about this, though, not because it's interesting to look at, but because I think it could be an interesting tool in a writing classroom. This image makes me want to assign an "interpret this graffiti" assignment. As I look at this piece, I feel an urge to write. It screams self-expression. I wonder what the artist was thinking when s/he painted it. I wonder why the nomiker "Pimp NP," which also looks like "Prime," "Primal," and Primmpl" depending on how you look at it, was chosen. I wonder why s/he chose to use so many colors and textures, sparkles and brick-like images. And what on earth is the significance of the character on the left side? I think asking students to write about graffiti could be a fun way to get creative juices flowing and also to get students started analyzing word art (literature). From my experiences as a sheltered student, I also think it would be fun to get design my own graffiti in class, either via computer or on paper (though painting on buildings would be out of the question), and to tell the story of my own graffiti creation.
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Thursday, December 9, 2010

A World Map of My Audience

I was so astounded by the international readership of this blog that I decided to start keeping a record of the countries that have readers who have stopped by comPOSITION. The bright orange represents the many nations that make up my audience. I hope to see the whole may filled in one day!

This application is created by interactive maps.
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Wrestling with Writing

Just a little something to make you smile when writing gets you down, a short video about the fight with writing, created with Xtranormal.

I also think Xtranormal is a great resource for teachers and students. I've seen some really creative uses of it, including practicing arguments and counterarguments and writing mini dramas. I also think it would be a great way to virtually perform SLAM poetry or record interviews where the interviewed subject's identity must remain anonymous.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

To my ENG1000c Course...

Dear ENG1000Cers,

Since Thursday will mark our very last class together, I thought it would be an appropriate time for me to reflect on our semester, and not so much about what I taught you, but as what you all taught me.

I'm not sure how many of you knew that this was my very first time ever teaching a class, but if you were unaware, well, the cat's now out of the bag. Before September, I had never constructed a syllabus, never engaged with 23 students at once, and never had to give grades (which, by the way, I absolutely HATE doing). Sure I had tutored, led student workshops, and T.A.ed, but I never had my own class, which is something altogether quite different. I was worried, stepping into the classroom, that you would all think I was completely inexperienced and feel that I had nothing to offer you. I was afraid that no one would understand my writing feedback, and you would all think my rubric was crap. I was even more worried that, because almost all of you are Physician Assistant majors, you would have no interest in writing, that you'd simply say, "we're never going to need this," and the class would be a disaster. That first day of class, I was super nervous, and to make me even more anxious about the semester, my lesson plan fell apart. I had to let everyone out 20 minutes early, though I faked planning it that way. *awkward balloon*

Gold Stars for Everyone!
Lucky for me, I had a great group of students to help me get through my first semester of teaching college writing. Every week, you guys made me laugh and smile. Now, I have a full repertoire of "awkward" signals and know that I'm a loser because I don't watch Vampire Diaries and missed out on this year's Harry Potter flick. You showed me "Whistling Puppies" and shared your favorite music with me. On top of it all, you put up with my corny jokes and incessant talking with my hands.

On a more serious note, though, I loved reading your narratives, finding out about your world views, getting to share your experiences, and hearing about the things you believe we need to change in our world. I learned a great deal about what it's like to come to America from another country, to speak multiple languages at home and then only English in school, to find your voice in high school, and how you dealt with the trials of growing up. I learned so much about the world as you see it, and I feel completely honored that you were willing to share so many important, and perhaps vulnerable, moments in your lives with me. Whether you knew it or not, I was really impressed by the writing you did and the projects you created, even if I did have to take away gold stars some days ;) It was a pleasure to have all of you in class, even my "bad influences."

When I applied to St. John's just last year about this time, I thoroughly believed that I wanted to teach and study Victorian Literature. Thanks to you guys, I am saved from a lifetime of work that I wasn't passionate about. Studying something and teaching it are two very different things. I have loved teaching all of you so much that I have reassessed my values and decided that I want to make my role as a writing teacher a permanent one. I shifted my whole course of study, and I am thrilled to be embarking on this somewhat new journey. Of course, I doubt that my future classes will be as awesome or as memorable as ours. 

As my final request to all of you, I ask that you share with me what you felt as you went through this experience, whether here online or in class discussion. While I can pretend I know and will undoubtedly read all of those dreadful course evaluations, I'd love to really hear what you're willing to tell me. I don't want to be making the same mistakes forever, and when I go back to change up my syllabus, I would love to know what you guys think should and shouldn't be in there. Also, I think posting it up here is a great way to show others, who don't have the privilege of course evaluations, what it is that students feel about learning to write. Was there something you really enjoyed reading or writing? Did you absolutely hate doing something or something about the way that I taught? Did your views on writing change at all? It is, of course, in no way mandatory, but after Thursday, this experience will all be memories, and I'd love to have a record to keep with me always.

Next semester, as you branch out into your field and continue your coursework, I encourage you to all drop by my little grey box in the Writing Center and let me know how things are going. And, of course, now that you are all out of my class, you are all welcome to sign up for tutoring sessions with me and to friend me on Facebook (if you can find me). I wish you all lots of luck in completing your programs and making your way to your very bright futures. 

Happy Holidays! See you in 2011.


"Professor Nicole"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

ePortfolios: How To & Do You?

The end of the semester is rapidly approaching, and I've been thinking about the best way to do student writing portfolios, since I am committed to improving digital literacy, both for my students and myself.

As a model, I created an ePortfolio (work in progress) for my graduate course using GoogleSites with GoogleDocs. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Select Blank Template
  2. Add themes and design elements as you see fit
  3. Make homepage the table of contents
  4. Click edit side bar and delete the old navigation tab, then add a new one by clicking "add to sidebar" and "add navigation"
  5. Upload documents, powerpoints, etc. to GoogleDocs
  6. Create pages for the pieces of the portfolio
  7. On each page, add text introducing your work
  8. On each page, click "Insert Document" under the "Insert" tab, and add your document to the page
  9. Link in any additional work (such as blogs, wikis, websites, videos)
  10. Add pages to navigation bar by clicking "edit side bar," "edit navigation," then "add page" or "add url"
  11. Don't forget to save your work!

Interestingly enough, this ePortfolio actually stemmed from my desire to provide my students my bio. My bio on GoogleSites now links to my whole ePortfolio, so they can see the kinds of writing I am doing as a student, use it as a model if necessary, and hopefully feel that I can empathize with them a bit more.

I think it also provides a great, easy-access sample of my writing, my CV, and my bio for future employers, and shows them that I have a valuable skill-- digital literacy.

Yesterday, some of my students were putting together their sites in class. Some of them still wanted to do paper-based portfolios, and I allowed that option. The majority, however, were excited about getting to personalize their ePortfolios and thought it was a neat way to present their semester-long work.


  • How many of you use ePortfolios? 
  • What platforms do you use for ePortfolios?
  • Do you have a teaching ePortfolio?


  • Do you have an ePortfolio?
  • Did you enjoy making it?
  • What do you think is the best way to present your work (powerpoint, website, video, etc.)?
  • How do you feel about the idea of ePortfolios?
  • Does it make you uncomfortable to know your child's work is available electronically or even via web?
  • Do you like that it can be easily shared with other family members, friends, potential employers, and colleges?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Student Portfolios and Practitioner Research

The First Year Writing department at St. John's University, being part of the Institute for Writing Studies, mandates that every Composition instructor select three student portfolios at the end of the semester to review with the department. The point of this is to improve pedagogy by asking and writing about a series of research questions. As a group, we have one research question. As individuals, we also have subquestions that are unique to our coursework and interests.

This year's group question is:

What in students' writing shows their reactions to and relationship with the course materials presented to them?

I have been struggling to define my own research questions, but these are the ones that I have been thinking about:

What changes or improvements do students note in their own writing? Do these align with your objectives for them?
How do students cross the threshold between classroom theory and real-world application?
What do students feel is most important to learn in their quest to be coming a "good writer"? How does this change throughout the semester? How is it demonstrated in their work?

I'd love to hear some feedback! Are those questions you already ask? Do you have better questions? I'm really struggling to come to terms with the best questions. I want to ask questions that will enable me to take into consideration my students' motives and also my own teaching. My goal is to improve my teaching of writing.