A week ago, I posted the instructions for moving online that I sent to my students. (Was it really only a week ago…?) It was so clear, so detailed, so hopeful, so… delusional.
Most of my students managed to get onto Slack and Zoom, the two digital tools I chose to use for my classes. Many filled out the Google Forms survey asking about their accessibility needs and preferences. Slowly, students started interacting on Slack. Then one class met on Zoom, and things were going well. We were settling into our new normal.
The next class didn’t meet until this past Tuesday, but we were interacting via email and Slack. There were glitches and hitches, and I began to rethink what I was expecting my students to do. By the time we Zoomed on Tuesday, I had decided to abandon the second and third papers of the semester. It was hard enough to communicate about the texts – some students are of an -ahem- older generation as returning students, and they were really struggling with the tech. Even students who were okay with it were obviously juggling multiple emails from multiple instructors, and as much as it would be great if everyone would have adopted my organization suggestions (charts for each class with times of video meeting and deadlines for written work etc), that… was not happening.
We met on Tuesday. It was a decent class. Our class was “normally” scheduled to meet for 2.5 hours once a week. We spent 1.5 hours on Zoom, despite my original plans to keep the meeting under an hour. Most of that time was spent on learning how to use Slack and going over the plans for the rest of the semester.
Then CUNY announced a “Recalibration” period, giving us another week off to give students more time to request and acquire laptops and iPads as needed. They also said that our spring break – always scheduled over Passover at CUNY – was to be cut short, now only April 8 – April 10. Yep, I got those dates right. Spring break is 2 days. In a way, that makes sense. We had a week “off” to move our classes online, and we have another week “off” now again. So we don’t need another break, right?
Well, look, I have given up on thinking I can plan more than a week ahead – if even that. I did update the reading schedule for both classes (thankfully, the YA class can remain the same since we had planned to spend two weeks reading our current book, each student at their own pace and when they can).
I cut a few texts: to my dismay, I cut an excerpt from Sometimes We Tell the Truth from my medieval and early modern survey. In the past, I’ve paired Reeve’s Tale from the YA retelling with Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale for a conversation about quyting and scholarship on Chaucer. And I was supposed to present a paper at the New Chaucer Society’s July conference in Durham about how I use YA texts in a medieval survey class, but of course, that’s not happening…
Today I met with my YA class for the second time. We’re still in middle of reading Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, and my students are having some amazing conversations on Slack – better than they had in f2f classes, actually.
But our hour-long session today was spent on reviewing assignments, discussing anxieties over how the course will be graded now, learning and practicing how to post entries for their reading list (annotated bibliography) assignment – and then the whole thing broke down into a sharing circle as one student told us that their friend had died from apparent coronavirus yesterday, and another student shared that they had tested positive but that they’re feeling better now, and then students unmuted themselves one at a time and shared their anxieties, and I stopped responding and just sat back with tears in the corners of my eyes and let them talk to each other.
We didn’t discuss the book or their Slack conversations at all. I have given up.
No, I haven’t given up. I’ve shifted my priorities. Last week, I was saying that professors have to boil down their curricula to the absolute necessities and cut the rest. I wasn’t really taking my own advice, though I thought I was. It has become clear to me that the goals of my class can no longer be anything like what they were before.
Before, my goals were to have students survey the primary texts and understand the conversations in the respective scholarly fields.
If they engage with the texts and keep their minds off whatever nonsense is happening in the world and in their lives, that’s good. If they learn something from my course goals, even better. But I will not be making lecture videos for them to watch anymore, I will not be giving them additional assignments to aid comprehension. I will be more active in Slack than I had planned to be.
And most of all, I will stop proclaiming what I will do in anything more than one week increments, if that.
When CUNY shut down for a week, my class was at the tail end of reading and discussing Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.
The disruption meant that we had one planned class left for discussing the book, but everyone was so disoriented and worried about the world that it was difficult to think about returning to the book in a substantial way when we reconvened online (or at least, that was my impression). I also didn’t want to a) leave loose ends hanging for this book or b) start a new book AND a new platform at the same time.
So it worked out pretty well: I was able to ask students to play around with the new platforms using a text we’d already discussed. They were able to gather their thoughts on the book and get comfortable with these new online tools at the same time. And moving forward into the next week, they’re beginning to read the next book, now that they’ve gotten a bit comfortable with a whole new way of learning.
Here’s how I worked it all:
On Sunday, I emailed the full document outlining the plans for the semester. That document (posted here) gave instructions for accessing Slack and Zoom, the two online platforms I settled on. When students entered Slack, they were asked to post in a #confirmation channel, just saying hi so I could keep track of who accessed the Slack, and to get them posting, even if only one word. On Monday, I posted to the #random channel with an image of some blackout poems I had created. The purpose of this was to get them used to seeing the #random channel as a place for easy informal conversation, and to allow them to post their own images. In this class, no one responded until Wednesday, when I posted an image of my tea infuser, a cat chasing a fish.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, I sent another email with a few PowerPoint slides. My hope was that this would provide stability and reassure students by giving them a concrete plan. The other purposes were to provide a review of what we had talked about in previous classes, which seemed like a lifetime ago, and to encourage them (but not require them) to begin using Slack. And also to provide a bit of levity – see the “Whistling in the Dark” slide, which links to this video and this one.
On Thursday, we had out first Zoom lesson. I started by asking students to, one by one, tell us about how they’ve been feeling and/or something they’ve begun to incorporate into their routine now that everything is different. It was good for a number of reasons. My primary reasons for doing that were to 1) hear their voices and 2) make sure everyone knows how to mute themselves 😉
It went way over the time I thought it would (it took 30 minutes to get through everyone) but was so worth it. I felt the sense of community that we had before coming back as they talked about their jobs and their families and various worries. Everyone was tense and a bit formal at the start, and by the end we were back to our usual loose, comfortable atmosphere. Moving into talking about Slack and the assignments etc was a lot easier after that.
Students also fiddled with Zoom while we met and found features I hadn’t known about – I had been asking for them to physically show me a thumbs up if they understood/were on board with something I said. They discovered the ability to send a thumbs up emoji, and I will incorporate that in future Zoom sessions! They also discovered the ability to digitally raise their hands, which lets me know who has a question and works better than the in-video chat window.
When we had all gotten comfortable again, I asked if anyone had any questions or concerns. There were a couple questions and some general anxiety about how the class will work. I addressed those briefly, and moved seamlessly into a synchronous demonstration of how Slack works. Via Zoom, I shared my screen with everyone and showed them:
how to switch between classes on Slack, since many of them are attending multiple classes on Slack now.
how to find the channels that may not appear in their menu right away (on both desktop and mobile).
how to post to a channel.
how to reply to someone else’s comment or question.
where to post general queries and where to post text- or assignment-specific thoughts.
how to privately message me.
how posting shorter comments works better than long responses to my prompts, to facilitate conversation among their peers.
I then asked everyone to post one comment or question about The Inexplicable Logic of My Life in that book’s channel. The comments came flying in – almost all of them were immediately comfortable with the platform, and it was clear that they had been thinking about the book quite a bit! There were a few snags, which was part of why I asked them to do this, of course – to identify any problems and enable us to troubleshoot. Three students had issues, and I was able to help them while the rest of the class posted and read each other’s posts.
After everyone had posted, I asked them to respond to at least one classmate’s comment or question. The purpose here was to make sure they knew how to start a thread (Slack’s interface isn’t entirely intuitive for that) and also to reinforce the message that “I agree with you” is not enough of an engagement. Once they got that, the responses – again – came flying in, and I very much enjoyed watching the conversations unfold. For me, it was like listening in to groupwork as I usually do during in-person classes. It reassured me that this will work!
Finally, I showed them the #reading-list channel, which is a variation on an assignment I had literally given to them the day before CUNY shut down for a week.
I then asked them if they had any other questions or concerns. They did, of course 🙂 I answered them, we reviewed the requirements for the following week (read The Sisters of the Winter Wood at your own pace; engage ten times on Slack, but no I’m not literally counting ten times; try to set aside two half-hour chunks of the week to be on Slack rather than checking in constantly or at the last second; video-lectures and PowerPoints and relevant links will be posted to the #sisters-winter-wood channel and BlackBoard).
(We did not get to talk about the songs in the book, which is a disappointment to me. But c’est la vie!)
And then, with a sense of relief, hope, and determination (at least on my part), we said goodbye, to meet again in a week’s time!
This past week has been a flurry of more global, more intense collegiality than I’ve ever witnessed. It comes as a result of a terrible situation, of course. But I have been so grateful for and so amazed by the communities that have sprung up, by the support being offered freely from those with any kind of expertise.
I was so appreciative of people on Twitter and Facebook who shared brief ideas and suggestions as they worked on their newly-online syllabi. I want to share mine here as well – not to say that they are exemplars but to provide a starting point and a way for others to think about possibilities that they might incorporate into their own courses.
This is far from set in stone. As I told my students during our first Zoom meeting today, I expect that things will continue to shift as we all figure out what we can and can’t expect of ourselves and each other in this new format that we’ve had little time to prepare for. To that point, if you want to share your revised syllabus, please drop a link in the comments! I would love to see what others are doing.
I started with a table of contents. I don’t usually do this in my syllabi, though it occurs to me that I should start doing that now… But here, I wanted students to be able to navigate easily through this document that I wasn’t presenting in person.
I did include videos recorded via Zoom, where I shared my screen with students and walked them through each section. But for future weeks, if students want to check something, they can now easily navigate to it within this (admittedly very large) document.
Some of you may have taken online classes before. This is NOT what you would expect from an online class. This is a stopgap emergency measure, and there’s no way it can be as effective as a class that was originally designed to be online. We’re all doing the best we can, but there will be glitches and upsets. The main goal here is to finish the semester without losing our minds.
That means that if you’re not sure about an assignment, or if you somehow don’t see a notification and realize only a week later, don’t worry. Send me an email or visit my office hours (details below). Flexibility is key here, and I will do all I can to ensure you all get the grades you’re aiming for.
Having a routine has been proven to help people maintain healthy mental states. If you’re taking care of children or elderly people, you’ll probably have a routine mostly built in. But make sure to schedule time for classes and homework, if only to ensure you have time for yourself! Build little routines into your day.
Set aside a designated space for schoolwork, whether it’s a commonly used space or your own separate office. Returning to the same spot for a specific activity will help get you in the right headspace. (It’s science!)
Maintain your eating and cooking routines. Take some extra time with them if this is an activity you enjoy. Indulge in some fancy teas or coffees, or whatever gets you excited.
If you had a crafts hobby you haven’t touched in a while, pick it back up; or, start a new crafts hobby! Set aside some time each day, and make sure to practice self-care.
If you won’t be leaving the house (a smart idea, all things considered), do some exercises or stretched. Get the adrenaline flowing! (https://www.downdogapp.com/ is offering their app free for a while, so if you need some coaching, they’ve got you!)
If you usually do your makeup or other kinds of grooming, don’t ignore that just because you’re not leaving the house. Spend some time on yourself, just for yourself. It’ll help you maintain a sense of the “world out there.”
Keep in touch with friends! Be active on social media, form chat groups, etc. Even if you can’t get together, make sure to maintain contact. Check in with people who might need help and reach out if you need help.
No more Discussion Boards. Slack channels will replace these.
Assignment sheets will still be posted to BlackBoard (as will this document). You will submit your final reading lists and your final paper via BlackBoard. Everything else will happen on Slack and Zoom.
You will be asked to allow a download of the Zoom app, whether on phone or computer. Allow it!
Once you’re in, click “Join” and enter this Meeting ID: [removed]. Follow instructions to create a username.
We will use this meeting space in two ways:
Once a week, we’ll meet “face-to-face” for an hour. See the survey I sent asking which day you prefer: [removed]. Zoom meetings on the free plan can only go for 40 minutes, so we will have to hang up and rejoin to get a full hour.
Once a week, I will hold office hours. See the survey I sent asking for which times you prefer. When I’m holding office hours, you will be able to enter the “waiting room” and I will let you into my “office” in the order that you called in.
March 24 – May 14: Share a book for your reading list, one per week. To limit outside exposure, there will be no library or bookstore requirement. Instead, you will use online libraries or sites like Goodreads to gather titles. And since we have this added online chat space, we can spread the assignment out over the rest of the semester.
Each week, you’ll find one book that fits a theme, genre, or topic (as described on the assignment sheet).
You’ll post it to the Slack channel #reading-list.
You will include the title, author, publisher, and year of publication.
You will also include a summary (copy-pasted from the site on which you found it) and you will cite your source (Goodreads, NYPL, Buzzfeed, Epic Reads, etc).
Finally, you’ll add a sentence or tow about why you chose this book.
Keep all your books in a document. You will turn in this document at the end of the semester, through BlackBoard, so that I can have an easy record of it to grade.
April 20: Fanfic/fan-art due I’m pushing this way back rather than having it due in a couple of weeks because it’ll be difficult enough to figure out what’s going on with the regular reading – we can save the more creative piece for later, so that you have more time to get used to online stuff first.
You will have the option to work in partners or on your own.
We’ll talk about specifics after we read Sometimes We Tell the Truth.
May 16: First Draft of Final Essay
May 16 – May 21: Mandatory virtual-office meeting to discuss your paper
May 22: Final Draft of Final Essay I’m pushing the essay to the end of the semester. Originally, I had planned to have a day of presentations at the end of the semester. But since we can’t do that, it makes more sense to just leave this big project for the end. That also gives you the chance to write about any of the books on the syllabus, rather than limiting you to only the texts we’ve read before your essay is due. So, a win-win!
Things to do before our first class on Thursday, March 19:
Read this entire document!!!
Make sure you can access Slack and Zoom.
Fill out the survey.
Finish reading The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.
Make sure you have a quiet space and/or headphones, and you’re ready on Thursday at 3:30pm.
See you then! Onward, brave adventurers!
ENG301: British Literature I, Spring 2020: Online Instruction (March 24-May 12, 2020)
The move to online, and the loss of a week as your professors rethink their syllabus, means that some things have to be dropped from the syllabus. Other things need to be rearranged. Below is an outline that explains my choices – where I chose to keep things, where I chose to cut things, how I chose to reconfigure some assignments, and the reasons behind it all.
Get a sense of medieval and early modern British texts:
Discussion of texts in informal chats (using Slack) and via brief weekly video conferences will replace our 2.5hr weekly classes.
The Slack will be open all week long. I will check it on a regular schedule (not 24/7). This way, we can make sure that you understand the basics of text as you’re reading (plot, character, language, etc).
Infographic timeline: I will show you how to create an infographic, and you will organize the texts from our syllabus in chronological order.
Understand the ways various medieval and early modern genres work:
I will record some video and audio for you, accompanied by PowerPoints. These will replace my lectures that usually gave you context of the genre and the conventions. (Like when we talked about courtly love in relation to Lanval, for example.)
It would have made sense to cut some texts from the syllabus, but we need a good representation of all the genres. I’ve cut down the amount of time we spend on a couple of the texts, and I’ve cut out the secondary (critical) text on The Merchant of Venice.
Learn about topics of debate and conversation in the field of medieval and early modern British literature:
This will be covered in videos and PowerPoints as well.
Some leading questions designed to help you think about the debates/topics will be posted in Slack so that you can think about them during the week as you read.
During our 30-minute weekly video-conferencing session, we’ll talk about the topics/debates a bit.
Some low-stakes assignments to make sure you understand the videos/texts. These may be in the form of charts, drawings, infographics, etc. which you’ll post on Slack. This will basically replace in-class writing. They’ll be short and very informal (and ungraded).
Learn / hone skills of critical analysis:
Discuss the texts and the secondary videos with classmates, in formal groupwork and informal chats. Required: 10 engagements per week. Engagements can happen at any time before Tuesday at 6pm. They can be in the form of a question (clarifying a point in the text, asking about context, etc.); a thought about interpreting the text; or a response to a classmate’s question or interpretation. Responses MUST be more than “I agree with you.” They must substantively contribute to the conversation. (Let’s be real, otherwise you can just write “I agree with you” ten times, and that’s not learning…)
Write two more essays: one on romance (Lanval, Bisclavret, The King of Tars, Roman de Silence) and one on drama (The Second Shepherds’ Play, The Merchant of Venice).
Write an adaptation or fanfic of ONE text from the syllabus. (This is definitely critical! You’ll write this after we discuss Sometimes We Tell the Truth, which is an adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.)
Assignment sheets will still be posted to BlackBoard (as will this document). You will submit your papers, timeline, and creative project via BlackBoard. Everything else will happen on Slack and Zoom. Slack and Zoom both have phone apps.
You will be prompted to create an account with any email you choose (keep in mind that everyone in the class will be able to see your email address, so use your Lehman email if you want privacy). Your name should be your FULL NAME, first and last, so that I can keep track of you.
There are a number of “channels” which you can access from the left side of the screen on a computer, or from the menu on a smartphone.
The #intro-syllabus channel is for questions / comments about the class. This document will be hosted there.
The #assignments channel will have writing assignments and reading schedules.
The #random channel is for you all to informally chat about anything at all.
Each text we read will have its own channel.
You can enter the channels at any point during the week when we’re reading a specific text and add your thoughts. Do not go ahead. You may return to previous weeks’ discussions, if you have more thoughts you want to add. (This is a bonus of online learning!)
You can post directly to the whole channel, or you can reply to a specific post. You can also tag people, so that we know who you’re responding to.
Channels with new posts will appear bolded in your list.
Each writing assignment will have its own channel. I’ll post detailed instructions there, and you can ask questions and have informal chats with each other there as well. Same rules as with the text channels.
If you want to create a private study group with just a few people, you can do that!
You will be asked to allow a download of the Zoom app, whether on phone or computer. Allow it!
Once you’re in, click “Join” and enter this Meeting ID: [removed]. Follow instructions to create a username.
We will use this meeting space in two ways:
Once a week, we’ll meet “face-to-face” for 30 minutes. We will not meet as a full class – I think that would get overwhelming. Instead, we’ll meet in smaller groups for 30 minutes each. See the survey I sent asking which timeslot you prefer: [removed]. I will post the groups/schedule as soon as everyone has responded.
Once a week, I will hold office hours. See the survey I sent asking for which times you prefer. When I’m holding office hours, you will be able to enter the “waiting room” and I will let you into my “office” in the order that you called in.
Access the document of questions about Roman de Silence.
Note that you will be reading selected lines throughout the text. You do not need to read the whole long text!
Watch/listen to/read any supplementary material I give you (I’m not sure yet what format it will be in – this depends on your preferences, among other things.)
Read Roman de Silence, using the questions to help you understand the text.
Check in on Slack frequently this week. Silence can be confusing – use the resource of what can be a group-study, where you can all help each other out. I will of course also be checking in to answer questions, etc.
Engage on Slack at least 10 times before class on Tuesday, March 31.
Join your Zoom at the right time.
SPRING BREAK!! Yes, that’s still on… Make sure to relax and actually take time for yourself. It’s easy to just hop onto Slack and chat with people (and sure, do that in the #random channel). But don’t do schoolwork unless you have to.
April 21: The Canterbury Tales: “The Miller’s Tale” Instructions:
Access supplemental materials I provide (video, audio, or written). These will include links to resources to help you understand the Middle English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Read the Norton’s introduction to Chaucer (pages 256-261).
Read the Norton’s introduction to “The Miller’s Prologue and Tale” (page 282).
Read “The Miller’s Prologue and Tale” (pages 282-298).
Engage on Slack at least 10 times, at any point during your reading of the introductory materials or the text itself.
Join your Zoom at the right time.
April 28: Sometimes We Tell the Truth excerpt Instructions:
Access my supplementary materials.
Download the PDF of the excerpt you need to read (posted to BlackBoard and Slack, as all docs you need will be).
Read the text!
Engage on Slack at least 10 times.
Join Zoom at the right time.
May 5: The Second Shepherds’ Play Instructions: Same as previous weeks, with perhaps some adjustments as we figure things out!
May 12: The Merchant of Venice Instructions: Same as previous weeks, with perhaps some adjustments as we figure things out!
I will check Slack chats a few times throughout the week. I will not be available 24/7…
all due by 11:59pm via BlackBoard on the dates listed
detailed assignment sheets will be posted to BlackBoard and Slack
we will review the assignments via Zoom
you can ask me questions about the assignment in Slack, and you can chat with classmates and share ideas as well (I’m not worried about plagiarism – partly because I can see everything you write on Slack even if you’re in a private group 😉)
On Friday, March 6, 2020, I presented a paper at NeMLA in Boston. It was a fantastic experience. This was the first time I talked about my work on Haredi children’s literature in a professional context outside of my own institution. It was the first time I presented a formal argument and cohesive narrative. I always knew I had a lot to say on the subject.
But for a while, I’d been feeling like I hadn’t made any progress – like I was basically just saying some obvious things, making observations about the texts that anyone could see just by looking at them. I felt like I hadn’t written anything, because I have not yet finished any single chapter. Of course, I had been writing, but I work best by moving around in my writing – which means I have multiple half-finished chapters. It’s hard to feel a sense of accomplishment like that.
Now, having presented a paper that essentially took bits and pieces from a few chapters which I had already written and having gotten incredible feedback from the audience, I am newly invigorated and ready to keep going – I can acknowledge the huge amount of work I have already done (I wrote a single new paragraph for this paper, and the rest was literally copied and pasted and moved around from documents in my drafts folder) and I can use the palpable enthusiasm from audience members to fuel my ongoing writing.
It was also a good reminder that writing can be lonely, that writing a long project like a dissertation can be isolating. I talk about my project with friends, and I do often get the chance to excitedly talk about my work with new acquaintances. But there’s something so wonderful about sharing carefully crafted work and getting that validation. So I’m sharing my paper and PowerPoint presentation here, because more validation can’t hurt, can it?
On Saturdays, the streets of Boro Park and Midwood in Brooklyn are quieter than usual. It’s Shabbos (Shabbat), and the neighborhoods with large concentrations of Haredi and Hasidic Jews are at rest. On Thirteenth Avenue in Boro Park and Avenue J in Midwood, usually bustling with crowds of shoppers, the stores are shuttered. People on their way to and from shul (synagogue) and family meals walk down the center of the empty streets. It’s like a world separate from the weekend hustle and bustle of the rest of New York City.
But this separate world is very much an integral part of New York City’s fabric. The neighborhood may have well-defined borders, which are a necessity when its inhabitants need everything essential to be within walking distance once a week. But the borders are permeable, with influences going in both directions. Haredi Jews work all over New York City, not only in the neighborhoods where they live. Some attend university outside of the enclave, bringing their own Haredi sensibilities to secular college classes and often bringing secular ideas back to their Haredi neighborhoods. Haredi Jews participate in elections, often electing “one of their own” to represent them in local government.
In state or federal elections, the Haredi communities hold power because they often vote based on rabbis’ direction, and their concentration means that they can turn whole neighborhoods red or blue. Economically, socially, and politically, Haredi Jewish communities are an integral part of New York and of the United States.
My dissertation aims to situate American Haredi culture and ideology within its American contexts by studying the literature that Haredi Judaism produces for its children. In my paper today, drawn from my dissertation, I’ll provide an overview of the literature and the reasons I think this study is important. The title of today’s paper – Sharing Spaces, Shaping Identities – is about my two major focuses (foci?): the space that Haredi children’s literature shares with mainstream American children’s literature, and the cultural and religious identity that this literature helps shape. I think that understanding both of these together is essential to study of the literature.
First, a definition of the term Haredi:
An over-generalized distinction between American Haredi communities and other Orthodox communities is that Hasidic communities are more insular than Haredi communities, while Modern Orthodox communities are more open to secular culture. As Finkelman defines Haredi Judaism, “[m]ore countercultural and enclavist than their Modern Orthodox peers to the left, this Haredi Jewry is also more acculturated and less rejectionist than some of the more isolationist Hassidic groups to the right” (58). There are numerous other boundaries within this not-completely-isolated but not-completely-acculturated group, of course. But the defining characteristic is this blend of insularity and interaction with the outside world, the defined yet permeable border.
Haredi literature is also distinct from Hasidic and Modern Orthodox literature as well as from mainstream literature. Differentiating between Hasidic and Haredi books is simple due to the language difference: Haredi popular literature is almost always in English, while Hasidic books are generally in Yiddish – a surface distinction that denotes an underlying difference in ideology. Haredi and Modern Orthodox books are often more difficult to distinguish from each other, because they share a language as well as most basic beliefs and ideologies.
But while Modern Orthodox books are also in English, they have a different tone to them. They are more likely to include characters with “English” names or “modern Hebrew” names, i.e. names that are not Biblical or Yiddish. In general, while their explicit messages appear to match Haredi ideology, they differ in the degree to which they are inclusive of American or non-Orthodox modes of being Jewish. In line with each community’s boundary-setting, Modern Orthodox children’s texts might include mention of non-observant family members or even non-Jewish friends, while Haredi texts portray a world where the only sympathetic characters are Haredi Jews.
As I’ll discuss in a moment, books that became part of the Haredi publishing world may contain traces of Modern Orthodox ideology because of the way these two communities diverged around the 1970s-80s.
Besides the ideological differences, Haredi literature also exists in a self-contained market. Haredi books are written by Haredi author, published by Haredi publishers, and sold in Haredi bookstores. While many Haredi household and school libraries contain non-Jewish books, they almost never contain Jewish books from non-Haredi authors or publishers.
There is a relatively small number of Haredi publishers even in 2020, and at the very beginning of the existence of Haredi children’s literature, there were only four: Feldheim, Artscroll-Mesorah, CIS, and Hachai Publishers. Each of these publishers started independently of each other, with founding dates spanning from 1939 to 1989, and two did not publish children’s books until they had been in business for some time.
I’m focusing on American Haredi children’s literature produced between the years 1980 and 2000 for a few reasons. First of all, there is little to study before this: the earliest American Haredi children’s texts appear at the tail end of the 1970s, growing exponentially in the 1980s. Through the end of the 1990s, the market of American Haredi children’s literature was dominated by four main publishers: Feldheim, Artscroll-Mesorah, CIS, and Hachai. Towards the end of the 1970s, independent groups had begun to publish books aimed at Haredi children, some of which were picked up by Artscroll.
For example, the Dov Dov books:
The first of these short story collections appeared in the late 1970s in pamphlet-form, published by “Dov Dov Publications” and printed by Gross Printers. In the early 1980s, Artscroll printed additional Dov Dov short story collections under their imprint The Artscroll Youth Series.
After 2000, another growth in the industry occurred, with many more publishers appearing on the scene. They often worked in conjunction with Feldheim and Artscroll-Mesorah for help with distribution while still retaining their own distinct characters. This creates clear boundaries for where my study should begin and end: It begins with the first appearance of Haredi children’s texts, and it ends when the market for Haredi children’s texts expands beyond the core few publishers that dominated these two decades.
In addition to the obvious marketing trends, significant cultural shifts also occurred at the turn of the decades marking the beginning and end of my study. As Samuel Heilman, Yoel Finkelman, and Jeremy Stolow discuss in their surveys of American Haredi literature and of Artscroll-Mesorah, the 1980s was a crucial time for the rise of American Haredi ideology. Although the insularity of the American Haredi community began at least as far back as 1960, the 1980s saw a tightening ideology of insularity and distinction from mainstream society, a reaction against the perception of moral depravity in secular America, among other factors.
The final year of my study, 2000, also marks a shift in American Haredi culture. While the 1980s saw a growing insularity, the 2000s saw a move away from insularity. When I began my study, relying on personal memory and research of the years 1980-2000, I was confident in my claim that Haredi literature excludes certain genres, most significantly science fiction and fantasy. While this is certainly true of the decades before 2000, there have been a significant number of fantasy novels written and published in American Haredi children’s literature since then.
This is indicative of a continuation of the phenomenon that Finkelman discusses: while the Haredi community espouses insularity and distinction, it creates materials that draw heavily from secular American culture. The fantasy novels of the post-2000 decades display a distinctive Haredi Jewishness, but they undoubtedly belong to the same genre as Harry Potter, a series banned by most American Haredi schools and summer camps in the 1990s and early 2000s.
One of my arguments based on this narrative, with watershed moments occurring every 20 years, or the span of a generation, is that children’s literature is crucial to the development of Haredi ideology – the rapid ideological change, more rapid than even the rise of the Christian Right, is in large part due to the changing face of the literature and opportunities for writing made available to Haredi children, in what I call a limited literacy sponsorscape.
In her 1998 paper on “Sponsors of Literacy,” Deborah Brandt demonstrates how the kinds of literacy someone has access to affects the ways their literacy grows. Her case studies indicate that the child’s socioeconomic environment and political surroundings will influence the modes of rhetoric they engage in later in life. Moving beyond the idea of access to texts and literacy education, Brandt explores how the various kinds of literacy a child is exposed to will affect the development of their literacy and the ways they engage with the world. More specifically, she argues that a child has access to literacy through sponsors, and that these sponsors “deliver the ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have” (168). The child’s parents, teachers, librarians, and religious leaders – among others – provide access to the various forms of literacy a child will encounter. And each one of these sponsors presents that access with embedded ideologies, not only in the content but in the form and rhetoric of the texts and engagement with the texts. They “enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy – and gain advantage by it” (166).
Further studies have taken up Brandt’s ideas of literacy sponsors and extended the analysis to focus on literacy sponsorscapes, focusing not only on the individual sponsors that appear in a child’s life but, more importantly, on the cumulative effects of the networks and relationships among those sponsors. Catherine Compton-Lilly, for example, in her 2017 publication of a longitudinal study following a group of students and their families from elementary school through high school, analyzes the effects of the relationships among the numerous environments in one student’s life. In addition to the individual sponsors – home and school – the tensions between the sponsors affect the child’s (or adolescent’s) literacies.
Although Compton-Lilly’s case study demonstrates the negative effects of tension between literacy sponsors, because the school misunderstands and misreads the contexts of the student’s home and social lives, tensions between sponsors of literacy is usually a positive force. Since, as Brandt’s seminal essay explains, the various sponsors deliver “ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have” (168), if numerous sponsors provide access to literacy with varying ideological freight, the child will experience more than one underlying ideology. Being tasked with navigating a multiplicity of worldviews is assumed by most educators and scholars of rhetoric to be a good thing. It trains the child in considering multiple ideas and making critical decisions about which to align themselves with, and it encourages tolerance of diverse opinions and thoughts.
The American Haredi child attending Haredi schools and raised in Haredi communities does not experience as much tension as their public-school counterparts. Mainstream American sponsors of literacy include parents, educators (including the government and individual teachers and administrators), publishers of popular books as well as textbooks, libraries and librarians, religious leaders and communities, and social groups. All of those exist in Haredi children’s lives as well, with the possible exception of the government’s involvement in education policies. But the ideological freight delivered by each of these sponsoring bodies is less diverse than that of their mainstream counterparts. Where a child in mainstream America may be exposed to varying ideologies from the books their teachers assign versus the books that they have access to in their public library, a Haredi child is more limited. Many Haredi schools prohibit their students from using the public library, for example, and Haredi children have access only to books deemed appropriate enough to be included in the school library.
In addition, there is much overlap in the leadership of the sponsoring institutions. For example: Artscroll runs the TextWords imprint, providing Haredi schools with literature textbooks and editions of Shakespeare – which means that two sponsors of literacy – popular publishing and textbook publishing – are one and the same in the Haredi world.
A more extended and complex example: Some of the first children’s literature to be published by Haredi institutions was a monthly magazine called Olomeinu / Our World, published by Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools The editor in 1960s was Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, a teacher in boys’ yeshivas who later became the editor of The Jewish Observer, the monthly magazine published by Agudath Israel of America, the leading organization for Orthodox Jews in America. Wolpin’s involvement in these two organizations (Torah Umesorah and Agudath Israel of America), as well as his experience as a teacher, is an indication of the overlap among the sponsors of literacy for Haredi children. In the 1960s, children would read magazines he edited. In the 1970s, their parents would read magazines he edited and continue to pass his ideologies on to their children.
After Rabbi Wolpin left the children’s magazine (Olomeinu) to lead the adults’ magazine (The Jewish Observer) in 1970, Rabbi Nosson Scherman became the editor of Olomeinu. Scherman had been writing articles for Olomeinu for a while by then, including features on prayer and great rabbinic leaders. He taught in a boys’ yeshiva (Torah VoDaas of Flatbush, later Yeshiva Torah Temimah) (Hoffman). From 1970 to 2009, Scherman is listed as the editor of the Olomeinu. In 1975, he and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz began publishing English translations of Biblical, Talmudic, and Rabbinic texts and founded Artscroll-Mesorah Publications, which quickly became one of the leading publishers of Haredi texts. In 1989, while Scherman was still editing the Olomeinu, Artscroll published its first children’s book: The Best of Olomeinu, a collection of stories from the pages of the children’s magazine over the previous decades. After that, Artscroll published many books for teens and children. As recently as January 1, 2020, at the gathering to celebrate the completion of a 7-year cycle of studying the Talmud, Scherman led the children’s portion of the celebration.
With the literacy sponsorscape of Haredi children so interwoven, it’s clear that the ideological freight being delivered by the various sponsors is not diverse and does not ask the child to grapple with competing ideologies. In the minds of the Haredi leadership, this is a benefit rather than a drawback. While the links between the various sponsors of literacy is not a deliberate attempt to limit children’s access to a diversity of literacy approaches and ideas, it is a manifestation of the underlying ideology.
With all that in mind, I want to move now to look briefly at some specific genres and texts in the corpus of Haredi children’s literature. I’ll start with the Olomeinu, because that was first on the scene and because its impressively long run makes it a useful touchstone for tracking the development of Haredi literature and ideology.
At first, Olomeinu was very much an American-Jewish magazine, for children whose connection to America was of near-equal importance as their connection to Judaism. Issues from the 1940s and 1950s often ran features like “An Early American [Holiday]” or biographical sketches of famous early American rabbis and Jews. In stories about contemporary kids and in write-ups of individual readers, the children had names like “Harry” and “Cynthia,” rather than Hebrew or Yiddish names. Coverage of the creation of the State of Israel focused quite a bit on politics, though the magazine was never aligned with Zionism (the Haredi world, unlike the Modern Orthodox world, was never and still isn’t Zionist, but has a complex relationship with the State).
Towards the end of the academic year 1959-1960, Torah Umesorah (the publisher of Olomeinu) suffered financial difficulties. The magazine took a hiatus but was able to continue printing in 1960 thanks to a sizable donation from a community philanthropist. Their renewed magazine had a design makeover, and it also changed subtly in its ideological content. Children writing in still had American names, but children in the stories were more likely to be named “Eliyahu” and “Yocheved” than Harry or Cynthia. Biographical sketches of rabbis continued, but the emphasis was on Eastern European rabbis or American rabbis who “rebuilt” Orthodox Judaism in America after the Holocaust, rather than features on “early American rabbis.” Coverage of Israel dropped all mention of politics and instead focused on mitzvos that are unique to the land of Israel or coverage of religious events and institutions in Israel. The magazine changed subtly again in the 1980s, but those changes are too subtle for me to track in an overview like I’m doing today.
But the 1980s was also when Haredi publishers began to produce books for children, so I’ll turn to that now.
Some of the first books to be printed for Haredi children were very clearly inspired by popular mainstream American children’s fiction. Gemarakup was a series about a very smart boy with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Talmud (the Gemara), who was able to solve mysteries ranging from school-level accusations of stolen snacks to government-level terrorist threats. It is quite clearly modeled on Encyclopedia Brown – it follows the same format, asking readers to turn to the back at the end of each short story, where the solutions can be found.
Another very popular series was the B.Y. Times – B.Y. standing for Bais Yaakov, the generic term for Haredi girls’ schools. The series follows a group of middle school girls who run a school newspaper. It echoes The Babysitters Club series, providing a glimpse into the lives of the girls at school, at home, and in their social circles. These books don’t make their connection to the secular series explicit, but they are an obvious attempt to provide Haredi children an alternative to the popularity of books that depict non-Jewish families, characters, and situations.
Other cultural artifacts like Torah Cards and children’s music and storytapes follow the same pattern, with the creator of Torah Cards explicitly saying that he created them to provide Haredi boys an alternative to collecting baseball cards.
Haredi picture books have less of that one-to-one comparison. But they function in similar ways, taking mainstream secular themes and putting a Haredi spin on them.
Here are three examples: The Little Old Lady Who Couldn’t Fall Asleep tells a story about children who make so much noise at night that their elderly neighbor can’t sleep. Eli and His Little White Lie is a story about a boy who tells a harmless lie and gains a fluffy white “lie” on his shoulder, which grows and grows until it takes over his life and makes him miserable. Messes of Dresses tells a story about a girl who has lots of friends and only two dresses until Sarah Saks from Fifth Avenue comes to offer her loads of fancy dresses. She loses all her friends because she’s so obsessed with getting the latest styles and she has no room for hosting guests, until she comes to her senses and gets rid of her dresses except for her two original dresses, and all her friends come back.
All these books teach basic character traits that you might find in mainstream books: being considerate of others, being truthful, and valuing friendship over possessions. But the books are uniquely Haredi in the way they end: with a verse from Torah or Talmud to encapsulate the lesson.
The lesson of The Little Old Lady WHo Couldn’t Fall Asleep is “Ve’ahavta LeRe’acha Kamocha,” usually translated as “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” here translated as “You shall love and care for your neighbors and friends.” The lesson of Eli and His Little White Lie is “Midvar Sheker Tirchak, Keep far away from lies,” and the lesson of Messes of Dresses is “Aizehu ashir, hasame’ach be-chelko, Who is rich? One who is satisfied with what he has.” Everything – even social competence and intelligence – is tied back to Torah and rabbinic authority.
What I presented in this paper is really just an overview of the work I’ve begun to do. My basic arguments and conclusion center on these points, as I hope I’ve explained clearly by now:
Haredi ideology of insularity and distinction offset by clear American influences
Limited sponsorscape of Haredi children’s literacy
Rapid ideological change due to changes in children’s books
Last semester, I tried something new with my early Brit Lit survey class. I assigned texts completely out of chronological order. Some of my friends were very skeptical, warning me that my students would be confused and wouldn’t walk away with an understanding of the history. I found that not to be the case. Partly that’s because I assigned a timeline infographic towards the end of the semester, which forced students to remember that they’ve been reading the texts out of order and to actively move them from the syllabus’s arrangement to a chronological arrangement.
But actually, I’m not too bothered if my students don’t know exactly which texts fall into the early medieval period, the later medieval period, or the early modern period. My thinking on this has changed quite a bit. I used to think it was essential that students understand the sweep of history. I used to think it was essential for them to understand the historical context within which the texts were written and read. And don’t get me wrong, I still think that’s important, and I spend a good deal of lecture on contextualizing this for my students. But the majority of my students are preparing to teach at the middle-school or elementary-school levels. It doesn’t really matter if they know these details. They need to learn how to analyze texts, they need to be aware of the multiple conversations and controversies that surround texts in general (not necessarily the texts I’m teaching them).
I was very satisfied with the results of the timeline exercise and I’m going to repeat it in the spring semester.
I wasn’t entirely sure of the success of my organization of texts by genre, starting with poetry. But my students in fall 2019 told me it worked well. So despite my slight misgivings about starting with poetry, which I thought caused my students to struggle unnecessarily at the very beginning of the semester, I’m sticking with it. I am, however, devoting more time to that section and beginning with a clear look at how to do close readings and analysis.
I also added a secondary reading: the first chapter of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s book The Dark Fantastic. Sure, the book is about contemporary fantasy. But it contains a lot of theory that will be very useful grounding for our discussions of many texts.
One more change I made to the syllabus this semester was to add poetry by Meir of Norwich. I had attempted too much last semester and had to cut King of Tars. I taught Silence for the first time last semester, and I had to take weeks away from King of Tars because my students were really struggling with Silence. I’m keeping them both on the syllabus this time, and will be more prepared for Silence than I was last semester! (Yes, I blame my students’ struggles with that text on this being the first time I taught it. I can prepare them better now that I now what to expect.)
English 336: Critical Approaches to Adolescent Literature
For this syllabus, which I’ve taught once before (as opposed to 301, whose spring 2020 section will be the 5th or 6th time I teach it), I completely changed everything. Last year when I taught this course, I was very concerned with covering as many genres and issues as I could. This worked fine, but not great – not least because I was still focused on providing a historical overview of the YA category, how it developed, etc. This time around, I decided – screw that. Again, most of my students are going to be teaching. They would be better served if I gave them the cutting-edge YA books, the books published within the past few years, instead of books which are no longer representative of the market. As with the 301 class, I will make up for this through a non-essay assignment: Each student will create a reading list of their own, centered around three themes or topics. One of the requirements will be that they need to include one book from at least 3 different decades. (They will not be required to read these books, just to gather a bibiliography.)
I was still struggling with how to choose from the wealth of books published in the last few years, though. After chatting with some authors and professors of YA literature on Twitter and Facebook, I discovered one thing that made my whole syllabus fall into place. Dr. Nabilah Khachab asked me if I have a theme for the course, and I said no – the course just tries to give as broad a view of YA lit as possible. As I continued considering books, I realized that of course – I need a theme! And not only that, I already have a semi-theme embedded in my course description! So I leaned into that (the voices of YA, the possibilities that YA offers to marginalized voices) and that helped me choose my books, arrange their order, and get it all done.
Because this is a combined section, with both English majors taking this as an elective and non-English majors taking it as a required General Education course, I am not assigning secondary readings. I had originally planned to assign chapters from Disturbing the Universe, Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction, and The Dark Fantastic. Instead, I’m just going to create PowerPoints and lectures from each text, and provide that to my students.
Over the past few months, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole that’s hard to dig myself out of – and I don’t particularly want to.
My dissertation is about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children’s literature, with a focus on the decades of 1980-2000. My initial idea was that I would focus on four publishers (Artscroll-Mesorah, Feldheim, Hachai, and CIS), and I would study the children’s and teens’ books they published during those two decades. I knew I wanted to include analysis of schools and educational settings as well, but the main focus was going to be on the books.
Then I read more, and even more, and things shifted slightly, and then again – and before I knew it I was more focused on literacy and the world of the Haredi child reader during these decades.
My intended brief look at Olomeinu magazines turned into a full-blown intense study, as I uncovered and discovered more and more fascinating details about the magazine, its connections to various religious and literary factors, and the people involved in running it from 1960 onward.
So while I’ve continued to read about things like portrayal of the Holocaust in children’s literature, character focalization in children’s literature, history textbooks across the world, etc. – I’ve also been doing lots of intense study of the Olomeinu magazine.
I’m more focused now on discourse analysis. To that end, I’ve been gathering data in a spreadsheet, noting as much information as I can about each issue. The more I work with the magazine issues, the more I notice details I should have been noting all along – which means eventually I’ll do a second and third run over all these, making sure I have all the info I need from each issue. Meanwhile, here’s my working document:
Despite its messiness and clunkiness, this spreadsheet is a major improvement from what I had been doing before. At first, I was trying to track features across issues, so I had columns labeled with recurring features like “Mommy’s Favorite Stories” and “Mitzvah of the Month.”
That proved to be cumbersome and impossible, because new features were constantly being introduced from year to year, and some features had their names tweaked over the decades – and that is important to consider in my study!
So I switched to simply documenting the features of each issue, leaving the patterns for later. My next step – which I haven’t figured out exactly how to do yet – is to tag each feature with topics. I want to track topics like the Holocaust, Israel, and chagim. I also want to track their sub-topics: how many pieces on the Holocaust focus on faith, Nazi brutality, Jewish suffering, etc., for example? Is there a trend over the decades?
Another aspect of my examination will be on a more granular level. I started working with issues I was able to download from chinuch.org, and supplemented that with a collection lent to me by a friend. I scanned all the issues I had in physical copies (I still don’t have a complete set!) and ran them through OCR so that I could copy the text over into various other documents. Again, I’m not entirely sure yet how I’ll accomplish this next bit, but I want to think about the words used in each issue, each year, each decade…
I started playing around with this using a word cloud program (partly for fun, partly to motivate me to finish the tedious task of cataloging all the individual issues). I just pasted the text – minus Hebrew words – into the program. That means that words like “Olomeinu” (which appears at the bottom of every page) are over-represented. When it’s time to do this “for real,” I’ll clean the text before running it through a program. Some basic results:
I’m far from done, and I’m of course considering the historical contexts in addition to this granular examination. But I’m excited about the insights this level of analysis will yield! (Also, I get to play with cool toys 😉)
Once again this semester, I’m teaching composition at a new campus. Ah, the life of an adjunct!
This time I was given a required textbook with writing instruction and readings, as well as a required sequence of essays. I have used chapters from that textbook before. I like the premise of the book, and I like a couple of its chapters. But I don’t like its overall structure. In my opinion, it doesn’t teach the basics of writing. It talks about the complexities of entering academic conversations, and it talks about broad rhetorical moves – but it does so in mostly theoretical terms, without specifics.
The department’s handbook stipulates that we may provide a few additional texts, but that the majority of assigned reading should be from the book. I see the point of that, of course, for a number of reasons – not least the financial burden of making students buy a book they won’t use for most of the class!
And since I picked up this class exactly four days before the first session, I was perfectly okay with just finding texts from the book.
The slight hitch in that was that the department didn’t have copies of the textbook to give new adjuncts yet, and they were relying on the company rep to give adjuncts electronic access. By the time I spoke to the director and was officially given the class, though, it was past 5pm on Friday, which meant that the company rep was out of the office and I didn’t get access until Monday morning – and I needed to have my syllabus all ready to go by Tuesday morning. So I used an old edition of the book, along with the freely-accessible online table of contents of the new edition, and slapped together a syllabus. I never did get a physical copy of the book, and I’m not able to print directly from the ebook, but I’ve been making do.
For the first few weeks of the semester, things were going okay. My students were quiet and didn’t really respond to my efforts to draw them out during class discussions. But we began to read texts and break them down; we read a couple of chapters about critical reading and about how texts position themselves in broader conversations; and a few students began to have ideas of their own in response to the texts we read.
I thought, at first, that the lack of engagement and participation was due to the early morning class (8am, dear lord – how many times have I said never again to early morning classes and yet went with it when one was offered to me later…), or the difference in campuses (this is my first class in a community college), or just the combined personalities of the students – which often is a major factor in determining how the class goes.
It wasn’t such a big deal for the first month. I wasn’t enjoying class as much as I usually do, but that’s not always a possibility. I assigned a lot of groupwork to avoid the excruciating silences during full-class discussion, but even during groupwork there was barely any interaction.
By the time I was receiving drafts of their first paper, students began to miss class more often, come to class without reading or without the text – a few students hadn’t even gotten the text by a month and a half into the semester. It felt like I was letting them down, but I was out of ideas. I suspected that these things were all connected to a lack of interest, and perhaps a lack of motivation. I was frustrated and resigned to not getting through to my students.
But one week the frustration bubbled over and I said, screw it, I’m redoing the syllabus and forgetting about the writing chapters of the textbook. I’ll use a couple readings from the textbook, but then just forget about it and use all of my own materials and sequences I’ve gathered over the past six years of teaching college composition.
We had already started working on the second essay. Students had submitted topic proposals; started doing research after a library visit; and were supposed to submit a first draft that week. I sent around an email – followed up by a second email to make sure everyone got it – telling them NOT to write that first draft, that we would be rewinding and going over some basics first.
I also decided to do some silly exercises at the start of each class to get students up and moving and talking to each other.
Both of those decisions turned out to be very excellent decisions.
The activity I did – just for fun – was this:
1. Write down five superpowers you would like to have. 2. Assign a value from 1 to 5 for each superpower, based on how much you value it. 3. Talk to your classmates and negotiate trades based on how much you and/or your classmates value each superpower. Make at least 3 trades.
I chose this activity for two purposes: 1. to get them all up and moving, to get the blood pumping and wake them up; and 2. to get them talking to each other, which might help conversations about classwork.
The effects of the activity were immediately obvious. When we all sat down to begin the lesson, students were more relaxed and slightly more alert than usual.
Despite the fact that by that time students had started doing research, based on strategies given to them by the librarian and by the textbook, I went over the skill again, this time using my own tried-and-true methods. I emphasized the need for a research question, I went over the need for establishing a “so what” at the start of research, etc. I used a worksheet I “stole” from UC Merced and revised a bit to fit my purposes. We went through the two filled-in rows together, discussing how it helps to have all this in mind before beginning research and before settling on a thesis.
I then divided the room into quadrants, with each one assigned one of the remaining four topics and research questions. Each group filled out the underlying problems and significance columns, did some quick little research on their phones, and wrote a potential thesis statement.
Each group shared their thesis statement, and I asked some questions about their process and reasoning. More than the theoretical discussion of how research is a conversation, this hands-on work allowed the students to see how research is a conversation (which the textbook’s end-of-chapter exercises did not effectively do).
Once we had done this exercise, I asked students to think about the topics they had chosen for their second essay (based on the readings from the textbook about various food-related topics), and phrase their interest as a question. Their homework for the following class was to fill out the remaining columns and revise (or write for the first time) a potential thesis statement.
I reminded them to bring their superpower papers with them to class the following session. At this point I had literally no idea what I would do with it. I thought maybe I could use this as an extended role-play game. Superheroes and role play are so not my jam – but if it gets my students energetic and talking and alert and engaged, then so be it!
Prepping for the following class made me see how I could actually incorporate the superhero activity into the lesson itself, though…
The pre-class activity (with the same two purposes of getting students up and energized and getting them talking to each other) was this:
Once the pairs of students had negotiated teams and settled down in pairs, I went over a handout about the five elements of a paragraph (which I got from my colleague Sarah Hildebrand):
I then asked each team to write:
A thesis statement claiming that their team is the best.
A paragraph structured according to these five elements that supports the thesis and includes “textual evidence” by citing events or situations from existing superheroes.
While previous sessions groupwork – using the exercises from the textbook based on readings drawn from newspapers and blogs, etc., were subdued and failed to engage students – this activity generated animated conversation from students whose voices I had barely heard all semester.
I circulated among the groups, as I always do, answering questions and guiding students. I know virtually nothing about most superheroes, and I made that clear – which led to my students excitedly telling me about their favorite superheroes and explaining things in ways that allowed me to say “yes! Put that in your paragraph!”
So seriously – screw the textbook. Maybe I was following the rules too closely and I was never expected to just give up my personal methods. But whether or not that is expected of me, I’m not doing it anymore. My students are learning. They will be able to do well on their essays and their final exam. I saw major leaps and bounds of improvement in students writing – students who I thought were listless and not putting in effort.
I feel like – two months into the 3.5-month semester – I was finally getting to know my students.
In my composition class this week, my students read an essay by Gabriela Moro, “Minority Student Clubs: Segregation or Integration?” Over the past week and a half, we’ve discussed how to summarize and respond to an author’s argument, in preparation for their first essay assignment (a textual analysis). But as much as I tried getting discussion going, no matter how provocative I got, my students were not responding. They were willing to answer questions, they were okay with listening to me talk and with writing things down when I asked them to. And they were okay with working in groups. But in full-class discussions, when I wanted them to talk to each other, I was just met with a wall of silence. Not antagonistic silence – just silence.
So I decided to plan this week’s lesson around groupwork with only short breaks for full-class discussion.
I started, as I always do, with a “Write Now” asking them to plan a student club. The prompt was brief: Plan a student club, thinking about its mission and activities. I gave them a shorter amount of time than usual (I usually allow 15 minutes for free-writing to start class, and this time it was just about 7 minutes).
Then we got down to business.
I asked students to get into groups of four, share their club ideas with their group members, and write a mock-application. Pretend you’re actually trying to apply to Student Affairs, asking for permission to create your club. And pretend you’re actually trying to convince your fellow students to join your club. What is the purpose of the club? What do you plan to do in this club? How can you write that up into a mission statement? They did not need to explicitly engage with the debate of the text – minority student clubs – but I did encourage them to do so if they wanted to.
After a half hour of planning, during which I circulated and prodded them to think more deeply about purpose, I explained to them what tabling at a club fair would look like, and asked them to pitch their clubs to me and to their classmates. I used the first group (who I knew had a solid proposal) as an example, asking them questions in the role of a student. By the end of this activity, students were actually calling out to ask each other questions! I was so proud of my rowdy little bunch.
The club ideas they came up with weren’t too bad, either.
My purpose for this class was mostly just to get students comfortable with talking in class. The content of the essay was not the main point of the class, to be honest – but we managed to come back around to it after they got thinking about the purposes for their clubs, and tying those thought processes to what Moro says about the uses and effects of minority student clubs.
When I tried to get them to discuss that in a full-class discussion, they went silent again. Work in progress!!
In my class on children’s literature this week, I assigned their first essay of the semester: a close reading paper (loosely defined). The assignment:
Choose one item from Freak the Mighty. Track that item through the text. Find two orthree moments in the text where that item has a significant role or comes under discussion by the characters or the narrator. Write a 2-3 page paper analyzing the item within the context of the text.
For my first few semesters of teaching literature, I didn’t spend a lot of time teaching students how to write. They learn that in Intro to Literary Studies, right? That might be the idea behind sequenced courses. But in reality, we know that just because students took a class on writing, that doesn’t mean they can thenceforth write brilliant papers on command. As with any skill, it requires practice.
So for a while I amended my syllabus and started devoting one-hour sessions to peer review and revision sessions. But that didn’t work either – I needed to teach them how to write before asking them to write. And I then needed to give them a chance to revise. And I foresaw my literature class turning into a writing class…
After months of talking to my mentors and colleagues, I was able to construct my syllabus and assignments so that the “talking about the book” portion directly teaches about essay-writing. And so far, I am more than pleased with how it’s working.
Here’s how it went down this week:
The text for this week (a 2.5-hour long class that meets once a week) was Freak the Mighty. As I always do, I started class with a “Write Now” – a prompt on the board that students come to expect. It works well as an opening activity because 1) I can direct students to thinking about specific points I may want to raise, and 2) it allows latecomers to catch up.
This week’s prompt was:
After about ten minutes of quiet writing, I asked students to put that sheet of paper away. We went on with the lesson, talking about multiple aspects of the book with a focus on realism as a genre, and dis/ability studies.
For the last hour of class, I assigned groupwork. Each group of 3 students chose one character from the text and tracked that character. The instructions were to first find a few key passages where that character talks, acts, or is talked about, and note the citations and some impressions of characterization. Then, each group talked about what they had found and tried to answer whether and how the character changed and/or our perception of the character changed.
I circulated among the groups for half an hour, guiding and correcting and making sure students stayed on track. We then came back together as a class and each group shared their results. I asked each group to structure their “presentations” by beginning with a thesis (their conclusion/argument about whether and how the character changed), following it up with evidence (the passages they cited), and finishing with a conclusion (a repetition of their argument to remind us what they just proved).
Two groups who had chosen to focus on Gram came to very different conclusions, so I started with those groups.
One group argued that Gram changed from being apprehensive about Max to being affectionate and loving. For evidence, they used the moment at the beginning of the novel when Max says Gram touched him with a light, feathery touch; and the moment at the end of the novel when Max says Gram hugs him really tight.
The other group argued that Gram did not change, but Max’s perception of her did change – that Max thought she didn’t love him and was terrified of him at first, but ultimately came to accept her love. They argued that through examining the character of Gram, they were in fact able to gain more insight into Max’s character. For evidence, they used the same moments as the previous group…
I began with these two groups because I knew they had different theses (from my rounds during groupwork), and I wanted to use that to demonstrate that the same text can be used to argue completely different things. Later, the same thing happened with two groups that had tracked Max’s levels of confidence throughout the novel.
Each group presented their findings, and I insisted on the structure: first the thesis; then the evidence; then the conclusion.
In the last 15 minutes of class, I distributed the essay assignment sheet. In addition to the essay prompt above, the sheet includes a “WHAT” and a “WHY section:
WHAT: A close reading asks you to narrow your focus to ONE aspect of a text.
WHY: 1) Trying to analyze an entire text can be daunting. Narrowing your focus and analyzing a single aspect of the text helps you get at some ideas more easily. 2) Any larger analysis of a text needs to use concrete evidence from the text. Having the skill of close reading will help you do that.
After the prompt, I provided an example:
Example: Books. You might track the dictionary that Kevin makes for Max and the blank journal that Kevin gives Max. Looking at the significance of each scene, you might conclude that the dictionary demonstrates the pair’s thirst for knowledge and the journal demonstrates the pair’s desire to be remembered and to have an impact on the world. You might then note that the first gift (a dictionary) helps Max learn words, and the second gift (a blank journal) invites Max to write his own words. Your thesis might then be something like this:
“Kevin and Max are both seen as outsiders in the world they live in. They both want to be remembered and leave an impact on the world. Kevin’s two gifts to Max, the dictionary and the blank journal, indicate that given the right tools, anyone is capable of expressing themselves and leaving their mark on the world.”
Your essay will then analyze these two gifts, and make a case for how each represents a step in learning self-expression, etc.
I pointed out to my students that they had already used the skills necessary for this essay: they had tracked characters and analyzed them, and the essay asks them to track objects and analyze them. And they already had some ideas of which objects seem significant to them, from their “Write Now” exercise.
Students were excited at this and pulled out their free-writes from the beginning of class. Wheels started turning, and students asked me about specific ideas and potential thesis statements.
It was the most productive essay assignment session I’ve ever had.
On the first day of my English 101 class, I had my students do an activity I called “Syllabus Hunt.” The goal was simple: get students used to looking for information in the syllabus.
This was the earliest possible class: 8am on the very first day of the fall semester. Every student is required to take English 101 in their first semester, and this is a community college, so I was 99% sure that all my students would be entering a college classroom for the first time the morning of my class. I asked them if this was true, and all but one student said yes – they had never been in any college classes and had never seen a college syllabus before.
Assuming students know how to read a syllabus and what kind of information they should expect to find there is always a bad idea, in any level class. But going over the syllabus, reading it section by section, is a monumental waste of precious time. It does nothing to propel the class along, it’s boring, it puts students (and professor, usually!) into a stupor.
Confession: there were at least four goals I had in mind for this activity. Yes, the first goal was to get students used to looking for information in the syllabus. The second was to set the tone for the semester, by showing students that their minds would need to be active, that they should not get used to being passive recipients of knowledge. The third was to get them talking to each other, because discussion in English 101 is so important. And the fourth was to begin giving them practice in citing, as well as using citations to find information.
The activity accomplished all of these goals.
I tried this activity in my upper-level class the next day, and it worked okay, but not as well. That might be because students in an upper-level course have all seen syllabi before; it might be because I had other groupwork that accomplished the other goals in that class; it might be because that class is a 2.5-hr evening class rather than a 1.5-hr early morning class… Whatever the reason, I didn’t attempt it in my third class of the semester the next day, another upper-level evening class.
Here’s how the activity went:
First of all, I went over the course info and course description with them. We took a brief look at the reading and writing assignment schedule, and spent more time on it afterwards. This activity was really all about the policies and resources.
I had prepared four scenarios and put two scenarios on each half-paper, forming two “groups.”
Each student got one half-paper at random. I asked them to put their name at the top, and to add their email if they were comfortable giving their email to a classmate.
They then read their two scenarios and tried to find the page on which they could find the answer. They were instructed not to write the answer, just the citation for the page where the information can be found.
Once everyone was done, I asked them to get up, mingle in the center of the room, and find someone from the opposite group with whom to switch papers.
With a new paper in hand, they sat back down and used their classmates’ citations to look up and write down the answers to what to do in each scenario.
Finally, we reviewed the answers as a class and I took questions on the whole syllabus.
And okay, a fifth goal: They now had a classmate’s contact information, so if they miss class or are confused about an assignment, they can ask a buddy or form a study group and save emailing me for a second or third option…