Saturday, July 30, 2016

Close Reading, Improved Writing, and Service Learning: A Virtuous Circle!

I'm in Vermont at the Bread Loaf School of English, a Middlebury College program in which the students, primarily high school and middle school English teachers, can get a Master's degree in the course of five summers. My wife has been teaching here every summer since 1992 and I enjoy the potential for (a) telecommuting and (b) swimming and hiking in Vermont.

In the past four years I've been doing an annual workshop on "Making Ethics part of High School and Middle School English Class." Working with the students here is a great pleasure and privilege. There's very little that's more important than educating the next generation.The teachers are doing God's work!

There were 18 participants in the workshop I did a week ago, plus three members of the Bread Loaf faculty. The participants taught in settings ranging from the Navajo Nation to public schools in urban and rural settings to elite independent schools.

We focused the workshop around a question that came from a 10th grade teacher, whose class does a service learning module that combines class discussion, a service project chosen by the student, and a research paper. She felt that the unit was well-intentioned, but many students experienced it as a burden, and it didn’t feel integrated with the rest of the semester’s work. She asked the group – did other teachers have ideas about how to make service learning more engaging for students? 

I’ve distilled 4 points from the wonderfully rich discussion:

1. English class is often asked to be the vehicle for humanistic goals in the school curriculum. Ideally, moral development and heightened humanism would be a goal for every component of the school  – inside and outside of class. But this kind of full court press rarely happens, and English teachers are asked to take the lead. Being looked to for leadership in moral development is a challenge and an opportunity! I mentioned to the group that my medical specialty – psychiatry – is in a similar situation. We’re often asked to be responsible for the “understanding the patient’s point of view” component of the medical school curriculum.

2. Several participants suggested that preparatory exercises can help students become more open to and engaged with reflection about values. A participant reported that hypothetical questions like “A lifeboat has 10 people but will sink from too much weight. Everyone will drown unless someone is thrown off. What should be done?” triggers lively discussion. Another participant described how she gives the class statements dealing with issues that come up in a book they are reading. Then she has them do “speed dating” – i.e., talking for 30 seconds with another student about their reactions to the statement. Another participant described how she did a similar exercise before reading Hamlet. She poses questions like “do you believe in ghosts?” or “if someone kills your father, should you kill that person for revenge” and asked students to stand up if they agreed. These teachers reported that like warming up before physical exercise, activities of this kind can help students “warm up” into a more reflective state of mind in which they are prepared to see ethics as something important to their lives.

3. When schools require service learning, unless students are prepared well they can cause harm when they enter into the space of those they are “serving.” And the very idea of doing “service for those in need” can create a noblesse oblige attitude (“the poor can’t help themselves – they need me to do this service for them…”) or cynicism (“this is just resum√© padding…”). Some argued that requiring service learning and giving academic credit for it is corrupting. But others who agreed that these risks are real nevertheless felt that some students who would never get involved on their own might be turned on and transformed by the service learning experience.

4. Independent schools and public schools in wealthy communities are increasingly sponsoring “voluntourism” – programs in which students go for a short time to a poorer country to do “service.” With rigorous preparation, a strong relationship with local community partners, and opportunity to reflect on the experience, these programs can be excellent learning opportunities for the students and even if not helpful at the “service” site, at least not harmful. A participant contrasted “asset based community development” to “voluntourism charity work”.” ABCD involves identifying the strengths in a community and helping the strengths to be extended. Another participant questioned why “voluntourism” programs travel to other countries when there are valuable opportunities to contribute in their own or nearby communities.  With regard to the stance of noblesse oblige” I mentioned a favorite quote from Thoreau: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life!”

The core idea that has emerged from the workshops is an understanding of a virtuous circle involving literature, writing, and social action, which I've represented in a diagram:

Close reading strengthens empathy and humanism by entering into the worlds that literature creates, and improved writing does the same by asking students to think about the audience they are speaking to and how they can best reach that audience. Understanding our values and biases and empathizing with perspectives of others even if we disagree with them increases “ethical sensitivity.” And when students identify values important to themselves and for their communities, they are primed for ethical activism on behalf of these commitments. Activism can create a virtuous circle by stimulating further learning opportunities that strengthen engagement with literature and writing. 

I hope the high school and middle school teachers learned as much as I did from the workshop!

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