Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Using Blog-Posts as In-Class Writing Assignments: An Experiment

Today, my first period English 12 class wrote a blog-post as an in-class writing assessment.  They've been reading Stephen King's Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and this was their assignment:  

My Favorite Book from the Shawshank Prison Library:  Andy DuFresne obviously believes that the prisoners of Shawshank need good books and can be helped by having a wide variety of books available to them.  If, like Andy DuFresne, you were in prison (!), what book would you want to have with you and why?  Explain how it would help you to deal with the challenges you would experience if you were deprived of most personal freedoms:  freedom of movement/travel, access to friends/family, access to the outdoors.  Think beyond simple entertainment value.  It should be a book you could read over and over again and learn more from each time.  Remember:  most book titles are italicized.

They had roughly half an hour to write their posts (though I gave them some hints last week about the topic), and I allowed them to help each other proofread their posts before they hit "Publish."  I'll be grading their posts over the next couple days, which, of course, means they can continue to edit until I get around to that (if they're paying attention, they'll see this, and continue to improve their posts!).  But you'll notice that this is a personal response assignment, not an assessment that measures their knowledge and retention of textual details.  

So I'm looking for good all-around writing skills as I also assess their ability to respond to the text by putting themselves in the main character's situation.  That involves imagining a condition (imprisonment) that most people can't connect with directly.  Using your imagination to put yourself in someone else's shoes, as the saying goes, is the whole point of literature.  That's what it's for.  

Perhaps you've heard the sayings "experience is the best teacher" or "learn from your mistakes."  We do indeed learn many important lessons, not only through direct experience, but also through making mistakes.  These are, however, painful and limited ways to learn.  No one lives long enough to learn everything one needs to know from experience alone.  And we are all limited by our circumstances, resources, and abilities.  Nor should we strive to make all the mistakes  we'd need to make in order to learn to live our lives well! 

Thus, the vicarious (or indirect) experience literature provides is invaluable.  Why learn from your own mistakes when you can learn by reading about the mistakes of others?  Learning from the experiences of literary characters is much more efficient, and perhaps even more effective, than learning from one's own experiences.  

I hope this assignment helps students in two way:  1, that it makes them imagine, however briefly, what it would be like to have access only to the world they carry in their imaginations; 2, that it reminds them they have intellectual resources, in the form of books, that can open their minds, expand their view of the world, and perhaps even set them free.  If one's imagination is rich enough, one's limited physical circumstances don't matter so much.  Back in the 1600s, Richard Lovelace said it best, in "To Althea, From Prison":  

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

Students in the same class read and acted out Lovelace's entire poem, and I filmed their performance.  Enjoy.  

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