Friday, November 17, 2006

Teaching In A Video Age

Recently, my department head gave me an essay by Sven Birkerts entitled "Teaching In A Video Age." In the essay, Sven articulates a universal frustration of writing teachers, students (in)ability to sustain in-depth thought in their writing. He wonders if, since he's been teaching for many years, the change he's seeing is due to the digital age. Although the essay was published in 1992, it's applicable to the world of text messaging, iPods, PSPs, blogs, wikis, YouTube, etc. For this reason alone, the essay is a thought-provoking, reflection-inducing read. But what I took from it, specifically from the following excerpt is a close reading activity that I tried (or actually as Sven did, went back to) in my composition class this week with great results.
First, he establishes some perspective in the following quote, which also goes well with one of my other postings, "An Introduction to Poetry."
"...the close-reading process [should] never be allowed to overwhelm everything else"(97).

The activity:
"'Take out a sheet of paper. I want you to find a way to characterize your morning thus far. Give us a story, an episode, a dialogue, whatever you like. But it has to be interesting, and it has to win us over. You have fifteen minutes.' Or else: "You are a book reviewer for a nationally syndicated radio program, something on the order of All Things Considered. You have a two-minute slot in which to render your verdict of [say] Eudora Welty's 'Why I Live at the P.O.' You have to convey something of what the story is like, and you have to keep your easily bored listeners from switching the dial."
At the end of fifteen minutes, I collect the papers. I have asked them to work anonymously. I tell them, further, that if they absolutely hate what they have produced, they should write NO on top of the page. Some do. but most are eager to hear their words read aloud.
I then go through the pieces in sequence, reading them and soliciting responses. 'Do you want to hear more? Does this work? Is the attention needle moving, twitching, or is it at rest? Why?' Then, working from memory, they have to specify their reactions. Why is it dull? The words, the cadences? Why did you laugh there? Can you remember a sentence, an image? How would you change it to make it better?"

I used the activity alongside the writing of a mental model essay about a person whose thinking and/or behavior is not understood by the writer. They had to characterize the person and/or advertise the essay.

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