Learning the unfamiliar

April 26
We are just 4 days away from the final drafts being turned in on the Unfamiliar Genre Project (UGP). So far the first draft results have been impressive because I see student creativity, student interest, student risk, and students reporting on their own learning, as well as supplying evidence of it. I also see unexpected yet welcome connections to free choice reading and democratic learning. [My student writer plans to have his father read and respond to his autobiographical piece, a choice inspired by his free reading. Last week he showed me his new Nook]

20130428-064933.jpg At the moment, I am thinking of my own learning, especially in light of this new genre I am studying–the unfamiliar genre paper itself (Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone, Fleischer and Andrew-Vaughn). If not a paradox, then perhaps at least a Mobius strip, that a new school report involving an unlimited possibility of genres in itself becomes a genre: not unlike the way found poetry becomes a genre of poetry.
So among kinds of writing classed as academic, the Unfamiliar Genre Report is a Report, constructed as it is out of letters, a research journal, experimental writing and early drafts in the student ‘s chosen genre, the final draft of the imitation itself, comments received from 3 readers, a proposal, and an annotated bibliography. Because I am looking for a series of components in this report genre, I could myself construct a How-To-Book for it, just as I and the students have done in our personal genres for this project, and the above pieces would be named in it, with the identifying features of each listed on facing pages, the “craft” and “content” of each enumerated generally first, and then by genre-specific samples we view, and finally describing the way each of our own imitations fulfills or deviates from these expectations, as Fleischer and Andrew-Vaughn suggest.IMG_0522
Really, then, while students are researching and attempting practice in a challenging genre fairly new to them, and at the same time building toward mastery of skills required for genres with which they have had experience, I am learning about both them and the new report genre through reading so many examples of the UGP.
The delightful and surprising moments came to me in two ways over the past 10 days. Naturally as I read their imitations, whose breadth and scope pleased me because of the diversity, I celebrated student creativity and became grateful to them (and for them) for risking with me together over the course of this journey, by plunging into the task and giving it a true effort which clearly involved them directly. I saw evidence of their engagement with language as they wrote for real audiences, adapted their writing to genre structures and feedback from peers and parents, and actually attempted several imitations before settling on one as the best. It seemed to me natural that my students would and could achieve such creative and praiseworthy outcomes at the end of a year of immersion in creative language; yet the surprise freshly registered for me this year, reminding me why I teach–for rewards such as this.
The second way was less expected, though, and meaningful for a less predictable reason. From the start, students surprised me by their impulsivity to jump in and begin once they believed and understood how committed I was to them selecting their own genres and interests for their own reasons. The personal choice and freedom in forms of expression drove the quietest and least confident of writers to create and deliver early their imitative samples in traditional and digital media. More remarkably, I witnessed a few students in the last days become suddenly inspired to choose or switch genres after meandering for weeks in territory they hadn’t found personally engaging. A light would beam in their faces as they connected a relevant interest with a genre. A student who frequents art museums with her mother decided to write art reviews; another has chosen to construct a guide for artist learning to draw the human hand.
Most validating for me were two students who hadn’t seen themselves as readers until they discovered autobiography during this year. Both had begun to read true stories of sports figures and soldiers, and were especially drawn to those first person accounts of fatherhood, faith and family. Modeling my classroom on Peggy Kittle’s in “Book Love”, I have seen student interest in books translate into the desire to write about what they read. These two young men became completely engaged when they realized they had their own stories of faith and family to tell. And rather than choose to describe struggles on the sports or battlefield, they are writing their own histories. One, who poses above especially for this blog, (which began as a reflective entry I modeled for the class, who then helped me revise it before telling me to share it with my real audience, you) will ask his dad to read the project and write a letter to him about it as the final element; he is writing and smiling here for a real audience.
Having just read Patricia Stock’s “The Dialogic Curriculum” (1989), I can see the clear connection between between the work my high school students are doing, and their developing “awareness of [one]self as researcher, as writer, and as reader.” Students and teacher in my room are assuming responsibility for the outcomes of our teaching and learning, and are “co-constructing curricula that we address in images, language, and logic of our home communities,” enriching understandings that lead toward a “democratic society” (pp. 84,93).



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