Thursday, January 12, 2012

Week One Critical Paper or What Percentage of College Freshmen Despise Poetry?

So I've decided to document my progress on my critical paper using this blog.  For those of you who are not Converse College MFA the third semester, we are required to write a +/- 25 page critical paper on some aspect of our chosen genre.  I am a poetry student and a composition teacher, so I thought it would be a great idea to try to combine the two.  Here's my snappy paper title:  Using identity themed poems to encourage critical thinking in the composition classroom.  Huzzah!

There are two reasons why I went in this direction instead of analyzing a specific poet or group of poets.  One:  one of my classes last semester came to the conclusion that they don't like poetry because they "have to think about it too much."  Two:  critical thinking is necessary for good writing, and many of my freshman composition student need help in this area. If I'm honest, that's an understatement.  Businesses regularly lament the lack of writing skills of their newly graduated hires, and the rest of the university regularly asks us folks in the English Department just exactly what we are doing with writing, 'cause their students can't.

Week one:  I presented my idea about using poetry to encourage critical thinking.  I gave a survey to my students asking them about their experiences with poetry and research.  My students inwardly (and outwardly) groaned.  I assured them they would not be graded on their analysis of the poems.  We would be using poetry as warm-up exercises to get into the critical thinking/writing mode.  They felt a bit better. 

On Tuesday, I read Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry" and had the students blog about their responses to the poem.  That went OK.  They "got it."

On Thursday, I read Marianne Moore's poem "Baseball and Writing."  They didn't "get it."  I discovered something wonderful, though.  After the first reading, every student understood that the poem talked a lot about baseball, and that there was supposed to be some connection with writing.  Their blogs showed that they "got" more than they thought they did.  And I was able to explain the process of reading actively without having read a single chapter in our textbook.  Read the piece through once.  Write down what you understand.  Read it through again.  Look up what you don't understand.  Read it through again.

The fact is that many students stop reading whatever is required for their courses because they don't "get" the first few lines.  Ethics, philosophy, logic, sociology, and psychology texts may seem to be beyond their understanding, and so they stop reading.  I contend that if a reader can simply read through a piece once without stopping and ignore what they think they don't know, that reader will be able to write down something about that piece.  That something will then be clarified on the second read, or possibly the third.

This is when my students say, uh-huh.  Right.  I barely have time to read all this stuff once, and you're asking me to read two or three times?  And I say, yes.  That's what it takes until you become a better reader, and becoming a better reader will help you become a better writer.  That's the goal.

Assignment for next Tuesday:  write down one idea, word, phrase, or name from "Baseball and Writing" to look up.  Look it up.  Report back to the class.  The idea behind this assignment is to get my students to take a small second look at the text through research.  We'll see how it goes. 

At the very least, I had fun introducing myself to my classes and going over the syllabi for the first time in a long time, I got to share some poetry with composition students, and I got them thinking right off the bat.  Yay me! 

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