Saturday, February 28, 2009

Joy to the Wordle

“This is seriously the weirdest story I’ve ever read,” my students inform me, somewhat accusingly, as they enter the room after reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For the most part, they are confused and somewhat angry about it. It is, after all, a hazy story told by an unreliable narrator whose mind either deteriorates or finds lucidity (depending on how you read it) as disturbing designs start to emerge in the wallpaper of her room.

The one thing I made them promise to me as they read the story was not to turn to any outside resources as they read; I want us, as a class, to puzzle the story together instead of reaching for an easy answer. But they want an answer, and they want it now.

So how do we work through the story in a constructivist way without sacrificing efficient interpretation-seeking?

First, we made a list as a class of all of our questions. They had...a lot.

Then, every student picked one question that intrigued him/her and spend a few minutes brainstorming possible responses and follow-up questions. At the end of this brainstorming, they seemed even angrier and more confused. Some of them were holding their foreheads as if their brains physically hurt.

What happened next? Wordle to the rescue, and this is no exaggeration. If you haven’t tried, you should exit this blog to try it out right now. And then please come back, because they way that we used it was, in the words of my students, really cool.

What is wordle? It’s a site in which you can paste in a text, and it quickly designs a word collage in which the words on the original text that appear the most frequently show up largest in size in the word collage. It requires no login, no password, nothing, and it’s practically instantaneous. And there are many different collage designs that students can play with, of course.

So, we took “The Yellow Wallpaper,” page by page, and wordled it. And here’s what happened:

On the first page, the words “John” (the narrator’s husband), “physician” (the husband’s occupation) and “one” were the largest, and there many negative smaller words like “haunting” and “anxiety” surrounding them.

As the story continued, “John” got smaller and smaller as the narrator grew independent of him, and the “wallpaper” grew larger. The word “standing” was replaced with word “creeping,” and “daylight” words were replaced with “night.” Words like “one” were replaced with “we,” and many of the words grew more positive. Also, verbs jumped into the present tense and increased in their sense of urgency. By the way--I didn't notice any of these things. My students did.

The best part? It's what happens on the final page. As Austin, sophomore student, wordles the last page on his laptop, he gasps, "Oh my God! On the last page--" "Don't give it away! Don't give it away!" Shannan, another student, snaps back at him. It's last period on Friday, and you'd think that they were watching The Sixth Sense, not examining the diction of a feminist story written in the late 1800s.
If you're wondering what actually happens when you wordle the last page, here it is: The largest words on the very last page were “door” and “key,” replacing the earlier emphasis on “windows” and “walls."

We then came back to the questions we brainstormed at the beginning of class and discussed what story the words tell. Of course, the ambiguity still remains…while the door is a way out for the socially trapped narrator, it’s still closed and locked at the end of the story. But, wordle, aside from the fact that it is really cool (several students claimed that they were going to spend their entire weekends wordling) opened up a door for us. It wasn’t just fun and fluffy; it sparked intense discussion and allowed us a concrete way to analyze abstract, elusive themes. Just as the design of the wallpaper emerged to the narrator, the design of the story revealed itself to us.

They left class, I think, realizing that their confusion was not a reflection of a story poorly told, but a story carefully designed to be nebulous.

And, more importantly, they were happy because wordle really is cool.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Back of the Class

I put my green backpack in the back corner and take a seat between two boys in my English 10 class, watching Randon, my student teacher, put up his PowerPoint during 3rd hour announcements. I feel a bit like an invader-- a giant trying to blend in among midgets. A little self conscious, I open my laptop and attempt to make casual conversation with Shay, the quiet, strawberry blonde soccer player on my left: “So how’s Macbeth going for you?”

Shay does not wish to make direct eye contact with me. “Umm…fine, I guess,” he responds, eyes fixated on his glowing laptop.

Aaron, on my right side, throws me a bone. “So you’re sitting back here with us, Ms. Leclaire?”
“Yep,” I reply, trying to sound enthusiastic as the reality sinks in: I am no longer in charge of this classroom. For the next ten weeks, I am not their teacher. So what happens to my role now that my student teacher has taken over?

First, I should clarify that this is not a blog about Randon. He’s having all the proud accomplishments and grueling struggles that a student teacher should have. If you'd like to read more about him, please visit his blog.

No. This is a blog about me.

So what exactly do I do here, in the back corner of the classroom, sitting amongst the masses? Here is what I’ve tried so far:
1. Typing pages of highly detailed feedback to Randon
2. Grading something easy, like vocabulary quizzes
3. Jumping into discussion every now and then when I can’t hold myself back
4. Giving quiet but dirty looks to disruptive children; even though their backs are to me, I’m hoping they can feel the silent, angry vibes of my fury and will alter their behavior accordingly

Sadly, none of this is doing it for me.

Here’s what I do now: I observe. And I mean really observe—not just Randon, but the individual students and the larger-than-life collective being that they form as a class. And I have to say that I have learned more about this class in the past four weeks of observing than I learned all of last semester.

My English 10 class is the deity of creativity and performs beautifully when engaged in activities based on performance and/or competition. My American Literature class is a slightly more volatile spirit that growls when asked to do anything to menial and cheers when given avenues for its aggressive passion, such as debates, and it is also a highly visual learner.

As for getting to know the individuals, I’ve noticed that the boy in the middle of my American Literature class who always seems to making snide comments is actually making very smart, constructive comments—it turns out that he’s just not that into raising his hand. I’ve been surprised by the fact that most students actually do talk about what they’re supposed to talk about when put into partners and groups. I saw that the quiet girl in the back who got a D last semester actually is annotating her copy of Frederick Douglass and is desperately trying to make sense of it. Actually, now that I think about it, all of the individual surprises have been happy ones. And sad ones, too, because I can’t believe how quickly I wrote these kids off last semester.

It’s a lot harder to write someone off when you sit next to him or her every day.

How do they perceive me, once so tall in the front of the room, now lounging in a chair-desk with the best of them? The only way I can describe it is like this:

At first, they were kind of like fish swimming around toward the bottom of the ocean, and I was a big snorkeler passing over them. They acknowledged me mostly through their peripheral vision, and they silently accepted my foreign presence without openly welcoming it.

But now, they’re letting me in a little, realizing that I’m not suddenly going to turn on them. They can hold a discussion with me just like I’m anyone else, and no, we’re not equals, but I can dive down a little from the surface, they can rise up a bit, and we can get close enough.

Today, I videotaped my English 10 class’s Macbeth performances, and I told Shay that he’d better step it up because I was going to zoom in on him the whole time. He shook his head as he reluctantly made his way to the front of the class.

As Shay was typing his notes, I told him that he needed to spice them up a little—they looked boring. I grabbed his laptop, set his background color to black and his font color to red. "See? Doesn't that look more Macbeth-like?" He rolled his eyes, but I'm pretty sure he agreed with me deep down.

After the bell rang, while Shay was packing up his bag, I said to him, “Set the standard high in your other classes today, Shay. Ask some good questions. Challenge yourself.” He finally abandoned his “no eye contact” rule and looked me squarely in the face. With a smile playing at the edges of his mouth, he asked, “Why are you picking on me?”

To which I responded, “Because I sit next to you.”