Sunday, September 18, 2011

Extreme Makeover: Writing Edition, or Out, Damned Jot!

“Behold where stands the usurper’s cursed head,” Macduff shouts, holding high the severed head of Macbeth.

The play’s end brought a few sighs from the class, some perhaps for the impeding test and others, I am certain, out of sheer relief.

Sitting in traffic on the way home I keep thinking about Macbeth.  We had had a good time with the play.  We acted out some scenes, translated other scenes into modern teen vernacular language, discussed contemporary political examples of ambition gone amuck, and tragic heroes.  But we ended the play with a sigh. 

I didn’t want them to leave Shakespeare fatigued, I thought as I flipped through the one hundred plus channels, my shoeless feet up on the coffee table. I wanted them energized.  I wanted them feeling like I did when I was in high school and walked out of the movie theatre after seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time.  I wanted them feeling energized, inspired, like they could take over the world. 

By the third time passing Judge Judy lambasting a man about something he should or should not have done – I really couldn’t tell the which – I shut off the TV and tossed the remote aside marveling at how popular and numerous these court shows were:  Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, Judge Hatchett, Judge Joe Brown, and so on and so on. 

That was it! 

I grabbed the remote and turned the television back on.  The screen was nothing but a big blue dot which happens when you turn my TV off and then right back on again.  I’d have to shut it off and wait at least ten minutes for a clear picture, just enough time to run to the kitchen to get a before dinner snack. 

With some cheddar cheese and crackers I watched plaintiffs and defendants give testimonies and argue evidence, and judges render decisions.  Yes, that was it.  I would put Macbeth on trial; we’ll have our very own Judge Juliet in the classroom.

The next day we started class discussing the variety of court/judge/law television shows that were out there.  They were all eager to tell stories of episodes they’ve seen.  We then discussed the parameters for the activity:  Students will be assigned the role of a specific character.  They will have to carefully read and analyze that particular character’s role in the play and develop notes on what they would say if called to be a witness, material, character or otherwise.  We also created prosecution and defense teams.  The students enthusiastically took to their task.

As I watched the students delve back into the play with purpose, I wondered how I could apply this – using popular culture as classroom motivation – to writing tasks.  Not the fun kind of writing where we can be wildly expressive and creative, but the kind of writing students and teachers abhor:  standardized test on-demand writing.

So it was back to the TV, first stop:  MTV.  As I watched I pined for the days when MTV actually showed music videos.  Nowadays it seems that students watch more videos on the Internet than they do on television.

Off to the web I went, and after watching videos by the likes of Alicia Keys, Daddy Yankee, Beyonce, Nickelback, and the like, I had a plan.  I went out and bought a DVD of music videos, put it in my computer, and was able to print a still shot from somewhere around the middle of the video.

I showed a video to my class.  We discussed the narrative structure of the video – there was a beginning, a middle, and an end; characters were introduced; there was a problem; attempts to solve the problem; and finally a resolution.  I then handed out a still shot from the video.  We talked about at what point in the video the still shot came from, what had happened before the still shot, and what had happened after.  Then I asked them to write out the story of the video.  I then handed them a still shot from the middle of another video and asked them to write out the narrative they way they imagined it.  After which we watched the video.  This activity gave them another approach to the narrative picture prompt and really motivated them to write.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing for students seems to be revision.  Once a piece it done, it’s done.  Many students greet the idea of revision with, “Just tell me what’s wrong with it, and I’ll fix it.”  I explain to them how revision does not necessarily imply error.  We’re looking to improve on what is already good.  This response more times than not leads to suspicious looks that says Mr. Johnson just wants us to do more work.

“You’ve been watching an awful lot of television lately,” my wife said to me.  I don’t normally watch television on Sunday nights, which are generally reserved for some lesson planning, reading or writing.

“I’m doing research,” I told her.  This response led to suspicious looks that said Mr. Johnson wants to be a couch potato.

But I had found my answer.

I video taped an episode of Extreme Makeover:  Home Edition.  I took it into class and we watched a good portion of the show zapping away the commercials.  We discussed the roles of each person on the makeover team, how each had his or her own personal responsibility, how each was an expert in his or her field.

Here’s what we do.  Students are placed in groups.  Each group is assigned a particular component to revising a piece of writing:  use of rhetoric, attention to form, grammatical structures, supporting details, etc.  The members of the group then become “experts” at their topic through collective research so that each member comes out with identical information. 

The class then gets broken up into new groups made up the various “experts.”  One member of each team is named project coordinator and serves not only as the expert in the writing component he or she was trained in, but also as project coordinator which requires high energy cheerleading. 

We choose one student essay that is in need of improvement and make copies for each group.  The students are given one class period to completely renovate the essay.  The next day in class, with a document camera and an LCD projector, we have the unveiling of the renovated…I mean revised essay.  Each member of the team explains what changes were made and why they were made.  Each group gets a turn.  It is amazing how by the end of the class the students are debating each other on whose opening was most effective, whose transitions worked better, whose closings had the most impact.  It’s a beautiful thing.

For many teachers like me, reflection is incessant.  We can hardly go to a movie, listen to the radio, read a book, or watch TV without thinking how we can incorporate that experience into our classrooms to help further motivate students to challenge themselves, to learn, to achieve.

Oh, by the way, my class acquitted Macbeth.  They felt that the witches, who were being naughty messing around with Macbeth in the first place, had cast a spell that completely controlled the general’s behavior.  That, coupled with Lady Macbeth’s insanity which they found traces of even from the start of the play, was enough to cause a shadow of a doubt.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Revision Does Not Imply Error!

Getting students excited about revision is like grabbing another handful of cheese doodles right after you washed the orange off your hands.  But in revision lies much brilliance. 

A common reply to any request of students to revise their writing is “What’s wrong with it?”  This is a very good question because often there is very little if anything “wrong” with the piece of writing.
We as writers must get away from the idea that revision necessarily implies error.  Here is an analogy that I have found has helped middle school students.

In the early 1970s, Atari released a revolutionary interactive video game called PONG.   It was a very simple ping-pong or tennis game that had two small vertical lines on either side of the video screen serving as rackets or paddles. These lines could only be moved up and down turning a knob control.  The object of the game was to align your “paddle” with a little white square “ball” that drifted across the screen, “hitting” it back to your opponent.  If someone missed the “ball,” the opponent scored a point.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with PONG.  However, revisions to the technology were made, and as the technology improved, so did the quality and quantity of video games. 

In 1978, Atari came out with a video football game that, for the first time, allowed a video image to scroll up and down beyond the borders of a television screen.  The game used Xs and Os as game pieces manipulated by joysticks to simulate very simple football plays.  It was fun, and, again, there was nothing wrong with the game.

The early 1980s brought on more revision to video game technology.  Japanese game designer Moru Iwatani created Pac-Man, the most popular video game of all time.

Atari released a home version of Pac-Man.  The home version was very boxy as the technology did not allow for curves.  The sound was tinny and the game board was a basic maze.  It was fun at the time.

By the late 1980s, Atari was surpassed by Nintendo whose flagship game, Super Mario Bros. sold more copies than any other home video game in history. 

From the late 1990s into the 21st century, Sony PlayStation, PlayStation 2,  PlayStation 3, XBox, etc. have topped the home video game market with brand new games as well as revisions of classic games like Pac-Man.

No sooner is one game finished being created when its revisions begin.  Graphics, sounds, backgrounds are all improved upon making the games more exciting, more vivid, more interesting.  Imagine if no one ever felt like revision the early video games.
Below is an activity that exemplifies the video game revision analogy as well as produce student writing. 

Go on the Internet and find a picture of the old Atari Pac-Man game and one of the new Sony version of Pac-Man World game.  Hand out the pictures of the two versions of Pac-Man.  Have the students make a list of all the things that are the same about them.  Then have them make a list of all the things that are different about them.  When they are done their lists, ask them to decide which version they’d prefer to play.  With a partner, have them talk about which version they chose and prepare to tell the class about at least three specific reasons why they chose the version they did.  Remind the students to use their lists to help them explain the reasons for their choice.  Finally, have the students write an essay that tells what version they chose, the reasons why they chose it, why those reasons are important to them and convince the reader that their choice is the best one.  (For a more detailed written response, have the students play the two versions of the game and then write an essay that convinces the reader which version is best using specific details from the game as support.)

Remember, there was nothing wrong with the previous games, we, the game-playing public, simply want better games.  We have to revise because, as writers, there is often not much wrong with our early drafts; we, the reading public, simply want better writing.