Thursday, April 26, 2012

Amendment: I Am Going to Buy This Book, NOW!

After I protested that I didn't have the time to read Megan McCafferty's newest release Thumped yet, especially since I want to re-read Bumped, so I was refraining from purchasing it on its drop-date, I had a change of heart.  Actually, I won an award.  I was one of the recipients of the Innovation in Instruction award at my school.  This award is reserved for instructors doing cool, creative things in the classroom.  Winners receive funding for their classroom projects.  I submitted an application about the banned books project in my ENG 111 class - never expecting to win because there is nothing particularly tangible or tech-savvy about books or English - I just try to teach writing and research in a way that encourages original thought and is interesting.  Well there I stood with the other recipients, receiving my check, flabbergasted.  To celebrate, I went out and bought Thumped and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars for good measure.  What better way to rejoice than with a new book (or two)!
If you are interested, here is a brief synopsis of my banned book project: 
As an English instructor, I have noticed a continual lack of investment in the research process on behalf of students.  They either see it as stifling creativity, or they hid behind the work of others because they lack confidence in their own voice, writing, and ideas.  For example, this semester in his diagnostic writing assignment intended to familiarize me with the student’s writing history, this student wrote,
I utterly despise academic writing.  I hate research papers.  I dread recording findings of other people.  I loathe taking a general concept and paraphrasing it into “my own words” because quite frankly, this can never be my idea alone.  I do not enjoy having topics being put in front of me and being told to research and write about it (ENG 111 Diagnostic 1). 
His response perfectly illustrates the problem with academic writing in its traditional form.  There is often a lack of balance between students’ thoughts and opinions and their research, or they fall victim to self-censorship and do not think their ideas are important.  These problems are perpetuated by traditional research papers in which students choose topics and simply regurgitate the research of others instead of taking a stance on an issue and then using research to construct and support an original argument.  As an antidote to the problems I encounter in ENG 111, I introduce the topic of banned books into the classroom and require students to construct an argumentative/persuasive proposal centered around one banned book.  I give students a list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged books from the last decade compiled by the ALA.  Students choose a book off of this list to read and research for their final paper in which they have to argue for or against the banning of this book. 
This activity has significantly impacted student learning in four areas: topic selection and investment, audience awareness, critical thinking, and original research.  The course theme has generated interest in the class because of the shock value these normally “forbidden” topics possess.  Similarly, the theme of banned books offers a way into the often inaccessible research and writing processes.  In choosing a book to partner with for the rest of the semester, students discover an “intimacy,” as Suzanne Britt describes it, with the course and with their writing that encourages immersion in both (230).  Students are exposed to a variety of viewpoints on censorship and the sensitive issues censored books often deal with through their research, which facilitates discussion on tone and objectivity in argument presentation.  Students are instructed to write for an audience of school board members contemplating the banning of their book, so they must look at the issue from both sides and supply evidence that would convince the audience that their argument is sound.  This project works especially well in a community college environment where the diversity of ages and backgrounds ensures thoughtful discussion on the issues and intended audiences of banned books.  Before I implemented the banned books proposal project, students struggled with creating original arguments.  Now, however, students work to creatively validate original arguments.  When researching, they expect to find a source that says exactly what they are thinking; however, as any writer who creates truly original work can attest, that is not going to happen.  Therefore, students have to engage more fully with the research process by trying different search terms, critically assessing the credibility of sources, and making connections between the sources they do collect.  Although it is hard work, students have expressed a genuine enthusiasm to read and learn more throughout the semester.   
*If you read this far, I realize "brief" may be a misnomer, but I am an English teacher and tend to be a bit verbose - sorry!

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