California English Journal
June can be a special time for looking forward and looking back. For that reason, this issue of California English is designed to encourage reflection upon what we have been doing this past school year as wells as how we might do things differently in the next.
One area several writers focus on is the use of Latino/Latina literature as classroom texts. The call for manuscripts asked CATE members to consider which books were lighting up their students' eyes and to share how they used these stories and poems. California English is proud to publish a short memoir by California author Gerald Haslam about his own multicultural origins.
Along with new texts, this issue also offers articles that will push your thinking in critical reading (Ernest Morrell), writing instruction (Kathleen Dudden Rowlands), technology (Judith Crowe), and building literacy (Alfee Enciso). To nourish your spirit we offer poems by three teachers - Cecil Morris, Gary Thomas, Debbie Frank - all of whom are in communion with the classroom Muse.
While you muse, please remember to reserve February 14-16, 2003 for CATE2003 in Palm Springs. The theme of the conference will be "Valuing the Voice of the Classroom Teacher." Also consider applying to present at the conference. It has never been easier. Just go to www.cateweb.org.
Finally, I urge you to consider taking time this summer to write. Within the magazine you will find information about CATE's professional writing contest as well as calls for manuscripts for this journal. As CATE2003's theme reflects, teachers' voices need to be heard. As Emily Dickensen wrote:
A Man may
make a Remark -
deport, with skill -
By 10:00 a.m., our small, rural high school located in the upper Sacramento Valley is almost devoid of color. The halls echo as Anglo students scurry to class. Desks are vacant in classrooms. My reading lab is close to empty. Juan walks in and asks if I've seen Franky. I tell him he probably went to church. "Nah, he don't go to church anymore. He probably just cut." I shrug as I turn to begin class. Franky and Juan seem to have a contest to see who can get the other in trouble. They are both tough kids. Juan begins to fidget and tells me he's leaving. I let him know he needs to stay in class. "I didn't get a note. Will you mark me here so I can go?" I tell Juan I'll mark him here only if he's here. He gives me the look and storms out of the room. He's back ten minutes later. Someone asks me about Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I admit I don't know much about her feast day. It occurs to me that I know very little about the rituals and religious feast days of my Latino students. What I do know about the Latino culture is what I've learned from reading literature, and what I've learned on holiday trips to Baja California. Much of my knowledge, I realize, is Anglicized. Although publishers include multicultural material in their anthologies, students don't always relate to the pieces included. Students who have entered this country illegally, who follow the crops with their families, whose literacy in both English and Spanish is limited don't always believe the memoirs of Gary Soto or understand the poetry of Sandra Cisceneros that is included in their reading anthologies.
I begin a quest to find reading material my students will find believable, stories that are interesting and compelling. I want a show of respect for the culture of students like Franky and Juan. Franky and Juan who express feeling alienated from the dominant culture of this high school. If we don't let our kids be a part of the culture, they'll find other avenues. Those other avenues may include destructive behaviors.
The first thing I do is look at the English curriculum. Students are required to read specific novels during their freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years. Even though the novels have universal themes that transcend culture, I want the story line to be believable. I want to open up dialogue, both oral and written, between Anglo and Latino students. The beliefs and assumptions these kids hold about the other affect their interactions with each other (or lack of). These beliefs and assumptions are often the foundation for racism and the basis for fights at school. Respect is an important issue with many students like Franky and Juan. "Life is a matter of respect. We treat you like you treat us. If you're mean to us, we'll get you back. Yeah, we understand the consequences of disrespect. But, we choose to accept those consequences. You want to teach us a lesson for behavior that isn't respectful, but you don't treat us with respect." Building respect, fostering a safe environment to discuss differences, and learning about the rich cultural heritage of our neighbors to the south is the focus for the material that supplements my state mandated curriculum.
There are novels and authors we are required to teach. Fortunately, Steinbeck is a California author who wrote honestly about the diversity he saw. My Latino students enjoy Steinbeck. The rich description and language is appealing; they especially enjoy reading The Pearl. The characters become compelling. "They're real like spiritual like my grandparents," Raul informed me. "There's a ritual a song for everything," Edith adds, "We have candles all over. My grandmother prays and lights candles - incense too. I can relate to the characters." Frankly, my Anglo students don't always get it. They have had no experience with the rituals or deep spirituality of the Latino culture. I want to tap into this sense of the spiritual, to build respect between the two dominant cultures, Latino and Anglo, at my school.
I look for works that will embrace the human spirit as well as highlight the Latino experience and celebrate culture. I want pieces that address issues of bias and injustice. I want my students to think about respect in regard to behavior and choices. One very readable anthology I found, My Land Sings by Rudolfo Anaya, is a collection of stories from the Rio Grande. These stories titillate strong and struggling readers alike. "Lupe and La Llorona" is a story about a girl who goes to the river on a dare to search for La Llorona, the ghost of a woman who drowned her children. The story facilitates great discussions from mental health, to spooky tales, to strength of character. I've never met an adolescent who didn't like a good ghost story, and this is a great one. Not only does the story facilitate great discussions, it also segues into a discussion of stories as artifacts of culture. Students then go to their parents, grandparents, or neighbors to gather and compile the ghost stories they grew up with. The activity can serve as a springboard for a look into the culture of the community as a whole. I can see something like the old Foxfire books growing from this investigation. Another piece from the collection, "The Three Brothers," reflects a sense of faith and commitment. The theme is clear. I ask my students to use this story as a basis for a found poem; a poem in which they look for significant phrases and words to organize into their own poems. The deep spiritual commitment and faith of the theme of the story "The Three Brothers" are reflected in the last three lines of a student's found poem. Gustavo writes:
The found poetry offers students a sense of accomplishment and, again, becomes a springboard for dialogue between and among all students in my class. This dialogue is important because even though many of my students have gone to school with each other all their lives, they never really sit down and get to know each other beyond the superficial.
Another collection, edited by Ilan Stavans, a professor of Spanish and creative writing at Amherst College, enjoyed by Latino and Anglo students alike is Wachale. "Wachale" means watch out. Classic voices such as Jose Marti and Luis Pales Matos mix with the modern voices of Pat Mora and Gary Soto. Two intriguing pieces, pieces my students enjoy reading are "La Vida Loca" written by an ex-gang member and "Mi Problema," a poem that address and explores the duality a Chicana woman feels trying to balance the culture of home and her experiences outside of the home. "La Vida Loca" is an excerpt from the novel, La Vida Loca and raises some important issues regarding family, respect, loyalty, and consequences. The poem, "Mi Problema" also brings to light those issues of family, respect, loyalty, and consequences. Anglo students begin to understand through the words and expressions of Latino students how difficult life can be. Something as simple as going to the prom may be an ordeal for young Latino women. A choice of friends may not entirely be a choice, but a decision to belong. Empathy is built. Asking students to go home and investigate their ethnicity brings to school stories of hardship and joy. The history teacher asks students to chart their genealogy, and I build upon this knowledge by discussing the backgrounds of my students using literature as a framework. As dialogue continues in both classes, so does respect-on both sides. Respect is an on-going topic for discussion.
Something all my students love is Cool Salsa, a collection of poems edited by Lori M. Carlson. Written in Spanish and English, students hear the lyrical words and visualize the sauciness of the language. For Latino students, the benefit becomes obvious. They get to perform. We'll read some of the poems as a duality: the Spanish voice echoed by the English one. For those poems in which the author code switches, students who speak Spanish will read those words. This is powerful. Spanish speaking students are granted permission to write in their own language and Anglo students, struggling over the Spanish pronunciation, begin to feel the frustration of their classmates. I encourage students to use their own words - to switch between English and Spanish. Luis, a senior who had never written a poem in high school, wrote one at the beginning of the year about his graduation. Two voices converse: a mother and her son. The mother asks the questions in Spanish, the boy responds in English.
The poem continues with the mother asking the question:
Even without the reader understanding the language, Luis does a nice job of letting the him or her feel the emotions of both the mother and son. We get a sense of the pride and respect that is communicated between mother and son. The theme is universal; and students, when sharing these pieces as either a draft or final product, have a place to begin conversations that bridge culture.
students to read and set aside time for Sustained Silent Reading (SSR)
in my classes. Lorena is reading Song of the Hummingbird by
Graciela Limon. The main character is an old woman, Huitzitzilin, who
asks a Spanish monk, Father Benito, to hear her confession. Huitzitzilin
is an Aztec princess who enlightens the monk by telling about the Spanish
invasion from her very unique perspective. He is both disgusted and
fascinated by her tales. At the end, Father Benito meditates on Huitzitzilin's
life after learning of her death. At this point, the monk realizes
she wasn't interested in absolution but an understanding of her life
and the beliefs of her people. Lorena, like so many of our Latino students,
would like other to understand her life and beliefs. Her contributions
to class discussion about this novel exemplify the duality of culture
that so many students face. The duality that Lorena feels is ageless,
and using the discussion of literature allows her a safe forum for
her to discuss the nature of her feelings. The discussion affects all
of my class; I found that both Latino and Anglo students benefit from
building bridges with literature and connecting it to their everyday
lives and struggles.
Glancing inside the book jacket of Michele Serros's chicana falsa and other stories of death, identity, and Oxnard, I noticed that Serros, as a young girl, was greatly inspired by Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton. Immediately I was transported back to my own childhood: to fifth grade recess, where a group of us giggled over the dog-eared pages of the then forbidden Blume's Forever, or 8th grade recess, where our same group chanted "do it for Johnny" after reading Hinton's The Outsiders in English. So, before beginning to read Serros's work, I knew I'd be a fan; after reading her hilarious stories and poetry in chicana falsa, as well as her fictional work (that reads more like a memoir) How to Be a Chicana Role Model, I knew that I wanted to share her stories with my juniors and seniors.
We learn in teacher education programs to connect reading assignments to students' lives, to help them imagine life in the small Southern town where Scout lived or the Mississippi river that Huck traveled. With Serros, Californian students' connection will be immediate: her stories of growing up sixty miles north of Los Angeles, in Oxnard, California, already reflect students' lives, like her love of junk food, especially Chicharrones, wet burritos and Dr. Pepper. Like many of our students, Michele uses T.V. to make sense of her world, using General Hospital episodes to determine the severity of her mother's illness, or comparing characters' hairstyles to Florence Henderson of Brady Bunch fame. Though her Aunt Annie tells Michele being a writer in Oxnard is impossible because "writers travel/all the time" (Serros Chicana Falsa 4), Michele makes stories of lowered Nissan mini trucks going "Boom Ba Boom" down the streets of Oxnard or the aggressive drug dealers of Rio Mesa High as worthy of a story as Scout or Huck. Though she once received a "fan" letter urging her to make her work more universal because the "average kid in Conneticut may not understand" (Serros How to Be a Chicana Role Model 227), the average kid in California will understand.
If students are not intrigued by the locale of Serros's stories, they will be by Michele's humor, and teachers will love the discussions that her humor provokes. In "Attention Shoppers" two young girls encounter racism, not on the mean streets of Los Angeles, but in the frozen food section at Ralph's supermarket. One of the girls, Martina, directs her friend to the discrimination in the packaging of frozen vegetables: while the Latino Style Vegetables are spilling out of a basket, indicating that Latinos are "overcrowding" America, the Malibu Style Vegetables are "arranged in a nice WHITE porcelain crock They're orderly, dignified" (Chicana Falsa 23). Martina's declaration of racist vegetables incites customers to riot, destroying "the corporate invention of 'stereotypes in a bag'" and "integrating" the Malibu Style and Latino Style Vegetables (24) on the ground. The narrator of the story is excited by her friend's violent and public display; she considers stealing some food and getting arrested. In spite of Martina's public display, Martina reminds the narrator that fighting racism isn't about "excitement, free food, or getting on TV" (25). While the reader laughs at the absurdity of racist vegetable packaging, the story promotes discussion about the pervasive nature of racism, and about appropriate ways to handle discrimination. In "Special Assembly," a young girl's hero, soap opera star, Anthony Rivera, falls from grace. As a guest speaker at the young girl's school, all Rivera can say is "Viva el Cinco de Mayo" even though Cinco de Mayo ended weeks earlier. Although the young narrator claims that she learns from Rivera that "if you're Mexican, or even Puerto Rican, like Anthony Rivera, and you've dropped out of school and lived on the streets of NYC, you can still make it" (How to Be a Chicana Role Model 3), her emphasis on Rivera's assistant having to correct his spelling and remind him of the date while he signs autographs reveals the narrator's disapproval of Rivera's lack of education. The character of Anthony, with his rumpled suit and penchant for scratching his face, is laughable; but the story sparks a discussion of the value of education and the definition of role model.
Michele's stories also reveal her identity crisis, a common crisis for our students as they try to find a niche, an identity, in high school. Michele's struggle centers on her ethnic identity: Just as she feels the mix of "sugar Pop Tarts and / blood red chorizo" (Chicana Falsa 61) uncomfortably mixing in her belly on her way to high school, Michele is uncomfortable with the mix of her Mexican and American sides. She is a Mexican American who doesn't speak Spanish, leading her friend Letty to call her a Chicana Falsa, a "Homogenized Hispanic" (Chicana Falsa 1). Michele tries to learn Spanish: In Mi Problema, she desires the same leverage given to white people learning Spanish, but instead is criticized for her ineptitude with the language. In What My Boyfriend Told Me At Seventeen, she struggles with more than language: she's trying to define her culture while negotiating discordant voices telling her "This is your culture": her uncle's voice, referring to "legless men" and "spray-painted mules with blood-stained hooves" in Tijuana, versus her American high school counselor, Mr. A through M's voice, telling her the violence of her people make survival unlikely, college impossible (Chicana Falsa 28). Michele finds both descriptions of her "culture" unsuitable for her. She tries to immerse herself into Mexican culture by traveling to Taxco, but rather than embracing the Mexican culture, she longs for a Carl's Jr. Famous Star with no onion. Eventually she takes a bus to Cuernavaca where she can enjoy a "Rooty Tooty Fresh 'n Fruity" at an IHOP restaurant, showing that she has more connection to her Californian roots than her Mexican ones. On the other hand, her identity as a Californian is also questioned: when Michele declares herself a Cali Girl, her friend Terri tells her that she looks like she's from Mexico and that "California is like, blond girls, you know" (How to Be A Chicana Role Model 16). When people ask Michele where's she's from, they never accept her stock response: "From Oxnard." She has to constantly "reclaim [her] rights as a citizen of here, here" (124), a citizen of California, of America. In my school in Torrance, California, which mirrors many Southern Californian schools, many students are born here, here, to immigrant parents, and raised as Americans with little attention paid to their native cultures. Therefore, those students end up stuck in the middle: they feel little connection to their native culture, and yet cannot quite fit into America. Michele gives voice to that struggle, validates the students' struggle, helping them know that they are not alone.
Michele struggles with more than her ethnic identity, but her identity as a writer. Her Aunt Annie is not the only one to dissuade her from becoming a writer: She ditches English comp to escape "the bleeding red ink from Mrs. Smalley's correction pen" (43); she creates the pen name Michael Hill because her friend Martha insists that Michele needs to be "less Mexican, less girl" (43) to be a writer.
Even when she achieves some success in writing, she still struggles: she thinks she is being asked to read poetry at a convention, but discovers she is really serving brunch; she joins the Lollapalooza tour as a Road Poet, but has things thrown at her by fans wanting to see Nirvana; she is invited to a National focus group for women, but realizes that she'd rather talk to the waiter than the distinguished women at her table; she gets a collection of her stories and poems published, but her publisher goes out of business. In spite of, or perhaps because of, all her struggles, she does achieve success. Though she temporarily uses boxes of her published books as coffee tables, she ultimately decides to take control, selling her books herself, bookstore to bookstore.
Michele's stories are an inspiration: this is not an author who studied at the Ivy League, but the girl next door. This is not a book jacket picture featuring a distinguished looking man with a well-groomed beard and a serious expression, but a girl with red finger nail polish and attitude. This is a real person: a person with insecurities, obstacles, an opinionated aunt, even disgruntled fans. But Michele's pitfalls create her successes: when she did a poetry reading for a group of disinterested 5th graders, she wanted to escape her "sucky poetry reading" (221), but is convinced to stay through lunch: to eat a frozen potpie in the cafeteria. One of the cafeteria workers tells Michele that she heard and enjoyed her poetry. Michele realizes that she doesn't suck: "I finished a job created by me-with my own thoughts, words, opinions, with my own name" (222). She stops listening to the negative voices (including her own) and decides that Oxnard is an interesting setting for stories, Michele Serros is a good name for an author, and her family stories are good material for fiction.
I think Serros can redefine reading for students. Reading her work will help students see reading as an activity that is connected to them, not something that needs to be connected to them. Just as Michele cited Judy Blume and S.E.Hinton as her inspiration, perhaps my students will cite Michele as the inspiration for writing their own stories, not of Oxnard, but of Torrance, thirty miles south of Los Angeles. Maybe my students will share their love of In'N'Out Burger, or compare their characters' hairstyles to Jennifer Aniston's hair on Friends. Maybe my students will realize, like Michele did, that their writing doesn't suck.
Mi madre se
nacio en el Paso del Robles, California, mi padre en el Paso del
Norte, Texas. Entre estos pasos hay un lugar (o varios lugares),
When my great-great grandparents, Ricardo Terril and Ramona Botella, migrated north from Mexico in the 1850s they settled at Rancho Tejon, where he was a vaquero. He was mostly Irish; she was mostly Spanish; both were entirely Mexican. In fact, they were for a long while unaware that they had left Mexico...according to family lore.
set of my great-great grandparents, John and Belle Martin, came west
a decade later from North Carolina and Missouri in the thrall of
In a tangle
of generations and marriages, Terrils and Martins would encounter Silveiras
and Johnsons and Carrs, Sharps and Castillos and
My immediate family remained culturally more Hispanic than genes or bloodlines might have predicted, because my mom was raised by her maternal grandmother, Esperanza Castillo, who would live with us when I was a little boy and who would as a result much later become the central character in my story "The Horned Toad." My own abuela, Ramona Silveira, was ill for many years and could not care for her children, but once she recovered she became a dominant personality. Her husband was John K. Johnson of Danish-German descent, but his Latina wife's culture ruled their household as certainly as it had once ruled coastal California.
was mischievous, and she had a lively sense of humor. For instance,
she spoke only Spanish when she met her younger daughter's
I was instructed
by my mother to tell my teachers I was Spanish when nationalities were
questioned at school. That response always confounded
dad never fully understood what he got into when he married Mom, with
her strong senses of familia, fe y lengua, but in a fine irony,
sensed that as a seventh-grader when I was sent to a Catholic School
in Bakersfield. There the first guys to accept me were "chili
buddies would have cracked up if they had been there the day I began
a lecture to Chicano Studies students at U.C. Berkely by
thereafter, a colleague at Sonoma State saw a story of mine in a collection
of Chicano writing, another in an anthology of Native
I replied, "What
makes you think I can't be all three of those things, and more too?
You should see my kids; they're like the reatas my
I tell the following story with great embarrassment. During my first year of teaching, I knew I had to miss a week of classes in early January. As I still hadn't "covered" the write-a-paragraph section of the curriculum, I spent a number of hours crafting five days worth of purple substitute-proof dittos. "Even if they put a trained monkey in my classroom," I thought, "when I return my 8th graders will know how to write a paragraph."
I don't remember exactly what those dittos contained. I'm sure they focused on issues such as writing a topic sentence, including three items of support, and checking spelling. I may even have had a special handout on tidy penmanship for those who needed it (usually the boys). That was, after all, how I had been taught to write.
was solely on product, not process. I was, as Kylene Beers wisely points
out, giving instructions, not offering instruction (presentation, NCTE).
That is, I was telling kids what to do, but not offering them any strategies
for doing it successfully. There was no help with topic selection,
idea generation, organizational strategies, or deep revision. There
wasn't even-in those pre-computer days-any help with correcting spelling
My, How Things
First Things First
Good writing, I eventually realized, is writing that is clear and interesting. First graders can do it. Sixth graders can do it. So can adult writers. We have all read pieces demonstrating that clear and interesting writing can be produced at every level. I couldn't wait to share my insight with students! "Make your writing clear and interesting," I told them. "And it will be good!" Once again, I was confusing instructions and instruction.
As we focus on clarity, I suggest that they ask, "What am I trying to accomplish with this piece? What do I want my readers to think, or understand, or feel when they finish reading?" These questions are far more effective than my earlier admonitions to consider purpose and audience, terms that are often abstract, even for adult writers. To help them learn to include all the pertinent information, they learn to ask themselves, "What else does a reader need to know here?" They learn to think of a piece of writing in terms of "chunks" (sections which seem to hang together because of content) and ask themselves, "Would this chunk be better earlier or later?" and "Would this piece be better without this chunk?" and "Would this chunk be better combined with another chunk?" Together these questions help writers, working individually or with peers, develop and shape a piece of writing that is clear. It is focused (audience and purpose) and it contains all the necessary information in an organized fashion.
Show, Don't Tell
Over time, my writing instruction has emphasized one thing: show, don't tell. No matter what the audience or purpose, or what genre we are working in, we focus on ways to show rather than tell. Showing is what makes writing lively. For example, when we are working with narration, we practice writing dialogue and descriptive detail. Instead of writing, "Margaret was angry," students learn the power of writing: "Margaret's jaw tightened, and she clenched her fist. `That's the last time I wait for you' she hissed." If we are writing persuasive pieces, students work to find the details to exemplify their reasons. For example, readers who learn the specific number of children injured or killed by front seat airbags each year are more likely to move their kids to the back seat than readers who are simply told the back seat is safer.
Learning from the
A nice thing about this strategy is that it organically links reading and writing. By teaching students to read like writers, it makes them more attentive (and therefore better) readers AND writers. It provides a wonderfully non-threatening way into a literature discussion as they share sections or details of their reading that worked for them. I am always delighted by the range of observations generated during these discussions, with the class commenting on everything from an intriguing title, to a disturbing scrap of dialogue, to the power of a final sentence. Such discussions effectively present a number of mini-lessons that arise from the students themselves and are, therefore, more likely to be applied in their own writing.
An interesting side benefit of these discussions is that they diminish the distance students feel between published authors and themselves. A literary text no longer feels like an icon to be revered, but never criticized. As a result, students feel far more confident in their comments during literature discussions. The discussion about the text is focused and meaningful, but it is focused by the students and therefore meaningful (and interesting) to them.
instructions are much neater for teachers, but I don't believe they
help students learn much. Writing instruction is messier, but more
effective. A teacher can know what issues need to be addressed, but
often doesn't determine the order in which instruction will happen.
One class might notice how an author varies the tag lines in dialogue
and begin to experiment with that in their writing, while the next
period might talk about the use of strong verbs in the same essay.
Sequence doesn't matter as long as students continue to develop as
clear and interesting writers. And they do!
As English/Language Arts classrooms become increasingly diverse with respect to ethnicity, language, and socioeconomic status, teachers are challenged to find curricula and pedagogical strategies that are simultaneously inclusive and affirmative, yet empowering of students academically and critically. In my experiences as an English teacher in diverse settings, I found that, by drawing upon students' knowledge of and participation in popular culture, I could help them to acquire and develop the academic and critical literacies they needed to succeed in school and society at large.
My work as a teacher and a researcher has been largely inspired by the New Literacy studies. New literacy theorists believe that students are not illiterate per se, as much as they possess literacies that have little connection with the dominant literacies that are promoted through institutions such as public schools (Street 105). These theorists would advocate that English/Language Arts teachers in diverse classrooms examine the non-school literacy practices of their students to find connections between local literacies and the dominant, academic literacies of schooling. Once I was able to look for the logic and intellect implicit in how my students read and represented the world, I was able to revolutionize my teaching and assist students in learning academic skills and making meaningful connections with academic texts.
Several of my colleagues and I noticed that our students were failing to engage literary texts in meaningful and substantive ways. Either students would peruse the texts looking for "answers" or they would just not read at all. Popular "lunchroom" explanations focused of students' deficits; either they were incapable of close reading or else they were unmotivated to learn the content. I found myself troubled by these explanations and sought, instead, to question my own practice while looking for examples of the close reading I wanted from students in my classroom in students' interactions with popular culture.
I noticed that my students had a fascination with legal dramas they encountered on television or at the movies. They would occasionally invoke the identity of a lawyer in class if they wanted to interrogate someone or something. They were also sensitive to being "cross-examined" by school authorities. I had an epiphany when I realized that "interrogations" and "cross-examinations" were exactly what I wanted students to perform on the literary texts in my courses. From their interactions with legal dramas in popular culture, my students had an understanding of the need for close readings of texts and the possibility of a single text having multiple interpretations. I designed several classroom units where I drew upon students' knowledge of court trials from television and movies to teach critical, close reading of literary texts. In this article I talk explicitly about a unit on Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that culminated in putting Chaucer himself on trial. I argue that the students were able to use their knowledge of court trials to critically read what is usually considered a daunting text.
As a class, we'd generally take one week to prepare for the trial and another week or two for the actual trial itself. Everyone in the class was required to participate in the trial proceedings. The various roles were either: taking the stand as a witness, questioning or cross-examining a witness as a lawyer, or serving as an assistant to a lawyer. I made the rule that each participant could only question or cross-examine one character and participate in either the opening statement or closing arguments. With a class of 30, this worked out almost perfectly with a one to one ratio between lawyers and lawyer's assistants. Usually the teams broke into sub-groups of three with a lawyer, lawyer's assistant, and character working together. Some assistants would agree to embody the opponents' witnesses to help their team prepare for the trial.
Although the quieter students usually drifted toward the assistant's role, I wasn't concerned because each class quickly learned how invaluable these roles were to the team. A team could "win" a trial with a bad witness or with a mediocre questioning or cross-examination of a single witness. However, they simply could not afford to have bad research and preparation from the assistants. Often, a verbally oriented attorney would have to request to "confer with co-counsel" for advice on how to approach a particular witness. In order to receive a participation grade, each student needed to write up a summary of their activities over the course of the trial, justifying why they deserved full credit. It was rare that students did not receive full credit, because group members would not let their peers remain idle, there was too much work to be done.
A Casebook, to be handed in at the culmination of the trial, would request the following from each student:
I allowed the students to work together on the creation of the questions for witnesses. The notes and the 3-5 page analysis of the court trial needed to be completed individually. I always beamed seeing how proud the students were of their own work when they handed in their neatly typed 40-50 page casebooks after the trial. Many of my students had never produced more than a couple of pages of text for any assignment in their scholastic careers!
From the first time I used this activity, I noticed that the students were able to invoke their schemata of court trials to begin interrogating the "evidence" from the text to either exonerate or prosecute the now infamous Geoffrey Chaucer. Students who had labeled themselves as non-readers were annotating the text heavily in preparation for the trial. Witnesses were memorizing huge quantities of text in preparation for their questioning and cross-examinations. Lawyers and their assistants entertained heated discussions over interpretations of the text that could be used in their questions. During the trials themselves, the level of textual understanding was truly impressive. If a student lawyer or witness strayed too far from the text or misrepresented the text in any way, there would be a flurry of activity by the opposing side and, of course, either an objection or a request to approach the bench.
A colleague from the university who had asked to come and observed the proceedings also noted that the students, in placing Chaucer on trial, had moved from a New Critical approach that assumed the supremacy of the author and the text. They were developing the confidence to take a critical stance toward authors they had previously been told were too intelligent and inaccessible for them to understand. No longer did they need a teacher to make sense of the text for them and let them know how close to the "truth" of the text they had gotten, they were at once becoming empowered within their own interpretations and learning that any text can be read multiple ways.
Overall, the trial became an immensely popular and integral part of my teaching repertoire. Students would come into the class in September asking when about the trial, having heard stories from older siblings or friends. This activity generated more excitement and effort than practically anything else that I did in class. So inspired by their ability to meaningfully interact with a complex, literary text like Canterbury Tales, students closely read and actively interrogated a text that had been written off by most of my colleagues as inaccessible, irrelevant, or just plain boring; something that "had to be done" to meet district requirements. While I may not have chosen Chaucer on my own outside of the district mandates, I do not feel that any text has to be inaccessible or irrelevant. Accessibility and relevance, I believe, are more a function of the pedagogy than the text itself, as the success of this unit amply illustrates.