Sunday, October 7, 2012

Opening the classroom through literature

This is the second year that the French National Education system has offered courses specifically mandated to study "foreign literature in a foreign language" (LELE, littérature étrangère en langue étrangère), and the first year this course has been available to students in their final year of secondary education (terminale). I feel it's both an opportunity and a challenge for teachers wishing to bring their students into 21st century education – whether they are willing or reluctant participants. More on that below.

One thing that seems to bother colleagues with whom I've spoken is the time constraint. They have a hard time accepting that they can do anything but brush the broadest and most fragmentary tableau of English-language literature with only one and a half contact hours per week. This miserly portion of time, in addition to grappling with widely disparate levels of language mastery amongst their students, really sets their teeth on edge. Clearly, this is a prime opportunity to encourage students to work outside the classroom.

I've opted to work with a textbook called "Discovering Literature" (Nathan) which presents an overview of English-language literature in nine "literary trails", the idea being to give students a taste of each of these themes or literary movements through short excerpts from major works. It's a fine idea, as far as it goes, but extremely hard to realize within the 40 to 48 hours of contact time a school year offers. The solution is to take a project-based learning approach and give students access to a wider swath of literary content that they can pick and choose from according to their own personal preferences. Motivation is obviously a key here, and linking student preferences to literary themes helps bridge the gap. So many classical literary themes are present in popular culture today, but students don't often have the slightest idea where the things they think are so cool, in their favorite music, television programs, films or video games, come from. Letting them make this connection, unleashing the coveted "aha! moment", fosters motivation as well as creativity.

In my first unit, on the Gothic novel, students began brainstorming around selected images from the Gothic tradition, including several from the recent cinematic version of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" an excerpt from which many of them had studied in class the year before. They then spent two class hours on an excerpt from Le Fanu's "Carmilla", a classic of the genre, making mindmaps of the main characters and building a timeline of Gothic literature from the overview in this textbook – and the Wikipedia entry on Gothic fiction. Then each of them selected a work from a list I'd compiled that included "etexts", audiobooks and a few film clips that were all accessible on the Internet, thanks in part to the fact that, given the age of most of the works, they were in the public domain.

While the resource list for this first unit was indeed a simple list, I compiled the second unit using "Pearl Trees", an innovative web 2.0 tool that is a combination between mindmapping and bookmarking apps. Students could see major works of utopian and dystopian fiction in a glance, thanks to the branching diagram of the mindmap, and click and navigate through the different resources while trying to choose which work they wanted to delve further into.

Utopian literature dans Phil Benz (philb)

The next stage of the project will see students collaborating within the classroom to make their own "Pearl Tree" map of a new literary theme. Following that, their collaboration will go beyond the walls to discuss the theme with students in other countries, for example with Kelli Etheredge's students in Alabama. Moving my students into international collaboration will, I hope, open up questions of global citizenship and critical thinking that they would have scarcely had time to rush past if we'd been working only with a textbook, lists of vocabulary and grammar points, as is typically the case in a foreign language classroom here in France.

Student-centered projects that involve selecting resources for their own work, organizing their ideas in innovative ways and reaching out to students in other countries who are also grappling with similar issues can help foster creativity, encourage critical thinking, engage students through communication and collaboration – in short, achieving the four cornerstones of 21st century education.