One sleepless summer night a few weeks ago, I tortured myself for hours trying to figure out what the seminal purpose of the study of English was. My overactive brain would not let me fall asleep until I’d figured it out. I wanted to design my 9th- and 11th-grade courses from that point (backwards design!) and it seemed a rather important question to know the answer to (it’s what I do, after all).
Finally my tired brain came up with the word: communication. Of course. Why had it taken me two hours to figure that out?
But it seemed profound. Of course we want to communicate effectively in essay writing. But I think English is more than the study of writing essays; it seems to me it’s the study of effective communication in all its glory: in class discussion, in group work, in presentations, in graphs (some of the best transfer I’ve seen from English students was in plotting their ideas about Oedipus Rex in Venn diagram and bar graph form), in images, and in all types of writing (from Tweets to blogs to IB Extended Essays).
I wanted the students to understand that English is not about being bludgeoned with the five-paragraph essay; I wanted them to really grasp that we are dealing with the study of great ideas and how best to get them across for maximum impact and utility. I want them to see English as the study of effective communication — how do I say what I want to in the best and most interesting way, given my audience?
Once I understood my own courses’ philosophy and purpose, planning the year felt effortless.
I decided to do something I had never done before in my decade of teaching: start on the first day with real class. In my first four or five years of teaching, I had always handed out the syllabus, gone over course expectations, and blah blah blah. Yeah, it bored me, too. Later on, I shifted to doing more get-to-know-you type activities, asking students to answer survey questions like, “Reading makes me feel…”
But this year, I said, “I’m gonna put my money where my mouth is. If I want them to understand that English is about communication beyond writing, then I’m going to start with that right off the bat. We’ll jump in feet first on day one.”
I had just seen a movie posted on someone’s Facebook page that I loved, a short film called Move, made by three amateur filmmakers who traveled to 44 countries in 18 days and turned the experience into three short films, Move, Learn, and Eat. The films showed scores of images but no dialogue — the focus is visual, and a story is told through the series of images.
Here was a perfect model of effective communication that was entirely sensory based — no writing or reading at all.
So here’s what happened on the first day of my class this year:
1. I broke students into groups of four and asked them to brainstorm answers to the question: What is the purpose of English? From that brainstorm, they had to come up with one word that summed up their response. Interestingly, at least one group in every class chose “communication” and in one section three groups chose it.
2. We discussed ways to communicate beyond writing and reading.
3. I wrote a question on the board:
– For grade 9: Which film most speaks to you and why?
– For grade 11: Which film is most effective at getting across its message? Why? Is this the one you liked the most? Why or why not?
4. I asked them to think about the question as they watched all three shorts, and let them know they’d be writing about it briefly afterward (not graded, just a benchmark piece of writing for their portfolios).
5. We watched the films.
6. They responded to the question.
– Grade 9 wrote one paragraph.
– Grade 11 wrote 2- 3 paragraphs.
7. They shared answers with a partner and then we discussed them as a larger group.
Overall, I was impressed — very impressed — with the thoughtfulness they put into their responses. There were very few, “It was cool” type responses. Most kids said things like, “Learn shows that everyone has something to teach and something to learn,” or “I liked Eat the most because I love to eat, but also because food is a way to get to know culture.”
8. For homework, students have to come up with four original images of their own (stick figure drawings, photographs, collages) that together tell a story or get across a message without using words.
It was great to have a clear, current, and engaging model of communication without words to show them in class. I think it made the activity very easy to digest, and there were surprisingly few questions about the assignment. They present their “stories in images” tomorrow and Tuesday in class. I’ll report back on how it went.
And today I thought that I might encourage further “communication” by asking them to do a follow-up assignment: ask their parents to watch the three films and discuss with their child which one they liked the most and why.