Here is my previous post on the Street Humanities English class I taught in October. As you can see by my lack of posts in October, it was quite the commitment! I thoroughly enjoyed it, though, and I have a few thoughts on the class now that it is done and I’ve had time to think about it a bit.
First of all, I thought the group of students was wonderful. I definitely got the vibe that the majority of them wanted to be there. They were an upbeat, social group. Also, there were many participants who clearly loved reading literature and were eager to talk about it and think about it. One day I had asked the students to call out terms while I acted as a scribe for a mind map about the story we had just read. Within minutes, the entire board was covered with words and terms, and I had to beg them to slow down, because the ideas were flying fast and furious and as the scribe, I couldn’t keep up! We covered all sorts of fairly sophisticated subjects: race, class, gender, power imbalances, social systems, injustice, identity, self-determination, Aboriginal rights. I found the students were very respectful of diverse opinions even though they didn’t always agree with them. This was nice because it meant the program coordinators could mostly just sit back and also enjoy the literature as well, instead of having to run interference between participants…which sometimes happened in my previous Street Humanities groups that were a bit less mellow.
Although I did not assign any homework, several students expressed interest in doing some writing for me to read; I told them I would read and write feedback on any writing they wanted to turn in. Some chose to write paragraphs answering the discussion prompts I had put on the board for pre-and-post-reading of each short story; some wrote journal entries based on memories sparked by the stories; some wrote poetry.
For the first class, I had arranged the desks in a large horseshoe shape, so we could all face each other while students chose to read out loud in turns or just listen. It turned out that facing all the other students made some participants uncomfortable, so when I was alerted to that, I asked the class if it was OK if we just put the desks in “pods” (put two tables together to form a square, 4-6 students could sit at each “pod”). The students thought that was fine (and also thought the term “pod” was hilarious). For the last couple of classes, they asked if we could just keep the desks in rows like in their math class.
This taught me an interesting lesson. I should not assume that because I know a certain classroom arrangement or method can be pedagogically sound, everyone will be comfortable with it. Many students prefer traditional classroom arrangements because it’s what they’re used to, and I think we should take that into consideration (when possible). As another example, I had initially hoped to run the class as a book-club style format, but it quickly became clear they expected and wanted more of a traditional English class, where I put questions and prompts on the board and they did some small-group discussion and some large-class discussion. So that was what I did!
I thought the reading out loud worked well. It was important that we all read/listened to the story, and there was very little chance that everyone would have been able to do so outside of class for a variety of reasons (low literacy levels, chaotic life, losing the book of stories). For some classes I played a recording of the story, which the students enjoyed too. One issue with reading out loud is that the stories must be short enough to fit in the timeframe of the class. I included one story that was simply too long, and luckily I realized this ahead of time and brought a poem as a substitute. (I gave the students the chance to vote: read the story but have little to no time to discuss it, or read the poem and have lots of time to discuss. Most voted for the poem, possibly out of curiosity.)
Speaking of the poem–it was a big hit! I happened to have extra copies of Tom Wayman’s poem “Routines” (discussed elsewhere on this blog, complete with lesson plan) so I brought these for the students. They really enjoyed it! One of the participants who enjoys reading out loud and has a terrific dramatic style volunteered to read it, and we had a great discussion. I think some of them were kind of surprised that they enjoyed it; there were a lot of comments about “this doesn’t seem like poetry” and “I really liked this because I could relate to it.” I would seriously consider including more poetry the next time I did this.
I’m thrilled to report that several of the students were excited enough by the English class to sign up to enter our CCP (College and Career Prep–adult basic ed/adult upgrading) program!
Finally, here is a list of the stories I included in the final version of the course reader in the order we read them, along with the poem I substituted for “The Metaphor.” Click here and scroll to the Sept. 10, 2013 entry on my Sample Reading Lists page to read synopses of each of the stories.
1. “Borders,” by Thomas King
2. “Eleven,” by Sandra Cisneros
3. “Neighbours,” by Raymond Carver
4. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson
5. Chapter 3 of Summer of My Amazing Luck, a novel by Miriam Toews
6. “Everyday Use,” by Alice Walker
7. “The Metaphor,” by Budge Wilson (I substituted Tom Wayman’s poem “Routines)
8. “The Cask of Amontillado,” by Edgar Allan Poe