Dyer’s Manifesto: the mission and charge for MEJ moving forward

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Dear Current and Future MCTE Members:

We are writing in order to introduce to you a significant “make-over” of MCTE’s most important periodical, The Minnesota English Journal (MEJ), and to invite your direct participation in it—as readers vigorously interacting with every article, classroom idea, and reader-posted comment and a contributors of articles of your own composition.

Previously, MEJ has annually represented the work of its contributors well, publishing online once a year a collection of papers driven by pedagogy, theory, and research.  And, for the past several years, the articles accepted for publication were peer-reviewed.

But, after a thorough review of past issues of MEJ and the journals of many MCTE affiliates, we reached the following conclusions:

  1. The articles published in MEJ prior to this moment , though mostly interesting and well-conceived, seemed to enter what we have begun to call “the dead letter office”—that is, not only have few people accessed them after the first blush of their publication, but the writers of those articles have rarely, if ever, received any feedback from others about how useful or illuminating they were.
  2. Except for one issue, MEJ has rarely been able to represent a section on “Teaching Tips” or “best practices” in the English or Language Arts classroom—short papers (some no longer than a solid paragraph) providing some specific information about an exercise or assignment or unit or piece of literature that works in the classroom; that seems wrong for an organization whose first concern has always been teaching.  Easy pieces to write because the stuff of them is right at the practitioners’ finger-tips, with absolutely no need to peer-review them.
  3. While MEJ has customarily represented the work of university and community college and high school teachers, it has not done nearly as well in encouraging and then publishing the work of teachers in the middle school, and badly with materials of interest to elementary school teachers; and MEJ would be a more effective and responsive publication if it sought to publish more work by college-level and high school instructors.
  4. Although one of the very best articles that MEJ ever published was an issue-oriented piece that argued eloquently against the abuse of testing in the public schools, MEJ has failed to attract any other such well-argued opinion pieces on any one of a number of major concerns impacting the teaching profession.

As the new joint editors of MEJ, we have acted on these conclusions in order to present a journal that more effectively mirrors the needs of the organization and profession and, in the process, attempts to show that those who are not yet members of MCTE will have much to gain by reading and contributing to and interacting with the work contained in MEJ.

Our initial “calls” for submissions of a wide variety of material since last November have stressed the “rolling” nature of our publication deadlines.  In fact, now that we have gone “live” with our first “issue” of the new MEJ, our intention is to regularly refresh the content of our journal, replacing articles that our readers have stopped commenting on with new submissions.  As we receive new articles and “best practice” pieces, we’ll upload them when they’re ready, and we’ll let our readers know when we’ve received a sufficient “critical mass” of new material to release the next issue.

As we proceed toward a tentative end-of-August “rolling deadline” for that next issue, we’ll continue to encourage articles that exhibit some of the following features:

  1. We will plan to continue to peer-review the longer scholarly researched papers on theory and praxis as MEJ has been doing; that is an important service for us to fulfill for the entire organization, the promotion of the very best scholarship by our contributing teachers that could be easily downloaded and imported into the classes that any one of us might teach.
  2. In addition to those scholarly papers, we expect that practicing Minnesota teachers at all levels will be sharing what they are doing in their classrooms, why they’re doing what they’re doing, and the methodologies they’ve chosen to use in order to do their work.
  3. We expect that teachers at all levels will share with us the means by which they assess their students’ progress, including those interventions they have developed that help them gauge the relative success of a teaching strategy while there is still time to alter it.
  4. We will offer a rolling and growing section of “Teaching Tips” related to developing successful writing assignments, choosing a book that works along with an approach for helping students open it up, helping students to see the important relationship between reading well and good writing, moving a classroom toward full participation, etc.
  5. We will encourage short or long experiential articles on how to teach effectively online.
  6. We hope to see short or long experiential articles on the engagement of various kinds of technology as a means for improving the quality of research and writing.
  7. We will encourage short or long experiential articles, driven or not by theory, on collaborative writing, as well as collaborations among teachers to deliver parts of a teaching unit or a course.
  8. We will encourage any written efforts, short or long, by instructors (alone or in collaboration with others) who are engaged in the process of drawing their colleagues as well as their students toward the development of a culture of writing in their schools.
  9. And we expect to field a FORUM every month on a particular issue related to teaching that we hope you will want to contribute to.
  10. And we want opinion or issue-driven pieces of current interest to those working in the profession.

To do any or all of these things will require what we hope will be a great deal of communication among you and us.  Reciprocal communication, to be sure, between the writers of the kinds of short or long pieces we have in mind and those who read them.

Therefore, for every piece that we represent in MEJ, there will be a COMMENT FUNCTION appended to it.  As co-editors, we expect to monitor the quality of the comments that are recorded for each piece.  But, more importantly, we see a tremendous pair of benefits in those continuing comments.  First, the fact that comments will accumulate for any given published piece in MEJ means that we contemplate the publication of a LIVING JOURNAL—one that grows and is enriched by the comments it records.  As long as the comments flow, any given published article will never be dead.  Secondly, a comment function means that each writer whose work is represented in MEJ will have a REAL AND LIVING AUDIENCE, one that expresses its common interest in a piece, offers suggestions for its application, disagrees with its major premises while offering some emendations, and (perhaps most importantly) indicates that the piece has been downloaded, delivered to students, and used with results that can be measured and shared.

Having said all of this, we understand that there are no guarantees for success in what we plan to do.  MEJ cannot succeed in any format without YOU and your active engagement, whether by the submission of work that you truly care about (whatever length and shape and subject) and by your determination to enter into an interactive community of teachers of writing and language and literature.  And we will do whatever we can to encourage you to send us your work.

In any event, we want what YOU want, and, until you prove us wrong, we believe you want an MEJ that represents exciting new scholarly research on teaching English along with pieces on the everyday job of planning your work and working your plan, after which you’ve stepped back to evaluate the results.  And we are even more convinced that you want to confront such written pieces with the ability to INTERACT with them as well as to consider USING them in your teaching if you find them useful.

We promise to keep you posted about developments in our MEJ website and our sense of your reception of what we’ve been able to present to you.  To the degree that we’re able, we’ll attend to what you need from us.  We refer you to our “CALL FOR PAPERS” that is currently posted on the MCTE website in hopes that you are working on something right now about which you’d like an interested and enthusiastic reaction from us.  Do not hesitate to contact us should you need further information.

Welcome to the MEJ website. It’s yours.

Sincerely yours,

Bill Dyer                                                                               Scott Hall

Professor of English                                                          English Instructor

Minnesota State University, Mankato                           Irondale High School

Daylight Savings Time Vocabulary in Context by Bill St. Martin

Daylight Savings Time Vocabulary in Context

Bill St. Martin

Irondale High School


 

 

Focus Composition                             Name ______________________________

Vocabulary In Context

Building your Personal Thesaurus                              Hour _____________

Continue reading

Two Truths and a Tall Tale: An Ice-Breaker Activity by Michael MacBride

Michael MacBride

Exposing Yourself to Students: You are a Source!

I like to start the semester with a popular ice-breaker activity—two truths and a tall tale. During my first TA orientation, the TA director (Randall McClure) used this activity to get us talking. From that activity I learned that Dr. McClure had in fact been involved in a snowball fight with the members of U2, and slept (unknowingly) next to a dead body for several hours (while camping out for U2 tickets). So I adopted it. Continue reading

Analyzing Poetry and Songs

Song Exploration Project

Scott Hall

Irondale High School

Find a song that has been recorded by several artists (at least 4) over the past 30-60 years (or re-recorded/re-mixed in a new style by the same artist). Listen to each version of the song and take notes about the style. Style includes sounds, vocal delivery, pacing, beat, structure, and lyrics. YouTube is a good place to begin your search, because their website also links related songs. Continue reading

The Women of Beowulf and Student Responses by Kathryn Campbell

“The Women of Beowulf

Kathryn Campbell

US English/Journalism

St. Paul Academy and Summit School

St. Paul, Minnesota

 

If you’ve ever taught an early British Literature text, you know that strong, multidimensional female characters are hard to come by. Take Beowulf, for example: women are only named after they become wives, with the exception of one monster mother, who is depicted as a vengeful threat who must be vanquished after her son Grendel’s slaughter.

 

This writing and discussion activity will help students think multi-dimensionally and build understanding through creative fiction. It also facilitates close reading and annotation, because it is essential that the students’ adaptations of the character are true to her original (albeit limited) reference in the text. The closing activity furthers empathetic reflection and may help build vocabulary. Continue reading

4 Poems by Richard Robbins

Four Poems by Richard Robbins


 

 

St. Francis and the Birds

—a painting by Stanley Spencer

 

The parade will go no

further than the wall, where

the gardener shields her eyes,

 

the ducks, hens, and geese scuttle

toward his frock, each dove

and jay leaning forward

 

on the low tiled roof to

watch the boy lead each one,

saint and bird, toward that town

 

his wings would bend for,

blind daylight place from which

his face must turn away.

 

* First published in I-70 Review Continue reading

Spring 2014 Featured Article: Comics, Dickens, and Teaching by Serial Publication by Michael MacBride

Comics, Dickens, and Teaching by Serial Publication

by Michael MacBride
Teaching the “huge” text s-l-o-w-l-y: taking your time with Dickens and Comic Books
How do you teach a 500- or 900-page Dickens’ novel—heaven forbid a 1,500-page Richardson novel? (1) How do you teach a comic book, like Detective Comics, that has been running since 1937, or a comic strip, like Katzenjammer Kids, that’s been around since 1897? These texts are culturally rich, offer a unique snapshot of a historical period, and are relatively untapped, but their sheer length can be daunting. While serialized novels (usually) offer a consistent narrative, comic books and comic strips frequently diverge into “alternative universes” and offer new tellings of old stories. Spider-Man, for example, offers several books that take the hero in different directions–The Amazing, Spectacular, Sensational, Friendly Neighborhood, Ultimate, and, most recently, Superior Spider-Man. Where do you start? How do you dig in?

My contention is that the best place to start is one issue, or one monthly, at a time. Then the class, high school or college, will spend a month with that issue or monthly–just like the original audience would have. Comic books are (mostly) published on a monthly basis, and Charles Dickens released (most of) his works on a monthly basis as well. Taking time with a smaller text has many benefits, which will be enumerated shortly. Continue reading

Opinion 1: The iPad Invasion by Cassandra Scharber

The iPad Invasion
by Cassandra Scharber

“What I hope for you … [is] that you think of technology as a verb, not a noun;
that poetry drives you, not hardware.” – Red Burns

Setting the Scene
In January 2010, the iPad was born and its birth instantaneously ignited a craze within K12 schools around the county. The iPad’s invasion of Minnesota’s classrooms continues to be heralded by schools, districts, and news outlets (1) with no signs of slowing down. In a long history of financial, pedagogical, and philosophical debates, the iPad is dominating the latest chapter about technology’s role in education.

Since the introduction of computers into schools during the mid-1970s, technological fixes for education in the form of new tools (i.e., television, interactive whiteboards, clickers) have promised to solve educational challenges and new concepts (i.e., flipped classrooms, online learning) have claimed to help students learn or teachers teach more effectively and efficiently. Tyack and Cuban refer to these fads as “fireflies” due to how they appear so frequently, shine brightly for a few moments, and then disappear again.

Similar to the technologies that have come before them, the iPads’ status as an educational fad or revolution remains to be determined. In what ways can English educators respond to and participate in this craze? How can we deal with this dumping of iPads into our English classrooms? Is the iPad the technological tool that will be the tipping point for educational institutions and educators to disrupt, re-imagine, and engage in the continuously changing definitions and expectations of reading and writing, teaching and learning (Gladwell)?

While there are certainly more questions than answers at this point in time, perhaps the best advice is shared in the Red Burn’s quote above; “let poetry drive us, not hardware.” Let us honor our expertise in the teaching and learning of English, and not be distracted by the seductive iPads that have landed in our classrooms. Continue reading

Opinion 2: The New Face of Homelessness by Melissa Brandt

The New Face of Homelessness
By Melissa Brandt

You know that moment when you’re at a party or a social gathering and a person you barely know asks, “So, what do you do?” I dread that moment. Not because I’m embarrassed by what I do. I love my job. I love the people, students, and families with whom I work. Their troubles are my troubles. Their successes are my successes.

“I’m the Homeless Liaison for Rochester Public Schools,” I say with trepidation. I am nervous because there are certain words, I have found, that immediately strike a social-emotional nerve, and the word “homeless” generally strikes the mother of all emotional nerves. After I tell the party-goer what I do, I wait for one of three standard, social responses: pity, reverence, disdain. Most frequently, I see a look of pity cross the face of the person, a feeling of sadness for families in a homeless situation. We spend a little time chatting about statistics and bemoaning the state of the world, and the person moves on. Sometimes I see a look of reverence. It’s the I-would-never-in-a-million-years-want-your-job look. There’s a curiosity to this response. The person expressing reverence is usually interested in what the day-to-day challenges of the families and students. They want to know what homelessness looks like. I usually provide a few anecdotes, we spend a little time chatting about statistics and bemoaning the state of the world and the person moves on. Continue reading

Best Practice in the Classroom 1: Exploring Whiteboard Apps In The Classroom by Emily Brisse

Exploring Whiteboard Apps in the Classroom

by Emily Brisse

Watertown-Mayer High School

Although the topic of tablets in the classroom may be considered old news, it is still just as important to examine how this technology is being used in our districts and campuses and how we can improve its effectiveness. I’ve worked in a 1-to-1 iPad high school for the past two years, and now that the shine on these fancy gadgets has worn off–at least a little–I’ve been able to focus on a few things that are working for me and my students, specifically as they relate to whiteboard applications. Below I address several ways that I’ve used apps like Educreations, ShowMe, and Explain Everything in my secondary English classroom, and explain how they have improved my practices as a teacher and deepened my students’ learning. Continue reading

Best Practices in the Classroom 2: SWOT and the Analysis of Literary Characters by John Banschbach

SWOT and the Analysis of Literary Characters

By John Banschbach

Minnesota State University-Mankato

Like many teachers, I have a collection of teaching activities that can be used in different situations and that require little preparation. Freewriting, for example, can be used as an invention activity for writing or class discussion or it can be used as a classroom assessment technique (e.g., the “muddiest point” assignment). Another activity is “choose the word in this poem that you see as most important.” This activity and subsequent discussion can demonstrate a poem’s complexity and the variety of responses a poem can invoke. This year I have added another activity to my collection.

SWOT is an acronym for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.” If you have been engaged in formal strategic planning for your school or department, it is an acronym that is familiar. It was developed in the 1960s by Albert Humphrey and others at the Stanford Research Institute as part of a study of problems in corporate planning, and, since then, it has become an essential part of strategic planning for businesses. A business first determines its objectives and then identifies its strengths and weaknesses (the internal environment) and opportunities and threats (the external environment). The business goes on to revise its objectives, making them consistent with this analysis, and then it sorts the SWOT findings into categories and prioritizes them and finally creates an action plan for achieving the new objectives (Humphrey). Continue reading

Best Practice in the Classroom 3: Book Bags–Promoting Literacy Outside the Classroom by Mitzi Watkins

Book Bags: Promoting Literacy Outside the Classroom

by Mitzi Watkins
“Ms. Watkins, my family and I took your book bag with us on our trip to Mexico, and we read the books in the car on our way there and back. Thanks for letting me take these books home!”—Esmeralda, 2nd grade student

Before my first year of teaching, I had many delusions about what my students would be like. I naively assumed all of them would come from households that had books for their children to read at home. The first time one of my second graders told me there were no books in his apartment, I questioned the truthfulness of the child. Did he really not have any books at home? Or, did he just want to get out of doing outside reading?

Soon I came to realize he was telling the truth, and many of his classmates were in the same situation. I felt bad about my students not having books to read at home. I knew how important independent reading time was for improving their reading and literacy skills. According to Clark and Rumbold (2005, p.9), “Reading amount and reading achievement are thought to be reciprocally related to each other – as reading amount increases, reading achievement increases, which in turn increases reading amount.” Continue reading

Peer Reviewed Article 1: Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom by Erin Kunz

Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom

by Erin Kunz

When developing a college composition course, content and methodology are always important considerations, but as instructors we also must consider how we can develop good practices in order to foster an intellectual environment. We try to create community for our students, but because of a number of issues—resistance, apathy, and misunderstanding, to name a few, establishing a community where we can openly discuss the human condition is a difficult endeavor. The ideological nature of feminist writing, feminist theory, and feminist politics can make it even more difficult to create community. Therefore, we must be particular about our approach when teaching ideological methods and topics. Continue reading

Peer-Reviewed Article 2: Social Injustice in Multicultural Literature in an Elementary School Setting by Jongsun Wee and Nicholas Wysocki

‘Why did he get all mad?’: Talking About Social Injustice in Multicultural Literature

by Jongsun Wee
Winona State University, Winona, MN

and Nicholas Wysocki
Winona State University, Winona, MN

Discussing issues related to social justice in multicultural literature can help our children develop an understanding of this concept. (1) These discussions provide a space where children can achieve several Language Arts and Social Studies goals, such as developing critical thinking and comprehension skills concerning social inequalities that require agency on the part of democratic citizens. These goals are important for children to achieve, but social justice issues are sensitive and difficult topics for them to understand, especially when they do not have much background knowledge of them. However, we believe both that teachers should make efforts to bring these social justice issues to their classrooms and that children are able to handle those difficult issues.

In this article, we show how third grade children talked about social injustice issues in the story, The Friendship (2) in small group literature discussions. The children who participated in this study did not have much background knowledge of inequality and maltreatment, which are part of black history in the United States. At first, some children did not notice the social injustices happening in the story, but through discussions, they were able to see the unfairness and inequality experienced due to racial difference. The findings suggest that teachers need to bring multicultural children’s literature with a social justice theme to their classrooms and to create a space and time for children to discuss them. Continue reading

Approaches to Student Writing 1: Using ‘New Genres’ to Inject Relevance into the Research Paper by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

Beyond the Research Paper: Exploring New Genres for Original, Authentic Inquiry

by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

Albert Lea High School

After sequestering myself in my home office for nearly four hours on a Saturday morning—using headphones and a closed door to counteract the distractions of domestic life—I emerge, over-caffeinated but relieved, announcing to my wife and daughters that I’ve graded 10 research papers, my quota for the day.

“How were they?” my wife asks.

“OK. One of them was really good,” I say.

Only one this time, but it really was good. The student’s research question was whether the U.S. should consider a national minimum drinking age (MDA) of 18, considering the seeming futility of enforcing the current age of 21. While dangerously close to some of the topics I refuse to allow students to write on anymore—abortion, legalizing marijuana—she made the topic her own. Her first exposure to the topic was a 60 Minutes episode she’d watched online in which a chief of police, a former college president, and the parents of a college student who had died of alcohol poisoning all (surprisingly) argued in favor of lowering the MDA. These voices, she acknowledged, had shaped her original position. But after doing her own extensive reading, an interview, and exploring her own family’s experiences with alcohol, her position shifted completely. She not only ultimately argued that the MDA remain 21 in every state, but also offered ideas regarding other cultural and educational changes that could help promote responsible alcohol consumption, that the law itself was just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Continue reading

Approaches to Student Writing 2: A Fresh Look at Peer Response by Neil Witikko

A Fresh Look at Peer Response:
Improved Writing and Talk that Hits the (Common) Core

by Neil Witikko
The College of St. Scholastica

The Students
Five minutes have passed in third hour, and the students in Composition I are hard at work in teams of three and four. Most groups are scattered around the classroom, finding what privacy they can away from the other peer groups. One team of four is working just outside the door of the classroom in the hallway. Any comments about the excitement of last night’s hockey game have faded in the first three minutes of class, and the only sounds now are comments about the papers that the students are sharing with each other.

It is a day for feedback on their cause and effect papers. Each student has had the opportunity to take their peers’ papers home, read them, and generate some ideas for response, based on a project rubric that guides the students’ writing. Now they have time to share those ideas in talk. Continue reading

Strategies for Teaching Literature 1: An Evolution of the Narrative Techniques of Dostoevsky by Wes Schaller

Crime and Punishment: An Evolution of the Narrative Techniques of Dostoevsky

by Wes Schaller

The notebooks of Fyodor Dostoevsky have both complicated and enriched the analyses of Crime and Punishment. Whereas some writers may employ the notebooks to supplement and illuminate their ideas, others may regard them as irrelevant territory—not to be used within the realm of critical analyses. This dilemma will necessarily be addressed later on, for the disparity between an author’s evolving intent and his final product is indeed significant, though I will endeavor to make relevant what some may perceive as irrelevant. Nevertheless, the driving purpose of this essay is to shed light on certain narrative techniques by comparing Dostoevsky’s rough draft of Crime and Punishment—written as a first-person narrative—to the final product—written in third-person omniscient. Incorporating such a comparison into creative-writing courses entails numerous advantages, precisely because the change in narration yields significant effects; illustrating these effects can ultimately broaden a writer’s understanding of how the narrative voice functions in any given novel. Continue reading

Strategies for Teaching Literature 2: Making Dostoevsky Relevant by Heather Porter

Making Dostoevsky Relevant:Teaching Notes from Underground to College Freshmen

by Heather Porter

Relatively little has been said regarding how to teach Dostoevsky’s novels to students. Even less has been said about how to make his work relevant to twenty-first century American students who exist within an entirely different cultural landscape than the characters of Dostoevsky’s fiction[1]. Notes from Underground  is particularly challenging, but its difficulty is precisely what makes it such a necessary text. If handled correctly, Notes can be an effective medium for self-discovery, illuminating aspects of human behavior students may or not may not have already noticed for themselves. While it is still important to place Notes within its cultural and philosophical context in the classroom, it may be more valuable to focus students’ attention on the universal themes of human nature that figure prominently in the text. Modernizing the way students read Notes is essential for enabling them to relate to the Underground Man and see themselves reflected in his words and behavior. This can be accomplished by updating the process of reading the text to reflect how we as a culture read today. Students may be more accepting of the underlying truths of Notes if they are asked to read the text as though it were part of an online interaction. Continue reading

Strategies for Teaching Literature 3: Redefining Literacy with Graphic Novels by Becca James

Redefining Literacy with Graphic Novels

by Becca James

A line has formed, populated with people holding signs and speaking inaudibly to those that pass by. Move in closer, and it’s evident that the line is composed of high school students. Although they should be in the classroom on this mid-March Friday, they’ve taken to the streets in protest of Chicago Public School’s decision that Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis only be part of the junior and senior curriculum. In previous years, Satrapi’s depiction of growing up during the Iranian revolution was accepted curriculum for both middle and high school classes. Approximately 100 students stand in a cold drizzle of rain outside Chicago’s Lane Tech High School. Move in another step closer and their assertions are now audible. Continue reading

Collaborative Online Paper 1: Teaching ENGL 4/533–Enabling World Texts, Past and Present, to Talk to Each Other by William D. Dyer

Teaching English 4/533: Enabling World Texts, Past and Present, to Talk to Each Other

William D. Dyer

I am going to offer, as a means for providing a context for the long student-written collaborative paper that follows as well the brief discussion of how this assignment might apply to other teaching environments and students (written by the graduate student “point person” on that project and practicing high school teacher), an introduction to the actual assignment and the online course for which it was composed.  Very simply, English 4/533 is one of only two world literature courses regularly offered annually at Minnesota State University, Mankato. 

The object of this course is, at the very least, two-fold:  first, to introduce participants to some literary texts that are seminal to an understanding of what we might label “world literature”–from a traditional perspective, truly classic texts.  That is, each of these texts contributes to the development of a “window”  through which we can see the “selves” of several other very complex cultures substantially different from us.  And it is through a very special and culture-transmitting literary medium that we will begin to glean other cultural ways of seeing, being, and believing that have evolved through the centuries and, in no small part, are reflected by these works.  Continue reading

Collaborative Online Paper 2: Examination of the Cultural Influences Behind ‘The Hobbit’ by Gillian Singler, Alicia Guthmiller, and Kevin Smith

Examination of the Cultural Influences Behind The Hobbit

by Gillian Singler, Alicia Guthmiller, and Kevin Smith

Introduction

The New York Times first pointed out in its review of The Hobbit, that “…there may come the thought of how legend and tradition and the beginning of history meet and mingle…”The Hobbit” is a glorious account of a magnificent adventure, filled with suspense and seasoned with a quiet humor that is irresistible…this is a book with no age limits. All those, young or old, who love a fine adventurous tale, beautifully told, will take “The Hobbit” to their hearts (“New Books for Younger Readers”), and after an intimate examination of the text, one can find that Tolkien’s well-crafted text provides not only the historical heritage of English culture, but also an appreciation for and comprehension of the past that has continued to affect the futures of all cultures.” Continue reading

Collaborative Online Paper 3: ‘The Hobbit’ Companion Essay by Gillian Singler

The Hobbit Companion Essay: A Pedagogical Tool

by Gillian Singler

The initial topic for this research project was a culturally-based analysis of a text of our choosing. Each group was expected to examine sections of their choice that would highlight the novel’s root culture in addition to paralleling it to our own. As a group, we decided on The Hobbit because it was beloved by each of us and we each had a personal interest in British culture. We began by assigning sections based on creating a well-rounded examination of the novel. For the assignment, our introduction included a brief overview of our own cultures and our experiences with other cultures, including our ideas about the culture of the novel. Overall, I feel that our cooperative endeavor was a fruitful and mutually edifying experience, and I hope that it manages to provide a sense of engagement for those new to The Hobbit, as well as a new perspective for those that already cherish The Hobbit.

As the intended audience of this assignment is undergraduates, the staging of the paper may need to be slightly adapted, either by the instructor serving as a mediator between the students and the information presented via instruction, or by the class reading the piece, or sections of it, together while taking time for discussion.

Students working in a unit where this specific novel is being discussed would benefit most from the information presented in the research paper. For example, I teach a high school-level mythology course, open to sophomore, junior, and senior level students; this particular paper would be applicable in this course as we read and discuss chapters from The Hobbit. For this particular unit, while introducing the text, students would read the “History behind The Hobbit: The Story” section in order to gain background knowledge on the text and Tolkien’s life as well as his intentions for the novel. As a class, we would discuss how the various aspects of Tolkien’s life influenced the text and we would then apply this to other texts we have covered in class.

The following idea could be turned into an additional assignment, appropriate for any literature unit and course. In regard to the mythology course mentioned previously, the students have read the Iliad – which could be substituted for any other piece of literature – and they have background knowledge on the culture and historical events of the time. With this in mind, students could be put into groups and construct the history behind the Iliad based on speculations about Homer’s life (as not much is known about him, students would be free to be creative with their conclusions) derived from the text. Possible assumptions might include his being a Greek soldier, a slave, a carpenter, or a priest. Students could then research the author and compare their speculations to the information they find, adding these results to their final paper. As a group, students would then use this information and their speculations – citing specific examples from the text as support – to create a “History behind the Story” section of their own.

Additionally, for a college-level, AP course or adapting for students exceeding the standard, students may be asked to create a section focusing on the cultural importance behind the text, citing specific examples from it; a possible prompt for this section might look as follows:

What do we learn about the culture in which the novel was written?

How did/does this novel shape/influence its culture?

How does this text reflect your culture? Or, how doesn’t it?

Furthermore, an additional project for such students, if students are enrolled in a foreign language course or familiar with one, may regard the language section of the project and, using their background knowledge in language, attempt to create a small project – consisting of one language and a few paragraphs – that imitates Tolkien’s creation of new languages.

Another project idea stems from the section regarding the creation of The Hobbit’s geography. Students may want to review this section of the project, and then, while reading from the novel, the teacher could highlight sections from the book concerning geography. Students could then create a map for the text based on the information provided as well as what they find throughout the novel and, as a class, students would reflect on the how the author’s experiences have shaped the topography of this world – is the author from this area? If the place is fictional, how might/does it reflect the author’s real world? What experiences has the author had that played a role in the shaping the story-world? Again, this idea could be adapted for any novel in which the landscape of the story is described.

For a college-level or AP course, or for students exceeding the standard, instead of creating a map, students might write a brief essay reflecting on how the geological background is reflective of the protagonist or the character’s inner journey. In addition to this, students may read the mythological section of the document, choosing to either write an in-depth character analysis based on what they have read and information they have gained, or to write an essay making connections to a myth; for the mythology course previously mentioned, students could relate the story to numerous tales covered throughout the class. Furthermore, an additional project for such a course might allow students to create their own character for the novel (as seen in Jackson’s addition of the White Orc in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) that is reflective of an ancient mythology covered in the course.

Considering religion plays an exceptional role in influencing literature, it is also important for students to gain background knowledge in this area of the author’s life. Students may want to consider how the author’s religious beliefs are reflected in the text, or not reflected and why not, and also how these beliefs may be similar to or different from the cultural majority. As is noted in Alicia’s section on religion in The Hobbit – is the religious influence of the text subtle or blatant? Why might an author choose to do this: for personal reasons; a fear of criticism and/or alienation; to promote inclusion?

With regard to any of the above ideas, this research paper serves as an example of working collaboratively via technology. While developing this paper, Alicia, Kevin, and I worked collectively utilizing such technological tools as Google Documents, GroupMe, Vocoroo, and Prezi as we were unable to meet in person due to distance. In order for this to happen, leadership, drive, and communication were required. This type of work serves as an experience for students to develop and hone these necessary real-world skills.

In a high school environment, I suggest that the teacher provide roles (e.g. group leader: responsible for formatting, final editing, and submitting the paper; monitor: in charge of scheduling, ensuring group members keep due dates; etc.), as well as require the group to comprise a list of norms and expectations (e.g. all members’ voices will be valued, all members will peer edit, etc.), in addition to consequences for violating the group rules (e.g. required time to work with the instructor on missing sections, a reduction in individual grade, etc.). As represented in our paper, it is also beneficial for each student to select a specific section of interest to research; in this case, students could choose from a variety of the ideas presented previously in this essay. In addition to these suggestions, it might behoove a high school-level instructor to familiarize the class with various technologies available for group work and presentations. Students might also publish their work via a site like Lulu or Frodo’s Notebook.

Regardless of whether one is teaching The Hobbit or not, our project could serve as a sample of a new type of research paper – one that does not simply propose students research a topic, but that they research with a specific focus, in this case culture, while applying their own perspectives and experiences. While culture plays a significant role in literature, other aspects could be chosen, such as style, genre, or gender. Most simply, this paper might serve an instructor or class in gaining background information on The Hobbit, and how to craft a collaborative and more thoughtful research paper, but, as noted above, I see its purpose not only to inform, but also to spawn new project ideas rich in an appreciation for The Hobbit, in addition to the exploration of literature.

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*It is worth noting that the above lesson ideas, depending on how and which the teacher chooses to utilize, meet the following Minnesota State Standards for high school English language arts:

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