Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Goodnight Dull Assignments and Hello Goodnight Moon

Would I assign Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon in a college writing course?
I think I would, were I teaching at the moment, after reading "What Writers Can Learn From 'Goodnight Moon'" by Aimee Bender in the New York Times (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/what-writers-can-learn-from-good-night-moon/).
Bender describes getting several copies of the book birthing twins and settling in to read it for the first time. She then says,
The babies listened in their sleepy baby way, and as the pages turned, I felt a growing excitement — a literary excitement. Not what I expected from this moment. But I was struck and stunned, as I have been before, by a classic sneaking up on me and, in an instant, earning yet again another fan.
It also seemed to me to be an immediately useful writing tool.

“Goodnight Moon” does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them. It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure. Many children’s books do, particularly for this age, as kids love repetition and the books supply it. They often end as we expect, with a circling back to the start, and a fun twist. This is satisfying but it can be forgettable. Kids — people — also love depth and surprise, and “Goodnight Moon” offers both. Here’s what I think it does that is so radical and illuminating for writers of all kinds, poets and fiction writers and more.
Her piece goes to a reading of Goodnight Moon that explores and celebrates her observation.

I'm attracted to this kind of thing in a writing course because Bender's essay is assignable, and for many students who've read or have had the book read to them, their be the warmth of recollection, and for those who haven't read the book, it's readable.

I can see using the Bender essay and Wise Brown book to discuss form, to invite even the most novice and unsure writers to experiment with voice, to play with style, to think about the idea of simply finding a way to surprise their readers a bit.

Also, the idea makes sense as more and more states require their public colleges and community colleges to eliminate or reduce reliance on developmental reading, writing, and math courses. For example, in Florida, students who graduate high school can go right into a first year writing course even if a writing placement test they take indicates they would be better in a developmental writing course. A few years ago, in fact, they would have had no choice but to take that developmental course first, possible two or even three developmental courses. That's ended and so many professors are seeing in their first year courses writers with more varied ability, some stronger, some weaker. Or in other places, their are accelerated learning programs (see http://alp-deved.org/), progressive approaches to helping developmental writers stay on track and do well in a first year writing course along side students who did not require a developmental course.

To make more varied ability writing courses work, college writing teachers need to learn about differentiated teaching practices of the kind that elementary educators are trained to apply. A lot of college writing teachers already get to differentiated practices, but many will struggle to become comfortable with the approach.

Assigning first Goodnight Moon, discussing it, and then assigning Bender's essay carries with it a native differentiated element. It starts with a simply elegant book to read, a picture book, but one that is being read by writers, following Bender, to learn about writing. So while the book is a children's book, it's also a classic, great literature, and it teaches. The reading can kick off a range of possible discussions -- remembering other books read, or for those who did not grow up as readers or being read to, other stories heard or watched as children.  This would borrow from literacy narrative assignments.

The turn to Bender's essay would, for some weaker readers, be less troubling because they'll have read and discussed a bit the book Bender's writing about. That is, it's a different experience reading a review or analysis of a work of art one's already seen and thought about.  So placing Bender's essay in a digital setting where writers can share notes and comments as collaborating readers, including inviting them to read the comments that will have been archived at the New York Times site, makes reading communal.

And then because of Bender's points about how writing can surprise, float above its forms, subvert its own rules, the first year course can invite writers of all abilities to play with the rules and conventions of standard edited English. Even the seemingly most inept writer, the student who cannot get a subject or verb to agree, a tense to hold, a paragraph to cohere, can play with words and learn to find some joy in the experiments that come with trying to give their readers both "depth and surprise."

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