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And while I am constantly updating my syllabus to reflect recent events and debates, students’ varying skill levels and my own pedagogical growth, one assignment I’ve been reluctant to give up is the personal narrative.I often have students narrate a conflict they have experienced in the past and consider the ways it has influenced or shaped their identities. First, the personal narrative provides a creative start to the semester: it’s an informal assignment that doesn’t usually require the conceptual heavy lifting of literary analysis, for instance, because it focuses almost entirely on the student’s own experiences.Many walked their readers through the process of learning to play the clarinet or the piano, one of them describing the moment their fingers touched the keys so vividly that you felt you were there.
During our discussion, we looked at some rhetorical elements at play in the article, namely Brandt’s examination of contrasting literacy acquisition experiences gathered through anecdote, but mostly we worked to parse out Brandt’s definition of “literacy” and “sponsorship.” Brandt expands literacy to mean not just learning to read and write, but the acquisition of any skill that may prove socioeconomically beneficial to the individual – this would be the cornerstone of their essay assignment.
The next few classes consisted of close reading literacy pieces through these newly defined concepts.
But more importantly, I wanted to explore – in published and classroom writing – the connection between identity, place and writing.
Particularly, my current syllabus seeks to examine the ways in which writers develop and reflect on their relationship with the social, cultural, political spaces around them through the role that writing and literacy play in their lives.
This low-stakes free writing assignment would be the starting point of many of these students’ first drafts.
One last theoretical framework I tied in was Lloyd Bitzer’s “Rhetorical Situation,” which I often use to teach rhetorical analysis, but also like to discuss in the context of the personal essay because of its emphasis on purpose and audience.
In preparation for our discussion in class, I had the students read the essay at home and write a response journal highlighting five quotes that they had found particularly interesting, confusing or that they agreed/disagreed with, and then write a short comment explaining why they had picked them.
This was a low-stakes assignment meant to engage student and theory.
As for myself, I am already thinking of new strategies I can incorporate the next time I teach this assignment.
NOTE: I used the assignment below for my Fall 2010 sections of WRTG 3020.