I just finished up the first semester of teaching developmental writing with Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions per Minute as the central text. The book is a historical look at protest songs arranged chronologically in 33 chapters. While there are some cross-references within the chapters to past acts, the chapters more or less stand on their own, which is good because there was no way I could get students to successfully read all 500+ pages of the reference-heavy tome in a single semester. Instead, I assigned one or two chapters a week, getting through about 18 of them this spring. This included close looks at artists like Nina Simone, Country Joe and the Fish, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Green Day.
I’m using the book again next semester, and there was a lot that I liked about how this class went and what kind of ideas we got to discuss because of the theme. However, I also relied a little more directly on the text for writing prompts than I have in previous semesters when I was using other books, and I think that made it more apparent to me that several students weren’t really reading as assigned. I know I’m not the only teacher facing this problem, and I know that it’s not even unique to developmental-level classes, but it was definitely a frustrating hurdle that is going to change the way I deliver the course content next semester.
With that said, here are some general reflections on what worked, what didn’t, and what I think I’m going to do differently next time around. I would gladly welcome any comments or suggestions from those of you who have worked with the text or found successful strategies for increasing reading participation!
- Rich course themes. The book covers protest songs through a few different lenses, and Lynskey mostly stays neutral about the actual topics protested, giving a lot of room for discussion of the ins and outs of things like institutional racism, poverty and crime, the Vietnam War, feminism, and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. We wove our way through a lot of history through the lens of those who took issue with the status quo, and it opened up a lot of good discussions and parallels to today’s society.
- Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar. Speaking of today’s society, I could not have picked a better semester to teach this book for the first time. Lynskey’s introduction and conclusion both claim that protest songs are going extinct and that today’s (writing in 2008) generation is too apathetic to use the form to make a change. Over the course of the semester, we got to see the real time release of Beyonce’s “Formation” and accompanying Super Bowl performance and Kendrick Lamar’s critically-acclaimed Grammy protest medley. We used these contemporary events to question how Lynskey might change his book if he were ending it in 2016 instead of 2008, and it gave me the chance to bring in a lot of relevant, recognizable touchstones.
- Close analysis and personal reflection. You can see an overview of all of the assignments I gave on the course syllabus page, but the ones that worked particularly well were papers 2 and 3. Paper 2 (see assignment details here) asked students to connect one of the songs read in that section to their own personal experiences. Paper 3 (see assignment details here) asked students to print the song lyrics and analyze them like a piece of poetry to make an argument about the song’s meaning. Both of these produced papers that impressed me. In some cases, the students produced work that I was shocked to see coming out of a class deemed “remedial.” I was really excited to see their engagement and hard work.
What Didn’t Work
- Too much to cover. Even though I pared down the readings, I think that I needed to limit it even more. I often assigned two chapters at once, and that meant that students were sometimes reading about completely different historical contexts in the same week, and I made some assumptions about prior knowledge that did not hold true. For many of my students, even events as large as the Vietnam War and figures as recognizable as Bob Marley were unknowns, and I ended up doing a lot of explaining after the reading instead of before. I know it was frustrating to students to read something so dense without the prior knowledge to make it feel relevant to them, and this is the main thing I’m aiming to change (see below) for next semester.
- The final project. I always end the semester with a group final presentation. It usually gives students a break from writing and has worked really well in the past. It thought I had a great topic for this semester’s final presentation: “If Dorian Lynskey wrote a sixth section that went from 2008-2016, what songs and topics would he include?” I still think this is an interesting topic that has great potential for getting students involved and connected, but this semester there were several groups that had serious attendance and participation problems, and I ended up putting out a lot of interpersonal fires instead of getting to dig into the possible topics and songs in depth. While I got a few excellent presentations, I felt like the final project needs some tweaks to be more meaningful.
- Vocabulary. I included a reading guide with vocabulary words and guiding questions for every assigned reading (that I don’t think most students actually used, but that’s a different story). I didn’t do enough to engage students with the vocabulary directly, though. By the end of the semester, I realized my mistake and started doing some more vocabulary-targeted activities, and I saw an increase in students using those words confidently in their writing, but I definitely needed to do more to get them actively using the vocabulary words from the beginning.
What I’m Going to Change
- Reading guides and reading accountability. The reading guides I gave had a list of suggested vocabulary words at the top, a series of guiding questions about the reading, and space for students to add personal connections and reflections as they read. Students seldom had these reading guides with them when I asked even though they were allowed to use them on any reading quizzes or in-class writing assignments. Since I didn’t assign points to the guides themselves, I think I got caught in the “students don’t do optional” trap. Next semester, I’m going to add a section to the reading guides that gives a list of the historical figures and events from the chapter and short explanation of them. I’m also going to work to give more intentional reading accountability assignments to make sure the guides are actually being used (and I’ve gotten some advice from articles like this one by David Gobblar and this collection of advice from The Teaching Professor).
- Fewer chapters. I’m going to cut even more of the reading so that we can spend more time digging in deep. If I give two chapters in the same week, I’m going to make sure that they cover the same basic topic, but for the most part I am going to aim for only one chapter at a time.
- More pre-reading discussion. I haven’t decided quite how I am going to deliver this yet, but I am going to provide more historical context before the students start reading. I hadn’t realized just how much context they would need to know. I’m toying with the idea of using some flipped classroom strategies to create short online lectures about the context (probably using Prezi with voiceover) and then devote more class time to letting students discuss the reading themselves with guided discussion questions.
- More direction for the final project. I let students design their own final project with little direction on how they should break up the work. This had worked fine in past classes, but for some reason it really didn’t work well for several groups this semester, and some students were left doing an unfair amount of work. I think that next semester I will be more direct in saying that each group member is responsible for proposing a single chapter to be included in the hypothetical sixth section of the book. That way if any members fail to do their part of the project, I will still have concrete, measurable objectives for the other members.
Image: Creative Commons from Flickr user Arnie Papp