The writing problem I am working on is ideation. Most of my high school students struggle to take a kernel of an idea and grow it, and helping my students with ideation proved to “make a qualitative difference to the students’ future writing” (Wallack 28-29). Bean identified a related “student problem” as “failure to assimilate the unfamiliar; resistance to uncomfortable or disorienting views.” His recommended “helping strategy” includes drawing “analogies to other times when students have had to assimilate unfamiliar views” (Bean 181). I chose “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell as the text for this exercise because it creates cognitive dissonance in the reader, sparking limitless prompts and discussions that can contemporize the quandary Orwell faced, while stretching the thinking of today’s students by putting them in a pickle. John C. Bean characterized “Shooting an Elephant” as “open form writing” and “belletristic prose”:
Such essays, which often resist easy summary, surprise the reader (pleasurably) with digressions, gaps, and purposeful structural fissures such as flashbacks or changes of scene, causing the reader to momentarily lose bearings and then reconstruct the “plot.” Some iconic examples are George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Joan Didion’s “The Santa Ana,” and Anne Dillard’s “Living Like a Weasel” (Bean 50).
Open form writing can transplant the reader “into a plot in which there are scenes that involve issues or conflicts” that are “often used to heighten or deepen a problem or show its human significance” (Ramage, Bean, Johnson).
To provoke my students to think and write critically about “Shooting an Elephant” I will try to address more than one learning modality by visually introducing them to the problem Orwell faced (to shoot or not to shoot the elephant). I will also provide them with brief historical and literary context, and pre-teach a few challenging terms from the text. Then we will read and discuss the text, using prompts 1, 2 and 4 from 50 Essays (Cohen 283) as discussion-starters. Students will then respond in writing to each of the three writing prompts I wrote (above). Before I read and give feedback on their responses, peer groups will read and discuss each other’s work, to help further develop their ideas on their own. Then, students will develop a “Shooting an Elephant” focused freewriting prompt of their own. Finally, we’ll return to the text, and discuss and write about how our understanding of Orwell’s dilemma has deepened as a result of our intellectual detours.
What I’m trying to do with my writing prompts is tap the students’ funds of knowledge in ways that relate back to the themes in Orwell’s essay. Students may not know much about colonialism or totalitarianism. High school students have likely never been a policeman or a soldier. Perhaps they’ve never used a gun, or killed a living thing, in their lives. But surely they have experienced peer and parental pressures. So in prompt #1 above, I’m attempting to create cognitive dissonance in them with a prompt that is close to their experience, but that’s not easy to answer. From there, the prompts broaden in terms of world context, but remain current and with the same aim of creating cognitive dissonance as an exercise for them to better develop their thinking and ideas in response to texts. I think my second and third prompts, as written now, do a reasonable job of contemporizing the cognitive dissonance Orwell felt while still aligning with Orwell’s dilemma. And while I like that the first prompt presents a current problem, I’m less confident that it echoes Orwell’s predicament as well as prompts two and three do.
Using Wallack’s six categories for focused freewriting prompts as a reference (Wallack 37), I think the three prompts I’ve developed are closest to her “Category 6: Making Connections To And From…” (Wallack 42). “There are sound reasons…to ask readers to broaden their perspective…connecting…to other…moments can generate surprising insights into reader’s assumptions about the text or issue it raises.” However, Wallack is cautionary about starting “work with a text at the level of making connections” because she wants “readers to have the best chance of making fruitful connections” by first considering a text “on its own terms for some time” (Wallack 43). While I understand and appreciate her point, I wonder if my high school students are at the academic level of Wallack’s. I think the writing problem I see in my high school students (ideation) is best served by first making connections and then returning to the text for deeper analysis and more traditional writing prompts. I have to draw them in, capture their attention, and value and connect to their world and experiences by attempting to make the text more relevant to their lives. If I succeed in making the connection, they now have relevant schema and funds of knowledge to bring to bear on analyzing the text itself. Rather, if I go deep on the text first, I might lose them. I believe personal connections can be made to almost any text, and that this is a valuable and repeatable process for getting students into the text before we move through and beyond with prompts like Wallack’s in Categories 1-5 (Wallack 38-43). My goals for these prompts include “reader engagement, schema activation, and purposeful inquiry” (Manzo 61). I’m looking for a hook.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas, The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, Second Edition. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011.
Cohen, Samuel. 50 Essays, A Portable Anthology. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.
Dunnington, Donald. “On Shooting the Elephant in Bashar Assad’s Syria.” The Wall Street Journal, Letters To The Editor, September 14-15, 2013.
Manzo, Ula C., Manzo, Anthony V., and Thomas, Matthew M. “Content Area Literacy, A Framework for Reading-Based Instruction” 5th Edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009.
Ramage, John D., Bean, John C., and Johnson, June. The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing. Retreived on 9/13/13 from: http://faculty.mdc.edu/nleon/Open%20form%20to%20Closed%20Form%20Writing%20Styles.htm
Wallack, Nicole B. “Revealing Our Values, Reading Student Texts with Colleagues in High School and College.” Teaching with Student Texts, Essays Toward an Informed Practice, ed. Joseph Harris, John D. Miles, and Charles Paine. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2010.