Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students

PALS is thrilled to have a guest post by Clay Zuba, a teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Zuba writes about his prior experience in the college-level classroom and asks higher education professionals to consider how to best serve the level and teaching needs of incoming students. Zuba makes the point that we need to understand how students develop as learners in order to best meet their needs. For more from Zuba, you can find his nonfiction and fiction writing about House of the Seven Gables here

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via Ed Lim Photo

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a preponderance of professors, have at least once or twice recently said to themselves, “students today . . .”

Fill in these ellipses with your most common complaint about students entering your classrooms. You may find that they cannot read critically or write clearly. Perhaps they don’t know how to pose thoughtful questions or conduct research. Or know the first thing about symbolism, or the American Revolution.

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

Including myself. Since beginning as a high school English teacher about a year ago, I’ve learned a lot about these students. It surprised me. I wanted to share. Maybe we can work together.

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Who I was, and who I came to be

I was one of you once. In January 2016 I earned my Ph.D. in American Literature, with a specialization in antebellum print culture. I published. I held a number of research fellowships. Between the time I started a Master’s Degree in 2010 and I moved on from the academic job market in 2017, I taught undergraduates at six universities on the east coast, in Texas, and the southwest. I had on-campus interviews, no offers. That is the way it is for many of us right now.

I began teaching at a college preparatory high school this past fall. I teach English to juniors and sophomores at what is considered an elite high school. One hundred percent the students with whom I work will attend a four-year college. This year they have been accepted to places such as Duke, and Stanford, and Airforce Academy. But many will attend in-state land-grant universities or smaller, out-of-state niche schools private and public. My students are very likely representative of those that will enter your classrooms as freshmen.

Even though I am very good at research, I admit that I love to teach young people in writing and literature. And I believe in the mission to prepare my students for university-level study. Much like you, as a university instructor, I often found my students insufficiently prepared to undertake their course of study in higher education. A few of them had a strong foundation in writing and literature. But many of them had trouble paraphrasing a thesis in an article in The Atlantic. Even the ones that could needed to learn to think  more critically. And some of the others (literally) didn’t understand how to analyze figurative language. I admit to thinking some version of “what on earth is going on in high schools”?

What I found out is going on surprised me. It may surprise you, too. We are actually teaching students all of these skills in high schools. We are teaching them to write essays with a clear thesis sentence at the end of the first paragraph. We are teaching them the elements of the gothic as a literary genre. We are teaching them to identify and analyze figurative language. And most students take their education seriously.

However, a number of entangled conundrums await students when it comes time for them to transfer their skills and knowledge from high school to college. I come to my conclusions based on my experience teaching both groups of students, rather than empirical study. I  hope you will find them helpful.

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Four rules for teaching my high school students

  1. Reorient, repeat.

I taught them to write a strong thesis statement and identify symbolism. Even so, you need to repeat and reinforce these skills. You need to reorient the knowledge students already have for their college environment. There are at least three reasons I need to ask you do this.

First, most young students do not transfer skills and knowledge well from one environment or field to another. High school students have difficulty transferring what I teach them about writing to their history class. They have difficulty applying their knowledge of history to help them historicize what they read in my American literature class. The same will be true of your students, but they will be facing an even greater change in environments, undergoing one of the great rites of passage in our society: the transition from high school teenager to college adult.

Second, if you do not demand that students apply their old close reading skills to your new classroom, they will assume that you do not require close reading skills in your classroom. They will assume that these were only for high school. So, model close reading skills as you like to see them. This will give my students confidence as they grow to use these skills in your classroom.

And three, their brains are still growing in their capacity for abstract thought.  For example, my students’ understanding of the types of abstract ideas that symbolism can encompass and how writers attach these ideas to concrete objects, will be different than when they become your students. No doubt you have your own favorite theory of intellectual development, but for reference I’ll link to the ones William Perry first published in 1968.

Believe me, my students and I discussed symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. We spoke about how the concrete symbol of the A acts as a vessel for abstract problems of sin and self-actualization. We identified how the symbolism of the A changes throughout the novel. But I’m going to have to ask you to model this thinking again if you want your students to analyze symbolism again in the college classroom, with college-level thinking.

  1. You need to teach writing – again, constantly.

The critical thinking that your students will do about literature will be deeper and more demanding than in my high school classroom. But as I mentioned above, they do not have the experience reasoning and creating on the level of abstraction necessary for your college classroom. If they do not have expertise in thinking, these students will not have experience writing with about abstract ideas, either.

You must teach writing even if, especially if, you are a tenured professor. If you appreciate the close connection between writing and critical thinking in your own work, you will see how important it is for you to give students feedback on their writing. Because it is feedback on their thinking. And if they know you are an expert on, say, Faulkner, they will value your feedback on writing more than they did the adjunct (still an expert, but an institutionally devalued expert) who taught them to write in their first-year writing course.

  1. Foster intellectual curiosity

As a high school teacher, I hope I’m helping my students build foundations that will enable them to ask worthwhile questions about literature and writing. But because, again, they are still developing, I can’t yet help many of them ask complex, nuanced abstract questions – and most questions worth asking in college are abstract.

They do have intellectual curiosity. But they are not sure yet what is worth asking. They do not know what is debatable and unanswered. And because of this, you are going to have to teach them, at least once in your classroom, to do research. If you use your university’s databases for research, you are going to be the best resource available for using research to answer the types of questions you’d like students to ask in your classroom.

  1. Be more attentive to your students as young people.

When I was teaching college, I didn’t consider it my job to think too deeply about my students inner emotional lives. And neither did any of the professors who served as my research or teaching mentors. But they need us to be attentive to them as young people, sorely.

I see my students 4-5 days a week. It gives me an awareness of how much they look to us as examples to build their spectrum of the moral and intellectual possibilities for adulthood.

It’s true that your students have plenty of other role models in college. But most of them are not good role models. Maybe your students’ parents are not even good role models. So you need to show them you care. Check in if they miss an assignment uncharacteristically. Encourage them when they doubt themselves.

It isn’t too late for you. You can still make a difference.

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via Liz West

Conclusion

I could tell you more. But you’ve already given me your attention for long enough. If you’ve read this far, you’ve been kind enough to listen. Yet, if we are really going to work together to help our mutual students, this has to be a two-way partnership. And I want to hear from you.

What can we do, as high school teachers, to help our students prepare for college? What are the gaps between high school and college?

What am I missing in the miasma of grammar, genre, symbolism, figurative language, oral proficiency, vocabulary, historicization, themes, authors, writing structures, research skills, reading skills, et cetera, that I hope to instill as foundations for their college learning experience?

Please write back.  

Contributor Bio:

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Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.

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Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine

PALS is happy to have a guest post from Jessica Thelen, who is an incoming PhD student in English at the University of Delaware. Thelen writes about teaching Japanese Internment in her Introduction to American literature classses and, in addition to providing useful teaching ideas, Thelen makes astute observations about what subjects are and are not taught routinely in American schools. 

Introduction

In a fall 2017 survey that I distributed to both of my sections of English 215: Introduction to American Literature, one student suggested that in teaching this course next semester, I include a unit on Japanese Internment since this was an era of American history that they wanted to learn more about. When creating the syllabus for my Spring 2018 iteration of this course, I recalled this student’s comments and decided to teach a mini-unit on Japanese Internment. I had not taught Japanese Internment before, but I believed it would be a fruitful topic for the course, particularly since some of the objectives of this course are to “cultivate an understanding and appreciation of the value of creative writing in addressing historical and contemporary questions pertaining to the outlined themes of the course (race, ethnicity, and identity)” and to “critically examine our own biases and positionalities while recognizing and taking different perspectives into account.” In order to introduce my students to this era of American history, I decided to use Julie Otsuka’s 2002 novel When The Emperor Was Divine, which focuses on an unnamed Japanese American family, the majority of which is interned at the Topaz Incarceration Camp for most of WWII. Although fictional, Otsuka deftly uses historical accounts to create her narrative and constructs an accessible text for high school and college students.

downloadSetting Up the Novel: Historical Contexts and Supplemental Materials

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight. That class period I had planned to show a documentary on Japanese Internment, entitled Rabbit in the Moon, but unfortunately it was no longer available online, so instead I gave the class a general overview of Japanese Internment: anti-Japanese sentiment prior to WWII, Order 9066 (the executive order President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed on February 19, 1942, which officially began Japanese Internment), as well as the FBI raids where many Japanese and Japanese American men were arrested prior to Internment beginning in earnest.

Since the documentary was unavailable, I decided to spend the next class having students listen to and answer questions on Chapter 1 (“The Roundup”) of a new podcast entitled Order 9066. In this podcast, scholars discuss Japanese Internment and internees share their experiences in the camps. Before listening to the podcast in class, I introduced it by distributing a set of questions for students to answer while listening, which included questions such as:

  1. What were some of the reactions of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans upon hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941?
  2. What were some stereotypes regarding Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans that were part of the popular consciousness (even prior to Pearl Harbor)?
  3. What was the FBI’s role in the beginnings of Japanese Internment? What were some reactions to the FBI raids on Japanese immigrant and Japanese American homes?
  4. What is your main take away from this podcast? What is something that your learned from it that you would like to discuss with the class?

This podcast and the related questions were very effective in encouraging student engagement, as seen in a survey I distributed at the end of this unit (two weeks after ending it). In completing the survey, one student wrote, “To hear the podcast and to hear what people went through is amazing.” After listening to and discussing this episode of Order 9066, I assigned two chapters (Chapters 10 and 11) of Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History (2015) that focus on Japanese Internment. I began that class with a Free Write, asking students to think about and do some writing on the following questions:

  1. How were Canada, Peru, and other Latin American countries involved in Japanese Internment in the U.S. and abroad?
  2. What helped to establish the premise of “military necessity” of Japanese Internment?
  3. How did some Japanese Americans resist orders before and during Internment?
  4. What was life like for Japanese Americans after they were released from the camps?

The students were, at that point, able to use their knowledge from Order 9066 and Lee’s book to discuss these questions, as well as possible reasons why Japanese Internment is not frequently taught in schools. Many students suggested that it was because the U.S. does not like to recall its wounds and shameful past, and would, rather, as they stated, “sweep it under the rug.” Once students had this context and had begun to consider such questions and their implications, we began to read When The Emperor Was Divine.

Teaching When The Emperor Was Divine

I taught Otsuka’s novel over the course of five 50-minute class periods. Since I run a discussion-based course with brief segments of lecture, I typically begin each class with a Free Write where students take some time to process their thoughts, answer questions, and come up with points and questions to discuss with the class.

Textual Analysis

For the first segment of the novel, I had students focus on (pages 1-22). One of the Free Write questions I asked students to focus on for that day was: “How are the unnamed daughter, mother, and brother, reacting to Internment (physically and psychologically)? Some students were able to then make connections between the characters’ experiences and those of past Internees who told of their experiences in Chapter 1 of Order 9066. Connections made included the destruction of any family artifacts connected to Japan, feelings of uncertainty and fear, as well as the fracturing of families, as many heads of households, like the father of the unnamed family in When The Emperor Was Divine, were arrested and interned months before their other family members were.

Over the course of the novel, students also focused on the symbolism Otsuka employs to emphasize that Internment had both psychological and physical effects. This symbolism often takes the form of animal imagery: wild horses underscoring the desire for freedom and escape, and the tortoise standing for the family and their loss of identity (in one scene, the son/brother carves the family’s identification number onto a tortoise’s shell that he keeps as a pet). A few students also brought up that symbols also took the form of plant life: a tulip grown in the internment camp symbolizing hope, growth, and renewal, the lack of trees in the camp signifying isolation, harsh conditions, and homesickness, and the rose bush as the desire for normalcy.

Incorporating Visuals

In one class period, as a way to break up the pattern of large class discussions and small group work, I pulled up a series of photographs and paintings related to Japanese Internment, made available by the Japanese American Digital Relocation Archive (JARDA). Along with printing out the images and displaying them on the projector, I also passed out a list of questions for students to focus on as we looked at and discussed the images:

  1. What are the noticeable differences between the paintings and the photographs?
  2. As a viewer, which has more of an impact on you (emotional, historical, etc.) – the photographs or the paintings? Why?
  3. What is left out of the photographs that is depicted in the paintings and vice versa?
  4. General thoughts and comments regarding the photographs and paintings?

The first photograph I started with, however, was provided by one of my students—her grandparents’ neighbors in Arizona own a fire hydrant that had been used in one of the Internment camps. The neighbor had been a firefighter and had come into possession of this fire hydrant as a retirement gift. When looking at this photo, students remarked on the everydayness of it. This image in particular was useful in helping students understand that artifacts related to Internment still exist, and that such artifacts include everyday objects—objects that we still use today.

In looking at this photograph, copied below, taken of the Amache Relocation Center in Colorado on December 9, 1942 by Tom Parker, one student remarked on how big the camp was—while reading Otsuka’s novel he hadn’t realized how many barracks there were. Another student remarked on the barren landscape and the monotony of the scenery— how it reminded him of a modern prison—once again making a connection between the past and the present.

Overlooking the Amache Relocation Center, near Granada, Colorado. In the foreground is a typical barracks unit consisting of 12 six room apartment barracks buildings, a recreation hall, laundry and bathrooms, and the mess hall. Photographer: Parker, Tom Amache, Colorado

When looking at the painting included below, entitled “Goodbye My Son,” by Henry Sugimoto, circa 1942, students were drawn to the facial expressions of the family in the middle—how sad yet resigned they look, as well as the fear about what could happen to their son once he is overseas. Another student pointed out the vibrant colors, which makes the scene depicted seem more immediate. And yet another student called attention to the words included, words that were commonly seen in Internment camps: “Mess Hall,” “WRA,” and “Block 23,” as well as the people in the background hanging laundry and talking.

Goodbye My Son

When asked to reflect on what they remembered from our mini-unit on Japanese Internment a few weeks after finishing this unit, many students stated that these images were incredibly helpful in beginning to understand this period of American history: “The photos…provide the visuals to the stories;” “I definitely enjoyed the visual aspect simply because I feel like when you see something[s], especially for what they really were, you sympathize more with it.” Another student wrote that “the picture[s] were hard to look at ‘cause you feel the pain through them.” Looking at the paintings and photographs worked in conjunction with Otsuka’s novel by helping students visualize objects and emotions focused on in her novel, such as the barracks and the sadness that those interned experienced.

Reflections – The Benefits of an American Studies Approach

In finishing up our discussion of Otsuka’s novel, students deftly connected course materials to the family’s difficulties post-Internment. What really struck the students was the indifference and cruelty aimed at Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans post-Internment. One student brought up that this was also discussed in Chapter 11 of Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History—how the fictional mother in Otsuka’s novel and the nonfictional parents that Lee mentioned struggled to find work post-Internment due to continued discrimination against the Japanese. Another brought up that the internalized racism experienced by the siblings in Otsuka’s novel was similar to that expressed by Gabe and Tomas, two of the main characters in Brian Ascalon Roley’s novel American Son (2002), our first novel of the semester.

In the survey distributed to the class a few weeks after finishing this mini unit, one of the questions I asked was if students enjoyed learning about Japanese Internment in our Introduction to American Literature course, and of the 25 of 28 total students who completed the survey, 23 students responded that they did, mainly because they did not previously know about it, that it was a big part of American history that people should have more knowledge of, and that they were interested in learning more about American history. The overwhelmingly positive, critical, and engaged response from my students when reading Otsuka’s novel and learning about Japanese Internment underscores my belief in the benefits of taking an American Studies approach when teaching American Literature courses (encouraging interdisciplinary thinking by using art objects such as paintings, visual artifacts such as photographs, first person accounts like the podcast, and historical analysis such as the chapters from Lee’s book), as well as my belief that effective teaching is a collaborative effort between students and instructors, resulting in a creative, nuanced learning environment.

Works Cited

Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. Simon and Schuster, NY: 2015. Print.

“Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (JARDA).” Calisphere, calisphere.org/exhibitions/t11/jarda/.

“Order 9066 Podcast | APM Reports.” APM Reports – Investigations and Documentaries from American Public Media, www.apmreports.org/order-9066.

Otsuka, Julie. When The Emperor Was Divine. Anchor Books, NY: 2002. Print.

Roley, Brian Ascalon. American Son. 2002. Print.

 

Bio:

Jessica Thelen is an incoming PhD student in English at the University of Delaware, pursuing their Race and Ethnicity research track. She taught as a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department at Westfield State University from 2016-2018, where she taught courses ranging from English Composition, Introduction to American Literature, and World Literature.