Replacing Textbooks With novels in First Year Writing

For the past five years, I’ve taught first year writing at community college and state universities. I assigned textbooks and/or trade books based on what other teachers used or what seemed like the kind of book college students should read. It didn’t work out so well. Now, I’m using books I get excited about.

The first books I recall assigning were writing textbooks like Curious Researcher or Axelrod & Cooper’s Concise Guide to Writing. While these contain good information about writing and some useful exercises, they didn’t engage students. Half the students didn’t even bother reading, and the ones who did complained the book wasn’t worth the $50 or $60 they paid for it. 

As I got more experienced, I realized that most of the material in the textbooks could be conveyed through discussions about writing and having students reflect on their own writing and/or other people’s writing.

I stopped making students buy expensive textbooks and started assigning one or two trade books. Additionally, students would read assortment of articles they could access for free online or through the library’s databases. This works well for a lot of teachers.

While I did manage to find a handful or articles and essays that engaged my students, I couldn’t seem to find a book they liked.

The Mind at Work by Mike Rose held their attention for one chapter. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba was a neat concept, but they got bored with the amount of detail in the story. They liked some of the “facts” in Modified by Caitlin Shetterly, but were easily confused and claimed she kept getting “off topic” and wound up hating the book. They claimed Dwellings by Linda Hogan only needed to be a few pages because it repeated the same message over and over again.

The first book I assigned that more than one student seemed to enjoy was Feed by M. T. Anderson—a novel.

It took a while, but I finally figured out what my problem was: I really don’t enjoy reading book length non-fiction. I know it is sometimes necessary, and that a lot can be learned from it, but it always feels like work.

I don’t get excited about it, and that is a huge problem.

Students have very sharp bullshit detectors, so they know when I’m faking it. If I’m not excited about the book, why should they get excited about it?

Feed was the first novel I asked students to read. It also happened to be dystopian, YA, and science fiction – a combination of genres I love.

Because I was so excited about it when I introduced it, they gave it chance. Because they gave it chance, many of them got pulled into the story and enjoyed it. A few loved it. One student told me it made him want to start reading novels again.

Sure there were a few who didn’t like it, but since books are so subjective, that is to be expected. Enough liked it. And enough wrote thoughtful, sourced based papers because of it.

I’ve learned my lesson. Unless the department requires it, I won’t teach a book I am not passionate about. And novel’s can get students thinking just as much as non-fiction, and the questions those novel’s raise can prompt students to do research for essays.

So this semester, I am using novels all around. Comp 1 is reading Feed again and writing a sourced based paper about the issues the novel raises. My reading class is going to read Love, Hate and Other Filters as well as Shadowshaper.

I’m still working out the details of the assignments, but I am confident these books will go over better if I can express my confidence and excitement when introducing them to the students.

I’ll post something later in the semester about how it worked out.

Advertisements

Another Book Review: Shadowshaper

Shadowshaper (Shadowshaper, #1)Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper series has been in my TBR list for a while. I bought it a few weeks ago, but had to work through the ARC’s I had to review before I got to it. I don’t know why I waited so long to read this. It is amazing, and I am going to try really hard pinpoint what I loved about it without just saying it was awesome.

At first, the book seemed to play into the classic YA urban fantasy trope of teen finds out they are part of some supernatural world, but this book was so much more than that.

Yes, Sierra Santiago, spunky Puerto Rican protagonist, did get drawn into a supernatural world her family had hid from her, but her personality, and her friends, were enough to make the story unique. Of course, Older didn’t just leave it at that. Sierra has a powerful internal struggle against racism and expectations. While she struggles against terrifying enemies, she also has to learn to love herself for who she is — to embrace her culture and identity.

This is all painted in colorful detail against the backdrop of a diverse, alive, sensual Brooklyn, where gentrification and hipsters are creeping up on old school neighborhoods where old men play dominos in vacant lots.

Hailing from different parts of the Caribbean, the supporting characters, including a lesbian couple, added more flavor to cultural melting pot this story happens in.

Not only did I enjoy this story, but I learned from it. I was reminded of somethings that should be obvious but aren’t always. I’m “white” and sometimes we (me and other white people) stupidly tend lump “people of color” into a few categories, and/or don’t always think about how someone who might be Puerto Rican, like Sierra’s aunt, might be a bigot towards someone who was Haitian and “darker.” It reminded me of how one time, I overheard a Dominican student whisper, “I thought that kid was black, not Dominican” to one of their friends as class was ending.

Books like this one, are so important for so many reasons. They represent a groups neglected in literature, allowing more people to see their people on the page. They are also a way educate people who are culturally illiterate or blinded by whiteness. By saying this last thing, I worry even that I am taking value away from this book by partially making it “for white people.”
I always worry I am going to overstep my place when talking about race and other people’s cultures, but being silent only fuels oppression.

Anyway, culture and race issues aside, this is an awesome book. The plot, while a little formulaic, engaged me, the magic concept was unique and the characters were deep. So if you like YA urban fantasy, books like Mortal Instruments, Chronicles of Nick, and Tithe, read this book, because it is even better than those.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Seven-Sided Spy

Seven-Sided SpySeven-Sided Spy by Hannah Carmack

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of Seven-Sided Spy from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review and was pleasantly surprised to find it’s science fiction element was a more prominent part of the story than I initially expected.

When I read the cover copy about once attractive spies deformed and on the run from the KGB, I thought normal scarring, not superhuman abilities and blue skin. The later is much more exciting, at least in my mind.

Yes, it has speculative elements, but Seven Sided Spy is also firmly grounded in reality and history. The slang, cars and clothing really ground me in the time period. The deep character development grounds me in humanity.

I loved how the characters’ past, present and future were all woven through the novel, but felt that at one point, having characters tell each other stories as a way to do that was used a little too much. It worked, though, because a lot of the “present” narrative was the characters stuck in the woods, trying to figure out when or if it would ever be safe to leave.

I honestly was not sure how this was going to end. I had a clear idea of how I wanted it to end, but my ideal ending would not have been the best for the stories true hero, so when I got to the end, the one I didn’t quite expect, it left me a little sad. It almost made me cry. However, it was also happy for at least for one characters. And it worked. I’m just a baby when it comes to endings.

While I am sure there are comparable novels like this one out there, I have not read once recently enough to make comparison. However, if you have ever wanted something like a darker, more grounded, queer Agent Carter, or if you just like spy novels with deep characters and a slight speculative element, then read Seven-Sided Spy.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Smoke City

Smoke CitySmoke City by Keith Rosson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. And I’ll admit, after the first couple chapters, I didn’t think I’d be giving it five stars, but I read on, and was won over the by the characters, subtle magic and tightly woven plots.

The end to this book left me feeling pretty good — in fact, this one was one the rare occasions where the book ended almost exactly how I hoped it would. Something that started our grimy and depressing had a surprisingly happy ending.

But enough about the ending.

It took me a little while to engage with this. The protagonists were two middle aged men who were more or less a wreck, way more of a wreck than I am now, but as I read and thought about how they were the kind of wreck I could be if I wasn’t careful, I found common ground with the characters.

Meanwhile, the gritty, grimy realism was being seasoned with the paranormal. I was intrigued by the smokes and specters and the snippets of Marvin’s past lives. There were lots of threads in this novel, but they were also tightly knit together.

It’s a hard novel to describe ( if you want a better idea of the premise, read the back cover copy that comes with book). However, if I had to compare it to other books, I’d say it’s a strange blend of Breakfast of Champions, Cloud Atlas and American Gods.

It may have a slow build, but Smoke City is worth it in the end.

View all my reviews